Grenfell Burns. We All Burn.

The history of humanity can be told in frames of people looking away,

Always looking away,

Looking away from complaints,

Looking away from warnings,

The history of humanity will be told in stories of people hiding away,

Hiding away those who need to be seen, who need to be heard,

Hiding Grenfell behind decorative cladding,

So we can go back to looking away. Again.

Looking away from people housed in death traps, towering fire hazards.

Till…

Our eyes are irresistibly drawn to the inevitable inferno

For a moment.

Till…

We go back to looking away,

Till…

The next “never again”… happens again, again.

woman-grenfell

Misogynoir: Did Not Start with Saartjie, Will Not End with Serena

This was not an easy one to write. But we must confront our devils and our demons. Silence is how black women die. We fall into the world’s silences, like we fall into oceans, drown, like we fall into open graves, in the fields, like we disappear into social prisons, held there by malicious silences, and wilful blindnesses. Cold and callous. So we need to talk. We need to talk about misogynoir. This will not be easy, this is not a rousing letter of defiance. This is a verse in a litany of long lamentation, an exhumation of the bodies of black women buried under undeserved vitriol, hate and contempt. This is a bringing of whitened bones to the light, an uncovering of rotting flesh imbued with the stench of our hypocrisy, sodden with our spite and our scorn, our refusal to accept the existence of our own monstrosities and thus repudiate them. So let us talk about misogynoir.

Misogynoir is the counterpoint to intersectionality. In a previous post, I explored the urgent imperatives of speaking of intersectionality and intersectional feminism – the understanding of how black women’s overlapping identities like race, class, ethnicity, gender, coloniality, impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. Intersectionality is the sword that kills misogynoir. Misogynoir was a term coined by Moya Bailey. It is a portmanteau that combines “misogyny” and the French word for black – “noir” – to describe the specific racialized sexism and sexualised racism that Black women face. It exposes the hypersexualisation imposed on black female bodies, the voyeuristic preoccupation with black female bodies that reduces black female bodies to a single rudimentary function. It tell of the persistent engagement with black female bodies as permanent spectacle. It tells of erasure of voices and agency that enables annihilation.

It is sometimes argued that this preoccupation with the black female body began with American slavery. An interesting characteristic of plantation slavery in the US was that enslavement was passed through the mothers bloodline. Any child born of an enslaved woman was herself a slave, even if the father of the child was the highest born slave-master. This placed the black woman in the middle of a maelstrom of malevolent gazes. The slave-master’s lusty gaze seeing her as a source of more slaves, more income; the slave-master’s wife’s gaze full of hate but obstinately refusing to see the black woman’s oppression. Her fellow enslaved male seeing her as defiled, easy, available, not as oppressed, re-oppresses her. However, it is my suggestion that plantation slavery was an illustration of misogynoir, not a genesis. Misogynoir is not solely an American disease. The treatment of black women as spectacle enabled a particular instance of misogynoir, but it always existed in the global ether – in Africa, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. Let me introduce you to Saartjie Baartman.

In 1810 Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman, a woman from South Africa, was taken to England for public display. She was named the ‘Hottentot Venus.’ Make no mistake, this is a derogatory name. She was exhibited as a “freak” in London and then Paris. This visualisation was on account of her African origin and the presumed particularities of her body. Her differences were evaluated in relation to European senses of self. Her most ‘exciting’ features were her alleged “steatopygia” (a condition resulting from the accumulation of fat in the buttocks) and the presence of the (mythical) “Hottentot apron” (the elongation of the genital labia). Misogynoir. White men and women flocked to see Sarah in abject fascination with the difference of Sarah’s black female body. She was treated like an animal. A collar was placed around her neck. She was made to gyrate and emphasise the black female body that so thrilled the audiences. She died in 1815 at the age of 26 of unknown causes.

The fascination with her anatomy continued after her death. Sarah’s corpse was given over to the French ‘scientist’ Georges Cuvier for scientific observation. Cuvier produced a plaster cast of her entire body and then removed her brain and genitalia in order to preserve them for display at his own private museum and later at the Muse de l’Homme. These remained on display until 1974. Around 1995, the post-apartheid South African government began agitating  for the return of her remains to her place of origin. Her body was returned and buried in 2002. 2002!

