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Month: September 2014

Diaries of a Dead African

With a gift of four attractive books written by Chuma Nwokolo, I was caught in the pleasant dilemma of which one to devour first. The final testament of a minor god looked natural with the picture of a tree and a promise of 100 poems telling how small gods die. The cover page of How to spell Naija with its two volumes of 50 tales apiece was strongly testing the patriotism in me.  The Ghost of Sani Abacha conjured up the memories of the late autocratic general with a promise of some sizzling political stories. Then the Diaries of a Dead African in its noble colour caught me. I must admit my affection for anything with the word ‘Africa’, more so my excitement for reflective writing which any novel in a diary structure often is. In truth, I sentimentally choose the Diaries of a Dead African. Was I disappointed? No! It was absolutely a remarkable read and I can’t wait to read the others. IMG_5925   In Diaries of a Dead African, the author Chuma Nwokolo drives readers on a journey through the collective memories of three different characters spread across one year and five months of their lives. Calamatus and Abel two brothers and their supposed father Meme Jummai all got a chance to tell their story in an incredibly comical way. As their lives end tragically, each man hands the baton to the next surviving character to finish the story.  Meme Jummai’s house is made up of a poor farmer father and a mother notorious for adultery. They all had a faithful pet whose name was Poverty and shared an ancestry they couldn’t take liberty with.
Calamatus was the extremely sincere conman whose life was a journey of revenge for everyone he thought owed him. Castrated by the sudden sneeze of the mid-wife who circumcised him, he was determined to identify this nurse from hell who sentenced him to a life of private shame.  Dead at 25 in a fire like his father, his short-lived success as a 419 conman gave him the money he craved for to alter the shameful pedigree his father’s life and death had bestowed to them.  More so, he lived to mock every constituted authority and tradition of the Ikerre people. His elder brother Abel an unsuccessful writer, who though plagued with poverty and hard-luck was totally disenchanted from wealth even when it fell on his lap as an inheritance from his late brother’s fraudulent deals.

Author of 'Diaries of a Dead African' Chuma Nwokolo.

Chuma Nwokolo: Author of ‘Diaries of a Dead African’

Within the context of fiction and development, the character of their father Meme Jummai struck me most. I met Meme as he was almost dying of hunger. His barn had two poles strung with yams a week before, but they all disappeared when his wife Stella left him for a Vulcaniser, taking with her ten yams for every son she gave him, even the dead ones.  Its two weeks before the village harvest season, Meme is left with a pregnant goat and two tuber of eight inches piece of yam. His farm implements, a gun, an inherited TV with broken dial and his diary were his only asset. These he guarded like his own life, but for his diary, all others were later lost.
Adopting the poverty scorecard often used to determine impoverished targets for development intervention, Meme Jummai’s will be classed as poverty personified. Even the poor called him poor. The author aptly uses imageries and synonyms to project his poverty in a moving way. Meme Jummai slept on a clay bed, no more owned a radio or a fan; he nursed his crop waiting diligently as no man could eat of his crop before the collective village sacrifice was made on harvest day.  Yet this harvest was eaten up by termites and beetles. He moaned;

Hunger is a terrible thing…

Hunger is a demon…

In hunger, larceny was justifiable…

Even when shame struggles with hungers, hunger consumes my shame…

I am looking face –to-face at starvation and I have to confess, he’s an ugly beast.

Hunger hung in the air. Food scarcity altered the meal-time hospitality traditions of the village. Days were when the only thing that moved in Meme’s mouth was his tongue. Suspense arouses each time Meme was close to getting food, yet most times he never did. Hunger sent Abel to jail, hunger provoked Meme Jummai’s tragic death. His diaries of these experiences had some thought provoking questions on the relationship between hunger and morality.

‘In all my adult life, I have never stolen another man’s thing. Could hunger change me, or was I a thief all along without knowing it’? Meme asked.

diary of a dead africanThis novel captures the reality of the poor rural farmers as they negotiate between nature, society, the law and their human need to sustain well-being.  It highlights with great details the reality of individuals within farming household relying on rain-fed agriculture in the tropical African country.  My teacher Robert Chambers researched extensively on the Concept of Seasonality. In this, he propounds the seasonal dimensions to rural poverty, appreciating the seasons when subsistent farmers suffer food insecurity; that season when farmers have to tend their crops with empty stomach scrapping the earth for household survival. These are seasons when everything is stingy; even the rain and the soil. The wealth of social capital which often makes up for lack of social security in Africa does not save one in this season. Mark Hudson in his book our grandmother’s drum reviewed here, was intrigued by the fact that there was indeed hunger and a season of hunger in a landscape of richness in Dulaba, Gambia. According to him, ‘the most disquieting thing about this hunger was that its effects were not easy to see’. ‘Was hunger depressing?’ he asked the women. Perhaps the characters in the Diaries of A Dead African has given detailed answers to Mark Hudson’s question; yes hunger is depressing.
Broadly speaking, there are many ways of learning about social development issues and in this case, household food security for rural farmers. One of them may be from reading research papers which reflect statistics and superficial information from diverse sources. The other one is in reading individual experiences devoid of statistic but vividly bringing us into a close intimacy with the situation and the experience as they are felt by people. The character of Meme Jummai has done just the latter, making a case for the 12.5% or 1 in 8 people of our global population who are chronically under-nourished. While he helps us understand hunger, his reality gives credence to the Rome declaration and World Food Summit Plan of Action focused on halving the number of chronically undernourished people on the Earth by the year 2015. Likewise, The Millennium Development Goals included a commitment to a further 50% reduction in the proportion of the world’s population who suffer from extreme hunger by 2015.
In Diaries of A Dead African, Chuma Nwokolo explores in very detailed way how hunger and poverty can rape the mind. He did this with such wit adopting an English language that uses a walking stick, giving amazing humour that will make a reader laugh at life’s tragedy right from the first page. I could have titled this novel ‘a laugh at hunger’ but in reality, it is hard to laugh at a hungry man. This author did an excellent job; I couldn’t help laughing at Meme Jummai and I couldn’t stop crying with him either.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye.

