Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Transformation, the fragility of peace & Wainaina's columns

On my way to a meeting, I board the train, and take my seat behind two friends, female, young, blonde; obviously, like me on the way to work. They, unlike me, bag a table and proceed to chatter and giggle their way through most of the twenty minute journey, then five minutes to the first stop, they whip out little purses, unzip them and in a moment, I stare transfixed as the table surface is transformed into a display to rival that of any salon. I watch as they carefully, slowly, layer by layer, lay on the make-up, seemingly unaffected by the jolting of the train- first, various liquids are applied to the whole face, or to pars thereof and then it is time to concentrate on the eyes with various wand-like implements, and then the lips are outlined, filled in, shaded and tinted with a delicacy of movement that would put Van Gogh to shame. As we pull into the station, they pack up their gear, put the purses away and lift their bags to leave the train- as they walk past my seat, I see that they are transformed- those amongst you who think that makeup does not work should think again....this was such a slick operation, miles away from my mother's spartan pancake and eye pencil routine when I was growing up...

A colleague waylays me in the small office kitchen, I had somewhat foolishly given her a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun at Christmas and so now she wants to know more- "Do these", she stumbles over the word, waves a hand, "differences still exist in Nigeria?" I want to say, well, yes to some extent but that things are a lot better now, especially among the younger generation like me and then I remember Kenya, my visit last week to some of the Kenyan blogs and forums and I realize how fragile our peace is. And so I stammer a reply, pointing out the role that economic tensions play in situations like this.To bolster my case, I quote from Winnie and Wolf, the fictionalized account (by AN Wilson) of the relationship between Hitler and Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of the composer which I read over Christmas. I describe how Wilson captures the mood in Germany between the wars, charting convincingly what it felt like to ordinary people. The humiliating grinding poverty following the First war and then the rise of Hitler and his thuggish hordes who appear to restore German pride and confidence and the economy....so what if as a consequence a small minority suffered, the majority were glad to revel in their improved circumstances....The lesson I think is that peace is fragile, no matter where you are...

I stumbled across this DFID supported site which seems like a good idea if you are sending money home

Nigerian writer Nnedi Okoroafor Mbachu who has dropped by here before is one of the winners of the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa in the junior category for her book Long Juju Man

If, like me, you are a fan of Binyavanga "How to Write About Africa" Wainaina's, acerbic but thoughtful writing, my recent discovery of his columns for South Africa's Mail and Guardian will please you as it does me. His articles on the troubles in his home country of Kenya are poignant and insightful...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Burantashi etc

Having not had the chance to check my uknaija email in a while, I finally got round to it and was pleasantly surprised by the number of emails there. The most interesting was from a gentleman asking if I could tell him where to buy burantashi as he has “suffered from ED” for a number of years. Burantashi had almost mythological status when I was growing up in Nigeria- it was the Hausa herbal answer to Viagra- and stories circulated of boys and men who had used it and subsequently ended up in accident and emergency units, laid low by the -ahem- potency of the product. Reading the email made a welcome change from the hundreds of spam messages asking if I would like to buy Viagra or other similar products. My correspondent appears to be based in Yugoslavia, and so it appears a business opportunity beckons for Northern Nigerian herbalists. If anyone knows suppliers of burantashi in Europe, please drop me a discreet line…

The six boys cluster round their teacher, smartly dressed in school uniform, obviously on a school trip or excursion of some sort. Seeing them, I am taken back to my school days, the prestige of being selected to represent the school at debates and quiz competitions; the freedom of being allowed to cut classes for the day and breathe the air of the outside world. Even more exhilarating were those occasions when we were successful and brought the trophy back- ah the heady giddiness of those days….

