Once there was a man who filmed his existence. He went collecting his stories in selfies, with a smartphone to his fingers, making a gallery of the finest images life brought him, of the places and faces his clicks could find in the busy and fleeting world around him. He recorded himself in the selfie, which preserved his body, freezing it forever: a body’s gait and graces, And blingy necklaces; the forced smiles of a skillful artist holding a selfie stick to capture on camera the many moments of the life he was having so that he may document for himself the passing moments of today in a selfie he may never have in the future. With hands swiping swirling photos on tablet screens, there he will be, staring at himself in moments gained but lost: there he will be, even if he doesn’t recognize himself.
I wrote this piece in 2014, alerting humanities scholars in Nigeria and in other parts of Africa to embrace the digital humanities more actively. Much has changed since I first posted this essay on several blogs as a way of mobilizing new media scholars in Nigeria to build digital infrastructure and commit to digital pedagogies and praxis. In Nigeria, the University of Lagos has held a summer school in the digital humanities, partnering with colleagues from Europe and North America. Many more DH projects have sprung up in South Africa, including the Programme in African Digital Humanities, 2018–2023 from the universities of Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Western Cape and the Witwatersrand. The programme aims to examine the current forms and practices of reading and digital publishing in order to encourage and support self-directed, digital literary enquiries in the South African humanities environments. We need many of such Africa-based scholarly interventions in the humanities, an idea expressed in my post below.
From my archive:
Let me start with a story. One early morning in 2013, one of my professors at the Institute of African Studies, Sola Olorunyomi, who was director of the University of Ibadan media centre, called me to his office to show me an antique map of Africa which he wanted to be digitized at the Kenneth Dike Library in Ibadan. Together with Dr. Olorunyomi, who himself had done much work as a scholar of media and cultural studies to set up the Digital Africana project at the Institute, I walked to the library where we got the map digitized and archived in the special collections of the library. I have always wondered what became of both that map and the fine work the team at Digital African was doing I recall this particular event because humanities scholars in Nigeria appear, until the recent experimentations with DH research and conferences at the University of Lagos, to be uninterested in the digital humanities. And this is not about funding! Among other equally important possibilities, a more pragmatic scholarship on the convergence of culture and technology in Nigeria may constitute a fundamental way to rescue meaning from the present troubling sociopolitical and economic failures in the country.
Imagine for a moment that there was an online database of the initial manuscripts of works by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, together with handwritten letters, earliest versions and drafts of critical essays on his oeuvre. Surely, we can do more with a project that gives more visibility to the scientific epistemologies of the Yoruba divination system, the Ifa corpus. Scholars such as Wande Abimbola and Olu Longe have undertaken some foundational cultural and computational analyses respectively. It is time to deepen the conversations they started. Or think of a digital scholarly edition of the Ifa corpus itself and what that could mean for learning and modernizing an encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge. The Ifa literary corpus in open access will be a worthy contribution to the global digital record.
With more accessibility to researchers, more can be done by a lot more people interested in Ifa as a system of religious thought. To leave all of these within the sphere of the imagination, or to wait for the West to mobilize its resources for these urgent tasks is to leave the Africa postcolony in a grip of perpetual technological stasis. We need to invest in the infrastructural environment for these kinds of research to become visible.
It is a good thing, then, to continue to force out more thematic contents out of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but isn’t it time we thought about our own online archive of a literary text, which has garnered justifiable fame for its excellent literary depiction of pre-colonial Africa as a cultural geography of civilized and prosperous people? To think nobody needs an online database to the canonical works of African literature is not to understand the democratization of knowledge and its production in an increasingly digimodernist world. Think of the works of Daniel Fagunwa in their original Yoruba in a web-based archival environment and what that could do to preserve the writer and his works; to disseminate indigenous language literature, and to put the work in conversation with other similar titles outside Africa. And it may be that some have already begun work on these engagements, but it is apparent that there is no online visibility for such digital projects. I understand that digital humanities projects take much time and collaboration. How about the Nigerian blogging space and the various sites of scholarly opportunities begging for theoretical explications and linkages to the country’s own internal contradictions? For obvious reasons, there is currently no academic programme in Nigeria which offers a degree in the digital humanities, a problem we need to address, as we look beyond the gains of Nollywood and its successes to document our stories.
We certainly need to look at online audio-visual narratives about the African condition on Facebook, Youtube and other digital media if we are to find greater currency within the larger space of global mediascape. Postcolonial African writing is being reshaped and refashioned on Facebook, Nairaland, and YouTube, and we need to harvest the data on these platforms.
Alan Liu’s caution that the digital humanities be not impervious to the necessity of cultural criticism may well be an entry point into the field for Nigerian scholars of culture, literature, and technology. Think of the way Teju Cole uses twitter narratives to reconstruct contemporary Lagos, or how YouTube has emerged as a textual space for writers/artists to nuance cultural aesthetics, and we are probably up to a fascinating embrace of insightful studies in the digital humanities (DH). The point is, we can do more in Nigeria to engage with the way technology is remediating cultural aesthetics and calibrate new theoretical environments for traditional hermeneutical interpretations in the African academe. To be clear, the task of the digital humanist transcends the unexplored excitement about the nonlinear or multisequential nature of the hypertext, which certain departments of English in Nigeria have in their new media and literature syllabi. It is not also only an uncritical fascination with how new media poetics gestures towards an inventive remediation of print culture, and this might be a point to buttress, seeing that a lack of scholarly engagement with tools (and the texts they make possible), not necessarily a dearth of technological expertise, has remained a major reason we are still far behind in digital humanities scholarship. What is simply at work is an unwitting refusal to ass to the digital cultural record by decentering Euro-American academies as the locus of activities in the digital humanities and decolonize the digital, as Roopika Risam bids us to, in order for us to regain control of our own narratives.
