Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Review: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala Trees

Under the Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta’s debut literary novel, set in South-Eastern Nigeria during and after the civil war, explores themes of same-sex love, religious bigotry, betrayal and abandonment through the eyes of Ijeoma, the young, star-crossed female protagonist.  

In the second year of the war, Ijeoma’s father dies in an air raid, leaving his wife, Adaora, to raise their preteen daughter alone with little means. Despondent and determined to shed all reminders of her husband, Adaora relocates from Ojoto to her late parents’ house in Aba but not before dropping Ijeoma off with the grammar school teacher, an old friend of her father’s living in Nnewi. She explains to Ijeoma the arrangement is temporary, promising to send for her as soon as possible. Read more here.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Everything That's Wrong With Your Accent

Photo: Pixabay.com
If you listen to Nigerian radio programs, especially those broadcasting from major cities, you'd have heard some radio presenters and guests adopting fake American or British accents. Sometimes, both accents make their way out of a person's mouth. While elucidation is important for a TV or radio career, one must understand elucidation has nothing to do with sounding foreign. A Nigerian accent is fine as it is. Read more here.    

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Tale of an African-Only Bookstore

I've had to use a Kindle to read African literature since bookstores in Nigeria, if you find them, barely stock books by African Authors
Photo: Shayera Dark
A recent story by The New Yorker about an all African bookstore in Kenya sent tempers flaring on the magazine's Facebook page. Some readers, mostly non-African, accused the bookstore owner of racism, questioning the rationale in selling only books by black authors. While others welcomed the idea, arguing most bookstores on the continent peddled Western literature.

Read more here.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Americans And The Menace of PC Culture

What Political Correctness is Starting to Look Like
Photo: Creative Commons
The Atlantic recently published a piece I wrote on political correctness in American society and the desire to take offence at inconsequential matters. With Donald Trump's take-no-prisoner style and zero regard for decorum, many wonder if the rise of PC culture is to blame for his win. 
The article is split into two parts. The first briefly addresses Trump's win and what it means for Nigeria; the second focuses on political correctness. 
As a woman, Hillary’s loss was a great disappointment. She came prepared but lost to an egomaniac. I believe Trump’s win only reinforces toxic masculinity and meanness. You can be a straight shooter without being odious.
The day after the election, I did a vox pop [an interview with members of the public] in a cafe in Lagos. Most people were surprised and disappointed that Trump won, but they didn’t think his presidency would affect Nigeria substantially. They had a let’s-wait-and-see view. Read more here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

When Surreality Became Reality

Photo: Shayera Dark
Do you recall what you were doing this same time eight years ago? I do. Vividly.
I was sick as a dog from eating tainted food the night before, lying in some hotel room on the outskirts of town, thinking my end was nigh. I drifted in and out of sleep, and on occasion heard my mom scolding the receptionist for changing the channel from CNN to Movie Magic. For some strange reason, the receptionist had control over guests’ TVs.

I remember somewhere between 3 and 4 am, feeling much better and then bam! He won! He won! Barack Obama, a dark-skinned biracial man with unmistakably African names, a relatively unknown senator from Chicago, a man who grew up with an absent father was president of the United States of America. Almost immediately, my phone began beeping from text messages from friends and families, thrilled at what was a historical moment. Later that day, I would change my Facebook status, slightly altering a line from Tupac’s Changes from ‘We ain’t ready to see a black president’ to ‘America is ready to see a black president.’

In 2012, I remember finishing a blog post titled Four More Years, the popular refrain to Obama’s re-election bid. I couldn’t watch the debate because I had to go to work the next day. Ok, I lie. Actually, I couldn’t bear to see him lose to Mitt Romney, that’s the main reason I chose to go to bed. The pain of having to witness Obama become a one-term president was too much to handle, so I turned out the lights.

Yet, it was the first thing I wanted to know the minute I woke up. Quickly, I went online and once again, he had won.

Fast-forward to 2016, and I’m here, sitting on the floor, willing my heart to be still. The impending mood almost seems like a replica of the 2012 race, where Romney gave Obama a run for his money. But unlike election night in 2012, the stakes today are tremendously high. You can read more here.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Art X Lagos: A Visual Paradise

Photo: Benediction of Eve/Sokari Douglas Camp 
This weekend, 30 exhibitions by 65 artists and galleries from 10 African countries and the diaspora converged at The Civic Centre in Victoria Island, Lagos. From 4th to 6th November, the new contemporary art fair presented by Art X Lagos captivated African art collectors and connoisseurs as well as those with no inkling of art.

Visitors wishing to relive childhood memories or simply try their hands at art were treated to Karo Akpokiere’s seven-metre long colouring wall—a metonymic depiction of Lagos’s social class via references to the Island and the Mainland.

While the fair’s theme Conversation Starters seemed broad if not redundant, since works of art generally evoke conversation, it freed artists from having to choose a particular subject matter or form of art for their exhibition. Different media such as wood, Photoshop, metal, mosaics, water colour and concrete were featured, with some artists like Obiora Anidi combining two or more media to bring their ideas to life. Read more here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

When the American Dream is an Illusion

Recently, I read Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers, a riveting page-turner that tells the tale of African immigrants in America. So moved was I by the story that it compelled me to do what I've never done before: write a book review.

