Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Poet Who Is No Longer Here

By Reuben Abati

Abioye Aronke Taiwo, Fear Abides With Me Constantly. Lagos: The Aart of Life Foundation, 2008.


“The voice from the grave urges itself on our hearing”, Wole Soyinka writes in his foreword to the post-humous publication of Tahar Djahout’s The Last Summer of Reason, under the title, “A Voice that would not be silenced”. The ideological and evidential contexts are different but the same sentiments can be adapted in reviewing the post-humous publication of the poetry of Abioye Aronke Taiwo, titled Fear Abides With Me Constantly. Seven years ago to this day, Bioye Taiwo as she was known, was a 24-year old Nigerian lady, a student of the Nigerian Law School, looking forward to being called to the Nigerian Bar. She was born in the United States on December 3, 1977; and she had studied law and literature at the University of Stratffordshire in the United Kingdom.

She enrolled for and completed her legal practitioner’s course as a solicitor in 1999 and worked in the United Kingdom as a solicitor before returning to Nigeria in 2001 to attend the Nigerian Law School. She had in fact planned to go to the United States to sit for the New York Bar Exam, but then 9/11 occurred, and in the meantime she opted for the Nigerian Law School. Her profile reminds us immediately of so many young Nigerians who study abroad and who do well abroad but who eventually return home hoping to be part of the reality of their own beginnings. But this return for many Nigerians in diaspora does not always have happy endings. What they encounter at home, except they are absolutely lucky, are the pains of having to survive in a failed state which Nigeria became a long time ago.

Bioye Taiwo was at her parents’ Oduduwa Crescent, Ikeja GRA home one evening when two of her friends came visiting. They met her working on her computer, and although she did not feel like going out that evening, her friends convinced her to let them spend a few minutes down the road; a perfectly normal thing to do for young persons, so she de3cided to go out with her friends. Two minutes later she was dead. As the ladies got to the “notorious, dark, unlit” Sobo Arobiodu junction, by Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, a lorry on high speed, with the driver not minding the road and the right of way ran into their vehicle. Bioye died on the spot, the only fatality in the accident. The story shook the town to its fundaments as attention was drawn afresh to the dangerous nature of Nigerian roads.

Bioye’s individuality and the circumstances of her death further drew attention to the fate of other Nigerians for whom death lies on the roads in various guises: a drunken driver running into other vehicles and causing tragedy, armed robbers lying in wait, trigger-happy Nigerian policemen killing innocent motorists and bystanders, potholes resulting in vehicle somersaults, the absence of traffic lights or the disobedience of traffic regulations causing fatal head-on collisions at roundabouts and T-junctions.

To preserve her memory and to conscientize society and government on the need to do good, Bioye’s mother, Chief (Mrs) Taiwo Taiwo set up The Aart of Life Foundation with the motto: “living for good to good”, an NGO that has been involved since its establishment in “road safety awareness, grief and bereavement counseling and youth development” activities. Chief Taiwo in a very moving introduction to the post-humous publication of her daughter’s poetry writes as follows “I have been her voice in the last five years and I am proud that the world has listened and heard, and continue to hear her.” A mother acting as her deceased’s daughter’s voice is to be understood within the context of the management of grief and bereavement and the individual and private tonalities of thanatos and thanatomimesis. Cemeteries and tombstones are places of desolation, but the living preserve the memory of the dead by encouraging a continuing dialogue with the departed. Seven years after her exit, Bioye Taiwo has remained a strong presence in her immediate and the public sphere.

But perhaps the more telling manner in which this voice from the grave impacts on our consciousness, and endures, is not through the traffic lights that the Aart of Life Foundation has erected, not the botanical gardens built in her memory, but the publication by the Foundation of her collection of poetry, Fear Abides with Me Constantly, through which she peaks to the world in her own voice, and the living, her readers and herself are engaged in a dialogue that is fraught with deep meanings. It is a dialogue that cannot be touched by “notorious, dark, unlit” traffic junctions, and cannot be extinguished by reckless lorry drivers - for it belongs to a realm of consciousness, the world of literature, where reason and passion are perfectly interfused at a higher order.

