NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 190 | July 15, 2009
Editor’s Note: Writing Out of Africa by Norbert Blei
“People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them. This what people have come to expect. It’s not viewed as a serious continent. It’s a place of strange, bizarre and illogical things, where people don’t do what common sense demands.” –Chinua Achebe
Much of the literature of Africa continues to be a testament of turmoil, oppression, corrupt ‘democratic’ dictatorships born anew from the gnarled roots of colonialism and the word for existence: apartheid. A dark continent of dark hearts seeking the light of change, of social conscience. The many tribal voices wanting to be heard, calling for fairness, dignity, survival–a oneness of old and new ways that do not repress a people.
The literature of this continent is vast. Many of their writers unknown to most of us, myself included. Our association with their culture often associated with Western writers–Hemingway’s short stories and his marvelous GREEN HILLS OF AFRICA; Alan Paton’s, CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY; Isak Dinesen’s, OUT OF AFRICA; and, of course, Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS.
Not enough of us are familiar with Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mphahlele, Kenule Saro-Wia…or even South African, Nobel prize winners, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. The Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, has sold millions of copies of his novel, THINGS FALL APART–translated in more than fifty languages.
The late writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa is another important Nigerian author reflecting the way of the writer in Africa in our own time. He was hanged in 1995 by yet another ‘General’ in fear of the written word. A recent piece by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, relates how Saro-Wiwa envied Western writers “who can peacefully practice their craft.”
So little of our own literature probes the depths of the ‘political/social’ these days—which we have left to the pundits and talking heads for a 24 hour news cycle. On to the next ‘novel’ news-bite. Our novelists (most of them) stare at their navels…their agony over marriage, love affairs, professions, academia, addictions of all sorts and —and record. As if that’s the real story of us all. We entertain ourselves and the masses with romance, mystery, espionage, enhanced memoirs, and how-to-do just about everything but think, feel, and live. We manufacture, market and consume ‘bestsellers’ like franchise food products. But we are left malnourished.
The story out of Africa is the same ‘old’ story, told by many different writers—but needs to be told and retold again, for the story is so vast it’s almost impossible to grasp all the beauty, darkness, danger…and, yes, hope.
Saro-Wiwa once put it this way: “The writer cannot be a mere storyteller, he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils, he or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”
I am pleased to introduce a young writer out of Africa, a Nigerian poet, playwright, teacher, journalist, Chidoze Chukwubuike, who sent me his work some weeks ago. He describes his fascination with the creative process in this way:
“I enjoy writing didactic short stories, play-lets and poems. In my writings I prefer to employ contemporary themes; things that affect me in my immediate environment, such as hunger, insecurity, political instability, etc. I enjoy watching my characters battle the conflicts that arise while exploring these themes. I also derive great joy in following my characters as they lead me to a resolution.”
And so the story out of Africa continues. “People create stories create people: or rather stories create people create stories,” said Chinua Achebe.
Here is Chidoze’s story, telling it to us in our own time:
A glittering black Land Cruiser jeep, with tinted glasses conveniently hiding its occupants, drove into the arena and parked ten meters away from the pavilion. Chief Nwakibie was like the chameleon that would not let the intensity of the bush fire force him to deviate from the unhurried strides he inherited from his ancestors. He sat in the luxurious air-conditioned car and scanned the faces of the youths huddled together in that dilapidated pavilion at the Ubaha village Square. Lolo, the Chief’s wife never ceased to wonder why they always had to sit back in the car for as long as twenty minutes before alighting, whenever they arrived at any occasion.
That day was Eke, and most of the villagers were at the Eke Ubaha market. Many of the youths were boiling with suppressed excitement over what they planned to do.
“Are you sure this is actually Chief Nwakibie’s car?” Ugbaja, one of the youths asked.
“There’s no doubt about that; if it’s not him, then, it’s his driver. As for the car, it’s surely his”, Akirika replied unsolicited. He was the leader of the Ubaha youths.
“I heard Chief Nwakibie appears incognito at events. I was reliably told that recently, at the House of Assembly, some members met secretly to plan for his suspension not knowing that he was sitting right there with them”, Ugomma, the only lady in the group, volunteered. The youths laughed uncomfortably and began to glance around suspiciously.
“He can be invincible at the House of Assembly not here in Ubaha”, Akirika once again responded. Angered by the fear of the possibility of what Ugomma said happening, he hollered, “Ubaha Reformed Youths Movement”.
“Progress!” the crowed of youths replied in unison.
“U. R.Y. M”.