Imbolo Mbue’s impressive debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, is one of those books that truly lives up to its hype. It’s a superbly written, evocative and a riveting read that centres on the illusion of the American dream, a term I’ll use lightly in this piece since the ideals of freedom, equality and financial independence are not inherently American but universal.

The story unfolds through the eyes of the protagonist, Jende Jonga, the pragmatic and good-natured Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, New York, and his smart, determined wife, Neni, detailing how their lives become entwined with that of a wealthy white American family after Jende is employed to chauffeur a Lehman Brothers executive. Both Jende and Neni are enamoured with the idea of the American dream and set about doing what they can to achieve it, while fervently hoping that Jende’s application for asylum is accepted. You can read the rest here.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

President Buhari with Nigerians in the Other Room

The Other Room
Photo: Weidner/Flickr
It began with Nigeria’s First Lady, Aisha Buhari, expressing her displeasure in a BBC interview on Thursday over her husband’s political appointments, and warning that if he didn’t change his ways, she may not campaign for his re-election.

Though it remains unclear whether the First Lady was suggesting the president reward friends with political appointments or that she was genuinely concerned about the ineptitude of his cabinet, what was apparent was her dissatisfaction with her husband’s leadership... Read more here

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Which Way Nigeria?

Photo: Shayera Dark
The British pulled out of Nigeria fifty-six years ago today to wild euphoria and jubilation. Finally, Nigerians were in control of their destiny and resources, and could now stir the ship they had been forced to board in whatever direction they wanted.

Fifty-six years of statehood is a relatively short one in comparison to countries that have existed for over two centuries. Still, for any country that has experienced coups, a bitter civil war and years of military dictatorship, it feels like a very long history that deserves to be commemorated.

Hence, in honour of Independence Day, here are five achievements worth celebrating.

Divide and Rule: We’ve been told there’s unity in diversity, yet Nigerians don’t see anything but distrust for anyone outside their own circle. It’s easier giving English, Hebrew and Arabic names to our children than choosing a name from a neighbouring tribe. We’re so good at pointing our differences than our unifying qualities, which is why the slightest variation must be highlighted.

A typical Nigerian doesn’t see Nigeria as one, indivisible entity. No. In their mind, Nigeria comprises separate entities: the North and the South, and as such, Southerners couldn’t care less about Boko Haram and Northerners about the environmental degradation of the Niger-Delta.

Northern and Southern Nigeria can also be further split into six different geopolitical zones: North East, North Central, North West, South East, South West and the South South. These zones contain the nation’s thirty-six states, ostensibly created to end the bullying relationship that existed between minority tribes and the offending majority tribes. Still, these ‘minority’ states and their governors have done nothing but prove they are just as good at oppressing other minority tribes and looting state coffers like the majority tribes. In essence, the ‘difference’ between minority and majority tribes is nothing more than a tool politicians use every four years to trick their blind supporters into getting them into office and the state’s treasury.       

Another way Nigerians love to differentiate themselves is with religion. The two biggest religions view each other with the evil eye, a fact that influences politics as the president and their vice cannot belong to the same faith. This mistrust exists within the same religion, where marriage between Protestants and Catholics is frowned upon and Sunni and Shiites view each other with suspicion.

Mind-boggling Corruption: Thievery by ministers, governors and presidents is as normal as sunlight and, hence, no longer shocks the average Nigerian.

When Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser, was detained over his involvement in a 2.2 billion dollars (that’s million with a ‘B’) deal fraud, people barely batted an eyelid. What was even more alarming about the affair was that the misappropriated funds were meant for military hardware for soldiers who were engaging Boko Haram in a mortal combat.   

The good news is Dasuki remains in custody for his alleged crime, but what about the others who’ve looted the country blind? What about Stella Oduah, who was fired from her position as Aviation Minister under a cloud of misusing 255 million naira to purchase armoured cars? She’s a senator now. And the ex-presidents, military heads of state, and former governors who dipped their crooked hands in the cookie jar? They’re still flying high and free. Why? Because only scapegoats get caught.

Heedless Leadership: Remember the Chibok girls? Well, since the new government still hasn’t staged a rescue operation, they remain captive along with some boys and women who were/are excluded from the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.

Imagine for a second, being away from family and friends, going hungry for days on end, possibly being raped every week and not knowing if today would be your last day alive. Imagine being the parent of one of those kids, and having to hear for 29 months from government officials that they’re doing their best to bring your child home. No one seems to understand that every day is one day too long, twenty-nine months a lifetime.

Imagine if those girls were the daughters of the president, vice-president, Dangote and any of the governors, do you think we would still be talking about Boko Haram? Or that the government would have waited for Michelle Obama to carry a #BringBackOurGirls sign to spring into action?

Decaying Infrastructure: During the recent presidential debate, Donald Trump deplored the state of American airports, erroneously comparing them to those in third world countries. Now, if The Donald were to visit Port-Harcourt’s so-called international airport, he’d retract his words, apologise to the American people and be grateful.

I can’t even begin to describe the dilapidated state of the world’s worst airport, where passengers have to walk the runway to the arrival hall—a makeshift cubicle, and wait for their luggage to be physically lugged to them. There are no carousels, escalators or elevators. There’s nothing at all indicating the 21st century.

The same could be said of our roads, seaports, railways, bridges and power grids, which are either insufficient or decrepit.

