Monday, October 31, 2005

Racist cab driver in Danny Glover moment

So, having got my stolen bag back on Friday, I was on a high. Then on Saturday I was on a busy smart London high street on a work related errand and had to get a cab in order to get to Chelsea before the office I was going to closed... Now I don't take cabs often...largely because of the cost. And also perhaps because it took me a few days after I first arrived in the UK to work out that you had to check whether the cab had its light on indicating that it was free before it would stop for you.... Anyways since then I've worked it out and I've had a few incidents where I'd hailed cabs with their lights on and then the driver had switched it off and sped off but I hadn't really thought that much of it. I had always assumed that perhaps the driver was going on his lunch break or something..... So there I am, nicely dressed on the busy London high street this chilly autumn noon, not wearing a hoodie or anything, and I look at my watch and realize that I'm going to have to get a taxi if I'm to get to Chelsea before the office closes. So in good Londoner style, I take a few steps away from the bus stop, spot a cab right at the other end of the street, raise my arm sharp and watch the cab change lanes, indicating that he's seen my waving arm. His light's on, so he's free......cooool He pulls up and as he gets closer and clocks me, he raises his hand and switches off his light. Bugger, just my luck I think to pick a cabbie on his lunch break, and so I shrug and begin to look for another cab. There doesn't seem to be another in that direction and so I swing back, and that's when I see "Mr Cabbie on his lunch break" picking up this nice young white English couple, just a few metres away from jaw slams into the ground....what tha'? And then slowly it sinks in, what's just happened, it's my Danny Glover moment....remember the famous black actor who couldn't get a taxi in New York? I manage to get a cab and get to the office and do my business and thengo to lunch with some friends who've lived in London for ages. They're black, Nigerian professionals like me and so I recount the story..... and my shock. I'm amazed when they burst out laughing, and then they tell me..."Oh it's got a lot better now, in the late 80s or early 90s we couldn't get a cab for love or money - you'd have to hail several before you got one to stop" I am gobsmacked that 50 years after the late Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat,in one of the most cosmopolitan and "multicultural" cities in the world, a brother still has problems getting transport home ........ So from now on, I'll be watching, and the next time I get that, I'm taking that number down and making a formal complaint. It may not go very far, but at least I'll have made a stand....

London Underground comes up trumps (or as we used to say Up London Underground)

So much seems to have happened to me this weekend. On one hand it was just another normal weekend spent catching up with my cleaning and other household chores, and yet a few kind of major things happened...I'll start with the good...

First off was I got my brown leather backpack which was stolen in an internet cafe back..(see archives for an account of this )which was a relief as I had a kind of sentimental attachment to it, having bought it in the souk in Marrakech on one of my first holidays outside the UK a few years ago. I had had the opportunity to try out my Naija-honed bargaining skills on the leather merchants in the souk and it had worked....I'd bought it for a fraction of what it would have cost in London and so was very proud of it.... until two "gentlemen" decided to relieve me of it in an internet cafe.....while I was helping one of them log on.....

So how did I get it back? Well I had a postcard from London Underground last week saying that they were in possession of some of my property and I was to call at their office to pick it up. I tried to think of stuff that I had lost or left on the tube and couldn't think of any, except for my stolen backpack. Anyway I went to the office on Friday morning, (a pain because they are only open Monday to Friday during working hours, so it meant going into work late) and behold they had my bag complete with the library books that were in it. My sunglasses which were also in it had however disappeared, but I wasn't quibbling. I paid my four pounds to the smiling London Underground lady and got out of there.

The guys who had run off with the bag had obviously found that the only things worth keeping in it were the sunglasses and had dumped the rest of the stuff at Bond Street tube station. I was delighted to get my library books and backpack back......

Friday, October 28, 2005

More Nigerian sadness...

Sad to learn that the body of the missing Indiana university student, Olamide Adeyooye had been found in Mississippi....I hadbeen one of those who sent e mails to major networks in the US encouraging them to focus more attention on her disappearance having been encouraged to do so by a Nigerian message board. Her friends had mounted a massive internet awareness raising effort to help find her, especially in the face of the alleged US media obsession with "blonde and blue eyed victims" and it's really sad it ended this way..........Of all the messages people posted on various sites I really liked this one-No one can hurt her now!

And then to hear that Ezenwa Ohaeto, one of Nigeria's best known literary figures who only a few weeks ago won the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize for his poetry collection, Chants of a Minstrel died earlier this week at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. He will probably be best remembered for his biography of Chinua Achebe. My thoughts go out to his family and friends....