Back in the car, Chief Nwakibie was enjoying the spectacle. He was sure the youths were talking about him. They always did; admiring his flamboyance, and wishing to be like him. He smiled wryly to himself and made a mental note to invite the pretty girl that seemed to have said something that annoyed Akirika to the city. “She is the only girl among the lot and Chief Nwakibie, the honourable member representing Ubaha-Alaukwu constituency, will not allow this unruly gang to defile such a beauty. Pretty girls are for honorable men like me”, he mused.
Akirika, sporting a faded T-shirt and an old pair of jeans trousers was conspicuously the most decently dressed youth in that gathering. He was a graduate of mechanical engineering. The others, even Ugomma, were dressed in what could be best described as rags. The rumour mill had it that Chief Nwakibie auctioned out to the highest bidders everything that was meant to come to Ubaha through political quota. That could account for the multiplication of school drop-outs and joblessness among those who managed to finish school in the community.
The unkempt appearance of the youths tickled chief Nwakibie’s fancy and he burst into a paroxysm of laughter, patting his well rounded pot-belly, to the chagrin of his wife. She thought he was laughing at her countenance. She was about to protest, when chief exploded in between guffaws; “Yeah! Keep them down there in the dust, and make them thankful for little mercies. That’s the catechism of survival”.
Without warning, he stepped out of the car and his wife and police orderly followed humbly. The youths surged forward to welcome them.
One important lesson in the art of being the wife of a ‘big man’ is not to wear your displeasure on the face in public. Lolo switched on her automatic plastic smile. She was dressed in a two-piece lace lappa, a buba-blouse, and a canopy of head gear to match. From her neck and wrists dangled dazzling jewelries as she pushed along, behind her husband, as much as her over-fed frame could permit. The police orderly followed at a respectable distance and the driver was left alone in the car to wear patience like a sacred garb.
Shouts of “Chief – Chief!” rent the air. In an exaggerated show of solidarity, the youths tried to out-do one another in the praise of chief Nwakibie. He waved his titular fan in acknowledgment as he moved in punctuated strides. Intoxicated by the accolades, he changed his gait and began to sway like a peacock with his flamboyant suede chieftaincy regalia contributing to the glamour. Eventually, they returned to the pavilion and chief Nwakibie raised his voice in salute.
“Indefatigable youths of my beloved constituency”, he roared.
“Mmm”, the youths responded in a half-hearted murmur. The chief did not notice the dramatic change in the countenance of the crowd, but Lolo became apprehensive.
“My good people, I invited you here today to seek your support in the forth-coming elections, although it’s still two years away but you know that in politics two years is like two days. I’m sure when the time comes we shall dance a better dance”.
“Yes, Chief, we shall dance but not your dance,” Akirika interrupted him, his face suddenly wearing a mean look.
“Whose dance? You wretch! Do you realize what I can do to you for speaking into my mouth?” Chief Nwakibie thundered angrily.
“Yes, Chief, I may be a wretch but not a thief like you. We don’t care what happens to us after this. Today, you shall face the people’s justice”.
Everything happened very fast. Three of the youths seized and disarmed the police orderly, who was already moving towards Akirika menacingly. Another three moved like lightening and apprehended Chief Nwakibie’s driver, who had dozed off with his head cushioned on the steering. Chief Nwakibie quickly fished out his cell-phone but the youths anticipated that move and were prepared. They confiscated his phones and that of his wife and aides. Irobi, one of the youths, and a hulking brute, kicked Chief Nwakibie’s feet off the ground and he crashed to the ground with heavy impact but minimal sound, like a bag of fermented cassava. Lolo began to weep.
From his lowly position in the dust, Chief Nwakibie looked up and met the disdainful faces of the youths. He looked beyond them and, as though addressing the cheerless sky, asked; “why am I being treated like a common thief?”
“We are sorry, Chief, please accept our apologies. Henceforth, we shall begin to treat you like an uncommon thief”, Akirika, standing over Chief Nwakibie, pleaded in mock seriousness. He directed the youths to lock up the police orderly and the driver in a place they would be incapable of any mischief. Ugomma was sent to bring in the newspaper correspondents the youths invited to cover the events of that day. On hearing newspaper correspondents, Chief Nwakibie jumped from where he lay in a heap on the ground, and frantically began to beg.
“Listen, young men stop being unreasonable. Leave those hounds out of this. We can settle this amicably between us. I can make each of you rich here and now. I have two million Naira, cash, right now in the booth of my jeep. I can give every penny of it to you”.
“Chief Nwakibie, we shall take the money from your booth without your permission when the time is ripe. We shall confiscate it because it’s stolen money. Honourable thief, you have been found guilty”, Akirika concluded.
“ By which court of law?” Chief Nwakibie asked, perplexed.