Eternal Recession: The great recession that began in 2008 had little to no effect Nigerians as we were already accustomed to living with a bad economy and mass unemployment. But with the dollar now exchanging for 478 naira, thanks to the fall in oil prices, our eternal recession may soon become a depression.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to President Buhari’s campaign promise of making one naira exchange for a dollar? Is his magic stick not working, or is he waiting to pull the cow from his hat just before his term runs out in 2019?

Once upon a time, Nigerians abroad rarely stayed back, preferring instead to return on completion of their education to build the country. Today, they overstay their visas and are either deported or go underground.

At the time of independence, kidnapping was unheard of, graduates were guaranteed employment and education, though not top notch, was still better than what’s on offer by some of these private schools today.

While countries less wealthy improve economically, politically and otherwise, Africa's largest economy is moonwalking into a pit of despair because our lawmakers care only about their bank accounts and the masses their stomachs.

This begs the question: Which way Nigeria?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Six Ways to Find Your Passion

Photo: Shayera Dark
For some, identifying their passion is a walk in the park. They don’t need the help of a guardian counselor to point them to the rainbow’s end because they already know where it is. This category of people know what drives them—an awareness they discovered in utero or accidentally stumbled upon early on in life. Either way, they’ve been spared the trouble of having to find where their heart lies.

The rest of us, however, are stuck with hours of self-reflection, countless meetings with a career coach and general cluelessness. The very question: ‘what are you passionate about?’ elicits the same level of dread as having one’s tooth pulled without anesthesia, because society expects us to know what it is.

If you fall in the latter category, fear not, kiddo, for these six commandments have got you covered.

Thou shall quit your job
Staying on a job you hate and griping about how much you hate isn’t going to lead to a light bulb moment. Trust me, it won’t. But quitting will. Transitioning from employed to unemployed will likely make finding your passion more urgent… and, yes, uncomfortable considering the scary economy and unemployment statistics. But with the new extra time, you can channel your energy into discovering the gritty stuff you’re made of by following the next commandment.

Thou shall experiment
Breaking out of a routine is one way to find your passion. Grab at new opportunities wherever you find them. This could mean helping a colleague complete a task at work, volunteering in the accounting department in your local church, or watching a play, even if it’s not your thing. You’d be surprised at what tickles your interest, and in return your passion could be unlocked.

Thou shall ask questions
Self-reflection and asking questions offer illuminating insightWhat would you be doing with your time if you were filthy rich with no worries in the world? What would you do if failure wasn’t an option or didn’t give a damn about social approval? What are willing to suffer for or readily do for free for the next six months with a smile on your face?

Be truthful with your answers (even those you think might cause your friends and family to give you the stink eye), then write them all down, evaluating each candidly. 

Pay attention to what you enjoy talking about, your favorite novels, songs and movies. How do you spend your days off? A common theme should connect them all. If so, find a way of incorporating it into your current job or converting it into a business.

For example, if you love travelling (both physically and through art), you could start a culture blog featuring photography, book reviews and travel articles—and possibly make money from it.

Photo: Shayera Dark

Thou shall consult other human beings
No (wo)man is born an island, and that’s why you need to reach out to those living out their passion for help. Search the web for articles about how they found their passion. Read memoirs of successful business people and those you admire for inspiration. Ask a mentor, co-workers or friends who are likely to support you to highlight your best qualities or talents, and use the information to clue you in on what makes you tick.

Thou shall take a trip down memory lane
As a kid, what were the things you did for hours on end that never grew tiring or boring? What classes were a delight before momma and dada forced you to become a doctor, lawyer or an engineer? Your passion may lie in those lousy poems you wrote in junior secondary that no one read, the games you enjoyed playing, or in that book with dog-eared pages and a cracked spine. Making a list of all the things that brought you joy at age 7 would help resurrect forgotten passions to life.

And if all fails…

Thou shall write an obit 
That's right, an obituary. No, I dont wish death upon you. For a minute or two, drop your superstitions and write what you would like it to read. Not only would you be amazed at the things you come up with, the exercise will take you a step closer to the things youre enthusiastic about.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Finding Exemplary Leaders

Diogenes the Cynic
Photo: Wikicommons/Tony F
Leaders inspire exemplary behavior. We look to them to guide us in the face of uncertainty and see them as unifiers in times of discord. Leaders are visionaries who demonstrate tact, poise and levelheadedness under pressure, check their egos, and look beyond their interests for the greater common good.

In more ways than one, Barack Obama has displayed leadership qualities.

In the course of his presidency, President Obama has reacted with grace to provocations ranging from false assertions regarding his place of birth to Congressman Joe Wilson’s infamous ‘You lie’ interjection at his first State of the Union address. He put behind him the criticisms his one-time rivals Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton leveled at him during the presidential debates, offering them high profile positions in his administration. And where disasters have struck, he has been quick to show concern and offer support to affected Americans regardless of creed or party affiliation—like he did with New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie. Both men shared a much publicized friendly hug when Obama visited the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In his eight years in office, Obama has consistently shown, through his actions and words that he is the president of all Americans, not just of blue states, Christians or Blacks.

By contrast, President Buhari’s conduct since becoming president has been unsurprisingly parochial. Unsurprising, because in 2012, he spoke ominously of bloodshed if the presidential elections weren’t transparent, and having won in 2015, unabashedly asserted that states where he got the least votes shouldn’t expect to benefit from his presidency. Such remarks befit a thin-skinned egoist not a president.

