Fiction

Musing on FOREIGN GODS INC.

It’s a fresh morning at 19 Vance street New York. With hearts pounding vehemently, the young man Ikechukwu Uzondu enters the premises of Foreign God’s Inc. the world’s oldest god-shop. Here a religiously desensitized Mark Gruel displays his entire inventory of powerful and ancient deities to be bought off the shelf by aspiring god-parents. Excited Ikechukwu had come to do a price and interest survey for his next line of trade. Soon, he will vend a war god to Foreign God’s Inc. Ngene the ancient deity of Utonki, whose breathe is fire, whose fart is thunder, with rich history will be vended here. Selling and purchasing a sacred god is a sport which seemed odd to Ike and likewise me the reader. Instinctively, I felt Ike had a grouse with some god; this inspired me to read more.
IMG_5806Any hopeful, who at some point had migrated to Europe with the expectation of finding the greenest pasture, will connect at different levels with the narratives of this novel. Ikechuckwu a Nigerian of Ibo descent migrates to America combining studies and menial jobs to achieve a Cum Laude in Economics. His chase of green card led him to the path of many fugitive brides, ideal but elusive women. Having gone through hell and obtained a green card from his now ex-wife and emotional tormentor ‘Queen B’, alas green card was also not the answer. After 13yrs of eking his living and managing pressures of family demands as a cabby, the degree in economics or grades wasn’t the answer either. The politics of soft and thick accent was a strong odd against him and perhaps his tongue couldn’t deny his root no matter how he tried. Through his experiences, even the gods are to blame. This god Ngene, acclaimed to have favoured him as a potential priest has done nothing more than give him spells of rapturous experiences and shame with every storm that he witnessed. When his friend Jonathan sows into him the idea of stealing his people’s war god to come fight a more relevant war for him in America, it became an idea most people would have given a second thought to.
A well woven story of Ike’s life swings around a ruptured migrant’s hope that becomes excited by the ideas of taking advantage of the untapped wealth in the religion of his homeland to make his major break. In an age where according to Mark Gruel, gods must travel or die, Ike becomes the vessel to carry Ngene across continents. This thrill of global connectedness filled with suspense carries the reader to different settings navigating between the realities of urban American cities and rural African town Utonki where religion is projected as a social malaise with little or no interest in the people’s well-being.

Photo from  http://tiny.cc/iojpjx
Photo: http://tiny.cc/iojpjx

Okey Ndibe strongly situated migrant issues and religion as an important topic in the present day discussions on Africa’s development. Despite academic studies on this phenomenon, this author has done a good job of representing and communicating the realities of religion at individual and communal level, provoking the intellect and reshaping our knowledge. Foreign God’s Inc. deftly highlights the inherent danger of blurring the lines between religion and rationality. Capturing a highly religious but morally inept society led by morally bankrupt characters like Pastor Godson Uka, it questions the underlying moral that underpins the Christian faith (perhaps all religion) from colonial times to present day.
Unlike the case with India, Nigeria’s loyalty to their religion and culture meant limited penetration of the Queen’s European culture with the help of the many Reverend Stantons. Hence undermining the ideology of old culture was strategic.

What you call Ngene is nothing; it’s a lie with which you imprisoned yourself. It doesn’t live in the river nor does it own the river. Our God owns everything. He made your river and also the wood Ngene was carved from’ Rev. Stanton said to a people who were not so gullible, to whom the thought of a born God, birthed by a virgin with a father that lives in heaven and is also everywhere remained an idea hard to swallow. For Utonki people, their own Chukwu is not a father that will hand over his child to be killed and made jest of. In their words, their Chukwu lived in the sky and, ‘everywhere we see the signs of his work, the drifting clouds are smoke from his pipe, rainfall his sneeze, all great rivers are born from his spittle…Chukwu is mighty, yet we never say that he is everywhere… if your own god lives everywhere, then why haven’t our eyes seen him?…If he were so powerful, he should make himself visible? or is he a debtor?’ Only debtors hide in Utonki.