Sarah Baartman’s humanity was erased. Her personhood disappeared into the silence. Her history is a cautionary tale to us of spectacle and fetishization. It tells us to snatch the narratives and scripts that dehumanise us from the ether and replay them over and over and over, make evident their monstrosities, till they are abandoned. As I write this I can still see in my mind’s eye the ‘article’ that proclaimed Serena Williams’ photoshoot in a bikini pornographic, the cardboard cutout of Diane Abbott (a long-serving politician) that someone thought would be humorous to pose in bed with, the hate-filled twitter messages sent to Gina Miller calling for her to be raped, the images of African women trafficked to Italy and other European countries, the brutalisation of women’s bodies in the name of tradition, in Africa, more than anywhere else, the reduction of black female personhood to a single function…. Misogynoir – the black female body as spectacle, as less than human. And make no mistake this is violence, it is a violence to the spirit and to the soul and ultimately a violence to the body. What we can demean, what we disparage, we ultimately destroy. Why would we revile what we do not intend for ruination?

So we need to talk about this. Because black women have made pain look beautiful, some think this should be our natural state. A flower is still a flower even when it fades, but how beautiful it is in full bloom. Sarah Baartman went back home in 2002. Let us talk, so we stop disappearing into silence. So we find peace. We are black women. We are more than this.

As part of the campaign to return Sarah Baartman home, Diana Ferrus, A South African poet wrote, A Poem For Sarah Baartman, which reads in part:

‘I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name…
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you…’

Black women deserve a safe place to go home to. Unlike Sarah Baartman, we don’t need campaigns to take us home. We want to find home. For ourselves. We are here. Here should be safe. Here should be home. No more silence.

The Sahel, Bamako, Mali, Africa, 1986

 

References

  • Bailey, Moya. “New Terms of Resistance: A Response to Zenzele Isoke.” Souls 15.4 (2013): 341-343.
  • Bailey, Moya. “Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2.2 (2016).
  • Moudileno, Lydie. “Returning remains: Saartjie Baartman, or the “Hottentot Venus” as transnational postcolonial icon.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. Vol. 45. No. 2. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Wiss, Rosemary. “Lipreading: Remembering Saartjie Baartman.” The Australian journal of anthropology 5.3 (1994): 11-40.

African Female Heroes: A talk by me

A student of mine has embarked on a project to uncover fictional and non-fictional African Heroes. The video below is my contribution to her laudable project. This is followed by summaries of the life stories of my heroes figures.

Queen Amina of Zaria:  She ruled Zaria (Zazzau) from about 1549. She was a warrior Queen heading up an army of 20,000 men. According to the Kano Chronicle, Amina conquered as far as Nupe and Kwarafa, ruling for 34 years. Amina is also credited as the architect of the strong earthen walls around the city, which became the prototype for the fortifications used in all Hausa states. She built many of these fortifications, later known as ganuwar Amina or ‘Amina’s walls’, around various conquered cities. Many of these walls remain in existence to this day. She is recorded to have died in 1610. There are different accounts of her death. It is suggested by some that Amina committed suicide during a military campaign at Dekina in the present Kogi state and was buried in Idah. Others believe that she died during a military campaign at Atagara near Bida in present day Niger state. It is believed that the TV series, ‘Xena: Warrior Princess‘ is based on Amina’s life.

amina-the-muslim-queen-warrior

 

Ȩfúnşetán Aníwúrà: Ȩfúnşetán was born around 1790 in Egbaland. She moved to Ibadan, a city that was founded in 1829 as a war camp. Ȩfúnşetán eventually became the Iyalode of Ibadan. She was the first woman to set up a flourishing agrarian economy that employed no fewer than 2000 men and women. Around 1850, worried by increasing conflict in the Yorubaland, she made her workers take up infantry military training. Consequently, she had her own private army. She was said to have had personal military training in urban and guerrilla warfare. Prof Akintoye wrote “It is not unlikely that Ȩfúnşetán was the richest person in the whole of the Yoruba interior in about the late 1870s.” She was definitely rich AND powerful.