Among other things, digital humanists develop tools, data, critical archives, and metadata; they also develop critical positions and theories on the nature of these tools and other resources. In addition to building tools and information platforms, DH scholars develop digital methodologies and seek to connect their work to an intersection of praxis and pedagogy. They are interested in the way digital technologies influence the nature and architectures of knowledge and writing, but rarely, as Liu notes, do they extend the engagements of the fields to the lived registers and conditions of society, economics, politics, or culture. This is an area in which more interventions from Africanist spaces might be beneficial More scholars of new media in Africa need to rise to the explosion of data which is being currently generated in new media environments on the continent. Aside from studies in information science departments and many other such as this from South Africa, which is a collaboration with scholars outside Africa; there is a paucity of perspectives from the digital humanities in the African academe.
Social media, for instance, enables a repossession of agency for netizens in Africa who have to deal with a daily stockpile of anxieties about defective democracies. How is the Nigerian scholar of letters responding to the myriad of visual and linguistic interactions taking place on Twitter and Facebook? I am aware that there may be some who see in social media narrativizations all which must replace traditional engagements with the canons of printed texts. This might be hasty naivety, as they forget that judging the book to be also dead in Africa is defining print culture by the parameters of the West — contexts in which even print has remained persistent.
Consider this website, for instance, on which the Korean writer, Y0ung-Hae Chang employs digital media to tell various stories about life in North Korea and see how the many in the West and elsewhere look beyond social media. We can look to social media for spaces of creative expressions, but online literary blogs and magazines appear to be the farthest path of experimentation emerging African writers are willing to travel for now. Professor Shola Adenekan has done some exciting studies on how new writers from Kenya and Nigeria are taking advantage of these online literary forms. We need more. It is a good thing to note that e-book editions of printed texts that are available for purchase/download online do not necessarily equal born-digital texts. Beyond Social media, there is a large volume of digital literary works out there in the West; maybe not (yet) in Africa, and a number of scholars there are doing excellent work to theorize these and their implications for reading, meaning, agency, etc.
You may also read this very short poem by Jim Andrew and see another instance of a reconstitution of the book which perhaps is a more fascinating possibility than a social media representation of cultural records. There are also many digital texts written in hypertext, a form, which used to be a buzzword among scholars of digital studies some decades ago. African writers can still appropriate that, and even recent tools and technologies, for their art, knowing that we have the technical expertise. With Nigeria’s Andel and other start-up tech companies in Nigeria, sub-Saharan African can participate productively in the global DH communities. With this, the work of the digital humanist at home is sure.
If software is increasingly emerging as the medium of the message (a la Lev Manovich), it is time African writers collaborated with experts at home and outside of the continent to engage with a new form that is appropriate to the age. Whether it is a project that uses a digital map of Abuja to analyze social and cultural identities, or digital reconstructions of the popular Onitsha market literature (as available in the special collections of the University of Kansas library), or digital artworks about life in Ibadan, there are many ways our signifying practices could be further taken beyond the limits of print and oral performances. If we refuse to take advantage of this digital cultural moment as cultural producers and/or scholars, it is only logical that Africa keeps itself relegated in the negotiation of contemporary global history. That might be something to regret.
Walter Benjamin’s famous insight that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has continued to tug at the heartstrings since I saw images of the massive fire that engulfed the Notre Dame, that grand medieval cathedral in the heart of Paris.
Benjamin’s words, from his thesis on history, comes to mind because of encounters online with some postcolonial thinkers who forbid mourning the fall of the Notre Dame because of what they believe is its complicity in French colonial history.
One professor of African studies actually chided “Africans on social media for taking so much aspirin for someone’s headache.” In other words, why would postcolonial Africans and their leaders ignore, for instance, the flooding in Madagascar and be fixated on France? By this statement, he meant to take issues with citizens of former European colonies who, identifying with the destructive fire to the cathedral were, as he saw it, callous in their indifference to perennial social and economic problems in Africa. Although he is right that we need to be alert to the many protracted problems on the continent — some of which are informed by the legacies of European colonialism in Africa, this thinking is spineless and hastily undermines the symbolic history and imagery of the Notre Dame. Even more, it is a tasteless politicization of the devaluation of the aesthetic.
This perspective is also problematic not because the Notre Dame, together with its great arts and music, does not document aspects of French colonial modernity, but because to focus on that history alone is to ignorantly deny the civilization a centuries-old landmark affirms as an intertext to many similar historical spaces all over the world.
For those who still believe in our shared humanity, the destruction to the Notre-Dame Cathedral can be a lens to the destruction of other sacred monuments, including those whose theft was instrumentalized by Europe’s colonial project.
To be clear, in terms of cultural disruption and epistemic violence, what colonial France and indeed the English empire did to artifacts and monuments from Africa, and other oppressed societies of the world cannot be easily forgotten.
To visit any major museum in Europe that has holdings from these societies is to be put in a voyeuristic confrontation in which the postcolonial gaze is further subjected to assault. And is it not the case that French comprador neo-colonial presence in places like Africa continue to consolidate French hegemony and assimilationist practices with the aid of the French military apparatus?
