Author Archives: jyeku

an epitaph on the loss of nuance, or on the crooked timber of humanity

In some corners of the internet

some brothers spill their rage onto an epitaph

yet to be written, a message carved

by time on the tombstones of terror.

I want to ask, is your anger a dirge mistimed,

or a muttering of protests drowned by noise?

Or what is to be lost if we swoop both low and high

in the face of fury? But I desire silence

in a humane verse, reading half-truths

from those who fully know the past

without knowing themselves.

Protest Rituals and the Change English Football Kneed

That Premier League players are no longer required to take the knee at every game by the 2021/2022 season begs a pertinent question: did it really work and was it worth it? Put differently, when does a performance of an anti-racist ritual in sports neutralize its activist politics? The answer depends on whom you ask, but for two prominent Black players, the answer was significantly varied.

The resumption of matches in the Premier League in June 2020 after a pandemic-forced break came back with players kneeling for a few seconds after the opening whistle. It was a powerful and symbolic protest and a vital embodied performance against racism in English football that was inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Pre-match kneeling to protest racial injustice soon became a common sight in stadia across England, drawing mixed reactions from supporters and critics, even as it caused stirs and boos in several European countries.

As the announcement was finally made that taking the knee would no longer continue in its previous iteration, what has actually been achieved by the expression of support by England-based footballers for one another and Black people around the world? With the Premier League making knee-taking a less frequent ritual, which will mostly be required of players only in certain matches like those on Boxing Day fixtures, an important ritual of protest can retain its performative force. While the Premier League has said in a statement that it remains “resolutely committed to eradicate racial prejudice and to bring about an inclusive society with respect and equal opportunities for all,” the real issue remains one of the persistence of racial injustice which only a symbolic act could not undo. In other words, as the protests started by Premier League club captains initially got endorsed and, in a sense, coopted by officials as part of efforts to underscore the League’s opposition to racism and its commitment to equality, there remains a lingering feeling that not much progress was being made.

This perspective anchors the often-referenced disposition of England-born Ivory Coast international for whom continued kneeling without a commensurate change in the system produced a non-working system. Zaha appeared to be suggesting that rather than any evident alterations in social conduct and values, what was achieved was the mediatized emptying of a powerful gesture through an ineffectual routineness. Hence, beyond the performed ritual of kneeling, other concrete and material changes that address, for example, things like the criminally low number of Black managers and referees s do need to become visible. When the Crystal Palace forward stopped kneeling in 2021, he said the protest had become “a part of the prematch routine” that does very little to change ingrained problems of race. Although he would rather “stand tall,” Zaha, crucially, did not see any problem with taking the knee. His problem was that it was not working. But he of all people understood its visceral power to highlight the blights of racial hatred. What was irksome for the former United star was how the act had become casualized as another sporting ritual with no material connections to the quotidian and ugly realities of race that frequently tarnish the beautiful game. Like the one directed at Gunners forward Eddie Nketiah in 2021 that made Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham conclude online racism is football’s “biggest problem” that must not be underestimated.

Yet, Zaha was probably an outlier, for there were other Black players such as former Watford captain Troy Deeney who, in his recent autobiography, wrote of the need to “keep taking the knee until something changes.” This was in response to how the lack of concrete action to end racism was seen as “evidence that taking the knee is not working and therefore we should abandon it.” For Deeney, players had a huge platform in the Premier League to show solidarity and direct the world’s attention to the problems of racial injustice. From this standpoint, one significant way of addressing the tenacity of race in football is through an equally relentless performance of bodily resistance that sufficiently remains in the public view to provoke more conversations and eventual change. Of course, non-Black players are routinely abused online, sometimes the most, but that is hardly on the basis of their race.

And it has to be said, Deeney’s approach to only stop kneeling until real change is evident seems sensible, for although many English players both at league matches and in national team colours abroad continued with the gesture, the ugliness of racism continued in some quarters. For instance, years of discriminatory attitudes towards Black footballers in England once again became painfully reiterated after the Euro 2020 soccer final that involved a penalty shootout against Italy. After missing a decisive kick, the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka became scapegoated by irate fans on social media who flooded his Twitter timeline, and those of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, with racist language and symbols.

The politics of knee-taking may remain controversial, but it certainly makes sense that it continues in some ways in the Premier League. There is something to be said about leaving politics out of sporting activities, but this is hardly sustainable since the racist actors who distract from the fun could hardly be said to be apolitical. Whether the latest move to stop taking the knee is about the coming world cup in Qatart or not, as some pundits claim, to take the knee does acknowledge that a problem is deeply embedded in the system and more still needs to be done collectively to push back against it.

