Tag Archives: Carmen McCain

Translator’s Note: Glenna Gordon’s Striking photobook Diagram of the Heart and its Many Reviews

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Glenna Gordon’s photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

Diagram of the Heart, a photobook by photojournalist Glenna Gordon, captures breathtaking images of women’s lives in northern Nigeria, and it has been getting a massive amount of global attention in the past few weeks. I have been intimately involved with Glenna’s project from the very beginning and provide the translations of excerpts from Hausa novels that feature in the book, so I am delighted with all the publicity it and, by extension, Hausa literature has been receiving. But I have also been disturbed by how sensationalistic so much of the coverage has been, and by how it so often distorts, stereotypes and actually reverses the kind of nuanced portrait of life in northern Nigeria that I think Glenna’s photographs do so well. (If you want my critique without the background, scroll down to the end of this post)

Background on the Project

So first, a little background to build on my previous post about Diagram of the Heart: This project started in around 2012, when Glenna contacted me and asked if she could call me on Skype to talk about life and culture in northern Nigeria. She was in the middle of a project “Nigeria, Ever After” documenting Nigerian weddings. So far she had mostly taken photographs in Lagos and other parts of the south, and she was interested in photographing weddings in northern Nigeria as well. We had a long Skype conversation about Hausa weddings, and I told her about my research on Hausa novels and films, which I had started in 2005. I sent her links to my blog and collections of photographs, as well as attachments of academic articles. I suggested that she read Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… that Follows You Home, which had recently been translated by Aliyu Kamal and published by the Indian press Blaft. She bought the novel and was enchanted—later featuring it on Guernica as her springtime read.

Glenna came a few months later to Jos, where I was trying to finish writing my PhD dissertation (which includes two chapters on Hausa literature) and stayed with me for a week while she went out to find weddings to photograph. Some of my favourite photographs from her “Ever After” project come from those she shot in Jos. While she stayed with me, I told her more about my research and showed her my collection of Hausa novels. She was intrigued, told me she’d like to do a photography project on women novelists, and asked me if I could give her the contacts of writers in Kano.

Initially, I must confess, I was a little bit reluctant. I had my own plans to publish an article on the thriving field of Hausa literature. Abiola Irele, at that time editor of Transition, had contacted me a couple of years earlier and had asked me to write an article about the women writing novels in Hausa. I had gone out and done interviews, and had taken photographs, but I had not yet written the article. I felt that I just didn’t yet have the depth of knowledge and breadth of reading to do it justice. I had fallen into that idiotic and terrible hole that ABD PhD candidates often fall into, where you feel like you are not allowed to work on anything else but your PhD dissertation. It’s not that I wasn’t doing anything else but my dissertation. I had been writing a weekly column in Daily Trust since 2010, and had written quite a bit about Hausa literature in my column and on my blog, but the idea of publishing in Transition was so intimidating that I wrote this great imaginary article in my head, but didn’t ever actually write it all down. This is something I will always regret.

Later, I did write a short chapter for a Nigerian book that was supposed to be published in 2013, but as so often happens, the funding for the publication of the book fell through. (To read some of my writing about Hausa literature, see my reviews of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy here, and here, Wa Zai Auri Jahila [Who will marry an Illiterate Woman] here and here, my report on a literary expedition to Damagaram, Niger, my thoughts on the state of translation and background on Glenna’s book, my review of a Words Without Borders issue that features Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahama Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum, etc)

While writing the introduction to my dissertation, I had also been thinking a lot about Pascale Casanova’s idea of the “World Republic of Letters,” and about hierarchies of power in literary studies and publication. Why is it that this vast Hausa-language reading public in northern Nigeria and surrounding regions is “invisible” in the “World Republic of Letters.” Why should it be that most of the literary world knows nothing about such popular novelists as Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino or Bilkisu Funtua or Balaraba Ramat Yakubu or Nazir Adam Salih, while English-language writers who are less read in Nigeria get global attention? Glenna had access to publication in places like Time, The New York Times, Harpers, and the New Yorker. I thought that her interest had the potential to give the authors I knew the kind of global publicity that “Afropolitan” writers writing in English regularly get. Perhaps such publicity would also elicit more interest in translation.

So, I went on the Hausa writing groups on Facebook and asked women writers if they would be interested in being photographed. This request generated some controversy, mostly with a few men who questioned the intentions behind the photographs. Several women expressed an interest. I gave Glenna their numbers along with the numbers of other people I knew from Kano, and she took it from there.

One contact led to another. She came back through Jos and showed me some of the photographs she had taken. In that series of formal portraits was one of the photographs that is my favourite, the portrait of Farida Ado, author of the novels Tubalin Toka [Bricks of Ash], Ni ko Shi? [Me or Him?], and Ra’ayina Ne [My Prerogative], dreamy eyed and glowing in the window.

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Hausa novelist Farida Ado (c) Glenna Gordon, via CNN

 

Glenna brought back a few novels for me, and photographed a little bit more of my novel collection. One of the photographs in the Diagram of the Heart comes from a photo of my copy of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 2006 novel Matar Uba Jaraba set against the emerald prayer rug I have for when friends visit and need to pray.

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Metacontexts. Photo spread in Glenna Gordon’s Diagram of the Heart pages 38-39, taken with the book and the background it came from (c) Carmen McCain

Fast forward to 2015. I had finished my PhD in 2014 and had returned to Nigeria to take up an appointment in the School of Visual and Performing Arts and the Department of English at Kwara State University. Glenna wrote me sometime around April and told me that the Open Society in New York was going to exhibit the photographs of the novelists in their “Moving Walls” Exhibition. She asked me if I would be willing to travel to Kano to purchase novels to display alongside the photographs. She also wanted to have translations of excerpts from the novels and summaries of some of the novels, so that passages from novels could be displayed alongside the photographs of the writers. I went to Kano in July and visited the writers she had photographed, buying copies of their novels for the exhibition, and interviewing them about the plots of their novels and their lives as writers. I love reading Hausa novels, but I remain a slow reader in Hausa, so my friend, novelist, poet, and journalist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad, who is shown in the grid of authors at the end of Glenna’s book, read about 9 novels and wrote summaries of them in Hausa, which I then abbreviated into English for the exhibition. (Sa’adatu very generously did this in the week before her wedding (!), and her work was credited at the “Moving Walls” exhibition.) I also worked for a month on translations of excerpts from several novels, and then sent them off to Open Society, where they were displayed alongside Glenna’s photographs. The exhibition will be up until 13 May 2016. (I haven’t seen it yet, but hope to on a trip to New York this April.)

A few months later, Glenna contacted me asking for permission to use the translations in her book Diagram of the Heart. I agreed pending the approval of the authors, and the book was published a few months later. So it was that the photographs became an exhibition and the exhibition became a book.

 

About the Book

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Diagram of the Heart by Glenna Gordon (c) Carmen McCain

The book, Diagram of the Heart, is a beauty. When Glenna sent me a few complimentary copies, I was surprised that it was so small, but the small size works well, a conscious imitation of the novels that inspired the project. It includes, in a back pocket, a small book of henna designs brought from Kano, Sabon Kunshi by Khadija Muhd. I love the cover, a collage designed by Bonnie Briant of the images Glenna had taken over the two years she visited Kano, and I love the title, which is named for a diagram of a heart she photographed on a school room wall but which evokes the focus on love in so many of the littattafan soyayya, novels of love.

It’s hard to pick my favourite photographs, but I love the one of Farida Ado, gazing out the window and into the light. It became the cover photo for so much of the publicity about the “Moving Walls” exhibition. The light of windows becomes a motif in the book. On page 26, there is another photograph of a woman silhouetted against the light under a tasseled curtain, and in the spread on pages 90 and 91, novelist Rabi Talle looks out the window, a wedding calendar of a couple behind her. I also love the photographs that focus on faces, particularly the spread on pages 58-59. The face of a bride emerges out of the darkness of the background and her black hijab. Her niqab is flipped back over her head, and a pool of light reveals her delicately made up face.

And then there are the many wedding photographs that overlap with Glenna’s “Nigeria Ever After project,” a striking photograph of a woman’s face out of focus in the foreground while other wedding guests behind her stare at the camera.

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(c) Glenna Gordon via Huck Magazine

On page 104, a young girl sits, her crimson gelle and orange top vibrant against the brown of the couch. There is much play of shadow and light in the book, as many of these photos are taken in interior spaces where women spend so much time visiting and writing or under the canopies set up for weddings. On page 113 there is a striking photograph with a shadowed foreground, luminous light in the background as women gaze across one of the narrow streets of the old city in Kano. Or the photograph of a wedding in Jos: the wedding guests facing the front of the auditorium are backlit, their faces lost in shadows, while the light pours through the translucent curtains at the back. Probably my favourite photograph in the entire book, captures the camaraderie that I loved so much when I lived in Kano. Women sit in a bedroom, gelles and hijabs removed, their heads thrown back in laughter. A little girl grips her mother’s shoulder and stares solemnly at the camera.

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(c) Glenna Gordon via CNN

In a different photograph of the scene published in Huck Magazine, the little girl cheekily sticks out her tongue.

Wedding guests "gist," gossip.

(c) Glenna Gordon via Huck Magazine

 

The photobook is self-consciously about the novels, and the novels reappear over and over. There are repeated photographs of women reading and writing, of books on bedside tables or “formal portraits” of the novels set against rich fabrics.

