Monday, 29 January 2018

SHORT STORY — "A Poisoned Hide"

When this next short fiction was first published, the nomadic Fulani herdsmen/cattle rearers and the settlers/farmers in the Jos-Plateau axis were having relational challenges. This was back in 1999. Several years down the line, what has changed?

Cattle rearer with herd. Photo credit:


Copyright Kenneth N Okafor

♠ ♠ ♠

The night black Raven in full flight/
Is a shroud of dark death in sight/
A stern warning to the hearts of men/
Of dread, a foreboding, an ill omen/
Whosoever defies the embrace of the grave/
His sliver of mortal soul would save/
In that day would come/
The Reawakening Age!
                        ...A Verse of the Raven Legend

“US$250 Million Lost to Consumption of Cowhide!”

The stranger who clutched the newspapers in grubby hands spat out the lead caption like an offensive expletive. He sat up front, close-up to the bald driver who was chewing goro and spiting rust-coloured phlegm, two rows away from me. When in a gravely voice, he translated the headline verbatim to our mother tongue, his indignation aroused immediate attention inside the cramped cauldron of a ramshackle bus in which we travelled.

“How can they wish to do this wickedness? Take away the meat of the masses! This is a conspiracy to deprive our palates of our beloved cowhide. We have lost all exotic poultry, goat, then ram to their whims and rapacious appetites and they are now after the cowhide. Madness! Appalling and galling madness!!” He bemoaned the calamity of it all with appropriate theatrics and infectious angst. He persuaded us he was championing the cause of the underdogs, the masses. His ardour was completely believable, totally sincere, and by the time he explained how vast the sum of money involved was, the whole passengers were in mourning with him.

How could government be losing such resources because poor people are happy? How could government determine that there were holes in their common purse because of ordinary kanda which we eat?  My young mind was baffled endlessly as I became infuriated. It sounded more like a brutal fabrication, a white lie, a concoction from the fatal edge of vile tongue.

“I hope all of you have eaten your last meals. We should prepare to die if they succeed. These are indeed the terrible last days!” The newspaper owner proceeded to theorise that this madness was the latest ploy of an insensitive government to drive happiness from the lips of the masses and starve them and eradicate them from the country for the rich to inherit the whole land. Shame on all schemers in all places they be found. Absolute shame to them! The man’s voice carried deep conviction. I believed the man because my father had once told me government was not to be trusted since the made promises only to breach them. They always voted with their feet when it concerned the followers. Why did government, social guardian and law enforcer, hate me so?

Then I remembered they were not the first to poison the cowhide. The nomads were first!

♠ ♠ ♠

They came to our secluded, bucolic community like a thief in the night. They came with a pressing need; they were in search of pasture for their livestock. An eclectic bunch of dark-faced herdsmen, the Wayfarers, and their herds of cattle of various hues – white, brown and some mottled. In peace, they converged, like visitors of peace.

A whiff of mystery surrounded their arrival. The community woke up to an invasion of messes of animal droppings. Anybody who set out for the farms early, through the bush trails, apart from the dew of dawn upon the blades of elephant grass which could cause debilitating cold, had to contend with stepping into the litters of dung as well as the foul pungency that hung heavily the crisp morning draught. “What sort of animal dropped its dung along the footpaths while we slept?” people puzzled. “Was it the bush gorilla?” someone queried, alarmed. “How can it be? Would there be this many gorillas and the naked eye of the master hunters and the latecomers from the farm would not have seen them? Ini Quenti always returned only after the Cockerel has gone to roost, you know that well. He has never reported any sightings of gorillas.” “I hope that we are not about to witness another invasion of elephants, the calamity which befell us twelve seasons back?” “Elephants again? Heavens forbid. Fear not! You see as big as the elephant is so is its droppings. Onoko the inveterate master hunter who sees in the dark with cat eyes ever came across one and presumed he was staring at an anthill.”  

And so speculations grew rife. Several days thereafter, the unknown animal, which owned the droppings, remained an elusive phenomenon. Until the herdsmen decided to stay beyond their fleeting, nocturnal visits. Their arrival turned out to be an unexpected boon to our crop yield because of the subsequent discovery that the messy droppings incorporated into the vegetable beds could produce a fat yield. (Till this day precisely who made the discovery remained fiercely disputed.)  Cattle dung soon became the scarcest farm ingredient.  With little preamble the nomads they settled into our lives, though they grazed on the fringe, in the farmlands and the bushes, they were part and parcel of us.  We coexisted in delightful symbiosis.  And they introduced us to the pleasure that up until then was not a common fare in the general menu: red meat and cowhide.