It really hasn't been a good week for Nigeria. Let's hope next week will be better.....

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A warm day...reflecting on the democracy of the internet and hungry for home

Today has been quite warm, by which I mean I haven't had to wear a jacket to work. I've carried one though and sure enough as dusk falls, there's a slight nip in the air. In the garden square opposite me two good English policemen, complete with inverted cone helmets are questioning (or chatting) to a group of men who seem to be more interested in the contents of bottles in the plastic bags that they are clutching....

This blog is suddenly exposing me to a whole new world of possibilities....while some people took offence at my asking questions about Nigeria's tragic weekend, I found a foray into some Nigerian chat rooms interesting to say the least. Nigerians from all over the globe were weighing in with their thoughts and feelings and asking questions in a way that would probably never be sanctioned in day to day Nigerian society....

Now I understand better why Owukori of Black Looks is passionate about unleashing the power of the internet in Africa....

Stumbled across a photograph by Jangbalajugbu on the Global Voices Online site of a plate of eba and what looked like egusi soup taken in Ife. Just looking at the smoothly curved yellow mounds of glistening eba and the swirl of palm oil and red pepper stew -with what looked like some sort of orisirisi (?tripe) floating in it- had me drooling over my keyboard....there was something about even the simplicity of the bowls and the plastic tablecloth that triggered a deep nostalgia.... I know what I'm having for dinner tonight....

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More African books to look out for...contemporary Ugandan writing

I've had great feed back from my list of contemporary Nigerian books to look out for, so I'll just add a few more, widening my remit beyond Nigeria this timeto Uganda. I lay no claim to comprehensiveness or in depth knowledge of Ugandan fiction today....anyhow here goes

Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe by Doreen Baingana is a beautiful collection of interlinked short stories following three Ugandan sisters from childhood to boarding school to life as an immigrant in America -it's funny, sassy and resonates with meaning for me- even though I've never been to Uganda- and has been nominated twice for the Caine Prize

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa is another book set in Uganda and the Netherlands and is a powerful and darkly humorous rendition of the life of a young Ugandan boy through the Amin Years and then on to life as an immigrant in the Netherlands. I haven't read Snakepit which is his next book, but it's on my list

No Place Like Home - Yasmin Alibhai Brown, one of Britain's "leading commentators on race" grew up in Uganda and here recounts what it was like as an Asian in Uganda before and during the early part of the Amin years (pre the expulsion) and the struggle to settle in different parts of the world. Before reading this I hadn't realized how widely scattered Ugandan Asians became or that many of them had gone back to settle there in the mid-nineties....

Monica Arac de Nyeko's short stories are worth looking out for on the web...

To a less contentious subject....or perhaps not

While I dodge the flak from my questions about Nigeria's tragic weekend, perhaps I'll diffuse the tension by telling you about a book I just finished last night. It's a biography of a homeless man living in Cambridge by an academic who befriended him for three years and it's called Stuart, a life backwards. It challenged me profoundly, not least because of the way it highlights how our (I use the pronoun advisedly) ways of thinking about the homeless can be so different from theirs, so that what may be well intentioned interventions end up horribly wrong.

I suppose the same applies to interventions to "save Africa and Africans" or to "help black and minority ethnic communities" and the bottom line is that before you can help someone you need to understand where they are coming from, and by understand I mean a real understanding of how these individuals or groups make sense of their world and their position in it...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Unanswered questions from Nigeria's black weekend

Why did it take so long to determine where the crash site was?

Where did the "government official" who announced that there were 50 survivors get his information from?

Why was the broadcasting station that finally identified the site correctly promptly shut down?

Why was the Nigerian First Lady having cosmetic surgery done? And why in Malaga, Spain, not necessarily known for its medical excellence? Who was footing the bill?

Is it acceptable to ask these questions now? And if not now, when?

Opinions welcome

Monday, October 24, 2005

Tragedy in Nigeria

Was woken up on Sunday morning by a text message from a close relative saying there had been an aircrash in Nigeria on Saturday night and that he just wanted to let me know that he had spoken to my parents and they were fine. Leapt out of bed and switched on the television, BBC News 24 confirmed that a Bellview plane was missing after take off last night from Lagos en route Abuja but it was unclear what had happened to it. Since air travel in Nigeria is used by relatively few, I and most Nigerians whom I spoke to in the UK were very jittery as the chances of knowing someone on board was fairly high

By the time I'd taken a shower and headed for church I had a text message from a friend asking if I'd heard about the plane crash and also about the death of Stella Obasanjo,wife of the Nigerian president following cosmetic surgery in Spain. While I was sure that the news of the crash was probably true, I was more dubious about the second, convinced that it was a hoax, being perpetrated by "detractors". Sadly it was later to turn out that both stories were true.

