Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Depressing Nigerian politics, dreaming of white shirts,city life,supporting a bro & Ayoke slips away

I haven't posted on here in a while, partly because I've been so depressed by what's going on in the political space in Nigeria. A couple of months to the elections, concerns are already being raised about the credibility of the voter list, the dubious EFCC blacklist of people who are involved in corruption, including someone who has never held any public office but whose main crime seems to be that he is running against Obasanjo's daughter, and so on and so forth. I went against my better judgement to listen to Atiku at Chatham House, partly because I'd had a phone call from my mother, who is usually very skeptical of politicians (and especially Nigerian politicians) urging me to go, because in her words, "What they are doing to that man is so blatantly unjust" On getting there, I was struck by the polarization that was palpable in the audience. You were either for or against Atiku and they were no shades of grey. I looked at Tom Ikimi, Abacha's erstwhile Foreign Minister (immortalized in an irreverent advert sung to the tune of the TomTom sweet advert) as "the big fat man wey no get sense, na TomTom, im name na TomTom" during his glory days when he traversed international capitals defending Abacha's regime and cringed at being on the same side. Then I asked Akin Osuntokun (Obasanjo's political adviser) why Atiku had not been charged for the many crimes he was said to have committed. His response "There are so many charges against him" "Where have they been filed?" His response "Get out of here, you are a stooge, you are the people destroying Nigeria" So I slunk out of the venue, sideless and sank into a depression not helped by reading some of the pearls from the current campaign- Obasanjo on why the Igbo should vote for his party- "Any pikin wey Igbo woman born for me, I take am". Right, so acknowledging paternity of his children born to Igbo women is a really good reason to vote for his party. Then at another rally "The people who say Yaradua is not well, it is their heads that are not well" Charming. Two months to the elections, very little about what people will actually do to tackle Nigeria's numerous problems but lots of invective.....

Today walking to work, I bumped into a young man in a dazzling white shirt which took me back to my secondary school days. Someone had had the bright idea of making the school uniform for a bunch of active youth in a humid tropical setting white. So a large part of my time was spent soaking my uniforms in gallons of Parozone bleach (remember the white plastic bottles, anyone) and scrubbing at the collars and cuffs of my white shirt and the ends of the trousers until my eleven year old hands were blistered. I never quite managed that feat, and sooner or later, the pristine white shirts and trousers that my mother lovingly had made each new school year ended up nearer grey and cream than white. For some reason, seeing that young man in his gleaming white shirt which stood out against the coffee brown colour of his skin took me straight back to those years and watching enviously as the day students, who presumably had their uniforms laundered marched up the dais week after week to collect the prizes for neatest uniform....I'm still traumatized, I don't think I own a single white shirt now

I just finished The Yacoubian Building which I thoroughly enjoyed. It's not "high" fiction- in fairly simple language, the author spins out the stories of a handful of characters but succeeds in painting a really convincing and gripping portrait of modern city life in Cairo. It reminded me of Cyprian Ekwensi's novels about Lagos life in the 50s and 60s. Now who will be the modern chronicler of contemporary Lagos and Abuja life? Two books that lots of people were talking about when I went home for Christmas were Araceli Aipoh's No Sense of Limits and Kaine Agary's Yellow Yellow. Someone just sent me Yellow Yellow from Nigeria and I'm looking forward to reading it. I've also just finished Bittersweets by Roopa Farooki about a Bangladeshi-Pakistani family which was bland with a barely credible plot. I can only imagine that it got published to tap into the post Brick Lane market. Contrastingly, I loved Jamal Mahjoub's The Drift Latitudes which was in such elegant language and thought. He's a writer that I hadn't really come across before in the UK, but is half-Sudanese and based in Barcelona and has published six books and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2005. This year, he's chair of the panel of judges for the Prize which has just announced a "partnering" with Georgetown University http://forums.booktrade.info/showthread.php?t=778