Black Boy!

Every time I read Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’, I wished it was fiction; fiction because ‘Black Boy’ is not a pretty book. This reality told from the eye of a teenage black boy was too disturbing to grasp as real. Perhaps this makes it a very important book especially for us to reflect back on how far we have come with the politics of colour  smearing the wind-shield of our lives, one generation to the other.

richard wright

Pics from http://www.haroldshull.com/id19.html

Recently, I have tried to map below in the language of the writer, scenes, incidence and thoughts that chiselled Richard Wright from being a victim of racism to being a racist himself. I now wonder; if Richard Wright were to do the book ‘Black Boy’ today, would the fabric of his story be much different?

 At last we were at the railroad station with our bags, waiting for the train that would  take us to Arkansas; and for the first time I noticed there  were two lines of people at the ticket window, a “white” line and a “black” line.  During my visit at Granny’s, a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died. When I boarded the train, I was aware that we Negroes were in one part of the train and the whites were in another…  

I had begun to notice that my mother became irritated when I questioned her about whites and blacks and I could not understand it. I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched it seems, except in violence. When my mother told me that the “white” man was not the father of the “black” boy, was no kin to him at all, I was puzzled. “Then why did the ‘white’ man whip the ‘black’ boy I asked mother…

Uncle Hoskins had simply been plucked from our midst and we , figuratively had fallen on our faces to avoid looking into that white-hot face of terror that we knew loomed somewhere above us…Uncle Hoskins had been killed by whites who had long coveted his flourishing liquor business… A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination. Nothing challenged the totality of personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites…I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynching…

One evening, I heard a tale that rendered me sleepless for nights. It was of a Negro woman whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. It was claimed that the woman vowed she would avenge her husband’s death and she took a shot gun, wrapped it in a sheet, and went humbly to the whites, pleading that she was granted permission to come to the side of her dead husband while the whites, silent and armed looked on. The woman, so went the story, knelt and prayed, then proceeded to unwrap the sheet; and before the white men realised what was happening, she had taken the gun from the sheet and had slain four of them, shooting at them from her knees….

Black boy

Pics from http://app.studysync.com/RichardWright

I had already grown to feel that there existed men against whom I was powerless, men who could violate my life at will. I resolved that I would emulate the black woman if I were faced with a white mob; I would conceal a weapon, pretend that I had been crushed by the wrong done to one of my loved ones; then, just when they thought I had accepted their cruelty as law over my life, I would let go with my gun and kill as many of them as possible before they killed me. The story of the woman’s deception gave form and meaning to confused defensive feelings that had long been sleeping in me.

‘Why are they so many black men wearing stripes?’…

“Man, what makes white folks so mean?”

“Whenever I see one I spit.” Emotional Rejection of whites.

“Man, ain’t they ugly?” Increased emotional rejection.

“Man, you ever get right close to a white man; close enough to smell ‘im?”… “They say we stink. But my Ma says white folks smell like dead folks.” Wishing the enemy was dead.

“Niggers smell of sweat. But white folks smell all the time.” The enemy is an animal to be killed on sight.

‘Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilisation, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.’

‘The white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though they were guided by instinct. … The roundhouse was the racial boundary of the neighbourhood… whenever we caught a white boy on our side we stoned him; if we strayed to their side, they stoned us. Our battles were really bloody …All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the  surface to guide our actions.

Flipping the pages of this harrowing bildungsroman of Richard Wright written in 1945, am checking the similarities and differences between his time and now. In the quickening events of civil unrest in Ferguson, in the unnecessary killing of young black boys, I can’t help but  observe that the similarities of most black boys in America of today are more numerous , more real and more important than any difference there is with this author’s time.  I suppose if Richard were to write today, he will also ask, ‘why was 17yrs old Trayvon Martin shot, why did Michael brown the 18yrs old boy deserve six bullets’?

In the end, racism is not natural; it begins with the social injection of systemic hatred.  As this emotional and intellectually crippling racial war continues to bloom, we must remember that we all, whether white or black, will be casualties.


Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

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