Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Hypocrisy, Covenant University, fine-boy politics et cetera

I have always been a firm believer in the aphorism that travel broadens the mind, and for me, coming to the UK has helped me see my country through fresh eyes. One area that astounds me is the hypocrisy that permeates many aspects of Nigerian society. I remember on one of my visits home, this cousin whom I am very close to accosted me and asked me which church I attended in London. When I told her, she said " I hope it is a Bible-believing church o!" and went on to regale me with her activities at her church in Lagos where she had recently been promoted to lead one of the departments. Later in the trip, she said she had a friend whom she would like me to meet. We went to lunch at a swanky Lagos restaurant with a gentleman of the sort that City People refers to as a "Lagos Big Boy". It was soon evident that this was no ordinary friend but indeed my cousin's married lover- indeed his wedding had been splashed all over the society magazines a few years before. As we left the restaurant, ensconced in the air conditioned jeep of her "friend", I wondered how she made sense of these disaparate strands of her life. It is this same hypocrisy that leads 419 barons and fraudulent public servants to give tithes from their ill-gotten gains and hold thanksgiving services without questioning the incongruity of their actions...

I was set to musing about this by the recent news that Covenant University, owned by one of the churches in Lagos , has instituted mandatory pregnancy tests and HIV tests for all final year students. Students who test positive for pregnancy are to forfeit their degrees, those who test positive for HIV will receive their degrees after they have "received their healing". Questions that immediately spring to mind include: What about the sexually active boys who cannot get pregnant? What about the various other ways that HIV can be contracted apart from sex? How come this healing has not been made available to the 4 million or so Nigerians estimated to be living with HIV? Would married students be exempt? Can all the lecturers and staff swear that they are living chaste, morally upright lives?

I'm glad that some action is being taken but the mind boggles at such irrational, ill thought out and draconian policies being made and implemented in of all places a university. One can then imagine the level of critical thought being imparted to these students.....

Jeremy touches on another aspect of this shadow chasing favoured by my people in his post on the Nigerian police and skimpily dressed Lagos women...

Meanwhile in London, David Cameron struggles as his place in the polls slip further and further down. The Brown bounce is to account partly for this but "Call Me Dave" did himself no favours jetting off to Rwanda to build schools while his constituency was awash in floods and losing the bye election in Ealing to Labour after imposing a fine-boy Asian businessman candidate who was revealed had been hobnobbing with Blair only weeks before joining the Conservatives. Funnily enough Brown is slowly appearing more statesmanlike and now appears to show up Cameron's fine-boy tactics as just that- all show and no action, no meat to his policies. The Tory traditionalists are getting restive but Dave has vowed to stay the course and avoid a lurch to the right. I think part of his problem is that he is still trying to be all things to all men and women, and that can only take you so far.....

In London we have an interesting mayoral contest coming up with the faux-shambolic Boris Johnson, the Old Etonian and former President of the Oxford Union who likes to pretend that he is really just a bumbling, harmless upper class toff throwing his hat into the ring to run against Ken Livingstone. In many ways I suspect it will also turn out as another fine-boy (albeit with jokes added) versus substance contest. As Labour was quick to make clear- can you imagine Boris as mayor after the 7th of July bombings?

To Spitalfields last weekend and a magnificent steak dinner at Hawksmoor which prides itself on serving the best meat in London. The ribeye was superb, succulent and run through with fat and the chips were juicy and crisp on the outside. While the Caesar salad was a bit on the watery side, the delicious cocktails more than made up for the deficiency. The Spitalfields area is an interesting mix - from bearded Bangladeshi elders to funky Brit artists, punks, Goths and pinstriped City boys, the streets are alive with something inexpressibly exciting...

Marooned in Bloomsbury on Sunday, I found myself on the doorstep of the London Review of Books bookshop. It's fantastic- packed with books that you wouldn't ordinarily see in Waterstone's or any of the bigger chains. I bought Chris Abani's The Virgin of Flames which means that I now have four new books by Nigerian authors to read on my forthcoming holiday. Already on the to read pile are Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House, Biyi Bandele's Burma Boy and Segun Afolabi's Goodbye Lucille. Who says it isn't a great time for Nigerian literature? And while they may all be based abroad, surely greater attention to Nigerian literature can only benefit all- homebased and international.