Meanwhile I got sent this link from a young Nigerian-American filmmaker who's trying to get on to a sort of Pop Idol for filmmakers and would like loads of people to see his short film and rate it so that he's in with a chance http://films.thelot.com/films/6287

By the way, I notice that Ayoke, whose blog Exodus I always enjoyed (even if I sometimes disagreed with it) seems to have slipped away silently from the blogworld- the Nigerian blogosphere is poorer

Thursday, February 15, 2007

North London liberals, watching Notes, Nigeria's farcical campaigns

I missed my Monday regular blog date- had a busy weekend and then wasn't feeling too well- the ubiquitous winter feverish-feeling, cough and cold scenario- so did not feel like getting up to much.

Saturday was spent having dinner with a bona fide "North London liberal chattering classes" family. I was hugely impressed by the grasp that the children, both under twelve displayed on issues like colonialism, Zimbabwe and racism- far more sophisticated than many of my colleagues- white or black. We got on to the subject of Barack Obama and one of the children said he felt that it might be difficult in some of the key southern states for a black man to win the primaries. His mother interjected saying that people had said the same of Americans voting for a Catholic before Kennedy. The child retorted saying that it was different- the average Catholic wasn't obliged by law to sit on a different part of the bus or attend a different school- so it was not an appropriate comparison. This got me thinking about how Obama (like many mixed race people with black blood) is always described as black. His mother is white, his father is black, so he's 50-50. From my primary school mathematics that means he could be described either way. That he isn't suggests that we all still subscribe to the notorious "one-drop" rule of the racist Deep South. I know I'm being pedantic, but it's worth reflecting on

To the cinema on Sunday to watch Notes on a Scandal. I went with a friend who thought it might be too bleak for his liking. In the event there were plenty of laughs from Judi Dench's magnificent portrayal of a lonely school teacher who becomes obsessed with her colleague who is having an affair with a pupil and then tries to manipulate her. I loved the film- especially as it was set in London and there's something about seeing the familiar writ large on a cinema screen...dreaming of the day Lagos and Abuja and my village loom on a cinema screen....I digress. I also loved Cate Blanchett's portrayal of a member of the bohemian North london chattering classes and Bill Nighy as usual was great as her older husband. As we left the theatre, we argued about whether the affair was convincing. My friend could not imagine a woman in the Cate Blanchett position having an affair with a pupil. I argued that human beings get up to the most inscrutable and incomprehensible things especially where sex is concerned- think of all the scandals that have involved famous people....In any case on Monday I see a letter in the Evening Standard making exactly the same point as my friend,I swallow my pride and ring him to point this out

I stumble across an article about Duro Olowu a fashion designer of Nigerian-Jamaican descent who's apparently making waves on the international fashion scene http://www.duroolowu.com/

Femi Kuti is playing tonight at the Barbican,http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=5214 but by the time I tried to get tickets last week, it was sold out- that's the second time I've missed him, and coming after my failed attempt to see The Seagull at the Royal Court, I'm feeling a bit grumpy

I was amazed at the miles of media coverage given to the "revelation" that David Cameron had smoked pot (igbo, Indian hemp, wee-wee- as an aunt of mine used to refer to it) while at Eton and that it was amazing that it had not affected his poll ratings- this in a country where often on many streets you can smell the thing being smoked freely- a stench almost as strong as the hypocrisy that surrounded the whole media circus.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, the farce continues - The anti-corruption agency EFCC has now submitted its arbitrary list of "corrupt candidates" to the electoral commission, after a kangaroo panel is set up to vet the list. And just in case the electoral commissioners are in any doubt about how seriously to take it, two of them are arrested by (you guessed it) the EFCC. By using the anti-corruption agency in this cavalier blackmailing way, Obasanjo seems set to do more damage to democracy and the cause of anti-coruption than he realizes. It would all be laughable if not for the fact that at the end of the day, human lives are at stake.... Nigeriavillagesquare has an interesting article by a former US diplomat http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/guest-articles/fooling-people-some-of-the-time.html Again I can't help wondering where all this will lead....

