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Month: March 2014

Writing Violence…

While working on a short story on domestic violence recently, I was privileged to get a colleague review it. ‘It lacks suspense, noCapture action, not gripping, it fell flat like a biography’, this was his response. To bring it alive, he suggested we add some action. This he did, by injecting some dose of violence, a scene with a strong narration of one violating one’s kind. Amazingly, the story came alive with suspense! It took the ambiance of most familiar fiction novels I know.
I am still amazed at the ease with which violent writing came to my colleague, unlike it came to me. I have tried to look at this event with a gender lens; are male writers better at writing on violence than women writers? This is a huge argument, but gendering this, is not the focus of this article.
At the soul of this piece is the need to explore how writers of literary fiction have engaged with the theme of violence in their work.  Do they write to excite, inspire or discourage violence, or do they just flirt with violence for the purpose of adding shock to their work?
No work of fiction is written in a vacuum. All of them cling to issues that are of relevance to the society. Violence is trending in almost every society these days, governments no longer hold monopoly to violence, in all forms of unruly politics, citizens now exercise rights to different types of violence. You may call it terrorism, war, sexual or physical abuse, mutilation, child abuse or anything else. All of these names rest on violence; the act of violating one’s kind. The reality of this in our society cannot be ignored. From the city streets to the country sides, within our homes and in our daily lives, like air, violence is speedily and easily penetrating our life.
The rising number of war, the growing incidence of terrorism especially among developing countries, introduced a very high note in the rhythm of global violence. Like most violent acts, terrorism uses force to attain political end. What makes it incomprehensible is that the victims often have no relations or affiliation to the political issues they fight. Perpetrators of this type of violence, show a profound disconnection that amounts to hatred of one’s kind, a disregard for life and all it represents. This facts make me wonder if such disconnection and disregard are experienced by writers and their readers when conjuring, narrating or engaging violence in novels? I am still unable to comprehend violence, I cannot effectively narrate it fictionally, and hence I cannot answer to these experiences.
While the above questions represent questions of process, the questions on intent are also important. What is a writer’s intention for projecting violence? It seems to me that some writers use violence in their narratives to compel action in our society. For example, the generation of Apartheid writers in South Africa would use violent narratives to reflect the evil of the existing apartheid system and incite people against racism and injustice. Other writers may need to inject violence to gain a balanced reflection of a true society, considering that violence is understood to be organic. A later group of writers may use violence because it sells; it shocks or can indeed be entertaining.
american_psychoCormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’, ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis among others are example of fiction novels reeling in violent narratives that should disturb even the coldest hearts. While they are highly rated, I may highly underrate such dark writing for exciting violence.10876214          This category of literature, often termed ‘Transgressive Fiction’ or ‘disturbing Novels’ are characterized with presenting protagonists who thrill with terror and taboo, with all willingness to portray forbidden behaviors or shock readers. Like the terrorist of the real world, they are emotionally disconnected. Their striking detachment from life enables them to dice, slice and saw their fellow humans. Novels in this genre have been subject to many obscenity trial, but are often permitted.
Novels do not just entertain, they impact. Engaging with such blood-drenched books with routine killing of women, children and everything alive, I often ask, how are they helping shape the society, how are they contributing to helping people change their mental paradigms on violence, towards the peace and well-being our world so desperately needs? This may be defended as another genre of literature, yes a ‘disturbing genre’ with huge fan base to whom such violence is comprehensible and perhaps entertaining. But are there no better way of creating these types of work without indecorously portraying violence in all its stark nakedness?Alice Walker
It’s an understanding that violence is organic in our society, I am not sure if such violence can be extinct in fiction writing but I am sure we can change the stories around it to ensure we do not glamorize violence. Writers have a responsibility to reflect in their work, the world as we want to see it. I agree with Gail Larsen that ‘if you want to change the world, tell a better story’. I still believe that it is possible to live an inviolate life. Perhaps, we can indeed start with how we project violence in writing.
– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