It was Toti, the son of Ini Quenti, my bosom friend, who turned up at his father’s farmland to discover the herdsmen in distress, wailing that one of their treasured cattle had died overnight from a cause which they could not fathom. Toti fled back home to summon Ini Quenti. The distraught nomads waited for their generous host, Ini Quenti, who had quartered them in his vast land, to come and showed to him the carcass which they had already slit the throat to drain the life blood. He commiserated with them over the irreparable loss and he got the carcass free in return for his generosity. Again, being a man with a large heart, Ini Quenti invited the whole clan to share. What great news. People came in their droves. Some wielding cutlasses, some others brandishing cooking knives. A man and his household were adventurous enough to try a hoe. Some without implement trailed behind neighbours to borrow from them. Pa Gromyko earned himself the nom de guerre of   “Longer Throat” when he and his boys appeared on the scene hefting a tree-felling hacksaw.

Soon the aroma of roast beef hung tantalizingly in the air as hearths blazed.

♠ ♠ ♠

For me personally the coming of the herdsmen turned my world right side up. I approached them to get acquainted. They answered my gesture with the language of silence because we were not of the same tongue. But they spoke comprehensively to their thronging animals. I marvelled at the feat. Also I observed how egrets came in their wake, cavorting, the white fragile looking birds, trailing the cattle everywhere, picking ticks from their shivering bodies.  My learning by observation was the least of my benefits.

Ini Quenti paid Ini Alesa a very strange and unusual visit – Ini Quenti was not a man who visited, people trooped to his compound to pay homage equal to his clout and his standing in the clan. But he visited Ini Alesa.

“The coming of the nomads has been quite fortuitous for my household. Like a man gleaning ears of corn, I have learned much from their symbols and their deeds. Both little and great things. I have learned for instance how they are able to make their livestock trek long distances without appreciable drop in weight. But I consider the best I have yet learned is how the people ruling us from the land beyond our horizon attempt to educate them in the ways and knowledge of the Whiteman even while they graze cattle.”

The revelation caused quite a stir in me more than in Ini Alesa, my second father, I could tell, tucked away but within hearing distance. Few things can really inspire the man I have come to despise. However Ini Alesa was gracious enough to feign interest and show appropriate incredulity. “How can this thing you speak of be?”

“Do not wear a mask of astonishment, Ini Alesa. Beyond our borders lies a world growing in directions that our own generation, yours and mine, cannot fully comprehend. I, myself, do not see it clearly yet my inner knowing nudges me it exists. The spirits which guard the whole of creation whisper mysteries to me in confirmation. We have a saying that wisdom is a handbag and each man carries his own according to size. Wisdom tells me this is opportunity to seize for the coming generation. Therefore, I have made the decision that if enlightenment is necessary for the nomads, then it must be of immense value for my children. In the light of this thought, I have decided that my eye and the first frits of my loins – Toti will be sent to the City to acquire such knowledge. Odezi, your ward son, I have observed, as my son’s steadfast playmate and confidante, is a conscientious boy that kith and kin praise for enterprise and diligence. As I am assured of your desire for a better life for him other than this back-breaking undertaking of farming, I counsel you, in my wisdom, to send Odezi along with Toti. If they are successful, heaven forbid that they will not be, others will tread their footprints.”

That very peculiar visit of Ini Quenti to our home formally marked the beginning, in earnest, the cumbersome venture for my education. Unfortunately, there were no facilities nearby at the time to afford us the possibility and access. That discovery brought much disappointment in its wake. The nomads had also disclosed to Ini Quenti that they were provided with special teachers who are to trail after them to the grazing fields and their bush camps. Why could we not have teachers trailing after us about the vast farm lands as well to impart to us this precious knowledge? Or had the snail and its shell become separate entities?

We languished in despair until a clansman related to Ini Quenti who had long ago fled the community to the City on self imposed exile showed up unannounced. At the expiration of his tumultuous homecoming, he suggested that Toti and I migrate in his custody. My joy was boundless.

♠ ♠ ♠

The rumble of disquiet began imperceptibly, unobserved, but gradually fermenting. Ini Quenti started to have minor misunderstandings with the herdsmen which no amount of apology seemed to be able to reconcile. A little tiff, a heated argument there and a once cordial relationship began to crack up. Animosities reached a head when the Farmers’ Friends Society came from the City with the amazing white powder they explained to the villagers was the Whiteman’s manure – fertiliser, I would later come to know it. The Farmers’ Friends Society members put the powder to the test to demonstrate its efficacy. Ini Quenti was confronted with the dawning realisation that he did not need the nomads any longer: the Whiteman’s manure gave better yield than that of cattle dung. All said and done, when the moment came for the nomads to vacate the farm land Ini Quenti acceded to them, they chose to ignore his vacation order. This war of attrition festered until a very unfortunate incidence.