Recently, in keeping with his warped thinking, Buhari shifted responsibility to his party members, asking those ‘friendly’ with Niger-Delta militants to beg them to stop bombing pipelines, as if the Niger-Delta were an autonomous region beyond his jurisdiction. One wonders if his uninterest and unwillingness to visit or engage in talks with the Niger-Delta is rooted in the fact that the region voted overwhelmingly for his rival and then incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. If it is, then he’s got the wrong job. As every good leader knows, listening is the first step in bridge building.

President Buhari’s parochialism has also revealed itself in his loud silence on the vicious attacks wrought by cattle herdsmen on several villages. He remained mum on the issue, until recently, neither condemning them nor sympathizing with bereaved Nigerians. Yet, he’s been quick to offer condolences to France et al in the wake of terror attacks. Perhaps it is his stake in the cattle business that informed his reticence. Either way, through his actions or lack thereof, he has communicated to Nigerians that his interests precedes those of the country. That the change he promised during his campaign was going to be business as usual, where Nigeria’s needs take a back seat to the president’s, as typified by Buhari’s trip to the UK to treat an ear infection, an ear infection for Pete’s sake, amid an economic downturn.

At a time Nigerians are being told to tighten their belts in preparation for a tumultuous ride, the president deemed it fit to spend taxpayer’s money on medical treatment abroad. Lest we forget, the Aso Rock Clinic with a budget of 3.87 billion naira (which costs more than all 16 federal teaching hospitals) caters to the president, vice president, their families and staff. Why couldn’t he take a stroll down there and save Nigeria some cash? Or are Nigerian doctors not up to the task of treating the president?

Granted, the expertise of Nigerian-trained doctors is somewhat questionable, but that’s a corollary the endless stream of vacuous and uninspiring leaders Nigeria has had since independence.

Incidentally, the president, by virtue of his office, could raise the profile of tourist’s attractions across Nigeria and boost the economy if he forwent vacationing abroad. Ever wondered why American presidents favor staycations? Because taxpayer’s dollars are put to work on America soil.

Contrary to what Nigerian leaders claim, they’re not interested in serving our fatherland with love and strength and faith. Otherwise, the missing Chibok girls would have been rescued ages ago, divide-and rule stratagems won’t be employed to win elections and looters of public funds won’t be rewarded with ministerial positions and the like. 

With that in mind, it would take more than prayers and a lamp to find leaders who can save Nigeria. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

When Revenge Won't Do

In the Face of Adversity, Keep Building Bridges
Photo: Ryan McGuire
The latest shootings in the US are indicative that Obama’s presidency, contrary to what some believe, has done little for race relations. Police systematic targeting of blacks is nothing new. The only difference between then and now is the presence of video evidence and social media to disseminate the fact. Still, technology has not abated the killings, neither has it led to the prosecution of errant officers.

This inability to serve justice has left many in the black community feeling their lives matter less. The outrage and sense of helplessness was what resulted in the killing of five white policemen in Dallas by a black man, claiming just before he was killed by the police that he wanted to kill white cops.

But is retaliation the answer?

My piece in Ayiba Magazine explores that question. You can read it here

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Six Travel Companions You Should Avoid At All Cost

Lac Rose, Senegal
Photo: Shayera
There are a million ways to ruin a dream vacation. Getting sick, having your money, or worse passport, stolen or a terrorist attack are some of a few examples that top most people’s list, but how about a travel companion? Yes, your travel buddy can turn your highly anticipated holiday into a regrettable, unfulfilling experience and leave you smarting long after you’ve returned home, especially if it was your idea to invite them. If you’re skeptical about how a wrong pairing can steal the magic from your magical getaway, this post will convince you otherwise.

The Cyborg: This individual cannot be separated from their hand-held device. They are a couple on an eternal honeymoon, interested more in each other than in you or anything else of interest happening around them. Your questions to them would most likely be answered with an ‘Em, what did you say?’ or silence. If breath-taking experiences are better shared, the Cyborg will leave you feeling you’ve embarked on a solo trip because they have no opinion, or worse recollection, of the Mount Hombori caves you both visited earlier. With eyes permanently glued to their screen, what do you expect?

The Photo-obsessed: While taking pictures to document sights, tastes and sounds of a foreign place is expected, it can easily devolve into a case of looking without seeing when overdone. If your friend spends precious minutes every day photographing every ant, artifact and animal in sight as if they’re on a National Geographic assignment, make no mistake they’re not fully present in the moment as you. So why bother with such a person? And if you’re busy being nice, taking perfect pictures of your friend for their 80th Instagram shot in the last 48 hours, when you’d rather be exploring the sand dunes of the Kalahari, then you’re in trouble. How much was that flight ticket to Namibia again? Meanwhile, somebody better tell Uche with the camera some memories exist better in the head.

The Gourmand: Animating the palate with foreign flavors is one of the most integral aspects of travelling. But if your companion loves to stuff their face every five minutes, their habit may interfere with your plans if you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to pay the transport fare to places of interest by yourself.

