Of This Our Country
Edited by Nancy Adimora and Ore Agbaje-Williams. Published by the Borough press.
I turn to books to learn, to engage, to enjoy. Sometimes to be better informed, other times to divert myself away from things I wish were not there in either history or the present. I turn to Of This Our Country. I am blessed with many Nigerian friends and contacts. I want to learn more about Nigeria. To read what Nigerians have to say about themselves – the things they want to write about most in this new anthology about their country.
But there’s a hitch. The trouble for me in reading this book is that in almost every chapter I am reminded that I come from a country that has caused such suffering in so many others throughout history. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “there are very few parts of the world where the British have not meddled.”
J K Chukwu puts it even more bluntly in her chapter. She slams white supremacy, white terrorism and colonialism. I have to tick the ‘white British’ box on forms, but none of this is me. This was not my fault. But this is my problem. How to deal with my country’s past, and present, in so many domains. How can I not despair at my collective sense of guilt for Britain’s wrongdoings? My share of history and its consequences. I condemn the British Government then and now, so full of greed, hatred and prejudice. I despise the interloper of a prime minister who once claimed that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” Odious beyond belief. Britain is not my country.
And yet, I must not dwell on Britain. This book is not about me. The focus in this book is on Nigeria. Of this their country. The thoughts of twenty-four Nigerian writers, lovingly commissioned and edited by Nancy Adimora and Ore Agbaje-Williams.
Of This Our Country is an extensive collection of stories, personal histories, anecdotes, thoughts and opinions, connected by a rich cultural thread and a shared sense of identity. The collection presents great variety and unique perspectives. There are upwards of five hundred ethnicities and languages in Nigeria. So many peoples and regions in such a vast land. And by the way, we are continually reminded, Nigeria was a land before it became a country; the country being a false construct by the British. So there is plenty to surprise us, and much we have to unlearn first in order to discover the truth.
Contrasts come to the fore. The writers bring us a mixture of celebration and complaints, usually in conflict within their own contributions. Self-aggrandisement and self-deprecation. Hope and disappointment. Political insight and personal reflections. Wisdom and caution, with occasional moments of abandon. Celebrations and partying to the max.
So many subjects are covered. Weddings, fashion, markets, pidgin English, food, class, education, wealth disparity, social division, servants, literary festivals, Lagos, car crime, religions, local chiefs, Babalawos and yes, condemnation of colonialism.
All the essays command attention and come together in an impressive volume. Here I offer some thoughts on my favourite pieces. The selection process was hard. I enjoyed and learnt from all the chapters.
The anthology opens with Clarion Calls by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, summoning memories of her youthful three weeks of national service after graduating. Education comes up frequently in this book, generally associated with a sense of restriction, harsh treatment and the small mindedness of those in authority. Plus the wrong language taught, the wrong flag saluted and here, getting the words wrong to one of several national anthems. Ayọ̀bámi has disturbing memories of insanitary conditions and the threat of physical violence in a hostile setting. There is camaraderie, but otherwise not too much joy.
Later in the collection, Lola Shoneyin recalls her own period of compulsory youth service, in Nostalgia is an Extreme Sport. This jostles for position with memories of her early days as a popstar, a stressful journey across Nigeria, and heightened spirituality in the Celestial Church. Lola treasures unexpected acts of kindness from strangers. But this is a hazy, mixed bag and Lola links her failing memory with memories of a Nigeria she wants to forget. There is a massive duality running throughout the anthology, juxtaposing fondness and regret, hope and bemusement.
Inua Ellams presents both a memoir and a story in A Brief History of Suya. This is a beautiful, dual strand piece within the same ten pages that all contributors are accorded. His tale of two young male thieves gorging on stolen goat meat, falling asleep and being woken by an empowered young female with a knife in her hand, is magical and delightful. His alternating, factual account of being attacked by a huge chunk of heavily spiced beef, biting back, is great fun. Full of swagger and spices. Revelling in mystique and reality, Inua tells us: “Nigeria has always been magical to me, a concept more than a country”.
Next, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Still Becoming reads a bit like a Lonely Planet tour guide on Lagos. I note this is the only piece previously published, in Esquire magazine in 2019. Chimamanda has opened up African literature and Nigeria for me more than any other writer. Her essay here is certainly informative, but I was hoping for something a bit more captivating and visceral, to stir the imagination a little more. I know I am judging Chimamanda harshly, but much is expected from those who have such supreme talent.
Oyinkan Akande is buoyant in Elephants and Giraffes, with a celebration of Yoruba wedding ceremonies and partying. The Nigerian capacity to live life to the full and to make the most of special occasions is enormous. It has to be. Everyday life can simply be unbearable at times. Exciting highs and dismal failures compete. But that’s not exclusively Nigerian. Still, Oyinkan has mixed feelings about Nigerian contradictions, saying:
“Understand I recognise our folly as a people. Understand, also, that I am proud of it too.”
