Friday, September 28, 2012

Two Books and a Reading

On Septeber 26, 2012 I attended a book reading organised by the Writers Project of Ghana at the Goethe Institute dubbed the Ghana Voices Series. There I happened to meet one of Nigeria's great writers Chuma Nwokolo, whose short story Quarterback and Co I read and reviewed in the first edition of the African Roar anthology. If there was an author who was in charge of his work and who read with passion, vigour and complete control, it was Chuma Nwokolo.

I followed Chuma on his facebook page ever when I read that phantasmagorical short story of his and heard of his works, some; however, I never really took the time to search more about him. In fact, after that short story, perhaps because I erroneously thought most of the contributors were new authors, I didn't delve deeper into any of them until recently when his collection of short stories - The Ghost of Sani Abacha - popped up again. Chuma read from this and also from his Diaries of a Dead African and a poem from Memories of Stone. As he read, spurts of laughter irrupted randomly as the participants couldn't contain themselves any longer.

I will say that Chuma is a great writer and an excellent reader. So who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to grab his books and get them autographed? I did; if I regrettably missed the president's - Ghana's President John Mahama - book reading and signing activity on Founder's Day (September 21, 2012), I wasn't going to miss this one. I got the following books:
  1. The Ghost of Sani Abacha: [From the blurb]: A harassed servant plots his grim revenge .... Sheri puts a potential boyfriend to test .... Phiri contends for his civil service career ... and a politician in his finest hour finds himself possessed by a begoggled demon ... 26 stories of life and love in the aftermath of autocracy, delivered with wit and insight by one of Africa's incisive writers...
  2. Diaries of a Dead African: [From the blurb]: [It] explores its life-threatening themes with native humor. Meme Jumai and his two sons - Abel (failed writer) and Calamatus (aspiring conman) - document the final days of their desperate struggle to retain the vanishing shreds of their dignity. At last, Abel's father had died at 50 and his brother at 25. How to outlive them both - without fleeing the very opportunities he had craved all his life...
According to the author The Ghost of Sani Abacha is metaphorical; he describes most countries in Africa as suffering from a post-autocratic stress disorder, where the governed still worship their leaders instead of demanding accountability due to having been under dictatorship for too long. The one-hour programme was stretched to its allowable limits of two because of the fun of the read and the interactions that the reading generated.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

192. The Repudiation by Rashid Boudjedra

Repudiation (Three Continent Press, 1995 (First Pub. 1969); 195) by Rashid Boudjedra investigates the lives of a people from the home to the nation-state. This focused investigation begins at the mirco or family level and progresses gradually, adding on several limbs, to the macro or national level. Regardless of the issues being investigated – religion, sex and sexual orientation, the state, plight and rights of women in a patriarchal state – the theme of ‘repudiation’ runs through them all.

Boudjedra investigated the Algerian family unit in certain chosen facets. At this level, he discussed three main issues which are also characteristic of the larger society. The first is the repudiation of women in the household by their husbands; the Algerian family household, like most households in Africa, is of the compound model where sons and daughters and husbands and wives live with cousins and nephews and aunts and uncles and grandparents with, mostly, an older male playing the role of the patriarch directing affairs of the compound. The second issue is that of lasciviousness pregnant and inherent in such household compositions, which when pricked delivers incestuous relationships of unimaginable dimensions. These incestuous tendencies grew out of the religious ban – implemented by ‘to-the-letter’ religious patriarchs –prohibiting females (girls and women) of the household from leaving the compound without the prior permission of the patriarch; consequently, over-ripe teenagers brimming with sexual hormones who cannot any longer control their sexual desires – either through the five-times per day prayers or through mental suppression and pretence – lean back to their cousins to save them from their debilitating sexual fantasies. And in ignorance they experiment.

