This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹
33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi
34. The Gates Foundation should look into hot pepper soup. Once you get the taste of Nigerian peppers, you’re not so intimidated by spicy food from elsewhere. And when it comes to kicking the ever-loving arse of Plasmodium Falciparum, the malaria parasite (see item #6), and to breaking the fever more quickly than the chloroquine treatment would do on its own, I swear by my mother’s accelerant, involving her scorching pepper soup, eaten with a blanket over the head, so that eyes, skin pores and nose are all flushing out a goodly quantity of fluid. Sweating out the fever can be a brutal regime, but it is effective. I’ll have to remember to have my mother send her recipe to The Gates Foundation, admirably intent on eliminating the disease.
35. The wildlife only gets smaller. Nigeria’s national symbol, the elephant, has become a rarity. The country used to be home to animals from aardvarks and antelopes to zebras and zebu (OK there are plenty of zebu remaining, as they’re raised for meat), hippos, mongooses, giraffes, many clades of great ape and big cat. The Igbo proverb “odum na egbu agu” meant “the lion kills the leopard”, and suggests the sorts of encounters on which a native hunter might have spied from a safe distance. These days most large wildlife is endangered, and the growth of all manner of bootleg industries has unfortunately included proceeds from poaching. What’s left of abundant fauna are mostly bush rats and bats and birds, the remaining primates mostly bushbabies (the size of domestic cats) and the remaining wild cats mostly civets. The wildlife is shrinking not only in numbers, but in size of individual. That’s the sad cost of explosive human population growth and expansion of settlements.
36. No-frills table (and ground) games are the acme of entertainment. Long weekends at boarding school, and the occasional afternoon stretches between classes and evening study. And of course the long vacation (June through August) and Christmas holidays at home. Between playing football and telling long tales (“knack tori“) we had no end of accessible games to keep us busy, and even as a grown up, sometimes playing Quake 3 Arena, billiards or air hockey for downtime, I’ve missed the spartan genre of my schoolboy games.
Okwe is one that’s made the mainstream. Okwe and Nchorokoto are among its Igbo names; it’s Ayo in Yoruba, and, as I’ve recently learned, Warri in many other parts of the world. It’s the one with 12 chambers, starting with 4 pieces each (usually dried tree seeds), and the game proceeds a bit like backgammon. All you really need are 48 small, hard objects and you can dig 12 holes in the sand. From this simple game many Nigerian cultures have drawn extravagant cosmological insights.
Whot would also be familiar to many abroad. It’s a card game similar to, but a bit more varied than Uno. If you don’t have an actual Whot deck you can improvise from common 52-deck cards.
There was always plenty of construction at our school, sites where you could find long, wicked nails lying about. Get one of those and draw a circle in clayey or loamy ground, maybe a meter across. From a standing position you flick the nail downward, knife-thrower style, and embed the nail in the ground within the circle, divide the circle in a straight line through the nail’s hole, and claim the bigger half with your initials. Then it’s your opponent’s turn to aim for your territory. Repeat until someone’s remaining territory is smaller than the nail in all dimensions, and that person loses the game.
Table soccer (no, we didn’t call it table football), tropical style involves bottle caps, enough beer and soda caps for two teams a small button for the ball, two small cardboard or paper cube quarters for the goal, and a bic pen cover for the boots. Each player would push the long, thin end of the pen cover down on the bottle cap to propel it at the button, hopefully towards the goal. Missing the button and hitting another player was a foul (“bullying”), and the resulting free kicks often occasioned the greatest ingenuity in scoring. Foosball and subbuteo have never really done it for me the same way.
Grab five flat, round seeds or stones each and sit a few yards apart on a smooth wood or cement floor. Play skittles by sliding an eleventh seed at the other player’s pile, table hockey style.
Ball-u was a favorite of mine. It’s basically football four-square, where you draw the big square, divide it in four, and have a player in each chamber, trying to score on one of the other three by kicking the ball past them out of the play area. Get scored on three times and you’re out. But the ball must touch the ground at least once on the way out, or it’s “way!”, instant elimination. Ditto if your hand touches the ground—”aka na ala“.