Case in point: Imagine your day tour of the Great Pyramid of Khufu is cut short because they’re hungry. And you guys ate a hearty meal, like what, two hours ago? Of course you want to object, but you swallow your anger. You swallow it whole even as it burns your throat, and acquiesce to your friend’s stomach because a solo ride back to the hotel will cost you more. Sated, you both decide to stroll through Khan el-Kahlili, and just as things are starting to get interesting, you hear a murmur, I’m hungry.

The Shopaholic: We all have that one friend who has a black belt in shopping. And if your idea of a good vacation is to shop till you drop, then by all means bring them along. But if you desire to soak in the local ambience, watch the fishermen in the soft glow of sunset cast their nets in the Indian Ocean, or stroll down the alleyways of Stone Town, then you’re in for a rude awakening. You will waste hours collecting material objects that are largely forgettable and whose novelty is sure to wear off, than saving relivable treasures.

Sunset in Zanzibar
Photo: Harvey Barrison
The Whiner: Among travel companions from hell, whiners take the biscuit. They are energy vampires who will suck the fun out of an adventure with their stream of complaints. ‘The hotel room is small.’ … ‘I’m tired of walking.’… ‘The shower isn’t powered.’ … ‘This chicken isn’t dry enough.’ … ‘I don’t like the weather.’ … ‘The air is drying my skin.’ …  ‘My feet are aching and so are my eyelashes.’ By the end of the first day, you’re drained by the whining, and all you want is for your five-day trip to Cote d’Ivoire to end so you can go home and rid yourself of the gadfly.

The Scaredy Cat: Scaredy cats don’t realize the inherent link between travel and risk. There’s the risk of getting lost, and the thrill of stumbling across a hidden historical gem barely touched by tourists along the way. There’s the risk of choking on roasted locusts and the pleasant surprise of discovering they gel with your palate. There’s the fear of being unable to communicate verbally or being misunderstood, yet the joy of sharing a laugh with the little boy who slowly threads your mangled Hausa before handing you the quantity of tiger nuts you requested.

Encountering uncertainties and seeking unknowns, but managing to enjoy every minute outside your comfort zone is the essence of travelling. Nothing is more uninspiring than studying a map so no wrong turns are taken or secluding oneself from the locals. Or sitting across the table from the Scaredy Cat, watching them eat only the same kind of food as you do back home.

One of the benefits of having an intrepid travel companion is that they can order an exotic dish. You can have a portion of their cachupa and they of your ndolé, and both of you get more bang for your buck.

Ndolé - Cameroon's National Dish
Photo: PRA

To be sure, the fear of contracting a stomach bug or upsetting a sensitive belly is a valid one. But that’s why you draw a line on certain foods. So, while drinking cow blood, eating live squid or fermented shark meat—oh, and anything that’s a primate or looks like a rat, even if it’s cooked—are off my list, I’m open to everything else... And if it doesn’t taste good, hey, it’s never that serious.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Beware the Lollipop of Mediocrity

Photo: ogilvydo.com
One of the by-products of corruption in Nigeria is mediocrity, a trait so common it is as pervasive as generator fumes and potholes. Nigerians have learned to accept and expect shoddy services and products to the point anyone who dares highlight the obvious is quickly branded fussy or out-of-touch. Those struggling to rise above the muck of inferiority know going against the currents of mediocrity will eventually take its toll, and are aware they would have to grudgingly accept what’s on offer for the sake of their sanity and peace of mind. And so the cycle of mediocrity continues, fragrantly and unperturbed.

Nigerian private companies, government agencies, schools and the sole proprietor are all guilty of it, and customers often have no choice but to support and tolerate their second-rate products until a foreign alternative comes along. As is the case with breakfast cereals.

Scary childhood tales abound of the gustatory torture endured at the hands of our darling Made in Nigeria cornflakes. From broken teeth suffered from chomping down hard on an unexpected grain of corn to finding burnt flakes in a box, these were complaints no child ever associated with a Kellogg’s product. This was, and still is, why breakfast tables of middle-class Nigerians favored a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes over NASCO’s ‘quality’ cornflakes.

Still, that preference doesn’t make Nigerian breakfast cereal brands sleep less at night, because with 92 percent of Nigerians living on less than two dollars a day, Kellogg’s is but a dream and NASCO their reality. What’s more, when more than half of 180 million people are actively purchasing your product, there’s less inclination to improve on quality.

If corruption is the mother of mediocrity then laziness, a disease that afflicts quite a number of Nigerians, is its father. A typical Nigerian doesn’t want to work, but wants to get paid. But because no one will pay for no work, he goes through the motion of working. This is why those egregious Nollywood movies, where anyone with a camera (I refuse to insult directors) can string a couple of disjointed, unimaginative scenes together within a week and call it a film, exist. The filmmaker’s only motivation is money not the art of entertainment with directing, screenwriting, cinematography, wardrobe and plot being secondary considerations. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because Nigerians have demonstrated they can do better when they put their back into it. We used to in the 90s’ with TV series Checkmate and the early Nollywood movies like Glamour girls, which is why it’s baffling that in the twenty some years of Nollywood’s existence, a 2015 Nigerian movie can’t compete with one from the silent era? Our actors have refused to hone their craft and our special effects are worse than what pertains in a 1940 Hollywood movie.

Photo: Randomolive.com/ Instagram
Mobile service providers in Nigeria charge exorbitantly but fall short of delivery as expected.
If Nollywood is serious about the business of film-making, it has Hollywood to serve as a template, which it can study and emulate and, dare I say, blaze its own trail.