While the history of French colonial violence should not be lost on anyone, this sort of postmodern thinking, which demands the radical and complete erasure of our humanity, and of the artistic sensibilities that connect us to earlier generations is an unethical misreading of the sacred history and aesthetics that the cathedral renders visible.
The Notre Dame, with its majestic artistry and sacred aura, is an architectural monument that bears witness to a history of human excellence. As Barack Obama reminds us in his tweet, the cathedral is one of the world’s great structures and its destruction invites us to grief and mourning.
This view is shared by Constance Grady who notes that losing the Notre Dame is not only to lose a sacred space and a major art treasure. Notre Dame, she writes, is a symbol of human accomplishment, and more than that, of social accomplishment. It’s not the work of any one person, but of generations upon generations of labour. That labour is what the postcolonial thinkers who seek to abjure the world’s collective mourning fail to visualize as a recognition of the creative labours of cultural producers all over the world.
The social space of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is where people like us live and participate in the rituals of worship. Hate for a violent history cannot be used as the basis for denying the subjectivities of our neighbours or of the religious monuments that mark their relationship to sacred spaces and practices.
The Notre Dame is but one of many iterations of sacred and historical spaces around the world, and to mourn its destruction is not coterminous with undermining indigenous lands, or the tragedies of other societies. To mourn it is to affirm our collective kinship as makers and consumers of beauty.
The same impulse to celebrate a report urging France to return stolen artworks to its former colonies can be at the heart of the grief we express in relation to the Notre Dame. Rather than gloat over the near-overthrow of the cathedral, postcolonial subjects can de-essentialize their reading of the media coverage of the Parisian edifice and embrace the universality the building represents. Gloating as a performance of so-called neo-colonial resistance is a misplaced response.
Victor Hugo’s 1830 gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Damepresents this literary explanation of the Notre Dame as a Christian architecture jointly authored by the collective hands of human intelligence:
Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.
The problem for postcolonial intellectuals arises when the history of a monument in Europe is imposed on the rest of us as the history of humanity. This is hardly what Hugo envisioned in his celebration of the enduring presence of a Catholic institution that took 200 years to build. His is a celebration of the triumph of human artistry. The Notre Dame may be his metaphor, but we in every monument of creativity anywhere else, are reminded of the human will to beauty and aesthetics, something that is as visible in the Notre Dame as it was in the ancient walls of Great Zimbabwe.
When Jean-Paul Sartre in his foreword to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth calls us to “burst into history, forcing it by our invasion into universality for the first time,” he was alerting both the postcolonial subject as well as his European allies still haunted by the morbid legacies of colonialism to disrupt a narrative of history that foregrounded only the agency of empire.
There is a sense in which postcolonial intellectuals who ignore the recent state of disrepair caused by the fire to the Notre Dame are involved in a myopic reversal of Satre’s exhortation: the refusal to reckon with a monument of history, a reversal that limits the universality of our thinking.
Those who believe it is Francophilia or neocolonial thinking to lament the fate of the Notre Dame miss the point altogether, for whether it is France or the once-famous Benin Kingdom invaded by British forces in 1887, the loss of the symbols of human accomplishments anywhere in the world merits a conversation.
In the opening sections of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s novel, I do Not Come to You by Chance, the protagonist, Kingsley asks Cash Daddy, “Uncle Boniface, are you actually asking me to join you in 419?” Boniface’s response is a torrent of laughter that compares only to the generosity of his empire of scam emails and fraudulent rewards.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s novel is a provocative examination of the practice of unsolicited e-mail scams that underscores the moral contradictions of a young, educated Nigerian, who submits to evil and greed to take care of a dying father.
While apparent in Kingsley’s struggle is the novel’s renewal of the moral frameworks of African oral performances, what the narrative of scam and its associated economies of avarice renders visible is the complicated ways the 419 scam-machine terrorizes even its actors, while uncovering the greed that operates in multiple ways to critique the global neoliberal economies of the West.
Nwaubani’s novel clearly highlights the ways the individuals known globally as Nigerian 419ners constitute a coterie of criminals whose nefarious activities, bothering largely on Internet scam, perpetuate invidious narratives about the country. Colin Powell’s famous sweeping generalization that “Nigerians as a group, frankly, are marvellous scammers” may reflect this general mindset in the West about the country, yet Nwaubani’s characters not only serve to satirize everyday existential anxieties of postcolonial Nigeria but also enflesh the moral ambiguities that animate the scam culture itself.
The ironic and funny ending of the novel is significant in the satirical agenda of the narrative. Kingsley, supposedly desirous of a break with a life of scam, sets up an internet cafe that has an appearance of a legitimate business. Instead, he takes his scamming enterprise to a larger scale that intensifies fraudulent interactions with “one of his foreign investors” as he tells Augustan, his mother, who is completely fooled by her son’s purported departure from crime.
I do Not Come to You by Chance is significant in the conceptual framing that links the 419ner to Afropolitanism because of the manner in which it embodies Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “-scapes,” which like culture, are fluid and constantly shifting elements — functioning in the global exchange of ideas and information.
The numerous emails in the novel and financial exchanges mark critical flows of ideas, technologies, and capital between the scam artist and multiple locations abroad. As the novel concludes, Kingsley makes plans to travel overseas for an MBA — a degree that ironically signifies the Western legetimization of his financial but criminal genius.