37. Nigerian Pidgin pwns. Pidgins and creoles are the legacy of colonies everywhere, but something about Nigerian Pidgin seems to travel very well. I’ve found myself many times having Pidgin conversations with folks I meet, and when I ask where they’re from, I hear “Accra,” “Moq’dishu” or even “Cape town”. Clearly part of this is the fact that Nigerians are everywhere (item #1) and so spread their brogue to the four corners, but I’ve also been told that Nigerian Pidgin tends to travel well, which is unsurprising considering that it’s a chameleon evolved from hundreds of indigenous languages. But don’t ask me. Ask this white boy from Colorado, speaking Pidgin and Hausa with aplomb. Somehow, that just seems proper.
38. There is something about masquerades… On one hand you know they’re basically local traditional society initiates in costume. On the other hand you sense viscerally that they’re so much more. Regardless of the relentless march of modernity, masquerades as an element of ancient culture that never really loosen their grip on the Nigerian imagination, nor on those from abroad who witness the phenomena in the fullness of their pomp. The importance of masquerades is made clear even in their frequent appearance in proverbs (item #13). The keynote proverb in SWBW is “You don’t watch a masquerade form a stationary position.”² The masquerades that featured at the World Festival of Arts and Culture, (FESTAC) in Lagos in 1977 exhibited amazing feats of dance and geometry that I’d be hard pressed to explain. Those you can see in most towns around holidays and other special occasions mostly just run around and charge at people in between their dances, and these days you’ll see them just as often wrestling and break-dancing. Acrobatics have always been part of the repertoire, and the ones in this video are probably candidate jet pilots or big air snowboarders. There are enough genera of masquerades to keep Linnaeus occupied, from the Yoruba Egungun to the Efik Ekpo, and long may these traditions continue. The video below is a succession of stills of Igbo masquerades.
39. Nollywood’s got some crazy talent, and a lot of plain old crazy. Some folks watching Nollywood films would maybe look askance at my claim that it’s got crazy talent. Most of the talent is in fact behind the camera. The ability of Nollywood directors and producers to churn out film after film (only Bollywood has greater output of the world’s film industries) in often very economically straitened conditions is nothing short of legendary. If you know the context of the making of these films, you start to recognize that they’re not bad for what goes into them. I’ve often wondered what some of these very clever and articulate entrepreneurs (as I gather from watching documentaries of Nollywood hustlers, which can be every bit as entertaining as the films) would do with a California-sized budget. As it is they collectively constitute the second largest employer in the country. All that said, watching Nollywood films, with their excess of color, shouting of every sentiment, and lurid plot lines, puts you into a technicolor version of the Nigerian Wonderland I’ve mentioned (item #32). In the best Rocky Horror style, Nollywood puts a lot of plain old crazy on the silver screen. If you’re up for a little taste, a good place to start is the worldwide hit comedy Osuofia in London.
40. Nothing matches the complexities of civil war. The cause and course of the Nigerian civil war (AKA the Biafran war) reflected all the inevitable morass from a country nation stitched so improbably together. After the first coup of largely southern officers, idealist but naive the lot of them, the north of the country wanted to secede from the benighted south. But then northern officers staged a counter-coup and then did little to stem a wave of reprisal killings against southern Nigerians. As my father explains in SWBW, “Yakubu Gowon, who had assumed office as head of state, tried to calm down [Northerners] with the famous observation that Northerners now had the reins of government back in their own hands, his own hands, so they would gain nothing by seceding!” The escalation from riots to war was swift, and the war was brutal, but to be fair, afterward, the victorious side at least gave lip service to soothing old wounds and encouraging unification. My father’s book shows how intricate were his own interactions with both sides, even in the direst of circumstances. I am even more struck when I peruse the comments on the “Tell Your Biafra Story” feature Adichie put up for her superlative novel of the Biafra war “Half of a Yellow Sun” . Americans soon after their own conflict knew this just as well. Civil war is painted all the innumerable colors of the world, and then tinted the hot red of hell.