1100px-yorubaland_cultural_area_of_west_africa  Map of Yoruba Empire

However, her only daughter died in 1860 during child birth. After this, Ȩfúnşetán became extremely depressed. This has an extremely negative effect on her interpersonal relationships and decisions. She ordered arbitrary executions of her staff and withdrew support for Latoosa, the Aare Ona Kakanfo (the Warlord) of Ibadan. Latoosa responded by calling for her to be killed. She was killed in 1874. It is unclear whether she died by committing suicide when Latoosa’s forces surrounded her house or – according to the Reverend Samuel Johnson – she was killed by assassins hired by Kumuyilo, her adopted son. Ȩfúnşetán is immortalised in film, most especially in a play written by Professor Akinwunmi Isola.

tumblr_m63ffl3bzl1qi2wqto1_500

 

Moremi Ajasoro: Moremi lived in the 12th century. She was from Offa. She married Oranmiyan and reigned as Queen in Ile-Ife. During this time, Ife was persistently raided by their neighbours, (possibly the Igbohos) who had dressed themselves to look like demons. The people of Ife were often taken into captivity. To discover the secret of the raiders, she allowed herself to be captured by them. She lived with them, integrated with them, learnt their secrets and then escaped back to Ile-Ife. Apparently, the raiding neighbours dressed themselves in raffia; this gave them their otherworldly appearance. The solution was to attack them armed with flaming torches, as raffia is highly flammable. This repelled the raiders. Thereafter peace reigned in Ile-Ife. Moremi is revered in Ile-Ife, Offa and most of Yorubaland, there is a massive statue of her in the Ooni’s palace in Ife (said to be the fourth tallest statue in Africa). She has been immortalised in songs and plays, for example Morountodun by Femi Osofisan. Her name adorns many buildings and roads.

tumblr_o4q6nvvnvw1qb232yo1_500 Stephen Hamilton’s artistic visualisation of Moremi

I have always been quite vocal about the fact that our stereotypical view of African women as lacking agency, as lacking personhood is not only false, but exceedingly harmful.

Who are your African heroes?

 

References

  • Ajayi, JF Ade, and Michael Crowder. History of West Africa. Vol. 1. Longman Sc & Tech, 1985.
  • Davidson, Basil, and Francis K. Buah. A history of West Africa to the nineteenth century: With FK Buah and the advice of JF Ade Ajayi. Anchor Books, 1966.
  • Fage, John Donnelly. An introduction to the history of West Africa. At the University Press, 1955.
  • Johnson, Samuel. The history of the Yorubas: From the earliest times to the beginning of the British protectorate. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Onwubiko, K. B. C. School Certificate History of West Africa: AD 1000-1800. Book One. Africana-FEP, 1982.

These are some of my African heroes. Who are yours?

 

So, we went to vote

A vote is a dangerous thing to waste. Politics is almost certainly never something to be left to politicians. And that is why we vote and fight for the right to vote. I always find it slightly amusing when people begin a statement by saying ‘Politics aside.’ Politics is never aside and politics is never an aside. The personal is always political. Those in government decide the quality of life you can aspire to, funding for schools, health, who you can marry, who you can meet, how well the nation develops, societal rights and wrongs, the quality of air, what schools you can go to, what schools teach, the food that you eat … none of these things is completely personal and none of these things is solely political. And so, we go to vote.

History matters. The suffragettes died fighting to win women the right to vote. A lot of the decolonisation movement in Africa and Asia especially, concerned agitation for self-rule – the right to vote and be voted for. The ballot box thus becomes a symbol of freedom. The freedom to mark your name on that card and drop it in that box can sometimes feel like the last chains of oppression are over, voting at the end of apartheid, at the end of Jim Crow, as the end of military rule. But it is not the end really. Voting is the first step on that road and if you turn back, then freedom is lost. In Nigeria, we went to vote, walking past armoured tanks, soldiers with loaded rifles and itchy trigger fingers looking on. We went to vote in the sweltering heat and in torrential downpours. Because the personal is political and the political is personal. Our voter’s card – a little slip of paper – that supposedly gives you the right to control Aso Rock. I waited in the sun for 12 hours to collect mine. My small measure of control, a minuscule drop in the fathomless ocean of institutional malaise. But I hold on to it. Like it is all I have in this national confusion.

Hard won freedoms should be hard kept. And so, I vote. Always.

freedom_summer2

 

Why All the Fuss about Cultural Appropriation?