At the same time, the real change that is needed—and this is the point both Zaha and Deeney made in different ways—cannot be merely cosmetic and focused only on prematch rituals or even on empty political dissociations from racist and political groups; more needs to be done to actually change the social conditions that generate racial injustice of any type. That way, the ritual performance and its processuality, even in the playful frameworks of football, might contribute to a necessary social transformation.

An unterrifying unknown

What is familiar soon fades away. Neither as

an untravelled path that petters out at night

when the sky kisses an eerieness from a distance.

Nor as a memory disappearing into a depth

that explodes into an afterlife of traumas.

But as a rebellion that purloins our strongest desires,

tethered to the brutal fictions of perpetual becoming.

Unarrived, and never arriving, a deluge of hollows

echoes through, standing before the door of unfreedom.

What is familiar soon unravels into strangeness,

and disappears into a sail beyond the shackles of terror,

an unknown sea that terrifies not, a place of refuge

where dignity is Black power.

Blood Sisters and Another Nollywood Ówàḿbẹ̀

*Some initial reflections on the movie.

In Netflix’s Nigerian original series, Blood Sisters, directed by Biyi Bandele and Jeremiah Gyang, Ówáḿbẹ̀ is once again thematically affirmed and reengaged as a collective praxis of social celebration, one that enables an endless reproduction of an economy of pleasures in Postcolonial Lagos.  Ówàḿbẹ̀ is Nigeria’s flamboyant party culture which is marked by colorful displays, lavish food, and tensions over sartorial dominance. Ówáḿbẹ̀ in Blood Sisters and indeed in recent Nollywood films is a gift that keeps giving. It emerges as a cultural anchor for the exploration of urban merrymaking and the intimate connections between pleasure and the politics of class and family. I explored this topic at length in a 2021 journal article that sought to make sense of the cultural value of partying in three Lagos-themed films, The Bling Lagosians, Chief Daddy, and The Wedding Party—with the last produced from Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Studios which is also behind this new four-part thriller on Netflix. Ówáḿbẹ̀ and its associated aesthetics of display and ostentation in these films operate as the means by which familial bonds are tested and rediscovered. In several other films, Ówàḿbẹ̀ figures prominently as the social context for familial connections or even the concealment of kinship desires.

Describing Nollywood’s tendency “to make moral logic the basis of its dramatic logic,” Jonathan Haynes argues that Nollywood films often present moral choices as the most immanent human concern. “If Nollywood is fundamentally this-worldly, Haynes continues, “the most important things in its world are marriages and families.”  Ówàḿbẹ̀ is a pertinent social stage where these moral choices are dramatized. Blood Sisters similarly uses Ówàḿbẹ̀ to inform the story of best friends Sarah (Ini Dima Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime) as they both prepare for Sarah’s lavish wedding party.

Blood Sisters. Netflix.

Sarah is betrothed to the rich and pampered Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon) who has a history of violence towards Sarah and his past lovers. After hitting Sarah on their wedding day, she tries to call off the wedding, but the pressures of her economically precarious family compel her to stay. Just before the traditional engagement itself, Kemi finds Kola beating Sarah and inadvertently kills him, both in defense of herself and Sarah. The friends must find a way to bury Kola’s body and run away. The audience, faced with a police procedural movie that depicts gender violence and corruption, is invited to follow the girls through various hideouts in the city, as Sarah and Kemi flee from Kola’s unforgiving mum and a police institution she has in her pockets. At this point the narrative reveals the various dramas that initially set the stage for Kola’s violent tendencies and that result in his death and later those of his family members. It is in this sense that Blood Sisters may be read as a pastiche of both the familiar and the strangely thrilling melodramas of the Lagos elite family. It continues that fascination in New Nollywood to redeem narratives of African victimhood, by presenting Ówáḿbẹ̀ as one way to understand what it means for people to play, enjoy, and have fun, despite the debilitating conditions in which they often find themselves.

Blood Sisters also appears to reinforce a desire to sell Nigeria to a global audience using studio-based production models, and partnerships with streaming platforms like Netflix, and telling universal stories, which revolve around domestic violence, dysfunctional families, and friendship; but the organizing rubric for all of these is the Ówáḿbẹ̀ and its dramatization of family conflicts. The Ówáḿbẹ̀ sets the condition for the deconstruction of the prevalently negative representation of Nigeria, with a solid cinematic form of its disavowal emerging in Blood Sisters.