Speaking of which I came across the website of the iconoclastic, irreverent poet Lola Shoneyin, who apparently has a novel coming soon. There's an excerpt on the website. Thanks Molara of Wordsbody for the heads up

Friday, July 27, 2007

Deceptions, training away bad things and finally a cabinet

It is, it appears a week in which things are not quite what they seem. There is a furore about the BBC and other UK broadcasters “duping” their viewers by asking them to call in to win prizes when the winner had already been decided, or reading out the name of a member of production staff as the winner of a phone-in competition when technical difficulties prevented calls from coming through. There has been much hand-wringing and apologies from the Beeb, especially coming after it was revealed that footage it had shown of the queen storming out of a photo session had been manipulated. Through it all, I couldn’t help thinking- “Come on people, it’s television, not real life- what do you expect?”

Trust the Director of the BBC he’s ordered the entire staff of the corporation to attend training on trust and integrity, which hasn’t gone down well with those members of staff who feel that they weren’t implicated and so shouldn’t have to go through it all.

Personally I’m amused at this belief in training- x makes an anti-Semitic remark; he holds meetings with members of the Jewish community and undergoes training in cultural diversity. Ditto for the racist and homophobic. If these lessons are so life-changing, shouldn’t we all be going on them beforehand and not just when the s**t has hit the ceiling (if you’ll pardon my French) Perhaps next time someone commits a crime, instead of punishing them we can send them to murder/stealing or fraud charm school instead...

Finally, Uncle Yardie (I refused to call OBJ Baba, but I don’t mind calling Yardie Uncle) has sworn in his cabinet. I like that Mrs Diezaeni Alison Madueke is in charge of Transport. With her working experience as a very senior executive in Shell and a fairly comfortable background, she should be ready to contribute and not to chop. Professor Adenike Grange at the Health Ministry is another square peg in a square hole. I reserve my comments on Ojo Maduekwe in Foreign Affairs and Shamsudeen Usman in Finance. Yardie has decided to hold on to the energy portfolio with no less than 3 junior ministers to support him. Ha, this oil sweet o!

At the moment I’m reading Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in Pakistan and India by Pankaj Mishra. It’s an interesting mix of memoir, travelogue, philosophical rambling and history with illuminating insights into for instance, the situation in Kashmir

Monday, July 23, 2007


Tagged by My talking Beginnings. I initially tried to wriggle out but seeing as the summer's wet and windy and there are floods in some places and we just had a power outage, I'll give it a go. Answers to my conundrums are welcome:

7 things you do not know about me:

I often wonder what the polite way of getting out chewed biscuit or groundnut paste from between your far upper teeth and your inner cheek is without resorting to a surreptitious finger

I also wonder what the correct English etiquette for guys peeing at a row of urinals is- is it permisible to keep chatting as if you were at any social function, or do you acknowledge each other with a smile and face the business at hand

I love talking to people and speaking publicly but I also often enjoy my own company and in some ways could be described as an introvert

I read whenever I can- while I am brushing my teeth, sitting on the loo, ironing, sometimes even when I am walking on the road

I know far more about the English royal family (past and present) than is healthy, wise or edifying

When I was nine, I had to perform a traditional coming-of-age ritual and I lay awake for days beforehand. In the end, as with most things that I have agonized over, it was fine

Most of the time I am very happy and contented, occasionally I am seized with a deep despair for humanity and think that everything is pointless

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A tale of two Londons, thieving Nigerian governors and Nollywood in London

