Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Echoes of Frost/Nixon, Nigerian Big Brother & Habila & Abani's new book

Just before Christmas I went with friends to see Frost/Nixon, the play by Peter Morgan, the same guy behind the Oscar nominated film The Queen. It's an interesting play showing the interplay between the young journalist David Frost (played admirably by Michael Sheen who also plays a young Tony Blair in The Queen) and the wily old Richard Nixon who left office in disgrace after the Watergate scandal, and whom Frost manages to get to admit culpability and apologise on tape. After the play we went to dinner at a new restaurant in the West End- Imli which professes to do Indian-style tapas- lots of small, manageable dishes shared with friends- and we quite enjoyed the tasting menu- see here
As we ate we reflected on the fact that what led to Nixon's downfall was not necessarily ordering his operatives to break into the Democratic Party headquarters but the subsequent attempt at a cover-up which led to deletion of tapes, falsification of records, etc. So why am I going through all this? Well this morning we woke up to the news that Tony Blair's adviser Lord Levy had been arrested for perverting the course of justice in the cash for peerages scandal which has rumbled on for a while now. In a nutshell, the allegation is that Tony Blair nominated donors to the Labour Party for peerages in exchange for their donations/loans to the party. This is where I hear my Naija brothers and sisters saying "Ehen and so?" Well, it's against the law here and the police have been investigating. I haven't really taken it all very seriously which is why I haven't blogged on it before now, not even when Teflon Tone was interviewed by the police in the run-up to Christmas earning himself the dubious distinction of being the first Prime Minister in recent memory to be interviewed by the police in the course of a criminal enquiry. But this morning I couldn't help reflecting on Frost/Nixon and wondering if it'll be the cover up that might do for Blair.....

Is anyone else bemused by Nigeria's agreement to supply 80 megawatts of energy to Ghana, in addition to taking over Ghana's commitments to Togo and Benin?

Now I'm all for African brotherhood and sisterhood, in spite of recent attempts to shake my faith :-) , but honestly why do we persist in an empty big-manism - Perhaps there's a logic to this, so if you know it, please let me know...

On the literary front, I've been meaning to get Chris Abani's novella Becoming Abigail for a while. While I've dallied, he's brought out a new book The Virgin of Flames which is reviewed in the New York Times here . Meanwhile Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is nominated for the prestigious National Book Critics' Circle Award in the US and Helon Habila's Measuring Time comes out in the UK tomorrow...

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Evil" Blogger, Eliza don pay buses, offer to Dr Reid and DARFUR

I haven't posted in a while because I was trying to resist moving to the new Blogger. I have nothing against the new format- I'm not techie enough to, but I just have a problem with being forced to move against my will. Things came to a head on Saturday when I tried to post and could no longer access my blog unless I agreed to move to the new Blogger and set up a Google account. I really did not want to do that having posted earlier about the spookiness of my gmail account where if I get an e mail about say a conference in Switzerland, adverts about flights and hotels in Switzerland instantly fill the screen. Now I know it's all automated and that but I'm not 100 per cent comfortable with the fact that someone somewhere (or a machine somewhere) is scanning my personal e mails, and drawing my attention to relevat adverts. Anyway I explored the options for moving using (yes you guessed it Google) and the procedures all seemed far more complex than I had time or patience for. So I've signed up to the new Google/Blogger account and joined the "evil" Google empire whose corporate motto once was "Don't be Evil". Or to be correct I've just formalized my relationship with them, seeing as they bought Blogger a while back.....

This weekend I was going somewhere with a Nigerian friend and we had to get a bus. When it turned up, it was one of the new extra-long bendy buses beloved by our Mayor, Ken Livingstone and hated by many Londoners. Opponents dislike them not only because they seem set to eclipse and ultimately replace the old double decker buses, starting with the Routemaster, but also because they do not require a conductor which some say makes them less safe and more impersonal. Anyway as this bendy bus pulls up, my friend says "Ah, na Eliza don pay" (Nigerian pidgin for Ah, this is an Eliza has paid). What on earth are you talking about? I asked bemused. Well, he told me, among some Nigerian Londoners, these bendy buses are known as "Eliza don pay" because since they don't have a conductor on board to check your ticket, it means you are travelling courtesy of Her Majesty (otherwise irreverently known in some Naija circles as Eliza or Mama Charlie- work that out) - no need to pay...I couldn't help chuckling at that- I wonder if Mayor Ken knows about this, perhaps it's part of his concern for the underdog.....

