Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Birthday - When “Queen Elizabeth” Marked Her 70th Birthday

“You can dance, you can live/ Having the time of your life/ Ooh see that girl, watch that scene/ Digging’ the dancing queen...”

The birthday woman was everything in “Dancing Queen,” that great song of ABBA, the sensational Swedish group that took the music world by storm in the 1970s. A lover of songs, a great dancer and a lady fondly called “queen” by fellow student nurses in the 1960s, not only by virtue of her being pretty but also by having many things unusually common with the reigning Queen of England. She bears Elizabeth like the queen, both share the same birthday, April 21 (she was born April 21, 1943 while the queen, her namesake, was born April 21, 1926). Again both were born on the same weekday, Wednesday! Still they seem to have a common passion for music. One of the queen’s hobbies is dancing. So is her fairy tale alter ego.

Elizabeth Ayodele Oderinde, retired nurse and Iyalode Ijo of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Ayetoro, Osogbo, was indeed a dancing queen on December 21, 2013 as she belatedly, due to what family sources described as unforeseen circumstances, marked her 70th birthday. She regaled her audience with fanciful dance steps and a flamboyant display of joy at reaching the remarkable 70th milestone after such a long walk in life.

Tagged a celebration of “God’s Goodness,” the two-part event was an opportunity to go down memory lane. An offspring of migrant workers who literally traversed the length and breadth of the old Western Region in search of greener pasture, little Ayodele was born in Gbongan and had her primary and post-primary education in Agege, Lagos, Otan Ayegbaju (her hometown), Ile Ife, and wherever the call of duty took her parents. She later enrolled at the Sacred Heart Hospital, Abeokuta, for a course in midwifery and another in general nursing qualifying as a state registered nurse. She started work as a midwife at the Igbaye Maternity Centre, Igbaye, near Inisha in present day Osun State before crossing over to the popular Jaleyemi (Our Lady of Fatimah) Hospital, Osogbo. She eventually retired as a senior matron in 2000 having earlier transferred her service to the state’s ministry of health in 1977…

Inside the St. Benedict’s Cathedral Church hall, Popo, Osogbo, venue of the reception, the bandstand had a busy day beating the drums and singing songs of praise in high decibels. The celebrant could not help displaying some few more dance steps to the admiration of her husband, a retired principal, children and grandchildren in tow. Other relations, guests, former colleagues and teeming well-wishers did not miss out on the spectacle. Like in ABBA’s song they watched the scene, saw and clapped all the way, “diggin” the dancing queen. It was happy time and she had the fun of her life.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wreaths of Paradox


A kaleidoscopic interplay of some happenings and historical events on the life and times of Nelson Mandela


* Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, towards the end of World War I, into a royal family. Paradoxically he chose rebellion and embraced revolution later in life on the wings of the African National Congress, ANC, to wage war against apartheid and its patrons.

* His name ROLIHLAHLA literally means, “pulling the branch of a tree.” His other less known name but of much traditional importance is his circumcision name, DALIBUNGA, which means father of the BUNGA traditional ruling body of the Transkei, the rural area in Eastern Cape where he was born. MADIBA is more of a term of reverence than a name per se. It is a clan or communal name used for older people, especially men deemed fit to be so honoured. Thus Mandela’s ancestral MADIBA name is also a preference for Nelson which is seen more as a colonial legacy hung on his neck by a teacher who could not actually pronounce his jaw-breaking but more meaningful ROLIHLAHLA.

* His father expected him to grow up in the village and tend the cattle. He was a troublesome and restless youth often indulged in traditional stick fighting. He eventually left Qunu to look for greener pasture on the other side of the fence in the city and thus began his long walk to political relevance in the annals of South African history.

Ironically the man who left prison in 1990 apparently to come and bury what remained of APARTHEID chose to be buried in his ancestral homeland of Qunu among his fellow blacks! Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, would be happy in his exclusive white graveyard.  

The day the world gathered in Johannesburg to pay tributes to the memory of Mandela was a day full of drama, irony and paradox. The main backers of the apartheid regime, for example, Britain and the United States, US, with their huge investments in the white dominated territory, took the centre, waxing in eloquence and praise singing Mandela.

* Up till five years ago, 2008, the person they were eulogising was still legally on a US terror watch list. Before then Mandela and some ANC leaders, including the foreign affairs minister, could only enter the US with a special waiver from the secretary of state because the ANC had been designated a terrorist organisation by South Africa’s former apartheid government.

* Amidst tributes, eulogies and elegies from fellow world leaders, Jacob Zuma’s voice was hardly heard. The political chief mourner hit a wall of jeers and boos any time his name was mentioned over the public loudspeaker. While the sporting nations were turning the traditional one minute silence in honour of the dead to one minute of seemingly unstoppable applause for Mandela, the angry crowd inside the First National Bank, FNB, Stadium were giving the referee’s substitution signal for change. Has Zuma hit the rock in his race for political relevance in post-Mandela South Africa? What could have made South Africans clap for FW de Klerk, former apartheid warlord, and jeer at an incumbent black president?