While analyzing the representation of the scam artist in scam-baiting communities such as the famous 419 eater, it is necessary to consider the complex ways an Afropolitan identity may be attributed to the scam artist, without extolling his criminality.
With conceptual gaps such as the commodification of identity that trouble the Afroplitan — numerous articles such as this and this unpack some of these arguments — we can think of two kinds of an Afropolitan identity. The celebrated hero of traditional Afropolitanism and the 419ner, an Afropolitan antihero whose astute use of emails and access to multiple locations and spaces cannot be denied.
The advance-fee fraud operates through a logic that demands the scam artist to seek assistance for the transfer of capital from metropolitan centres of Euro-America through the agency of Western bank accounts and citizenship. One major reason the Afropolitan can be read through the figure of the 419ner stems from Taiye Selasi’s original account of the Afropolitan itself.
Selasie’s article presents a muted recognition of the same idea of mobility and flows that I do Not Come to You by Chance graphically renders visible through the movement of emails, persons, and capital. As the email medium portrays, much of the mobility of the scam artist is digital. There is a sense, then, as the recent example of the Nigerian-Canadian playboy of Yorkville shows, in which the 419ner also has access to multiple passports and locations, while clearly maximizing digital flows.
The 419 scammer is not an Afropolitan antihero because of his immersion in a western education and worldview that enables him to manipulate digital media. He is one precisely because of his capacity for mobility in the Net’s rhizomatic pathways and his tendency for a multiplicity of identities — whether national or personal. These ideas, ‘mobility’ and ‘access to multiple nationalities,’ are two major features of the Afropolitan, evident in the original essays of both Selasi and Mbembe.
Selasi, for instance, writes that the idea of home for the celebrated Afropolitan, is provisional and indeterminate, and is the space “where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends” and the cities around the globe in which they live and work, with no sense of a single geography, while at home in many such spaces. As the capacity for the mobile plays out metaphorically in this construction of an Afropolitan identity, we could think of what it means to be mobile in a digital sense, something Susanne Gerhmann has excellently outlined in her essay on cybermobility and Afropolitanism.
It is probably provocative to hint at a negative comparison between scam artists and the “Afropolitans.” Some may even call it sensational and logically unsound.
That being said, the reality is that the real scam would be a dangerously fixed conception of Afropolitanism that, refusing to be disturbed and complicated, prefers only to be romanticized and celebrated. Thar would be troubling.
I realized recently that the Nigerian academic Oga culture, that punitive style of scholarly mentorship which forbids student thought and agency, has a diaspora version conditioned by the malaise of essentialism. So I decided to present some advice to you, the Nigerian academic who, because of your Western location, routinely dismiss colleagues in the homeland.
In your astute polemical theses, take only one side of an argument and use it as the premise for your sound logic. Simply argue that all Nigerian professors based at home are inept and crude. Never mind that your grouse is with only a few who have counterparts in your region of the world.
Silence anyone on your Facebook timeline that has a different explanation from your hallowed theories. You are the only voice of reason; they, the voice of superstition, and all things inchoate.
Go ahead, mansplain too. How can some woman at home dare challenge your lofty ideas? Remind her you are not her husband. Your ersatz Wole Soyinkasque mind must not be insulted.
You are “in the abroad” and your views must be seen by these irrational colleagues you have left in the dark as the absolute and irrefutable truths. After all, their research is a mere survivalist response to a parlous postcolonial state you are so generous to theorize in your peer-reviewed essays.
Yours is the finest example of scholarship and your prestigious location is the desired Mecca those at home dream only about.
As a matter of fact, avoid any scholarly conversation with a Nigerian professor who is so unfortunate to have never seen an airport before. Why argue with a schmuck? They will call you out for arrogance.
How unfair to rightly diagnose your humble heart. Oga, they are not worth your time. You have 24 hours in a day. They have 42. You need to move on to your next research. The Nobel Prize is calling.
And when next you meet a colleague from home at a conference in Chicago, make sure you keep a safe distance. They may beg to share a hotel room with you or look to you to pay for dinner. Remember, they still think you pick money from the streets of Syracuse.
Are you on the same panel? Great. It’s time again to take that usual mental note about the lack of theoretical rigour in their analyses. Smile and pat your messianic ego on the shoulder. Your next monograph will deliver them from mental blockage.
Forget that there are scholars in your own location who are also mediocre and uninterested in research. Focus only on your African comrades and amplify their in-born mental laziness in your social media posts and on your listserves. To hell with intellectual humility; those guys are the scum of the earth.
And when next you visit an archive or library at home, be sure to complain about the kickbacks you were made to pay. Be careful to frame the narrative well: some guy did not see the value of your world-acclaimed research and asked you to give a bribe. Your poor saintly soul had no choice.
And how dare you acknowledge the local knowledge producers you interacted with during your last field trip? Of course, you have to remember they are never experts. Only mere informants who ask for money before presenting any useful data.
The rule of thumb is never to forget too there are no sound thinkers at home. How can there be? They are all consumers of knowledge who depend on your libraries in London.
And don’t ever make the mistake of citing a Nigerian professor who works and teaches in Nigeria. If you do, make sure it is an act of mercy from you, most noble Oga. They will thank you too: their promotion to full professorship depends on it.
If, in your almighty benevolence, you ever decide to co-author a work with a colleague at home, be sure they do the dirty jobs. Thus says Oga from his location in exile! And it shall come to pass in Africa, that forsaken country whose research you are making visible in your pan-African generosity.