Politics in the UK has started off with a bang this year what with the debates on whether to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from the new anti-discrimination laws so that they do not have to place children with gay couples, and the Big Brother racism row and now the news that the prisons are full up. Yes, that's right, John Reid the bruiser at the Home Office whose mantra in the past has been "bang them up" has been forced to write judges asking them to bear in mind that the prisons are full when sentencing. The Home Office is busily scrambling around looking for prison places for new offenders and has had to begin renegotiating to lease back a prison ship which they had recently sold to a Nigerian oil company. This is at the same time when a broom cupboard (11ft by 7ft) in Chelsea- one of the more desirable parts of town has just been rented out for 170 000 pounds. Now I wonder if Dr Reid would be interested in leasing my spare room at above the market rate- I wouldn't mind offering it as a cell for the tabloid editor jailed last week for four months after pleading guilty to hacking into Prince William and Prince Harry's voicemails

I've just finished Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me and I enjoyed it so much that I've gone hunting for his previous books. It's about an Oxford educated English Catholic priest who ends up in a rural Scottish parish and ends up accused of paedophilia. It sounds cliched but the language is so evocative and beautiful, and it's full of ideas about faith and loss and longing and politics- I loved it!

Today I found myself (gulp) agreeing with David Cameron when he said that people needed to be inspired to seek and adopt British values and not bullied into Britishness. It was a more sensible approach than we've heard from Government ministers lately, but as is usual with Cameron was rather light on what HE would do instead. I also consoled myself with the thought that many in Cameron's party would disagree with him

On a more serious note- DARFUR. We've all read the books about Rwanda. And watched the films. And debated the issues. And sighed "never again". So why, oh why is the world standing by and watching as the horror is repeated. Why are we going about our business, forgetting that the horror is continuing and spreading. And the Sudanese president on whose watch this is happening actually wants to lead the African Union. Thankfully just as I was typing this, I see that the AU has acted with some sense and handed the leadership for this year to Ghana's Kuffour. But it isn't enough. Something must be done- the handwringing must stop

Thursday, January 25, 2007

My Tanzanian odyssey- a lesson in African brotherhood

Okay o. So there I was sitting jeje and I get an e mail saying I have to go to Tanzania later in the year. It's for work and I'm quite excited because I've never (whisper it) been to another African country. There I am gallivanting to Spain and Italy and France and the US and I have never even been to wa for WAEC....

Anyway they tell me flights are booked and arangements made and I'm asked to check if I need a visa. I go to the Tanzania High Commission website and carefully go through the list of countries whose nationals require a visa.

Nigeria is not on the list so I'm quite excited. Let me explain. In my office, everyone knows about me and my visa wahala. Whenever I need to travel for work or even for play, I often need to get a visa. Thankfully some of the embassies have given me long duration visas (stand up US and Canada to be acknowledged) but others including the Schengen states insist on giving me itsy bitsy visas that need to be renewed ever so often. Anyway I digress.

The point is that when I saw Nigeria was not on the list and the UK was, I laughed. Ehen, for a change, my English colleagues would need to get a visa and I would not- let them see what it is like to be filling forms and sending it up and down. Hooray for African solidarity!

Anyway I noticed a bit of small print at the bottom of the web page that said to call the High Commission if your country was not on the list. So I picked up the phone and called:

"Tanzania High Commission"

"Good morning, I'm a Nigerian based in the UK and I need to go to Tanzania later in the year for work and was calling to find out what the visa requirements are?"

"Hold on a minute I'll transfer you"

Another female posher voice comes on the line and I repeat my question

"You cannot apply for your visa here, you have to apply from Tanzania. Nigerians need what we call a referred visa- it's only issued from our Immigration Headquarters in Dar es Salaam"

"I beg your pardon, but I can't go there without a visa, can I?"