In Memory of Water…

Almost everything in the universe has a bit of water in it, the oceans, lakes, rivers and streams in different landscape are all WWD_2014_logo_ENconnected to water. Hence 22nd of March every year is remarkably set aside to celebrate water all over the world. Still in its decade of water, the United Nations Water, with a theme on ‘Water and Energy’ for this year, brings to our attention, the water-energy nexus.
It is also pleasing that we can find in prose, poetry and drama, so many scenes and themes that celebrate water. I did not have to search too far before finding writers like Thomas Hardy among others who have written on water. Our choice for poetry below was because it is richer with water as a major topic and it comes from a writer that truly cares about nature

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Talk of what it means to be an Octogenarian that still throws up the peace sign, the poet Wendell Berry comes to mind easily. He is not just an environmental activist, but accordingly, he has been described as a ‘prophet of responsibility’. Admirably, Wendell has maintained a family farming tradition that spans over 200 years, tilling the soil of Kentucky. Above all, he is a writer, a poet of repute with a lot of earthy poems to show for it.  In his words, “It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered.” And for sure , water is endangered, hence his  special book titled ‘Farming: a handbook’ holds within its pages, a thought provoking poem on water.                                                     


I was born in the drought year.That summer my mother waited in the house, enclosed in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind, for the men to come back in the evenings, bringing water from a distant spring. Veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return of that year, sure that it is still somewhere like a dead enemy’s soul. Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me, and I am the faithful husband of the rain. I love the water of the wells and the springs, and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup. My sweetness is to wake in the night after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.

Photo by UNwater

Photo by UNwater

Wendell  Berry writes with honesty and grace of a prophet and a poet.  The poem on water carries a message with an urgency that crosses distance and national boundaries. It spreads to every nook and cranny, where water flows. Published in 1970, this poem portrays the reality that most people live today. For many, they have only memories of water; they mostly know dryness. Life for them is a picture of dry hot days with no crops surviving for harvest and barely clean water to quench their thirst.  In particular, these experiences are reflected especially among the ‘bottom billion’ that live in slums and impoverished rural areas, lacking access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, sufficient food and energy services. According to the World Water Development Report, people who lack access to improved water sources and improved sanitation are also those who mostly lack access to electricity.
Beyond raising inter-linkages between water and energy as the theme of the day demands, we can do more. We can contribute to policy dialogues and relevant discussions on making water accessible especially to children. Every drop of effort in the ocean of change can prevent  thousands of children  from dying due to treatable diarrhea, largely linked to lack of clean water and sanitary conditions.
– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Africa's Third Liberation

It’s midnight Saturday 15th of March 2014, some families stayed awake with grief stricken faces. Close to twenty of their young graduates who left them that morning for the National Immigration Service recruitment examination had not returned home. They will never return home, they were gone; dead in the stampede, trampled to death by over six million  fellow Job seekers vying  for four thousand opening in Nigeria’s immigration service. There is no better indication to confirm that a third liberation is becoming long overdue for most African country.
IMG_4665Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst’s ‘Africa’s Third Liberation’ has been by my bed side in the past week. Coincidentally, I have read this book alongside ‘the Incorruptible Judge’ by D. Olu Olagoke which I reviewed here. Representing different genres of literature and published in different era, I had no challenge finding their linkages. This two books are my best bet at conceptualizing linkages between unemployment and corruption as projected in Africa and perhaps world over.
As children, we took pride in acting good plays. We were our own cast, our own stage and costume managers and producer. Our stage was the pure red earth beneath Africa’s moonlight. Yes, for us it was not just the sun that rises, the moon sets and rises too, giving light to our immature performances.  The Incorruptible Judge was a favorite play with its good story line. It taught us the the words ‘bribery’, ‘corruption’ and ‘unemployment’. Of the three, unemployment  was a word we didn’t clearly understand until we grew into graduates and job seekers. Perhaps the incidences mentioned above now gives more meaning to unemployment.
Written in 1962, almost three decades before we encountered it,  D. Olu Olagoke presents a story that different generation can relate to. As captured in the review, ‘ The Incorruptible Judge and the Incorrigible Liar’, it tells of a time when in the face of crime, whistle blowers like Ajala the job seeker were commended and given justice by the legal system. It was a time when the values of the society reflected in the education we received and the expectations we had, there was in practice, no conflict. Our understanding of good and bad was in no way blurred. Consequently we knew bribery was bad and that it only births corruption. Apart from warning on the evil of bribery and corruption, D. Olu Olagoke with his play might have tried to excite our imaginations and prepare us for a season of joblessness.
‘Africa’s Third Liberation’ reflects back on the journey of African countries from about seven decades ago, to 2011. Seven decades