But family dramas and Ówàḿbẹ̀ also point in the directions of class politics. This is one way Blood Sisters also resembles the several Ówàḿbẹ̀ movies before it. Whether it is Mopelola in The Bling Lagosians whose party can only be attended by the one percent of the one percent elite of Lagos, or The Wedding Party‘s Mrs. Onwuka who believes Dozie is marrying into a family that is beneath her class, the enactments of social class is always a familiar guest in the Ówàḿbẹ̀-based Nollywood  movie.

Blood Sisters follows the same logic of class and its discontents. Sarah is being pressured into marriage with a violent man because to support her parents’ business, while Kenny (Ibrahim Suleiman) her former, lower-class boyfriend pleads unsuccessfully with her to ditch Kola. But Ówàḿbẹ̀  itself is a space of possibilities, sometimes open to the presence and aspirations of lower-class people, despite the elite policing of the Ówàḿbẹ̀ social ecology. Femi, Kola’s brother (Gabriel Afolayan) knows that the non-elite can indeed gain access to the most prestigious Ówàḿbẹ̀ and uses that knowledge as the basis of his own initial plot to kill Kola. My point here is that Ówàḿbẹ̀ has a certain ambivalence that makes it possible for it to manifest a tense contact space for the rich and the poor, despite the various elite strategies that foreclose such interactions. At a spatial level, the film also offers a cinematic exploration of urban Lagos that makes the politics of class legible through real and reel places like Maroko, a large low-income community with half the population on water and half on land.

When Kola’s mother asks Femi to kill the girls to mark his desired ascendancy to family headship in the final scene of the film, he hesitates and his sister, Timeyin, emerging as a hero, offers to do the job. In the end, she shoots Uncle B (Ramsey Noah), presenting the girls with an escape route. Unlike the Ówáḿbẹ̀  movies before it, though, the convivial environment of the party culture merely activates the narrative of Blood Sisters, not necessarily developed throughout the plot. In that instance, Ówáḿbẹ̀—It is there—is less about the assertion of the sociality of a playful self or presence than an avowal of the human will to escape the spectral forces of death. So, when Kemi, escaping from Uncle B, sees some Yorùbá masquerades dancing on their way to her grandmother’s town, she is unable to protect Sarah from the trauma of  Kenny’s death. Or from the agonies of a celebration of life and leisure that suddenly turns tragic. As film audiences, we are supposed to witness a wedding party but there has been a death in the family. Only the dance of the mask is permitted.

By Train to Kingston

The journey started from nowhere 

as journeys sometimes do.

I am in Cabin 6604 on a train 

speeding to Montreal, reading Fanon 

preach of a violent decolonization,

and enjoying the melange 

of city and country that

spreads out farmhouses 

and silos in the middle 

of nowhere.

With wintry winds on its sail,

the metallic horse gallops

with gentle fury, surrounded by

snow-painted fields 

of frigid shrubs waiting

for the blooms of springs.

I overhear a medical student 

by my side tell a stranger 

of mother’s dishes that

call her home to visit.

I try not to eavesdrop,

but my Canadian politeness

soon genuflects before

a storyteller’s curiosities.

She struggles to contain

her Covid mask and the many joys 

home may bring her way. 

Something in her voice

reverberates like Moyosore’s litanies

reaching from Lagos,

as echoes of a mother 

deprived of her son.  

But when the driver announces 

tickets will be checked,

a side look from her 

tells another tale: 

the eternal surveillance 

Of the Black man.

But my decolonial desires 

are today born

of a gentleman’s agreement, 

to Fanon’s chagrin.

I want to write a poem 

for this returning moment,

and the angst of my immobility 

in a moving railcar

but a crew member

interrupts my thoughts

with a shout of her wares.

Her bazaar forbids

cash on the train,

only Visa cards

for those dreaming

of coffee and something to bite.

As visions of stolen lands

speed into memories of violence

in the face of another native,

capital it was that had the final say.

Or so it seemed. Until my Uber driver,

freshly banned from Twitter,

arrived to chant fuckeries to Fascists!

An AFCON that proved its critics wrong

The 2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon came to an exciting denouement last Sunday as the Teranga Lions of Senegal, inspired by Sadio Mané and Édouard Mendy, defeated the Pharaohs of Egypt, led by Mohammed Salah. Coming after both sides failed to score in the 120 minutes of regular and extra time, a penalty shootout secured Senegal’s historic victory. 

It was not only the country’s first-ever AFCON trophy, but it also marked a significant triumph for African indigenous coaches having been tactically orchestrated by Aliou Cissé and his backroom staff. After failing as captain to lead Senegal to victory in the 2002 AFCON final against Cameroon, Cissé, who has been in charge of the Senegalese team since 2015 and guided them to the 2018 World Cup in Russia as the only Black coach, finally waltzed into a glorious redemption. Senegal’s historic success underscores the potential of African coaches to excel when given sufficient time and resources to work – as is often the case with European coaches who work in Africa. 