In a poem titled Voices, she had written “Exiled from their merry feast/I wield my pen like a sword/And corner those voices:/In my poems, they cannot mock me/Because I control them/They are my puppets, I am their master” (p.17). How prophetic. Writing and literature offer a power of control, and of immortality which being exiled from the “merry feast” of life does not affect. Bioye’s readers may well say of her, through this encounter, what she herself says in another poem titled “An Ode to One Who is no Longer Here”: “I never met you/ yet I feel your presence/Your warmth and joy/I feel you as a part of me/Though I never met you/I know that I shall never forget you…” (p. 12). One of the most rewarding harvests of the art of writing is that authors live far beyond their time, they speak to unknown audiences, they travel to unknown distances, with living voices long beyond their time.

Bioye Taiwo started writing poetry as a teenager, what has been compiled in this collection is the best of that effort. The publishers inform us in the copyright page as follows: “At the time of the author’s death on 19th April 2002, this collection, “Fear Abides With Me Constantly” was complete, but still needed a bit more editing. It was posthumously edited by Toni Kan Onwordi.” Toni Kan Onwordi, one of the bright lights of the emergent generation of Nigerian writers in the 21st century, and who has jut published two additional books, Song of Absence and Despair, and Nights of the Creaking Bed, attests that “Bioye wrote poetry. Her poetry bubbled from a private source (p. vii).” The editor has classified the poems into three categories: Intimations of Fear and mortality, Hearth-stone and Knots and Tangles, but thematically the poet seems preoccupied with the metaphysical themes of love and death, coming across in the process as a reflective poet, and in dealing with the subject of love, much of her individuality and passion is revealed.

Poetry does not always explain everything in an author’s life, and an author’s life may not explain his or her poetry. But a random factor analysis of the vocabulary of Bioye Taiwo’s poetry reveals a fascination with opposites, and the values of mortality. The dominant word use patterns include the following: helplessness, death, fear, winter, end, cold, emptiness, gone, worry, grave, love, live, tears. It is possible to assume that she probably had a premonition of her death, given her fascination with presences and distances, doubts and anxieties, fear and departures. But all of this may well just be the product of reflection, as in W, B. Yeats’s “An Irishman foresees his death” and Christopher Okigbo’s “Path of Thunder”.

Death and love represent two of the most fascinating subjects of modernist literature for they strike at the core of universal human passion. In the title poem of the collection, “Fear abides with me constantly”, Bioye Taiwo writes: “Fear abides with me constantly/When I sleep, I fear I may never awake/To look upon the beauty of another dawn/My thoughts are seasoned with the fear of death”.(p.3) She returns to the subject even more directly in “Life” where she mourns two of her friends, Sasha and Ramona, who had died, but it si also an occasion for reflecting on her own mortality: “My life is like a roller-coaster/I roll along, coasting to the end/I cannot tell where it will lead/I do not know how it shall end/So I make my descent/With perhaps more speed than I ought”. (p. 4).

The world of Bioye Taiwo’s poetry is one of doubt and anxiety about the nothingness of Being, there is no protest here, no raging anger, only reflection in the shape of questions. . In a poem titled “Gone”, she had written most instructively: “Shall I wallow in self pity?/Swaddled in nostalgia/For the life that we once shared?/Or shall I indulge myself?/And seek the sun burst of happiness/Content that she has found peace?” (p. 14) And in “Not Knowing”, she asks rhetorically: “Not-knowing is a killer;/Are we adrift or together?/Should my want become a need?/Should I stay or do I leave?/Is this a sprint or a marathon?/Do I linger or malinger?”

But this is not all about departures and distances, in the later sequences of the collection, Bioye Taiwo shows a capacity for appreciating the other side of the coin, the pleasures of living, the joys of life and particularly the enchantment and disappointment of love. In the love poems, we encounter the quality of her passion, her words speak to us directly, conveying meaning that are familiar in the sphere of relationships. Her subject is not physical love, rather she gives expression to the entire contours of the spirituality of love and loving: the exhilaration of genuine love and the fear and pain of betrayal. Read her “Unrequited Love” (p. 15)

When you turn your back and leave

Shall I cry? I think not.

Though I shall miss the spot

Where we often sat and you called me pew

Pew? What manner of man were you

With thoughts so rank and foul?