I've just finished The Testament of Gideon Mack which I enjoyed. Set in Scotland it chronicles the life of an unbelieving Church of Scotland minister who has an encounter with the Devil which totally changes his life. It's provocative and well-written, and gripping into the bargain, with something of the Victorian Gothic about it. Next up on my list is Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park. For some reason I'm drawn at the moment to books set in the UK. I'm hoping to get The Yacoubian Building next week- it's had great reviews and has apparently been the topselling book in the Arab world for the last eighteen months or so .....

Friday, February 09, 2007

Blast from the past, snowy rituals, Niger Delta musings, adoption & the amazing British Library

Two days ago, getting off a train at Euston station, I bumped into an old acquaintance from childhood whom I shall call X. I hadn't seen him in maybe twenty years- we'd grown up together and went to the same primary school. Back then he was the quintessential black sheep- missing pencils, books and toys always somehow seemed to find their way into X's schoolbag. He was an adept liar, skilled at glibly explaining away to the teacher how these items had got there and he told tall tales that even to our young ears sounded a bit too tall to be true - how his uncle was a cowboy film star and that sort of thing. There was some plausibility because he had been born abroad (the UK or the US- can't remember now) and had the photographs to prove it so we were forced to let him be the authority on all things foreign. Anyway, I bumped into him on the platform dressed in a long expensive looking coat, a rich burgundy silken scarf with a cowboy hat perched on his head jauntily and wearing cowboy boots (obviously the cowboy theme was still running) and reintroduced my self. After we'd exchanged pleasantries, I asked what he was up to these days ( a no-no normally when you meet fellow Nigerians in London but because he was looking so flashily prosperous I thought it was ok). Oh, he replies, this and that, I'm into a bit of IT, some tourism and import export businesses, travelling between the US, the UK and Nigeria, in fact I'm just off to meet with some business partners in Mayfair....and so on. He's still as glib as ever and I couldn't help wondering whether a peek into his smart leather briefcase would still reveal other people's property that had wandered in there....as he left having handed me his engraved card and an exhortation to meet up soon for lunch, I couldn't help marvelling at how little people change....

On the subject of change,in the few years that I've lived here, there's a little ritual that plays itself out every winter. First the media is full of warnings of heavy snow predictions from the Met Office. Then the snow falls, as it did, heavily and gloriously yesterday, then trains are halted, planes cancelled, schools closed. Then the next day the media is full of articles about how rubbish the UK authorities are, letting a little snow disrupt everything, when in Sweden and Canada and Norway they manage to keep their trains running, etc etc And then all goes quiet until the next time. Every single winter I've spent here it's been the same story and I can't help wondering why they bother....

Suddenly the Niger Delta is in the news- from Vanity Fair to CNN to Atiku's allegations that 2 billion dollars have been earmarked for an assault on the militants, to Asari Dokubo's outburst in court last week, there's something singularly unpleasant brewing. Yesterday the Thisday columnist Segun Adeniyi also mentions the rumour in some circles that Obasanjo is hoping for an explosion in the Delta to derail the elections in April
http://www.thisdayonline.com/nview.php?id=70000 and of course the Vanity Fair article mentioned rumours that the militants were planning to blow up the Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in Bonny. Now I'm no conspiracy theorist but I can't help but wonder - hmmm, what's going on here..

On the news this morning, we learn that two parents have been found guilty of the most horrendous abuse of their daughter who suffered from cerebral palsy. Among other horrors,she had boiling water poured on her, and was forced to eat her own faeces. These were her biological parents and in the light of the recent brouhaha here about gay adoption, I wonder if she would not have been better off with a loving gay adoptive couple...