Alas, as the ‘white man’s gun out speaks the guns of Utonki’, Rev. Stanton gun-carrying-god overpowered Ngene the war god of Utonki.

A Nigerian pentecostal church
Photo:http://tiny.cc/iojpjx

Over the years, the newly injected Rev. Stanton’s god has gained an African flavour. The chief priests became the likes of Pastor Godson Uka, the son of Okadike (a.k.a Efi epeka) the great witchdoctor with records of nocturnal activities. Like his father, Pastor Uka an ex-convict shares characterizations that easily relates to the present day faith leaders that glide our TV screens. ‘A large gold chain bedecks his neck, all five fingers of his left hands and three of the right hands were bedecked with glitzy rings. His hair dropped in slick curls, slacked with oil’. Ike who finds himself in Utonki is amazed at how people like Uka have moved Christianity from the traditional catholic space with solemn and sober air to a religion of holy ruckus. In church, boisterous prayers erupt, shrill affirmations fill the air, human bodies freeze and flip from a pastor’s touch or blow of air, women like his mother piped up in praise tossing and writhing in induced ecstasy. These sons of the traditional witch-doctors surely came into the church through the back-door. Like their fathers, they offer ‘spiritual insurance policies’; protection, deliverance from evil, dispense holy water, prayer and project all forms of pseudo-science in exchange for money or gift.
Unlike others, Ike is amazed at the failure of a multitude to question the autocratic conventions of this corruption that wears a spiritual coat. Suddenly, Ike temporarily adopts a new battle over snatching Ngene. Battling Pastor Uka whose messages are divisive to his relatives was a worthier fight. Onward, I could clearly understand Ike’s grouse with the gods. Any rational thinker who cares about a people’s well-being and their development will join Ike’s fight. These Peacock Pastors; our modern day witch-doctors appeals to the African spirituality but not to her development. Peacock Pastor Uka desires to make of Utonki  a community with ‘spirit-filled, tongue speaking, hands-laying, devil binding born again’ with empty pockets and hungry stomach, he exploits poor people of their meagre feeding money, raping their minds with fear. The scene where Uka demands fifty thousand dollars from a struggling migrant to build God a Church in Utonki as condition for being a millionaire was mind blowing. Beyond this being the size of Pastor Uka’s greed, this narrative aptly captures a wide spread phenomenon in present day Africa. Modern day churches prioritize erecting god more shrines, exploiting poor community purses of vulnerable and gullible people Ike’s mother with terms like ‘God said’, ‘Sow seeds’ … while the people remain perpetually with sick bodies and hungry stomachs.
A walk on the streets of Nigeria confirms that there is a proliferation of churches with almost every street littered with two or three churches if the residents are unlucky. Massive church edifice are now metrics for measuring church growth and an indicator that member populations are on the rise but this in no way reflects the well-being or development of the members. This church building culture of this African flavoured Christianity is being exported phenomenally across the globe and the hinterlands, changing the landscape of the average man’s thinking. Something is fundamentally wrong when a poor person continuously submits his meagre earning to build god a shrine when shrines are not in deficit. Do we really need more churches to develop? Does the growing prioritization of church edifice over the much needed mission schools and hospitals that were once the hallmark of the Christian religion bring to question the mind-set of the present day faith leaders?
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Photo: Getty/Graeme Robertson