But then again, just one look at our music industry will tell you we’re too lazy to even do that, or at least copy with some imagination. A majority of the Nigerian songs populating the airwaves is discordant sound aka noise. Little thought goes into song-writing and production. That’s why a Nigerian rapper can brazenly spit rhymes about fur coats and leather jackets in a country where it doesn’t snow, and think he’s going somewhere. It’s also the reason a musician/video director can lift whole scenes from a Beyoncé video and call it work.      

The curse of mediocrity has also ensnared Nigeria’s biggest online retailer. Though it has the juggernaut, Amazon, to thank for their existence, studying and translating Amazon’s operation in Nigeria has proved difficult. Personally, I have patronized both companies, and let’s just say that after being sold a malfunctioning laptop, paying for an undelivered item and having my money withheld for two months—despite several calls—I shan’t be buying anything from Nigeria’s biggest online retailer. Amazon, on the other hand, still has my patronage. 

Money, or rather the love of it, corrupts everything. After all, Apple, Facebook, Google are all valuable brands worth billions of dollars, and have remained extremely successful because they continue to invest heavily in research and innovation, key factors in the game of customer attraction and retention. Complacency and mediocrity are antithetical to their operations, as they should be for any going concern wishing to be taken seriously.

And this is what lawmakers, attempting to ram patriotism down the throats of Nigerians with the bill to enforce the procurement of Nigerian goods, are pretending not to understand. Nigerians are not shunning Made in Nigeria because they are made in Nigeria. Nigerians are shunning Made in Nigeria because they are inferior. It’s a fact lawmakers know, otherwise they wouldn’t be receiving medical treatment in Johns Hopkins and Mount Sinai Hospital as opposed to Nigerian hospitals.

             If we’re serious about being the Giant of Africa as we claim we are but aren’t, we have to learn to say no to laziness, no to the love of money and no to all that is mediocre. We have to learn to embrace blood, sweat and guts, and teach ourselves to take pride in the value hard work. For success is tastes sweeter when reminiscing about those long, arduous days spent toiling in the trenches.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Nudity and the Burka Don't Empower Women

Photo: Pinterest
The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides four definitions for the word empowerment: To give official authority or legal power to; to enable; to promote self-actualization or influence, and to give power to someone. And in the current debate surrounding the female body, empowerment has taken on another meaning: nudity, an association popularized by celebrities keen to strip down for a magazine spread.

In a Vanity Fair spread last year, Demi Lovato, who battled eating disorders in the past, admitted:  “[The nude photoshoot is] empowering and it shows other women you can get to a place where you can overcome obstacles of body image issues.”

Judging by the issues Demi has had with her body, it’s easy to see why a nude photoshoot was a courageous venture. But having to do so in a magazine to prove that she’s now at peace with her body reeks more of capitalism and narcissism than empowerment. Posting to her a personal website or on social media (if nudity is permitted) would have sufficed to share her message with fans, but of course that wouldn’t pay because nude photoshoots per se aren’t empowering. What is is the cold, hard cash magazines pay—cash that will be enable one purchase wants and indulge desires. Money in this case is the key that empowers.

Another celebrity who has made the association between nudity and empowerment is Kim Kardashian. On International Women’s Day, she shared a nude photo on her app along with a message peppered with ‘empowerment’. In it she says, “I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my own skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me.” She goes on to add, “[I hope] I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”

Again, this an example of narcissism and capitalism dressed up as empowerment. Kim has made tremendous amount of money bearing her skin, so it’s now wonder she feels ‘empowered’ by her body. But like Demi, can she claim to be empowered if sex, or rather pandering to the male gaze, didn’t sell? And in any case, how does she suppose her nude photos will impact girls and women to realize they’re just as capable and deserving of the things men are afforded in all spheres of life? Unless she’s advocating that women use their bodies to attain financial freedom, and thus, empower themselves, her nude photos and empowerment speech ring hollow.

If bearing skin is the symbol of the empowered woman, then the opposite—covering up entirely—is that of the disempowered woman. Or so is the thinking in some quarters.

Recently, Laurence Rossignol, France's minister for the family, children and women’s rights, railed against designers and clothing stores like M&S and H&M offering products catered to Muslim women who cover their faces, heads and extremities. In her mind, they are irresponsible for “promoting the confinement of women’s bodies”. “What’s at stake,” she added, “is social control over women’s bodies.” 
Photo: Marks and Spencer

Already, in 2010, France banned the niqab, the full face veil, a move some criticized for encroaching on women’s rights.

Yet, what Bergé failed to consider or, in Rossignol’s case, to accept is that Muslim women’s sartorial tastes vary. And that just as YSL has the right to run fashion campaigns with scantily-clad women, so is it a Muslim woman’s prerogative to cover up as she pleases. Claiming that a fully-covered woman isn’t beautiful or that she’s confined because she wears a hijab or a burkini is to dismiss cultural and personal differences.

It may be hard to believe, but the idea of bearing skin doesn’t excite every woman. Just ask All Saints, a famous British pop girl band of the late 90s. In a recent BBC interview, they recounted being told to take off their tops for a performance so as to give the impression of nudity, a move that contrasted with the group’s cargo-pants-combat-boots style. When they balked, an ultimatum was issued: Lose the tops or forgo the performance. In the end, they compromised by lowering their tops to their armpits. Not exactly a liberating or ‘beautiful’ experience.

