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Category: International Development

The Extinction of Menai

At the dawn of every New Year, I try to acquaint myself on what the United Nations in their status as a leading development agency prioritizes to guide development programme in the world’s third sector. Its exciting that 2019 is proclaimed as the International year of Indigenous Languages. To set it rolling, I sought literature that best captures the challenges faced by indigenous languages across the world.

The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo

As if anticipating 2019 as the year for language rights, The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo arrived in our bookstores and shelves not just as a novel but a cultural bible that demonstrates how language and culture are inseparable, how a viable culture and language could gradually become extinct.  The replacement of a culture or language by another either forcefully or mildly, by human or natural activities, to the extent that the original culture is eclipsed is a dreaded phenomenon, and mitigating it has become of global concern, addressed by UNESCO.

Through the character of Dr. Ehi Fowoka, we learn of the Menai Ethnic Nation right beneath their piece of sky in Kreektown. Set across the continents of Africa and Europe, these descendants of the historic Meroe civilization had through ancient migration become the Menai’s in Kreektown, sited somewhere in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta. In the character of Foreign Aid, the rogue drug trial by the Multinational Trevi provokes the unfolding apocalypse looming over the Menai . The people, their language and culture are left with genocidal consequences with the death of each member; Wuida the daughter of a seafarer and herbalist of the first water dies with all knowledge of herbal remedies gone with her, Weaver Kakandu Menai’s last weaver no longer weaved beautiful marriage clothes, weaving burial shrouds had killed the Menai Weave.  The older Menai’s knew the Mata’s rendition that went on for a stretch five hours, they knew the power of the Singateya, the sound of the Mananga,  the singing Jamayas. By the day, there is no one to play the Tanda ma, no one is left to sing their calamity. And through Mata Nimito’s journey, we find that the heart of the Menai’s remain planted in the places they lost.

Ehi Fowoka is commissioned to research the psychiatric fate of a doomed ethnic nation by frightened politicians who fear the potentials of Menai becoming another Ogoni, and the Menai society becoming another Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. But what bites most is not their psychiatric fate but the imminent extinction of the sophisticated Menai Language and deeply rooted culture.

‘The Menai are facing a double whammy, of course: they will die out with their language… I shall be recommending a symbolic state funeral when the last ethnic nation dies. For them and the dozens of other languages on the brink of extinction.’

‘And if the extinction of Menai is such a tragedy, we should all go and plait nooses! None of the children of my Urhobo, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Efik colleagues can ask for water in any language besides English. If the instructions of Life were written in our ancestral languages, our next generation would be doomed. It will take a few years, but even our bigger languages are heading for extinction with a psychedelic accent.’

Ehi Fowoka who is acclaimed the most important academic authority worldwide on the Menai takes time to reflect introspectively bearing on what he knows of the Menai and how his parenting of his daughter has poorly appreciated the state of intergenerational language transmission and preservation of the indigenous language.

 “I mean, in most parts of Nigeria, all a five year-old will know of his ancestry is that his father is called Papa and his Mother, Mama. The average Menai five year-old will name five or six generations of his maternal and paternal ancestry without breaking a sweat. And I have seen Menai gatherings with forty, fifty adults reciting hour-long, word perfect historysongs in tandem.”

“With my own daughters, I have tried to change things, addressing the odd comment to them in our language, but they just give me this pitying look, and I have to admit, at ages thirteen and fourteen, I may have left it too late…”

Fowoka’s reflections are consistent with the fact that African children born three or four generations before as younger characters like Zanda, can only see their world through the lens of English Language and not the indigenous languages like the Menai language. The Menai’s owned a sophisticated language grown from their ancient civilization, which enables them to store history and is represented textually, however the Menai language like many indigenous language is not a language of choice. The domain of language rights may recognize all languages as equal, but in practice, the colonizer’s languages; English and French are more equal than others.

Chuma Nwokolo’s poignant narratives further calls to question what happens to a language in the transition of societies from being under-developed to developed. Through the struggles of Fowoka, it challenges the role of development practitioners in reinforcing language loss through programming interventions in languages that diminish the pre-existing mother-tongue and cultures of the indigenous people we desire to protect. Does our poor utilization of a people’s languages in working with them contribute to extinction or preservation of such indigenous languages?

