Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On Biafra and What it Means to be Nigerian

Abuja, Nigeria
Photo: Flikr
I’ve spent most of my life in Nigeria, but lately I’ve been wondering if holding a Nigerian passport and living a substantial number of years in a country are sufficient to stake a claim over it. I’ve also wondered what it means to be Nigerian.
I grew up in the Rivers State capital of Port Harcourt, the oil rich city nestled in the southernmost region of the country, but the de facto indigene-settler mentality promoted by politicians and accepted by Nigerians has meant Rivers State can’t adopt me in the way Chicago adopted Hawaiian native Barack Obama, who served as a senator for Illinois. I can’t access state scholarships, can’t head any state schools and definitely can’t hold political office because my forebears hailed from towns beyond the state’s border. And yet, the Rivers State had no scruples taxing my salary as a resident of Port Harcourt.
In Nigeria, your father’s origin dictates yours. In my case, with both parents from Oguta, a small clannish town in Southeast Nigeria, I’m Oguta even though my connection to the place is limited to the few weeks I visited during Christmas and Easters holidays as a kid and teenager.
Following the Nigeria-Biafra war, the federal government built public secondary schools known as unity schools in an attempt to foster peace and feelings of patriotism among students from different tribes and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As an alumna of a unity school, I can attest the idea is a noble one and could have worked if Nigerians weren’t perpetually being reminded that the demonym Nigerian is an airy ideal subservient to the flawed reality of tribal affiliations, be it in application forms for government jobs, wherein you’re forced to declare your state and local government area, or by landlords who only rent to people of their own tribe.
Nigeria as a country remains a mirage, which is why every Christmas cities and towns across Nigeria empty out as Igbos, whose calls for secession fifty years ago resulted in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, travel home to their ancestral lands in southeastern Nigeria. Jokes abound of the yearly mass migration, but beneath these jests is a less humorous motive. For the Igbos, traveling home means establishing roots and reconnecting with their ancestral homes, an insurance against Nigeria’s uncertain future as a united country.
When Nigeria gained its independence from the British in 1960, Igbos dispersed across the country like dust in the wind, with some venturing as far as northern Nigeria to pitch their tents. Language was only a temporary barrier for the Igbos as they quickly learned foreign tongues for the purpose of conducting business and getting on with life.
But then came the 1966 coup, led mostly by Igbo officers, which saw the deaths of many northerners, including then prime minister Tafawa Balewa and the premier Ahmadu Bello. In the counter-coup that followed, Igbos were targeted and killed by civilians and military officers in an anti-Igbo pogrom the North, and those lucky to be alive fled home to Igbo enclaves in the Southeast. It was this event that precipitated the declaration of the independent nation of Biafra and underscored a bitter truth: The name “Nigerian” is a mythical invention and “home” can only be your ancestral land.
Arguably, Nigeria’s crude oil wealth has been the motivating factor behind the ruling elite’s fight to preserve Nigeria in its current disposition. Year after year, the nation’s coffers are looted by government officials who are more interested in securing their profligate lifestyle than getting different factions to work together to build Nigeria into a real country. The ruling elite’s insatiable appetite, its desire to gorge off the fat of the land are to blame for the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast and militancy in the Niger Delta, symptoms of abuse, neglect and underinvestment.
If the name Nigeria meant anything, then a long-term resident of Rivers State from northern Nigeria should be able to represent the state at the National Assembly. If being Nigerian meant anything, the presidency wouldn’t be rotated every eight years between the North and South or along tribal lines. If we as Nigerians were serious about keeping Nigeria whole, then we would set tribal allegiances aside and select the best candidates to run the country. If Nigeria meant anything, that would be our first and only priority.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Photo: Shayera Dark
Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Bailey’s-shortlisted, debut novel Stay With Me is an engaging story about the pressures childless, married couples encounter in contemporary Nigeria, a country where children—more than love—are deemed the centripetal force of a marriage and, as such, can determine its longevity. The novel weaves themes of betrayal, pride, deceit, love, grief, patriarchy, loneliness and belonginess into a compelling picture that demonstrates how love can be undermined by our existential need as humans, and social creatures, to conform so we can belong to a society or family.

Set in the fractious era of military coups in the 80s and 90s—and the democratic 2000s, Stay With Me documents the middle class lives of Yejide, a hair salon owner, and Akin, a bank manager, and their struggles with childlessness. Though Yejide narrates the story and her point of view dominates, her husband Akin elucidates his motives as a secondary narrator, broadening the limits of the first person point of view.

The opening chapters introduce readers to the endless meetings and enquiries launched by nosy in-laws into the couple’s childlessness and the routine the Akin and Yejide devised for such instances: Akin writes his weekly to-do list while pretending to jot down details of the discussion and Yejide offers an array of fake smiles. It is also noted that Yejide visited shady pastors and fasted until she was hospitalised to appease her in-laws, all before one of her father’s wives and Akin’s uncle deliver their message and package of doom to her home: Funmi, Akin’s second wife.

Yejide is completely blindsided by this new development in her marriage and has an altercation with her husband for cheating on her. But owing to Funmi’s agreement not to move in, her rage quickly dissipates and everything returns to normal for a while.   

Unbeknown to Yejide, Akin’s decision to take a second wife is in response to his mother’s pestering. After four years of marriage, Akin’s mother, Moomi, can no longer tolerate her first son’s childlessness and takes matters into her hands. At first, she visits Akin’s office accompanied by a potential second wife until she realises he is dithering and threatens to start visiting Yejide each week with a woman if he doesn’t make up his mind soon.

When Funmi taunts Yejide in her salon about her barrenness, it dawns on her that a child is the only insurance against getting expelled from Akin’s life. In a bizarre twist, her mind convinces her body that she’s pregnant, even though she hasn’t had sex in months and two ultrasounds prove otherwise. But when the pregnancy stretches beyond nine months, Yejide finally accepts her husband’s request to see a psychiatrist.

While trying to make sense of her non-pregnancy, Funmi shows up at Yejide and Akin’s home in the latter’s absence, demanding to move in. Grudgingly, Yejide yields knowing that if Moomi asks her to move out for resisting Funmi, she will her lose Akin, “the only person in the world who would really notice if I went missing.”

Funmi’s presence grates Akin but he doesn’t drive her away because he fears she now knows his secret. Instead, he waits for the deal he’s struck with younger brother Dotun to materialise, a deal so vile it will ultimately unravel his marriage and relationship with his brother.

Stay With Me explores some of the reasons people want to have children. For a motherless child who was ignored by her stepmothers and constantly reminded that her mother had no lineage, Yejide’s desire to have a child stems from the need to belong to someone in an “unchangeable, irreplaceable way.”

For Akin, having a child represents the natural order of things. He believes they can “change the very shape of my world.”

For Moomi, childlessness signifies shame and nothingness, a misery she doesn’t want her son to endure. “Why don’t you allow my son have a child?” she implores after accusing Yejide of preventing Akin from impregnating Funmi. “If you don’t, he will die childless. I beg you, don’t spoil my life. He is my first son, Yejide.”

Readers curious to learn how society’s unhealthy inclination to associate fertility with a person’s worth affects people and damages relationships can find a thin slice of that in Stay With Me. For those looking to get acquainted with Yoruba folklores, customs and language—or even the unique speaking style of Nigerians—the novel doesn’t disappoint. That said, don’t expect to come away with a vivid image of south-western Nigerian where the novel is set.