I'm really enjoying AM Homes This Book Will Save Your Life with its wry subtle, humorous and philosophical take on Los Angeles life. I've never read any of her work but even though I'm only halfway through this one, I suspect I'll soon be hunting out the others. Funnily enough, in the light of the previous paragraph, it turns out she's adopted and has written a memoir- The Mistress' Daughter about her experience

Finally the Costa Prize went to The Tenderness of Wolves, a first novel set in Canada and written by a woman who suffers from agoraphobia and who therefore had never been to Canada. She had done all her research in the British Library, an institution that I have much personal fondness for from my postgraduate student days... especially after I found a pamphlet on the history of my village self-published by a retired headmaster from my village there. How it got there I have no idea....

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Peckham murder blues, avoiding jangrover rides, Costa Book awards & EFCC wahala

I moved to the UK not long after the tragic death of Damilola Taylor which had captured the attention of the Nigerian media. I remember a few friends asking me if I was really sure I wanted to move to a country where such a tragedy could occur. Of course the irony of their well-meaning questions, I mean it wasn't as if Nigeria was the safest place in the world, was lost on us. In any case Peckham loomed large in the Nigerian consciousness. Sadly it seems as if this is set to be revived with the murder of a teenager born to Nigerian parents in his bedroom in Peckham less than a kilometre from where Damilola died. It's believed that he was the victim of mistaken identity- everyone says he was a quiet regular churchgoing member of the Celestial Church of Christ in Peckham. Peckham of course is arguably the heart of the Nigerian community in London. On the radio this morning, somewhat predictably the usual suspects are rolled out to explain why this is happening- this was the third murder in a week in the area. Whatever the reasons are I personally find it sad when an immigrant dies in a tragedy like this. I don't for a minute suggest that other lives are worth less, but there is something about travelling so far and enduring so much that makes it that bit more tragic for me...

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with friends just before Christmas. We were walking through Leicester Square where the usual Christmas fairground had been set up - the rollercoaster rides, the contraptions that throw you right up in the air and then swoop down again and so on. So this friend visiting from Nigeria tries to persuade us to go up on the scariest of the rides with him. Another friend who lives here declined asking him "If anything happens to me up there what will I tell the people in my village? That after all the sacrifices and struggles, I threw it all away on some cheap fairground ride? Let the native English people seek all the thrills they want, me o, I am on a mission here...I no come London come begin climb jangrover..." (By the way where does that word Jangrover come from? Did I spell it right?)

I've finally finished Helon Habila's Measuring Time. He's a great writer- his prose is dreamlike, engaging and thoughtful. He paints a vivid picture of life in rural northern Nigeria and reminded me of my youth service days there. And Mamo, the main character who loves history and writing and books struck a deep chord. Yet,there was something about the storyline that I struggled with. I can't really put my finger on it, but while I enjoyed reading it, it didn't quite hold me as captive as I would have liked. Nevertheless, I think it's a good book with great language and ideas and I'd recommend it...

I'll be starting A M Homes This Book Will Save Your Life tonight. It's also on the Richard and Judy selection for this year.

Meanwhile the winner of the Costa Prize (formerly known as the Whitbread) which is awarded to books by writers based in the United Kingdom will be awarded tonight. The shortlist in the various categories are here http://www.costabookawards.com/awards/shortlist.aspx and the winners in the various categories are here http://www.costabookawards.com/awards/category_winners.aspx I haven't read any of the winners, although William Boyd's Restless has been on my to read list. Even on the shortlist, the only one I'd read was Cloth Girl by Marilyn Heward Mills which is set in colonial Ghana. I quite enjoyed it. And so the to-read list grows...

Meanwhile back home in Nigeria, the EFCC has apparently written to all the political parties with a list of 130 candidates for the upcoming elections who are considered unfit to hold office because of alleged corrupt practices. Topping the list unsurprisingly are three of Obasanjo's fiercest bete noires - Atiku, Tinubu and Orji Kalu. I understand that Nuhu Ribadu, the EFCC boss is a lawyer, why then does he on the basis of allegations write such a letter? What if the allegations are in the end unproven? Again, Nigeria takes something that on the surface sounds laudable and twists it, thereby undermining the whole process....Na real wa! I hadn't even realized that Bola Tinubu was planning to go to the Senate- what is it about power in Nigeria that makes people unable to let go. Why can people not simply say "E do. I don try, make anoda person try? " I guess the answer is patronage - politics is the only business in town. I tire.