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(c) Glenna Gordon via National Geographic

 

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(c) Glenna Gordon, via Buzzfeed

There is also a grid of novelists’ portraits at the back of the book on pages 136-137. But like the novels themselves, the book is also about daily lives of women in the city, in the cloistered spaces of home and in the social spaces of weddings and work.

I am glad that Glenna also chose to feature excerpts from several novels in the book. It becomes, therefore, a book not just of images but also a larger project that allows featured authors to speak for themselves. The translated passages give a certain nuance and voice that would otherwise be lost. The excerpts feature a passage I translated from near the end of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s tender two-part novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman) and from the translation by Aliyu Kamal of her novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (Sin is a Puppy that Follows you Home). Also from Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad Fagge’s novel Sirrin Zuciya Ta (The Secret of My Heart), Hadiza Sani Garba’s Cikon Farinciki (Dreams Fulfilled), and one striking sentence from Maimuna Idris Sani Beli’s Zuciya da K’wanji (A Strong Heart).

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From my translated excerpt of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila (c) CNN

I am proud that I was able to be a part of this project, not simply as a scholar who gave background knowledge, but also as a translator bridging the words of the novels from Hausa to English. With the exception of the excerpt of Aliyu Kamal’s translation of Sin is a Puppy, this is the first time any of these works are appearing in English. (see excerpts of the translations on CNN). I am not absolutely happy with my translations, but I suppose no translator ever is.

[Update, 15 March, 2016, I just found this BBC interview with Glenna as well. They very nicely read a couple of the excerpts of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels but they did not identify the novels or the translators. The first excerpt was from Wa Zai Auri Jahila and was translated by me. The second excerpt was from Sin is a Puppy… that Follows you Home and was translated by Aliyu Kamal.)

I hope everyone who reads this  post will think about purchasing a copy of the book, which is now available on Amazon and through the publisher Red Hook Editions. Red Hook Editions allows for international purchases through Paypal. In addition to being a meta-textual work of art, it is also an important contribution to knowledge about the culture of reading and writing in Nigeria. Occasionally captions are over-simplistic or in error, but the photographs themselves are stunning and worth “a thousand words.”

 

Critique of the Publicity

The publicity about the photobook has partially fulfilled what I had been hoping for when I first helped Glenna access the Hausa novelists. Hausa literature is gaining a higher profile in the global media than it had when I started my research 11 years ago. However, I have been troubled by the sensationalistic nature of much of the publicity. Rather than focusing on the achievements of the novelists and their philosophy of writing, as coverage of English-language writing does, it seems to instead import shallow Western notions about “Islam” and “Muslim women” and “feminism” and paste them onto the lives and writing of these women. For the most part, the coverage talks about the women as if they are all the same. There are no reviews of the novels, few interviews with the novelists, only of the photographs of the novelists.

Now, of course, this is not necessarily the fault of the journalists but of a literary field in which, up to now, there has been very little emphasis placed on translation. The only access English-speakers have to the novels are in Aliyu Kamal’s translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy…, Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahama Abdulmajid’s Mace Mutum, my own translation of the first chapter of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s Kaico!, and a few other translations sprinkled across the internet such as the excerpt “Cry Freedom” from Halima Ahmad Matazu’s  novel Amon ‘Yanci  that she self-translated with Ibrahim Malumfashi and Jalaludeen Maradun. It is difficult for a Western media to place these writers in context without more translations.

As a result, much of the publicity has been sensationalistic and filled with errors.

Take a look at some of these titles:

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Mother Jones sensationalizes

Amid the Horrors of Boko Haram, These Women Yearn for Romance. A photojournalist goes behind the scenes in a land of Islamic terror,” gasps Mother Jones.

An otherwise well-researched and nuanced article at Wired screams “The Subversive Women who Self-Publish Novels Amidst Jihadist War.”

These Women are risking everything to write romance novels in Northern Nigeria” proclaims a New York Times blog.

[Update 11 April 2016] Even news organizations I respect as much as NPR and PRI have joined the journalistic rabble with a mocking:  “Nigerians are writing steamy romance novels to escape religious violence.”

On the blog the literate lens, an interview is titled “Heart of the Matter” taking from the title of Graham Greene’s novel about colonial Africa. It begins with this hair-raising description:

“In northern Nigeria, being female can sometimes be a risky proposition. In this patriarchal, Muslim-dominated society, one of the better options for a girl is to enter into an arranged marriage: worse ones include being trafficked, kidnapped or raped.”

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. It is true that northern Nigeria as a whole has suffered under the Boko Haram insurgency. Multiple bombs have gone off in Kano since 2011, and we must never forget those women who have been kidnapped across the north (but mostly in the northeast on the opposite side of the country from Kano). But not every girl at all times in the north is at risk of being kidnapped or raped. And the adjective “Muslim-dominated” makes it sound as if “arranged marriage,” trafficking, kidnap, and rape are the natural expectations in life for Muslim women (an alarming assumption in the Euro-American media that this article also takes on).

The writer goes on to say

“The whole concept of a female Muslim romance novelist seems like an oxymoron.”

Seriously?! So there is something essentialistic about being a Muslim woman that makes it contradictory for a Muslim woman to write about love?

There is an obsessive and sensationalistic focus on Boko Haram, jihadism, sexism, and violence. One would think, to read the headlines and some of the articles, that the novels are a recent phenomenon, published to subvert Boko Haram. But such publicity wipes out a long history of writing and sensationalizes women’s lives, as if all women in Kano are cowering in their homes, terrified of Boko Haram and violent husbands, except those bold writers defying them. But Hausa literature has been written for centuries, and women have also been writing for centuries. Nana Asma’u, the daughter of the late 18th century early 19th century reformer and political leader Usman d’an Fodiyo, wrote and translated poetry in four or five different languages in the early 1800s, and started women’s literacy and religious education classes that go on till this day. The scholars Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd have written several books about Nana Asma’u, including a 500+ page volume of translations of Nana Asma’au’s work. Hausa novels have been written since the 1930s, although the first woman to publish a novel in Hausa was Hafsatu Abdulwahid whose So Aljannar Duniya (roughly Love is Paradise on Earth) won a writing contest in 1979 and was published by the government publishing house NNPC in 1980. Although Hajiya Hafsatu, who ran for governor of Zamfara State in 2003, does not like being called a “soyayya” [love] writer, her novel with its story of interracial love and supernatural adventures in the world of jinn bridges the themes of earlier supernatural adventure novels with the soon to be published novels of young love.

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Hajiya Hafsatu Abdulwahid at a writers retreat in Damagaram, Niger. December 2009 (c) Carmen McCain

Early “soyayya” writers like Talatu Wada Ahmad were followed by novelists like Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, and others. The novels were being written for nearly thirty years before Boko Haram began killing people in northern Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency is what “sells” these story, but in automatically linking the novels to Boko Haram, the journalists take this writing out of context and relate all innovation and creativity to war and violence in Africa. This sensationalism contradicts the ostensible point of the photographs to explore the individual stories of women and every day life in Nigeria.

And, boy, are these novels “subversive,” according to this Western media. “Meet the Women Behind Nigeria’s Most Subversive Novellas” trumpets Buzzfeed. Prison Photography features “The Muslim Women who Write Romance Novels in Northern Nigeria, Subversively.” Wired links their “subversiveness” to jihadism. CNN claims that Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is “Kano’s ‘most subversive’ author.” And over at Atlas Obscura, “Nigerian romance novelists sneak feminism into their plots.”

It’s true that I think some of the novels are “subversive.” But the continuous pounding on the theme of “subversive Muslim women” against a “patriarchal culture” makes it seem as if Islam is simply a background to be overcome and not an important part of daily life and devotion that most of the writers promote.

As Saba Mahood points out in her book Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, it is important to recognize

“dimensions of human action whose ethical and political status does not map onto the logic of repression and resistance.”

Similarly, the focus on women “not being allowed to leave their homes” or the troubling assumptions I’ve seen in several of the articles or interviews that men regularly “beat their wives” gives only the most extreme part of the story. It leaves out the larger context of the complex, often playful relationships between men and women in northern Nigeria. The implication that men are all arrogant beasts oppressing women undermines the sort of work that Glenna’s photographs do.

Although the separation of men and women’s lives is sometimes stated as an ideal in the propaganda that accompanied shari’a implementation in the last decade, men and women’s lives are intertwined in many ways in contemporary Hausa society. Although I spent plenty of time in women’s spaces when I lived in Kano, I also spent much time in spaces where men and women intermingle and banter, during Association of Nigerian author meetings, during writer’s retreats, at the university and in shopping malls, in studios and on film sets. While anxieties about the interaction of men and women on film

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(c) Glenna Gordon, “Nigeria Ever After” Collection

sets and as portrayed in novels was one of the things that led to the formal censorship board in Kano after the implementation of shari’a law in 2000, such interactions have been almost impossible to control. It is the reality of contemporary life.

Even in supposed women’s spaces, there are teenage boys who run messages for aunts and neighbours, male visitors who pop in for chats, men visiting friends in courtyards who greet and joke with the women of the house, or young men and women at weddings who dance together. I think here of Glenna’s photograph of the young man in purple dancing with abandon at a wedding alongside women.

 

Today as I was walking home from church in Ilorin, I saw a man walking, holding the hands of two little girls. They wore white dresses and their hair was neatly plaited. “This is Glory, and this is Blessing,” he told me. Their mother was not in sight. Perhaps she had stayed behind in church for Sunday school, or perhaps she had stayed at home to rest today. This Christian man with his two little daughters made me think of all the Muslim men I know in the north, who dandle children on their knees, who carry them around showing them off to their friends, who joke, calling out “‘Yan Mata” to  giggling young women.

