But the past does not exist independently of the present…The Past—or, more accurately, pastness—is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past
It helps to consider the ancestors sometimes. To look into their gaze from below and enter their minds and from there contemplate their grief. What were their dying moments like and what was the last thought that lingered most in their minds before they crossed the threshold of death?
For my grandfather, it was probably the Sahara, with its arid hotness and the sand dunes that slowly bury weary bones in their loins and swallow pilgrims questing for life elsewhere. Grandpa’s greatest longing before passing was for a son that never returned home, even if his daughter, through whom I was direct kin, did stay back, she and her other siblings, nursing him in his last days.
Against grandpa’s greatest wishes, his eldest daughter never did get around to fulfilling her old man’s desires. She had other plans that later culminated in her decades-long business in the heart of the beauty industry on Lagos Island. If you needed some Brazilian hair weaves at a Balogun shop, she was probably your surest option. Mum is the most natural salesperson you would find, but grandpa wanted so badly to see his children, those who left and those who stayed, have some formal, educational training. From her, it became clear to grandpa he had to turn his attention to the next generation, mine.
He had a culture of incentivizing us whenever we visited, offering cash and books to take back home. His library of UK-styled Arithmetic and English readers was no longer fashionable but that could hardly stop him. It didn’t matter to him. A much-changed curriculum was not a match for his gift of books. Becoming at home with them and reading as many as we could find was all he wanted. He would constantly press the importance of knowing books.
Among the Yorùbá, a true philosophy of education appears to begin with becoming one with the world of letters. To know books, mọ ìwé, is to be at home with literacy as in a sensual experience that erupts as intimate knowledge. It is as if being able to read and truly becoming knowledgeable is to become one in mind and spirit with the books you read; to know books becomes that necessary intercourse with printed texts that congeals the most special kinship with them. The book itself—ìwé—is, as a Nigerian scholar later told me, a sign of belonging to a privileged class. Naturally then, in grandpa’s world, to know books was the surest way to becoming known and famous—if you wanted that; to become a person of worth, you had to mọ ìwé.
The thing is, grandpa’s love for books derives from a cosmopolitan ethic that is traceable to his travels. Among other destinations, he had gone to Mecca and became what people in southwest Nigeria would call an Alhaji. Growing up and hearing this appellation, I had thought that was his name and I would fondly refer to him by that. But he was a man of faith who was devoted to the teachings of the Prophet.
Beyond that, he was a man who could read people, for his temperament was of a peaceful and tranquil disposition, the type that suffered long the ill-treatment of others. I sometimes thought his ethics and attitude to life were shaped by his Yorùbá upbringing in Lagos.
There was something beautiful about his gentleness and the constant ambience of grace he exuded. Well, most of the time, with the occasional times being when he would threaten to get the stick whenever I threw the kind of tantrums peculiar to my pre-teen age. His eyes were tender and soft. So were his words, although forcefully when necessary.
As I became more discerning of my environment, I came to appreciate the elasticities of a certain Yorùbá religious pragmatism in the man, so much that when I ran away from stick-wielding and mean tutors at my Quranic school to become a Christian, he never withheld his affections. The popular narrative about religious conversion and the hostility that sometimes attend that in places like Nigeria was something I heard about but hardly experienced from those closest to me.
But I could tell he was deeply hurt. Yet it was a battle he did not mind losing as long as being in school and having good grades were still in place. To him, and as I guessed later it was with most in his generation, a legacy of educated lineage was something to be proud of. To aspire to even if you have to lose some battles.
But he had other battles, beyond the domestic skirmishes of children who wanted to ká owó, rather than ká ìwé, children whose major preference was the lure of capital, rather than books. As someone who had real estate property in abundance, he fought hard to keep some of the houses he had built on lands hotly contested by other more powerful families and landowners in Lagos. Having few connections in the Lagos state hierarchies, unlike some of his competitors meant he lost many of these investments.
His greatest battle, that of every Nigerian parent of his era, was the forces that thwarted the legacy of education he sought for his children. There was one, in particular; let’s call him Hassan, who had so much promise but had his light deemed by an erratic mind that was constantly high on drugs. In a sphere where such things were hardly regulated, Hassan became undone by a gradual overdose of weed and cannabis.
But he too wanted a better life. So long before to japa entered the Nigerian cultural lexicon, long before images of floating bodies by the shores of Europe became a regular pastime of news networks and social media, he had been convinced a journey to the West through the Sahara would offer him a new lease of life.
Billy was supposed to arrange this. He was a friend of Hassan’s who lived in the same neighbourhood in the Surulere area. He had assured grandpa a journey through Libya was the surest path. Acting as some kind of travel agent with familiarity from his own travels abroad, he had promised to help Hassan as long as grandpa was ready to splash out the money.
