Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why I Respect Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A few weeks back, though it seems like months now, I was at the Southbank for the BBC World Service Book Club with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

It was the first time I had seen her at a live event. She speaks with eloquence and confidence that can only belongs to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her humility was and is still beyond me. For a writer who has three highly acclaimed books to her name, has won the coveted Orange Prize, has been a fellow at prestigious universities in the US, and her books have been translated into 30 languages, she is very grounded. If you didn't know she was Chimamanda, the author, like we say in Nigeria, you would say her 'Mother raised her well. And yes, she did. And did I add that she has a great sense of humour and describes herself as a ‘happy feminist.’

She shows a depth of gratitude to the people who read her books and still says she counts herself lucky that people will read her books. If it was me, I tell you, CNN is too small to tell the world about myself.

But this is not about me. It is about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author I have the highest regard and admiration for. I have newspaper cuttings of her from 2008 when she won the Orange Prize. It is on my dream board alongside that of Christine Amanpour of CNN. The first woman I ever saw reporting from a war zone as a child during the first Iraq (Gulf) war. How many of you remember those khaki shirts and combat trousers? That's right. That's the great Ms Amanpour. Subconsciously, I think she is one of the reasons I admired journalism before I ever thought of becoming a journalist. I always wanted to be a criminal lawyer; you know getting the bad guys. But I changed my mind as I believe in the power of words more than I do in the justice system of the world in the 21st century. But there is hope. All men will get what they deserve at the right time, dead or alive. History has been known to do justice to a whole lot of folks and things around us.

Back to Miss Adichie, at the event, she said she is doing what she loves to do. She loves writing and it what she has always wanted to do. It soon dawned on me that she does not say things to score points with people. She says what she believes she needs to say. At 32, that is one heck of a staunch confidence and I throw my hat off to her in salute.

This is where she had me rooting for her all over again though I already like her books and think she is one author Nigeria as a nation will one day acknowledge for reminding us about a part of our history we are so happy and eager to forget, the ‘Biafra War’. For crying out loud, there are a lot of people my age, who have no idea what the war was about but they can tell you about the latest music and fashion trends. Yet, they have no knowledge of their history. She said she is a firm believe that Africa’s history should be written by Africans. I could not agree more. For so long our history has been distorted by lunatics who only spent two weeks in Africa and all of a sudden, they are African experts. I won’t mention names but you all know who you are.

This is not to take away from great historians and writers who have written about Africa but Africa has great stories that needs to be told, yet no one is telling it like we would like it told. Hence, let’s start telling our own stories after all, we have the unadulterated copyright to it. It is all around us, our parents know them and so do our grandparents. When was the last time you sat at the feet of an elder to hear an oral story? We need to go back to those fun times and learn about King Ododuwa, the great Jaja of Opobo, Oba Ovorame Nogbasi, who was exiled and deported to Calabar from the Ancient Benin Kingdom when the Europeans came to Benin or should I say when they tried to take over and he was having none of it. That’s right, never mess with a Benin man, he will cut you up.

She is not afraid or reserved about the truth. I mean how many authors will you hear say, Nigeria’s history is fractured? Well, with the exception of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Or tell you straight up that she is not interested in telling propaganda stories and does believe that it is the work of fiction to be objective.

But I think this is where I have the utmost level of respect for her. Reading her books, I have noticed she does not shy away from calling her characters some strong Igbo names, you know the type you pull yourself together before saying a word. Some sentences/lines are even written in Igbo. For me, that’s a woman who is proud of her heritage. For someone who started writing at such a young age and thought writing about white folks was the way but soon changed her mind after reading ‘Things Fall Apart’ by one of Nigeria’s best authors, Chinua Achebe. It is cool to write about Africans and tell African stories.

‘Purple Hibiscus’ was a very moving story on different levels, ‘Half Of A Yellow Sun’ was a multi-layered book full of history and ‘The Thing around Your Neck’ is a collection of short stories which again depict Nigeria and Nigerians at their best and at their worst. But the humour is great. Once again, Adichie reminds us every now and again about the place where her writing started, the university of Nsukka. It is a place that features in her work. I think that is what heritage does to you. When you know who you are and you are proud of your roots, then the stories that come out of you reflect that you know who you are better than the world who tries to define you with a few boxes asking if you are Black British or Black African.