Bell Viliami in the work,”The only way for minority cultural survival” notes that the domains of human life serves as the battlegrounds by which we witness the immense cultural and language losses of recent. For eclipsing indigenous languages, restoration can also happen in the domains of human life;through collective human action. The characters of Sheesti Kruma and Mata Nimoto the philosopher guide shows us how giving indigenous languages an identity function, vehicularity and enabling inter-generational language transmission and documentation  can in effect raise its societal profile. In my most favorite part of this book, they began with a re-naming ceremony which acknowledged and re-positioned their indigenous experiences to a priority place. They showed symbolically how healing and restoration happens for language and culture; how healing our dying culture can heal our identity

Mata Nimito named all Menai. He was an old man that the town mostly forgot, until there was a need to remember him: burials, naming, disputes… Nobody would ever consider him a friend…But he did have that playful way with my name.

Eniemute?’ A warm glow started in me. The love for a husband comes from a region of the mind. The love for a father comes from another. There is no crossover. I felt a glow building from a hearth I had thought was terminally broken. I told him of my children, their names…

With a dry mouth I described Moses: the long limbs he owed to his father, his quick temper…

Amezi, he said.

I described Cynthia, who looked so much like my baby photograph…

Anosso, he said.

…And then I described my baby, Patricia, who had the nurses pledging their sons in marriage

Ogazi, he said.

The naming was complete.

Then he began to sing my torqwa! I that was dead to Menai! I fell on my knees, enthralled again by the antiquity of my lineage. I knelt there streaming in tears as the poetry of my identity bore me from the caravan of the exiled crown prince through the dunes and deserts and the savannahs and the forests and creeks of their sojourns. I listened to the descendants of young Auta, trumpeter in the court of the crown prince, Xera and his wife, Aila, daughter of Numisa, until

Rumieta Kroma the trader of cloth

Married Teacher Gaius from Igarra

To birth Sheesti, little mother

Who, with Denle, son of Alanta, scion of Esie, built pillars for Menai:

Three pillars of Ameizi, fierce athlete,

Anosso her mother’s cunning vomitimage

And Ogazi the fair, for Menai without end…

For the first time since the arrival of my children, I felt they were not stillborn. They were named, properly named from the font of all Menai…in the land of my ancestorsMenai, my children were known.”

Many academic research are in tandem with this. In difference to many academic writings telling about culture and language extinction, Chuma Nwokolo does not tell us, he shows us how languages and cultural extinction are not inseparable from human actions and inaction. His work reminds us further on the need to check our language status and the role the daily choices we make plays in its extinction.

Moons will wax and wane, but the Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo shall never depart from my shelf. My review does no justice to this powerful book, and no single review can. We can only do justice by reading it and taking from it our own spiritual and cultural awakening just like I have.

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye


Keeping Hope Alive

If there is an autobiographical book that woke me up to new realities, it is Hawa Abidi’s ‘Keeping Hope Alive’. In very simple ways, this book was an axe for the frozen sea. For a long while, I yearned to see the woman behind the story. Meeting with Dr. Hawa Abdi, her humility, her grace, her identity with her continent, her passion for a country that was almost unlovable and her faith in peace was comparable to none I had known. I knew I must take a piece of this woman for keeps in my world. Through our discussion which IMG_5650lasted over an hour, Mama Hawa as she is fondly called patiently answered to my entire question as can be read here. 

One thing was clear; the woman I read about was no different from the woman I met.  The book Keeping Hope Alive is a true representation of the ‘Mama Hawa’ I listened to. Beautifully written in the tone of Mariama Ba’s fiction novel ‘So Long a Letter’, Hawa Abdi’s story was shared to the world with the hope that it invites truth to come save her country from an intractable war that has swallowed them. This book co-authored by Sarah J. Robbins begins with a reflection of Somalia as it was when Hawa Abdi was a young Soviet Union graduate returnee with aspiration and clarity of purpose. It ends with a graceful elderly woman to whom life has splashed its many colours of disappointment on but yet her hope for peace continues to shine forth.