If anything goes wrong in the research process, make sure you excoriate the colleague at home. He is too busy with administrative work and services that distract him from the merits of your joint project. Blame him. He is always to be blamed. Your tenure is stake.
While at all of these, make sure your elitist bubble does not burst. We need you and your Afropolitan mulishness and gra gra.
So in the early 1990s, you enroll in a Ph.D. program as a brilliant mathematician but spend the next 22 years of your life on it, seeking perfection (in the hope that you win a major prize one day) and never actually completing it until you pass on. Allegedly because of suicide. That’s the official narrative of a series of events authorities at the University of Ibadan are describing as “strange.” Without knowing the particularities of Aminu Zubairu’s situation, it is difficult to effectively assess things, but to a large extent, like anybody who has attended a university in Nigeria will tell you, Zubairu’s protracted doctoral training at UI is not an isolated event.
While not interested in circulating any essentializing narratives of the University of Ibadan as the first and best institution of higher learning in Nigeria, we can at least expect the country’s leading campus to welcome some scrutiny and reflection. For one of the best universities in Africa, you wonder why the need to insist on institutional practices not tainted by mediocrity trumps the more crucial task of addressing the enabling circumstances that facilitate a doctoral training of over two decades. In its haste to defend what the University of Ibadan believes to be its excellent academic culture, the university authorities failed to recognize an important opportunity to have a necessary conversation on the often long completion rate of Ph.D. education in Nigeria. As the leading postgraduate center in Nigeria, that should matter to UI.
Important also is the failure to recognize the lingering mental health problems that arise from a well-known vindictive culture that victimizes its own students and insolently demands servitude, as well as the general culture of graduate education, which many students would disavow for its complicity in their academic misfortunes.
For those defending UI’s position on the Zubairu case, invoking the anecdotal testimony of a former head of Zubairu’s department who writes to discredit the views and experiences of a certain alumnus of the institution (Samule Edet) cannot be enough. Who does not know that the dobale culture many speak about is a reality for most Ph.D. candidates? As a matter of fact, some of us heard the politics of dobale for the first time from professors who endured a similar fate and who appeared to believe all hell would be let loose on them if they did not perpetuate the same morbidity. We can surely do better than the politicians we love to hate and curse in the ivory tower, knowing that the same politics of patronage we see in Abuja is rife on many campuses in Nigeria. To call UI or another elite campus out on issues such as the parlous misreading of a tragic moment is not a Freudian impulse to “kill” our academic forbears and derogate an alma mater that is dear to many. It is to eschew the culture of mediocrity that UI believes cannot be found in its ranks.
Until we abandon a system in which my Oga or Oga mi (the Ph.D. supervisor) as the idiom of the power imbalance in our student-supervisor relationships is the norm, it is hard to visualize how students can be the focus of their own training, owning their learning without unnecessary deference for cultural politics that have no relevance to professional training. I thought a good way of responding to Zubairu’s tragic circumstances was to disavow the prebendal culture many students complain about and to publicly affirm our commitment to disrupting it at an institutional level.
But of course, oga culture says it is career suicide to speak back to your teachers in Nigeria. How dare you have an opinion? My Oga “trained” and “made” me. I, therefore, have no moral right to question their actions or practices. if I must, I have to be tactful and position myself discursively to show a certain performative deference. As somebody who has had more training abroad, Your boldness to speak back to oga culture makes the most arrogant scum of the earth. “Just because he traveled out of the country, he thinks he is now better than the rest of us,” oga would wager. Never mind that at some level, Oga knows and has experienced a working system at Oxford or Capetown, but how dare you speak truth to power? To do so as a young alumnus who lives in Nigeria is to risk being discredited and even threatened in some cases.
The default psychological response to the tyranny of oga’s victimization is Stockholm syndrome: oga takes delight in having students that cower before him, students who mobilize cultural and religious incoherences to justify their own subjugation as a practice of surviving the oppressive weight of oga’s tyranny. Although there are many progressive ogas in places like UI who are not conditioned by oga culture, unfortunately, they are in the minority. Even these are often viewed as eccentric for their refusal to surrender to oga’s pathology.
Just to be clear, the paradox is lost on university authorities who attempt to silence students seeking to exercise the same values of free speech and critical thinking the university proudly teaches in the first place. You do a disservice to the rich tradition of humanistic enquiry for which a campus such as the University of Ibadan is famously known when we foreclose the perspectives of students because of their age, location, or status. I am not acquainted with Edet the alumnus the former chair of UI’s Mathematics department responded to in his interview with the press, but I do know that UI can take this opportunity to reflect on the welfare of students and university practices that make many academic environments in Nigeria a hostile space that fosters depression and many other serious mental health problems that are routinely normalized by Oga culture.
My first response when I heard about Aminu Zubair was to inquire from Tim and Dipo former colleagues at UI about a professor of mine whose Ph.D. was also taking forever to complete. I doubt if he completed it as at when I concluded my first degree. He probably did later, after my own seven years of UG and grad studies at UI. Unfortunately and painfully, I would not be surprised if he has not. Oga culture is that bad in Nigeria. Those were years of hard work and the best of training from some of the most rigorous and finest scholars in the world. It is because of their student-centered and activist pedagogy that I dare to comment on an unfortunate event.
