Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Evidence of Things Unseen

I have no intention of publishing this. Just toying around with an idea I had one day. Enjoy!

“Groundnuts!” she called. “Buy your groundnuts!”

The black hijab that covered her head and shoulders was stained with dust and sweat. What could be seen of her simple blouse and wrapper were faded and threadbare. She easily balanced a tray heaped full of nuts on her head as she wove through the market crowd. She looked to be ten or twelve years old, though her kohl-lined eyes and rouged lips gave her and oddly adult look. She appeared no different from the vast numbers of children who choked the dirty roadways between market stalls hawking everything from batteries to vegetables.

She spotted him just as she was about to call out again. He looked like a tourist: tall, with a backpack and white Panama hat. He was standing in front of a stall that sold bright cloth making clumsy attempts to negotiate for a bolt. The stall’s owner was smiling through the friendly banter. It was the smile of a wolf licking its chops before the kill.

She marked him as she passed him. She had to make sure she was right before alerting her sisters. They could not afford another mistake.

Once out of sight, she put down the tray, sliding it under a nearby stall. There would be no more sales today. The man concluded his purchase and moved off into the crowd. She adjusted her wrapper and followed him, making sure to keep hidden. At first, he seemed no different from the other foreigners who flocked to the square to get a little taste of “authentic Africa.” He bought the usual wood carvings and stone gewgaws for twice their value, smiled insipidly at the traders and threw pitying looks at the barefoot children who gaped at him. For a moment she thought she might be wrong. Then she saw it.

No more than a flash. A momentary expression that flickered over his face. A casual bystander would have called it an odd anger or a strange melancholy. But she knew. She let him fade into the crowd and called silently to her sisters. Her mark would let them find him again.

All over the marketplace, barefoot girls clad in black hijabs, colorful wrappers or the discarded clothing of a more affluent society, could be seen gathered in small clusters talking. As she passed these groups, one or two of them would put down their trays and fall in behind her. If anyone had been paying attention, they might have noticed a certain purposefulness in their gait. A discipline unusual for little girls. But no one ever paid them any mind.

The sun had begun to set, lengthening the shadows. Vendors were beginning to pack up their wares, wheelbarrow boys were darting about soliciting customers or trying move those they already had. When the girls found him again he was making his way out of the marketplace. He moved awkwardly, unused to the natural rhythm of the crowd. He had not yet learned how to ignore the calls; he declined all offers with a polite smile or a gentle shake of his head. The girls were silent as ghosts behind him.

The market entrance was choked with traffic. The roads leading out were clogged with vehicles honking furiously – each driver trying to edge out the other. Shoppers and sellers alike massed about as they all tried to make their way home. He passed by the banks of taxis, buses and the young men on motorcycles doing a dangerous dance around each other as they vied for passengers. He navigated the throng and continued out into the outskirts of the city. The light was rapidly leeching out of the world. The girls would have to work fast, for the coming of the night would give him power.

They spotted their opportunity when he started to cross the old football field. They fanned out around him, keeping to the shadows, shedding their headgear as they moved. Then, from the folds of their wrappers, they brought out their swords.

At first, he tried to pretend surprise, but he could not maintain the fa├žade. The twelve warriors of light ringed him in a wide circle and waited for him to show his true face.

As they watched, his flesh began to ripple as if a great heat were being applied to it from the inside. His skin began to run like melted candlewax distorting his features into a hideous caricature. His fingernails lengthened into daggered points. When he laughed, it was like the scream of a thousand tortured children.

The battle was quick. He parried, lunged, spun and kicked, but he was no match for them. They cut him to pieces and watched as the body melted into a blackened pool and sizzled to nothing.

Every age had its own name for him. Some called him the Lord of Chaos, others called him Unmaker, but most knew him as The Destroyer. She did not know why he had chosen this body, this flesh, to clothe himself. Whatever damage he had intended might already be done, but that was beyond her mandate. She gave a silent prayer of thanks as she wiped the blood from her sword. She slipped it back into its hiding place and went to find her things.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Old Gods Are Yet With Us

“Storm at Sea,” by Radcliffe Bailey.
About a week ago protesters rallied at the Ogun State House of Assembly and pelted the building with eggs. They then placed clay pots containing traditional charms and fetishes around the premises vowing terrible curses on the honourable representatives if they did not approve a key piece of legislation. The group of esteemed men and women - all avowed Muslims and Christians - immediately packed up and closed for the day. None of them returned to the House until the items were removed.

To me, this just goes to show that despite the veneer of imported religions like Christianity and Islam, our hearts still belong to the old gods. A perfect example of this is in oath taking. Many Nigerians can and do lie without issue on a Bible or a Koran, but very, very few will even take an oath on a traditional fetish - let alone lie on it. They will claim that such items are devilish and diabolical, and that to associate with them is against the religion they currently practice, but I am convinced that it is because the ancient fears are still with very much with them.

I am convinced that the lawlessness and insecurity we currently experience in Nigeria comes from the fact that we have built our institutions on sand. We have lost our sense of community and responsibility because we lost the indigenous systems that undergirded these institutions in the past. In Nigeria today, it is every man for himself. Those who occupy our positions of authority from the university lecturer to the bank president, do not seem to understand that they work for the masses. They preach service with their mouths, but the evidence is in the work of their hands. And we condone it, because we know we would all do the same if we were in their place.