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A young man with a baby, Sokoto, 2005 (c) Carmen McCain

I remembered the good-natured but sometimes heated debates I have seen between men and women in public events.

The focus on the “subversiveness” and “oppressedness” of the women in the north, in the reviews of Diagram of the Heart, erase the tenderness and banter and friendships that exist within Hausa society, the way men read women’s novels and women read men’s novels, the conversations they have. It does not mean that oppression or patriarchy does not exist, but it does mean that such ills can coexist with tenderness and love and laughter as well.

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A visit to mother, Sokoto State, 2005 (c) Carmen McCain (scanned as a tif file from a print and then taken as a screenshot, so not the greatest quality)

Other reviews were respectful but filled with errors. The Time Lightbox review for example, is innocuously named “Anatomy of a Photobook: ‘Diagram of the Heart.” But it claims that “Balaraba Yakubu whose book The Wife of Father is a Test founded the genre.” I’ve seen this error repeated on CNN and elsewhere. While Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is an important author, she is not the first Hausa woman writing, she is not the founder of a genre, and the book mentioned here (Matar Uba Jaraba) is her most recent novel, published in 2006. Her first novel, Budurwar Zuciya, was first published in 1987. Although I emailed corrections to the author, Time never changed them (To be fair to Time, I recently realized this error stems from a photo caption in the book. The caption is incorrect.)

Furthermore, the focus on “romance novels” homogenizes the great diversity of literary expression in Hausa, although this is a mistake that has often made in scholarship about “litattafan soyayya” as well. There are plenty of love stories, of course, but the novels of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and many other writers tend to be more muckraking social critique and family drama. There are also detective novels, supernatural thrillers, fantasy epics, etc. And although it is sexy to talk about “Muslim women” writing subversively, there are plenty of men writing as well.

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Novelist and screenwriter Nazir Adam Salih shows off his latest spiritual thriller at a writers conference in Damagaram, Niger, December 2009. (c) Carmen McCain

I first observed this carelessness about details in “international” journalism in 2008, when I introduced a journalist from CNN to my friend Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad to talk about the Hausa publishing industry for an “Inside Africa” feature on Kano. He also interviewed a few readers in the market about the books. When the clip played on CNN, what the reader was saying in Hausa had nothing to do with the subtitles on screen. It was then that I began to wonder if everything we see in the international news is so skewed—well written, slickly produced, but second-hand and filled with errors.

Another worrisome dimension to the coverage of the book are the “columbassing” claims in so many of the articles. The implication that Glenna Gordon “discovered” this subversive undercover market of women writing. To her credit, Glenna pretty strongly corrects this kind of thinking saying in an interview with Jeanette D. Moses for American Photo:

 “I don’t want to be like ‘I discovered this group’—I didn’t discover anything. They were already there—I just learned about them.” There are things that we know exist in different places of the world, and there are things that we’ve never heard of. I’m definitely most excited about the things that I’ve never heard of.

Indeed, the danger of the kind of second-hand journalism that has emerged in the reviews of Diagram of the Heart is to divorce the literary movement of all context—that it has been around since the 1980s (and that Hausa novels have been around since the 1930s  and Hausa poetry and historical writing has been around for centuries), that there are writers associations that sometimes take excursions together. (I went on one with Rabi Tale who is so prominently featured in the book). That there were years of passionate debates in Hausa publications like Nasiha and English publications like the New Nigerian, facilitated by journalist, publisher and novelist Ibrahim Sheme. That the novels have been written about by academics and Nigerian journalists for over twenty years. Abdalla Uba Adamu, one of the earliest and most influential scholars (see a couple of his articles here and here), debated Ibrahim Malumfashi in the literary pages of Nigerian newspapers about the literary worth of the novels. Malumfashi, an early critic of the novels, has now translated Rahama Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum. Yusuf Adamu, a novelist and critic, has also written widely about the novels in Hausa and English.

The first non-Nigerians to study these novels were Novian Whitsitt, Brian Larkin, and Graham Furniss. Novian Whitsitt won an award for his 1996 MA thesis on the soyayya novels at the University of Wisconsin Madison and went on to write his PhD dissertation on the novels of Bilkisu Funtua and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. Brian Larkin analyzed Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna in his groundbreaking article “Indian Films and Nigerian Lovers”, and Graham Furniss, Malami Buba, and William Burgess put together a thousand-strong collection and bibliography of the novels at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Since that time there have been dozens of other Nigerian scholars, who have written academic work on contemporary Hausa novels.

Although I understand that journalism does not have the room to cite sources in the way that academic writing does, surely there should be some acknowledgment that there are plenty of people who have written about these novels before. One of the most annoying experiences I’ve had so far regarding this project was when a journalist called to interview me for about 15-20 minutes about background information (when I was getting ready to travel internationally that same day) and then didn’t cite me at all in the post she wrote, even though she used information I had given her. (She corrected this when I later stumbled across her article and contacted her about it.)

I can understand the feeling of excitement in first finding out about the novels, though. When I first began reading Hausa novels in 2005, I was in Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria to work on improving my Hausa, a requirement of my PhD program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. My teacher Malami Buba had me read Hausa novels out loud to him over breakfast. It all felt like homework until I started reading Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel In da So da Kauna, which was translated into English as “The Soul of My Heart” in the 1990s, and which the author claims has sold over 300,000 copies to date.

As I read, I began to feel like Helen Keller, suddenly connecting the feel of water flowing over her hands to the letters being signed to her. Hausa finally broke in over me in waves, as I went to my room and continued to read hungrily. I wanted to know what happened to the star-crossed lovers Muhammad and Sumayya. This was the novel that would change my life, and make me move my research interests from studying contemporary Nigerian literature in English to contemporary Nigerian literature and film in Hausa. I understand the luminous excitement of personal discovery. It is a heady feeling. It’s a shame, though, that so many of the articles about it have made it about one American photographer’s “discovery” in a time of Boko Haram, and not about the larger history and context of young people writing or the debates that have gone on for thirty years.

The best review I’ve seen so far has been Laura Mallonee’s article in Wired. Despite having the inevitable sensationalistic title and intro that connects the writers to Boko Haram, she contacted Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and myself to fact-check for her. (We did not see the entire article beforehand, only a list of questions.) She also asked me for contact information for the novelists and called them. So their voices are represented in the article as well. Other more nuanced articles include this World Photography Organization interview with Glenna and this Road and Kingdoms interview with Glenna. Although this CNN article retains a few errors, I like how they reproduce excerpts from the translations in the book, including part of my translation from Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman?) And of course leading African literature blog Brittle Paper‘s publicity is always welcome!

Despite my alarm at the misconceptions flying around the internet, I’m glad that attention is now being paid to Hausa literature, I’m glad that Glenna has so sensitively captured the women’s world of reading and writing in her photographs. I hope that her dedicated and beautiful work will draw the needed attention of publishers and translators to this vast field of literature in Hausa, which speaks first to its own community but has so much to offer to Nigeria, Africa, and the world.

 

Further Reading

I have sprinkled links throughout this article, but here are a few interviews with Hausa novelists that prioritize their own words rather than what other people write about them.

Akintayo Abodunrin’s interview with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu

Ibrahim Sheme’s interview with Bilkisu Funtuwa

Yusuf Adamu’s interview with Hafsatu Ahmed Abdulwahid. Another interview Ibrahim Sheme conducts with Hajiya Hafsatu in Hausa.

My interview with Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed and Ismail Bala’s translation of one of her poems.

 

And other Hausa writing in translation

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… that follows you Home translated by Aliyu Kamal for Blaft.

Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahama Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum on Words Without Borders

“Cry Freedom,” an excerpt published in Praxis Magazine from Halima Ahmad Matazu’s novel“Amon ‘Yanci” translated from the Hausa to English by Ibrahim Malumfashi, Jalaludeen Maradun, and Halima Matazu. (Halima Ahmad Matazu contacted me and wanted me to let readers know that Amon ‘Yanci is  “a 300 page novel that symbolises the struggle and journey of a young girl Mairo, towards freedom of finding that inner peace and her identity as a female child.”)

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s self translated love story “Painted Love” in the Ankara Press Valentine’s Day collection, and a lovely interview with him, in which he talks about the Hausa literary tradition.

My translation of the first chapter of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico! In Sentinel Nigeria.

Love poems written and translated by Ismail Bala

Shaihu Umar: A Novel About Slavery in Africa by Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and translated by Mervyn Hiskett

Ruwan Bagaja: the Water of Cure written, abridged and translated by Abubakar Imam

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My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

I am working right now on a dissertation chapter on spectacle in Hausa films and currently on the “music video” portion of it. I actually had to come to my blog to find one of the songs I wanted to look at, as it seems to have mysteriously disappeared from my computer. Here it is. The cinematography is rather boring, but the song (seen alongside the film) is brilliant.

In the meantime, Weekly Trust did not post my column on my WT page this week for some reason, so at the request of Twitter followers, I am posting it here on my blog. It has actually been three years since I started my column in Weekly Trust, and, though I have sometimes turned in late, sleep deprived and occasionally incoherent articles that I am less than proud of, I have actually never missed a week since I started–even when deathly ill! So, if you check my Weekly Trust page and something is missing, get in touch with me and I will try to post it on this blog. This week was kind of an index to what I have written this year, which may be why WT didn’t post it. I will include links below, so that if you missed reading something this year, you can find it here.