I agree that UI cannot be made to bear the outcomes of another’s actions or inactions. The oga culture I write about is condemnable for as long as it is used as the basis for a culture of mediocrity that delays the successful completion of students’ programs; but, hey, there are many others who complete their PhDs every year in UI and elsewhere in good time, without an uncritical dobale or oga culture which undermines intellectual capacity. I really do not think we should judge an entire institution by its few abuses, but when there is a cultural or systemic order that makes graduate education a needlessly tedious and oppressive experience, we need to be alert to scrutiny, irrespective of its source. I hope UI will shun oga culture, out of respect for Zubairu and his family, by concluding what they have called an investigation into the case.
Rather than a defensive posture, it is time to reflect and respond to the many variables that complicate student welfare on campus. One hopes they also address the larger problematic circumstances that make oga culture thrive. It is the right thing to do.
Although his The Wayfarer and Other Poems appearsto have aged very quickly, Pius Adesanmi’s poetry collection remains an important cultural document signifying a literary response to the ambiguities of oppressive power during military rule in Nigeria. There is the possibility of reading The Wayfarer and Other Poems as a text seeking to unsettle the mythology that exile existed solely for Nigeria’s third generation of writers as a space of greener pastures. Indeed, as Harry Garuba suggests, the volume articulates an image of the poet of Adesanmi’s generation as a nomad, traversing the liminal and chequered spaces of home and exile. The contours of Adesanmi’s poetic oeuvre can be mapped within the broader thematic preoccupation of that generation of writers, which includes the mobilization of poetic imagination in the resistance of the dominant military culture of the 1990s.
While the second generation of Nigerian writers, including Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare focused on the existential agonies of life during the military years of the 80s and 90s by invoking styles from oral traditions embedded in a Marxist vision, Adesanmi and his generation grappled with an economy of structural adjustments and displacement that forced many cultural producers to exilic locations. Adesanmi’s intervention, unlike those of these earlier poets, was, therefore, less concerned about the seriousness and inscrutability of poetic language, foregrounding the importance of mobilities to the formation of diaspora and a transnational consciousness.
Even when his own poetry uncovers these qualities, it is evident that Adesanmi the poet has an ideological mission to write for everyday Nigerian subjects burdened with postcolonial anguishes and antinomies, as well as the oppressive normativity of dictatorial power by the military establishment. If a nostalgic voice and an exilic imagination are the recurrent thematic valences in The Wayfarer and Other Poems, it is exactly because of this personal commitment to archiving the legacies of a personal and sometimes flawed journey of self-discovery imbricating with the burdens of national becoming. Even more, there is a sense of feeling that the lyrical narrative of the wayfarer is a metaphoric sojourn that stages the cycle of wearing and endless journies of the protagonist, which is famously embodied by the spirit child of Yoruba spirituality, Abiku.
The question of identity and dis/placement is a central theme in TheWayfarers and Other Poems. For instance, in the poem, “University of Ibadan,”Adesanmi is invested in a chronicle of his generation of writers and the form and formation of their poetic sensibilities at the University of Ibadan. The poem details the gathering of these writers described as “weatherbeaten survivors on the campus of Ibadan where they first had the chance to “spread the first mat of knowledge,” dreaming “dreams yet uncracked by “the radar of the SSS” (Adesanmi 20). There is the sense in which the poem is a revelation of the panoptic presence of the Nigerian state in the proscription of artistic consciousness across the country.
That writers such as Adesanmi survived what the persona in this poem identifies as “the radar of the SSS” underscores the determination of a generation’s commitment to literature despite the surveillance of military dictatorships. One gets in the poem the sense of censorship from the military governments that sought to regulate cultural productions and creative expressions in Nigeria during the period Adesanmi writes about.
Adesanmi, invoking Soyinka, therefore wonders in this poem if Nigeria’s third generation of writers is a wasted generation pushed away from the country by a hostile climate of “thorns and thistles” (Adesanmi 20). The poem is a critical commentary of the diminishment in the quality of literary and cultural expression facilitated by the economic and political climate that forced writers out of the country, hence, the writers in Ibadan also gathered at “the cemetery of Ifa’s doomed venture” (Adesanmi 20). Invoking a central reference point in Yoruba oral tradition and ontology, Adesanmi’s persona in the “University of Ibadan” positions himself as spokesperson of a generation, undertaking an apologia for the reluctant exile of himself and his compatriots.
In the light of this last point, Toni Kan Onwordi is right to observe that Adesanmi’s collection is personal and public “in the same tone that is part satirical and part serious. The lines are wont to excite laughter, which teases out tears, but these are not wholly tears of joy. Onwordi’s location of ambivalence in Adesanmi’s work is an affirmation of how the poet deploys satire to critique the Nigerian condition. The satirical impulse that undergirds much of Adesanmi’s recent nonfiction works can be traced to similar experiments in TheWayfarers and Other Poems. There are other poems in the collection that demonstrating the poet’s exploration of this ambivalence, with Europe, for instance, positioned in contradistinction with Africa, as a location of knowledge.
Evident here is a politics of spatiality in which Africa is depicted as a hostile place that forces its subjects away from home, while Europe is conceived as an enabling space for those “in search of knowledge.” This intersection of Adesanmi’s personal disillusionment with the Nigeria state and the liberating encounter with Europe is apparent in several celebratory lines in the volume, particularly towards the end of the collection. For instance, the persona in “You Plumed My Arms with Francs” admits that “[w]hen Aso Rock skewed [his] potentials, France plumed [his] arms with Francs for “the anxious flight/in search of knowledge (Adesanmi 89). With these lines, the reader finds a reason to sympathize with many in Nigeria’s third generation who left the country for the proverbial greener pastures, while celebrating the epistemic impulses of that generation’s flight.