“The supreme court of the people’s conscience”, Akirika replied calmly. “Nwakibie, some years ago, I saw you with the eyes of a child leading the youths of this village to the public disgrace of thieves, parading them round the seven towns of Ubaha. You disgraced people for stealing oranges, pears, and maize. You disgraced children for pilfering soup and ụtara . You stripped them naked, sprayed them with ash, unleashed tailor ants on them, and hung around their necks, whatever object they stole. Chief, I saw you beat those people, some of whom might have been forced into petty theft because of the greed of people like you. In our eyes you were a hero. You led in the song, we tagged behind you and sang the refrain, “a thief is a cheat”, as we humiliated them round the entire Ubaha. Today, Nwakibie, you have been found guilty of stealing the destiny of a generation. Is it not natural that you be made to drink from the same gourd with which you fed others?”
As the meaning of Akirika’s words registered in Lolo’s consciousness, she fell to the ground and began to beg the irate youths to spare her husband. Her plea was like water dropping on cocoa-yam leaves. Chief Nwakibie desperately employed every oratorical gimmick he could remember to placate the youths. He promised them heaven on earth and pleaded until his voice became hoarse. He was still begging them when the three journalists arrived and went to work with their cameras and mini-recorders. He didn’t hear when the command was given for his clothes to be removed.
The youths pounced on Chief Nwakibie and tore off every piece of clothing on him down to his under-pants. Reflexively, he covered his crotch with his palms. He began to run away, stark naked, and the youths humoured themselves by sending Ugomma after him in mock pursuit. They giggled at the way his naked buttocks clapped about like palm wine going to market in a half-empty calabash. He abruptly stopped running and started back towards the pavilion.
Ochieze, a clown among the youths, hushed the crowd and peered at Chief Nwakibie as though inspecting a commodity to purchase. He touched Chief’s cheeks, poked at his chest, then, moved around and slapped his buttocks. It vibrated in a very comic way. The youths roared with laughter. “God has wasted meat here”, Ochieze interjected as he laughed. “Nwakibie, if the flesh on your body were given to a goat the world would have had more meat to eat”. This generated another bout of laughter.
As their mirth wore out, Akirika took charge once again. He began to address the crowd, particularly the journalists. The event that was to be known many years to come as The Decoration began.
“Ladies and gentlemen”, Akirika said aloud, “we hereby decorate our honourable thief with these garlands”. One of the youths handed him a hoe, which would be hung with a rope around Chief Nwakibie’s neck. “Great Ubaha Reformed Youths Movement!” he saluted “Progress!” chorused the crowd.
“This is a hoe”, Akirika said as he raised the hoe for all to see. “We are decorating Chief Nwakibie with this hoe, symbolizing the labour he stole from us. He sold away to strangers employment opportunities that were supposed to be given to Ubaha youths on merit”.
The youths angrily jeered at Chief Nwakibie. Some made to ruffle him but Akirika restrained them. He strapped to the chief’s left shoulder a sack bag symbolizing all the money Chief Nwakaibie had stolen from the people in the form of constituency allocations from the national treasury. He also gave Chief Nwakibie a ballot box to carry on his head. The box was symbolic of a stolen mandate. Akirika explained to the journalists how the popular candidate, whom they all voted for was manipulated out of the contest by the political god-fathers, who installed Chief Nwakibie instead. Having so decorated the honorable member representing Ubaha-Alaukwu constituency, the youths sprayed him with ash and tailor ants. The questioning session began.
“Who are you?”
“I am chief Nwakibie, Honourable MP”.
Whack! Whack! The sticks hit his body from every angle. Slap. Kick. Punch.
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am”.
The youths, enraged, surged forward to lynch him, but Akirika managed to hold them at bay. “Nwakibie, you know the tradition. I won’t be able to help you again; this is your last chance”, he warned and turned towards Lolo. “Woman if you want your husband to survive this ordeal, then advise him. He knows the tradition”.
Lolo moved to her husband and managed to talk to him amidst sobs: “Honey, please, do whatever they want you to do; afterwards, we can run away to Burkina Faso or Czechoslovakia ”.
“Who are you?” The youths once again asked in one voice.
Silence. Everybody waited. Tears welled up in Chief Nwakibie’s eyes, he blinked and two drops escaped and landed on his protruded ash-coated tummy and drew two vertical lines.
Suddenly, something seemed to give way inside Chief Nwakibie. He smiled in spite of himself. It was real. It was not a bad dream from which he would wake up. He swayed like someone in a trance as he answered: “I am a thief; a thief is a cheat!”
The youths took up the chant ‘a thief is a cheat’, and Chief Nwakibie sluggishly danced along. They would stop at intervals to repeat the question, “Who are you?”
The journey round the seven towns of Ubaha had begun. They would pass through the densely crowded Eke Ubaha market.