So a few weeks ago, I wrote about Afronesia and Afrotortion – the acts of erasing Africa and distorting her value. I suggested that the only way to end this toxic relationship between Africa and the rest of the world was for those of us who care to seek truth and speak out.  Damien Hirst then went to look for my trouble that I hid in a far away place. Oshisko! Alaparutu!! Atoole!!! So what did Damien actually do?

sculpture

On the left is an Ife terracotta head sculpted by artists from Ile-Ife in present day Osun State between the 12th and 14th century. On the right is Hirst’s ‘work’ titled, “Golden Heads (Female)”, displayed at his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi, with no reference to Ife or Nigeria. (May 2017)

On 5th of May 2017, my fellow Nigerian and lawyer, Laolu Sebanjo (a renowned artist in his own right) wrote a blistering letter to Hirst. Please read it. Please. To quote Laolu

‘Who’s past should we believe?  Is it the German Anthropologist (Frobenius) who claims the Yorubas were far too primitive to create such beautiful things or is it we the descendants of the Yoruba people who know our own history and can recognize a counterfeit when we see it.  This body of work, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is an unbelievable pile of cheap knock offs.’

So let us talk about cultural appropriation. What is it and why is it so bad?

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” Susan Scafidi

Looking at this definition we see that the sticking point in cultural appropriation is ‘without permission’ or ‘unauthorised use’. Cultural appropriation is not just about the taking, it is about the stealing, it is about the exploitation of other people’s labour, it is about treating the ‘other’ with contempt. It is epistemic violence and actual violence. Two examples:

In 1897 the British, during a punitive military expedition looted an estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria). These were then sold in the private European art market. Today Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. And, in 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house. None of this money has ever been given to any of the original art-workers or their descendants.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, is a song written and recorded originally by Solomon Linda in 1939. It is a key piece of music in the beautiful Disney animated movie The Lion King. In 2000 Rian Malan wrote an article titled, In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.’ The article chronicles how the copyright of the song was essentially stolen from Linda and commercialised in the West, eventually generating about US$15 million. It was only when Malan’s article was published that Linda’s estate was eventually able to recover a comparably paltry sum in royalties.

And this is why cultural appropriation is bad, why it hurts, why it makes us rage and bleed. Because each act of theft takes us back. Back to slavery again. It reminds us that we are bound. Each appropriation re-appropriates our labour, our blood, our sweat. Cultural appropriation recolonises us. Each time things like this happen we remember the chains that bind us. We remember that our labour remains stolen. Our work of little value to us. Our work enriches those who treat us contemptibly, but not us.

This is why epistemic violence is violent, our culture is violently ripped away like a new born baby ripped from its mother, blood dripping, placenta popping. Our labour is re-purposed to put food in someone else’s mouth and we are bereft, powerless, hungry. Cultural appropriation means that someone’s ease is bought by someone else’s value. A world in which we can be condemned to hunger in this way, a world that so easily dehumanizes and deprives… this is a violent world. Remember we all die slowly. We are all human. But some die slowly and in pain, because some choose to wilfully ignore the fact that we are all human.

This is why we should talk endlessly and tirelessly about decolonisation in the 21st century. Victor Ehikhamenor (another Nigerian artist) said of Hirst’s ‘work’:

‘For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst, regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic, “Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head.”‘

When SOAS students asked for the decolonisation of their curriculum, their request was treated with derision. But this is why decolonisation of knowledge is important. Putting history and all knowledge in its proper context. Telling both stories of grandeur and stories of greed. We cannot dream of freedom in a world of violent silence.

So Afronesia and Afrotortion only end when we end it. The chains must be broken by us. My people, we cannot and should not beg to be recognized, or to have our labour valued. Make no mistake, legal and legitimate theft only occur in a world that makes it possible. We also make it possible. And we can make it impossible. Learn. Speak out. Mobilise. Persist. Resist. We are the becoming. We are freedom.

What if the Sound of Music was Made in Nollywood?