Pundits and commentators, including Nigeria’s former captain and coach Sunday Oliseh, have noted how this year’s AFCON became the most qualitative in the past 20 years especially in terms of tactics, passion, and surprises. The same sentiment was expressed by Samuel Eto’o, current president of the Cameroonian Football Federation, who took to Twitter to laud the organisation of “a legendary tournament” in Cameroon. 

But as we cast a retrospective glance at the finest moments from Cameroon 2021, the accomplishments of the entire tournament itself brings into the view the ambivalent forces that are sometimes entangled in sports. Understanding the import of Cameroon’s AFCON success is pertinent, considering the prevailing narratives of doom and crises that overshadowed this particular edition of the African Cup of Nations. 

With cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surging worldwide by the beginning of 2022, the pandemic became a pretext to excavate the colonial archive of negative stereotypes that stubbornly reifies a culture of disdain in media representations of Africa. Ahead of the first kick-off, The Sun wrote about how COVID-19 cases would leave the tournament “in tatters”, while the Daily Mail sneeringly headlined a story with warnings of “AFCON terror” based on the escalation of separatist conflicts in Cameroon. 

Meanwhile, the European Club Association (ECA) went as far as writing to the world football governing body FIFA to articulate needless anxieties about the potential endangerment of Europe-based players of African descent participating in AFCON.  It was clear even before the tournament started that the troubling mode of writing and talking about Africa as a hounded and helpless continent remains firmly embedded in a section of Western media and football officialdom. This disturbing tendency goes hand-in-hand with the racist portrayal of African players whether in African tournaments or abroad.   

The verbal attacks on AFCON prompted Crystal Palace coach Patrick Vieira to denounce the disrespectful attitude of some Western journalists to the sporting event. Vieira’s belief that the African Cup deserved more respect was shared by several other public figures, including former England striker Ian Wright, who argued in a video posted on Twitter that media coverage of AFCON was racially tinged. 

Despite these negative stories and expectations – of terror, disease, and danger – the African Cup of Nations was a success that is worth celebrating, especially considering that it was a major event that took place amid a pandemic. To understand why this is crucial, we need to recall that other countries around the world have struggled with international sporting events. 

In 2020, for example, as opinions remained divided about holding the Summer Olympic Games amid the global pandemic, public health concerns eventually forced the unprecedented postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year. Unlike the COVID-19 warnings preceding Cameroon’s hosting of AFCON, those were legitimate concerns given Japan’s public health crisis at that time. When the Olympic Games eventually did take place, Tokyo had to be put under lockdown, while spectators were not allowed into the venues. 

Six months after the Summer Olympics, China, the host of the winter iteration of the Games, is also struggling with the pandemic. It has barred foreign visitors and closed the sale of tickets to the general public. Its zero COVID draconian measures have resulted in confusion and condemnation by some athletes. 

The pandemic was also a challenge for Cameroon, but it did not result in a major public health disaster, as was predicted ahead of the event. That said, AFCON 2021 was not a completely smooth ride. On January 24, eight people died during a stampede at Olembe stadium in Yaounde ahead of the Cameroon-Comoros match. 

There were other issues as well that took the shine off Cameroon’s organisation of the tournament, including the wrong national anthem being played for Mauritania and the Zambian referee, Janny Sikazwe ending the match between Tunisia and Mali in the 85th minute before changing his mind. Reports later emerged that Sikazwe had suffered a heat stroke and needed medical attention. And, of course, looming over the entire tournament itself was Cameroon’s imperious response to the demands of its Anglophone citizens. 

These poignant moments aside, the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon was a huge success, proving wrong the chorus of critics that lined up ahead of the event. The tournament was a festival of tactical displays and captivating performances that underpinned how much the game has evolved on the continent. Looking ahead, it is important to build upon these achievements by revitalising local leagues and developing the necessary infrastructures for more talent to thrive. Africans also need to continue resisting racist, colonial representations in football and beyond. One way to consolidate this project of resistance is by empowering ourselves, decolonising our societies, and insisting on solid economic and infrastructural transformations that truly stem from and address local needs. 

This article was first published on Aljazeera Opinons

A Culture of Disdain: Europe and the African Cup of Nations

Before a controversial ban on some eight African countries by the US and several countries in Europe because of the discovery of the Omicron Covid 19 variant by scientists in South Africa, the European Club Association (ECA) had written to FIFA to express concerns over how rising cases of Omicron could endanger the participation of Europe-based African players at the African Cup of Nations coming up in January. But this provocative move as well as the more recent angst over the African Cup of Nations rehashes needless anxieties that play into a historical pattern of disrespect for Africa and the continent’s sporting traditions.