1331669125163.cachedHawa’s life was filled with a lineage of dead children, siblings, parents and fellow comrades with whom she had the unavoidable duty to close their lifeless eyes and bury. Her childhood was scared; she was at a time a child and inside her was another child growing. Circumcision of the genitals was also bestowed to her small body. Hawa was soon to know the death of the first baby that suckled her breast, lying lifeless in her arms few days after her grandmother Ayeyo’s death. Her father died some years after her mother and her beloved sisters followed. Her world got smaller and smaller; the demise of her only son Ahmed made death her neighbour. Indeed the landmarks of her life were marked with graves of loved ones. Through all this, Hawa Abdi thrived with all resilience.  In the environment of Martini hospital, her dreams to be a doctor blossomed through the rough roads of grief for a mother she loved. Over the years, birthing babies became second nature to her as she grew to be a Gynaecologist, a Lawyer and a giant in the humanitarian world.

In 1983, her family moved to the rural area to begin the life she dreamed for them. Starting a small clinic for rural women, she would hold hands with her two daughters Deqo and Amina as they marched into the neighbouring villages treating people and encouraging health seeking attitudes. These three women with a strong bond grew into doctors and together grew their Hawa’s endeavour into a globally acknowledged organisation DHAF (Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation). DHAF became a haven which as at 2009, was accommodating 90,000 Somalians displaced by an internal war.

This book chronicled the failure of governance in Somalia from the time of Siad Barre, leading to a war that remains intractable even Keeping-Hope-Alivein present day Somalia. From the Ogaden war between Somalia and Ethiopia under Siad Barre’s tenure, Somalia disintegrated downwards. War really begins when it ends at the front-line. Men returning from war could only bring with them, weapons like anger, hatred and frustration. This weapons they used on the same people they once fought to protect. Clan politics took over, war raged, there was heavy shelling, rattling guns, mass graves as men were buried alive and dead. The Hawa Abdi Hospital began to welcome a different type of patients. There, the number of starving people soon grew more than the number of wounded people. Shelter, water, food and health were all she offered to people who now missed the peace that once was. The world heard and sent help too.

The Global Peace Index measured by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) latest study for 2014 shows that only eleven countries of the 162  countries studied globally are conflict free. As is the case of  Somalia, trends in sustaining peace are shifting from hostility between states, to a rise in the number and intensity of internal conflicts. The economic cost of such violence to our  global economy today is huge; an equivalent of around US$1,350 per person, or twice the size of Africa’s economy (IEP,2014).  Though peace building remains a prerequisite for socio-economic development,violence remains the true law of the land in Somalia, a nation which continues to bleed mostly from the wounds they inflict on one another. Of a truth, people who are fighting will never be able to build.

To the many dead souls, we cannot count, but we can remember them. This is what Hawa Abdi and Sarah Robbins have done by weaving together the experiences of Somalians dead and alive around the life of a woman who wishes nothing more than peace for her nation.  From a development perspective, Keeping Hope Alive is a book that brings to the fore the issues of maternal health, the evil of war and more so the dynamics of managing Internally Displaced People. In a world that has gotten incrementally less peaceful with internal conflicts,  how are our conflict ridden countries managing the rising numbers of Internally Displaced People? What can we learn from the patriot Dr. Hawa Abdi and the Somalia she continues to keep hope alive for? I truly wish we can validate her more.

IMG_5873To Hawa Abdi, reading your book made my heart grow larger. Now for every day I pray that the burden of war and violence be light on us, I pray more that our shoulders be broadened like yours to carry what comes to us. You have made an indelible mark in the heart of Africa, as the heart does not forget, Africans will not forget. Our history will remain incomplete without you. Thank you Mama Hawa!

To support Dr. Abdi in continuously creating access to human right for the Somali people, kindly forward contributions directly to her organisation through their website www.dhaf.org

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Fiction and Development

 -Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Remember reading about  Erin Gruwell and the 150 students who used writing to change their life in ‘The Freedom Writer’s Diary’, it demonstrates the power of writing as a tool for social change. Similarly, I could understand why writers are often the enemies of tyrant governments around the world. The unrest created by their work is a proof that the act of  writing can be an emancipatory force for change. Like painters, writers weave words together to create colours, lines and stories that are undoing silences in many societies.