I remember being at University and reading books by African-American authors but had a university acquaintance who read books by British and other European authors. I used to think I was missing out on something and that it was un-cool to read books by African and African-American authors. So, I went out and bought books by Diane Atkinson among others. Please, don’t get me wrong, she is a great author and I respect her for her body of work. That was my secret but not anymore because these days, most of the books I read are by African authors. I’m hungry for their books and I have promised myself that for the next two to three years, that’s all I am going to do. That’s not to say I won’t read books by writers from the West or from others parts of the world. On my books to read list are plays by Tennessee Williams, ‘A Street Car Named Desire’ is at the very top that list. In fact it is starring at me as I type away. Then there are some fine books by authors like Elizabeth Noble, 'Things I want My Daughters To Know,’ Elizabeth Gilbert has a new book coming in August and after ‘Eat, Pray Love,’ you must really hate reading to miss her books.

So, I’m not boxing myself up but I plan to immerse myself in African literature like never before because it is about time I read about my own people and gain a better knowledge of our stories; be it from North, South, West or Eats Africa. I have never read anything by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o but will do so for the first time later this year with ‘A Grain Of Wheat,’ to be followed-up next year with ‘Petals Of Blood.’

For the books, the good stories, the humility and the good sense of humour, thank you Miss Adichie and for being a proud Nigerian/African writer. Keep them rolling because we are going to keep reading them.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website

Image of Author by Beowulf Sheehan Photograpghy and it was taken from Google.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


“You cannot write with your hands chained.” Helon Habila.

When I first heard about KOKO Mansion, I had to know what it was all about and why so many people thought it was a good laugh. Without a doubt, it is a good laugh. After all, our ability to laugh at ourselves served as a good source of comic relief during decades of brutal military rule. We called IBB Maradona for his ability to wiggle his way out of tight situations and he is still the butt of jokes for a number of comedians. Why the hell not? Today, it is fair to argue that we have become somewhat desensitized to a lot of bullsh*t that otherwise would not have been okay some decades ago. But guess what, we can still joke about it and we even have comedy nights dedicated to it, all in the name of not taking ourselves too seriously.

That's what happens when you have liberty. However, I wonder if our liberty is helping us because we seem to accept the unacceptable in the name of liberty and refuse to take action for the real liberty that we have a right to as Nigerians. We excuse a few things in the name of catching up with the West but its okay, we are developing. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the way we have moved up the ladder in a whole lot of things. I mean we have world class writers, winning The Orange Prize, The Caine Prize and others who are doing great things. We have a generation who is hungry for success and hustling to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Though it breaks your heart to see what some are doing but what choice have they got when there is no support network to make it happen.

Before I continue, you are more than welcome to call me an arm chair critic, I mean, Wole Soyinka gets it everyday but that has not stopped the creative spirit in him or his ability to be vocal. I believe he recently categorised democracy in Nigeria as lacking. Though not his exact words but the man still tells it like it is. Take it or leave it.

Back to the issue with KOKO Mansion, I am not a big fan of reality TV but I have given some thought to the whole idea and I am tempted to say… in fact, I’ll say this. It serves the purpose of keeping people entertained if this is your idea of entertainment. Second, it sure helps to keep the man in whose name it has been created on our minds, record sales and popularity soaring. And of course, the ratings for the channel on which it is been shown are going to go through the roof. It is going around the world and you have people in London talking about with the help of cable TV, what more could you ask for?

That said, what I can’t understand is the reason we think that getting a group of women into one house and creating an all ‘Female’ version of ‘Big Brother’ is a great idea that would revolutionise the way we view television in Nigeria.

Now let’s take a look at the name, KOKO Mansion and the ladies or should I say girls are called Kokolettes. Right there, they have been commodified and for the rest of their lives, there is a big possibility that they will remain commodities owned by the Nigerian media. Then you take a look at the prize the winner stands to take home and you are tempted to say, wow! Which for a lot of people is indeed wow? Otherwise, how else will they ever get such an opportunity to acquire the things on offer? But the biggest game prize on offer is EXPOSURE. Damn it, these girls are smart. And I might not like the show but I respect their savviness to recognise opportunity when they see it because they are taking it with both hands and milking it for all that it is. ‘Their mama born them well jare!’