That the European Club Association board expressed its “deep concerns” about whether players would be safe may be reasonable but it concurrently invokes a culture of disdain that is normally encountered in the weeks leading to the all-important African Cup of Nations (AFCON). If we managed to ignore for a minute the current negative coverage of AFCON in the English press—including the Sun’s claim that Covid cases may leave the tournament in tatters, and the Daily Mail’s headline that pejoratively screams a coming AFCON terror —we may get a fuller sense of what is actually at play over the letter sent to FIFA by the ECA, led by English premier league clubs, namely a hypocritical defence of players welfare that is used to hide an insidious logic of capital which ultimately governs a so-called proposed boycott of the African tourney. If EPL clubs indeed cared about the spread of the Omicron during the tourney, they would have completely paused, rather than postpone EPL matches now and choose the wellbeing of players they believe it is “the clubs’ duty to ensure” and properly protect as they write in their letter to FIFA. But, of course, like we saw—even though without fans—at the onset of the pandemic, premier league clubs voted to continue matches despite the protestations of some players and coaches.

Photo: CAF ONLINE

A double-speak about the wellbeing of players aside, what is really at stake is precisely a condescending attitude towards AFCON which is ingrained in the culture of several European clubs and it is one that former Arsenal captain and coach of Premier League side Crystal Palace, Patrick Vieira recently decried when confronted with the fact of being without three players—Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast), Cheikou Kouyate (Senegal), and Jordan Ayew (Ghana)—when the tournament begins. 

Insisting that AFCON deserves more respect from European football authorities and their media outlets, Vieira explains that he respects and understands “the passion and the importance to players to go and represent their country” and will, therefore, “never stop any player going to play the Africa Cup of Nations.” But Vieira gets to the crux of the matter when he also demands that the “competition needs to be more respected – because this competition is as important as the European Championships.” It may be the case that the former France international is merely in some kind of sentimental league with his Senegalese roots, but his challenge to European journalists is clear: AFCON deserves more respect and positive coverage: “It might be important for you guys to cover the Africa Cup of Nations a little bit more and to go to Africa and interview people to really understand what it means for every single one of them,” Vieira argues in his tacit denunciation of this AFCON condescension that is, frankly, now tiring. And It needs to be said that Vieira’s response is one more reason why diversity enriches an EPL (and indeed Europe’s top five leagues) that has a very limited number of Black managers who, having played as professional footballers at the highest level and obtained UEFA coaching licenses, remained underrepresented.

Like Vieira, former West Ham United striker Sebastien Haller, now with Ajax, expressed frustrations to De Telegraaf when asked if he preferred remaining in the Netherlands in January to going to Cameroon. “This statement shows the disrespect for Africa,” Haller says, asking: “Would this ever have been presented to a European player towards a European Championship? Of course, I will go to the Africa Cup to represent Ivory Coast. That is the highest honour.”

But Vieira and Haller, sadly, are not alone in calling out the discourteous attitude of some European clubs towards the African Cup of Nations. In 2013, a now-former chief sportswriter at the Daily Mail, Oliver Holt similarly wrote that “the attitude to [AFCON] from English clubs is still dominated by double standards…. The tournament – which has been in existence longer than the European Championship, by the way – is treated as a giant inconvenience.” The persistence of these double standards is why former England and Arsenal striker Ian Wright says in a video posted on Twitter that the media coverage of players travelling to the Africa Cup of Nations is “tinged with racism”. Wright’s question is telling: “Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?”

In a pandemic era, this pathetic idea of AFCON as a tourney of inconvenience is being reiterated and mobilized to consolidate trite and twisted narratives about Africa as a place of crises and terror from which the rest of the world has to be protected. This is despite the fact that Europe’s flagship football, the Euros, was hosted across ten countries in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed fewer lives in Africa. As things stand, that the pandemic becomes a pretext to, again, construct Africa as a sporting other returns us to a metaphysics of difference in which the continent is always already imagined as strange, different and dangerous. This is the ideological subtext for that tweet by the Daily Mail that suggested “there are real dangers” and “real risk of attacks in all AFCON venues.” To put it mildly, it’s all a twaddle. It is the same and unending single story of woes and troubles that becomes projected to the continent as a marker of Europe’s persistent condescension; of Africa, as the continent that would undoubtedly be devastated by COVID, that has played out since the pandemic started that is bursting its seams in the arena of sports.