"No, the people inviting you have to apply on your behalf in Tanzania"

"But they sent me a letter of invitation and asked me to apply at the Embassy here"

"I am telling you what you need to do"

I decide to try a different tack- "But what if I'm a tourist- just going on holiday"

"Then the people you are going to stay with have to apply for you in Dar"

"So there is no way I can apply from here"

"Have you been listening to me?"

"Errrr yes"

"I don't think so, because if you had been listening that question will not be necessary"

As I sit with my mouth open, I hear a click. Madam has dropped the phone on me.

So much for African brotherhood.

I Google "Tanzania Immigration" and find this:

" Referred Visa
The referred visa is one that requires special clearance or permission from the Director of Immigration Services in Dar es Salaam or the Principal Immigration Officer in Zanzibar. This type of visa is required for nationals of Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia and for Refugees, stateless people and other nationalities as may be specified from time to time by the authorities. People affected by this regulation may make enquiries at the nearest Tanzania mission abroad."

So I've asked my office people to get in touch with the people I'm going to see in Tanzania, but as it stands, there's no guarantee that I'll be seeing another African country anytime soon :-(

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Icy memories, Adichie's new story&reading Mr Zadie Smith

Winter finally arrived yesterday. Last night walking home it was so cold that I had to put on my gloves- the first time this winter. Then this morning I woke up to see the cars in the street thickly coated in white as if pranksters had gone haywire covering them with balls of cotton wool- it had snowed overnight. Walking out of the front door, I had to walk carefully to avoid slipping on the icy pavement which was decorated with slabs of ice.The ice reminded me of my childhood- ever so often my mother would decide that it was time to defrost the huge "deep freeze" that sat in a room of its own between the kitchen and the food store. She would unload the plastic containers of soup and stew and meat stock and the chunks of raw meat and dried fish that filled its maw and would set to work with a little chisel. None of the house helps were allowed to do this- not after an incident (long embedded in family legend) when a previous househelp had inadvertently pierced the silver skin of a previous fridge with a knife- letting the coolant leak and rendering the fridge useless. When my mother was done with her chisel, we would struggle to carry the slabs of ice out and pour them out on the grass behind the kitchen. There we would compete to see who could stand the longest in bare feet on the ice- we would play with the ice until it all melted away. This morning looking at the ice on the pavement and on the road I remembered this.

Chimamanda Adichie has a new short story in The New Yorker

Yesterday, working from home for the morning I caught part of what sounded like a very interesting programme on Radio 4- Called Women on the Verge of Serious Power, it looked at Margaret Thatcher's rise to power in Britain and comparing it with Segolene Royal in France and Hillary Clinton in the US bids for the top job....unfortunately I had to leave for a meeting and missed most of it....

I'm currently reading Utterly Monkey- the novel by Nick Laird the erstwhile lawyer and now poet who in a different incarnation is Mr Zadie Smith- one of her books was dedicated to him- My Sweet Laird it read. His book is quite good-it's set in Belfast and London and follows Danny a Northern Irish lawyer working in London and in love (?) with Ellen who's a black girl working in the same firm. There's a scene in a Belfast hotel -The Europa- which I stayed in last year and he captures the atmosphere so well. I wonder why more hasn't been made of it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A "good" weekend

I finally finished House of Stone by Christina Lamb and I thoroughly enjoyed it- it's a very interesting account of the recent history of Zimbabwe seen through the eyes of Aquinata, a black domestic maid and Nigel her white employer, and is written in a very readable style. The whole Zimbabwe story is intriguing not least the metamorphoses of "Bob" Mugabe.....but that's the subject for another day's blog....

I had a good weekend- strolling through Leicester Square I saw the barriers going up for the premiere of Dreamgirls starring Beyonce and Eddie Murphy. I've often strolled through Lecicester Square in the hours before a movie premiere, but yesterday for the first time a fleeting thought that I ought perhaps to join the few fans slowly gathering in front of the Odeon Leicester Square wound its way through my head- fortunately the feeling passed...