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

Last week marked the third anniversary of this column “My Thoughts Exactly,” which I began writing on 16 October 2010. Last year, in my second year review, I wrote that I planned “to take a slightly more scholarly turn in the upcoming year while I finish writing my PhD dissertation.” I’m not sure if this year was more scholarly, but it did become more literary, as I focused more on reading, libraries, and a lot of book reviews.

I reviewed Aliyu Kamal’s English-language translation, Sin is a Puppy…, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne, published by Indian publisher Blaft. The skillful translation is a historical event as it marks the first English translation of a woman’s novel in Hausa. I also later reviewed Hajiya Balaraba’s novel Wa Zai

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

Auri Jahila? which has not been translated, but, if the letters I received are any indication, is one of her readers’ favourites. I also examined the politics surrounding the reception of northern Nigerian and Hausa literature in a piece that reviewed the 7th conference on Northern Nigerian Literature at Bayero University in December 2012 and a celebration held the next weekend for Hausa literary critic and translator Ibrahim Malumfashi. Later, I reviewed the October 2013 issue of the online translation journal Words Without Borders, which focused on translations of works by African women writing in African languages and included Professor Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahma Abdul Majid’s novel Mace Mutum. I wrote one piece on my vacation reading over Christmas 2012, and another topical review looked at the performance of three Nigerian plays, a workshop performance Banana Talks, Femi Osofisan’s play Midnight Hotel, and Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau, during the 7th Jos Festival of Theatre by the Jos Repertory Theatre.

Other books I reviewed this year include Lola Shoneyin’s hilarious yet troubling The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives; Ngozi Achebe’s page-turning historical novel of life and slavery in 16th century Igbo-land Onaedo: the Blacksmith’s Daughter; Eghosa Imasuen’s brilliant alternate history of Nigeria in To Saint Patrick; Labo Yari’s thoughtful yet often ignored 1978 novel Climate of Corruption; Chika Unigwe’s NLNG-award winning novel about sex-trafficking in Belgium, On Black Sister’s Street; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest

Chibundu Onuzo giving a tribute to Chinua Achebe at #AfricaWrites 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

novel about race and class in America and Nigeria, Americanah; Chibundu Onozu’s romantic thriller The Spider King’s Daughter, and Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s brilliant, multi-layered novel We Need New Names. I also interviewed novelist Nkem Ivara about her romance novel Closer than a Brother.

The Caine Prize for African Writing this year was a treat to write about, as the 2013 shortlist featured four Nigerians. While the previous year my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John were unable to attend the Caine Prize workshop to which they had been invited in South Africa because of the yellow fever vaccination row between Nigeria and South Africa, this year both of them were shortlisted for the prize. I briefly reviewed all five shortlisted stories [that was a sleep-deprived piece, as I stayed up all night to read all the stories after they were announced and was partially writing during my cousin’s graduation] and was luckily able

Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta, Pede Hollist, and Tope Folarin at one of the Caine Prize Events, London, July 2013 (c) Carmen McCain

to attend the Africa Writes Festival in London, where the Caine Prize events were taking place. In two subsequent columns about the event, I critiqued emerging ideas about African literature, usually coming from writers based in the West, that attempt to exclude narratives of suffering. [A follow-up from my initial piece critiquing Bernadine Evaristo’s manifesto on suffering children last year.] I also followed up on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s critique of the way literary establishment often awards prizes, that ignore and even exclude African-language literature. [Bizarrely, the South African literary blog Books Live wrote a whole post on my article. I was surprised but gratified for the link!]

The sadder literary events of the year included the death of two of Africa’s literary icons, Chinua Achebe, [I was honoured to be the only non-Nigerian writer included in Weekly Trust‘s piece “How Achebe

English: Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall...

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the “Babel: Season 2” series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Inspired Us, by Young Writers”–my paragraph was pulled, with my permission, from my Facebook page] and the tragic murder of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor in the September 2013 Westgate Mall terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Another tragedy for readers was the suicide of intellectual activist Aaron Schwartz, who had been persecuted by courts in the U.S. for trying to make scholarly materials free and available online.

I often receive emails from readers asking where they can find the books I’ve reviewed. While I often direct them to bookstores in Abuja and Lagos, and online stores like jumia.com, konga.com, and mamuwa.com, I also explored literary resources available online [which WT didn’t post online and I haven’t yet uploaded the hard copy to flickr–I’ll try to do that soon] and addressed the need for better library resources, whereby people who don’t have the money to buy sometimes outrageously-priced books can read them by borrowing. The secretary of Jos Association of Nigerian Authors Onotu David Onimisi told me in an interview (see part 1 and part 2) about the ANA project to develop a community library in Jos. He directed me to the excellent American Corner library in Jos which is open to the public and is currently hosting the ANA library while they build another location. I also interviewed Kinsley Sintim who during his NYSC youth service started a community library in Tasha outside of Abuja and has been able to get a massive number of donated books for children in the community. (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I really should have edited it down to just two parts, but I was travelling….] For a comparative perspective, I interviewed an old college classmate Elizabeth Chase, who is a senior librarian at a library in Frisco, Texas. I shared some of the feedback I’ve received about my “literary pieces,” in an August readers column.

I also reviewed a few films: Hamisu Lamido Iyan-Tama’s Hausa-language film Kurkuku that revisited his trials at the hands of the Kano State Censorship Board in 2008-2010; the English-language documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta, made by nine women about the struggles of women living in the Niger Delta; and Dul Johnson’s Tarok-language documentary There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle, which examines Tarok burial customs. I interviewed director Hafizu Bello, who won the Africa Magic award for the best Local Language film in Hausa for his film Fa’ida in March, and director Husayn Zagaru AbdulQadir (part 1, part 2 wasn’t put up by WT), who won a federal government YouWiN! Award to expand his Kaduna-based production company New Qamar Media. I wrote about visiting the set of the film Bakin Mulki in Jos and responded to Aisha Umar-Yusuf’s blanket scapegoating of the film industry for Nigeria’s social woes. [I am loathe to link to it–it’s currently at only 303 hits–but if you want to see what I was responding to, her piece is here.]

A few of my topical pieces were “Christmas in the Age of Massacres” and a piece that reviewed “The Good Things of 2012” in what was an otherwise very sobering year. Last November, I questioned Christian Association of Nigeria president Ayo Oritsejafor’s acceptance of a private jet as a gift from his church, pointing to scriptures that challenge the accumulation of earthly wealth. My review of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila? was a response to the child marriage controversy sparked off by Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima’s insistence that puberty should be the only determining factor in marriage age. “Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” before Palm Sunday addressed the bomb in the Kano car park and attacks on schools and a church in Borno and Kano. Most recently I have written about the parallel terror attacks on Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar, and the attack on the College of Agriculture in Gujba.

I delved into my personal history in a tribute to Chinua Achebe, writing about the influence he has had on my life. I also later wrote about my family’s 25 years in Nigeria. I bid goodbye to a few friends

The McCain family sometime in the 1990s

this year: Hausa film director Balarabe Sango, who passed away in December 2012, and an old schoolmate Dr. Rachel Horlings, one of only three underwater archeologists working off the coast of West Africa, who was killed in Elmina, Ghana in a freak electrical accident. In  “As the Rains Begin” I linked tragedies to the rhythmic seasonal motion of the earth, celebrating the birth of a baby born to a friend who lost her husband the year before.

I was fortunate to host several guest columns this year. Dr. K.A. Korb, currently Head of the Department of General and Applied Psychology at the University of Jos, contributed three pieces, one challenging the perception that teaching is a last resort career by interviewing several dedicated and passionate teachers. She also contributed a two-week column on post traumatic stress disorder and the effects that it is having on people in northern Nigeria. Egyptian writer and journalist Nadia Elawady allowed me to reproduce her piece linking the Boston bombing to the tragic events unfolding in Egypt [here is the WT link, and here is her original piece on her blog). Scholar Hannah Hoechner, who has done research with almajirai in Kano, responded to the proposed ban on almajiranci in Kano.

Thank you for reading this year. If you missed any of these pieces or want to read any of them again, you can find most of them under the “My Thoughts Exactly” tab on the Weekly Trust website. I am trying to push through to the end of my PhD dissertation this year, so I will likely continue to feature guest columns and more “academic” material as I try to close this chapter of my life. I love receiving emails from readers, so please keep sending your feedback. Thank you.

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

I wrote the following in early February after my parents returned from a trip to the U.S. and brought with them Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place I had ordered for my friend Daily Times columnist and author  Elnathan John:

 

Before I send it off to Elnathan, I crack it open curiously, read a chapter before I go to bed. The next morning I wake up and open it again. I read greedily. The way I used to when I was in high school with my science fiction and fantasy. The way I read when I would neglect my homework, come home with a novel, which I would finish before I would start my homework late at night, working on my bed far into the night with a candle. I would fall asleep, my head inches from the candle balanced on a plate, sometimes not yet done with the algebra, which I would try to hurriedly finish in shaky pencil in the car on the way to school the next morning.

 

Those days, I poured the stories into me. Every day a new novel. Greedily. In grad school, I began to read more slowly, pencil in hand. I read theory and criticism, and long academic papers that I printed from the Internet. It was no longer a joy to read. I stopped reading. I became addicted to the Internet. In grad school when trying to finish my MA thesis, I started a blog. It was such a relief to have that outlet–to write my thoughts effortlessly in that forum when I was so stuck with academic writing. Then Facebook came along, and I became doubly addicted—to the inane games, the well-turned status update, the latest news–link upon link upon link.