41. They aren’t kidding when they talk about football as a unifying force. I’ve spoken plenty, including in the previous item, about the many tensions that have pulled at the entity of Nigeria, but the one time you can ensure the most togetherness is when the Green Eagles are playing. It’s not easy to support the Green Eagles, as football has become huge, global business, many of our most talented players have found fame and fortune in clubs abroad, and very often they pay attention to what side of their bread is buttered, so that they can be top superstars for Chelsea and Newcastle and Everton and look like near zeroes playing for the country. My favorite footballer of all, Jay-Jay Okocha is a legend for his scintillating performances for Nigeria as well as for his several European clubs. And when the heirs of Okocha’s generation take to the pitch somewhere, you can actually see ordinary citizens sporting the green white and green flag, which is a rarity at other times. Enjoy the following compilation of Okocha’s skills, though it focuses on his Bolton games rather than for Nigeria (and you might have to mute the music).
42. You might not believe in bush medicine, but you don’t want to fuck with it, either. Wandering the back roads, you often come across field after field of cassava, yam, corn or legumes. Even in such tropical abundance theft is hardly uncommon, and farmers sometimes talk to the neighborhood juju priest to conjure up a charm against bandits. I don’t really believe in any of that, but I must say I’m hardly up for messing with any of the elaborate charms I’ve seen positioned in trees overlooking farms. There is power to belief, even when it’s not your own, and that’s a power I’m not eager to gauge too intimately. As M.J. puts it, you just want to be sure that “all the gods are satisfied.”
43. There is nothing like the year round scent of trees. From the acrid signature of gmelina at the height of the dry season to the storms of perfume put out by “queen of the night” frangipane in rainy season, I have vivid memories of the moods of the year writ in the smell of the dominant trees. Sometimes the scent emanated most strongly from abundant fruit, as with the citrus and cashew trees (cashew nuts come from a small, largely poisonous pod on the end of a large, fleshy, delicious fruit), sometimes from the bark and leaves of the trees themselves. A few of these trees, such as the gmelina, were imports from early colonists, but most of them are indigenous, giving a rich range of notes in the ancient tropical olfactory stave.
44. Educational excellence is remarkably fragile. In SWBW my father writes: “I received the best education of my life [in Nigeria]…. If I have negotiated the intellectual scaffold competently enough to do acclaimed work as a chief scientist at [NASA] it is mainly because I received an excellent educational foundation in Nigeria at a time when the getting was good.” I got my own educational foundation in many areas such as science, maths, history and languages from my father, but the next most important source was secondary school and university in Nigeria. Some would say the system was already in decline by my time, due to the effects of the brain drain of the professional class, including educators. With emigration of the middle class came a drop in expectations of educational excellence, and the support to match, as grain of the model family. It’s an effect I got to watch first hand.
It felt as if I’d jumped four grade levels from the 5th grade talented and gifted program in Gainesville, Florida to first form of secondary school in Owerri and Okigwe. My mates had long since dispensed of arithmetic. We were learning logical and geometric proofs, algebra and number theory. We were expected to be able to reproduce maps of Nigeria, West Africa, Africa and the world from memory, as well as lines of history from a staggering array of eras and places. We were soon expected to recite Shakespeare fluently in class. Language requirements were less explicit, but many of my mates spoke several languages, so I applied myself to Latin, French, German and even a bit of Greek, besides the indigenous languages and Pidgin I was having to pick up at the time. At the end of fifth form the school certificate examinations were in theory equivalent to SAT or ACT exams, but the comparison is almost ludicrous, the former being so much more rigorous and difficult. I did well enough in these and the university entrance exams that I went to the legendary University of Nigeria at Nsukka, where I promptly found myself overwhelmed by the academic standard. After transferring to the US to complete my Engineering degree, I barely even had to study any more, because of how much learning had been annealed into my brain at Nsukka.
