by Tolu Ogunlesi
To the outside world, we are all “Africans”.
‘Africa’, that continent of “colourful emergencies” (a term coined by novelist Helen Oyeyemi in a 2005 essay); ‘African’, that oversized brush dripping a paint handy for tarring every living thing found within a thousand-mile radius of the Sahara desert.
As Africans – and by extension African writers – we’re supposed to be united by geography, culture and experience (mostly of the negative sort), and thus a herd of interchangeable entities. There is after all such a thing as African literature, written by African writers, dealing with African issues – poverty, wars, AIDS, Aid, military dictatorships, coup d’états, corruption, civilian dictatorships, and very lately, dubious power sharings.
Never mind that Nigeria and Uganda are no more similar (in my opinion) than America and Russia. Or that Nigeria’s religious dichotomy (and the resulting tensions) confers on it a greater similarity with India than with South Africa. Or that Nigeria and fellow English-speaking Ghana are separated by two impregnable walls of language known as Benin and Togo. Or that a conference proclaimed as a “Festival of Contemporary African Writing” will very likely be no more than a Festival of Anglophone African Writing.
Chimamanda Adichie’s short story, Jumping Monkey Hill (first published in Granta 95, and which appears in her story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck) – which William Skidelsky, writing in the Guardian (UK) calls “the most obviously autobiographical (and funniest) of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck” – tells the story of an “African Writers’ Workshop” for which the British Council has selected participants.
The workshop is overseen by Edward Campbell, “an old man in a summer hat who smiled to show two front teeth the colour of mildew.” Campbell is British, with a “posh” accent, “the kind some rich Nigerians tried to mimic and ended up sounding unintentionally funny.” He is also the final authority – using what one might call his “Africanometer” – on the quality and plausibility of the stories produced during the workshop.
At the workshop are a Ugandan, a white South African, a black South African, a Tanzanian, a Zimbabwean, a Kenyan, a Senegalese and Ujunwa, a Nigerian. East, West and Southern Africa are represented, the North is not, as is often the case in real life reporting about the continent where the term ‘Africa’ is used to refer to “sub-Saharan Africa” and North Africa is somewhat set apart like some entity off the coast of the real Africa. And, needless to say, the workshop is conducted in English, not French or Swahili.
One of the more interesting scenes in Adichie’s story is when all the writers (except for the Ugandan) gather to drink wine and make fun of one another, and make comments such as: “You Kenyans are too submissive! You Nigerians are too aggressive! You Tanzanians have no fashion sense! You Senegalese are too brainwashed by the French!
This scene took me right back to Crater Lake, venue of the 2006 Caine Prize workshop, in which I participated. NM, a young South African novelist and I were roommates at the Crater Lake resort where the workshop took place. As ‘African writers’, we should have instinctively known everything about each other’s countries. We should have been able to complete one another’s sentences.
But not exactly. We were different people, with little experience of each other’s daily realities.
I, as a Nigerian, had only encountered the ‘A’ word in theory. I had read about apartheid in books and in songs (the late Nigerian music icon Sunny Okosun was famous for his ‘Free Mandela’ campaign) and in history lessons. But it did not honestly exist in Nigeria in Nigeria. Our own inequalities or repressions were of a different sort.
And I was astonished when NM told me that growing up in the melting-pot that is Soweto made it possible for him to speak more than half a dozen local languages. I speak only one Nigerian language (two, if you include pidgin – the corruption of English that, in the absence of an indigenous lingua franca, approximates one.)
In a 2008 interview with Renee Shea (published in the Kenyon Review), Chimamanda explained: “Race is a very complicated thing in Africa and I think that I, as a West African, don't feel equipped to fully understand it. I grew up not really understanding the concept of race while my contemporaries in Kenya and South Africa were very much aware of race because they grew up in countries that were racialized in ways that West Africa was not—and this is not to say that West African countries did not have their own problems, race was just not one of them…”
I agree. There are white South Africans and black ones, white Zimbabweans and black. As far as I know there are black Kenyans, and a sizeable number of Kenyans of Indian origin. But to the best of my knowledge no one is ever referred to as a “white Nigerian”, even though every year a sizeable number of white-skinned foreigners are officially conferred with the citizenship of Nigeria; even though the Lebanese for example have been settling here for decades.
At the workshop I met a Gambian novelist who bore a Yoruba name. The Yoruba form one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups. I am Yoruba. I was intrigued. She explained that there were many Yoruba migrant groups all along the coast of West Africa, all originating from the original stock. But at that moment the coloniser’s language was the only language we shared in common, and arguably the most potent ‘cultural’ bond between us.
Since NM and I had never been to each other’s countries, stories became our shared medium of exchange. Founded on nothing more than news reports and hearsay, these stories were largely overblown, and told with the intent of being sarcastic. NM recalled how a Nigerian novelist (and mutual friend of ours) had told him that in Nigeria, persons intending to become policemen were required to bring along their uniforms for the screening session. Now that was funny, and it hit me below the belt.
One morning, the sound of gunshots filtered into our camp. It must have been hunters or guards in the nearby mountains. I told NM to take it easy, there was nothing to get scared about, after all, this was not Soweto. No it wasn’t. For wasn’t Soweto the place where gunshots were like sunlight – awaited, necessary, unremarkable?
This was to become the pattern of our conversations. Vicious, yet lacking in malice. South Africa contending with Nigeria, not in a game of soccer (The Bafana Bafana versus the Super Eagles) but in a game of wits carried on by two ambitious writers. Post-Kenya, our email exchanges have taken on the spirit of our face-to-face encounter. When I sent NM an email informing him that I won a poetry contest, he good-naturedly asked for some of my “voodoo” (apparently the rest of Africa is aware, courtesy of Nollywood, that Nigerians are the most ardent practitioners of voodoo on the continent), and promised in return to buy me an AK47 rifle from Soweto. “[T]hey are cheap you know…” he added.
And in a postscript to another email in which I told him I’d be travelling to Sweden on a writing fellowship, he advised me: “[D]on't take drugs to Sweden…I know you Nigerians.”
Later on in Jumping Monkey Hill, the Senegalese writer (who, by the way is lesbian), has to endure being told by Edward that homosexual stories of the kind she had written “weren’t reflective of Africa, really.”
Instantaneously Ujunwa retorts “Which Africa?”
Which is the trillion-dollar question for which I desperately wish I had an answer.
But it is hard to blame any foreigners for speaking so confidently of ‘Africa’ when public debates on issues like indecent dressing and homosexuality in Nigeria always have people arguing that such “immorality” is patently “un-African!” Or when the habit of late-coming at public events is more widely known as “African Time” than as “Nigerian Time”, even when no one has bothered to find out if the phenomenon is equally native to Algeria or Botswana or Madagascar.
At the end of Jumping Monkey Hill, Edward’s verdict on Ujunwa’s workshop story (about a Nigerian girl who gives up a lucrative banking job because she will not condone the sexual harassment from a potential client) is this: “The whole thing is implausible. This is agenda writing, it isn’t a real story of real people.”
Which is perhaps an apt description of much of what is written and told about the ‘continent of Africa’ today.