One day, some of my friends and I, all lovers of the original Sound of Music movie, decided to brainstorm on what the plot of SOM would have looked like if given the Nollywood treatment. The following are some of our ideas for modifications and/or rewrites. What are yours?:

  1. Maria never marries the Captain. She is the strange woman that the Baroness sees as the interloper. The Baroness and her friend do naked fasting till Maria goes mad.
  2. The thunder and lightning on that first night is a sign from the gods that the Captain must not embark on that journey to Berlin to pursue the Baroness.
  3. The Captain agrees to fight alongside the Nazis (or the Nollywood political equivalent, probably party politics) because it means more power for him at the expense of common sense and in spite of his personal conviction. He crosses all the carpets many, many times and becomes immensely rich. Rolfe, the whistle-blower, is a whistle blower.
  4. The plot is essentially redundant as the children live with their ancient but loving grandma in some village and even if Maria is needed, she does not come into actual contact with the Captain. The cast and the audience applaud the captain for remembering to send money for the children’s upkeep.
  5. Related to the above suggestion, the Baroness does some juju to make the captain forget his children and they start suffering in the village. Cue that horrible instrumental they play when the children are fetching firewood and crying because they are starving and asking each other superfluous questions. To make matters worse, because that is how we roll,  a snake bites one of them on the leg on the way from fetching the firewood and then there will be an exaggerated make up depicting the deterioration of the leg. This is no ordinary snake, it is sent by Baroness to kill the children off one by one.
  6. The Baroness will attempt to poison Maria who will be saved because her mother appeared to her in a dream and tells her not to eat the food.
  7. Liesl is pregnant, bringing shame on the family. Maria discovers her vomiting somewhere – the only tried and true Nollywood pregnancy test. Rolfe is the obvious suspect as fetal father. Turns out to be Franz the butler.
  8. When the Nazis pursue the von Trapps to the abbey, the Reverend Mother speaks in tongues, casts and binds until the Nazis are visited by a mysterious fire that lasts long enough for the family to escape.
  9. The Baroness ‘succeeds’ in killing all the children but 1 of them. That one will be paralyzed but prayerful, after interminable prayer sessions the Baroness confesses to wanting the children out of the way so that her own child would inherit the captain’s wealth. The captain weeps and wails in regret. The backing music to his tears is the ghosts of the children singing in mournful harmony. Then To God be the Glory. The end.
  10. Alternative ending:  Maria marries the Captain, but only after visiting babalawo for charms. Captain thinks he married a ‘good girl’ from the ‘Shursh’. One of the eldest children catches Maria in the night using said charms and tells the Captain. The Captain says many proverbs to himself and decides to keep quiet and goes to his own babalawo. In the process, two or three children die in the cross fire and Captain runs mad. The Baroness then comes, supposedly to take care of the children, but sells them as house girls when the Captain does not get better after all her ‘efforts’. At the end, we see random soldiers shooting and a caption that says, “war is fighting” – [This is not a typo]. Just like that. In the midst of random people throwing bangers at each other, the children escape and miraculously find each other. Then all you see is, ‘To God be the glory’…. The end.

Authored by:

Tayo Akanmode

Tolulope Majebi

Chidinma Ogbonnaya

Kofoworola Ogunnaike

Tsema Okoye

and Yours Truly

But there is only one original Sound of Music!

xumssixxbqyx

 

Ending Afronesia and Afrotortion

A few weeks ago I wrote about Afronesia and Afrotortion – the interrelated acts of forgetting Africa and distorting the ideological remnants of her image. In the weeks following that post, I have tried to direct my mind to how these two epistemically violent acts can be ended. For seekers, epistemic violence is the violence of knowledge production, the discourse involved in the practice of ‘othering’, using language to differentiate, demarcate, demean and ultimately dehumanise, thus inevitably creating the conditions for physical violence. When we think about it in this way, we see that Africa’s symbolisation as other, as less than human, as incompetent, has always framed African interaction with the rest of the world, whether it be on the continent or the diaspora. The practice of slavery is thus linked to colonialism and inexorably linked to social-engineering that masquerades as developmental measures. Thus we see that the goal of speaking of a new Africa is a serious, necessary and collective work. It is work directed to freedom; it is work for ending violence. How do we do this work?

Seek truth, read, listen, think, ask: I have lamented over and over again about the fact that African education systems seems designed to distort knowledge and not produce it. I make bold to say that no education system in the world is designed to seek the truth about Africa. NONE IN THE WORLD. So the imperative about learning African history and philosophy and science and reality is one which we have to take up as an individual responsibility. It has taken me a while to come to grips with political blackness and how it affects Africa and I am still learning everyday. Read books, articles, form discussion groups, go to conferences, network… piercing the darkness takes persistence and sacrifice.