Meanwhile I stumbled across this blog by a new father in London and it turns out he's Nigerian (sort of)

I also stumbled across...this http://anijawife.blogspot.com/ I couldn't believe the post about her husband denying her sex for four months in order to "punish" her - this is in 2007, and this is an investment banker? Jeremy, Ore, Everchange and all the Naija feminists you have your work cut out o!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Nigeria-more than you think, Birmingham & other musings

It's a buzzy drinks party somewhere in the West End and I find myself chatting to this Eastern European man who works in investment banking. On learning I'm from Nigeria he tells me that he first started learning English using Nigerian secondary school English textbooks. Apparently, his uncle had been an engineer in Nigeria in the seventies, part of the stream of technical aid sent from Communist Eastern Europe to Africa to try and help establish the socialist empire there. His cousin had brought back his textbooks from Nigeria and so that was how he first started to learn English. He speaks impeccably, telling me how good the Nigerian textbooks were and I marvel at the connection.

Later in the week, I am chatting with some Nigerian friends when this Indian gentleman pitches up clapping one of them on the back and speaking impeccable Nigerian pidgin- he apparently grew up in Nigeria and speaks pidgin fluently. For the second time in the week I'm struck by the tagline on the Heart of Nigeria adverts which have suddenly appeared on the tube- Nigeria- more than you think! Indeed

It's been a fairly lazy weekend- I did have to go up to Birmingham on Saturday briefly for work and it was actually my first time in the city proper- having been to a few meetings at the conference centre at Birmingham International train station. It was rather much as I expected- the little of it that I saw, could be any other large English city- but I was struck by how diverse the crowds in the shopping centres in the city centre were. As I started walking to the station, a limousine pulled up into the hotel foyer in front of me and a wedding party tumbled out- half decked in glittering saris and the other half in smart mother and sister of the bride outfits.....

Tony Blair made a rare appearance on the Today programme on Radio 4, sounding very much like a man who has begun his valedictory speech- finally he realizes that "you can't please all the people all the time" but admits that "he likes to be liked". The newspaper analysts all thought that he sounded a lot more reflective than he had in the past but I must admit I didn't feel terribly sympathetic towards him- but then if you've read this blog before you won't be surprised by that

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch Somalian politician arrives in the UK to launch her autobiography "Infidel" I've meant to blog about her for a long time but have never got round to it because I felt she required a more measured analysis than I have had the time to provide here. I do sympathize somewhat with her awakening to Enlightenment values following her politics degree at a Dutch university, even though I have issues with some of the interpretations that she makes, but what I don't understand is why the media keep referring to her as a Muslim reformer when from her utterances she has repudiated her Islamic faith. She may have once been a Muslim but I don't think she regards herself as one any longer so holding her up as an emblem of moderate Islam is flawed in itself...I guess my in-depth analysis will have to wait till after I've read Infidel

I've just finished Harbor- Lorraine Adams' book about Algerian immigrants in the US. It's a complex story but displayed a plausible portrayal of the issues that immigrants face and more importantly how in the war against terror, the line between innocent and guilty become so blurred that the truth remains anyone's guess....

Next up on my reading list is Helon Habila's Measuring Time which arrived at the weekend and which received favourable reviews in Metro the free newspaper and the Observer. Sadly the Metro review isn't available online but the reviewer also picked up on the subject of twins in Habila's book and Adichie's as I had done earlier. The Observer review is however available here http://snipurl.com/19diz

I'd hoped to go the Royal Court Theatre to see the new production of Chekhov's The Seagull in which Chiwetel Ejiofor is appearing. The production has got very good reviews and having seen him last week on the street strengthened my resolve to get a ticket. Alas the play is completely sold out- which I guess is great for the production but not for me...