To be sure, there are Muslim women for whom the hijab is a symbol of patriarchy and repression. Still, while these women’s views must be respected, they’re are not representative of all Muslim women.

Burqas and nude photos are not a measure of empowerment or the lack thereof, as neither bestow legal authority or lead to self-actualization. Education. Access to finance. Wealth. Abortion rights. Day care centers for working mothers. These are factors that contribute to the true empowerment of girls and women. Girls who are educated are more likely to use birth control and plan their family size accordingly. Access to finance and day care centers free her from the shackles of poverty, a largely sexist phenomenon, and allow her realize her dreams respectively. Having more women in positions of authority will lead to a balanced world where sexist laws such as the pink tax will be repealed and more favorable ones like equal pay implemented.

In essence, if women were truly empowered, debates about whether they’re being bullied into veiling or exposing their skin will not exist, because then the choice will be truly theirs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Shorts: Obioma

Raquel Lopez via Flick

Here's an excerpt from a short story I wrote published on the literary site Brittle Paper.

“It was an entrapment. They blackmailed me.”

It was 3 a.m. Dakar time. I was sitting up now in bed, my back against the wooden head-board, legs hidden under the cover. Sleep had long been replaced with shock then smoldering fury. The room was morosely dark, a perfect reflection of the feelings enveloping me. Why would the church blackmail one of its high-profile pastors? Would they go to such lengths to destroy a marriage?

Read the rest of the story here.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Poor Are Just As Guilty: A Look At Classism

When people think of classism, focus tends to be on the rich and middle classes, forgetting the poor are not exempt. The piece I wrote for Africa is a Country explores one of the ways the lower class exhibits classism.

You can read it here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Are You a Misogynist, a Subversive or a Feminist?

Isn’t it bizarre that in 2016 the world’s still struggling with how to treat half its population fairly? What with small pox having been eradicated, man landing on the moon and the internet connecting us to worlds previously unknown, shouldn’t achieving gender parity be a piece of cake?

Apparently not.

Covertly or overtly, on purpose or inadvertently, the man-at-the-helm is constantly reinforced in every facet of life as the default societal structure—from religion to toys to fairy tale princesses perpetually waiting to be rescued. With such toxic narratives being peddled as the norm from childhood through adulthood, it’s no wonder we’re a long way away from gender parity and patriarchy continues to win new recruits and enjoy support from its large fan base—misogynists and the subversives.

The Misogynists

Misogynists aka male chauvinists are men who believe a woman’s rightful place is beneath them. In their minds, women should not own property, work or be anything else but exist for them. They’re patriarchy’s fiercest proponents, and excoriate men and women who adopt non-traditional gender roles. In their warped world, it’s only natural for women to submit to male domination because they’re emotional and incapable of making informed decisions. To misogynists, women, by virtue of being women, are adults who never escaped childhood, and therefore must be chaperoned and guarded by grown-up males.

But say what you will about misogynists, their candid opinion on gender equality is laudable. After all, a battle is half won when the enemy is identified.

Patriarchy is an aberration.
Photo: Javier Zarracina/Vox

The Subversives

Their rank comprises of men and women who have internalized patriarchy as the de facto natural social structure to be upheld. They propagate gender tropes in their different incarnations: Pink is for girls and blue for boys, women are living appendages and make bossy leaders, and bread-winning is a man’s God-given, inalienable right, not realizing these are socially constructed notions—and thus illusive.

As their name suggests, subversives may go as far as to call themselves feminists—or even use the vague term ‘gender equalist’, to disguise their mission. But don’t be fooled. Their true intention is to maintain their social, economic and cultural edge over women, using invasive methods.

Consider Oscar, a senior manager at a financial firm. Oscar needs a finance manager to supervise a team of male accountants, so he puts out a job ad for the position. However, it’s only open to male candidates, because in Oscar’s mind a woman can’t handle a group of men. By barring women from applying, Oscar has tightened another screw on patriarchy. But of course, he thinks nothing of the discrimination nor it implications, at least not yet.

It’s Friday nights and Oscar hits the bar, where he picks up a woman for his entertainment. Note that Oscar never, ever seeks out women in his economic class since they have just as much financial clout as him, and are less likely to let him dictate to them. Instead, he settles for a less troublesome lass—one who pads his fragile ego and supports his distorted notions of gender.

Initially, everything goes well until she starts asking him to pay for phone credit, transportation, Brazilian weaves. A girl’s got to look good for her man, right?

Oscar for his part, stoically assumes the role of the macho man, the financial provider up until his padded wallet begins to lose its bulge. Then he turns poet, and starts waxing lyrical about gender equality, and how modern-day women should be financially independent.

Once again, don’t be fooled by the claptrap for Oscar’s thinking hinges on selfishness. He simply wants her to earn some money (never more than him, of course) so she doesn’t bother him. To Oscar, patriarchy becomes a dirty reality when it requires more from him.

Subversives are also quick to assume barriers no longer exist for women since Hilary Clinton is running for president and Angela Merkel is Chancellor, and parliament has a couple of women representatives. They consider having a female president, a male vice president, a male speaker of the house and a virtually male parliament a landslide achievement not an aberration.