I’ve been reading a lot of what my literary friend disparagingly calls bubble-gum reading- perhaps it’s the January blues that are making me averse to plunging into anything too meaty or tasking. Having just finished Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles- with its lurid pink cover- a challenge to lug on to a train-, I progressed to Elinor Lipman’s My Latest Grievance, which had me laughing all the way through and looking forward to more Lipman tales.I am now simultaneously reading The Importance of Being Eton, a slim volume by an Old Etonian exploring the school’s place in English mythology and society and Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma which examines changes in Dutch society through the prism of the murder of Theo Van Gogh. I quite enjoyed The Diana Chronicles for its insights into contemporary British royal society, and while it was criticized for not having any new revelations in it, it certainly did pull together lots of different strands together in a very readable way. And reading it while the inquest goes on, breathlessly covered in the newspapers, perhaps made it even more readable.

I’ve also just finished Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and gained a newer respect for him- I don’t always agree with him, but I can appreciate his freshness and appeal and his willingness to admit that he hasn’t necessarily got the right answers. His humanity comes across so vividly. And he writes well. I still remember a Nigerian friend from the US ringing me, breathless with excitement after Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention four years ago, convinced that he had just experienced a dramatic historical moment. Yet if I was in the US and a Democrat, I’m not sure who I’d vote for….don’t ask me why- I’m not sure I know the answer myself….

In Nigeria, the sadness of dysfunctional families doomed and locked into a cycle of hurt and despair grabbed the headlines, and made me cringe even as Lucky Igbinedion another of the hapless ex-governors was detained by the anti-corruption body the EFCC. Let’s hope he doesn’t fall ill and end up at the National Hospital Abuja like his mate Ibori…

I was pleased when Gordon Brown appointed Jacqui Smith as the first female Home Secretary, a refreshing break, I thought, from Blair’s tradition of appointing tough-talking bully-boys to the post. I was even more impressed when only a few days in post, she responded to the attempted bombing of Glasgow airport with level-headed calmness. I set this out to explain my bewilderment at her recent admission that she would not walk the streets of London at night- not in notorious Hackney and not in salubrious Kensington and Chelsea. Having walked the streets of Hackney late at night recently after seeing a play at the Arcola and then a meal at Obalende Suya, I am appalled by her comments, especially for the naivete she betrays when she says walking after midnight on the streets is not something people do. I have often argued with some of my City friends about the degree to which the rich and powerful are cocooned from “real life” but Ms Smith’s comments suggest a gap even wider than I had imagined…

Petina Gappah who’s visited us on this blog more than once now has her own blog and Igoni Barrett of Farafina has an excerpt from his forthcoming novel published in Guernica

Writing for radio workshop Nigeria

Sent to me by a friend of a friend...will blog properly later

Are you interested in writing for radio and live in Nigeria?

British Council Nigeria would like to pilot a programme to promote literature development through radio. This programme will be established as legacy activity following the Crossing Borders online mentoring project. It is further stimulated by feedback from the Beyond Borders Festival of Contemporary African writing (October 2006) outlining the need for more holistic literature development policies to continue to provide professional development opportunities for writers and to support the development of new audiences for writing.

The programme will provide critical support from UK-based professional writers who will deliver 5-day creative writing workshops in Nigeria in March 2008. We hope to produce, record and air some of the selected creative pieces in collaboration with a broadcast partner in Nigeria later in 2008.

We are looking to work with 48 writers across Nigeria on this pilot phase. We would like to engage writers who are keen to develop new skills in radio writing that explore exciting topical issues. We invite applications from writers who must:
• be Nigerian citizens
• be aged between 18 and 40 years
• be experienced writers with a portfolio of original work and a strong interest in short fiction, the use of dialogue, and narrative voice
• have an excellent standard of written English and be able to use its idioms creatively
• have a strong commitment to developing their work and that of other writers, through participating in creative writing networks
• be able to dedicate the time to complete writing assignments by agreed deadlines and fully engage in all aspects of the process
• be available for the live workshops (March 2008 exact dates to be confirmed)
• possess word processing and basic Internet access skills

Former Crossing Borders participants are encouraged to apply.