 

I am two days late on an academic paper deadline, and yet I am sitting here in an office chair in my parent’s spare room, sitting at the desk in front of my computer, reading shamelessly–even when my mother comes in, the computer screen dead–reading Wainaina like a science fiction novel. It is not what I am supposed to be doing. It is not work. It is pleasure. Wainaina’s musings awaken in me memories of my own life, of the daydreams at fifteen, when I would stare dreamily out the windows of our van at the misty mountains of the green plateau in rainy season and imagine fantasy novels about a shepherdess name Merrony tending flocks on a long sunflower strewn Plateau. It was to be a trilogy. I can still remember the story now, as if it were a novel I had read long ago, a novel that will always remain in that “to-be-written” stage. My preoccupations have moved past Merrony, but Wainaina makes me want to write again in that way.

 

When I planned to write a review of Wainaina’s memoir for my column, I thought at first maybe I’d write something stream of consciousness. What I’ve copied above was the beginning of my brainstorm. But it felt too self-indulgent for the Weekly Trust. I let it be a blog post. Instead, I decided to focus on the parts of the memoir that seemed the most strikingly relevant to Nigeria right now. I can’t find the hard copy of the article, but if you scroll down below or click on this link, you can read what I wrote.

 

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

 

Written by Carmen McCain, Saturday, 11 February 2012 05:00

 

 

This past week, I procrastinated revisions on an academic article to greedily devour Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place. Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for his short story “Discovering Home” and is perhaps best known for his satirical essay “How to Write about Africa” published in Granta in 2005, a piece that skewers stereotypical ways in which non-Africans write about the continent. In a later reflection on the essay, Wainaina reveals that it “grew out of an email” written “in a fit of anger, responding to Granta’s “‘Africa’ issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.” When Granta later published an edited version of the email, he wryly remarks: “I went viral; I became spam. […] Now I am ‘that guy,’ the conscience of Africa.”

 

As my own familiarity with Wainaina’s writing was limited to

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina (Photo credit: Internaz)

having read a couple of his sardonic essays and interviews, I admit that the lilting dreaminess, even sweetness, of his memoir came as a surprise. If “How to Write About Africa” bitingly mocks how foreign reporters or celebrity activists write about Africa as if Africans had “no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks” then Wainaina’s memoir explores the depths and quirks through the remembered details of his own life.

 

Wainaina writes in an impressionistic present tense: the haze of childhood, an early obsession with words, his mother’s patient love. He changes schools, goes to South Africa for university, holes himself up in a room, drinking, reading, partying, never finishing school. He takes a trip to Uganda for a family reunion, out of which comes his first publication in a South African newspaper. A turn in the narrative comes when he submits the hastily revised piece, re-published as a short story in an e-journal, to the Caine prize. Although they initially respond that they do not accept electronically published material,  one day he receives another “email from the bloody colonizers” inviting him “to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati.”

 

Following his Caine prize win, the memoir becomes more travelogue of the African countries he visits on writing business, impressions of Lagos, Lome, Accra; Kenyan election violence; African news browsed for on the internet, the writing life in America’s cold winter, where he is now director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. What struck me most in this sprawling account of family and personal history was the reoccurring motif of the ambiguity of borders, the way people change personalities as they switch languages, the shifting identities of ethnicity and naming that languages bring, how they include and exclude.

 

Wainaina grew up in Nairobi, son of a Ugandan Bufumbira mother and a Kenyan Gikuyu father, speaking Swahili and English. Following Gikuyu tradition, he, as second son, was named after his maternal Ugandan grandfather, Binyavanga, a Bufumbira nickname that means “mixed up”. His name becomes an appropriate lens through which to read his memoir.

 

Lessons about the way language and ethnicity exclude come early. One of his earliest childhood memories is of a quarrelsome woman who insults his mother because she is Ugandan. As a teenager while Kalenjin Daniel Arap Moi is in power, Binyavanga and his sister are among the top twenty students in their province, yet neither of them is called to any secondary school, “Rumors are spreading everywhere. We hear that […] names are matched to numbers, and scrutinized, word by word, line by scientific line, for Gikuyu names in the secret office by Special Branch people.” Discriminated against because of his father’s Gikuyu name, when a Gikuyu becomes president, “for the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu is a public event. […] The rest of Kenya has become Tribes. There is a text message being sent to Gikuyus calling Luos and people from western Kenya ‘beasts from the west.’” The Ugandan origin of his first name becomes confusing for those who want to pigeon hole him into one of “us” or “them.” He describes an airline hostess who insists on knowing where his first name came from before she lets him pass. “One person stops me on a street to tell me how happy he was to see me in the newspaper—but that name of yours, my friends are asking, you are half what?”

 

And yet, Wainaina points out, these political uses of language and ethnicity are often colonial constructs. He frequently returns to a history of diverse kinship, rich old stories about the kingdom of Buganda, the Swahili culture the Arab explorer Ibn Batuta encountered centuries ago. “We are a mixed-up people,” he writes, describing how his Ugandan grandmother was originally from the Congo, his mother’s sister went into hiding in Rwanda, other family members settled in South Africa and America. In the two days of a reunion in Uganda, “we feel like a family. In French, Swahili, English, Gikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiganda, and Ndebele, we sing one song, a multitude of passports in our luggage.”

 

Of his nanny Wambui, he writes, “Her aunt is half Nandi, her grandmother an Ngong Maasai. Wambui is Gikuyu by fear, or Kenyatta-issued title deed, or school registration or because her maternal Gikuyu uncle paid her father’s fees, or because they chose a Gikuyu name to get into a cooperative scheme in the seventies. […]She could have become a Luo, if they stayed there long enough, and she married there; she is dark skinned enough to get away with it.”

 

Though Wainaina’s memoir is written in English, he invokes his compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the great champion of writing in African languages, in a celebration of how multiple languages, though sometimes abused politically, are one of the riches of Kenya’s national character: English for official business, “brotherhood” in Swahili, more intimacy in mother tongues. “All city people inhabit several worlds in many languages. […Some] speak six or seven languages.”

 

Personalities change from language to language. A Maasai girl he meets is shy and awkward in English, but in Swahili and the street language of Sheng, “she pours herself into another person, talkative, aggressive. A person who must have a Tupac T-shirt stashed away somewhere.” On a bus, he watches a conductor whose “body language, his expressions, his character even, change from language to language—he is a brash town guy, a Gikuyu matatu guy, in Gikuyu, and even in Kiswahili. When he speaks Kalenjin, his face is gentler, more humorous, ironic rather than sarcastic, conservative, shy eyes.”

 

In his travels around Africa, Wainaina’s observes, along with delightful new quirks of national character, similar discrimination over language, class and ethnicity. Towards the end of the book, he writes in a fog of horror about the Kenyan election violence of 2007-2008.

 

Yet the mixed-up nature of his own family background points to relationships of familiarity possible all over the continent. When, a kind South African friend hires Wainaina, at his most destitute, as a marketer, he remembers in a rush of warmth other acts of compassion: how another South African friend  “offered to let me stay rent free in her house” and how her “father, a physics professor […] left South Africa in the fifties unable to get a job in Verwoerd South Africa [… but] was adopted in Nigeria where they lived for many years, […teaching]  a generation of Nigerian physicists at Ibadan.” “This is how to become an African,” he writes.

 

The “place” Wainaina writes about is both his mother’s hometown and the continent he travels: His family history is one of blood and one of adoption by friends throughout Africa. This is how to write about Africa, he implies. This is how to write about this place.

 

The Darkness only Love can Drive out: the COCIN church bombing, Jos, on 26 February 2012

A COCIN church newsletter on the ground outside the church gates after the bomb blast. (c)CM

 

(This is written 19 March 2012 but time-stamped earlier for blog organization purposes)As I describe in my Weekly Trust column

Onlookers at the COCIN headquarters church the evening after the bombing. (c)CM

below, I was not far from the bomb blast at the COCIN headquarters Church on 26 February 2012, the first suicide bombing in Jos. (Since then, there has been another suicide bomb on March 11, at St. Finbarr’s Catholic Church in Rayfield) It literally shook me out of bed at around 7:15am. Later in the day after things had calmed down a bit, I went to the church and took a few photos. You can access the album, here. I had not planned to actually go into the compound so I went with a zoom lens that made it difficult to get much perspective once I did end up going into the church compound. This, as I wrote on Facebook that evening, is what I saw and some of the rumours I heard that day (some of them false–for example–tragically one of the men misidentified as a bomber and beaten to death was actually a church member):

Ok, before I go climb into my bed, an update. Jos is calm and quiet. I was able to pay a brief visit to the COCIN church this evening, and this is what I saw: lots of people in the compound taking a look. First, the initial description someone gave on Al-Jazeera this morning was incorrect. The bomber did not drive into the church towards the pulpit. The car entered the compound with three men in the car (how exactly he entered is still murky to me as I’ve heard different versions from people who were at the church shortly before the blasts). Somehow two of the men got out of the car and the driver sped towards the church building. Apparently the car detonated a few metres from the back of the church […]I saw the crater where the car exploded, which had filled up with scattered church bulletins. The damage is not as dramatic as you would expect from the kind of sound that came out of the explosion. The church is currently under construction with wooden scaffolding all around it, so it is hard to tell the extent of the damage, but what I saw seemed to be a crack in the wall in the back, and a small portion that was blown off, which might perhaps cause structural problems. No part of the church, however, was collapsing. Neither did any of the pews in the church seem to have been burnt or displaced, though they were covered in dust from the explosion. The most notable things were the parts from the suicide bombers car that were scattered all over the

One of the wheels of the car carrying the suicide bomber. (c)CM

compound. There was a tire lodged into the back pew of the church. There was an engine somewhere else and another tire that went around the side, the fusilage elsewhere. There was what looked like an orange plastic water tank that seemed to have been torn apart. Apparently earlier in the day, the bombers body parts were also strewn around, but fortunately, I did not see that. The other notable thing was that windows as far as a 2-3 blocks away were blown out. All of the cars in the parking lot outside of the church had their windows blown out and a few of the ones closest to the church were blackened and a little melted from the blast. The windows in the 4-5 story COCIN headquarters office building were mostly blown out. There was shattered glass everywhere.[…] As far as casualties, I’m not sure, but what I heard earlier in the day was that 3 church members died on the spot, and 3 more died in the hospital later. There could be more, but I don’t have any way to verify that.