The situation is accurately reflected in Ngugi Wa’Thiongo’s “Wizard of the Crow,” which I am currently reading. I’m about a third of the way in and I am entralled by the author’s incisive observation on the place of religion in African society. In it, a man who people believe to be a powerful wizard becomes more powerful than the illegitimate government in power or the corrupt institutions that prop it up.

We are rightly considered to be one of the most religious societies in the world, but I wonder if this is only because we protest too much. We loudly proclaim our faith as if volume could compensate for the secret place in our hearts that the new God has not touched.

I know for a fact that if we returned to invoking the old gods in our public spaces, we would have a far more functional society than we do now. A perfect example of this theory in action can be found here. In a community in Edo State, elders who were fed up with rampant kidnapping got together and placed a powerful curse on anyone who practices the act within the community. Almost overnight, it is reported that incidents of kidnapping ceased. Nobody wants to mess with that kind of power, no matter how devout they might seem on Sunday morning or Friday afternoon.

Imagine if our leaders, judges and lawmakers had to swear on the altar of the deity of their hometown when they came to office that they would not steal, lie or engage in any other form of malfeasance. That is not to say there won’t be oath breakers, but at least we would weed out the grossly criminal and ensure that those who enter our scared spaces understand that they work for us, for the gods, and not for themselves.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Literary Life

Last November, I joined the Abuja Writers Forum in my home city and began attending their readings. In the past eight months, I have been priviledged to meet some of the best literay minds in the country.One of the first authors I met was Teju Cole whose book "Every Day for the Thief," caputured my imagination. He was warm, funny and incredibly generous with this fangirl.

In May, I was priviledged to attend a one-day workshop led by Chimamanda Adichie, the award-winning author of "Purple Hibiscus," "Half of a Yellow Sun," and "The Thing Around Your Neck." Though the workshop was far too short, her reading was compelling.

In June, I met Uwem Akpan, the author of the short story collection "Tell Them You're One of Them," when he came for a reading at the Sheraton Hotel. Oprah chose the book for her Book Club last summer. I also got to hang out with the lovely Adaobi Trisha Nwaubani, a colleague of mine whose debut novel "I Do Not Come to You By Chance," won last year's Commonwealth Prize.

And two weekends ago, I got to meet with one of my favorite authors, Helon Habila, when he came to town to read at the Abuja Writer's Forum. Mr. Habila was one of the hosts of a week-long workshop along with Tsitsi Dangaremba, author of "Nervous Conditions" and Canadian writer, Madeleine Thien. I wasn't picked for the workshop - which just about broke my heart - but I was able to have a brief conversation with him about characterisation and setting.

Some of the others I've met include the amazing Lola Shoneyin, poet and author of the novel "The Secret Lives of Baba Seyi's Wives," poet Victoria Kankara, whose collection "Hymns and Hymens" was nominated for the 2004 NLNG prize and upcoming writers Lami Molluma Yakubu, who writes the most deliciously twisted horror stories, and poet Hajjo Isa whose lush imagery is something you have to read to believe.

It has been an absolutely humbling experience meeting and hearing from these authors. It's made me realize just how far I have to go as a writer, but it also gave me hope. So here are a few pictures from my literary life. Hope you enjoy it!
Helon Habila (left) and me at the Abuja Writer's Forum Reading in July.
Poet Lola Shoneyin at Infusion in June.
Adaobi Trisha Nwaubani at her reading in Infusion in June.
UwemAkpan reads at the Sheraton in Abuja.
Chimamanda Adichie at her one-day Abuja workshop in April.
Me and Teju Cole after his reading in Abuja.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing the poor into our stories

I live in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, a place with big beautiful buildings, traffic lights and long stretches of unbroken highway. It is a rich man’s town. To illustrate that, there are few sidewalks or pedestrian crossings, and decent housing in the city centre starts at a quarter of a million Naira a year - in two-year leases. An anecdote has it that one minister of the Federal Capital Territory said “Abuja is not for everyone.”
Whether he said it or not, it is certainly been taken to heart. The new minister has committed himself to restoring the city’s master plan. However, he has done this, not by going after the corrupt yet wealthy men and women who have carved out vast plots of land around the city for their personal use, but by destroying shanty towns on the outskirts of the city and beating up and jailing street hawkers.

There is no justification for this. If we look at sheer numbers alone, the majority of the world’s population are poor. This has been true throughout history and across continents. Most of the people who have and will live have little or no access to clean water, good nourishment, decent housing and decent education. The poor outnumber all of us. They always will.

Yet like Abuja’s government, speculative fiction tends to focus on the middle and upper class. Our earliest stories from Gligamesh to Beouwulf to the Ramayana are about the deeds of gods and kings. Those stories that do feature the poor are either cautionary tales - warnings about the lessons of moderation – or they end in acquisition of riches.

Perhaps it was because literacy was so often the domain of the wealthy. Even in oral traditions, only those with the leisure of time could afford to commit prodigious long-form stories and songs to memory. The griot and the minstrel were supported by the coffers of the rich and powerful.

In the imaginary worlds we create today, we don’t inhabit too many worlds dominated by grinding poverty. Most characters born poor get to move up the income ladder. Still, poverty has inspired some of our greatest literature. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were both born into penury. Their childhood experiences gave them empathy and insight that allowed their writing to soar. It also gave both men a prodigious work ethic. Both Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, display the resilience and beauty that is the human spirit, even in the midst of want.

It is easy to write about luxury; to build cities without sidewalks. I think the challenge for me as a writer is to find the stories underneath. The tales told by the underprivileged. Coming from a middle-class background, this will be difficult. However, I think my work, like my city will be a much richer place if I do.