African Independence Map by www.geocurrent.info

African Independence Map by www.geocurrent.info

ago to the present time creates a wide space for reflections and deductions. Though Olu Adegoke writes at almost  the same time, Greg and Jeffrey did a more extended and indepth work. They conceptualized the sub-Saharan African Journey of liberation in this era (1960’s and above) into three. Africa’s first liberation meant freedom from the colonist’s racial government. The second one was (or still is) freedom from Africa’s liberators. The long overdue third liberation addressed in this book focuses on Africa’s economic growth through reassessing their present political economy characterized by corruption, capitalism, elitism and social inequality.
If D.Olu Adegoke envisaged a failed state weakened by corruption then, he is prophetically correct. Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst’s reflection on sub-Saharan Africa’s development experiences and their reality today, projects a continent with rich resources littered within the boundaries of its fragile states. The widespread unemployment, a veneer of justice, pervasive impunity all climaxes in weak leadership which is a continental malady. Relatively, while the Incorruptible Judge espouses glimpse into the future where power is abused and public trust is betrayed by leaders using public power for private gain, ‘Africa’s Third Liberation’ gives a roadmap out of it.
A cross section of applicants at the NIS recruitment test in Abuja,Nigeria

A cross section of applicants at the NIS recruitment test in Abuja,Nigeria

Sharing a strong theme of pervasive unemployment as seen in the experiences of Ajala the young school leaver in ‘The Incorruptible Judge’, Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst likewise expressed that for all Africa’s progress, jobs for young people remains an extra-ordinary challenge especially for sub-Saharan Africa where formal sector employment is endemically low and falling. The demographic dividends of yesterday’s children being todays’ workers are being lost with all its exciting development opportunities. This lack of jobs for young people fosters slow growth of Africa’s middle class. This is imperative for any country’s development.
Corruption, which is the common thread that runs through the poor development of the continent, cannot be ignored as responsible for endemic unemployment. While Justice Faderin sought to deter this in the fictional society he represented, Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst projects it better in Malawi, an African country which remains one of the world’s poorest. It can’t be exclusively said that corruption is solely responsible for this level of poverty, but it also cannot be excused as reason why three-quarters of their population lives below US$1 a day. Greg and Jeffrey explored the trajectories of Malawi presidents from the time of late President Hastings Banda (who declared his self, president for life ruling from 1964 to 1994) to the time of President Bakili Muluzi, through to the time of President Bingu wa Mutharika.
Picture on Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) by malawidemocrat.com

Picture on Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) by malawidemocrat.com