Of course, like anywhere else, some African countries have growing Covid numbers, as well as social and pollical challenges, but the Covid situation has been well managed on the continent where the social production of everyday pleasures from theatres and restaurants to stadia has neither been significantly curtailed nor totally abandoned because of some nightmarish predictions for Africa. While there is an ongoing conflict in the host nation for AFCON, the 60-year history of the tournament shows it has always managed to overcome social unrest, even serving as a unifying factor in some cases. Admittedly, players and entire teams sometimes become vulnerable as was experienced by the Togolese team in 2010, but it is also the case that soccer could become the means by which warring actors become permanently placated. In 2007 when Ivorian legend Didier Drogba asked that a game be played in Bouake, a rebel stronghold, he got on his knees & pleaded with rebels to drop their arms. Scoring a goal for Cote d’Ivoire that helped them win the match against Madagascar, Drogba, it is believed by many, contributed to the eventual termination of a 5-year civil war in his country. Whether it’s the Honduras and El Salvador match that kicked off a war or the famous Christmas soccer truce during World War 1, sports and conflicts have, all over the world, co-existed in mutual tension. To treat Africa as different because of them or a pandemic is disrespectful.

Beyond the symbolism of a soccer event that has the potential power to undo unrest,

there are certainly other material realities here, including whether condescension towards the continent is hinged on Africa’s infrastructural power and economic fortunes. Rather than become reactionary and endlessly complain about the ways Africa is narrated or covered in the media, though, we do need not only to write our stories but take ourselves seriously as people with agency to transform our countries.

In the meantime, we must call out those who remain tethered to a single, incomplete narrative about us. The 2021 AFCON poses danger is simply a disingenuous tactic that reprises a biennial tradition of disrespect to African football by the European soccer elite, as we have seen with clubs like Watford and others who chose not to release players for the tourney. As Omicron intensifies worldwide, African football authorities, in consultation with scientists and public health experts need to decide what they wish to do with AFCON. Similarly, any change in the timing of the tournament, which comes up from time to time in relation to the so-called disruption of European leagues, has to be a determination of CAF. Not some European clubs and journalists holding on to a warped understanding of the continent. Based on FIFA regulations, the rules of the game are clear. If Covid permits and the risk to public health are minimal, then let the games begin!

A slightly different version of this article was first published by New Frame

Another pandemic year

Ennui

The year we languished

came upon us as other times

before the pandemic; it stole 

the colors from our canvas

and left us a facade of smiling faces. 

Its ennui, the collective affect  

that eclipsed the light which was 

our path out of the void inside

each of God’s children. 

Someone said we ought to call 

a rose marred with ugly lines

by its proper name: despair.

But naming a thing, a heaviness

that floods your moments of joy

does not cancel it; for after 

this emptiness that lingers 

as shallow dreams on the earth, 

or as a mirage in our hearts, 

may yet appear the phantom call,

another niggling void, barren of the love

that once glistened like freshly fallen snow

on the sunny days we used to know;

sunny days—always beckoning—

and never leaving us unembraced. 

Two poems

An Old House on Main

On the corner of Main Street
stood a house that belonged
to the new arrivals, illegals
the locals called them, whose
delight swallowed a weathered
building reeking with staleness
and the stares of strangers
longing for something more,
but unknown. The soberness
of its quaint doors burned forlornly,
its colors betraying like a passion
of flames refusing to be fanned.

It was not the house you dreamt
of before you left your paradise
in Accra but it welcomed your tired feet
and sheltered you from the rage
of the angry weather. This house
welcomed the dreams you brought
to be born in a new world
that doesn’t see you, hoping
you might find in it a second home
that reminds you of a house
beyond the Atlantic, beyond the
house of history’s angel whose gaze
is in the past, whose music is
to the dance of ruins and empty time.
This house, a pile of debris that
becomes both a storm and a farce,
is progress for those vanquished
by power.

.


Hope

The sapphire
of hope—

that brightens where
Romanesque catacombs

entrap the soul
like a spell—

brings echoes
of a certain paradise,

the Elysian fields
of dreams,

no longer deferred.
No longer buried,

only permitting light
that shines through
the tree of life.

Rare books and the stories they tell

When literary scholar, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma recently posted on Twitter that he had inherited a “legendary poetry anthology, edited by the much-missed Harry Garuba and published in 1988,” it occurred to me that this bequest, if we may call it that, was a rare book I may never find in Lagos, the original home of Malthouse Press Nigeria, the publishers of the anthology. But what actually makes a book rare? Or when does a book become an object of rarity? In a Nigerian context, it is definitely not only a question of its oldness, although that is important. More crucially, the cultural politics of knowledge production invites us to understand how books are not only made rare, absent, and inaccessible, but also figure into the crises of education in the country.