Another pastime of subversives is to bemoan what they see as a disproportionate coverage of violence against women, while obsessively fishing for stories where men are victims of abuse to prove the focus on women’s right is unwarranted. They act as if protesting a girl’s right to education somehow negates the rights of a boy, and choose to ignore the fact that violence and discriminatory practices affect more females than males.

But in the real world, statistics matter.

It’s the reason lions are on endangered lists and buffaloes are not. It’s also the reason HIV/AIDS and cancer get more funding than rare disease like epidermodysplasia verruciformi. But that attention doesn’t imply scientists couldn’t care less about finding a cure for epidermodysplasia verruciformi. In the same vein, neither does spotlighting sexism against women diminish the problems men encounter.

The Feminists

In the fight for gender equality are feminists, who like the subversives, comprise of women and men. Feminist men are comfortable with feminism because they understand it doesn’t advocate matriarchy, but strives for a society where the sexes have equal opportunities to the social, economic and cultural goodies of life. They believe not in holding doors for women, or playing the role of supermen to damsels in distress, but in empowering women to hold doors and live an unrestrained life to the fullness of their abilities and talents.

Photo: Sarah Turbin/Vox
A woman’s ambition or blinding success doesn’t perturb the feminist man, who also has no reservations about cooking, changing diapers or being a stay-at-home dad. They’re unafraid to name patriarchy as the enemy and confront it head-on. The feminist man is aware his wife reserves the right to keep her maiden name, and considers it an honor if she takes his.

Feminists teach their sons to respect a woman’s opinions as they would a man’s, and their daughters to pay for their meals and diamonds. They don’t tell boys to man up when they cry, because tears are not a sign a weakness but a healthy human reaction. In a feminist world, boys play with Barbies and girls with trucks, girls climb trees and boys play hopscotch, and women are just as capable as men in coding.

We cannot claim we are serious about burying patriarchy for good, if we only recognize its existence when it turns on us. Fighting it every time in all its forms is the only way we can achieve parity. So ladies and gentlemen, where do you stand? Your reaction to the idea of a man moving into a house built by his wife is a tiny clue to where you stand in the fight for gender equality.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Why Shows Like An African City Matter

Cast of An African City
Photo: An African City
An African City, a Sex and the City-esque online series which debuted last year and is currently in its second season, follows the lives of five, single, middle-class African women who return to Ghana after years of living abroad. The show, which diverges largely from the usual narrative about Africa—hollow-eyed children with distended bellies, disease and war—has been lauded for showcasing a version of Africa where Africans work normal jobs, wear fancy clothes and eat in expensive restaurants. But it has also come under criticism for not reflecting the lives of typical Africans.

But what’s the story of a typical African?

Sure Africans have shared experiences, but there are also differences so large that should be recognized as a valid stories in an African anthology. The expectation that poverty and war should feature in an African story simply is as absurd as positing all women must experience dysmenorrhea because they’re women. Yet, such expectations are rampant.

Case in point, during my postgraduate program in the UK, my supervisor proceeded to tell me how dangerous Nigeria was after I mentioned I’d be returning to Nigeria when the program ended. He narrated how his sister, who worked for an NGO in Nigeria, had to have mobile police with her at all times. By the time he ended the story, I would have thought Nigeria was a war zone if I’d never lived there. Granted, not all of Nigeria is peaceful, but most parts, like where I live, are calm and a far cry from a war zone.

In an unrelated event, a surprised face met mine after I disclosed my tuition fees were paid by my parents and not a scholarship. Apparently, there are some people who think Africans just sit around waiting for financial assistance.

Still, my personal experiences were nothing compared to a Kenyan friend of mine, who was asked by a fellow a volunteer at a charity fundraiser to wear a plaque of sorts and carry a donation bucket, because wait for it… people were more likely to respond to pleas from an African.

A tasteless remark? Yes. But that volunteer can’t really be blamed if they’ve been fed countless newsreels and TV ads with a morose voice-over soliciting one pound to help crying, black children with runny noses and flies swarming overhead. This insular narrative is a similar treatment applied to Native-Americans and Australian Aborigines, whose populations are often depicted by the media as poor and alcohol-dependent.

In the art of storytelling and creating impressions, the media has a companion in Hollywood, an industry notorious for promoting tropes among other things. For a primer on how Hollywood pictures Africa, one need not look any further than the final scenes of the movie Independence Day, where the aliens’ spaceships go up in flames on different continents after Will Smith saves the day. Australia was represented by its famous Sydney Opera House. And Africa? Africa was depicted as a bush with loin-clothed men wielding spears.

Dear Africans, do you come across these people regularly?
Clip from Independence Day
Photo: cracked.com
A quick survey of Hollywood’s Africa reveals one of these three realities: Africa is a hell hole teeming with ruthless warlords and tribes bent on brutalizing one another; a picturesque land where the red sun forever rises over acacias, and naked Africans and animals roam the vast Serengeti, or a continent of the eternally happy singers and dancers as handsomely portrayed in the Adam Sandler movie Blended.

These jaundiced and oft-repeated accounts serve no purpose other than to typecast and perhaps ridicule a people. Which is why diversity and representation matter—be they in the news, books, movies, or Hollywood movie studios. Not only do we become better informed when different stories are told, we encounter a panoramic view of our world through the eyes of others. And shows like An African City are helping do just that.