It took me until the next Sunday to walk around in the neighborhood near the church and realize the extent of damage that had been done in reprisal violence. The fruit sellers in front of the First Bank down the street from the church told me that they heard the blast and saw the dust cloud. When the mob ran down the street, they ran away, and the mob burnt or looted all their merchandise. The mob also burnt a Muslim owned restaurant and other shops in the area. I went to give my condolences to the men selling spare parts across from the Mobile station in that area, and he told me that the morning of the bomb they had been at the house down the street where some Muslim women have a business selling masa and miya every morning in front of their house, waiting for the ladies to finish frying the masa for breakfast. When the bomb went off, a mob came and they all ran away. Not only did the mob burn all the businesses around but they also burned down the house of the women who sold the masa and miya every morning. I had bought food from them before, and I knew most of the Hausa business people in the area. This I think is when the devastation really hit home to me–the bomb was bad enough, but then the human desire for retaliation resulted in far more innocent people suffering.

Before reading my article “The Darkness only Love can Drive out” (to read the hard copy click on the photo below, or scroll down for a blog version with links), if you are interested in reading the stories of some of the other victims, here is the sad story of Hajara, who fled Boko Haram in Yobe only to be killed in the Jos COCIN church bombing, and Grace, a Sunday School teacher. Her family tell of how she was born prematurely and they see the years they had with her as God’s blessing.

The darkness only love can drive out

Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 03 March 2012 05:00

 I was in Jos and staying with friends in town. Sunday morning, I had been hitting snooze on my phone alarm for an hour. At around 7:15am, I was just about to get out of bed to prepare for church, when it happened. The gritty boom that made the house shake.  “JESUS,” I shrieked in a brief instinctual prayer, and leapt out of bed, swatting at the mosquito net that tangled around me.

I had heard the bombs at the football viewing centres in December. They had an echoing, reverberating sound. This was more immediate. It sounded like rocks and metal crunching. When I stepped into the hallway, grit from the ceiling had fallen down over everything. Outside, thousands of bats were in the sky. The morning sun was bright.

Of course, we knew exactly what it was, when the sound shook the house. In those few seconds it took me to untangle myself from the mosquito netting, I knew it was a bomb, and that it was at one of the churches somewhere nearby.

When the bombs and the gun battles were exploding in in Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Borno, Kaduna, and Gombe, Jos had remained unnaturally calm. In January, refugees from Yobe had fled to Jos. I joked that the city had temporarily gone back to being the ‘home of peace and tourism’. Of course we had known it was only a matter of time.

In the house we prayed and read the Psalms. My mother kept calling. A Nigerian friend called from the UK. As my shakiness subsided, I drank tea, sent text messages, went online to check for news.

Around 9:30am I began to smell smoke. Strange, I thought, that I hadn’t smelled it before when the bomb had gone off. Outside, there were sirens, and the sounds of shouting, punctuated with silence. A friend, who usually attends the 9am service at COCIN headquarters, had gone to the church shortly after it happened. She came back repeating what she had heard, that there had been several people in the car, that they were in military uniforms, that one of them had died in the bomb and one had been beaten to death by the angry crowd. That she had heard at least two church members were killed, one of them a female usher. The smoke we were smelling was not from the church. It was from nearby shops that a mob of youth had begun burning. A doctor from Plateau Hospital came by. He confirmed that three church members had died. Others had been taken to Plateau Hospital. Many had ear injuries. He said that achaba drivers were being attacked. One woman with a machete wound to her head said they had seen the mob coming. They achaba driver had tried to turn around, but he hadn’t been fast enough. She survived. He hadn’t.

That evening, when things had calmed down, I went to the church to see the damage for myself . There were over a hundred onlookers milling about. The church, which had been under construction, was still surrounded by wooden scaffolding. There was a long crack down the backside of the church and a section of blocks that looked as if they had been blown off. There was a crater in the ground a few metres away from the building where they told me the car had exploded. It had filled up with the church bulletins that were scattered all over the compound. All of the cars in the car park were damaged with shattered windows, and drooping frames. Those closest to the building were blackened and pocked, with door handles blown off.

Windows of cars smashed by the impact of the blast (c)CM

Shards hung in the windows in the office building behind the church. The impact of the bomb had smashed windows as far as three blocks away.

Windows smashed out in office building behind church (c)CM

Most striking were the car parts that were scattered everywhere. There was a tire nestled against the last dusty pew in the church. Another tire lay outside towards the side of the building. The engine was a few metres away. When I came out of the compound, friendly police wanted to see my photos. They asked me if I had seen the body parts. I said no. That was something I didn’t want to see.

A few days later, more information has come out. The death toll still seems ambiguous, but it seems that at least five church members were killed, fifty others wounded, and three or four other people killed in mob violence.

Of course, Jos came out of this particular attack better off than some places have. The Madalla bombing killed around thirty-five. In Kano, the multiple bomb blasts killed nearly two hundred and the fighting continued off and on even to last week. The Friday before, five people had been killed in an attack on a Kano mosque. Later bombs went off in Gombe. There were other attacks in a village in Kaduna on Sunday.

I am of course devastated by what happened in Jos—that innocent people who rose early in the morning to worship God were killed. It is something every Christian in the north now faces when we go to church. But equally horrifying are the reports of mob violence against innocent young men on okadas just trying to make money to feed their families, the smoke that came not from the bomb at the church but from the Hausa businesses a block away which the mob burned. And then there is the devastating story that the man the angry crowd beat to death that morning was actually a church member who had been misidentified. As another friend pointed out, because so many have escaped from prison, people feel the need for immediate justice. But that was not justice. The story sickens me.

Boko Haram, who has claimed responsibility for the COCIN church bombing and much of the other violence in the north, attack Christians and Muslims alike. The church attacks make the most news, but the Kano mosque attack on 24 February follows other attacks on mosques and Muslim religious leaders in Borno. [This UN publication, published 20 January 2012, gives a partial timeline of Boko Haram attacks.] The police attacked are from both faiths. What worries me is that Boko Haram seems to have become an umbrella under which all manner of violence can be excused, whether it is claimed by them, blamed on them, or in retaliation for what they’ve done. In a bizaare twist, papers (see Tribune ) reported that several church members in Bauchi were caught with explosives trying to attack a ‘rival’ COCIN church the same Sunday. The COCIN president denied it.  And such a story does seem suspicious coming as it did on the same day as the Jos attack on COCIN headquarters. [The story has since been confirmed]. But it does illustrate how Boko Haram seems to have become a cover for any other evil plans anyone may have.

All, I can do is to repeat what I keep saying, so that I grow tired of speaking, so that I resent having to keep writing about violence when I would much rather write about film and literature:  the only way to defeat this evil is to band together, Christians and Muslims, and refuse to let Boko Haram succeed in making us violent in turn. The words of Martin Luther King Jr., from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community are worth repeating:  “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. […] Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

“Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church” a guest column by Gimba Kakanda

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

On 14 January 2012, the poet Gimba Kakanda, one of the brains behind the active “Nation-wide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal” group on Facebook, wrote a guest article for my Weekly Trust column about his experiences organizing a group of Muslim youth in Minna to protect a church the Sunday before: “Cross of Crescents: Muslims around a Church”. To read his thoughtful and provocative piece, click on the link, click on the photo below, or scroll down to read here on my blog.

Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church

 Written by Carmen McCain and Gimba Kakanda, Saturday, 14 January 2012

 Last weekend, the stories of the killings of Christians in Adamawa and Gombe left me with a constant dull ache. I realized, as boys hovered their metal detectors over my Bible before I walked into church, that we could die as we prayed. And though the pastor pointed us to the revolutionary nonviolent teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, Christians I spoke to were angry.

“It’s just lies,” one told me, when I argued that most Muslims were aghast at the killings. I couldn’t blame him for his anger—he had just lost a friend in Adamawa—but I wished that he could experience the kindness of my Muslim friends and realize they too love and hurt and breathe. It was in this funk that I signed online and saw the photos, like those in Egypt last year, of Christians protesters in Kano and Kaduna protecting their Muslim friends while they prayed.

Poet Gimba Kakanda, whose collection of poetry Safari Pants was published by Kraftgriot in 2010,  wrote on Facebook that he and other Muslim friends had protected St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Minna during a Sunday service. Beginning to feel hopeful again, I asked Gimba if he would write something about his experiences. I yield the rest of my column to him.  –Carmen

When I heard of the covenant made in Kano during the anti-fuel subsidy removal protests–of Christians willing to stand guard for Muslims and vice versa during religious services–I was hurt that the bond of our relationship has waned over the years to the point that a Muslim is considered an enemy of Christianity, an inhumane being adept in violence.