Being the man he was, Grandpa did and so began Billy’s endless request for money. He needed to so badly help his friend surmount every hurdle he would claim. To help Hassan, who had become sober and focused on a clean start, achieve his dreams was the goal, Billy claimed.
And so Hassan left Lagos, but Billy never left grandpa’s purse. The endless demand for money was like an unwanted note in a beautiful sequence of a Jazz routine. As Grandpa obliged every time, Hassan was always said to want more. The thought of a son who was stranded in some far, unknown country was unbearable. The more Billy asked for money, the more grandpa gave him, yet only Billy could talk directly with Hassan since they had both travelled out of the country.
When the whispers began, grandpa knew something sinister had taken place, but he could not be sure. Hassan had gone for a long while, and although Billy had stopped requesting money, nobody knew where my uncle really was.
Billy, back in Lagos one rare summer, assured the family all was fine with Hassan where he was, but this country was a riddle only Billy could solve. He assured grandpa and everyone connected to him that Hassan merely needed more time to settle where he had found a new home. That, as a matter of fact, he might actually need more money! A desperately longing father was growing suspicious.
But grandpa never heard from Hassan again. Certainly not before his wife, my grandma who sold pap and fufu at a popular crossroad passed away, not knowing the fate of her son. Billy had made promises Hassan would call as soon as he settled down in Europe. But the phone never rang. In 2014, grandpa joined his wife in the ranks of the ancestors, never knowing what had become of his investments in a son’s quest for meaningfulness far away from home.
Before his final exit, he had called me one day after my arrival in Saskatoon for doctoral training. It was one of those regular Prairie days. The weather was raining ice outside and the temperature was a familiar narrative of frigidness. Winter came early that year and poring was the first snow that would later melt in May. I was about to head to a store on 8th street to get my winter tires when my phone rang. It was grandpa. He wanted to know if I had seen Hassan. If I had found a way to connect with him since I left Nigeria. Had I spoken with him? It was as if he needed to confirm Hassan’s years of silence were not rumours of an eternal absence in the body. I had crossed to the West and could easily get in touch with my uncle, he reasoned.
“Have you spoken with him?” The voice on the other end of my Samsung A8 gave me shivers. It was the most distraught voice I ever heard. The quivering voice of a father whose son never returned. His fears and regrets, translated by radio waves across the Atlantic.
I told him I would get on the internet and see if I could find some leads online, any traces of a son for a father who wanted closure. As an elder, he did not have to remind me that ‘‘Ọmọ-o mí kú’’ yá ju ‘‘Ọmọo mí nù’’ lọ. To lose a child to death was more tolerable than simply losing a child. The wisdom of the elders: ọmọ mìí kú is deemed a better loss because it brings closure to the mourning process; whereas, in ọmọ mìí nù, the mourning is an endless season of frigid snow without heat. Nothing ends and melancholy forever threatens. But aren’t both losses a path to troubled sighs, a reminder that hope is always haunted by loss? The hope that what you have lost will take a concrete shape before you someday condemns you to a tragic longing that makes closure elusive. But how do you close something that refuses to be closed?
My grandfather did not wait for me to return his call. He too, like his wife before him, bid the earth a final goodbye, leaving behind a grief he could not fully express; a mourning I can only take up in the wake of an inscrutable loss.
Never knowing the fate of his son, whether swallowed by Sahara’s sands or buried under Sicily’s depths, he died with scars of hope unfulfilled, drowning in a sea of sorrow, with his heart frozen by a trauma that became food for the next generation. They remain with mom today even when she doesn’t talk about Hassan. There is something haunting about her silence, like a horror story on the pages of a tragic book.
As I close this meditation and think of Hassan’s past life that is really not past, I have come to know a book that I can only describe as activating an upsetting experience of reading, not for its poetic and beautiful language, but for the tragedies it unfurls: Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake in which she explores the precarity of Black lives, and mortality in the many afterlives of slavery as evocative of “the past that is not past” and which “reappears, always, to rupture the present.” Like the undying question Hassan’s passage through Libya left in its wake: are you still alive?
He was sure I had come into his store to look for books by Achebe or some other African author. He had read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and loved her coverage of the Nigeria-Biafra war. The septuagenarian bookseller at a used bookstore in Bochum. The beginning of Autumn of 2022 marked my encounter with him, his shelves of books, and the reality of subtle bias and the essentializing logics of its civil and polite gestures.
Intrigued by the assumption that I would be uninterested in, say, works by Western authors, I asked if he had anything by Foucault or the Frankfurt School. And then added, “I generally like to feed my mind and not be limited to any particular intellectual tradition.” He didn’t seem convinced but offered an explanation of the rarity of the English editions of books by those scholars.
The used bookstore borrows its name from a European literary classic, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu—a play whose unruly obscenities blended well with the old tomes and decorative items by a glass window overlooking a busy road leading to the central train station. It became clear as we spoke that the bookseller’s political confessions were to be found in the themes of this French play, along with the picture of American musical legend Prince, and the other items he had displayed to court the attention of bibliophiles to his store.