The third issue is about the state, plight and right of women living on compounds ruled by strict patriarchs. Boudjedra discussed this in terms of their freedom of movement and freedom from sexual oppression – where a man, through religious texts and its practice, is given all the rights to marry more than one wife yet that woman isn’t given the right to decide on her life. The repudiation in this context is different from divorce; by repudiation, the man, perhaps fed-up with the monotonousness of monogamy, neglects his connubial responsibilities with this wife and takes up that role by marrying another. Since the wife in question has not been divorced – only neglected, sexually – she cannot marry and is still under the control of this patriarch who monitors her for any adulterous tendencies. It could also be used as a tool for punishment. Rashid’s – the narrator – father, Si Zoubir, employed it for both reasons when at fifty he married fifteen-year Zoubida. The women on Si Zibour’s compound – including the wives of his brothers – were so sexually oppressed that Rashid described them as having only one right: the right to own and maintain a sexual organ.
My mother is a repudiated woman. She reaches orgasm alone, with her hand or the help of Nana. In our city the number of marabouts is constantly increasing. We live in feudal society; women have only one right: to own and maintain a sexual organ. [Page 79]
And yet this right to own and maintain a sexual organ only ends at its maintenance and not its use. This sexual repudiation of these crones led to another kind of malignant decadence: the solicitation of sex from young and virtually unspermed boys and, for those who could brace the consequences, from marabouts or individuals who pretended to be marabouts. The repudiation also made sex the most discussed topic amongst the women folks, away from the prying ears of the young and the men. Whilst the women became starving nymphomaniacs their husbands patronised brothels in obscure corners of the community. Their worth as women arises only during or at the point of marriage where they assume pecuniary importance; even this semblance of importance is demeaning for it is at this point that their prices are determined and are sold like cows:
Later I understood it was poverty driving the taleb to homosexuality since getting married in our city is extremely expensive. Women are sold in public squares, chained to the cows, and brothels are inaccessible to small purses! [Page 80]
There are other issues Boudjedra discussed which transcend the boundaries of the family into the wider culture and country: sexual orientations and molestation (sometimes by men of the high religious ranking) and the location of hypocrisy hidden within a pietistic society culminating in a general repudiation of religion. This repudiation of religion was partly caused by the repudiation of women; the narrator writes:
Let father continue straining over the smooth body of his young wife, he would never again be left in peace! Traps. I swore aloud, denied God, religion and women. Zahir [the narrator’s elder brother] hated the tribe and pissed in the water used for the ablutions of the holy men and the Koran readers. [Page 61; [my insertion]]
And this repudiation was not repudiation of one religion but of religion in general. Heimatlos – Zahir’s homosexual partner – described himself as an atheistic Jew and the bible as a ‘beautiful poem ever written by man’.

The children tortured by religion and by the dichotomy between preach and practice and raped by men and women eager to believe in their pureness and the sanctity of their religion elapsed into unstable mental states. This behaviour of a hypocritical and sycophantic society with wide gaps between talk and walk led Zahir to take to alcohol and exile where he eventually died. Zahir, a homosexual by orientation, was scorned, misunderstood and vilified by the very pious adults who sexually molested young boys (and girls through child marriage); the likes of Si Zoubir who fought for a theocratic state that would protect the patriarchal culture and force each person to live by the tenets of the traditional religion. This interference of the state into the religious lives of the people led to the repudiation of government.

Thus, women and the psyche of the young boys (who became men) were the ultimate victims. But that’s not entirely true. The patriarchs didn’t remain unaffected in a household where everybody was. Si Zoubir, facing an increasing challenge from his emotionally and psychologically unstable children unable to marry the two sides of the coin – their father’s behaviour and their mother’s plight; their father’s words and his deeds – and having become sexual predators to the young women on the compound, became hysterical and psychotic, beating them at least opportunity and accusing them of plotting to kill him and the baby his young wife was carrying.

In deconstructing this story of a country, Boudjedra removed the shiny foil off every event to expose the rot within. For instance, at the wedding between Si Zoubir and Zoubida, the rejected and the poor – blind men, cripples, beggars –overfed themselves with free food and drink that they eased themselves at the very location they ate, turning the feast into unsightly putrefaction. Similarly, Boudjedra showed how the continuous celebration of Id had engulfed the community within a cocoon of pungent smell of blood and dung of slaughtered animals. This scatology reeks of Jose Saramago's Blindness. The Id itself stressed and stretched the emotional cord of young boys who were expected to show their bravery through their calm observation of the slaughter.

However, the children’s general repudiation of life – as lived by the primogenitors – was crushed by the uncles, who were too eager to enjoy the trappings of power their sex afforded them, and the same women who suffered from these trappings further tightened the noose. So that those [children] who stood up to the few religious fanatics, who have found a way of influencing the new post-independence government, were summarily arrested and jailed.

Boudjedra’s thesis of comparison indicated that redemption only lies in the repudiation or abjuration of religion; that is, to eliminate the symptom you must uproot the cause. For in comparing the various sections of the city, the rot from religion decreased from the Moslem quarters to the Jewish quarters down to the European quarters.

Using long sentences, interspersed with shorter ones, long paragraphs, and monologues, Boudjedra achieves a narrative that is sometimes philosophical and at other times poetic, that is if there is a distinction between these two. Though it was Rashid narrating his life stories to his French girlfriend Celine, he proved sometimes to be an unreliable narrator trying to hold on to fading memories and incidences of his life. Like me, you may not agree with Boudjedra entirely – I don’t believe religion is the only repressive force, for he somewhat, through silence or omission, upheld European Capitalism, claiming that the sheer lack of religion in that quarters meant there was no putrefaction; however, his story is bound to generate a lot of discussions.

It’s recommended.

About the author: Rachid Boudjedra was born in Aïn Béïda, in eastern Algeria in 1941. He went to school in Tunis, where he studied at the élite Lycée Saddiki and became familiar with the basics of both Arab, and western culture. In 1962 he began studying philosophy in Algiers, in which subject he eventually graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris.

After having published six novels in French in 1981 he began to write in Arabic. He resumed writing in French in the mid-1990s.

His first book La Répudation (1969, tr: The Repudiation), which was translated into several languages but banned in Algeria until 1980, won the Prix des enfants terribles, funded by Jean Cocteau.

Boudjedra’s goal is also, in his own words, to question the official Algerian interpretation of history and uncover its contradictions. Illustrating this approach, he tore aside the myth of a glorious past in "Les 1001 nuits de la nostalgie" (1979, tr: The 1001 Nights of Nostalgia). (Source)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Your Prediction for this Year's Nobel Prize in Literature

It is that time of the year when followers and lovers of literature begin to predict or speculate about the possible winner(s) of the highest award in literature - the Nobel Prize in Literature. Every year several names pop up at several sites and blogs in articles that explain why one author deserves to be awarded more than the other and why others need not to be awarded. In fact, some of the arguments, debates and discussions have been geocentric with some readers and followers bashing the Swedish panel for being too Eurocentric; this is because no American has won the award since 1993 when Toni Morrison - that intelligent writer and Champion of the African (sorry) Black American history - won the award, though several names like Philip Roth, Bob Dylan, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon are always bandied about at various places. Since the award began in 1901, only four Africans have won the award; Wole Soyinka, 1986; Naguib Mahfouz, 1988; Nadine Gordimer, 2001; and J.M. Coetzee, 2003.

Horace Engdahl responded to this Eurocentricism criticism, saying:
Europe is still the center of the literary world [and that] the US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature.
 In the last two decades, there has been one winner from America (Toni Morrison, 1993), one from Africa (J. M. Coetzee, 2003) and one from Asia (Kenzaburo Oe, 1994). There has also been a Chinese winner, Gao Xianjiang, in 2000 who is a citizen of France. Two individuals from Latin America, Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru and Spain (2010) and Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia (1992), have also won the awards. The remaining 15 have gone to Europeans: Seamus Heaney (1995), Ireland; Wisława Szymborska (1996), Poland; Dario Fo (1997), Italy; José Saramago (1998), Portugal; Günter Grass (1999), Germany; V.S. Naipaul (2001), United Kingdom & Trinidad and Tobago; Imre Kertész (2002), Hungary; Elfriede Jelinek (2004), Austria; Harold Pinter (2005), United Kingdom; Orhan Pamuk (2006), Turkey; Doris Lessing (2007), United Kingdom; J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008), France and Mauritius; Herta Müller (2009), Germany and Romania; and Tomas Tranströmer (2011), Sweden.

With the first week in October set to give us another Nobelist, several names have started coming up. Africa has not been left out from the speculative lists with names like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and others.

The Question: Whom do you predict to win the Nobel Prize in Literature this year and why do you think so? Will the prize be in Europe or will America be finally recognised once again? Will Africa gets its fifth Nobelist?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

191. The Godfather by Mario Puzo

There are some books that have been widely read and which have become a cult onto themselves that what one says can do nothing to change perspectives, more especially if one is only adding on to the positive reviews that abounds. The Godfather (Signet, 1978 (First Pub. 1969); 443) by Mario Puzo is one such book and I don't intend to do any detailed review or analyses of the book. Much has already been done.

All I want to say is I read and enjoyed this book. My sympathy towards the Corleones sometimes made me feel that I am also a maniac for aside all the Luca Brasi did, the Don still appealed to me. Puzo's writing does that; he makes you have sympathy for the protagonist even if he is involved in several illegalities. I like Michael and the way he handled issues and how he did away with the threat towards the empire. There is nowhere where the phrase 'honour amongst thieves' has more meaning that in this story of the Sicilian Mafia and their rise in the United States.

If you haven't read this book, please kindly do so. There are also movie adaptations of Puzo's works; yet I always recommend reading the books first before watching the movies.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

190. Unjumping by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Unjumping (erbacce-press, 2010; 36) is a collection of poems by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva. The poems in this collection are diverse in themes but are all short and pithy. Beverley succeeds in putting a lot with few words. Themes range from love, sexual harassment, politics, motherhood and more. The first poem which is the title poem talks about regret and that proverbial impossibility of unwinding of time. It is a wish to get a clean slate and to begin life anew. Undo Me is a plea by a woman, perhaps to her loved one, for reconciliation and fulfilment of their love. This love piece of just six lines and twenty-eight words show is an example of how much Beverley could put into a poem with a few words.

Please Boss is a piece that recounts some of the sexual harassment that goes on at workplaces. Beverley found a way of putting humour in a rather humourless and tensed situation. She writes
Please if  we must
Then not on the desk
You're the boss
You deserve the plush Persian carpet.
The desk has too much of me
Cluttered clips,
Torn trash
Memorised minutes
If we must
Then not on the desk
Using alliterations she captured the tensed moments... 'the cluttered clips' and 'torn trash'. Here, is the boss a trash, or a hymen is to be torn and located within the 'torn' is that onomatopoeic sound of something tearing. The humour is in the fact that the boss was willing to do it on the desk and ironically the subordinate is asking him that they do it on the floor, which is lower than the desk - a floor which indicates a fall from a position of authority.

The longest piece is titled Suicide Bomber with a love twist to it. It was perhaps written for a loved one who happened to be a victim of the the July 7 2005 London bombings. Beverley questions good and bad, right and wrong as it relates to children and adults in Sunday School. She questions why certain things are barred to children and or women but then adults and or men could afford indulge in them. 

Using a fables, Beverley tells a story of the politics of nepotism common on the continent. In this poem, Mamba Crocodile Farm in Mombasa, Beverley describes the octogenarian leader - president or head of state - as a 'Big Daddy' and the people he rules with as crocodiles (or crocs) circling around him. The misuse of resources and that endemic corruption common to such rulers was also mentioned.

The Virgin Mary is about a man who is running away from the responsibility of a girl he has impregnated by accusing the woman of cheating. The first lines alone reeks of sadness and an absolute expression of innocence:
I can be The Virgin Mary
As long as the child is yours.
Post-colonial literature is dominated by the English language and there are only a few authors - I can only mention Ngugi wa Thiong'o - who write in both English and their local languages; however, in Eh! Eh! Beverley showed that she could also write in her local language. Though I couldn't read and understand, I still appreciated her for that.

At the family level and a more legal form of romance, Beverley dedicates Dancing to her husband and in Coffee she managed to find an analogy between sex and the brewing of coffee. Anyone who has been to Uganda, especially Kampala will know attest to its many metal scanners at every shopping mall, hotel and any public building. This is aptly described in Al Qaeda, where she writes:
I am an Al Qaeda.
Metal scanners are my foes; my friends. 
According to Beverley, this anthology came about when she made the top three out of close to 2,000 entries in the 2010 erbacce-prize for poetry, where the judges described her work as 'highly original', 'innovative', and as a 'breath of fresh air'. And I must state that the judges were right in their description. This is an interesting collection that could be read in one sitting but whose content will stay with one for a longer time. Recommended, that is if you can get access to it.
About the author: The author blogs here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Man Booker 2012 Shortlist Announced

The Man Booker Prize shortlist for this year has been announced (today, September 11, 2012). The shortlisted books were selected from a longlist of 12 books. The following are books selected by the judges chaired by Sir Peter Stothard:
  1. Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
  2. Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories/Faber & Faber)
  3. Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
  4. Alison Moore, The Light House (Salt)
  5. Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
  6. Jeet Thayil, Nacropolis (Faber & Faber)
According to Peter Stothard
After re-reading an extraordinary longlist of twelve, it was the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose - and in the visible confidence of the novel's place in forming our words and ideas.
The shortlist includes two debut novels (Alison Moore's The Light House and Jeet Thayil's Nacropolis); three small independent publishers (Myrmidon Books and Salt); two former shortlisted authors and one previous winner (Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall). There are three men and three women authors; four British, one Malaysian and one Indian.

The winner of the 2012 Prize will be announced at a dinner at London's Guildhall on Tuesday October 16, 20112. Each of the shortlisted writers is awarded with 2,500 Pounds and a specially commissioned beautifully handbound edition of his/her book. The winner receives 50,000 Pounds.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Young Blood by Sifizo Msobe wins the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa

From a longlist of 15 books to a shortlist of 3, South African Sifizo Msobe has emerged as the winner of the 2012 edition of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa with his book Young Blood beating Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (Roses and Bullets) and Bridget Pitt (The Unseen Leopard).

Sifizo takes home the US$ 20,000 prize award; the ceremony was held at the Civic Centre, Lagos on September 8, 2012 and was attended by the former President of Ghana, John Agyekum Kuffuor.

Friday, September 07, 2012

189. A Month and a Day & Letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa

The Ogoni people number about 500,000 and are a separate and distinct ethnic grouping in Nigeria; since the arrival of Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited in 1958, the Ogoni land has been producing oil for the greater good of the country. However, from the over 40 billion dollars the country was estimated to have earned from oil, the Ogoni people received nothing; instead, their lands and water bodies and forest resources have been misappropriated, polluted, and used at will by Shell working in complicit with the military regime running the country at the time. Like a classic case of the Dutch Disease, the wealth of this community has triggered extreme poverty amongst the denizens and with no pipe-borne water, electricity, tarred roads, schools, clinics, they are unarguably the most poorest of communities in Nigeria. To cap it all, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria employs none of the people of Ogoni at any meaningful level. Devoid of the lands for farming and any investment in the locality, the Ogoni people have been left to their own survival devices. The community is one of the most densely populated areas of Africa with an average of 1,500 people per square mile.

It is against these planned injustices perpetrated against a minority group that Ken Saro-Wiwa worked. His writings were tailored to expose the gradual decimation of the Ogonis by the government and Shell. And he knew his opponents - a military government and a multinational - were no mere pushovers. He knew of their combined strength and their tactics - illegal laws and massaging of perceptions (or mudslinging or character assassination) respectively - and he accepted his duty as a lone ranger, a chick in the midst of hyenas. Knowing that this task is not one he alone could carry and that support from his people would be the only route to victory, he worked also to awaken his people, the Ogonis, from that lethargic social slumber - that wilful amnesia they've indulged themselves in; to open their eyes to the injustices around them and to awaken from their hearts that anaesthetised boldness that used to be their kin some period ago. Saro-Wiwa accepted his fate, his destiny, for whilst taking on this ginormous responsibility, he never once assumed that his opponents would cave-in without a fight or that the Ogoni vision would be realised in a short space of time.

Besides, the age-old axiom that writers are governments' sworn enemies which has been repeated in several dystopian books both fiction (1984 and Matigari) and non-fiction (I Write What I Like) and confirmed by several governments was no news to him. According to Ken Saro-Wiwa
[L]iterature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by intervention, and writers must not merely write to amuse or to take a bemused, critical look at society. They must play an interventionist role. My experience has been that African governments can ignore writers, taking comfort in the fact that only few can read and write, and that those who read find little time for the luxury of literary consumption beyond the need to pass examinations based on set texts. Therefore, the writer must be l'homme engage: the intellectual man of action. (Page 55)
A Month and a Day & Letters (Ayebia Clarke, 2005 (First Pub., 1995); 224) by Ken Saro-Wiwa is a memoir that recounts the life of this Human Rights Activist during the latter part of his life when he was arrested by Ibrahim Babaginda's, the then president of Nigeria, men. However, the book is more than just his personal struggles; it chronicles the struggle of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. It's about a people whose numbers the government deemed insignificant and so could be maltreated by sentencing them to death by environmental degradation, oil exploration, exploitation and spillage without any pernicious rancour; it is about a people virtually helpless in fighting for themselves.

In this book, Ken discusses the visions, aspirations and goals of the Ogoni people. It shows how the struggle of a single man - with the help of those who believe in his vision and those who don't - can help raise awareness to one of life's most ubiquitous challenges: the exploitation of the weak. It also shows how noxious that amorphous entity commonly referred to as multinational - in this case Shell Petroleum Nigeria - could be when they get a willing listener in a dictatorial government and an absent pressure groups; how, wicked, exploitative, and utterly inhumane, these oil corporations could be when the only thought that lingers on their minds is profit and its maximisation. For anyone who still has doubts of how brutish this ginormous complexity called Capitalism could be, refer to the Ogoni situation, or better still read this book. If you have doubts, read it again. For what could be worse than Capitalism married to a weak government fraught with corruption and a leader whose eyes sees no farther than the outline of his bobbing belly?

Consequently, Mr Saro-Wiwa's struggle had a cause and it was for that cause that he formed MOSOP, that is Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, with its main aim as to cause Shell to take responsibility for its damaging actions and for the military regime of the time to begin to invest in the region that provides the resources used in developing the other areas of the country. That this simple demand will be met with all the viciousness that a military leader and a cunning multinational can muster is an event that is certain. For even though the military government of Babangida was armed with decrees, laws, and lawlessness in equal measure, it still lived in fear, fear of exposure, fear of being questioned by other international bodies (and that's what Saro-Wiwa wants and that's what a military government who had assumed power through a coup d'état abhors), fear of losing favour with the West. Shell - as a multinational - fears were that of image, damages, and penalties that await them at a court of law and consumer satisfaction. Finally, such marriages - between corrupt governments and nefarious corporations - fear the most an individual armed with the pen, the truth and an intransigent singular purpose; an individual impervious to bribery, collusion and connivance to rob the destitute of his singular meal.

Hence, the two love birds resorted to illegalities - one by force arrest and false charges and the other through character assassination, bribery and connivance - with the sole aim of  discrediting him. The opportunity came for them to act when after the failed election of 1993 several fracases erupted in several areas and communities and Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested on a charge that was not disclosed to him until later. He was moved around the country from one prison custody to the other and even though his health status was deteriorating and in need of assistance, help was hardly provided. He was finally charged with the murder of some Ogoni chiefs and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1995 by a kangaroo military court that offered him no chance to defend himself or appeal and was summarily executed. Before his conviction and sentence, Shell - having been accused of working with the government to cancel out the threats Saro-Wiwa poses to their exploration, exploitation and spillage in Nigeria - released the following message which was shared with Wole Soyinka, and which he talked about in his book You Must Set Forth at Dawn, by Ken Wiwa (Saro-Wiwa's son):
If anything untoward happened to the Ogoni Nine ... others were to blame - the agitators whose aggressive tactics only hardened the mood the military regime and undid all the careful work of the silent diplomacy being undertaken by their company, and well-meaning others. [Page xii]
Shell showed their complicity in this sentence, having already held secret meetings on strategies to neutralise Saro-Wiwa who was lucky to have received outcomes from some of these meetings. Thus, instead of correcting the problem, Shell with the military government decided to eliminate the man. The cancellation of the election results coupled with the relentless power struggle in government saw General Sani Abacha take over power from General Ibrahim Babangida whilst the latter was on a visit to Egypt. It was therefore Sani Abacha who oversaw the execution of the death sentence, having already assured the international community and presidents, including Nelson Mandela who claimed the Abacha had personally him, that nothing untoward was going to happen to the Ogoni Nine.

If there is anything that this book shows, it shows that it wasn't the combined power of Abacha-cum-Babangida and Shell that destroyed Saro-Wiwa; Saro-Wiwa's death was caused by four different groups of Nigerians who knowingly or unknowingly added their voice and strength to the draconian measures that had been set into motion by the two.