Out of curiosity, I have become a fan on facebook and was reading through the different comments of other fans. Some have gone to great lengths to prove their point; others have become rather rude and obnoxious, which in my opinion is uncalled for. Let everybody express their views without suppressing it with yours. And some people have taken it rather personally but the comment which stood out and got my attention was one made by a lady who said, ‘If it was a white man behind this show, we Nigerians would say it is great and support it.’ That I am afraid is true to a certain degree. I’m afraid the mentality which dictates a white man might be better at something still persists in our society. If you don’t believe me, bid for a contract and let a white man also put in a bid and then wait and see who will get it. You all know I am not off the mark on that one. It has happened so many times that we are now used to it because we think, they will do it better. No disrespect intended at any race, just being honest and you know that’s how it is.

When I got to the fan page, I had a good look at the pictures and when I got to the album of the press briefing, felt really sick. It was all men sitting at the table answering questions. Talk about a bunch of f***ing chauvinistic a** holes…and then you take a look at the marketing images and that tells you what these a**holes think women are. (Pardon the Frenchies but that’s how the words flowing right now and my hands can’t be tied)

Then you move on to read the profiles of the contestants and you can see we have come to define success as being famous and the best way to get it is through notoriety or any which way possible. No matter how bad or the means involved. Reuben Abati was not off the mark after all with his article, ‘A Nation's Identity Crisis.’ Brother was on point because he said it all. You might not agree with him but the symptoms on display corroborate his point. And I have a strong feeling that people missed his point and that’s why they all got worked up about it.

Some of the contestants have said they came there for the exposure not the money. At least they are honest and three Kokolettes have made it clear that their ambition is to be in the entertainment industry and be media moguls but no one is as blunt as Kokolette Chioma. Chioma is described as a talented musician who has no time to disguise her motivation for participation on the show. “I’m here for the money, because when I get the money, I’ll be able to produce my songs, and the popularity will help too, because for you to succeed in the entertainment business, you need to be known,” she says. Hell she is right? Being a dumb a** won’t get you far.

Before we continue, take a look at kokolette Victoria, she has a lot of dreams and girl, keep dreaming because that’s a lifeline you have going for you already. But her dream includes running a successful travel agency, producing international standard movies, and owning a video-vixen agency. Let’s stop right there.

You and I know one of the most famous video-vixens the world of hip-hop has given to us to date is none other than… Karrine Steffans and that I would have to say ‘MBA’ better explained as HELL NO. That is not a dream but license to open a prostitution centre with scantily clad ladies as the ultimate prize. Why do you have to think taking your clothes off with the men fully clothed and then shaking your two cents booties and titties is the best way to make a living? Now I know it pays the bills and gets you noticed but you and I know full well, our parents had rather be dead before they see that happen. Well, some of them…All the same, that is no dream. We are better than that. Its her dream and I have no right to deny her but come on people, we are a society with cultures and traditions and a lady who smokes is still considered a prostitute in some cultures, let a lone one who decides to put her titties and booties on public display.

But this is what pained me the most, watching and listening to Kokolette Rita, who finds it very challenging to string a few sentences together. Her profile reads, “I came here because I want to get exposure, not necessarily because of the money, because if I represent myself well, the future will give me more money than the prize money.”

And it is because of Rita that I felt compelled to write this piece. It would be so easy to laugh at her inability to string a few sentences together after watching a video of her presentation. But then you read her profile and get to this, “I can prove myself as a woman because I know my left from my right.” You see, Rita’s ambition according to her profile was inspired by an emotionally daunting experience a few years ago, when she was sent packing from school for her parents inability to pay her school fees – as she remembers, her dad was broke, and the rich folks she knew berated her for being poor instead of helping her with the required sum to pay her school fees – that incident introduced her to how cold the world was to the poor. “It was after this incident that I swore to myself that I was going to succeed in life.” who wouldn’t make that vow when you have hot tears streaming down your face and you have been given a coat of shame you have no control over or the ability to shake off. But she is trying desperately to shake it off. She is and for that, I am tempted to say ‘Come on Rita, go on, give it your best shot’ though we all know, she stands little or no chance of winning but then again, never judge a book by its cover.