Decades ago, the church as an institution had proven track record of managing low cost education, accessible quality healthcare and other social services that are critical to sustainable and equitable development. My education validates their impact, for at almost no cost I and others were educated in church missionary schools; taught by selfless teachers from the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian Church schools that spread across the country. Let for a few church schools still committed to low cost quality education, children of today should bewail the loss of this institution’s commitment to drive human development as was the case years back. Can faith leaders with their agencies channel member’s contributions towards other deficit infrastructures that are fundamental to our well-being? Yes!!!
As Pervez Hoodbhoy puts it, selling religion is the easiest and most profitable business… and as Voltaire’s said, ‘a clergyman is one who feels himself called upon to live without working at the expense of the rascals who work to live.’  Foreign God’s Inc. helps us questions the ideology of the new church ministries with sole proprietorship managed by owners and wife. It made me think more seriously of these African ‘Men of God’ who swim in title galore, craving power, exalting their personalities and looming over us from their imposing pictures mounted on highway bill boards. In an incurably religious Africa, god is a game and to play it, you must either be smart or be vulnerable.
By centralizing religion, this novel proves it has researched the spiritual state of Nigeria and perhaps most African countries, hence its projection of religion as a dimension of life that suffuses whatever Africans do. One would have assumed that the more religious we are, the higher the morals in our society. Ironically, our exploits in religion, made us a people with little godliness. The reality is that the more religious we got, the baser we became. Africa’s religious altar is filled with bloodshed from religious extremists; our girls are continuously kidnapped as booties of religious war. More-so, our altars continue to serve for political rallies to endorse leaders who take advantage of people’s frustrations and vulnerability. Indeed the poor are the raw material for religious salvation.
Foreign Gods Inc. projects that religion is obviously indispensable in Africa’s development discourses. But dear Africans, is our understanding of GOD enabling or disabling our development? According to Osuakwu the chief priest of Ngene, ‘people sometimes kill off a recalcitrant god’ Is it not time we come together to kill this god? In the end, the gods are not to blame, we are.
Okey Ndibe is a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.
Okey Ndibe is a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.

I encourage fellow literary enthusiasts to read and find out if the almighty Ngene the war-god finally travelled to Mark Gruel’s world’s oldest god-shop in New York.  Foreign God’s Inc. was a good read for me, but it failed to project the female gender in an admirable way. For example, I would have loved to know more about the martyred ‘ocher-coloured childless widow who cradled her gun and stood against Rev. Stanton’.
Notwithstanding, Okey Ndibe has given us a book with a detailed narrative that will contribute to wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion and development in ways that few academic writing has. The novel was well written, stories nicely woven and the language is sophisticated. For this and more, I say to Okey, Daalu!
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Fiction

JULY'S PEOPLE

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The novelist in 1990. Credit Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Our evergreen Nadine finally answered nature’s call, leaving us with books that will constantly remind us that in all seasons of life, colour should not matter most. I admire her as that woman whose passion for peace and humanity kept burning in spite of her body’s weakening by age. Despite having most of her books banned by the apartheid government, she continued to write densely about racism within the context of South Africa, questioning all forms of power relations. In her writings, she expressed true knowledge of the threads of thought and emotions that run through the complex and political spaces of South Africa.
When I planned my visit to South Africa this July, I had searched for books by South African authors to help me relate my learning expectations before arriving. Nadine’s novel ‘July’s People’ stood out actually because symbolically it connected with my travel month July. But engaging this book, it certainly was worth more than a symbolic title. It helped me understand better the present day realities of the South Africa I set my foot on and more so it supported my narratives.
In Nadine’s words, “I would have been a writer anywhere, but in my country, writing meant confronting racism”. This she has excellently done with ‘July’s People’ as she captured the social disintegration inherent in racial tensions between the inferior black and the domineering white skin.julys-people3
Set in a black skin village in South Africa, we meet Bamford and Maureen Smales. Humbled by a war where the blacks in revolution are killing the whites. Consequently, the Smales family become war refugees to their black servant July in his village. Injected into a new world, they begin a dance between power and powerlessness, constantly negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of power with their servant July in whose space they now live. They struggled with trying to adjust to their new realities.
There are trials and error at socializing with the natives of July’s village, Bamford and Maureen the supposedly liberal white couple were coming to understand that the colour of their skin will always hinder them from getting the true fabric of the realities they seek. Indeed, privileges go beyond spaces, it is also skin deep! Hence despite being in July’s space, there is a conflict in maintaining the master servant relationships. July now drives the Smales vehicle to distract combative attention but also attract power to himself, an almost impossible feat pre-war. Objects that were once meaningless, suddenly began to take on entirely new levels of symbolic importance. In the face of theft and no police to help, Bamford felt impotent, these where all new and hence they struggled.
Buried tensions come to the surface. Maureen Smales struggles with her subservience to July as she watches him become less and less subservient to her and more independent as her family stay in his village. Many times, she tries to negotiate with him using subtle blackmail of telling July’s wife Martha of his city affair with Ellen. Long absences of husbands have become a normal part of black women’s lives as their men worked as slaves in the city for white bosses; hence a relationship with other city women like Ellen was inevitable.
July’s family worries that the unwanted white skinned Smale family will trigger trouble for them. The Smales are scared when they are summoned by the village chief of a black nation. The chief could not comprehend the image of a powerless white government; whites running from blacks or taking refuge with them. Living through a time when the whites will never let him own a gun, he finds the presence of the Smales family in his home as an opportunity to request that Bamford teaches him to shoot his fellow black people with his gun. In shock, Bamford responds ‘You’re not going to take guns and help the white government kill blacks, are you?. . . You mustn’t let the government make you kill each other.’
This novel challenges the identity and ambiguous moral constructions of any liberal South African white. Reflective Maureen recalls in her childhood days walking home from school with Lydia the black family’s servant carrying the family school bag on her head. With a photographer’s click of these symbolic image of the two racially different girls, Maureen finds the picture in a Life photograph book years later and was provoked to question a system that makes Lydia carrying her books.
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Nadine Gordimer&Late President Nelson Mandela. www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/gor1bio-1