The table is turned and like a sad fable

My love for you is ended

Now when I think of your paws

Upon my tender cheeks, I frown

And think to myself o what a clown.

Or the more painful: “They Lied” (p. 31): “They both lied,/My boy friend and my best friend;/They left me for each other”. There is much in this section of the collection that sounds personal, we are introduced to the hearts of men and women and the games that passions play upon them. But the outcome is not pathetic. What is celebrated is the power of love itself as in “When you went away…” (p. 28) and the animality of it as in “Absence makes the heart fonder” (p. 26) and “They lied” (p. 31). So she tells us about what a woman feels when she falls in love, when her man is away and there are other suitors at the door, when a lover leaves or when the lover is taken by a woman’s best friend, or what it means for a woman to be tempted with material gifts. Her ideal love is unspoken love, love that speaks through deeds and she is wise enough to know that love can wear a different face, as evident in “Silent Love: An Ode to Daddy”, where she talks about “silent love capped with a lion’s mane” (p. 23), but she adds, “Remain silent in your love/For beneath the mane, we see the dove” (p.23)

She focuses not only on human love, but also divine love in the poem titled “Mama” (p. 11). Young as she was, she evokes in us seven years later, passions about the subjects of her poetry as we journey with her through delight, doubt, fear, anxiety and love. Here, the personal and the poetic, the passionate and the reflective mind are mixed. The consciousness that has produced this poetry is one, even at a young age, that was certainly aware of the various contrasting aspects of our humanity.

There is much realism in her words. Her words are ordered in a manner we cannot easily forget, for they carry meanings that matter to us, and although she speaks directly, her words maintain the beat of music. Had she lived and had she chosen to continue to write poetry and also publish, she could have emerged a major voice in Nigerian literature. But that promise was ended seven years ago by a drunken lorry driver on a Lagos road, and so we are left to mourn how a motor accident has robbed us of a potential voice in Nigerian literature, and to express doubts and anxieties about a Nigerian state that has turned “notorious, dark, unlit” road junctions into the most debilitating aspect of our lives. We take solace in the enduring pleasure of poetry and in this useful contribution to the Nigerian corpus, and in the un-silenced voice that speaks clearly from the world beyond from the pages of Bioye Taiwo’s “Fear Abides with me constantly”. It is well.


CHINUA ACHEBE - The Education of a British-Protected Citizen

By Sonala Olumhense

I did not know how hungry I was for Chinua Achebe until I picked up "The Education of a British-Protected Citizen," his latest work.

This 2009 collection of essays follows the year in which his first and most famous work, "Things Fall Apart," turned 50. In New York City, I attended one of the many events that were being held worldwide to celebrate the man and his great book.

I owed my good fortune that evening to my friend, Ogaga Ifowodo, who arranged a ticket to the event for me in Manhattan. But I almost did not get in. That was not because I was late. I had arrived at my desired New York street to find it jampacked with a long queue of people, 4-6 abreast, trying to get into a rock concert.

I walked past them, a long line that crawled all the way to the end of the block. It was only after I had freed myself of the throng first by crossing to the other side of the road, and then over to the next avenue, that I realized I had long passed the street number I sought. Making my way back, thanks to the magic of cell phones, I realized that there was no rock concert at all: the mammoth crowd I had almost called names was Achebe's!

I journeyed back again to the back of the queue. Whereupon a middle-aged black man wearing his scowl like a mask, stopped to ask which artiste was responsible for such a tumultuous crowd. He was told it was not a concert, but a writer.

His frown deepened. "He must be very good," he commented.

I seized the moment, and involuntarily deployed an American expression: "You better believe it!" I said.

Every seat in the large hall was a precious possession that night, as writers and teachers and students of literature came from the world over to breathe the same air as Achebe. As we all know, nothing succeeds like success. That night, as I buzzed with so much pride I came close to standing on my chair in order to be recognized as a "relative" of Achebe's, I realized how dangerous success also can be.

Just over one year later, in nearby Grand Central Station, I bought "The Education of a British-Protected Citizen" in a bookstore. I read it largely on my work commute everyday. Achebe's essays are great, but they are autobiographical only in a limited sense. I feel that they leave a lot of room for a major autobiography should he ever choose to pen one. But in this book, close readers of his will not only be persuaded about subjects about which he is passionate, they will also encounter Achebe, the man.