This reminds me of a new book by Chika Unigwe, ‘On Black Sisters' Street,’ where she takes a look at the lives of Nigerian prostitutes in Belgium. In an interview with BBC World Service, she talks about the fact that she was shocked to discover a large population of the prostitutes in Antwep, Belgium were Nigerians. That was back in 1995 and today is no shocking news.

Therefore I agree with her that the current state of things calls for the government to be indicted and I would like to add that they be should be indicted for treason. They have betrayed our trust and confidence for too long, taken away the future of our children and it’s about time someone starts to pay. Kokolette Rita should not have to struggle to speak good English. She should never have been thrown out of school. Nigeria is too wealthy a country to have young beautiful women like Rita who cannot speak Standard English and have no education. Yes, English is our second language but hell, we deserve better.

The word Kokokette is open to a varied number of interpretations and knowing my people, I bet you have young boys who think its now okay to call girls Kokolettes. Sorry, I’m not your Kokolette. To ensure I was not overacting or reading too much into this good comedy, I asked a few male friends what they thought of the whole show, by the way, they are Nigerians and way older than me. One thing was pertinent and for them, it was degrading to women. If the men are saying that, then I rest my case.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Culture and Etiquette

Why do some people think they are semi-gods? I cannot stand when you want something but don't just come out and ask but give me an excuse why you can't do it. It is annoying, self-serving and just very unattractive.

So, I go to a gathering and there are a few people having a nice chat here and there. You know... gathered in clusters and talking. I decided to help the lady who was clearing up as she was doing it on her own.

While clearing up and ensuring the food that was still good to be left out was set aside, this man comes up to me, I want chicken. Go ahead, help yourself. Do I look like a chicken giver?

But no, this joker proceeds to ask again, I want to take some chicken home. Okay, take the chicken and go home but hell no. He wants me to pack and wrap the chicken for him. So, I said to him again, help yourself.

Someone else I know comes and shares his foil paper with him, so he can use his hands and take his own chicken, but no. This man wants me to be the one to give him the chicken. See me see blessing, did my mum tell me when I was a child that I would one day come to London and pack chicken for you to take home?

But, there is a but and that is my ability to stay composed despite this jokers traditional views that women were made to serve him. You see, he didn't have to say it, his attitude and actions showed it clean and clear for all to see.

Makes me wonder, will certain people ever get rid of their cultural beliefs and start working with etiquette? Though its obvious some people don't seem to know the difference.

So, I used the white plate that was there and dumped some chicken on his foil paper. That was as far as I could go with showing I was not impressed. I continued with the clearing up. You know what they say, when you meet jokers in life, keep stepping.

Its over but I am glad I handled it well. At least, no scene was served up as drama and no one is going to say, I didn't know Belinda was like that. Sometimes, humility does come in handy. You just let people be people and they will show themselves for who and what they are. The guy who shared his foil paper with him said, I commend the way you helped us and just moved on. That says it all.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

When times are scary

I just read an article which says over 1,000 journalists in the UK are on the dole. Got me nervous and it got me thinking? What else do you do when all you know is journalism and the thought of doing anything else scares you to death? You are nervous because you feel your first love slipping way or should I use the word dream, in order to make the point clear. For many and myself included, being a journalist is all we have dreamed of and known. To think that you will have to give it up for a day is scary. Even worse is doing what you are not passionate about...personaly, that kills you faster than being jobless.

How many emails are you going to send out with no response before you finally say, okay, what are my other career options? If this entry was for me alone, one could say, shut up and get on with it. But when it sinks in that there are hundreds of people in the same boat, it makes you think, what went wrong? Where are all the jobs? Yes, we were fully aware that it was a tough market but we were ready for that. That's why we did unpaid work for a number of years before we got a leg in the door.

Many say the birth of digital media has a part to play in it. Others claim it is the recession, job cuts and other woes that has every industry you can think of fighting for survival.

I don't know what to think right now to be honest. You wake up and you wonder the number of responses that you will get from the emails you send out. The ones that have networking as its subject to the ones that say, pls, can you help me? It is scary to wake up each day with uncertainty but what else is there to do but keep hoping. I was taught that hope never fails but for many, how long will they keep longing and hoping that things will change sooner than later?

I wish I had all the answers but I don't. In fact, I need some myself.

But hell, nothing will make me give up journalism. I love words way too much to stop writing.