Headed to Angies, arguably the most upmarket Nigerian restaurant in London for their Sunday buffet lunch. Not only do they offer good Nigerian food in a clean restaurant that avoids the cliched plastic flowers and plastic tablecloths of many of its competitors, but they also provide good service- the waitress was quietly solicitous without being obtrusive- bringing a bowl of washing up water when one of our party started on his pounded yam and generally making sure that we got whatever help we wanted even before we asked. With the music of Yinka Ayefele softly playing in the background, the spread of jollof rice, fried rice (the Naija version), fried plantains, two choices of stew (complete with chicken, beef and cowleg) , egusi and pounded yam made for a pleasing alternative to an English Sunday lunch. They even have a website and a takeaway and delivery service and you can apparently even order online . While there I heard from another customer that Yellow Chili, the Lagos restaurant that's making waves is set to open in London- bring it on I say....

On Friday I stumbled across a Nigerian story on The Smoking Gun- the website that exposed author James Frey's lies. My first instinct was to blog on it bagging a Nigerian blogworld exclusive :-) but on second thoughts I sanctimoniously decided not to because I felt it would be hurtful . In any case, by the end of the weekend, others- journalists and websites had picked up on it but I couldn't help feeling a little pleased with myself for my self restraint- how sad is that?

I guess I'm just not cut out to be a tabloid journalist, there goes my chance of the big bucks....

Friday, January 19, 2007

On big brother, racism, twins in Nigerian literature and reading House of Stone

The airwaves, the coffee bars and dinner tables of Britain have been agog over the antics on the Celebrity Big Brother show. At the heart of most of the furore (centering around the bullying of Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood actress by Jade Goody, a previous winner of Big Brother) has been the question of whether or not there were racist undertones to the bullying. Various people have been wheeled out to spew their various positions. India is threatening a diplomatic incident which has ended up overshadowing Gordon Brown's tour of the country. Carphone Warehouse has pulled its sponsorship of the show and the Perfume Shop has pulled Jade Goody's perfume from its shelves. Everyone is working themselves into a lather and of course the Big Brother producers are laughing all the way to the bank as their viewing and text message figures soar.

I've always thought that whoever invented the reality show format deserves a Nobel Prize for business (if such a thing exists). You rake in money from sponsorship and adverts and then whip up controversy and make the public load your pockets even more through their telephone calls and text messages- a no brainer really. But I digress.

I've been meaning to post about Big Brother for a while- about how the British middle-classes and intelligentsia sneer publicly at its inanity but cannot restrain themselves from wittering on about it. Of course it's all dressed up as pseudo scholarly analysis but the end result is that people like me who do not watch the programme are nevertheless assailed with reports of the antics on the programme on television, radio and media even the supposedly highbrow ones.

Now my indifference to Big Brother has nothing to do with snobbery- I don't think I'm too good or too intelligent to watch it- I've watched/read and still watch/read loads of trash in my time- It's just that the few times I've tried to watch it, it's been literally like watching paint dry- dead boring. But to each his or her own

What has surprised me about this latest furore is the debate about whether or not it is racist to make fun of people's food and eating habits, suggest that their hygiene is dubious, and mock their skin colour. Various commentators have suggested that it is merely about class- Goody and her posse are ignorant working class gits who resent Shetty's beauty, erudition and sophistication hence their bullying. These analyses of course fail to take into account the power dynamics inherent in racism. If Shetty was an upper class white English person whose ways were as different to Goody as Shetty's would Jade and her posse for instance so readily mock her food and hygiene habits? I rather doubt it. It's the same reason that commentators who point out that Shetty and Jermaine Jackson had had a conversation in which they referred to Goody as "white trash" in order to try and equate the two get it wrong.

Racism is complex and difficult to untangle especially in modern day Britain where people are encouraged to put on a smile while their hearts seethe and where the dynamics are far more subtle than in the past, but at its heart remains the concept that you are better than someone else merely because your race is different. On this count, I'm afraid I'd find Goody et al guilty, but then I would wouldn't I?

That said most of the ranting (on both sides) is utter hypocrisy and showmanship. The sooner the whole spectacle ends and we can get on with our lives the better.