* But Zuma is a fighter and fighters are no quitters. Like Mandela, he is likely to fight on. It took his mentor (Mandela) years before he could get his law degree. He enrolled for the course in 1939 but he serially, by design or default, failed his law examinations until 50 years after (1989) and that was while he was in prison. Hitherto he was able to practice law in the 1950s with his friend, Oliver Tambo, with his two-year diploma which he got after his first degree.

* Winnie Mandela had a standing ovation when she was called to the stage. To most ANC supporters, she is the Mother of the Nation. She fought with both body and soul to sustain the momentum of the struggle in the townships while her husband was in jail and the men were in the trenches.

* The artifacts of the Nelson and Winnie Mandela Museum in their former home on Vilakazi Ngakane Corner in Orlando West, Soweto, attest to the relevance and popularity of Winnie. Mandela himself once jokingly remarked how famous Winnie had become in his absence that he was forced, on his release from prison, to be introducing himself as Nelson, the husband of Winnie Mandela, to world leaders and friends!

* President Goodluck Jonathan was equally hailed by the appreciative crowd not because of him per se but because of Nigeria’s unflinching support for liberation struggles throughout Africa. ANC was the biggest beneficiary of the nation’s gesture right from the days of Tafawa Balewa to Murtala/Obasanjo military regime. At the UNO, Nigeria was at the forefront of the diplomatic onslaught against apartheid. It was the Sani Abacha regime that almost made nonsense of the nation’s contributions in this regard when it confronted the big man, MADIBA, over the latter’s humanitarian intervention over the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Ogoni environmental activist.

Rain beat a tattoo rhythm on mourners who came to the FNB stadium as early as 3am for the 11am event. They wore rain boots, raincoats and shared umbrellas for further protection against the biting cold. Asked why they had to expose themselves to such chilly weather, they were quick to quip back: “What is one day in rain compared with 27 years in jail?” It was a response that captured the true essence of the man called MADIBA. December 10 was payback day, a somewhat surreal global farewell for an individual once labelled a terrorist by the Western world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

INHACA, the Mozambican Fantasy Island

The tourists come to sunbathe, swim and snorkel midmorning, and, in the afternoon, dine and wine in the splendour of a 'fantasy’ hotel while the 'natives' spend the whole day eking a living out of fishing… and ferrying stranded visitors on their backs to the often submerged jetties

The aircraft finally taxied to a stop. As usual, the air hostesses formed a guard of honour and beamed artificial smiles as they bade everybody goodbye. Some of the passengers were in no mood, though, to return artificiality for artificiality. They hurriedly went down the gangway to land on a long stretch of macadamised platform that looked like a disused tarmac. In twos and threes, they plodded their weary legs to the terminal building and meandered their way to the kiosk that passed as arrival hall where stern-looking immigration officers and customs men and women were lying in wait. Welcome to Maputo International Airport, Mozambique.

For the itinerant journalists among the passengers, it was another opportunity to know more about Africa, their continent. One of them was particularly ecstatic. He had longed to visit the country since he missed a golden chance to do so in 1986 when he was a member of the media team that accompanied the then foreign affairs minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, on a whirlwind tour of the frontline states. The itinerary had included visits to Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and a stopover in the then Congo (Brazaville) on their way back home. Somehow, they managed to visit all the countries except Mozambique for what they later gathered to be security reasons. The country was engaged in a civil war and flying on the periphery of the South African airspace (then under the grip of the apartheid warlords) to reach Maputo could compromise the safety of the entire entourage. After failing to secure a safe passage to Mozambique, Lagos (then Nigeria’s seat of power) ordered a detour. A few months later, the Mozambican president, Samora Machel, was to die in a mysterious plane crash along the same route while on his way back to Maputo from a neighbouring country.

Today, apartheid is officially dead in South Africa. The civil war in Mozambique has ended. The Mozambican people are out of the trenches, salivating their freedom on the major avenida (avenues) of Maputo and the lanes in the ghettos. Tourists and mercantile opportunists are hovering around what remains of the poor country after the Portuguese settlers had run away with the capital and skills that could make the crippled nation stand upright again. While the market-driven economy is still being propped up by donor nations, the country, itself, is taking advantage of its tourism potential.

Mozambique, like some African countries on the fringes of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, is blessed with natural, beautiful beaches that spread over 2,515 kilometres on the Indian seaboard. The beaches, coupled with an array of magnificent mountains and ‘fantasy islands’, constitute a magnetic pull of sorts that draws tourists to the country with a force which Isaac Newton, the discoverer of the Law of Gravitation, may even find difficult to explain.

It is this unexplainable force that probably drew the Nigerian journalists invited to witness the 2006 CNN/Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Award ceremony in Maputo to undergo a sea trip to Inhaca, one of the much-advertised ‘fantasy islands’. The promo was too inviting to ignore: “(Tourists) depart from the Maputo Mariner or Catembe Jetty (tide dependent) at 0800 hours. On arrival at the island, you can visit the beach or swim and snorkel in the lagoon or enjoy a walk to the east side of the island to see the pelicans and flamingos…”

They all jumped at the offer, oblivious of the ominous warning that the “tour may be cut short due to weather conditions”. Even if they were aware, there was no stopping this bunch of crazy, adventurous, bubbling journalists. Would they have cared a hoot about the unfolding re-enactment of the age of discovery which their journey to Inhaca symbolised? The euphoria was too much and off they went to brave the waves to seek a new world which is just a mere dot on the mighty Indian Ocean! They wanted to see the legendary birds that feed on fishes and swallow snakes, the coral reefs that look like pre-Cambrian sedimentary rock formation on the beach, and the ever-changing coastline subject to the whims and caprices of the tidal currents that sometimes kiss the shoreline in a dazing, even idyllic, romance or, if in a foul mood, hold it in a ‘tsunamic’ death grip.