Does questioning alone make-up for an active revolt of such an exploitative system? Likewise, If revolting, does partaking in the privileges of such system therefore indict someone in the institutions’ injustices? The Smales never identified with the oppressive Afrikaner society as they deplored the apartheid system. In their understanding within their former spaces, there was nothing condescending in their relationship with the blacks, especially with July despite his being their servant. But injecting them into a new space reveals that an unconsciously unequal relationship of master and servant exists. They struggled to reconcile with the truth that they too share part of the blame for reinforcing racism.
Like America, South Africa continues to witness the legacy of slavery and the _74382538_2659675disastrous consequences of Apartheid. Thirty three years after Nadine Gordimer wrote this book, the ‘Whites Only’ sign posts have disappeared but the battlegrounds of South Africa remains on the human skin shade as I could still feel racism among citizens strong enough that I could cut it with a knife. If Nadine hoped for a future where power will shift from the white to the black, I am glad she saw a fragment of it with the end of Apartheid. I say fragments because this freedom is incomplete. What I experienced in South Africa shows that power was sliced into two parts. While the white skinned people held the economic power living a first world life, the blacks hold political power, marginally living and working in subservient positions. I am left to wonder between the two powers, which one Nadine Gordimer desired to shift.
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Photo of Nadine Gordimer, used on the academy of achievement profile. www.achievement.org

Nadine Gordimer ‘July’s People’ is a mentally provocative book that stretches one’s intellectual muscles on the dynamics of relationships triggered by racism. The shifts in relationships and spaces give a remarkable understanding of the constructions of difference between blacks and whites. Towards the end of this book, Maureen is seen fervently running after a helicopter perhaps with a hope that they be rescued and returned back to the familiar world where she was once a queen of the Manor with servants.
Imagining Maureen standing nude in the rain makes me think we may need to stand in the rain too to be washed of all racism… Nadine is gone with the month of July, as we bid her farewell with a wish that her soul finds rest, no better honour could be given to Nadine Gordimer’s life and fights than a South Africa washed of racism. In my language, I will say Kachifo; until morning comes Nadine, thank you.
 