Insist, resist, dismantle: The purpose of educating ourselves is to unveil the system of epistemic violence. The social construction of the world does not make this easy. Our schools do not teach the existence of anti-blackness as a global reality. By the time we graduate/start job hunting, we have been inculcated into the anti-Black system, such that we try to conform in a way that negatives our African consciousness. Anti-Blackness is a system which can be evidenced in many forms including Afrotortion and Afronesia, also individual acts of racism or misogynoir. But like most systems of negative socialisation and repression, it is insidious and unseen; it also requires the complicity of its victims. Basically, we uphold this system because we do not see it. We need to unveil the system to we can dismantle it, because we cannot dismantle what we cannot see. So that is the first task – unveiling anti-Blackness in what we do, what we read, being able to recognise it. Only then can we dream of dismantling it. Dismantling Afrotortion and Afronesia requires persistence, speaking up when no-one else does. Ignoring the eye-rolls from those who think we are being oversensitive. As Sara Ahmed says, refusing to be over, what we are not yet over. Pointing to the brick walls again and again and again saying ‘there they stand, those walls of oppression.’ And someday someone else will see and join. And then, and only then are we able to dismantle together, brick by brick, the walls that have caged us in.

Reach out, connect, pass on the flame: A lot of people can recognise anti-Blackness, but no one can dismantle it alone. Think of Obama, as president of a whole USA, he was unable to dismantle anti-Blackness. Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN could not dismantle anti-Blackness. Furthermore, many times we argue different parts of the movement as if they are in opposition to each other – race and gender; empire and race; class and race; gender and class etc. We fail to realise that our arguments exist in the anti-Blackness movement but in different parts of its house. Dismantling Anti-Blackness is the job of a persistent and passionate, connected and concerted movement. The problem with the creation of a neoliberal, capitalist post-structural world is that we have become increasingly individualistic. We do not realise that we have been pushed off into silos. But we should be lighthouses. A silo operates in isolation from others; a lighthouse shines a light into the darkness of Anti-Blackness, illuminating the unseen, providing a powerful light that continuously signals to others the possibility of freedom. Which is why I speak Pan-Africanism. It is OUR collective and together work that will end Anti-Blackness. Pan-Africanism is now. Freedom is now.

Afro-nesia and Afro-tortion

There are two interrelated and false ways in which the image of Africa is presented to the world. In this post I explain what they are and how they connect.

Afronesia: Look closely at most global narratives, media coverage, fiction, films, non-fictional writing etc. When the topic is of global relevance and significance, Africa is often left out or forgotten. For example when we look for something superlative, or say something is the best in the world, (unless we are talking poverty, corruption, disease, strife or conflict) there is usually no data or record from Africa. For some of these lists, it is clear that Africa has not even been taken into consideration. The best science and maths students in the world – no Africans, best drummers no Africans (!!); only one African dish shows up in two best foods lists (the only thing we eat is sand, you know); no African ever told a joke (how can we when we are constantly at war?). On a ranking of national anthems, the only African country to place above 40 is South Africa. When you consider that the Zambia and South African national anthem are very, very similar, that is just weird. Apparently Africans can’t sing either. This list of lists could go on, but I think we have established one thing – I hate global lists (See previous post on ranking of universities). They cause Afronesia – forgetting that Africa exists as a valid separate continent of people.

Afrotortion: On the occasions the existence of Africa is remembered, ‘Africa’ becomes a synecdoche (a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa), or the subject of such distortion of narrative that belief is not only suspended but literally obliterated, or ‘Africa’ is used as a false adjective steeped in negativity. (See previous blog on Hearts of Darknesses). Someone will go to a remote village in Kenya and write an entire thesis on how ‘Africa’ is coping with malaria. See for example the following:

Fortune 500 companies are still hesitant about settling in Africa

Italy’s prime minister: Don’t let Africa become ‘second Chinese continent’

Girl guide leader fundraising to go to Africa (She is going to Zambia!)