They saw hell!

Yes, hell they saw. Ocean waves hit their boat at speedy intervals with a force strong enough to torpedo their dreams but, like the early explorers who set sail to discover Africa and the new world, they persevered and pursued their once-in-a-lifetime chance to sail out of Africa to ‘discover’ their own ‘new world’. They saw the massiveness of God’s creative imagination in the ocean waters that spread endlessly to seemingly nowhere. The more they looked, the more they saw. Water, water everywhere but none to drink. These latter-day mariners were teased to no end. What a paradox! The salty ocean waters could not quench their thirsty minds. That was even the least of their worries. Marooned in the middle of ‘giant’ waves and predatory sharks cruising somewhere in the deeps, they began to understand the full meaning of life. It takes only the brave, the courageous and the daring to embark on kamikaze trips to conquer new heights. The history books and the famous Guinness Book of Records are full of examples of brave men and women who defied the deeps, the heights and even the force of gravity to rediscover the essence of man in the universe. Great explorers like Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco da Gama, Mungo Park, David Livingstone, John and Richard Lander and a host of others once dared the consequences to expand the frontiers of their immediate environment by plunging into unknown waters and territories. They dared, like the modern-day scientists who have put men in space, on the moon, and now in a floating station thousands of kilometres away in outer space. The trend continues even on a personal level. For instance, a woman has sailed round the world in a solo effort. Multimillionaire Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines) has attempted to fly round the world in a hot air balloon. It is all in the quest “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” like Ulysses, Alfred Tennyson’s poetic character. For the advancement of learning, men of ideas will continue to experiment and raise the stakes for the rest of mankind.

The journalists, many of whom are admirers of late Tai Solarin, the renowned educationist and writer, took a cue from the old master and model who once said that if man had to be looking and looking all the time before leaping, many a man would remain transfixed while the rest of mankind would have leapt and conquered new territories. They damned the consequence by setting sail across the Indian Ocean in an open boat with rain coats as lifejackets! And, like the old explorers, they endured the turbulence of the waves to ‘discover’ an island where opulence and poverty compete for attention. The tourists come to sunbathe, swim and snorkel midmorning, and, in the afternoon, dine and wine in the splendour of a ‘fantasy’ hotel while the ‘natives’ spend the whole day eking a living out of fishing, selling coconuts and ferrying stranded visitors on their backs to the often submerged jetties.

The story of Inhaca is like the story of Africa, of which it is a part. For centuries, the continent remained unknown, unexplored and unexploited by the outside world. Then came the age of 'discovery', Vasco da Gama and company came calling and the continent’s destiny changed, culminating in the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884/1885 and the partitioning of the continent into British, French, German, Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Mozambique, as a Portuguese colony, was fully exploited and drained to the dregs until 1975 when the ‘natives’, under the political aegis of FRELIMO, finally secured their flag independence after waging a guerilla war for 11 years.

But it is not easy to shake off 500 years of political, economic and, even, mental colonisation. The Portuguese hold on post-independence Mozambique is all-encompassing. Once listed as the world’s poorest country in terms of per capita income, Mozambique is a country whose economy is still being largely controlled by the Portuguese, the Arabs and, lately, the Asians who own most of the big companies and control the support services.

With the death of Marxism, the country has opened its doors to foreign investors, a euphemism for capitalists, though the avenues (avenida), lined with red acacias and lilac jacaranda, still bear telltale signs of the past experiment championed by the late Samora Machel. Most of them are named after Marxist-Socialist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere (of the Ujamaa socialism fame) and the father of the nation himself, Machel. The usual Marxist slogan — “The Fatherland or Death” — is no longer etched on public walls and billboards. What remain standing are the statues and mosaic murals of the much adored Machel.

Today, reality has crept in through liberalisation of the economy, thereby “opening sesame” for international wheelers and dealers. And once again, the brave, daring but, of course, rapacious entrepreneurs who had once fled to safety in Portugal and South Africa during the war of liberation are back to “strive, seek and find” new opportunities in Mozambique. For latter-day adventurers like these entrepreneurs and the never-say-die journalists who braved the odds to seek new frontiers, Inhaca Island will always remain a metaphor for courage.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Passing Of A Legend

 At last the inevitable has happened.  Nelson Mandela, the man with the proverbial nine lives, is no more. Death finally had the courage to deal the final blow on the world’s statesman last Thursday, December 5, after hanging on the thread of life for so long. The significance of the event is not lost. Even Death held Mandela in awe. For more than five months, the whole world was agog with rumours and speculations of his impending demise.  Some of Mandela’s relations had even given up hope as they haggled and bargained for funeral rights, rites and rice! It was a helluva of a struggle! The undertakers and the media also laid siege to his home and hospital bed like vultures, yet Death seemingly spared the anti-apartheid hero more time to prepare for his final exit. 