If you are interested in applying for a place please send:
- a one-page letter of interest with an original idea for a short story (theme and narrative treatment) and a statement explaining how you expect to benefit from participating in the programme
- a one-page Curriculum Vitae with your name, age, gender, contact details and details of any publications
- 2 sides of A4 prose writing – can be an existing story or novel extract. Remember that the first sentence has to attract and hold our attention!

The closing date for applications is 30 January 2008. Successful applicants will be notified by 18 February 2008.
All applications should be sent or e-mailed to:

The Project Coordinator (Connected Africa Arts)
British Council
20 Thompson Avenue

E-mail: Olamipo.bello@ ng.britishcounci l.org

Monday, January 14, 2008

Happy New Year

I am a few minutes from the train station swaddled in the several layers that the now-icy weather has forced me to adopt when I hear the heart stopping shriek. Like many other commuters, busily burrowing our way to work, my head swivels in the direction of the noise. There are three teenage girls, all black, dressed in school uniform, stopping on their way to school, and the shrieking is apparently, merely an expression of their exuberance. At first I cringe, wondering why we are so noisy, a thought guiltily repressed as I remember a poem by an African American poet from the thirties I once read in which the poet mocked high class “Negroes” bitching about low-class “Negroes” and their shaming ways. As I reflect guiltily on this, I board my train and soon another bunch of giggling teenagers, this time white, indulge in their own hilarity and banish my casual stereotyping..….

Christmas Day in London was a revelation- the empty streets, the silence, was strangely quite soul-warming. Christmas lunch with my British Nigerian friend and his extended family meant a first course of turkey and stuffing, with all the trimmings (produced by my friend’s wife) and then later a course of pepper soup, jollof rice, moimoi and plantain produced by his mother and sister.

On Christmas Eve I was silly enough to agree to meet a friend who was on his way back to Nigeria at John Lewis on Oxford Street. Emerging from the Underground, I found that I could not walk but had to let the crush of bodies which had enfolded me propel me along until it spat me out on a pavement on the other side of the road. My progress was not helped by the crowds of gawkers stopping to stare in shop windows and I wished that there could be two lanes- one for those of us with appointments to keep, and another for those who had come to admire the window displays and the Christmas lights….such an unseasonal thought

Going back to work- chatting to a couple of our female senior executives and enquiring after their exertions, I was struck by how, for all the talk of equal rights, ultimately the task of ensuring a happy family Christmas is still a female job...as evidenced by my own experience... 

So much has happened while I have been away from blogging- Kenya, Obama, Benazir, Ribadu, and trying to capture my thoughts on these will be too difficult. The lowest point for me though, was Kenya. Sitting at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve, I vainly tried to argue that what was happening in Kenya was no general descent of savage Africans into tribal killing and mayhem. As I listened to the smug interpolations from various other guests, I thought to myself, “Why do our leaders do this to us?” If Kibaki and Odinga and all the others realized what damage they were doing to the African cause worldwide with their antics, perhaps they’d be a little bit more conciliatory in their utterances and actions. In the end I resorted to Binyavanga Wainaina’s exhortation to remember that the oldest African country is barely more than fifty years old..

The break was a good time for reading- I finished off The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Hamid Mohsin, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. There was plenty to reflect on in the pages of that slim book, especially for an immigrant from a developing country to the West… I also read Cathy Flynn’s What Was Lost, surprise winner of the Costa Fiction Prize and Anne Enright’s The Gathering which won the Booker- Flynn I enjoyed in its bare description of a gritty shopping centre which reminded me of a centre near where I used to live, but found Enright a bit less gripping than I had expected. Perhaps, stereotyping again I had expected the Irish gift of the gab to unravel in a richly woven story, and the elements and language were there but I felt I could have stopped reading it at any time and not missed it…

Happy New Year to all the faithful and passing readers of this blog....you literally keep me going :-)