I didn’t grow up in a tense religious atmosphere. My upbringing wasn’t bound to intolerance. The Muslims and Christians of my early days seemed like adherents of the same religion. We had so much regard for each other that we marked religious festivals together, irrespective of whose it was. As a child, Muslims marking Christmas was a popular practice. Mothers would obtain Christmas dress for their children who would join Christians at parks or any available amusing exercise. We referred to Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter, in my mother-tongue, as Christians’ Eid-el Kabir and Eid-el Fitr.

This Boko Haram debacle causes me so much pain; it causes my faith to be branded as an enemy of Christianity. For a long time now, I’ve been thinking over the best way to restore the dwindling trust between the faiths.

It was my return to Jos sometime in September last year that made me realize the horrible extent of our religious divide. It was in the month of Ramadan. I hate travelling while fasting, and to save myself the hassle of scouting for food on my arrival, I called my host on the phone and asked him to get some food ready for my fast. He was Christian. When I got into the neighborhood, I was unaware that the quarter was a ‘death zone’ for non-Christians. Chollom didn’t tell me. I only realised the danger when I stepped out to locate a mosque. The one I knew was no longer there – it might have been the burnt edifice I saw in its place. At once, I waved down an okada rider and asked him to take me to the bordering quarter, Nassarawa Gwong! He sized me up with wonder, shrugged and zoomed away. I had no clue. I stopped another. This rider smiled as one would at a known teaser. “I no dey go there o!” He blurted, without offering a reason. I made it to the border on foot, wondering as people poured to the street to watch me amble into the other ‘death zone’!

I was unhappy with Chollom, but he said that he could never come to terms with the idea of not hosting me. That incident made me began to think about ways to solve such religious segregation. I discussed this with the poet Richard Ali when we met on that visit to Jos, offering what I considered a solution. Richard and I agreed on soon setting up an NGO aimed at fostering unity between people of divergent ethnic and religious differences.

On the eve of my birthday this year, a Saturday, I was chatting with a Muslim friend, when I suggested that a way to end these growing attacks on places of worship might be a community security set-up where Muslims stand guard for Christians during church services and Christians for Muslims during Jummu’at prayers. He bought that. So I called a relative, Ahmad Ibrahim Gimba, and informed him about the plan. He too bought it, and immediately arranged with a friend of his to inform their priest of our mission.

As early as 6 am on Sunday the 8th of January, my birthday, I was already up for the day’s task. I live in Tunga but the church, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church at Kpakungu, one of the largest churches in Minna, is familiar to me. Ahmad Ibrahim and I got there and were soon joined by our other friends who were very keen on the mission. Our Christian friend who worships in the church took us to the security guard to explain our mission. Before the 7:30 am service commenced we were already spread round the church: Awaal Gata, Shuaibu Usman, Dantani Usman, Danjuma Mohammed, Idris Lade, Mohammed Saba, Kabiru Mohammed, Aminu Umar… We were eighteen in all!

After the service, there were some hitches. Policemen came around to know why Muslims would offer to guard a church. Even though we informed them that Ahmad had spoken to a member of the church and arranged that we would be coming, they were leery. The trouble with such system, I learnt a day later from a member of the church, Dominic Eigbegbea, is trust. Dominic is the president of the Catholic Youth Organisation of Nigeria (CYON), Minna Diocese. He was blunt, confiding in me that Christians don’t trust Muslims anymore, that whatever bound them together is handled with suspicion. He said that he discussed our arrangement with the other members of the church, and they cautioned that we shouldn’t be trusted, that we just want to infiltrate them, study everything about them and, when they are put at ease by our dubious gesture, launch an attack. Every Muslim is a terrorist, I gathered from their response.

The priest of the church, Reverend Father Emmanuel Jima, was philosophical about the development. He’s from Adamawa, a northerner(!) and was born to a Muslim family, he told me. We discussed the unfortunate happenings in the country, especially the insecurity situations aggravated by the dreaded Boko Haram militancy. The cleric lambasted the old generation for the present mess in the country. He talked softly but he was obviously unhappy that the bond between the two faiths has weakened to this extent, considering any forum that avails both Muslims and Christians a chance to rub each other’s back a way to restore the lost paradise of inter-faith fraternity. The youths are more perceptive, he iterated. ‘The burden of fixing the country is now left for you, the youth.’

Yes, a burden, this weighs me down. I must carry this cross. Unlike Christ’s, though, my cross is the weight of a faith, the crescent, deconstructed by too many misperceptions, too many stereotypes, unwitting and deliberate. May God save us from us, Ameen.

Unity or Hell: Choices for the New Year

I am writing this post on 17 March 2012, but backdating it to the first of the year, for blog organization purposes.

My column for the new year with the not so subtle title of ‘Unity or Hell: Choices for the New Year’ was published as usual in the Weekly Trust on New Year’s Eve 2011, republished in the Daily Trust on 2 January 2012 (on pages 25 and 26) and again in the Vanguard on January 12. I wrote this following the bloody events of Christmas Day 2011, which has (with hindsight) unfortunately ushered in the “year of the bomb” in Nigeria. I pray that, despite the tragedies that have occurred so far in 2012, that we can rally around to unify against those who would divide the country. To read the original, click on the photo below. To read on this blog with links to the passages, I quoted, scroll down below the photo.

Unity or hell: Choices for the New Year

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 31 December 2011 05:00

On September 15, 1963, during the American civil rights movement, the American terrorist group Ku Klux Klan, which uses twisted Christian language to support its racist ideology, set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where civil rights activists often congregated. The bomb killed four little girls coming out of their Sunday school class and wounded twenty-two other people. In 1997, People Magazine wrote an article about the bombing in which they quote Chris Hamlin, then pastor of the church, saying “The bombing was a pivotal turning point’ […] Birmingham- so rocked by violence in the years leading up to the blast that it became known as Bombingham – ‘Finally,’ adds Hamlin, ‘began to say to itself, “This is enough!’”
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nearly fifty years later, in a very different context, another bomb has gone off in a church, this one St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State, Nigeria, this time on Christmas Day 2011, a holiday celebrating joy and peace. The latest in a series of bomb attacks around the country, it killed around thirty-five people including children and a pregnant woman and wiped out whole families. Boko Haram, a terrorist entity which asserts it is fighting for Islam, claims responsibility for the bombings. But just as the Ku Klux Klan violated Christian principles of love and non-violence, so also does Boko Haram violate Islamic principles of non-violence against non-combatants. Bombing a place of worship, especially on a holy day with families of worshippers inside, is such a sacrilege that I wonder if this time, remembering  the 2010 Christmas Eve bombings and this year’s attacks on Muslims during Eid-el-Fitr in Jos, we too, both Christians and Muslims, will finally say, “This is enough!”

When I first heard, on Christmas morning, of the bombs in Madalla, Jos and Yobe, I thought of my column published the day before. I had written about the December 10 football viewing centre bombings in Jos in the context of Jesus’s teachings on peace. As I tried to process the shattering news of dozens of innocent people killed after attending Christmas mass, I thought of a verse I had edited out of the conclusion of my last article to save space. It was Matthew 10: 28-31, where Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Several thoughts on Jesus’s words about fear:

First: the body. After I mentioned Boko Haram briefly in one of my other articles, a reader wrote me, warning that it was dangerous to talk about Boko Haram—“I think it is safer to avoid even mentioning the name of these mad creatures. They are everywhere: they watch & listen.”  My response was to re-tell the story of returning to Jos from New York in September 2001. “I realized that if I changed my plans [to return] either because of the attacks on New York or the crisis in Jos, I would be doing what the terrorists wanted, which is to make everyone change their lives and tiptoe around in fear. And if you do that, you are letting a minority of violent people rule your life, rather than God. I refuse to live in fear. My life is in God’s hands. If it is my time to die, it is my time to die. I will not refuse to speak out about truth or justice or peace out of fear.”  The deaths of those people on Christmas morning were tragic, but while terrorists could maim their bodies, they could not touch their souls.

Second: on hell. Whoever is behind the Christmas bombings and other “Boko Haram” violence wants to tear the country apart. They want Christians to curse Muslims and the South to declare war against the North. They want to deny complexity, deny love, drag the rest of us with them to a hell of hatred and violence. They want us to ignore the teachings of Jesus, beloved of both Christians and Muslims, who said “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If we fall into the trap the terrorists have set and begin to behave irrationally, hating those who had nothing to do with the terror and lashing out in violence against them, then we lose our souls and those who are trying to destroy Nigeria will succeed in their plan.

During Christmas, most of the Christmas greeting texts and phone calls I received were from Muslims. These sorts of friendships are what the attackers mean to destroy. I was encouraged, therefore, when I saw so many Muslim leaders unified in their condemnation of the attacks.  Daily Trust and This Day reported condemnation from Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Muslim Public Affairs Center (MPAC), Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Muslim Congress, and the Malta Ahmadiyya Group, among others. Chairman of the Sokoto State chapter of Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Sheikh Abubakar Usman Mabera said “Almighty Allah forbids the killing of a fellow human being. Whoever thinks that he is carrying out Jihad by destroying places of worship and killing innocent citizens is ignorant of Islam because the religion forbids that.” Vanguard reports that the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III declared:  “There is no conflict between Christians and Muslims, between Islam and Christianity. It is a conflict between evil people and good people and the good people are more than the evil doers. The good people must come together to defeat the evil ones.” And, despite rabble-rousing statements by some understandably distressed Christian leaders, Pope Benedict XVI responded in the pattern Jesus set, saying, “In this moment, I want to repeat once again with force: violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death. Respect, reconciliation and love are the only path to peace.”