Africa’s example: How democracy begets democracy (A story about the 2017 Gambian election)

Africans wary of US travel after series of border denials (Ostensibly a story about Nigerians travelling, but a short paragraph of alludes to other countries)

Afrotortion: stereotyping Africa, misrepresenting Africa, creating a false image of Africa and then portraying that as all that she is and all that she can be.

Afrotortion and Afronesia are closely linked. If you believe that Africa is only dust, hunger and war, you will not go looking for the best in her. And if you do not know of Africa’s best you are more likely to believe that Africa’s worst is all she is and all she can be.

 

We Must Always Remember That Time in April

I can never forget the Rwandan genocide. April 1994. I was in secondary school. Still wearing the chequered frock of Junior Secondary and not yet the elegant pinafore of the Senior set. On April 6, 1994, an aircraft carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. That barely registered on my radar. The African Cup of Nations was going on in Tunisia and Nigeria would eventually go on to win it. We had also qualified for the World Cup in the USA. All-4-One’s greatest hit ‘I Swear’ was on the lips of every schoolboy. Sonny Okosuns had brought his distinct style of singing to Gospel. The Rich Also Cry was on television and we were still enthralled by Living in Bondage.

At the time I could not identify Rwanda on the map. Rashidi Yekini had more resonance for me than Kigali. Hutu and Tutsi were words I had never heard. All cockroaches meant to me was the scourge of our kitchen, those creatures that insisted on defecating in our gaari. But soon the news from Rwanda brought the horror into our television sets. 800,000 Rwandan people were killed in 100 days. (Read that sentence again, let it register.) This was not aerial bombardment. This was not a case where weapons of mass destruction were used. Most of the killing was done with machetes, done by neighbours and family members… ‘friends.’ One seemingly little known fact is that the Hutus and Tutsis have the same language; the same religion; the same culture. The physiological differences between the communities were greatly emphasised by the European invaders of Rwanda and Burundi, first the Germans then the Belgians, as an instrument of colonial rule.

So I listened to the news. Every day. And the horrific truth was that the whole world had seen it coming. And we were silent. Colonialism enabled it, neo-colonialism let it happen. 800,000 people tortured and killed. 800,000. There are currently about 70 countries in the world whose population is less than that. 800,000 people.

Years later, I would watch the film Hotel Rwanda and weep uncontrollably at the main character standing in the middle of a sea of bodies hacked down as they fled to safety. I watched Sometimes in April at end of my second Term at Enugu Law School, the very last day of term. I watched it twice, I could not sleep for months. I can still taste the horror I felt. Miles and years removed from the violence.

In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 7 the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. One of my professors at Lancaster told me that her students do not remember Rwanda because it happened so long ago, before most of them were born. But we should always remember. How can we learn the lessons of the past if we always forget the past? How can we learn that looking away will almost certainly result in destruction? We forget so easily. How do we learn that difference should be celebrated and not obliterated? How do we remember that the path to destruction starts with dehumanisation? HOW?

As I write this, gas attacks are happening in Syria, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, bodies drowning in the Mediterranean, for the first time in history 4 man-made famines are endangering lives across the African continent. So many more horrors than there is time and space for. And we see these coming, we are turning away from people who are different. We need to remember, so we can change.

I hope and pray that never again will human life be taken for granted, never again will we see human skulls as the raw materials of an interior decor display, never again will our backs be turned as a world descends into hell, because if we do again as a world we will lose more of our humanity… and truthfully, we do not have much left to lose.

Today is the 7th of April.

Today we remember.

Tomorrow we must change,

So we do not stand here ever again.

never_again_-_with_display_of_skulls_of_victims_-_courtyard_of_genocide_memorial_church_-_karongi-kibuye_-_western_rwanda_-_02

Global University Rankings & Toilets

Global University Rankings are like comparing potatoes to coco-yam or peaches to agbalumo (White Star Apple)