Udu bolted into her father’s compound forecourt one day, dishevelled and disconsolate, raving that the nomads had groped her while she mulched vegetable beds on her mother’s plot. Udu—as fair and as radiant as the eye of the morning sun, a gazelle; provocative Udu, with the jutting nubile breasts—was one of Toti’s siblings. What followed was a shock: nothing happened.

I say nothing happened. It was bizarre. It was unsettling. People heard and insinuated that the man had lost his manhood. His friends heard and were astonished that Ini Quenti who was so jealous for his daughters had even been overheard admonishing Udu not to recount the same story again. Was there something that could happen to a man to castrate his clout so abruptly and he stopped being a man? At this juncture Ini Quenti stopped being the principled man I respected.

♠ ♠ ♠

Ini Alesa sat on the superbly crafted Gourd Seat, the seat of the master music maker, to play his fluted horn with uncanny skills. Everybody admitted the gods came with pleasure to listen when he played. The music he made was powerful and evocative. Then I almost loved him.

It was the withering look my mother flung at him that stopped the track of my emotion. She was far from impressed with his dexterity. My second father, I tried to think kindly, was a good man overall, only that he was – or so my mother sniggered – born under an unlucky star and his personal god seemed at odds with him: he worked hard with little to show. I suspected my mother was secretly disappointed due to miserable fortunes of the man who took over her consent of marriage from a deceased relative. At the dead of the night I could swear I overheard her cursing the ignoble African tribal custom which permitted the brother of the deceased to take his wife.

Ini Alesa played music to inaugurate the commencement preparation for the Feast of Dances. The air was electric with anticipation of what revelry and feasting to come.

In the thick of the preparations, as we returned from the stream one afternoon, Toti told me something undecipherable, a true enigma. He said:

“Odezi, most trusted one, does your memory serve you well to remember the last we got a carcass of a cow from the cattle-rearers, how you exclaimed that it was like the Feast of Dances?” I answered that I did. Then he added, “My father says that many days hence the clan will have many Feasts of the Dances before nightfall.” I pondered the enigma Toti spoke without understanding.

One morning, I awoke to discover a pitch-black Raven perched on the beam of the yam barn. Instinctively, I reached for a pebble, to cast at the bird. It flapped its wings, dipped into a dive and flew away.   

The night black Raven in full flight/
Is a shroud of dark death in sight/
A stern warning to the hearts of men/
Of dread, a foreboding, an ill omen/
Terror to men!

It was not too longer afterwards that someone scampered into the bowel of the village yodeling the improbable news that there were rows upon rows of carcasses of cattle littering the farm lands. Everywhere erupted with wild jubilation and I saw the vengeful hands of Ini Quenti. Toti’s hint made sense all of a sudden.

Without any invitation this time, clansmen trooped to carve meat. Nobody went with small knives or hoes. Pa Gromyko’s hacksaw was suddenly not big enough. Meanwhile a crisis burst in our own home which compelled Ini Alesa to decree with the same force as a royal fiat that my mother and I should not go and carve up meat.

Later stories, though without proof, point to the fact that it was Ini Quenti who had somehow caused the cattle to die in their multitudetotal dead, seventeen. Exactly how remained unfathomable to this day. (Many alleged that the avenging spirits of the Earth Oracle had come to fight on behalf of its Chief Priest.)  Sadly, the outcome was not several Feasts of the Dances but a horrific Affliction of Deaths. Not since the famine of ten full moons ago did so many die in one day. Nobody could count the dead. And there were no tears to weep. The ground was left fallow to bemoan the demise of the husband man.

The greatest regret and wretchedness belonged to the council of elders who sat under the Neem tree to give their blessings to the settling of the Wayfarers, the cattle-rearers.

♠ ♠ ♠

Toti died. He went with his dream intact, plucked from the land like a rare mountain Orchid in the dawn of its bloom, before its petals were fully unfurled; a vanishing mist, escaping against a clench fist. Toti slept.

Pa Gromyko, Onoko, Ayodo, Chidem, Eluem, Kataje, Korio, Udualmost everyonegone. Ini Alesa perished  upon the thighs of his concubine , the death of a fool, with a mouthful of cowhide, deceived until the very end that my mother did not know of the unholy liaison he kept; she knew.

The music from the fluted horn stopped with a sorrowful dirge. The egrets had gone. And all I have left now was a ravaging memory of delirious anguish. Ini Quenti was never seen again, spinning further legend.