While the speaker’s voice is probably Adesanmi’s, the way the persona echoes the voices of many others in Adesanmi’s generation accentuates the poet’s positionality as an exilic postcolonial writer asserting political agency through poetic verse.
Through her narrative of trauma, Nigerian poet offers a debut novel that presents readers with a paradox: how darkness can both heal and enslave the mind.
Jumoke Verissimo’s first novel has it all — poetic language that gushes gracefully from page to page, the intelligence of a scholar-writer casting a retrospective gaze on the politics of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, the undulating rhythms of love and sex conditioned by patriarchal affectations, a subversion of cultural norms, as well as a poignant engagement with trauma as an affective experience too visceral for words to embody.
A Small Silence is a timely invigoration of the canon of African literature that serves to show the aptness of the novel genre to articulately engage with the Nigerian condition through the privations of private memories. Here is a sublime reflection by a first-time novelist on an important aspect of Nigeria’s political history that is organized around the traumatic — as a terrifying and disturbing site of psychic abjection and personal alienation.
With evocative narration and poetically descriptive language that brings real spaces to life, Verissimo creates characters whose troubling histories intersect with the agonies of a postcolonial state traumatized by memories of political oppression. The trauma of a failing state is made to signify at an individual realm in which singularities render visible the antinomies of communities weighed down by the dark burdens of disillusionment and despair. Despite these, the novel is a solid reiteration of the hope that emerges from the rudest loins of darkness if light is let in.
Originally a poet, Verissimo’s experimentation with the novel as a literary form offers her a platform to gift personal memories of trauma and pain to an extensive imaginative form. She is the author of two collections of poetry, including I am Memory, and The Birth of Illusion. The greatest accomplishment of both texts is their lyrical presentation of a conscious stylistic temperament, with the first collection engaging the reader’s ears while the poet seeks to affect the eyes through clever reiterations and staging of the poetics of African oral traditions in The Birth of Illusion.
This sentient awareness to form and technique is carried over to A Small Silence, through forms such as intertextuality — characters recite poetic lines by Pablo Neruda and Niyi Osundare; a narrative style that deliberately rehashes the schemas and scripts of everyday life in Lagos in a manner that renders visible the authenticity of the city’s cosmopolitanism, and an artful incorporation of poetry as a mechanism of narration. At a point in the novel, a character can even be heard saying, ‘poetry is the best way to listen to the soul.’
The major triumphs of A Small Silence can also be found in the evocative rendition of the alienation and traumas of major characters whose lives and circumstances alert the reader to the hidden silences of darkness, which characters repeatedly welcome as an agency of hope in the crippling contexts of their pain and vulnerabilities.
Professor Eniolorunda Akanni, a schizophrenic human rights activist and scholar, has been imprisoned by an oppressive military juntathat forbids any expression of free speech. The temporal setting is the Abacha military dictatorship, notorious for its execution of another activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, and eight other Ogoni activists. Desire, an orphan and undergraduate student at the Lagos State University who has a close encounter with Prof as a child, wonders if Prof will meet a similar fate as the Ogoni leaders, He is eventually released from prison in a calculated political move on the eve of a civilian election.
However, as his carceral experiences have him left with a schizoaffective disorder, Prof embraces seclusion and darkness, literally refusing any form of light as he apathetically reintegrates into a much-changed society he appears to have served in vain. He “think there’s value in the dark’ and that ‘light would swallow it’ if it came on. His apartment becomes a metaphor of the darkness which engulfed the country during the dark years of military rule in Nigeria, one that is also literalized by constant power outages and the gloominess and dimness of Prof’s fraught relationship with his mother and other post-prison experiences. He pushes away friends and family, but reluctantly welcomes Desire whom she first encounters in her hometown of Maroko while he was out speaking out for a community unjustly marked for demolition.
At first, he grows to relish Desire’s nightly visit, forming a bond with her and shutting off other voices around him, including Desanya the unseen female companion that speaks to him. His mother insists he is ‘not a shadow’ and must return to ‘a normal life. To this, he offers a philosophical retort: what is a normal life?
Not even Desire can find normalcy with Prof, as the darkness of his room becomes a torment threatening a separation between them. In a nod to Neruda whom the novel actually cites, Desire cannot understand why “the blackness of night time [must] collect in the mouth of Prof, but that’s precisely the source of the novel’s aesthetic impulse: the collection of darkness in the mouth of characters who have to respond to different forms of traumatic experiences in the framework of political anguishes. Many, especially Prof, accept this urge; others like Desire resist it, but when resistance is futile, they wish they would walk away from it. Desire’s resistance amplifies her centrality to the novel, even as she is used by Verissimo to imagine an alternative to noise and the troubling echoes that accompany hurt.
If there’s anything readers would love about A Small Silence, it is its deployment of language in a manner that makes it central to the argument of the book. I have already mentioned how poetry animates Verissimo’s prose, but there is also something to be said about her use of italics in relation to the politics of language in African literature. As an Anglophone African Novel, A Small Silence participates in the debate about whether non-English terms ought to be italicized or not for non-African audiences.