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Fiction

In the Belly of Dar es salaam

In Tanzania, I learnt that the Haven of peace in Arabic means Dar es salaam. Driving through Dar es salaam with Rahab my friend, I imagined that a place called a haven must indeed have a coveted peace. More so, it will hold many foot prints of hope; hope from desperate people who have fled from everything unpleasant. For those whose dreams take long to come through here, I hoped that the beautiful beaches, the trees and all of nature’s beauty I see in this country will serve as a bed of solace.
IMG_5163 (2)In the rumbling belly of Dar es salaam, at the heart of this haven of peace, I and Rahab finally located E & D Vision Publishing house. I was meeting with the first feminist English novelist from Tanzania, Elieshi Lema. As we held hands and she says Karibu; welcome, I was carried away by her natural grace and the ambience around her. She was like the future I admired. Meeting this Kiswahili and English writer added more sweetness to my time in Tanzania. Considering her many works, I looked beyond Parched Earth  aswas strongly drawn to her fiction novel and stories that focused on children. I must say that most of her work represents an embodiment of the linkages between fiction and development. Her partnership with the Children’s Book Project (CBP) Tanzania has helped promote the use of novel writing and publishing in English to encourage language skills for in-school youths.
Her novel In the Belly of Dar es salaam proved she was not neglecting the out-of-school youths either. Through the hour, we talked about governance, the strengths and weaknesses of the African continent, we reflected on feminism and the African woman but most of all, our discussions focused on her novel In the Belly of Dar es salaam. Confidently, she spoke about the life of street children in Tanzania, expressing the certainty of a writer who had passionately researched her work. This novel uses a female as the central character to questions the political rhetoric on the commitment to social-economic development of children in general.

Eleisha Lema serves as Director of E&D Vision Publishing.
Eleisha Lema authored Parched  Earth and serves as the Director of E&D Vision Publishing.

Elieshi glowingly shares the character of Sara; an unconventional girl who we meet in the first page doing a boy’s work; climbing a hill burdened with the head of a slaughtered cow. Small rivulets of blood from the dead animal were dripping and drying on her face; so unconventional! With her young eye eaten up by Cataract and all other impending worries, Sara was flawed in looks but not in character. It is this charisma that followed her through her days in the street with other children, there she lived like a butterfly, freely flying and perching to enjoy life’s sweetness despite the pains.
Leaving Elieshi’s office, I continued reading through how Sara met Prospa, but I dropped the book when Sara changes her clothing in her mother’s death room, leaving an emphatic message for her grandmother before setting out to begin a life on the streets of Dar es salaam. I dropped the book with the assumption that I know what the rest of the stories will be, but practically, we do not know the reality of street children. Two days after meeting with Elieshi, I was attacked by a gang of robbers led by a street child in Kampala,Uganda. With the painful loss of my mobile phone; I was provoked to learn more about this child who was party to those that robbed me.
Vagabond! Waif! Bastards! Urchin! Hooligans! Destitute! Ragamuffin! Guttersnipe!      
IMG_5093 Their names are so many, but yet we know very little about them. The pain and trauma I felt for my lost phone gave me the energy to further research on this isolated group of children whom despite our ignorance has remained an integral part of our world. Voraciously, I now read through all the pages of In the Belly of Dar es salaam to soothe my grief. I followed the story of Sara as she progressed on the streets of Dar es salaam, her paths meeting and parting with other street-children Mansa, Caleb, Ali among other gang members whom she became Maza; a mother to. For all the children, life in the street was triggered by the need to survive and not adventure. The novel expounded on the triggers of migrant street-children from the rural areas to the urban city. Under pressure from a society that does not appreciate that the hoe and the pen are miles apart, most young children believe that their answers lies in the belly of the urban city.In their hearts, the grass was greener in the city because those who left for the city never came back.  So as schools, teachers and families pour them out like a river lets water go, then like tributaries; they flow into the belly of the city. The city thus embraces and nestles them into its rumbling belly.
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Photo by Akansha Yadav