I tried hard to convince myself that the death of Toti was not in vain since I would carry on the dream. Now it was five years post-event and I was finally headed for the City to learn the knowledge and ways of the Whiteman. It was the same bus in which I was that the fellow with the newspaper sat reading aloud the outrageous article about cowhide.

The herdsmen had introduced the corruption of a potent poison to the flesh of the dead cattle before fleeing, knowing people could not resist flocking to the carcases to carve up meat and now the government was poisoning the cowhide with the Whiteman’s money. US$250 million indeed! When will they stop poisoning our meat?

          The pitch-black Raven continued in flight alongside the spluttering bus.

 News Report here

Skirmishes between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and settlers/farmers will continue to be a burning social issue until leadership and innovative solutions are applied: ACT NOW TO STOP THESE SENSELESS KILLINGS.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

New US Writers Museum Puts Modern Spin On Literary History

The American Writers Museum in Chicago is the first of its kind and is dedicated to writers who helped shape America's history and culture -- from Ernest Hemingway to chef Julia Child to rapper Tupac Shakur
At US City of Chicago's newly-opened American Writers Museum, Jack Kerouac's biographer tells an audience how the Beat Generation's bible was inspired by the author's deep affection for his country.

"'On the Road' is a love letter to America," says Dennis McNally, standing just steps from the 120-foot (36.5-meter) scroll on which Kerouac typed out his best-known book.

"He loved being an American and he romanticized it," he said of the novel depicting a post-World War II generation looking to break out of the societal constraints of the 1950s.

The first-of-its-kind museum is dedicated to writers who helped shape America's history and culture -- from Ernest Hemingway to chef Julia Child to rapper Tupac Shakur.

"The theme of the museum is to really look at American writing and American writers, and celebrate them in the way that we celebrate all kinds of people, like sports heroes and movie stars," said museum president Carey Cranston.

- An outsider's perspective -
This museum is in fact the brainchild of an Irish immigrant. Malcolm O'Hagan, a retired businessman, was surprised to discover that the United States had no institution dedicated to its authors.

It took seven and a half years to make plans and raise the necessary funds to get the project off the ground.

A timeline representing 500 years of American literary history greets visitors at the American Writers Museum in Chicago
"I think it took someone with an outsider perspective," said Cranston, adding that Chicago was chosen for its rich literary past and tourist draw.

The museum's exhibits breeze through hundreds of years of American literature, culture and history, offering quick glimpses into the works of writers in various genres and media.

A timeline exhibit begins with Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, born in 1490, who penned a memoir depicting Native American life. It concludes 500 years later with Oscar Hijuelos, the son of Cuban immigrants, who wrote about assimilating into American culture.

"To see the ways in which the words of so many people have moved populations throughout time, I think it's really inspiring," said Nura Mazmabi, 38, who was visiting the museum with members of her writing group.

- 'We celebrate their words' -
The museum also includes a "surprise bookshelf" -- an interactive wall that reveals morsels of information about authors through video, sound or text.

The new American Writers Museum in Chicago includes a "surprise bookshelf" -- an interactive wall that reveals morsels of information about authors through video, sound or text
The late rapper Shakur is featured for the lyrics to his 1995 song "Dear Mama," exploring, as the exhibit puts it, "the realities of addiction, violence and poverty."

Nearby is a tribute to Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel dealing with race inequality.

"Even though a lot of people are suppressed at some point in their lives or at some point in our history, their words are still out there, and we celebrate their words. And, I think that's what makes it American," said visitor Alex Messina-Schultheis, 25.

One thing conspicuously understated are books themselves, as museum organizers wanted to avoid replicating a library.

While there are rooms with books and places to read, the space is dominated by touch screens, multimedia exhibits and interactive elements such as manual typewriters on which visitors can hammer out a few sentences.

"When you think American writing museum, you think: I'll just be reading a wall of text. But, it's very interactive," said Jennifer Depoorter, 24, who was playing a word game on a touchscreen table.

Also inconspicuous is the museum itself, which occupies the second floor of a nondescript downtown Chicago office building, marked by only one sign.

The humble real estate is a function of the private museum's relatively small annual budget of US$1.9 million and a staff of 10.

By contrast, the world-renown Art Institute of Chicago, just a few blocks away, has an approximately US$250 million annual budget.

"Our initial goal was to raise enough to build this," said Cranston, adding that plans are for the institution to grow over time.