The essays are, in the main, drawn from public addresses he has given over the years. They explore themes that every African, indeed every black man, will identify with: slavery, colonialism, politics, Nigeria, religion, literature, and-yes-"Things Fall Apart."

But it is Achebe's fluid, humorous style, that changed my appreciation of my daily train ride, and I recommend that the Nigerian edition of the book carry the following warning: "This book is not recommended for quiet environments where people may be offended by repeated outbursts of mirth."

Some of the essays are not necessarily funny. For instance, all Achebe fans know that in 2001, he was in one of Nigeria's routine road crashes. He ended up in a wheelchair, and has lived abroad ever since. It is interesting to consider his experience several years earlier, in 1989, as a guest at an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting in Paris. In the final essay in this book, he relates his curiosity at that time about why he, a writer, had been invited.

Sitting there, he then heard renowned economic gurus at work, casually recommending vicious structural adjustment programmes for traumatized economies such as Africa's. Achebe recalls he listened as they talked about how, in time, such steps as devaluing currencies and eliminating subsidies on food and fuel would stabilize such economies.

There and then, Achebe, who had experienced the menace of structural adjustment under President Ibrahim Babangida, experienced a bolt of inspiration. "Suddenly I received something like a stab of insight...I said that what was going on before me was a fiction are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people..."

Was that epiphany productive? Achebe reflects: "The director-general (or whatever he was called) of the OECD, beside whom I was sitting, a Dutchman and quite a giant, had muttered to me, under his breath, at least twice: 'Give it to them!'"

Achebe continues: "Who could have imagined that in the heart of the enemy's citadel a friend like that Dutchman might be lurking, happy enough to set my cat among his own pigeons!"

Achebe's entire book is, in a sense, an intervention of this nature on several issues, some in greater depth and detail than others. While he successfully establishes the culpability of Europeans as they corrupted and changed the positive image of Africans in order to justify the slave trade and the way they treated Africans, he is clear as to where we are today as Africans. Of Nigeria today, he writes, "Nigeria is a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask: what can I do now? There is work for all."

And indeed, Achebe points the way to the future. What is most remarkable about him in the past eight years is that he has refused to see life on a wheelchair as existence on life-support. He continues to be productive, and this book is great evidence. As I conclude this article, word comes that in two weeks in his new environment in Rhode Island, United States, he will be hosting the Achebe Colloquium on Africa. The first concern is called the "International Conference on the Nigerian Elections."

I have heard the Speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole, brag that he will be there. With only a couple of months before the Anambra governorship elections that his party, the dominant People's Democratic Party, has begun to manipulate, I hope he keeps his word.

What is more important is that Nigerians see the importance of joining Achebe in his engagement with Nigeria. As he observes the growing mess in Nigeria from across the Atlantic, Achebe seems concerned about the implications of that distance. Asked a few years ago by a UNESCO reporter what he missed most, he answered: "I miss being where I am needed most."

He described that as "The atmosphere of real work...The other day, the current president (of my town council in Nigeria) wrote to me to ask for my help with a project for a new library. Nobody in upstate New York comes and says, "We want to build a library, can you help?"

Of course not, and a library is an excellent metaphor. When it comes to the public good, Nigeria is the most backward nation in the world. People would take money meant for education, or books, or to support writing, or children's lunch, and repeatedly stuff it into their pockets.

This "self ahead of anything else" madness is eating Nigeria alive from within. It is the new enemy. And our nation, lacking heroes, needs people like Achebe in the frontlines wielding the long scapels. At Brown University in the aptly-named Providence, on December 11, I will be signing up in his command. The situation is too dangerous for absence.


Who Is An African?

Who is an African? At face value, the answer to this question seems obvious. Surely, everyone knows who the African is, it would seem. But the answer becomes less obvious once other probing qualifiers are added to the question. Are White South Africans really Africans? Are Moroccans, Egyptians and other Arab Africans as much Africans as say, Nigerians or Ghanaians? Is Barrack Obama an African? Do all categorised as African or as having an African pedigree perceive themselves as such? Are all who perceive themselves as Africans accepted as such? Are there levels of “African-ness”, and are some more African than others? Who allots this African-ness, and why? How does African identity interface with other levels of identity and citizenship in Africa? In short, how is the African identity constructed in the face of the mosaic of identities that people of African ancestry living within and beyond the continent bear?