From what I understand, that prodigious expectation of learning is almost all gone. Nigerian schools and universities are a shadow of their former selves, and this is one of the great tragedies of the past 50 years.
45. It was a fascinating view of the Cold War, even at its tail end, from the 50 yard line. Britain’s colonies inevitably found themselves entangled in the two world wars, and the feeling was often “what on earth do we have to do with these white man feuds” (though the Nazi attitude towards Jesse Owens was somewhat instructive). Once Nigeria became independent, it also became determinedly nonaligned, refusing to favor either side of the Iron Curtain, and refusing even to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which carried a scent of continued colonialism. London, Washington DC and Moscow all saw the giant of Africa as a major prize, and poured on heavily with the propaganda. Any Saturday morning, relaxing in the college dorms you could find yourself accosted by Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Growth Club and the Communist Society. Having spent much of primary school in the US, my bias was definitely in this direction, but I still find a lot of distortion to attitudes, and history-making here, especially with regard to some of the atrocities of the West in the name of anti-Communism in Angola, Namibia, the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, across large swathes of Asia, and throughout Central and Latin America.
46. Petrol and other industrial minerals are cancer. I’ve touched on this a couple of times, largely with regard to environmental concerns, but it;s so much a part of Nigeria’s 50 years that it’s worth a final mention. Mineral so-called wealth was probably the worst thing to happen to Nigeria. But I’ll go further and say that large scale globalized economic production in general was the main culprit. Even cash crops such as groundnuts, rubber and cocoa meant neglect of diverse indigenous agriculture, and this vulnerability to the vagaries of international commodities pricing, and exposure to speculators. I am a fierce capitalist, as I think runs in the blood of Igbo people, but I’m just as fiercely a small-scale capitalist. I believe strongly that at too large a scale, there is too much room for distortion and manipulation in basic basic market forces, and the system dispenses of merit and moral suasion³. The very resources that were assumed in the 60s and 70s to be the inevitable making of Nigeria turned out to be its unmaking, as mismanagement and kleptocracy followed the stacks of cash.
47. English ain’t got naything to do with the Queen. I’m a reformed megalogrammarian,⁴ but much of my discarded prejudice came from Nigeria, where English has its unique flavor even among the best educated, and yet solecisms are used as brickbats in class warfare. I even had people using my Americanisms against me, but eventually I figured out the received standard, and H.G. Fowler became first my guide, and then a demon I had to exorcise later on in my rebellion against received prescriptive grammar. Even though this revolt came years later, while in the US, the seeds were planted in Nigeria, in the rich stew of idiolect and dialect that was always such a delight. As usual, many such supposed errors come from application of indigenous language idioms to English, and the glory of such dynamics is that they make you pause to appreciate and savor the basis of idioms in multiple languages. The common Nigerian usage “this food is sweeting me” (i.e. “this food is delicious”) recalls the subtleties of the Igbo equivalent “nri a na töö ütö” where “ütö” is a noun and verbal complement which can carry the literal sense of sweetness, but can also mean pleasure more generally. In Igbo verbs (in this case “töö“) and their complements (“ütö“) are so tightly bound to construct meaning that it’s not surprising that the complement gets “verbed” by an Igbo translating into English. English might have come from South Britain, leg of the throne of their kings and queens, but they chose to go colonizing and conquering others. As such “The Queen’s English” has become but one quaint dialect, and I do hope some intrepid linguist somewhere is keeping good, descriptive record of the rich Nigerian flavors.
Oh but one thing of special note. You might notice it from my own writing, but we kind of like it grand. Even when we end up trying to make 25 kobo change from a thousand naira bill. Observe the following gem straight from Nigeria’s House of Representatives. Now that’s what I call grammar!