And when death finally came last Thursday, it came in its usual style of tiptoeing to the threshold of Mandela’s home under the cover of darkness to strike. He had waited enough. The tall man who smiled with his eyes like his fellow world hero, Mahatma Gandhi, is no more. Though expectant, after being in coma for so long, Mandela’s death has come like a thunderbolt from nowhere. The entire humankind is “shattered and shocked” on the “sudden” passing on of the Xhosa warrior, activist and scourge of the villainous apartheid warlords who was respected and honored worldwide. He was not only the world’s most famous political prisoner he came out of prison to also become the most celebrated leader of a rainbow nation.

It is in this regard that Mandela’s exit will be most felt. The legacy he has left behind is that of a peaceful South Africa. A man who was imprisoned for life for fighting a just cause of self-determination for his people and who spent 27 years in solitary confinement was expected to come out full of bitterness and the temptation to seek a pound of flesh. Not Mandela. He saw the larger picture of a united, free and truly democratic South Africa.  To him the only way to forge ahead is not by invoking the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye but the spirit of forgiveness after all the years of suffering and indignity in the hands of the racist warlords of the apartheid era. Because of his greater concern for peace and the advancement of post-apartheid South Africa he bent backwards to placate the blacks, hug the coloureds and embrace the whites to forge a rainbow coalition. His laudable efforts did not go unnoticed by even his erstwhile oppressors. “He was a very remarkable man...a great unifier whose emphasis was on reconciliation,” noted F. W. de Klerk, the last apartheid president in a tribute to Mandela, his friend and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Joyce Banda, the Malawian president, sums up the Mandela legacy in Africa. “As a leader, you must forgive. You must do something to unite the nation,” she said in a tribute to the memory of the Madida who remained a modest man to the last.

Asked what should be written on his tombstone sometime ago, his response was down to earth: “Here lies the man who has done his duty on earth.” Indeed he has done his part and left the stage but the world has refused to stop clapping since last week. The standing ovation may continue till eternity.
He deserves it. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Motoring - How to Save Lives with Runaway Truck Ramps


Runaway Ramp on Atlanta-Mashville highway, USA

They had beautiful dreams and high expectations, but all it took to put an end to such were two trailers with failed brakes. That was the evil that cut short the lives of seven road users recently along the Onitsha–Asaba Expressway, when two trailers bizarrely experienced failed brakes almost simultaneously. They ran over cars and motorcycles, crushing them in the process, mangling human flesh with steel. It was indeed a gory site as onlookers ran helter-skelter.

Sadly, such tragedy has become a recurring feature on most of the nation’s high and expressways, as lorries, tankers and trailers with failed brakes have cut short the lives of several thousand road users while destroying properties running into millions of naira
Yet these tragedies could be prevented without the need to wave a magical wand. What is needed is the simple adoption of the model of constructing runaway truck ramps just before the steep descent on the high roads and expressways. This allows big vehicles with failed brakes to veer off the road, thereby averting the danger of such entering a descent without control. 

Runaway truck ramps are usually long, sand or gravel-filled lanes adjacent to roads with steep grade. The gravel on the road allows the truck’s momentum to be reduced in a controlled manner, allowing the driver to bring the vehicle to a halt harmlessly. This model has been used to excellent effect in Western countries like the United States, US, and the United Kingdom, where authorities are always prepared for all sorts of emergency situations. In these countries, runaway truck ramps have prevented big vehicles with failed brakes from killing other road users. 

For such countries, it is simply about being prepared. This sense of preparedness is also extended to the aviation sector where airports are built with large room for emergency landings. In the same vein, the US in fact even went as far as building emergency landing sites for its space shuttle in the case of any unforeseeable circumstances in far-flung places in Africa and across Europe. These sites are well manned with personnel even though they have never been used before.

Though Nigeria may not need to keep its powder dry with regard to space travel, it however currently has a golden chance to catch up with other countries with regards to constructing the life-saving runaway truck tramps. The opportunity is presented through ongoing rehabilitation works on major highways such as the Lagos–Ibadan Expressway and the East-West Road, among others. It is hoped that in this regard, government will now make hay while the sun shines.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Travelogue -From the Mountains to the Everglades

The traveller was not visiting the United States for the first time. On several occasions he had been to Uncle Sam’s and visited as many cities and towns as caught his fancy. Washington DC, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Baltimore, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Flint, Detroit, Little Rock, Macon, Jacksonville and Miami will readily answer the roll call. But each time he had been restricted, as it were, to air transportation, a sort of “take off, touch down” routine devoid of creativity except for occasional sighting of abstract cloud formations and the “Google map” layout of built up areas when the plane was about to land.

Now it’s time to know more of America at close range. Enough of surreal views from the windows of aeroplanes. He opted for a roller-coaster four-wheel drive down the road to explore the fairytale hinterland. The journey from Atlanta, Georgia, to Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee was an eye-opener and inducer of childhood memories of Uncle Sam. Something struck him. A family of five packed in such a mechanical device on a journey along the “famous” Ibadan–Lagos Expressway back at home is bound to have their hearts in their mouths throughout the barely one-hour journey. It was a different picture here. The smooth roads, the rest places with their surplus restrooms for wayfarers, the over abundant road signs, the orderliness and discipline of motorists, the strategically positioned eagle-eyed, technology-assisted highway patrol police and the polite, ever smiling toll-gate attendants were enough to calm jaded nerves and make road travel a pleasant adventure.