The novel innovatively uses language to respond to this tension. When Prof’s mother sings his oriki, for example, we get a semantic sense of this Yoruba praise poetry from the narration:
His mother stopped singing his praise song. Prof tried to continue the words, but he could not remember them. And then he tried to translate them into English to see if it would taint how the words grounded him to his childhood and his mother’s embraces. ‘Apá’ń járá, child of the horseman, who holds the king’s rein, the one who is to descend with the king into the dark place, he who delights in the innards of the fortunate. For if you are not fortunate, why do you celebrate a paunch? The child of Àgbá-sin, who saunters into the afterlife. Child of Pòràngánda, Pòràngánda who breaks the front teeth…’ He couldn’t remember the rest of the chant…
Verissimo is using the form of narrative itself as a modality of translation, without allowing explication of the italic to disrupt the meanings of these words. Her use of Yoruba expressions and the many linguistic idioms of the street evident in discussions between Desire and her roommate, Remilekun, for instance, are not conditioned by any provincialism that marks her choice of language as political. Neither does she undermine her technique to explain the nuances of the many non-English expressions she uses.
Rather, the novel is true to the experiences of the characters she writes about, as well as to the various geographies of their socio-cultural realities, including strategic reiterations of the humorous amidst the debilitations of postcolonial trauma. For instance, Lagos and its environs come alive in a graphical and comic manner made possible by the many Nigerian Pidgin expressions in the novel. The italic is thus made to signify as a site of defamiliarization for the Nigerian audiences to whom it is essentially addressed, giving the novel an authenticity which consolidates the glocal affect of the characters and their struggles with trauma.
With Trauma — which often forcloses representation by language, the creative process is made more arduous, and to capture the particularities of characters’ psychic and physical lifeworlds, the writer bears witness to that which resists witnessing, namely trauma. Being true to this requires not only a realist technique but also a medium that captures most effectively the untranslatable. Verissimo brilliantly looks beyond English to do this. Her novel is a great addition to the Global Anglophone canon.
It would be nice to devote a panel at the next ASA conference in Boston or at other similar venues to the question of African diaspora doctoral students who are routinely excluded from opportunities reserved for their colleagues back at home. There is the assumption, normalized by most funding agencies/units/organizations both in African and Euro-American locations, that once a graduate student ‘escapes’ Africa, their economic fortunes naturally become better than those of their colleagues elsewhere.
That this belief is far from the truth is not my interest; what vexes me is another problematic it embeds, namely: if those at home are rendered disadvantageous by circumstances not of their own making, then they have to be extra motivated to achieve success. Herein lies the problem: the muted idea is that African doctoral students who are abroad, because of their locations, are guaranteed academic/career success. This is a curious politics of geography that gives too much agency to non-African spaces while masking the rigour, both academic and economic, most students in exilic locations must apply themselves to just to be able to succeed in academia, to travel to conferences and present a paper. The same argument can be made about the plight of postdocs.
And is there a graduate student abroad that is not gutted each time they click on a web link to a funding announcement only to discover their location already debars them from applying? In the words of the Nigerian writer Adunni Adelakun to me in a private conversation, “you are marginal here [in the West], and still marginalized [at home] and your reality does not cohere with the politics.” In other words, you cannot fathom how organizations like ASA will provide travel fund for Africa-based scholars to attend conferences here in North America, while you who live in a neighbouring city cannot attend because you can neither afford a hotel bill, or there is no provision for daycare
If you have done your graduate program in a western location in which Africa-related research is not a big deal, you know what I am talking about. You are in a frustrating limbo; your scholarly interest is not a big deal where you are, as it is not one for the canons, and those you left at home think by virtue of your not being home, you have suddenly become some sort of hero.
But of course, you know you are not one. You still have to struggle to pay for conference fees from your personal, limited income. Like one doctoral candidate at a famous Institute of African studies in the US mid-west said to me, “once you pay [hotel] accommodation from your stipend, you’re back to broke” because the 500 dollars you got as travel funding was hardly sufficient.
Never mind that, while at that, you still have to grapple with issues arising from your visa and immigration status with money from your tiny purse. And you want to get married too? Are you okay? But of course, you did, and now you have to be supported by a spouse who gives up their own dreams to ensure you finish your program as soon as possible, while your white colleagues in the home country wonder why you are in a hurry to finish your program and face the precariousness of the job market. Never mind that they too have the burden of student loans to bear.
I am probably wrong and may be accused of an inclination to share in the scarce resources of colleagues back at home, but that mindset is what I believe to be the problem. As far as I know, some of the best brains of Africa-related research are on the continent, and while they may aspire to the (unknown, precarious) conditions of some colleagues abroad, the truth is that they grind out brilliant ideas and success narratives from their often limiting spaces at home.
And there you have it; we are not different after all. Home or abroad, we thrive, we survive, and we do our best to learn new areas of research that animate ours (and, yes, get us funding in some cases). Perhaps a good strategy for doctoral candidates abroad is to make themselves visible to scholars at home while engaging with knowledge canons and formations from the continent. That way, they can retain their interests in Africa before funding to travel home for conferences arrives. Hopefully from organizations such as CODESRIA that offers scholarly opportunities that often include non-continental Africans. Groups such as The African Doctoral Lounge on Facebook that provide a space for mutually benefitting conversations for African academics in Africa and the diaspora offer invaluable resources.
If you are like me, you can also choose to engage Africa-based scholarship by deliberate citational practices. Read and cite scholars from Africa as a necessary homage and ritual of connection, while waiting for a travel grant.
One can only that when next there is a gathering for African graduate students in Accra or Nairobi, some organizer will do well to reserve a space for one or two African students who may want to travel home to connect, network and learn. It enriches the powwow.