The clear difference in their tenure was notably the nature of venality, escalating corruption from being very centralised, to being widespread, open and consequently, more sophisticated with a carefully developed chain. Everything trickles down, whether good or bad. This is the case with the Malawi government’s Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). This reform helped build food sufficiency and improve lives for a while in an internationally acknowledged way; but it also gave scope and further created a ring for massive corruption among bottom ladder farmers on-selling the fertilizers and the elites managing the corrupt processes. Hence Malawi lost more years of growth to venality.
Despite the author’s comparison of sub-Saharan Africa to Central America’s country like Guatamela (the murder city of the world) where corruption is the way of life, African countries have in different ways proven they can grow. Holding 60% of the world’s most arable land and other resources, yes Africa can upswing their destiny away from poverty and endemic unemployment.
As the authors project, venal Malawi, poster boy Nigeria, war-land Congo among other countries alike, need to exercise the will to challenge vested interested which is the root of corruption. Otherwise the states will remain weak, festered with social inequality and infested with joblessness which may trigger radicalization of politics and criminality. We are reminded that citizens empowered by technology and power are no longer tolerant like before as can be seen in the Arab spring.
The authors of Africa’s Third Liberation recommends a clear departure from the trend of leadership conflicting with interest and encourages African leaders to take full responsibility for their country’s economic destiny, as steps for upswing economic growth. However my addition will be an essential factor which they and most of us seem to ignore.
Lexis Nexis Project Rule of Law Banner.

Lexis Nexis Project Rule of Law Banner.

In my understanding, fragile states have undermined laws, indeed the quickest way to weaken a state is to weaken the legal system and make its constitutions a paper tiger. Hence, strengthening the legal system remains a strong indicator for progressive growth in this region. Legal systems are important for institutionalizing and securing reforms that can create jobs and promote any proposed development models. A strong legal system encourages rule of law, providing mechanisms for accountability, transparency and political stability. This creates space for implementing forward-leaning policies and most of all good leadership. As Justice Faderinthe incorruptible judge puts it, ‘if the citadel of justice is corrupt, what will happen to the body politics? It will be completely rotten and collapse’.
There is a linkage between graft and unemployment as they are interconnected. Reducing unemployment or corruption is FFT159_1simpossible without a refashioned process of law that enables a fair and functional state. Imposition of the rule of law will be the bedrock of development in African states; it will ensure supremacy of the law over all citizens, no matter how powerful they are. Africa needs the return of the incorruptible judges to strengthen the law and create a corruption free state, perhaps this will clearly differentiate Africa’s second liberation from the proposed third liberation.
– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye.