Life in the streets of a city called the haven of peace is not what they expected. Here, their plight seems unchanging; they become more voiceless and vulnerable. Over time, their young hearts begins to know the city geography. They walk about, each with a stomach to feed, yet leftovers will remain their buffet. Holding their possession in cellophane bags, street-children often find shelter in abandoned cars, dilapidated rooms, and uncompleted houses. For them, anywhere their body can be stretched until daylight dispels the night is home. And ‘if they felt too tired during the day time, they lay somewhere on the side-walk or in the public gardens… their possessions beside their tired bodies’. Hardship tints their age and hard work hardens their hands. For the tainted ones who have lost patience like the character of Ali, the night is their mask; when the city sleeps, they prowl in its darkness looking for what to steal. The street has finally groomed their hearts tobe ruthless.
According to my colleague Akansha Yadav, street kids are those ‘children out of school, working in horrible conditions with no bargaining power, underpaid and malnourished. Some of us see them as cheap labour and some see them as not our responsibilities but a product of failed parenting, social structures and poor public education system. Admittedly, we have grown immune to the image of them given how pervasive they are and despite the shocking nature of this reality; it does not seem to assault our senses anymore.’ These street-children, do they really strike us? Can we hold them in honour? In the thought lines of Uwem Akpan’s An Ex-mas gift, can you dare say you are one of them? Can we dare say they are one of us?
In the Belly of Dar es salaam, the character of Safina and Belinda whom were born in the street and fathered by nameless men established the fact that street children reproduce themselves making their street life become trans-generational. Over centuries now, street-children have existed in fiction novels also. Horatio Alger, a 19th century prolific author was famous for his novels following the grass to grace adventures of impoverished children. His novel Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871) remarkably projects this age long phenomenon and even now, it raises the question of the possibility of extinction of children from the streets.
Photo by Trace Uganda. Trace Uganda empowers slum and street children, providing alternatives to street life.
Photo by Trace Uganda. Trace Uganda empowers slum and street children, providing alternatives to street life.

Yet while they grace the streets, these children continue to question their realities, they are not dumb. The character of Caleb reflects on the disparity in urban and rural development; ‘my father has been growing cashew nuts all his life, he does not know the kibaha cashew factory or who decides the price, why was the factory not built in my village where I could seek employment’? Sara asked, ‘was Kigogo immune to beauty…do you think poverty can be completely eliminated?’ Through their banter, they explore intra-household dynamics, the gaps between them and the rich minister’s children. And what answers do we think there is for these questions? Ramifications of iniquity seldom are resolved with  violence, will their answers rupture them and result in an unruly political revolution?
Perhaps development organisations understand that nature’s providence is certainly a chameleon, hence what is good for the goose; the gander might one day have too. Better than the clean-up squads most governments set up to violate street-children, much more has been done to manage them around the world but little is done to eliminate the phenomenon. The International day for Street Children celebrated in over 130 countries brings a global dimension to reminding the world that street children are also covered by the widely ratified United Nation’s Convention on the Right of the Child. Such progressive activities do not go to waste for Indeed street children have ambition to leave the street someday. Elieshi symbolizes this in the gift of a Pushcart Mansa gets from an adopted father, this triggered him to quit the streets and live more responsibly.
I remember living a day on the street in the city of Lagos as a 16year old girl; I was hungry, frightened and visibly lonely. I had a hateful frown for the world around me. Night came and with a fear for the dark, I was desperate for protection. Helplessly I crept into an abandoned car until morning came. I tasted the street for one night and it was clear I could never survive there. Harrowing as it is, this experience I had is but a tip of what street children like Sara and the one that stole from me knows. Perpetually they tumble into the swift current of the city, swinging on the back of its waves. With many rivers to cross for their survival, day after day, they try to tell us they are not invisible, that they too are one of us.  ‘I am somebody’ they say. Do we hear them clear?
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Rahab Mbise is the Communications Officer at Helvetas Swiss Inter-cooperation, Tanzania.

In the Belly of Dar es salaam written in simple language has successfully contextualised the pervasive phenomenon of the street-children, situating it in the gap between us and them. Between the street kid and us all there remains a social divide, they live on the fringes of our lives and thoughts. It is therefore with compassion at individual and communal level that we must connect with these children.I dare us to begin to think we are part of them; I dare us to say they are one of us…
To Elieshi, I say Asante; thank you for this simple but well written novel that aptly places the street-child phenomenon within the African context. To Rahab, Juliana and Innocent, I am grateful for the gift of this book.
 
 
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye