Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Abuja's Poor Customer Service Culture

Courtesy of: The Africa Cafe.
We often complain that Nigeria lacks a service culture and it's true. Who hasn't had to endure long waits at a restaurant, bank or supermarket while a crowd of seemingly unoccupied staff members pointedly ignore you until the one person assigned to that desk or cash register finally shows up? But as a young, single woman in this city - arguably at the bottom of the city's social totem pole - such bad service can be taken to absurd extremes. There are a number of places that I have simply stopped going to because I am tired of being insulted.

Now before you rush to call me sensitive, let me make my case: why should I spend my hard-earned money on your establishment if you or your staff treat me like a second-class citizen or make me feel in any way inadequate because of my gender, age or my perceived social class? If you can’t be bothered to smile or greet me when you render a service, or if you treat my requests with contempt or indifference, or if you’re going to argue with me when you've made a mistake instead of apologising, why should I still dip my hands into my pocket to pay you?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What am I waiting for?

I'm a procrastinator. There, I've admitted it. Whenever I am faced with something that seems difficult, complex, time-consuming or just plain scary, I ignore it for as long as I can and hope it goes away. The consequences of this strategy vary. Sometimes the problem will go away, only to return twice as large later on. More commonly, I will be forced to deal with it due to something beyond my control – a looming deadline, for instance. And usually I will end up doing a poorer, more rushed job than I would have if I had simply dealt with the problem on time.

A friend recently pointed out that my chronic procrastination might have deeper implications than just a reluctance to do things I might find unpleasant. After all, I procrastinate on things I enjoy doing too, like reading, writing my fiction and even shopping (I haven’t bought a pair of jeans in years). He might be right; I have lots of spiral-bound notebooks filled with things I’m going to do and year after year many of those things – French lessons, sewing classes, volunteering to work with kids – remain stubbornly undone. I keep meaning to call people; I am always intending to fix things – and I never do. What am I waiting for?

The thing is, I get overwhelmed. I look at the enormity of what is before me and I grow terrified of ever being able to do it – more importantly, I become terrified of doing it wrong. Yes, I could simply hammer a nail into the wall and hang up the mirror, but what if I hammer the nail and it’s too high or too low or worse, I end up chipping the cement and leaving an ugly hole in the wall? (Not that that’s what happened when I finally ended up doing it – I'm just saying...) I think I don’t do because I am afraid of failing.

I am trapped by an all-or-nothing mindset that insists that unless I can do it perfectly, I shouldn't do it at all. Thus, it is so much easier to leave a deed in the pristine imagined state of perfection in my mind than have to deal with the messy realities of actually going through with it. When I imagine myself taking French lessons, my grammar is perfect, my pronunciation flawless, and that’s much more preferable than the reality of having to stumble through the language sounding like an inebriated two-year-old. It’s easier to imagine myself dating that amazing guy that I've had a crush on for years than risk asking him out and getting shot down.

The problem with this is that my imagination is getting me nowhere. I've been imagining all these perfect scenarios and in the meantime my body is slowly disintegrating right out from under me. Every year I don’t write that novel or put together that short story collection is one more year where I remain unpublished. Every day I avoid learning that skill is one more day that passes while my physical ability to learn and absorb new things continues to diminish. Each time I put off calling that person, my relationship with them grows more tenuous. Every act of procrastination has consequences and they can only be measured in the accumulation of all the wasted hours that stretch into a lifetime of unfulfilled potential and possibility.

They say that to act is thing of will, of volition that comes from inside. Those who do – for good or bad – will always have the advantage over those who do not. To them will come the knowledge, the wealth, the recognition, and the accomplishment, and those of us who only dream will be forced to step aside. Somewhere inside me, I must find the will to do. I may do it imperfectly, or I may fail entirely. But I do I must. I can’t afford any more excuses.

Maybe I'll start tomorrow...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Men and the Masculine Identity

Ghanaian contestant DKB slaps a female housemate on the MNET show Big  Brother Africa in June 2012.

I spent the last week in the city of Accra, Ghana, where I went to attend the Yari Yari Ntoaso Conference of Writers of African Ancestry. I had a wonderful time meeting new people and discovering all kinds of fascinating information about writing, history and the struggles of black women everywhere. In fact, I enjoyed my stay in the city so much that I decided to stay for another two days. I had planned to spend those days in Lagos anyway, but I was charmed by the beautiful simplicity of the city and it’s friendly, open people.

Yet, Accra has a dark side. On the last day of our stay, my friend who had joined me on the last leg of the trip, rented a car from a local company named Ghana Car Rentals. The trip itself was wonderful until the driver, Ken, physically assaulted me – ripping my clothing and breaking my glasses – over what was essentially a cultural misunderstanding.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Power of Inadequacy

Earlier this week, I found myself in a room filled with some of my childhood idols. Women whose books and words helped shape my consciousness and informed my writing. I had the opportunity to walk up to them and let them know how much their work meant to me – to converse and engage them on questions that had haunted me all my life. Yet I couldn't.

I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy – I was not successful enough, not published enough, not accomplished enough, not worthy of being in the same room with them. Instead, I sat in a corner and bowed my head, and tried to make myself as small as possible. I tried to disappear. I had a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I could not take advantage of it because my sense of inferiority held me back.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Staying Positive in Negative Spaces

I have struggled all my life with depression, yet I have come to realise that I am – at my core – an open and optimistic person. I have learned that life is easier when you focus on the positive in me and in others. I approach the world with a spirit of openness and honesty and I tend to expect the same from others.

But I live in a country which – at its core – has a jungle mentality. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Here every social, moral and institutional structure has been stripped away, leaving only the most basic instincts of survival. It’s like the Zombie Apocalypse out here: There is no law, there is no order, no morality beyond what we can present to others, there is only might and who has the most gets the most.

Perhaps that is why we are so critical of each other. If the world is a zero sum game where the winners take all and the losers end up with nothing, then in order for one to get ahead others must be taken down. If you need to go to war, fine. But if you can avoid open battle and win through subtle sniping designed to erode the self esteem and self confidence of the other, even better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Editorial Lie

A common complaint I often hear among the Nigerian literati is that there are no good editors in Nigeria. We say this because our markets are flooded with too many poorly-written tomes that move straight from a writer’s pen directly to a printer’s press. These would-be authors are in such a rush to publish that they barely sit down long enough to properly punctuate their work. When taken to task many of these writers will complain that they couldn't find a decent editor. And our literati – the critics, authors and intellectuals – have jumped on this bandwagon.

It is true that traditional editorial structures don’t exist in Nigeria. In the West, a brilliant author could submit their manuscript (through an agent) to a publishing house and find themselves assigned to a brilliant editor. Together, the author and the editor would work to make the manuscript shine. This would take months of bickering and rewriting. It would be hard and it would be painful – for both parties – but in the end the final book would be the best book it could be. In Nigeria, most publishing houses are no better than one-man operators with printing presses. Those that aren't are under enormous pressure, and often can’t afford the time or the cost of an in-house editor. A writer looking for important editorial feedback doesn't have a lot of places to go.

However, I think the bigger problem is the attitude of many writers themselves. Too many Nigerian authors are going into the world of letters with dreams of instant stardom. For them, it is more important to see their book published than to make sure it is a quality product. They are approaching writing the same way one would approach the selling of second-hand shoes – with an eye to quick profits and a big launch with lots of deep-pocket donors. They have no desire to go through the pain and hassle of a thorough editorial process.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Speculative fiction spreads its wings

I got the loveliest Christmas/birthday present this year: A bound volume of the three books of the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant trilogy by Stephen R. Donaldson. I haven't read Donaldson since I was in high school when I read the first three books of his Thomas Covenant series as well as the two books of his Mordant’s Need series and it was a real treat to be taken back. He represented my first real introduction to fantasy that sought to go beyond genre conventions.

Now, mind you it hasn't been quite the same. I find his language a little too florid and his plot a bit too plodding for my current tastes, but reading him again, I realise that he was always more interested in characters – in their struggle for redemption and acceptance – than in the magic of the world. And I think that as I get older, I am too.

See, I believe good literature cannot be circumscribed by genre. Even though right now literary fiction tends to win the biggest prizes, Some of the best speculative fiction I've read recently didn't rely on a special “hook” to drive their stories forward. In fact,  some of it – like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – would be indistinguishable from the best literary fiction.

And it’s nice to know that I'm not the only one who thinks this. In a Guardian article last month, Damien Walter predicted that Science fiction would continue to move into the mainstream, an acceleration of a phenomenon that caught the Guardian’s attention in 2011 as well.

I'm going to jump on Damien’s bandwagon and predict that speculative fiction will also continue to get “browner” as well. More non-Western writers are showing a growing interest in the genre, challenging the notion that it is the home of the “bearded white male”. In December, I was privileged to be featured in the first anthology of African Science fiction, AfroSF, a collection put together by writer and editor, Ivor Hartmann. And as an editor, I'm seeing some exciting science fiction and fantasy coming out of Africa and the Middle East that’s making me super excited.  Blogs like just warm my heart.

It’s going to be an exciting 2013 – I can’t wait to read all about it!