The Incorruptible Judge and the Incorrigible Liar

Back in the days; three decades ago and beyond, ‘the Incorruptible Judge’ by D. Olu Olagoke was a must-read for most NigerianIMG_4657 in-school children at primary or junior secondary level. Finding it in the bookshop almost three decades after gave me a nostalgic feeling. I knew I had to read it again wearing the lens of an older person. The world around me has changed greatly in the past 30 years, but expectedly this book didn’t change. My understanding of it, its relevance and the interpretations I could give to it has surely changed.
In the play ‘The Incorruptible Judge’, we meet Ajala, the graduate with a completely worn out shoe telling tales of unlucky miles he has walked trying to get a job. He is the son of a carpenter father and a petty trader mother with six more siblings to cater for. His education remains indebted and his first salaries if employed will make up for that. Despite his excellent track records, unlucky Ajala has been unable to reap the a 6unemployment (1)dividends of his investment in education. Ajala reminds us of the sea of graduates mostly in African countries who spend years before they may finally be employed as a result of Job scarcity. Yet they are saddled with responsibilities they cannot wish away.
His application to the Government Development Department as a Third Class Clerk in their office ushers a chance meeting with his contemporary Femi. Unlike Ajala, Femi represents the privileged children of the rich who have no experience of lack. He is employed through his father’s network. Femi vets Ajala’s application pack just before he meets with the grey haired, heavily spectacled Establishment Officer Mr. James Ade Agbalowomeri whose personality cows the young school leaver.
KolanutCapturing a competitive space with many qualified personnel and few jobs to get around, Mr. Agbalowomeri sets getting “Kola” and not just qualification as the condition for employing Ajala whom he claims to fancy. “Kola” in Africa is a nut fruit from the kola tree, a symbol of appeasement used in social and private settings, it is also known as the food of the ancestors. Kola nuts are an important part of the traditional spiritual practice of culture and religion in West Africa, particularly Nigeria, but it symbolizes other things too. It is the pseudonym for bribery. In this case, the Establishment Officer’s “Kola” is £5 (five pounds) bribery. He insists Ajala must bring this and is able to bring it considering his credit worthiness for a study loan still hanging over Picture-3139his life. Despite his plea, a completely dejected Ajala is further harassed by the words of the officer who boasts of threatening non-compliant employees with dismissal or issuance of bad discharge certificate. This scene is not unpopular to many Job seekers today. It projects directly the imbalanced power relation between the employee and the employer in many societies which creates vulnerability.
Seeking solution out of this, Femi his friend acts as the voice of reason, reminding him of the value their principal instilled in them as students. “Remember what the principal says about taking or giving bribes? It is the canker eating into the very fabric of our nation. We as the future hopes of this country must steer clear of bribery…whether he calls it Kola or money, I am sure it is still bribe”. Ajala is encouraged to approach the Police, demanding justice as he learns the act of bribery is criminal.
Mr. Agbalowomeri got his token bribery of £5, and true to his word, he gives Ajala a confirmation letter of employment with a commencing salary of £172.10 per annum. Detective- Sergeant Okoro arrived to the office of the Establishment Officer the moment Ajala coughed to signal him the bribe has been received. The search for the marked £5 notes (with recorded numbers) was instructed on the officer who was in denial.
Indeed the real ‘kola’ is edible, but the £5 currency note as a ‘kola’ is no bread and butter. Crestfallen Mr. Agbalowomeri had a grip on his throat as Seargent Okoro forced him to spit out the currency notes which he was trying to swallow in an attempt to destroy evidence. He was indeed the very picture of despondency.
Narrating his story, he swears on God as witness to his friend Mr. Duroayo whose Son in-law Justice Faderin has been assigned to try his case. Bribery is in Mr. Agbalowomeri’s vein, giving ten pounds and a bottle of whisky, Mr. Durodayo was commissioned to win his son inlaw over with a gift of twenty five (25) guineas, and later fifty (50) guineas.
The moral climax of the play is the judgement given by Justice Faderin who does not take bribe. With every form of emotional IMG_4673blackmail strategically instituted through familial and tribal relationship, Justice Faderin who was inclined about the case, took no lenient view. In emphasizing the law as no respecter of person, he said ‘if the citadel of justice is corrupt, what will happen to the body politics? It will be completely rotten and collapse.’
The grey haired, heavily spectacled Mr. James Ade Agbalowomeri, with 20years experience as Establishment officer of the Government Development Department, with many family responsibilities is in the dock. Mr. Agbalowomeri, the son of the Ogbuluefon of the famous Kiriji War has been charged in a sensational court case. He with his illustrious pedigree swore with the bible in the witness box and severally called God as his witness but God was asleep.
Where bribery fails, mercy plea may help. The guilty man pled for mercy quoting hackneyed Shakespeare “the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth…” He is finally refused his option of a fine and sent to 3years imprisonment with hard labour by a Judge who understands the necessity of deterring others from following a bad example.
gavel+court+judge+xgold+2012Published in 1962 and republished in 2011, this play, written in very simple language has remained a classic. It has become even more alive in our society of today perverse with cases of bribery and incessant corrupt practices than it could have been in the years the author wrote it. While the author in his preface states that the Incorruptible Judge is not primarily meant to teach morals, my experience of engaging it as a child taught me otherwise. It was my first encounter with the word ‘bribery’ and its true meaning. It triggered my imagination of the power of the law; my first engagement with a book bringing alive a fictionalized courtroom performance. But I ask, how well did the values this book sought to imbibe withstand time?
More than anything else, this book raises more questions for me now, especially on the experiences of job seekers world over. I am reflecting deeper on the situations of employment and rule of law, and their linkages to development in today’s world. To better conceptualize this, I will be comparing the Incorruptible Judge with Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst’s ‘Africa’s Third Liberation’ in the very next post.
– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

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