I went to visit a friend at Woolwich last weekend. I took the tube to North Greenwich station where the ill-fated Millennium Dome now enjoying a second lease of life rebranded as the O2 lives. From there I was to catch a bus to my friend's flat. On getting on the bus I was struck by the fact that there were only a handful of white faces in the seething mass that waited to board the bus. On coming closer to the few white people on the bus, it became obvious that they were eastern European- new migrants from the newly expanded EU. There was a single mother and child speaking in the characteristic Sarf London accent and as they huddled by the busstop, the mum pulling on her fag, I began to be more appreciative of what it must feel like for the people born and bred in the area to see this influx of immigrants seemingly swamping their country. I'm sure they think it's all right for David Cameron and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and all the politicians to talk glibly of integration and tolerance. The streets and buses of the salubrious parts of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster and Islington where they live haven't changed that dramatically. Now I understand what people like Margaret Hodge and co were struggling in their ham-fisted ways to say. I tried to think of a similar analogy- say walking into an area in say Abuja and finding myself the minority black person among many white people, and I thought, well that has happened to me in some exclusive clubs. The difference of course is the poverty and powerlessness in the current situation. While good old fashioned prejudice no doubt plays a part in some of the complaints, I wonder how many British MPs have been on buses like the one I was on.... Methinks MPs on both sides of the immigration debate need to hop on that bus 472 for some fresh insights...

I had already applauded Jacqui Smith, the new Home Secretary on her measured response to the latest round of terror plots. This morning I wake to a media furore as she admits having smoked cannabis at university 25 years ago. I'd earlier blogged about the hypocrisy surrounding the media and politicians and cannabis in the UK and so applauded her honesty, but a friend pointed out that a large proportion of older people in Britain are still very conservative and will be horrified even if she qualified her admission with the acknowledgement that it was illegal and she was wrong to have smoked it.... I think it was frank and honest, but we'll see...

Back home in Nigeria, ex- governor Turaki shed tears as he was remanded in prison as he faces charges of corruption. His erstwhile colleague, the thuggish Orji Uzor Kalu was more resolute, comparing himself to Mandela and Obasanjo who had both risen from prison to higher things. The cheek of him- as if Mandela was imprisoned for stealing money. Meanwhile my debate with friends in Nigeria continues over whether they are being witchhunted for their opposition to Obasanjo. Granted, there are many others who ought to be facing the music- James Ibori and Peter Odili who resource-controlled their way to billions for instance. Or even Obasanjo himself with his private university and multiply enlarging farm businesses. But we have to start somewhere and none of the accused has vociferously denied the charges. Instead we hear things like " The money was given to Obasanjo for the PDP campaign or for the third term bid". If this is the case, they must say so and show the evidence.

I am reading The Shackled Continent: Africa's Past Present and Future by the erstwhile Africa correspondent of The Economist, Robert Guest at the moment. It's fairly well-written and hopeful but is shot through by his inexorable belief that the market can cure everything that ails Africa. He makes valid points about reducing the cots of doing business in Africa but appears to want to divorce morality completely from economics, arguing for instance that the fact that people in Africa are willing to do jobs which misguided activists in the West see as exploitative, is purely a matter of choice. If there were better alternatives, then the exploitative Western companies would find it impossible to recruit.Applying that analogy to, for instance, the use of children as chimney sweeps in Victorian England would be problematic to say the least.

Meanwhile Yaradua continues to fiddle and diddle with his ministerial list. I was sad to see Mrs Diezaeni Allison-Madueke's name disappear from the list as she was one of the few I had high hopes of. Well I promised to hold my fire, and give Yardy a chance, so here I go biting my tongue. I must confess it's getting more and more difficult...

Meanwhile, the British Film Institute has some Nollywood related events coming up in London soon- Amaka Igwe and Tunde Kelani feature...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Little Britain Live

Two 16 year old British girls are caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Accra. One of them is quoted below: (Thanks to Chxta for the link)

'It was basically like a set-up. They didn't tell us nothing, we didn't think nothing, because, basically, we are innocent. We don't know nothing about this drugs and stuff. We don't know nothing.'