The rollercoaster wasn't helped by the news from a government spokesman at about twelve that the crash site had been found, that over half the passengers had survived,and that all medical personnel should in the vicinity should head to the area.A few hours later, this statement was retracted, after AIT, a Nigerian broadcaster showed pictures of the site (apparently with graphic images of the crash site) which promptly made clear that there were no survivors. They were subsequently promptly closed down by the broadcasting regulator, although whether it was for the graphic images they had displayed or for having shown up the officials who had originally misled the public it was not clear.

There are so many questions and issues that the events of the last 24 hours throw up but this is not the time for them. I will surely return to them though.

For now my thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the bereaved, and also the management and staff of Bellview Airlines,certainly one of the most (if not the most professional) local airline in Nigeria.

Friday, October 21, 2005

TGIFriday, hunting library books,loving your neighbour and spice-o-meters

It's Friday and I am looking forward to the weekend, to chilling, to catching up on my Nigerian newspapers, to my weekly visit to my local library to return my books from last week and to pick out new ones. I literally get a buzz whenever I find a hot-in-demand book on the shelves- Philip Roth's The Plot Against America was my last big coup and I'm aiming for On Beauty and Shalimar the Clown now. I'm also looking out for Moses Isegawa's Snakepit (I thoroughly enjoyed his Abyssinian Chronicles set in Uganda and Holland). I get a buzz because too often , the hot books are reserved long in advance.... Which reminds me...I must do a post soon on contemporary African (non-Nigerian) writing that has caught my attention. Doreen Baingana's Tropical Fish is one to look out for. On the non-fiction front, I want to read I Didn't Do It for YOu- How the World Used and Abused a Small African Country. It's apparently about Eritrea, a country I'd like to learn more about...

Coming to work this morning, I took a shortcut and was walking past a fence surrounding a public space (Yes I walk to work, aren't I lucky?) which an elderly white man was having problems trying to clamber over, as I was wondering whether or not to approach him to help- he was literally stuck on the fence (but I didn't want to alarm him- I've tried helping elderly women with their luggage up the stairs in train stations only to have them reel back, clutching their bags tighter), but then I saw a young black boy in school uniform springing to his help and got him over. Watching them clasping each other, this young boy in his pristine uniform, happily lending a helping hand to this none too clean bewildered looking elderly man had me thinking again-why can't we all just see each other as human? And lend a helping hand....and accept a helping hand and think the best of people. I know.....I know it's a rather simplistic view of the world but we can dream and it was a good start to my day.

Having to have a chicken vindaloo sandwich because the sandwich lady had run out of choice before getting to my floor wasn't so cool, in fact it was rather hot!! I begin to wonder if I've had my spice-o-meter toned down living so long here... I mean this vindaloo was nowhere near the red (in colour and in heat) hot stews of Iya Modinat in Idi Araba that I used to gulp down early in the morning over hot white rice with ewa and dodo and yet here I was panting over my PC like my English friend encountering Mallam Sani's yaji for the first time....pathetic!!!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Dirty words...not

I think I should start a campaign to reclaim ordinary words that people have turned into dirty words, so here's my list, partly inspired by the strenuous way Nigerian women often shrug off the tag of here goes:

"Feminist" - Usually any woman who tries to stand up or speak up for herself. In Nigeria often slandered as having been brainwashed to reject her culture by Western feminists

"Immigrant" - Thrown around especially at election time in Western countries, often code for non-white. I personally think "immigrant" should be a positive word- it takes a lot to leave your country and the familiar to venture out into the unknown and to get there in one piece requires being better than average, so deserves celebration!

"Liberal" Most of the things that make the world a better place came from liberals. I bet that when slavery was to be abolished, the more conservative said "But that's the natural way of things, that's how it always been...." Maintaining the status quo has never brought about positive change, so why should people be ashamed to stand up and be counted on the side of a movement that has been responsible for most of the positive change in the world....


Have actually had three comments today on this blog, perhaps it's the Nigerian literature thing...whatever it is I'm grateful and I'm glad some people are enjoying this

The comments have led mt to some fantastic blogs by Nigerian women- Nneka's World and The World according to Adaure for a start...I've always been impressed by sassy intelligent opinionated Nigerian women and it looks like there are a few blogging out there...