In such a relaxed mood, the mind is bound to wander and wonder in a seeming no man’s land. Signposts showing direction to certain towns instantly brought memories of the past. Nobody, not even a blind man, would miss probably such bold inscriptions pointing the way to “twin towns” like Knoxville and Nashville, Winchester and Manchester and the road that leads to Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama. Alabama? No, we were not going there!! Was that not the centre point of degradation and denigration of the blacks and subsequently the nexus of civil rights movement in the not-easy-to-forget old America? The name instantly invoked the dark days of American history, the history of slavery, segregation (apartheid, by a different name) and subjugation and the eventual struggle for equality regardless of race or colour. It was a quick reminder of the days of courageous civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jnr, the derring-do of the Rosa Parks and the James Merediths who deliberately challenged the system as a form of protest against injustice and inequality in the land.

However, going back west and deep into midland America did not remind the traveller of only the dark side of America. Setting eyes on the Tennessee for the first time since learning about the great river in high school geography and looking at the range of mountains (the Appalachians, no doubt), and the beautiful countryside that inspired great artistes like Dolly Parton to sing passionately about the pastoral setting of her native Nashville and the adjoining towns and counties in the Tennessee river basin were enough to make the wayfarers remember the evergreen songs of the country music maestro. They slotted CDs into the car’s turntable and played back old favourites like AppleJack, Jolene and Coat of Many Colours. But the song that perfectly fitted the current mood was her plaintive lyrical ballad, In My Tennessee Mountain Home.

The road to Middle Tennessee that second Friday in May, 2013, along with the green pastures on both sides was a confirmation of the sentiments expressed in the song. The shrub and the vine clung to the walls along the road and their fragrance made the approaching summer wind so sweet...and far away on the hilltop, an eagle spread its wings while a songbird perched on a signpost seemed to be singing a melody as our vehicle drove past. The chief traveller, an unapologetic lover of Parton's brand of music, murmured some sweet nothings into the ears of an imaginary Parton. "Dolly, can you hug me just as I always hug you in my mind anytime I listen to your beautiful voice? Sweet songstress, come out of the woods to welcome me to your natural home! Fear not. I’m not an old teasing AppleJack with a banjo to sing a song for you, but just a passerby lover of the countryside and its natural beauty". Unfortunately there was no telepathic response of any kind. Parton was nowhere to be found on the highway. Poor star-struck fan! He had expected Parton to take her tambourine and serenade him to sleep with a spiritual rendition of Jolene or AppleJack in his crouching position in the overloaded vehicle. No luck. "Peter Crouch" (a readily adopted name to portray his precarious sitting position) had no option but to face reality. There would be no Dolly Parton to sing a song for him. But the show must go on.

They continued with their journey, negotiating sharp bends with runaways for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles that suddenly run amok, cutting through forests, burrowing through mountains and crossing the waters of the great river at intervals to see, observe and smell the unadulterated scent of the countryside. But would it not have been foolhardy to traverse that same road during that better-be-forgotten Jim Crow era? Going back west in search of adventure in an erstwhile hate-filled America? But the country has advanced beyond the turbulent era of legalised hatred and covert execution of the people's will by the Klu Klux Klan, KKK, a white supremacist group and a thorn in the flesh of straying black people like the adventurous family on the Atlanta–Nashville highway. Thanks, though, to those that made it possible for them to take what used to be a risk down South American highways in those days. The gradual acceptance of blacks as equals has finally led to the emergence of a black American, Barack Obama, as President. Good. America finally did what was right, a justification of what Martin Luther King Jnr, the civil rights leader, had envisioned. “...And the time comes when one must take a position that is neither politic or popular or safe but because it is right". America, after years of dilly-dallying and double-speaking, finally did the right thing when, by popular vote, it elected its first black President in 2008. The journey to Obama actually started as far back as the 19th century with Abraham Lincoln's great role in seeing to the abolition of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, which brought freedom to the black slaves in the Union. Thanks to the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1865 that put paid to the inhuman treatment of Africans in the south.

The entourage finally arrived at their destination after seeing America literally through the woods. The eerie feeling was no longer there. Carriage Lane Inn, Murfreesboro, was a perfect setting for a post-journey rendezvous. A historic place mentioned in the national register of historic places by the US Department of the Interior, the inn is an ideal place for family reunion, meetings, weddings and a rest place of some sort.  Foluso Erogbogbo and his fiancée, Ejiro, aspiring couple and members of the graduation train for Tomiwa, their friend, could not have dreamt of a better place for their honeymoon after their wedding in Austin, Texas, later in the year.

May 11, 2013. And here we were almost two centuries after the blacks regained their freedom, in the middle of nowhere down, down south, witnessing the graduation of students from all races in the same university environment. It took the likes of Meredith who used the instrumentality of the law to force the University of Mississippi to enrol him as a student in 1963, against the segregation law, to make this possible.