The first group is the people of Nigeria who were not directly affected by the destruction and havoc being wreaked on the Ogoni people and whose silence encouraged the government. This group of people by their silence gave meaning, substance and backing to the evil that was being perpetrated against this man and the other eight Ogoni people. For them since they will not be the direct beneficiaries should Ogoni win, there was no way they should be the direct victims of any crackdown that was sure to arise from showing their support to the accused. Remaining neutral they confirmed what Desmond Tutu said that:
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
The second group who worked in complicit with the government to persecute Saro-Wiwa was individual Ogoni denizens. These individuals like Dr Leton, Edward Kobani, Dr Birabi, Albert Bodey, seeking their parochial interest accepted financial and positional bribes and promises to sell out their participation in the Ogoni cause. Wanting to be part of the government, to harvest some of the trappings of power, they abjured their links and worked against Saro-Wiwa. Members of this group went a long way to challenge the position of Saro-Wiwa as the leader or spokesperson of the Ogoni people; they countered every move he made to ensure his failure and their success.

The third group is the civil servants (lawyers, policemen, military men, doctors, judges) who through that universal anthem of justification - 'I'm only doing my work' - ensured that he was arrested, mentally tortured, neglected, falsely charged, poorly defended, and hanged. This group to show their impotence pretended to pity him when in custody. Some will go a long to offer such 'services' they described to be a prohibition for a person in custody to have, to show their solidarity with him. Yet 'in doing their work' they ensured the implementation of the death-sentence of an innocent man whose only work was to ask why. Saro-Wiwa bitterly wrote about that female judge who charged him falsely and the likes of Mr Inah and Ada George. What does one do when the officers of the law who have sworn to protect the law subvert the law? What does one do when they turn this law to commit crimes against humanity and against the spirit of the law? This group of people only have temporary relief for their conscience do forever haunts them. This is a poem Saro-Wiwa wrote, titled The True Prison, to describe those who sold their conscience:
It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell.
It is not the clank of the key
As the warder locks you in.
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for man or beast
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for one generation
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing in her book
Punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral decrepitude
Mental ineptitude
Lending dictatorship spurious legitimacy
Cowardice masked as obedience
Lurking in denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
We dare not wash off our urine
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison. [Page 156]
The fourth group are international groups and leaders of countries who either refused to speak publicly against Abacha's regime or spoke feebly against it or even spoke strongly against it whilst patting its back in camera for fear of losing oil supply. Was all that could have been done to ensure a fair trial done? Is it coincidence that 'access to oil' is a pun of 'axis of evil'?

In the light of this, it is sad to read of Babangida still commenting and dreaming of the presidency in Nigeria. This book is an interesting book and it will show you the levels of human wickedness. My only problem with the book is that the other eight individuals were hardly mentioned or talked about and there could be reasons for this. It could be that Ken Saro-Wiwa initially did not know all the people who have been arrested and got to know of this when they were charged with murder, the trial of which is not recorded in the boo. Or it could also be that as a memoir, Saro-Wiwa wanted to speak for himself. Regardless of this, the wickedness of man against man, of black oppression upon black folks, in some way reminds me of The Book Thief. A Month and a Day & Letters is Highly recommended. You can also read my poem - Echoes in a Dying Head - written for him.
About the author: Kenule "Ken" Beeson Saro Wiwa (10 October 1941 – 10 November 1995) was a Nigerian author, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of theRight Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme and unremediated environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping. Initially as spokesperson, and then as President, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area. At the peak of his non-violent campaign, Saro-Wiwa was arrested, hastily tried by a special military tribunal, and hanged in 1995 by the military government of General Sani Abacha, all on charges widely viewed as entirely politically motivated and completely unfounded. His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years. (Source)

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Shortlist of 10 for the Nigeria Prize (NLNG) for Literature 2012

The Advisory Board for The Nigeria Prize for Literature led by Professor Emeritus Ayo Banjo has announced an initial shortlist of 10 books in the running for the 2012 literature prize. According to the Chair of Judges, Prof. Francis Abiola Irele, it took months of intensive scrutiny by the panel to produce the shortlist drawn from 214 entries from Nigerians at home and abroad; this happens to be the largest number received since the prize was inaugurated in 2004. The following are the shortlisted books:
  1. Ngozi Achebe OnaedoThe Blacksmith's Daughter
  2. Ifeanyi Ajaegbo: Sarah House
  3. Jude Dibia: Blackbird
  4. Vincent Egbuson: Zhero
  5. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: I do not Come to You by Chance
  6. Onuora Nzekwu: Troubled Dust
  7. Olusola Olugbesan: Only Canvas
  8. Lola Shoneyin: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives
  9. E E Sule: Sterile Sky
  10. Chika Unigwe: On Black Sister's Street
The Advisory Board announced that the final shortlist will be released soon. The Nigeria Prize for Literature rotates yearly amongst four literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama and children's literature. Last year it was won by Mai Nasara (a pseudonym) for Missing Clock (children's literature). The award comes with a cash prize of US$ 100,000.