Collectors and librarians often speak of rare books as distinctive texts that are deemed to have a special value because of their limited supply, age, or historical significance. The first edition of Achebe Things Fall Apart, for instance, might be understood in this sense. While there are countless editions of the classic anti-colonial novel, to find the first edition would be truly special, even if many fail to appreciate such sentiments. When the Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin invited book-collectors on Twitter to buy her friend’s “first print, first edition of #ThingsFallApart for N1m,” several followers and readers online were bemused by the monetary value the book commanded.

The distinction of this rare copy may not be in the sense of the original manuscript of the novel in Achebe’s handwriting, but that does not even come close to diminishing its unique quality. Well documented already are Achebe’s adventures with the initial manuscript of his acclaimed novel, as well as his experience of losing, and later recovering the untyped manuscript after the intervention of his colleague at the Nigerian radio service, Angela Beattie. I wish I could say that “manuscript—handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world” then is now somewhere in the special collections at the University of Ibadan.

If it still exists today, it may probably be in the special collections of some library in the US or in the UK. While the physical and aesthetic features of this particular first print, which Shoneyin advertised and later found a buyer for, are sufficient reasons for those Twitter followers to reconsider their dismissive stance, this copy is also the closest to the original and has probably gathered dust, memories, and meanings which have become tattooed on its material identity. You should read Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s reflection on book collecting to get a sense of how people develop an attachment to physical books as objects connected to memories, narratives, and spaces.

We hardly think of books as material objects with physical and para-textual characteristics that shape the stories they convey. Hence, as a rare book, Heinemann’s first print issue of Achebe’s novel came with a specific cover, front matter, paper type and page numbers that are different from other editions produced later. These variations, which are usually the research delights of a bibliographical scholar or textual critic, may become central for narrative discovery. But the scholarly possibilities of rare first editions and other priceless printed works aside, I do believe rare books tell other stories, and this is the crux of my Achebe digression on the rarity of print and literary publishing, a topic Suhr-Sytsma actually under the rubric of the extroverted African novel and literary publishing in Nigeria.

Photo credits: Nathan Suhr-Sytsma

Rare books offer us tales that evoke our relationship with knowledge and the cultural politics that undermine it in a country like Nigeria. If we assume for a moment that a copy of a 1988 anthology by Nigeria’s foremost writer community can only be found in Atlanta or London, rather than in a special collections in Ibadan or Lagos, then it speaks to something of our own valuation of the knowledge we create. That is one major story rare books in Nigeria tell. A book is not rare because its market value is huge; it is rare because its existence in a local library is precarious or it can only be found in locations external to Nigeria.

We routinely point to the economic disparities between the Global North and the Global South as some of the possible reasons for this, but is it not the case that there are African countries where the archive and the public library are truly functional spaces? Aside from Botswana, South Africa, and a couple of countries in the Maghreb, Senegal and a few others also boast of a sturdy intellectual tradition, having public spaces of knowledge that are accorded the veneration they deserve. With a messy educational sector in Nigeria, it is reasonable to conclude books, maps, manuscripts, and other rare artifacts or document of African thought are not as well preserved as they need to for the pursuits of knowledge for its own sake.  

The rarity of that Garuba anthology is, then, one chief indication of the historical neglect of education in countries like Nigeria where decades of prebendal politics have undermined epistemic spaces and infrastructures. Strikes and boycotts by professors may be the most popular, albeit passé, means of pressing the government to fund education, but the state of books, their conditions of production and circulation, their absences in libraries as well as their presence or not in our country also echo what has become a precarious entanglement with knowledge.  Rare books in Nigeria are the inventions of a political class that underplays education. The rarity of books must therefore be encountered as an invention of weak democracies, besides the material aesthetics and historical value they possess.

Rare books also suggest a certain limited presence of books that anchor our institutions of learning; it is not that you will never find signed copies, handwritten manuscripts, first print issues, and precious government papers in Nigeria; on the other hand, their presence and the information they contain are shaped by the crumbling shelves of underfunded public libraries and archives.

But the presence of Nigeria’s rare books must sometimes reach us when we become absent from our country. Of course, there is still much to be mined for research in public knowledge environments in Nigeria, and many scholars who appear to treasure those collections more than we do routinely travel from the Global North to different archival locations on the continent to access these materials; yet, for now, it is as if, barring very few interventions in digital publishing, we must always leave Nigeria to encounter the most sophisticated ideas produced about Nigeria. This is not to suggest you can’t find cultural institutions that value rare and historical materials in Nigeria. The Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding at Osogbo is one of several places where it is possible to see well-documented historical publications.