All I learnt about the Nigerian Civil came from stories, novels, poems, dramas amongst others. ‘The Casualties’ by John Clark2Pepper Clark brought the realization that I too was a casualty of a war that hit the dust long before my birth. My knowledge on different cultural practices have been highly influenced by writing of people from different landscapes. Most of these works have been fictional, making secret the names of people and places they wrote about but yet one can understand their message, as though belonging with them.That is the strength of literary fiction in passing knowledge.

In the wake of many development issues which has become a global challenge, I have begun to ponder on the power  different works of fiction have in dispersing knowledge on international development issues. How have they presented the alterations in social structures in our society in the past and present?  How are they forecasting the changes in nature, in the future of our social institutions, and life in general?

The need to explore these questions further gave birth to a column on Compass Newspaper (a Nigerian national newspaper) of which this blog springboards. In the first edition, we considered how “Fiction writer Peter Abraham envisioned a new country, through his work ‘Tell Freedom’

6568430-MHe landscaped an egalitarian society that will break out of a womb infested with racism.  His work gave insight into the social structure at the time of writing, depicting strongly in his narratives what it was like to be caught in the skin shades of white, black and in between”.

 The works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o  was mentioned exploring  the impacts of an imperialist type of governance in his historical fiction ‘Weep not Child’. It has been stated that Mau Mau uprising arguably set the stage for the Independence of Kenya. ngugi1The intricacies that played out and the different masks the organisation had worn over the years in the anti-colonist turmoil were represented in the intrigues of ‘Weep not Child’. Capturing the hopes of a character Ngotho, he characterizes the saviour of the Kenyan people as the son of their soil and no longer the British Colonist. In this way, one will arguably say that ‘weep not child’ held within a prophecy of the future governance of Kenya. The emergence of Jomo Kenyatta as the first president of the Kenyan republic is arguably a testimony to this.”

Not forgetting to mention Chinua Achebe’s ‘Man of the People’, it represents a post colonial Africa and principally Nigeria, where corruption and conflict of interest had become the order of the day amongst leaders. Most striking of this work of fiction is its climax in a coup d’état which arguably gave it relevance as a prophetic piece predicting the near future of many African countries. Shortly after the publication of this piece in 1966, Nigeria survived series of violent transitions very similar to the one that our dear Chinua Achebe had written about.

Away from the African landscape, consideration is given to the renowned work of George Orwell in Animal Farm. Animal farm was an anti-soviet work of fiction personifying different leaders of the Soviet Union revolution at that time through animal characters like ‘Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball and others.

animal-farmThe deliberate use of  pigs to characterize the ruling class is indeed offensive to the dictatorial government of the Soviet Union in that era. In retrospect, the use of animal characters by George Orwell at that time goes to tell of poor human right practices restricting freedom of speech as is today against the International human rights law. This in all speaks of the impacts of totalitarian indoctrinations as even educated people are unable to express their true opinions in this landscape and others where democracies are weak.
These examples show that fictional works are not just a figment of a writer’s imagination created to amuse and entertain readers. Literary fictions have catalysed changes in development and are continuously acting indirectly as custodians of history. A line up of different historical period in the life of a society captured through their fictional works can contribute hugely in deciphering a pattern in their development or under-development, it will also portray their responses to social challenges at different times.
International development issues are seen from multidisciplinary binoculars as they cover huge areas like governance, environment, human right, poverty, amongst others. All of this have been presented in different platforms, most especially in academic and policy papers.  Perhaps for its lack of quantitative data, literary fiction remains questionable as an authoritative source of knowledge in the field of development.
However, I imagine that how  literary fiction has contributed in giving context to social concepts, explaining patterns of qualitative changes in different social frameworks, can be explored using relevant works of fiction. In subsequent posts and editions of the fiction and development column, I intend to make inferences on modern day development issues, linking them to the themes, characters, scenes amongst other things in existing works of literature. I hope this helps the understanding of how fiction writers are using characters and themes to identify, critic, advocate and also compare local, national and global issues that are significant to international development.
Suggestions are highly welcomed!

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