More cheeringly, I see that while I was away in Nigeria, Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun has been included in the Richard and Judy Book Club list for 2007. For those who don't know- Richard and Judy are a couple who run a chat show and have apparently become very powerful in the British book industry as many books they pick out for their Book Club see their sales soaring. I hope this happens for Chimamanda...For other books in the list see here For an article on Richard and Judy and their power in the book industry see here,6000,1156756,00.html

Meanwhile, Helon Habila's long awaited followup to his stunning Waiting for an Angel is due out in a few weeks. Measuring Time is the story of twin brothers growing up in a Nigerian village I wonder why the theme of twins recurs in so much recent Nigerian ( I use the term loosely) literature- think Olanna and Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun, Georgia and Bessi in Diana Evans 26a, Jess and TillyTilly (not quite but close) in Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl and now Mamo and La Mamo in Habila's Measuring Time- perhaps this is an idea for a paper from the more scholarly amongst us.....Perhaps it's to do with the contrasting feelings of love and exasperation that Nigeria stimulates in most of us....

I'm currently reading House of Stone-Christina Lamb's true account of a white Zimbabwean farming family and their erstwhile much loved nanny who led the takeover of their farm. Lamb traces the lives of the two main characters deftly and fairly even handedly so far...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Nigerian incident

A childhood friend comes to visit. We're having a party. His wife and four kids are in tow. He's a highly qualified professional- doing well by Nigerian standards, the driver and car are there parked in the foreground of our compound to prove it. As is the wife- professional, well-educated, turned out in an expensive lace long skirt and blouse. Up our front steps she struggles- to hang on to the baby, the baby bag and the two older ones' hands while at the same time hitching up her "tight-knee" skirt to negotiate the steep steps. Husband (my friend) strides obliviously on. I go to her and take the baby bag and the two older ones off her hands. Her relief is palpable.

I settle them in and explain that the buffet is open. It's serve yourself as we say. She looks around trying to negotiate what to do with the kids. Husband is deeply engrossed in conversation with some other friends, seemingly oblivious to the problem. I take their order and then go and get what she wants and serves them. Husband swivels round and says what he would like to eat. She abandons feeding the children and heads for the buffet and is soon back with hubby's order. The whole family tuck in.

My friend does not seem to have changed, he's still the same funny, humane person- passionate about Nigerian development and about Nigeria moving forward. We discuss various projects and initiatives that he's involved in.

Yet his treatment of his wife rankles. I keep quiet till the next day. Over a drink I gently, half-humorously raise my observations. He laughs as he tells me that I have turned oyibo- brainwashed by the English. I disagree, reminding him of our heated conversations in university, our rejection of the status quo. That was theory he says- this is practice. We turn to other less contentious subjects, but I still can't shake off my confusion.

The gap between us looms....

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Happy New Year!

Been a while, been working and travelling - Christmas in a small Spanish town near Valencia- Christmas Eve (noche buena) was such an experience spending a traditional Spanish Christmas with a friend's family where no one spoke English and my non-existent Spanish struggled to leap across the gap, but the sheer warmth of humanity bridged it.....

Then to an English friend's country wedding party immediately after Christmas and

Then home to Naija for New Year', friends, fuel shortage, fun, and everywhere awash in brightly coloured election posters- at least hopefully the printers and graphic artists are chopping small....

I just got back- but there's so much to process and digest and absorb...the multiplicity and the rich and varying strands in the fabric that is my life today

I'll try and blog about it all at some point when I've got a better handle on things...

Meanwhile recent reading-(How do you think I got through all those flights and train journeys):

Kiran Desai's Booker winning The Inheritance of Loss which I enjoyed, although I would probably have given the Booker to Kate Grenville's heartrending The Secret River. I found myself flinching physically at the pain some of her characters went through....
Fatou Diome's The Belly of the Atlantic captured the realities of the immigrant experience deftly. The actor Rupert Everett's autobiography Red Carpets and other Banana Skins while very well-written was slightly too choppy and episodic for my liking. John Cornwell's Seminary Boy was an illuminating and thoughtful account of his childhood and youthful struggles with the Catholic faith, Nigeria's City People and National Encomium were time-passing fodder for the airport lounges with their inane, poorly written and researched accounts of the doings of various Lagos and Abuja Big Boys and Girls, the current edition of Farafina guest edited by Ike Oguine was a refreshing contrast ....