48. Necessity is the mother of contravention. Nigerians have always been poised to participate smartly in markets, given the abundance of resources and the early legacy of excellent education and facilities. As these have crumbled, and corruption has become a commonplace, some Nigerians found the back roads to economic globalization. I first heard about “419” scams while in University. People would come back after summer vacation driving Benzes and Beemers and say that all they’d had to do was fax con letters to industrial giants in the US and UK, and quickly withdraw the funds once the idiots wired cash to their accounts. That was just one of the less elaborate capers I heard of. Others were traveling abroad on forged papers, buying cars with stolen ID, razing VINs and shipping the cars back to Nigeria, and then collecting insurance claims to boot. The famous ingenuity of the people, whether in keeping cars running that by any mechanical standard should long have been condemned, or constructing village cinema projectors from flashlights and radio parts, has evolved with the erosion of legitimate opportunity into a patent office worth of ingenious scams. I do not believe in economic aid, but it might just be that the most urgent incentive for the West’s interest in Nigeria’s recovery is not altruism, but plain old self-preservation.
49. The only way to party is TDB. Probably my fondest memories of Nigeria were the epic parties. Whether it was someone’s birthday, or some rich kid wanted some action, or, it must be said (especially in my latter days there), someone pulled off some successful scam, it rarely took much of an excuse for a big bubble. The host would send out elaborate, custom-crafted invitations, especially to ladies, and book the best DJ available. Obviously there was food and drink, but the point of the party was always the dance, and we’d jam quite literally till day break. A party was often considered a flop if it didn’t make it all the way till the rosy fingers of dawn. And then, shuffling home, maybe long distance by “leg-edez benz” if the venue was at a hotel well off campus, and you didn’t have a car, or a friend’s, to take you home, off you went back to the business of wangling an invitation to the next hot party.
50. Nigeria’s future is the world. I’ve tried to end each part with an observation on a grand scale. In the first part I don’t think I really measured it rightly, and left a bit too much taste of uncritical truism. I rightly, subtly and kindly got called on that in comments, but after struggling with the matter since then, I’ve decided that it’s not so bad a thing. What does a retrospective about your own roots ever do beside leave you with universal truisms? There is something about the human psyche that ensures that the most defining characteristic of home is its utter banality. I could drag out, for converse, the old fake orientalism “may you live in interesting times” Nigeria has been fifty years of interesting times, and it’s always pleasant to dwell on the vanilla bits.
In particular, the main consequence of my first item: that Nigerians are everywhere is that our future is everywhere. Nigerians in diaspora carry their identity of origin very boldly, and there is every sign that this identity will persist across the generations. The high educational and professional achievements of Nigerians abroad ensures a flourishing of the very human resources lost in the brain drain. There are sometimes hard words between Nigerians at home and abroad with one side saying “you’re running away from the task of rebuilding” and the other saying “we have nothing but my merit, and merit has long ceased to be relevant in accomplishing anything in Nigeria.” Both sides will have to work together, in the next generation, if not this one, and I fully expect that Nigeria will take its place among the “tiger” nations of the world, and that I’ll live to see the beginnings of the renaissance. If the first 50 years of Nigeria have been on an unfortunate downward slope, we can still be grateful for the leverage we have for the next 50. Taking Archimedes at his word, we’ve long enough levers, dispersed as we are to the four corners, and we have a fulcrum centered around 9°N latitude and 7°E longitude. We’re properly equipped to move the world.
¹ It’s taken me some time to come entirely to peace with my father’s two memoirs. He is more to the left politically than I am, far more Afrocentric and traditional of mores. He’s also quite emphatic by nature, all of which manifests in the book. But I realize that what also manifests is his authentic voice telling the story of a ranging, energetic, fascinating life, accompanied by a fair amount of trenchant observations.
² As my father goes on to say, “In order to enjoy and learn from the spectacle most effectively you must adopt a roving perspective. Life is a masquerade…”
³ It’s a point I develop in the context of a poem and the onset of the present economic collapse in “Only one poem for the implosion of Capital.”
⁴ For my rant against megalogrammarians, see “Tongue of Warcraft, Part Two—Politics of Language.”