US rapper Tupac, his mother Afeni Shakur (Image credit: METRO) and the lyrics of “DEAR MAMA”
Originally published on AFP

Saturday, 30 January 2016

How Reading Fiction Can Help Students Understand The Real World

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, wrote stories that offer students from all disciplines valuable insights about the world they want to fix one day. EPA/Frank May
By Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
The real world is often overwhelmingly complicated. Literature can help. This is true at universities too: courses in comparative literature offer students new insights into their chosen disciplines by unlocking new, varied perspectives.

How can those studying political science truly grasp the terror of living under a dictator? Perhaps by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a magnificent historical novel about the tyrannical Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Students who read it are unlikely to forget the dizzying Cold War political intrigues that led the US to first support Trujillo and then implement sanctions against him.

In area studies, students must learn about the politics of postcolonial government. Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novel, A Man of the People, explores how rapidly post-independence revolutionary zeal can turn venal as the corrupt, greedy postcolonial elite seizes the reins of power from the colonizer only to further strangle the majority.

I would suggest that teaching these and other subjects - history, economics, sociology, geography and many others - can only be enhanced by including novels, short stories and artistic feature films. Students will also benefit from learning the methods of critical reading that are inherent to literary study. In this article I will explore why this is the case, focusing largely on the important but contested field of international development studies.

Why development is about more than economics
International development studies cries out for a literary component precisely because it is such an ideological and normative subject. “Development” is itself a term that should demand ideological evaluation. It is more than economics. This is made clear by the UN’s Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals. These reiterate that “development” also focuses on cultural change, such as gender equity through empowering women and girls.

But the syllabus of almost any international development studies course contains a heavy dose of development economists: Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs. Or, if the professor is slightly more left-leaning, there will be works by anthropologists like James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar or brilliant political science professor Timothy Mitchell. Why only these? This is an area in which books in the humanities and arts are pertinent, yet one never sees a postcolonial novel on these syllabi.

It is frankly criminal. Development was constituted as a field of study and area of practice during the years of decolonization after World War II. This was the very same time period which spawned the birth of what is today called postcolonial literature. But international development studies courses seldom broach the fundamental question of what is truly meant by development. Developing to what? For whose benefit? Under whose aegis? This question, however, is interrogated in a vast body of excellent fiction.

I have prescribed Nuruddin Farah’s 1993 novel, Gifts - inspired by Marcel Mauss’ classic ethnography The Gift - to my students. When development aid from powerful countries is donated to impoverished 1980s Somalia, a fine line is walked by both the West which “gives” and the Somalis who “receive.” The book is a long meditation on the tightrope act that teeters between donation and domination. Certainly my students learned more about how it really feels to be the recipient of donor aid from this novel than any of our social science readings, which were mostly written from the donors' point of view.

Exploring different points of view
This isn’t to suggest that such novels are stand-ins for “native informants”, who are perceived to be experts about a culture, race or place simply because they belong to it. Quite the contrary. They should be read as literature, which literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin describe as a jumble of competing viewpoints depending on language that always struggles to convey actual truth.

Point of view might be an easier concept for students to grasp at first than Bakhtin’s theory. It is a basic narrative technique that is explored in Literary Criticism 101 because it can change the way a story is told or perceived. In the rich 2006 film Bamako the people of Mali put the World Bank on trial to determine why their poisoned “gift” of development aid has left the country with such a debilitating debt burden.

From the World Bank’s perspective, development might mean one thing but for those “beneficiaries,” it means something quite different. Art has the power to convey that point of view with visceral impact. Isn’t this essential for international development students who aim to help the “other” to “develop”?

Room for myriad insights
The end state of “development,” which is implied but hardly ever explicitly theorized in international development studies, is “modernity” and becoming “modern”. This is a subject on which literature and literary theory can offer myriad insights.

Zakes Mda’s wonderful 2005 novel Heart of Redness depicts the tale of a contemporary village in post-apartheid South Africa. Here, two groups of villagers hold radically different positions on what development means to them. Does it mean street lamps and a casino resort that will bring tourists? Or maintaining a more “traditional,” environmentally-sustainable lifestyle albeit with some “modern” amenities? The villagers’ differing positions are also informed by their different views on their history of colonization.

History is, of course, essential for understanding any subject. For this reason I’ve not restricted myself to postcolonial literature only in teaching my classes. Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is an excellent novel for introducing the study of British imperialism which is a prerequisite for understanding our contemporary global cultural economy.

Pushing for positive change
In our globalizing world, the stakes could not be higher. Many of our students will end up making policy, allocating aid, driving the global economy. They will change the world. Literature and humanistic thinking enable them to change it for the better.

Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, Research Associate, Centre for Indian Studies, Wits University, University of California, Los Angeles 
Originally published in THE CONVERSATION