By 9am the arena of the Middle Tennessee University was already full of guests and members of the university community. Founded in 1911, it had graduated 117,134 students in various disciplines. This Saturday it was going to release yet another batch of 2,682 fresh graduates to the world in a solemn ceremony in the indoor arena. And when the programme started, the itinerant observer could not help taking mental notes of some unique things in the procedures and presentations. Before the American anthem was sung, guests and graduands were asked to remove their caps, a rare mark of honour when we stand up for the rendition of the Nigerian national anthem. Likewise, everybody was asked to be on their feet with their caps removed during the Moment of Silence, a time for personal reflection when individuals were supposed to pray (or curse?) silently, whichever is applicable! No pastor or Imam or Buddhist or Free Thinker was contracted to come and eat into the precision-timed programmes.

There was special applause for graduating students who were in the armed forces because, according to the compere, “these are the people securing our nation and maintaining peace for us”. It was such a sublime ritual with less funfair, though it's a big deal for every family to have their kids possess higher education. But there was no need to have special dresses or “aso ebi” (uniforms) to mark the occasion. But you can trust the Nigerians, they, as usual, were a pick among the crowd with their richly embroidered “costumes” and (sky-bound), onile gogoro headgears and “Shagari” caps inadvertently blocking the views of others and (they) becoming the centre of attraction for the barely dressed fellow observers from other climes.

Of utmost interest was the peculiar attention paid to certain areas in the dissertations of new PhD graduates, areas the uninitiated could innocently write off as insignificant but which can open doors to more forensic analyses and discoveries. Samples: “Reduce Your Sit and Be More Fit: An Examination of Sedentary Behaviour,” dissertation of a graduating student whose major was Human Performance. Another who majored in Public History has “Gender, Politics and Power: The Development of the Ladies Rest Room and Lounge in Rural America, 1900-1945” as her dissertation. Again, a major in Human Performance had a dissertation that could be of interest to visitors and sojourners in the wild, wild world of cyberspace. “Social Networking Sites Influence on Travellers: A Study of Couch Surfers’ Experience”. On a cursory look, these areas of study may sound innocuous or esoteric but going deeper, one might discover that the mere whisper of an idea may lead one down the corridors of history. Ideas which lead to major scientific discoveries often seem innocuous at the beginning. But in the end, they may herald the beginning of a landmark breakthrough for mankind.

The three-hour graduation ceremony ended precisely at the scheduled time for the afternoon session to begin. While another set of graduating students were waiting to take their turns, cafes, taverns, eateries and restaurants were already filling up with guests for graduation day parties, some of which lasted till the wee hours of Sunday morning.

The morning after.
Guests at the Carriage Lane Inn were still snoring in the rooms, lounges and even in the cellar after dancing themselves lame the previous night. Sooner than expected, it was wake-up time to adore and adorn the Mother figures around for being such wonderful hostesses and for always being there for the children. Gifts in form of ribbons, balloons, cards and candies were exchanged. It was Mothers’ Day! But why Mothers' Day? What's the significance? Why are fellow Africans getting more indulged in Western capitalist values at the expense of their own original, authentic customs and traditions? Nobody was impressed with the questioning. Yet, the hardcore African insisted on knowing, for instance, why the Americans celebrate Halloween Day with revellers masking their faces like African masquerades but it is fetish to have Egungun (Masquerades) Day back at home. Again, no one seemed interested in responding to his tantrums and “primitive” rantings. Mothers' Day is it! But nobody wants to hear of Moremi Day or Queen Amina Day or Emotan Day or Iya Mopo Day or Alagemo Day or Gelede Day... He was in this state of neo-cultural renaissance when checkout alarm sounded and the group had to set for the road again for a 12-hour journey to Florida to see the living wonders of Walt Disney World in Orlando and the standing monuments of space exploration at the Kennedy Space Centre. He quickly did a mental playback of the earlier trip from Atlanta...

A journey down the Tennessee River valley to the mountain home of the music legend is akin to Ulysses' odyssey in Alfred Tennyson's poem, Ulysses in which the hero chose to strive, to learn and to drink nature to the dregs. Opting to travel by road obviously paid off since it triggered memories of the yesterdays and yester years. In the end they remember not the silence of the loudness in the sky but the loudness of the silence in the woods. The turbo charge thrust in the clouds compared with the sublime pressure on the throttle on the well paved and “annotated” highways are two seemingly incomparable experiences, yet the difference is clear. The journey in the sky may be fast but the traveler sees practically nothing. On land, however, he can see, touch and smell the scent of the countryside and communicate with nature with poetic abandon. Such was the beauty of travelling through the Tennessee mountains, and valleys and “wading” through the Florida Everglades to have a better view of America.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Novel Achebe May Read Again


 Arrow of God is so dense in plot, deep in characterisation and profound in narrative technique that even the author once confessed that it is the novel which ‘I am mostly likely to be caught sitting down to read again’ 

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s celebrated classic novel, did not come to being without experiencing the pangs of birth. It literally went through the valley of the shadow of death before seeing the light of day. The original manuscript got misplaced, making the writer develop some goose pimples. And when it was eventually found, no publisher was very eager to put his money on an African story with a strange narrative technique loaded with “native” anecdotes, strange, if not ordinary, characters with “unpronounceable” names and, above all, “native” proverbs that sounded esoteric in the ears of the white-man publishers. The stereotypes were too many. But rose would always smell nice whatever name you call it. Once the manuscript was eventually given the green light, Things Fall Apart instantly became the rave of the moment, enjoying fascinating reviews across the broad spectrum of literary critics in international journals and mainstreet publications. Sooner than expected, it became a novel sans frontiers. The acclamation was unprecedented.