At a point, my bookseller-interlocutor spoke of African and Caribbean literatures as mainly the same thing. I told him I wasn’t an expert in the Caribbean literary tradition, but he made the point to revisit the distinction I had insisted on as if he did not think it made any sense. Black literature was an undifferentiated aesthetic. When I asked if he had any African literary classics in German translations, he was sure he had some and so began the journey of his fingers across the forest of dusty book spines before him.
Naguib Mahfouz caught his eyes but the Arabic literary great was not an African writer he remarked. I protested with a smile—the kind you offer when you want to communicate warmth and friendship as a way of surviving the hostility of a strange environment.
Of course, he agreed North Africa is still in Africa, but I could not help recalling then the historical and epistemic politics of symbolically reterritorializing countries like Egypt. But I would not be drawn into rehearsing the efforts of Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, and several others who have written about the African roots of the construct that is European civilization. Yet I found this aspect of our conversation useful in reinforcing my decision not to replicate the common erasure of North Africa from the African literature class in my own African lit syllabus. Of course, the Maghreb may define itself and its literary traditions first and foremost in Arabic terms that marginalize its Africanness, but, like most people to the South of the continent, our shared kinship was something to affirm.
Meantime, the bookseller was sure there existed an African adaptation of Ubu itself but he did not remember to which African country the play had traveled. King Baabu, I ventured to remind him, with a half-confident response that betrayed my own uncertainty. His face beamed with recollection.
Frankly, I hadn’t realized myself that Soyinka adapted King Baabu from a French play, but the sonic resemblances of both titles gave things away. I remember watching the play on the stage of the Arts Theatre on the campus of Ibadan over a decade ago. A political satire, King Baabu was written by the Nobel Laureate to parody the meaninglessness of the military junta in Africa. Naturally, it was time to rummage through the selves for Soyinka’s books. My host was charitable. He found a German translation of Ake, Soyinka’s childhood memoir. And then the playwright’s debut novel, The Interpreters.
“Do you recommend I read them?” The bookseller wanted to know. Of course, these are literary classics everyone should read. They were early editions, priceless books I could only hold but was unable to read because of my non-existent German language skills. But to mark my encounter with Soyinka in a used German bookstore, I did buy a rare print copy of his Nobel speech, published in 1988. The opening page taken from a poem in Ogun Abibiman tricked me into its pages. Rendered in English, it was a homage to Soyinka’s patron deity, but the rest of the material was in German! Yet I would not walk away from it.
In all honesty, the bookseller was a lovely soul who simply wanted to sell books and talk about literature with an African literature professor from the US. At the same time, I could not ignore his assumption of a certain provinciality in my reading interests. In millennial lingo, he gave certain vibes! Vibes that construed me as inhospitable to ideas from any canon that was not African. Because I see the danger of a binary here, let me note too that I am indeed interested in books. Period. Not Western. Not African. And I wished the bookseller had seen this.
But could I have been interested in Western classics and African literature at the same time? This lingered in my thought as I looked around the store for more books. It is a critical question that evokes the same failure of a woke decolonial movement today that is drunk on superficiality and structurally empty on the substance that improves the lived conditions of postcolonial societies. You want to dismantle oppressive systems by erecting another kind of structure. Like the nativist sensibilities that drove the wheels of Negritude. A performance of decoloniality that abjures any appearance of European thought is itself a reification of the ignorant niceties of the European mind who cannot bring himself to expect a productive and non-hierarchical cohabitation of African and European ways of knowing. While such an attitude is historically produced and shaped, our response to it could be more critical and nuanced.
To be fair, the bookseller is probably a reflection of our current moment. In our post-George Floyd era, would I have accused him of white privilege and chauvinism had he mentioned, or offered me, books by Goethe or Kant? Is the German bookseller merely obsequious to an epoch that appears to demand that white people tiptoe around Black people and give them whatever they want? I am not saying this was the case here, but anywhere you have a semblance of this scenario, it is the agency of Black people that is undermined.
While the encounter reminded me of the roadside booksellers I had met in Lagos or Harlem, street archivists of print culture whose knowledge was as vast as the universe in the books they sold, it was his reductionist gestures that stayed with me the most. I concluded the issue here was probably a free play of assumptions that overlapped with our zeitgeist.
When I left the store with my bag of books, the receipt he offered had a summary line that indeed reduced everything to my Africanness. And as if to document his essentialism. Never mind that the only Africa-focused works I had purchased were Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy. The rest, and there were many, comprised works of Euro-American cultural and intellectual traditions, including books by Wilde, hooks, Marx, and Durkheim. But I was an African, and all the receipt was made to read was: “Books on African literature and sociology.”
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.
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.
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.