The above are some of the questions one confronts when trying to empirically delineate the African.

For some, the African is simply a racial category - a Black man with certain Bantu features. But this classificatory scheme often poses more questions than it answers. Let us for instance assume that a Caucasian English police officer described the scene of a crime thus: “At the scene of the crime were four Africans and four white boys.” What kinds of images come to our mind to differentiate the four ‘Africans’ from the four White boys? If the same police officer changes the description to: “There were four Black men and four White boys at the scene of the crime”, what sorts of imageries come to our mind? Or better put, what sorts of imageries do we think he is trying to convey?

It would seem that the use of ‘African’ is much narrower than the use of ‘Black’ because our hypothetical Caucasian police officer would most likely think of Africans as being different from Black Caribbean, Black Guyanese or African-Americans even though they are all generically called Blacks. This analogy suggests that while race does matter as an organising category in identifying the African, it would be inadequate in properly differentiating, in the Western imagination at least, who is an African from who is Black.

Again if we use race alone in the delineation of the African, a legitimate question is raised about non-Blacks with African citizenship, say, the White South Africans, who never knew any other country but South Africa. Are they Africans?

Some have tried to use territoriality to define the African. For those who adopt this perspective, all it takes will be to look at the map of the world and categorise all who were born in the continent of Africa or who hold the citizenship of one of the countries that make up the continent, or has ancestry in the continent, as African. This option however has equally a number of problems. For example, if we choose to call all who have ‘African’ ancestry Africans, how far back in time should we go? This perspective also wrongly assumes that all who are citizens of the countries that make up the continent of Africa accept that they are ‘Africans’. Even within sub-Saharan Africa, sections of countries like Somalia, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan would prefer to be called Arabs, not Africans.

There are also those who believe that consciousness of being an African, or commitment to the cause of Africa should be the only or main criterion for delineating who the African is. This form of classification is quite popular with the remnants of the African ideological left and those eager to wear the toga of universalism and cosmopolitanism. One of the weaknesses of this classificatory scheme however is that it is so fluid that any one expressing any sort of interest in African affairs could, by this definition, legitimately claim to be an African. For instance is Tony Blair, who as Prime Minister of Britain, said that Africa was a scar on the consciousness of the world, and felt moved enough to set up the Commission for Africa, an African by this definition? Besides, using consciousness to delineate the African could end up de-Africanising a majority of the people who non-Africans will commonly identify as Africans. Does for instance the village Igbo or Yoruba or Hausa woman in Nigeria have any consciousness of being an African? If, as is commonly believed, such a consciousness is non-existent, or at best insipient, does that then imply that such people are not Africans?

Eminent African political scientist Professor Ali Mazrui made a distinction between “Africans of the blood and Africans of the soil”. For him, Africans of the blood are defined in racial and genealogical terms. They are identified with the black race while Africans of the soil are defined in geographical terms. For Mazrui therefore, both territoriality and race should be used simultaneously in identifying the African. A major problem with this view however is that it seems to imply a hierarchy of Africans since someone who is both an African of the blood and an African of the soil could legitimately claim a higher ranking than those who have fewer attributes such as those who are only Africans of the soil or of the blood.

More than the controversial question of who is an African, are the implications of the contentious nature of African identity for the continent’s unity project and development trajectory? Fortunately they are many who believe that despite these challenges, there are sufficient grounds for optimism. These grounds include the rise of new economic powers – Brazil, China, India and Russia- which are increasingly looking upon Africa as the next big destination, the apparent deepening of democratic ethos in the continent, which could lead to a weakening of the fissiparous tendencies that underlie the various notions of Africanity, and the emergence of Barrack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

For many Africans Obama is both an African name they can relate to, and a metaphor expressing that anything is possible if you strive hard for it with the ‘right attitude.’ It is believed that this ‘right attitude’ is an attitude that is post-chauvinism, for it is only by being post-racial and a reconciler that a Blackman, with an African Muslim father, who was not born into privilege, could emerge president of the most powerful country in the world. This lesson is not lost on Africans and it is a powerful boost to the African unity project.