It was morning yet on creation day for Achebe who rode on the crest of the popularity of Things Fall Apart to turn what could have been the concluding part of the novel into another story culminating in the publication of No Longer at Ease. In essence, No Longer at Ease is a sequel to Things Fall Apart. Obi, the hero of No Longer at Ease is the grandson of Okonkwo, the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. His own father, Nwoye, (baptised Isaac), was one of the early defectors of Umuofia to forsake their traditional African religion to join the missionaries and their new brand of religion. Achebe is not done yet. He recreates a new setting for what may be referred to as another Things Fall Apart called Arrow of God. Sounds strange?

There are both thematic and ancestral affinities among the trilogy. Both Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease have ancestral linkage through their respective heroes who share a common pedigree while Arrow of God shares a similar thematic bond with Things Fall Apart. Though No Longer at Ease is distinct from Things Fall Apart, apart from sharing a common ancestral heritage, the same cannot be said of Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart. The two have similar themes, settings, conflicts, characterisation and narrative techniques. So, why did Achebe write Arrow of God? Is it an overkill or a deliberate creative attempt to deliver the first literary “Siamese twins” to the world? Or what was he thinking?

Achebe’s motive in writing his early novels is well espoused in ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, a paper he delivered at the Leeds Conference on Commonwealth Literature in 1964. He told his audience, among other things, that his writing was an adequate revolution for him to articulate his people’s culture and help the African society regain its belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-denigration. “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past with all its imperfections was not one long night of savagery which the first European acting on God’s behalf delivered them”.

This aim is part of his contributions to the task of giving back to Africa the pride and self-respect it lost during the years of colonialism. Achebe himself reiterated this fact in ‘The Black Writer’s Burden’, a published article of his in 1966, as “the need to repair the disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien races”. This cultural attitude is well highlighted in his first three novels but most especially in Arrow of God with a seemingly similar theme, setting and characterisation as in Things Fall Apart. Achebe himself admitted that his purpose in doing so was to fill the gaps created in Things Fall Apart which he saw as a necessity before moving to the contemporary scene. This, in part, accounts for the density of the description of the complex but beautiful traditional life enunciated in the novel. In doing this, he is able to portray the Igbo society under stress, a stress which is symbolically represented in the jealousy of Nwafo by Edogo, in the perennial quarrels between Ugoye and Matefi (wives of Ezeulu, the protagonist), in the unhealthy rivalry between Nwaka and Ezeulu, in the long-standing enmity between two of the six villages of Umuaro, in the land dispute between the whole of Umuaro and Okperi, and finally in the confusion brought by the white man. In spotlighting this stress, however, the author does not part company with his avowed aim of giving Africans back their self-respect.

There is a vivid portrayal of the beauty and rhythm of African life represented in he socio-cultural and politico-economic expositions prevalent in Umuaro, the setting of the novel. The organisational set-up of the six villages that make up Umuaro – Umuachala, Umunnaora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umuogwugwu and Umuisiuzo – as a clan, the appointment of a chief priest, the relationship between the priest and his people, the high regard placed on men of titles, the various customs e.g funeral ceremony, marriage, New Yam Festival, Feast of the Pumpkin Leaves, all these are wedged in the plot in order to show the values of traditional African life to the reader.

Any person who had read Things Fall Apart before getting hold of Arrow of God may be tempted to think he is watching a re-run of the film of events and characters in Things Fall Apart. To some extent, yes. But he must not be mistaken to believe that both novels can weigh the same on the scale of priority among intellectuals and critics who believe that there is a more profound and significant treatment of characters and situations in Arrow of God than in Things Fall Apart. Hence there is a more sustained character in Ezeulu, the chief priest, in Arrow of God than in Okonkwo, the warrior, in Things Fall Apart. It is in the more elaborate exposition of the character of Ezeulu and the conflicts within the Umuaro clan that the tragic dimension becomes more pronounced, unlike the unidirectional movements that led to the denouement in Things...

There’s no doubt that Arrow of God is a deliberate remix, to use musical entertainment language, of Things Fall Apart. The hero here is a man of superior intelligence imbued with a sense of moderation. Unlike the hero in Things Fall Apart who relies more on exterior strength and sheer bravado than internal wisdom. Though both are destined to end tragically, Achebe makes sure that Ezeulu towers far above Okonkwo in strength of character, especially in his ability to discern the change the white man’s incursion has brought to his domain and the inevitable social disequilibrium it will endanger.