So, what makes it possible for books once published and available in Nigeria to become absent and rare there while easily accessible abroad? This is not always a question of income differentials between Africa and the west. One way to think about this is, returning to Achebe, to ask if any single library in Nigeria has all the currently existing editions of his famous novel. What is stake in such a question is one that tackles the structural conditions that generate the rarity of books in Nigeria.

Two common narratives about the archive of African knowledge systems which are often expressed in intellectual circles on the continent and its diaspora are relevant here too. They are based on orality, and the state of print publishing in Africa studies. You have probably heard that common dictum of oral culture sometimes attributed to the Malian, Amadou Hampâté Bâ: “In Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns down.” In the winter of 1960, Bâ rendered a similar line as head of Mali’s delegation at a UNESCO General Conference: “I consider the death of each of these traditionalists as the burning of an unexploited cultural fund.” This sweltering vision of a library that actually burns, unfortunately, was to be seen in the recent Table Mountain fire at the University of Cape Town.

Its attendant ruination of rare books and other print artifacts on African literatures and history remains hauntingly fresh in the memory of many scholars working in South Africa and indeed around the world. In this case, our tragic ashes of knowledge are not constitutive of the destruction of any oral library embodied by griots and elders committed to our ways of knowing; it is the irreplaceable loss of historical materials, manuscripts, and government records.

The second narrative centers on the often-lamented inability of colleagues and researchers in Africa to access the newest books published about the continent from the Global North usually because of huge costs. Infrastructures of knowledge, perennially anchored on weak systems because of lack of funding has historically created conditions in which books written about Africa are constantly produced elsewhere.

It has become a pastime in recent years for the Africa’s diaspora class of intellectuals to lament the inaccessibility of their publications on the African continent. While this is beginning to change, it has meant that the archive of African epistemic forms have always been a migrant and extrovertedly oriented location that is historically tied to colonial politics and the institutional knowledge spaces colonialism created to normalize and legitimize its hegemony.  In recent years, though, there have been several initiatives to make books about Africans accessible on the continent. One prominent example of this is the African Books Collective (ABC), a worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for books from Africa.

Specializing in scholarly, literature and children’s books, the collective also profiles the work of African publishers and books through its Read African Books initiative. With platforms such as this, it is much more effortless to document our relations with books, build digital spaces to remediate extant materials, and turn a preservationist gaze towards those that become or are made rare by the politics of our indifference to knowledge.

The argument can be made that the real issue here is about the complexities and instabilities of print cultures in Africa and how different groups and individuals initially in different African cities responded to colonial modernity and used newspaper cultures, for example, for their nationalist struggles Scholars like Karin Barber, Stephanie Newell, and Rebecca Jones have important contributions on this topic.

But, again, the question persists: what conditions make, for instance, copies of literary pamphlets in the famous Onitsha Market tradition accessible in Kansas or Florida, but not in Nsukka? If we aren’t able to locate similar texts preserved in good conditions in local libraries in Lagos or Accra, it probably suggests something of a misrecognition of their true value. For materials printed by local presses between the late 1950s and 1970s to be made rare because of our austere relationship with knowledge suggests it’s time to get beyond colonial legacies and the coloniality of postcolonial existence which are sometimes seen as singularly dictating the rarity of epistemic forms.

Books become rare in Nigeria because of other social and cultural attitudes to knowledge itself. Even popular narratives in music, Nollywood films, and even from university campuses sometimes betray our belittling of books and rare books. Not that we don’t think they are important; they are just a means to a materialist end of, and if other alternatives exist, why bother? The history of rare books may be deeply connected to the history of the printed book itself, but their meanings in some African countries become articulated with social, cultural, and political structures that sometimes sideline their value. And a continually diminished African agency remains the most obvious sign of this entanglement.

The real story of Dr. Suhr-Sytsma’s rare inheritance posted on Twitter is how it also comes to symbolize another reminder of the migrant archives of African knowledges. But since I would be remiss to suggest that it is the fault of non-Nigerian scholars abroad to be in possession of Nigeria’s rare books, I do need to recognize the fact that the tweet of a rare ANA anthology in the US also invites the rest of us to do more with the private collections of a much earlier generation of Nigerian book collectors. I am sure I am not the only one whose grandfather valued books. Many of us, as Túbọ̀sún’s journal also indicates, fondly remember the roadside sellers of rare books of our childhood as well as the personal libraries and collections of our parents and grandparents in Lokoja, Bodija, Makurdi and elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time to visit home again. There might be rare treasures waiting for us.