From all indications, this year's award is going to be keenly competed. Most of the books have received some form of awards and have been hugely patronised and well-reviewed/received. From Chika Unigwei's On Black Sister's Street, through to Lola Shoneyin's The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, Adaobi's I do not Come to You by Chance, Jude Dibia's Blackbird, and Ngozi Achebe's The Blacksmith's Daughter, the judges are going to find a hard time shortening the list further down and then choosing the winner.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Shortlist for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa

The Lumina Foundation has announced the shortlist of the Wole Soyinka Prize 2012 for Literature in Africa. The longlist of 15 books have been whittled down to 3, with the winner to be announced on September 8, 2012 at the Civic Center, Ozumba Mbadiwe in Nigeria. The shortlisted books are:
  1. The Unseen Leopard by Bridget Pitt (South Africa)
  2. Roses and Bullets by Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (Nigeria)
  3. Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe
Read more about the award here.

Monday, September 03, 2012

August in Review, Projections for September

August happened to be another slow month (looks like the second half of the year is not going that well). To begin with, I read only one of the four books I decided to read and other three unscheduled books. That's I didn't stick to my reading plan. At 4 books and 898 pages, I recorded my lowest reading average this year with only 25 pages per day, half as much that of the target. Can I attribute this to excessive watching of TV? You know our president died in the last week of July and was buried in August, so I was glued to my set. A good excuse? Nah! The following were the books read:
  1. A Month and a Day & Letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa. This book recounts the last days of this human rights activist who was arrested by Nigeria's president Ibrahim Babangida and sentenced to death by hanging by General Sani Abacha. It talks about his life in prison, how he cope and his work with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and his struggle against Shell, that  barbaric multinational of ginormous proportions, that multinational monstrosity that scavenges on the poor and hides behind ruthless dictators to achieve their goal of exploitation through ruthless exploration.
  2. The Godfather by Mario Puzo. My pulse increases through fury anytime I read the personal struggles of people; people who want the good of the nation and for the people they live with and who are ironically betrayed by the very people for whom they are struggling. After reading Mr Saro-Wiwa's book, I decided to normalise my pulse by reading this book. Mario Puzo is an author I loved before reading his (this) book. I watched The Last Don and loved it so I decided to give the books a try and I wasn't disappointed. He could make you have sympathy with the mafia and make you understand the phrase 'honour among thieves' properly.
  3. Unjumping by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva. This is a poetry anthology with several crosscutting themes of love, life, politics, sexual harassment, upbringing and more. Beverley has a unique way of painting her words.
  4. The Repudiation by Rashid Boudjedra. This is a complex novel with a wide theme all involving or about a repudiation of some sorts. It begins from the traditional extended family in Algeria where the patriarchal system allows men to repudiate their wives whilst controlling them and watching over them for any sign of adultery to the repudiation of religion and of state. Its a deep book that needs to be read.
I will be reviewing these books here on my blog so visit often for detailed review on each of them. The classification of books read are: Non-Fiction (Memoir), 1; Novel, 2; Poetry Anthology, 1.

The following are the books I have lined up for September and to which I will religiously stick:
  1. Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. This book is on my Top 100 Books list. I am currently reading this book.
  2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I scheduled to read this for book last month but I failed to.
  3. Journey by G.A. Agambila. I've started this book before but dropped it for no reason. I scheduled it for last month and again did not pick it. I hope I am able to read it this month.
  4. Fathers and Daughters - an Athology of Exploration by Ato Quayson (Editor). This goes to my Ayebia Reading Challenge.
  5. Growing Yams in London by Sophia Acheampong. It's a long time since I read any Young Adult book. Besides, this British-born Ghanaian author is new to me.
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