I remember arriving at Lancaster University to start my Master’s Degree. Everywhere I turned, there was a toilet, running water in the toilet, toilets supplied with tissues, doors that closed and all the works. I am sure that I was never 5 yards away from a functioning toilet. If I was not careful, I was more likely to end up in a toilet than in my seminar room. Bowland North probably has as many toilets as it has seminar rooms. This was far removed from my undergraduate experience in Nigeria. On our very massive campus, there were about 8 functioning toilets for the whole student body. 4 for the guys, 4 for the gals. Never let it be said that OAU Ife did not promote gender equality. These toilets were only functioning when there was running water. That was about twice a day. At about 9am in the morning, and 2pm in the afternoon. At other times, you had to be the master of your body. Woe betide you if your body won that contest. We had a beautiful campus (in my humble and unbiased opinion, the most beautiful campus in the world), absolutely brilliant academic staff (for the most part), a ingenious, entertaining and inexhaustible student union, but no toilets. So we learnt a skill that is taught in very few places. We learnt to keep in what nature suggests should be expelled. For days or even weeks, we would resist nature. With a lot of discomfort, admittedly. But we succeeded, for the most part, at this endeavour.

This got me thinking about the various skills we learnt across the many, many years (story for another day) we spent in Ile-Ife. I began thinking about how world university rankings forget that our universities should be made for us and not for the rest of the world. I thought of how the measures used to rank universities worldwide are obtuse. Like using cutlass to shave hair. Essentially they look at whether universities in the global South are as good as those in the global North, but never do the rankings go the other way. They do not rank how good the students are at surviving without toilets. Because we learnt to live without toilets. We learnt that skill. And who is to judge whether or not it is of value?

We learnt many skills, and these should be recorded against our names.

We learnt to resolutely return to rigorous studies in the aftermath of a bloodbath. We learnt to live on blood-soaked land. After July 12, 1999, life was always tinged with the images of broken bodies, the sounds of gunshots, always at the back of your mind, always threatening. But we learnt to live with the shadow of death. We survived.

We learnt the fortitude required to finish our degrees in the face of lecturers who take personal possession of marks and reserve others for divinity (i.e. A is for God and B is for me). Even when the graduation gown seemed like a distant impossible possibility, a dream at the end of a path strewn with barbwire and landmines, we forged ahead. We learnt that impossibility and possibility are variables. We survived.

We learnt the ability to attend funerals and candlelit processions and hospital bedsides and still smile into the following day. We lost classmates to sicknesses that should not kill, to roads supposedly built. We lost them to death, that seemed to dwell more with us than anywhere else. We learnt to live with death. We survived.

We lived in the middle of a war zone, and still passed our exams. Mostly. Heaven knows how long the conflict between Ife and Modakeke has been waged. We were caught in the middle of historical disputes, between ancients who have long ago shaken the dust of this craven earth from their feet. Battles over land and pride, broke into our classrooms and our dwellings with Molotov cocktails and the stench of hate and war. We survived this too.

We had some of our lectures under the hot sun, some in the rain. Most in the midst of thousands of other students. No public address system. If you wanted one, you had to buy it and risk it being stolen. We had classes from 7am till 7pm. I once fell asleep in class and continued taking dictation. Don’t ask me. I don’t know how that happened either. We survived that too.

We  survived teargas and bullets, student rampage and disease-ridden water. We faced closure after closure, we were everyone’s pawns – the government’s, the students’ union’s and the university management’s. And we learnt to be brilliant. We learnt to be absolutely, unquestionably, unconditionally, irrevocably brilliant! We studied by candle light and moonlight and lamplight and sunlight and every kind of light known to man and some as yet unrecorded. We lived on so little sleep our beds disowned us. We found weird and unexpected solutions to problems that were very unique.

We learnt to smile into the fire.

I am not saying that Nigerian universities are in an acceptable state. Not in the least! However, the assessment of whether or not the agbalumo is fit to eat, should be based on whether or not it is a good agbalumo, and not how different the peach is. Many a person has sucked on a maggot-filled agbalumo. However, we cannot say that an agbalumo is bad because it is not a peach. Not matter what we do we cannot turn an agbalumo into a peach.

It is not the first person to get to the finish line who is the better runner, but the one who has come the furthest. We have run through unbelievable obstacles, we have scaled walls designed to defeat us, hurdles placed specifically to trip us up.

You enter into the Nigerian educational system at one end, a questing child, unsure, uncertain, trepidatious – you emerge at the other end (God willing you escape with your life) you emerge a lioness. Nigerian students are people of deep resolution who learn to adapt to unimaginable situations. We learn to pick ourselves up again and again and again. We should be feared. Because ultimately, we are the ones who learnt to live without toilets.