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Knowing Books: My Grandfather and a Journey Through Libya

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 begins with becoming one with the world of letters. To know books, mọ ìwé, is to be at home with a sensual and intimate experience of literacy. It was as if being able to read and truly becoming knowledgeable was to become one in mind and spirit with the books you read; to know books became that intercourse with books which congeals the most special kinship with them. In grandpa’s world, to know books was the surest way to becoming known and famous; to becoming a person of worth, you had to mọ ìwé.

Photo: Tomas Milik

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 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 across the Atlantic.

I told him I would get on the internet and see if I could get 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: 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?

Grandpa did not wait for me to return his call. He too, like his wife before him, bid the earth a final goodbye. Never knowing the fate of his son, whether swallowed by Sahara’s sands or buried under Sicily’s depths.

He died with scars of a 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.

A ​Fevered World Cup

So the desert sky​ ​would not welcome him,
a life threaded by the chains of a Kafala weaver.

Yet ​​a​ dusty​ cloud hung over him like a looming
threat of skylines​ ​sprawling the roads​ ​to stadiums

that blossomed from the beads of his sweat.​​
An outcast among ​tourists and ​fans, ​untouchable,​

as ​a leper that wears​​ shame like​ a ​jersey
from a keeper who lets in a barrage of goals.

​They​ passed​ ​by him,​ without a glance​,
their gaze focused on the digital billboard

splashing images of Messi and Jesus
juggling a ball in a say no to racism ad.

I passed by him too, clutching my copy
of Marx’s Capital, with a divider between

pages that warned of a laborer’s alienation.
A fevered World Cup in the theatre of the unwanted.

Encountering Africa in a Used German Bookstore

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.”   

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.


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