The plot being an open one, Achebe uses occasional digressions via the path of anecdotes and village gossipers. For instance, any time Anosi is mentioned, one is sure of having the latest ‘gist’ in Umuaro clan. It is through his ever mobile tongue that almost all the six villages learnt of the abomination committed by Oduche, the Christianised son of Ezeulu who, out of overzealousness, attempted to kill the sacred python which further aggravated the enmity between the two priests, Ezeulu and Ezidemili whose deity, idemili, owned the python. This episode further advances the plot. Other techniques used in advancing the course of the story include the employment of digression through the use of anecdotes, short stories and oratory.

This method of adopting oral tradition is further used in the characterisation. The characters of Achebe are representatives of their societies. Just as Okonkwo is presented as the strongman of Umuofia, so is Ezeulu portrayed as the representative of his people. In such a situation, it is difficult to separate the individual from the tragedy that befalls the community and vice versa. It will, therefore, be artificial to separate the individual’s course of action from the social drama being enacted. The two movements must be woven into such unity that enhances the profile of the hero.

Examples abound in how Achebe is able to achieve this. In the internal rivalry among the villages, Ezeulu stands in the centre. In the bigger conflict between European and African cultures, he alone understands the nature of the dilemma posed by the presence of the white man in their midst, ushering in an age of new adjustment. No wonder he declares: “The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in the same place.” Alas! There are many forces working towards his tragedy – his pride and stubbornness, the internal division among the villages, the loss of his son, Oduche, to the new religion thereby becoming “the lizard that ruined his mother’s funeral” and the incursion of the white man into the erstwhile peaceful life of the Igbo people.

One cannot talk of Achebe’s achievement in Arrow of God without mentioning his language. Like in Things Fall Apart, the twin novel, Achebe uses English in a universally accepted standard and at the same time in a way to carry his purely authentic African experience. His mastery of the English language enables him to make use of a species of language “that is clear and generous which stirs the emotions and drops anchors in the memory.” Critics are not extravagant with such compliments for nothing. Right in chapter 1, page 1, Achebe gives a signal of what to expect in Arrow … “The moon (the chief priest) saw that day was as thin as an orphan fed grudgingly by a cruel foster-mother.” The imagery is scintillating, a sort of literary echo from Thomas Hardy, the English poet and novelist known for his deep-etched descriptions, e.g in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Examine also Akukalia’s warning to the other emissaries sent to deliver a message to a neighbouring village. “I think I should remind you again to hold your tongue in your hand when we get there and leave the talking to me.” The idea of holding one’s tongue in one’s hands is patently African but its use does not in any way affect the meaning intended in the statement; rather it adds flavour to it. So also is Ezeulu’s praise of the deity of Eru in the presence of Obika after the latter had recounted the experience of his encounter with the spirit. “When he likes a man, wealth flows like a river into his house; his yams grow as big as human beings, his goats produce threes and his hens hatch nines.” In the background of this statement is the indulgence of Africans in the use of hyperboles which add flavours to their descriptive renditions.

Euphemism, too, readily comes handy. Obika marries Okuata and the narrator has this to say. “When he took his wife to his hut after the sacrifice, would he find her at home – as the saying was – or would he learn with angry humiliation that another man has broken in and gone off with his prize?”

Euphemism, in the description of sensitive or behind-the-door matters, is a common device in traditional African life and is effectively used in Achebe’s novels. He himself holds that the African writer should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.

As a corollary to this, there is a skilful handling and infusion of local proverbs and idioms. The aim of Achebe’s intensive use of these proverbs and wise sayings is to meet the didactic function which he is concerned with. It is also aimed to reveal their place in African traditional life. To him, proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten and he lays them bare on the table as a delicious buffet for all readers. But as a literary artist he does not just present a collage of proverbs for art’s sake. They have their functional relevance as they help bring into focus and sustain the themes the writer is exploring. After the judgement on the land dispute, Ezeulu’s friend, Akuebue, has to rebuke him for turning himself into a traitor in the eyes of his people because of his outspokenness. Hear him: “A man cannot win judgement against the clan.” The message in this wise saying is carried through the novel as Ezeulu fails in the fight against the clan over his detention in Okperi and Umuaro’s lukewarm attitude to avenge his humiliation. Ezeulu’s response as contained in the proverb – “when brothers fight to death a stranger inherits their father’s estate’ – is both prophetic and ironic because when he fights the clan to near-death it is the white man who inherits “the estate” when Christianity is accepted by the people.

Through the proverbs and idioms, traditions are received and handed on, and when they disappear or fall into disuse it is a sign that a particular life is passing away. This is why Achebe lamented in a foreword to “A Selection of African Prose” by W. H. Whiteley (Oxford, 1964) that this aspect of traditional life, often evident in oratory and even in the art of good conversation, is dying down fast and there seems to be no way of preventing it. There is no doubt that the proverb – laden narrative of Arrow of God (and, indeed, all Achebe’s works) is a deliberate effort to retain traditional African prose and consequently to show Africa’s cultural continuity.

His early novels, especially Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, are literary chronicles of traditional African life in Igboland before the advent of the white man who came carrying a Bible in one hand and a pistol in the other to pacify the “primitive tribes” of the Lower Niger. But Arrow of God is so dense in plot, deep in characterisation and profound in narrative technique that even the author once confessed that it is the novel which “I am most likely to be caught sitting down to read again” because of its “peculiar quality”.