Keenly watching the Tory leadership contest in the UK to see how it will all pan out. Obviously David Cameron is the only candidate who seems near understanding what it is to be human in the 21st century in Engladn but he seems rather soft on policy detail and principles.... a bit like Tony all things to all men (and women)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

On the Booker Prize winner...and Chiwetel's Kinky Boots

So John Banville won with The Sea. I've glanced at it and read bits of it and the language is haunting and beautiful but perhaps too much so, gets in the way of the story which is what put me off....shallow, unintellectual me, easily seduced by a good story.... Anyway I'm still waiting to read On Beauty, Shalimar the Clown and Never Let me Go which I thought I might enjoy....

Went to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in Kinky Boots at the weekend, his performance as a drag queen in a provincial English town was stunning...heartbreaking and so human. I've followed his acting since Dirty Pretty Things and am proud that he's being touted as the first black film star to emerge from the UK in recent history. He's certainly doing Nigerians proud....

Contemporary Nigerian writing - reading list I

English friends who share my passion for reading often ask me about what new writing is coming out of Nigeria and I'm glad to say plenty. So here's a list in case you've been wondering what to look out for or buy. I interpret Nigerian quite broadly.....

Everything Good Will Come- Sefi Atta- An evocative rendering of the lives of two Nigerian girls as they grow up in Lagos. Challenges many preconceptions about the role of women in Nigerian society today

Purple Hibiscus- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Kambili (Let me live in Igbo) is a young girl growing up in a wealthy family in Eastern Nigeria but her life is overshadowed by her father's tyranny, his brutality against a backdrop of societal upheaval and the Catholic Church

Graceland- Chris Abani- A Nigerian Elvis impersonator recounts his life, roams from Ajegunle to Bar Beach and interspersed with recipes of traditional Igbo dishes. Edgy

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila - Captures the brutality and hopelessness of the Abacha military dicatorship in languid, beautiful prose that reads almost like poetry

Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe - Another powerful evocation of military rule in Nigeria and its effects on the lives of ordinary people. Madness looms large as a metaphor and there is a beauty to the writing that is haunting

A Squatter's Tale by Ike Oguine - As far as I know, this is the first rendering of the Nigerian immigrant experience in the US and also captures the frenzied 90s in Lagos when a new breed of buccanneer bankers in braces and red ties wreaked havoc on Nigerian society

Sky High Flames by Unoma Azuah- We follow Ofunne as she grows up from a carefree village childhood through a Catholic mission school to marriage

Beast of No Nation- Uzodinma Iweala - This Harvard educated son of the current Nigerian finance minister writes in the voice of a barely literate African boy soldier and in the process shocks with the rendering of horror in an innocent, almost pure voice.

26a- Diana Evans- Evans, half English, half Nigerian and one half of a set of twins writes of two twins growing up in Neasden, a suburb of London and of love and loss and displacement in an engaging voice

The Icarus Girl- Helen Oyeyemi - I initially dismissed this out of hand as an attempt at a half-Nigerian Harry Potter but in the end quite enjoyed this tale of a half English, half Nigerian young girl and her spirit "friend" overlaid with a sense of horror and the macabre

Other Nigerian writers to look out for- you can read their short stories on the internet- are Chika Unigwe, Ike Okonta, Ikhide Ikheloa, Victor Ehikhamenor, Tolu Ogunlesi, Lola Shoneyin, Maik Nwosu, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu and Chuma Nwokolo

Useful websites are,

Watching the English

I have just finished a great book by an anthropologist (she calls herself a pop anthropologist) called Kate Fox and it's called Watching the English. Having lived in the UK now for four years I found her observations remarkably spot on. She points out that what many regard as an English obsession with the weather is no such thing- when an Englishman says "nasty weather isn't it?" It's merely an ice breaker and does not really demonstrate any interest in the answer.

She also points out all the subtle class distinctions that persist in English society, ranging from what you call your children (Kevin and Tracey at one end to Sarah and David at the other) to what you call the meal you have at mid day....just why it matters is not clear, but what I find interesting is that even among so called iconoclastic liberals, many of these rules still hold sway in 2005!

Unfortunately the book gets tedious towards the end as she tries to pull together all her remarkably detailed observations into a few pithy soundbites

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tummy tucking governors and other obscenities

When I first heard that the governor of Bayelsa State in Nigeria had been arrested at Heathrow Airport and that a subsequent search of his house had found nearly a million pounds in cash, I was horrified at the stupidity of it all. What is this Nigerian obsession with cash, how can you be so stupid as to keep such huge amounts in cash?

Of course I realized that there were political undertones to the whole arrest- the governor is alleged to be in the vice-president's "camp" and his movements were apparently leaked by the President's camp to Scotland Yard. But as many Nigerian commentators have pointed out, the fact was the money had not been planted in his house by the president's camp, had it?