Back in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would himself be assassinated five years later, preached the funeral for the four little girl killed in the Birmingham church, saying: “my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood […from] the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”

On this last day of 2011, as we mourn those innocents killed on Christmas morning, we can let this tragedy lead us on to a more unified voice against evil, both Christians and Muslims speaking out against terrorism and corruption, working actively together for peace against those who would divide at all costs. Or we can let our hatred lead us straight to hell. It is our choice. Happy New Year.

Mr. Lecturer, Snoop Dogg, and Dbanj’s “Mr. Endowed”

I think I’ve set a new record for neglecting this blog. I have had a series of deadlines on various writing projects, and I didn’t want to allow myself to blog until I met at least one of the deadlines. Now, I have a lot to catch up on.  Since it is impossible to go back and reproduce all the posts I should have posted, I will just start with the most recent–this week’s column in Weekly Trust. This is not my best or favourite column, but it is one particularly well suited for a blog, because I can bling it up with all kinds of videos to make the reading experience more stimulating.  (Forgive me if some of the videos here are a little less than great quality. I was trying to put up this blog post on an internet connection that would usually only let me load about 10 seconds of the video before timing out, so I was posting videos from memory rather than verifying the youtube uploads that were the best quality. Please NOTE that the videos embedded here are being used in this blog post under Fair Use laws for review purposes.)

Mr. Lecturer, Snoop Dogg, and D’banj’s “Mr. Endowed”

 Written by carmen mccain Saturday, 22 October 2011 05:00

 Let’s call him “Mr. Lecturer.” A few years ago, on the last day of an academic conference after the few other women at the conference had left, I went back to my hotel room to relax.

I heard a knock at my door. It was “Mr. Lecturer,” a colleague attending the conference, a big, tall man of probably around fifty. When I opened the door, he pressed himself so close to me that I took an instinctive step backwards and he wriggled into my room. He said that he needed a quiet place to work and he wanted to write in my room. “Do you not have a room in this hotel?” I asked. He replied he did but he wanted to use my laptop because his battery was low. I edged closer to the door and told him that my battery was also low and that I was just going out to eat. I grabbed my bag, ushered him out of the room and wandered in self exile around the streets of the unfamiliar city for a while. Before it got dark, I bought a compilation vcd of Naija music videos from a street vender, then went back to my room and locked myself in.  Around 8pm, there were several knocks at my door. I turned off my lights and refused to answer. I sat in the dark fuming, until I remembered the compilation of music videos I had bought earlier.  With nothing else to do, I slotted the vcd into my laptop. This was the first time I had seen the video for P-Square’s “Do Me,” or D’banj’s “Booty Call.” I knew the songs and frequently sang along to the catchy choruses. But in watching the compilation, which also included music videos from American artists like Snoop Dogg, I grew angrier and angrier. The music videos were full of women in buttock-revealing miniskirts, brassieres, and fish-net stockings. The camera zoomed in on close-ups of their gyrating backsides and heaving breasts. It was like the representation of ‘natives’ by various parts of their bodies that Chinua Achebe noted in Joseph Conrad’s racist novel Heart of Darkness. This time it was women being cut up into body parts. Rarely would the camera focus on a woman’s face.  In D’banj’s “Booty Call,” fully-dressed men sat back and leered, as barely-dressed women pranced and paraded before them.

P-Squares “Do Me”

Dbanj’s “Booty Call” 

As I watched, I grew so angry that I was unable to sleep all night. I was angry at the musicians for objectifying women. I was angry with the women for allowing themselves to be objectified. And most of all, I was furious with Mr. Lecturer for thinking I, the only woman left at the conference and his colleague, albeit a junior one, was “fair game.” (Lord have mercy on his poor students!) The music videos did not make Mr. Lecturer harass me, but both are symptomatic of the same underlying  disrespect for women—a condition captured brilliantly in Eedris Abdulkareem’s music video “Mr. Lecturer.”

Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Mr. Lecturer

I remembered that sleepless night recently when I finally had the bandwidth to download Dbanj’s music video “Mr. Endowed” directed by Sesan and featuring the American hip hop artist Snoop Dogg. It is one of the worst videos, Nigerian or American, I’ve seen.

Dbanj’s “Mr. Endowed, feat. Snoop Dogg”

Don’t get me wrong, I love hip hop and dancehall. Even though I hate D’banj’s and P-Square’s music videos with big cars and scantily dressed women, I admit to the contradiction of still singing along to the lyrics when they come on the radio.  Although I think Snoop is a maddening sexist, I occasionally enjoy his deadpan voice and irreverent raps, which are so outrageous that sometimes all you can do is laugh.  The Bollywood music video “Singh is King” featuring Snoop, for example, plays ironically with Orientalist stereotypes.  There are dancing girls but they are included with a self-mocking wink.

Akshay Kumar and Snoop Dogg in “Singh is King”

Nigeria’s icon Fela Anikulapo-Kuti similarly thrived on the notoriety of extravagant sexuality, featuring topless women on his record albums, mostly naked dancers at his performances, and marrying 27 women in one swoop. Yet, as outrageous as his sexual excesses were, he was committed to the Nigerian masses, fearlessly speaking out against injustice.

Album cover of Fela’s album “Expensive Shit” responding to his imprisonment. (Courtesy of EgoTrip)

Fela and Afrika 70 in performance in Calabar, 1970 (shot by Ginger Baker)

photo credit: Nigerian Curiosity

Dbanj, on the other hand, as “Kokomaster” with his “Koko Mansion” and “Kokolettes” groomed to please him, courts the notoriety without any of the social responsibility. He seems to style himself the Hugh Hefner of Nigeria, surrounded by women who are not “queens” (and eventually wives) as Fela called them but mere sexual playtoys. In “Mr. Endowed,” D’banj takes a song with narcissistic lyrics and a mediocre dance track and blings it up with exotic locations and decent cinematography.  The conceit of Snoop being D’banj’s American uncle is clever, and my favourite part of the video is when D’banj presents the American artist with a Nigerian passport, giving him the name Baba Aja Oluwasnoop.  There is also a certain nationalistic pleasure in seeing D’banj cruise the streets of Los Angeles in a green and white Rolls Royce, bursting into Yoruba while dancing around the mansion under a Nigerian and American flag. D’banj implies that he has done all this for Naija, singing, “At the end of the day when my people see me, I bring them joy, they give me a round of applause.” But the rest of the video takes the clichés of wine, women, and song typical of both Snoop’s and D’banj’s videos to new levels of vulgarity. “Uncle Snoop’s” house has an elaborate marble and gold staircase that is decorated by two “vixens” in bustiers and bikini bottoms who writhe around licking their lips and stroking themselves. Musicians wander about flashing fistfuls of dollars, opening suitcases full of blingy time pieces. Snoop is not at his best. His rap is not mixed well, so that his voice is low and you can’t hear what he is saying. He seems a bit lost behind the enthusiasm of his Nigerian “nephews.” I see no redeeming irony here. Perhaps, the repeated instances of one of the musicians walking in on women in the bathroom, one in a bathtub covered with $100 dollar bills and one seated on the toilet using $100 bills as toilet paper is supposed to be funny. To me, it is just embarrassing—a joke with a punchline gone flat. D’banj usually has good beats, and sometimes clever lyrics, sung in a skillful mix of Yoruba and pidgin.  But this “copy-copy” is not interesting or fresh. The music videos I enjoy the most are those that situate themselves in a recognizable Naija. The pitfalls of musicians like D’banj or P-Square and Darey, who make most of their videos in South Africa, or musicians who shoot endless “girls-in-the-club” videos is that no matter the “quality” of the video, they are not being innovative. The videos I most love are those like Eedris Abdulkareem’s old but powerful “Nigeria Jaga Jaga” which uses actual footage of Nigeria or his satirical “Mr. Lecturer.”   TY Bello’s simple but gorgeous “Greenland” focuses on portraits of Nigerians of all ages; elDee’s “Light Up Naija” uses similar simple portraits to highlight his call to unity. TuFace, DJ Jimmy Jatte, and Mode 9 in “Stylee” set addictive rhymes against a backdrop of Lagos traffic and danfos, a Lagos which Nneka also uses cinema-verite style in her video “Heartbeat.” The video for the late Sazzy’s “Mr. Chairman,” is nothing fancy but captures the fierce passion of the Abuja-based musician so well that it takes my breath away.  Recently I came across a beautifully shot music video “Soyeyya” by a hip hop artist XDOGGinit, who raps in Hausa and features humorous acting by Kannywood stars. What makes a video good is not how much money is spent on it but how creative and “true” it is.  I hope to highlight more of the ones I like this year. [Note: These videos may not be as sophisticated or polished as the “club” videos shot in South Africa etc, but they seem to me to have more SOUL.]  And to those musicians who specialize in getting women to remove their clothes for your videos. You may be young and “endowed” now, and there may be plenty of silly girls eager for the fame. But in a few more years, try that and you’ll get called “Mr. Lecturer.” A word to the wise. Eedris Abdulkareem’s Nigeria Jaga Jaga (not the best quality upload but you can see what I mean) TY Bello’s “Greenland” DJ Jimmy Jatt, feat. Mode 9, 2Face, and Elajoe in “Stylee” Nneka “Heartbeat” Sazzy “Mr. Chairman” XDOGGinit “Soyayya”