If you've ever watched Little Britain's Vicky Pollard then you know where I'm coming from on this one

Thursday, July 12, 2007

On marriage, family and compromise

The word on everyone’s lips in London this week is marriage. The Conservatives are going to change the tax system in order to give every married couple with children what amounts to twenty pounds a week in order to encourage people to get married and stay married. They are incensed that the current system seems to privilege single parents over married couples. Listening to the debate swirling- and Gordon Brown made quite a good fist of it, using the examples of widows or women abandoned by their husbands as examples; I wondered why it had to be one or the other. Can we not just work to ensure that every child in the UK gets the support they need from the state whether they come from single, double, triple, quadruple or zero parent families? I suppose that’s me seeking the middle ground again….

On the subject of compromise, I’ve often wondered if Hillary and Obama could run on the same ticket- that would surely be an unbeatable combination and ensure a Democrat in the White House in 2008….is it too far fetched a proposition?

Still on the subject of the middle ground, Nigerians had brash, vulgar Obasanjo as President for 8 years and we all vilified him for his bull-in-a china shop, talk before you think ways; now we seem to have a more thoughtful, measured president in Yar’adua and we are already dubbing him GO SLOW UMORU…a beg my brothers and sisters, can we hold fire a while? I hope I do not eventually have to eat my words…

It’s summer and the avalanche of friends and relatives from Nigeria and the US begins- my phone is constantly ringing- an aunt there, an old classmate here, some cousins elsewhere. I can see that the next few weeks will be very busy- what with picking people from Heathrow and trying to follow badly given directions all over in London in the spirit of family and friendship….

On the subject of family, I had a call from a friend in Nigeria last week. I'd heard that his father had died a few week before but had struggled with whether to call or not knowing that their relationship was virtually non-existent- him having more or less abandoned my friend, his siblings and their mother many many years ago. When my friend called last week, he was indignant " You no hear say my Papa die? Na wa for you O! Which kind friend you be?" I apologized and promised to send a little something to help with the funeral expenses as I was obviously not going to be able to attend the funeral. Apparently the siblings are all rallying round to give him a "befitting" burial. I bit my tongue to stop myself from asking my friend why he was putting himself to all that trouble after everything the man had put them through. But I refrained. I guess the Nigerian position is that your father is your father but I'm afraid I struggled in this case....

I’m reading Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind, which is philosopher Julian Baggini’s attempt to identify a national English philosophy. He does this by going to live in Rotherham, identified by a market survey company as most typical of the national population profile. I’m enjoying it even if I quibble with some of his conclusions….

On Sunday I was able to pick up Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House and a signed copy of Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy at the South Bank Centre even though I missed the reading proper- but that’s a whole other story. I loved Biyi’s The Street which captured the sights and sounds (apologies to CNN) of Brixton and am looking forward to getting my teeth into his fictionalized account of a Nigerian soldier serving in Burma...

Finally, it was good to see Monica Arac de Nyeko win the Caine Prize. I met her briefly once a few years ago and there was something about her quietly unpretentious, sedate but mischievious ways that I liked. The humour in her "brave" story The Jambula Tree about the relationship between two young girls in Uganda underlines that. That said, mark my words, we'll be hearing more from the Nigerians on the list- Uwem Akpan, Ada Udechukwu and EC Osondu

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Summer is overrated, the high cost of bathroom slippers, recent reading etc

Today for the first time in a long while, the sun is out and it actually feels like it’s summer. There’s a slight chill in the air and I’m beginning to think that this is the kind of summer day I like. Ever since I developed hay fever three summers after arriving in the UK, I have become more sceptical about the supposed benefits of summer. I suspect that it’s partly because the UK isn’t really geared up for hot weather and so I look back on the last few summers of stickiness and itchy eyes and multiple sneezes and think, is summer really all that? Nevertheless, it’s summer and the sun appears to have finally driven the rain that has disrupted everything from Wimbledon to the national mood away and so tomorrow I’m off to my first summer party of the year. Today for the first time I’m wearing a short sleeved shirt and not carrying a jumper or light coat. Maybe tomorrow I’ll even dare shorts and flip-flops (otherwise known as bathroom slippers to us Naija folk), while I sip on my Clarityn and Beconase cocktails.

I marvel at the prices the flip-flops command here, bathroom slippers that were two-for-penny in Naija are now branded Havaianas because they have one small Brazilian flag on the strap and then sold for like twenty pounds…madness. Maybe I should start importing bathroom slippers from Lagos- just imagine the mark-up…

I’m reading Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey at the moment which is a dream-like evocative reflection on journeys and pilgrimages anchored in the author’s reflections travelling around East Oxford where he lives. Occasionally his tone grates- too much of the middle class liberal but I’ve enjoyed it…

Something else I’ve enjoyed is Marina Lewyczka’s follow-up to her hilarious A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian which I blogged about here. It’s called Two Caravans and is about migrant farm workers in the UK. It’s serious and poignant and funny in turns and the phrase “I would like to make possibility with you” all last week humming in my mind all last week and reducing me to laughter at inappropriate moments…

On the subject of laughter, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a hilarious book that captured the language of Blairite New Labour-speak in a beautiful way. I resisted reading it somewhat put off the title and by the media blitz that heralded its publication but ended up enjoying it.

I’ve also enjoyed a sprawling novel set in contemporary India which was a pain to lug around but ultimately worth it. The Peacock Throne is by Sujit Saraf, an Indian physicist at NASA and is a hefty book which captures numerous facets of the way NGOs operate in India and how politics is played. Fascinating insights, if somewhat lacking a certain “spice”

The horrific kidnapping of three year old Margaret Hill in the Niger Delta continues to puzzle many. The militants in the Niger Delta seem to have hit a new low on this one. Meanwhile the oil price soared to 76 dollars a barrel partly fuelled by the instability in the Delta. Do the boys in the Delta realize that their actions are actually filling the pockets of the “oppressors”?

Funny how Yaradua and Brown have both been faced by violence in their first few weeks in office. They both seem to be handling it well...so far.

On the tube going to visit friends this morning, a voice came across the tannoy "Ladeess and gentumen, dere ah minor delays on di District and Sarcul line" And I thought "Ah that's my sister"

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A random London meeting, the roots of terror & waiting for Yaradua

Walking to the tube station this morning, my nose half-buried in a book, I notice a woman sitting in a car parked by the station. “Are you a locksmith?” I believe I hear her ask and I inwardly roll my eyes. Locksmith, moi? Is it ‘cause I’s black?

But no she is asking “Are you at Oxford? “, her question prompted by my choice of reading material, James Attlee’s Isolarion, a book about the other Oxford, away from the dreaming spires, on the Cowley road where Arab butchers jostle cheek by jowl with Ghanaian fishmongers and Brazilian craft shops. Apparently she has just bought the book for her son who used to live in that area of Oxford. She has recognized it by the distinctive cover. She asks if I am enjoying the book and I admit that I am. We chat a little bit more and then, waving goodbye to her, I enter the tube station, marvelling at another random London morning experience….

With the recent failed terror attacks in the UK, the talking head pundits are out in force- in the newspapers, the television and on the radio. Everyone peddles their own peculiar brand of analyses, trying to explain why educated professionals would engage in terror. The focus is now on the NHS and foreign health professionals who work in it. Two summers ago, it was on disaffected young British Muslims living in inner-city areas in the UK. The hoary old debate about what fuels the terrorists continues- on one side those who argue, it’s all about Islam, stupid. On the other, those who scream that it’s all about Iraq and the government’s foreign policy. Both sides refuse to see any merit in the other side’s argument. Yet the answer seems obvious to me- it’s a combination of both. You can see how a “moderate” could be tempted to a greater fundamentalism and then violence by current global issues and injustices. You can also see that there are fundamentalists who will not be appeased, no matter what foreign policy is adopted. Like all things the truth lies somewhere in the middle but our politicians and pundits prefer a polarized debate….

Gordon Brown managed to pull off the image of freshness with his cabinet reshuffle. I think the choice of a woman Home Secretary is particularly inspired, coming after the bully boy tactics of John Reid, David Blunkett and co…Not that Jacqui Smith is a pushover judging from her previous role as Chief Whip…The measured response to the attempted terror was positive although somewhat marred by Brown’s last-ditch playing to the gallery pledge to bring in new systems of vetting for foreigners working in the NHS. What can new vetting systems do? Will he do a thorough criminal and security check on every single nurse and doctor of foreign extraction working in the NHS? Will he include the second generation? Remember that overseas doctors and nurses are estimated to constitute some 30-40 per cent of the NHS workforce…

Meanwhile in Nigeria, Yar’adua finally sends his list of ministers to the Senate. It’s still secret- not sure why- but the names being bandied about do not inspire confidence. In many ways it is beginning to look like Obasanjo’s first cabinet- full of yesterday’s men and women, political jobbers and others of doubtful provenance, but I’ll hold my fire till the real list emerges….One cheering point might be that the new president seems intent on running a fairly tight ship…there are “only” 35 names on the list- here’s hoping he doesn’t appoint a slew of Special Advisers, Senior Special Assistants, Personal Assistants and so forth as Obasanjo did in his first term..

Meanwhile in response (I assume) to my previous post on The World is Flat, I'm sent this link.

Monday, July 02, 2007

A whistlestop tour after a fashion

Where to begin- perhaps with an apology to the readers who have dropped by and left in disgust at my tardiness in updating. I must say that this blog business is hard work especially combined with a fulltime job and extracurricular activities. Maybe I should explore blogging as a fulltime job. Perhaps as a starting point it would be useful to know how many of you would pay to read the musings of a naijaman…..

The past few weeks have seen me in the English Riviera (I bet you didn’t know there was one) staying in a wedding cake-like seaside hotel, with a view of the sea and a promenade and elderly residents straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. At times it smelt and seemed like the last time the hotel had had a refurbish was way back in the days of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Unsurprisingly, there were few, how do I put this delicately, ahem, faces of colour along the seafront but I did not feel unwelcome at all….More challenging was the battle to find a cash machine that worked. In my haste fleeing London I had neglected to extract enough loose cash and found myself wandering the streets of an English seaside town searching for a functioning cash machine. In the end I had to get cash from the hotel reception, although thankfully I did not have to write a cheque- they did accept cards….

One afternoon, as we sit on the terrace of our hotel on the English Riviera, having lunch, my colleague realizes he needs some information from his office in Cambridge. Not having a Blackberry, he rings the office. He struggles to get through and when he finally does, there is no-one to give him the information. He knows that it is in his email box and so he rings his brother in India and in a few minutes, giving instructions over the phone, his brother accesses his email account and extracts the relevant information from his e mail box. Engrossed as I am in reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat at the time, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that it was easier to get information from India than from within the UK. The internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones have made this possible…. Friedman’s book was good reading except for the fact that his flat world seemed to exclude Africa most of the time and he did not really address this gap….

So while I was away, Tony Blair bid us farewell, leaving tears, sniffles and sniggers in his wake; Umaru Yaradua told us he owned 843 million naira, leaving Nigerians torn between applauding his transparency and querying where a former university lecturer, albeit one from a wealthy family had amassed such wealth….we in England saw the last of cigarettes in public places as the ban came into force yesterday, even as we battled the new threat of terror attacks in Britain…

On the smoking ban- a word of warning for the English. A Scottish colleague tells me how stinky pubs and bars in Scotland became after the ban on smoking in pubs came into effect there last year. Apparently, the stench of cigarette smoke was soon replaced by the stench of unwashed sofas and carpets and unwashed bodies. Most publicans apparently had to invest in air fresheners….

In other news Chimamanda Adichie was short listed for yet another award, the James Tait Black and the current edition of Eclectica features writing from two Nigerians Molara Wood of Wordsbody and Ike Anya of Nigeria Health Watch . Also of interest is this
http://www.african-writing.com/ and this