I half wish that these Nigerian fat cats would declare full on war on each other and expose the skeletons in their various cupboards, but it appears that that is a wish too far. In the end, these things are settled "in-house" and the looting continues. All the previous corruption sagas have come to nought, which is partly why many Nigerians are cynical about the anti-corruption moves.Why can't the vice president's camp counter leak what dirt they have on members of the President's camp?

But the EFCC (the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and elendureports are two organizations which are playing an important role- by digging out information about the things Nigerian politicians get up to abroad, including their financial misdeeds and the EFCC by investigating and arresting suspected corrupt politicians. I only wish that the EFCC would update their website- it could make it easier to report cases to them

But the most obscene aspect of the Bayelsa governor affair was the revelation that what he had gone to Germany for (long proclaimed by members of his camp as a serious medical operation) was actually a tummy tuck. Following his initial arrest the governor had lamented that his "enemies" chose a moment when he was recovering from major surgery to strike. I sympathized, imagining he had undergone a kidney or liver transplant or a heart bypass, only to learn later that it was a TUMMY TUCK he had gone in for! Is there no end to the depravity of some of these monsters we call leaders in Nigeria?

And of course, when eventually he returns to Yenagoa, the impoverished capital of the oil rich Bayelsa State he governs over, there will be thanksgiving services and solidarity rallies to welcome their son back!!!! When will we begin to demand accountability from our leaders?

I am sure, even as I type, that there will be "prayer warriors" and all-night vigils and fasting programmes being held in many churches in Yenagoa for the deliverance of the governor from his "enemies"

Another worrying aspect of the whole saga is how otherwise respected or respectable individuals weigh in to defend the indefensible or fail to speak out. Oronto Douglas made a name as a dogged fighter for the rights of the people of the Niger Delta, publishing a book Where Vultures Feast detailing the abuses of oil companies in the area. A while ago he was appointed to Governor Alamieyeseigha's cabinet as information commissioner. I am yet to see or read his view on the current scandal. Or perhaps it is acceptable for "indigenes" to exploit the poor people of the Niger Delta.

Magnus Onyibe is another young man I used to respect, but his article attempting to defend the governor, ostensibly under the pretext of defending Nigeria's sovereignty left a bad taste...

If these are the young men who will be tomorrow's leaders, the future looks bleak

Monday, October 10, 2005

Of falling leaves,crime, conservatives and liberals

Looking out on the garden square opposite me, the leaves have begun to fall and there is a chill in the air, soon autumn will be upon us....where has this year gone?

I had my bag stolen over the weekend in an internet cafe which was quite upsetting, not because it contained stuff that was valuable (thankfully my wallet and cards were in my pocket) but because I fell for it. It was a classic two man job, one sidled up to me as I typed fast and furious on the computer, stale breath blowing in my face asking where he could buy a token for a PC. While I pointed it out and went back to my typing, the other came up on the other side asking for assistance on how to log on. As I have always felt that people ought to be friendlier and more helpful in public places, I turned to explain in a few quick sentences and faced my work again. Probably sensing that I needed to be distracted further, Villain no 2 asks "Brother, Am I doing the right thing, is this the right way to log on?" As I turn to say yes, and look back, I notice my bag has disappeared. I give chase but they have melted into the heaving throng that is Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. I go back in to report to the cafe manager, he's sorry but I'll have to go to the I make my way to the police station on Savile Row where a fresh faced constable gestures for me to join the cue of seven people waiting to report petty crimes, obviously Saturday is boom time for pick pockets and petty thieves. I end up being advised to make an online report as it will take nearly 2 hours, so I stagger back to the internet cafe and log on again, at least now I have no bag to worry about. After answering questions including my age my ethnicity and my sexual orientation, I finally print off the sheet which says the police will be in touch. And they are! Early Monday morning my phone rings and it's a woman constable asking for more details and then she promises she will be in touch later.

The bag contained some library books which I had just borrowed that morning and a pair of sunglasses which I had had for a while and which I had treated myself to on duty free on one of my trips home to Nigeria. I had hoped I'd be able to claim on my insurance but apparently not. Doesn't it just madden you, forking out insurance premiums diligently every month and then when something happens, you get shown some small print that says you can't claim. Perhaps I should get into the insurance business

The night my bag was stolen, I was angry and could barely sleep, wishing that I had turned, just a fraction earlier ..... and I was reminded of the slogan, can't remember where from that
says "a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged"

But by the next morning I'm fine and regained my sense of perspective