And then we come back to J.K. Chukwu, with Against Enough. This is the most political and the most hard hitting so far. J.K. denounces colonialists, their methods and the consequences of their actions. She bewails the violence and the unravelling of society, caused by an outsider’s policy of divide and conquer. The role of the British. On a more personal level, J.K is striving to figure out how to be ‘enough’, despite all that history and the damage it is still causing today.
In Rites of Passage, Anietie Isoing describes his journey home to attend a funeral. Local burial ceremonies and customs are an essential part of life and self-learning. To his surprise, Anietie comes to value the people who gather round him, bringing warmth and comfort, speaking the same language. There is a wonderful sense of community spirit and shared identity at this difficult time recalled by Anietie.
Chika Unigwe concentrates on a series of physical sensations and emotional bonds in her life in Amaechina. In her memoirs Chika drinks chocolate milk and later sips palm wine. She plays Abba music and visits the zoo. Enugu is her home, but Osumenyi is a place of special spiritual significance. Here, she visits her grandparents for Christmas. Osumenyi is where her family’s “figurative umbilical cords are buried”. Later, in Nsukka, Chikwa experiences her first kiss and encounters her Belgian husband to be. These are just some highlights; there is so much more to discover. Chika ends with an expression of hope for better days for Nigeria, a common prayer in this collection.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim starts with a question in One Season, Many Decades:
“How could a dream of a country like this go so wrong?”
He comes up with the answer instantly:
“The birth of this contraption that is my country was a product of the business interest of the British.”
This word ‘contraption’ is simultaneously clunky and perfect. It will come up again. I’m increasingly realising that all of these fine writers, these interesting and creative people, have every right to hate the country that I have to call my own. It may be that some things can never truly go away.
Abubakar writes about the fighting and division between Christians and Muslims caused by the devastating establishment of an artificial nation. This has happened in many places in the world throughout history, but knowing this does not help.
He writes about squashed tomatoes leading to death in the marketplace. And kidnapping and murder. And yet somehow, culture, artistry, and humour thrive and help make life worth living, despite the harsh realities. Abubakar continues:
“We deconstruct our realities…The bizarre, the fantastical and magical, the tragic, the exhilarating and titillating, and cobble them back together in ways that would make it tolerable, beautiful even, sometimes even incandescent.”
Herein lies an essential role for a writer. Creativity makes life bearable, if not completely free of hardship. But still, Abubakar feels abused, by the government, by corruption and crime of all kinds. I think of similarities with my own country. Corruption is not confined to Nigeria, though it seems to take place behind the curtain in the UK, and the outcome is less overtly brutal.
Okey Ndibe offers us War and Peace. A touch of genius within ten pages. Okey builds on the contradictions again:
“Nigeria is quite simply the place where I feel happiest. It is also, in a strange twist, the place where my sorrows are at their most intense.”
The balance seems to come down on the side of “planning for disappointment.”
For Okey, this is especially manifest in traffic problems, roadblocks, bribes, trying to get ahead at all costs and regardless of others. And more deeply felt, in memories of Biafra and the civil war, the role of the British and the imposition of having to learn everything in English.
Ikey Anya writes about national anthems, protests and the national flag in A Banner Without Stain. The most painful memory for Ikey is the Asaba massacre. There is still so much to overcome, and there is still blood on the flag. Today, young people are rising up against the corrupt establishment, most prominently in the #EndSARS protests, a subject that Yomi Adegoke and Sefi Atta develop in their contributions.
In Pride and Punishment, Chigozie Obioma is the second writer to use the word ‘contraption’ to describe his artificially created country. Chigozie bewails the military coups and executions that have followed. One way to deal with this is self-deceit, believing in lies, hoping for better despite knowing the realities. Chigozie has hope and pride, but these feelings are continually being shaken. Still, as Abubakar told us, the writer has a role. Writers have opportunities and craft. Chigozie tells us:
“I saw that what I could do as a writer was to reveal to my readers not my opinion about society but my observations of it.”
This is positive and comes as some relief. But not for long. Chigozie adds that he feels punished by Nigeria for his pride, trust and hope. He wants to divorce himself from his country but cannot.
Bolu Babalola gives us Contradictions, focusing closely on her own sense of identity. Bolu defines herself as British, Black British, Black British Londoner, British Nigerian, ancestrally Nigerian, Yoruba, with African Caribbean links, in that specific order.
Conveying both simplicity and multiplicity, Bolu states: “We are a culture of cultures.”
This presents problems, including colourism. Bolu tells us:
“Nigeria has the highest amount of bleaching in the continent (WHO).”
The impacts of colonialism are many and last long, but if this can be acknowledged, she feels there is hope and potential for Nigeria.
For Nels Abbey, in Nulli Secundus, everything failed after the 1993 elections and the role of President Sami Abacha. Babangida and Buhari come in for similar criticism in other essays. Military leaders all.
“From there, everything collapsed and crumbled. Corruption…became normal.”
This is a surprisingly bold focus not on colonialism but on more recent, internal failure. Nels is one of the very few contributors who doesn’t directly blame the British and colonialism, but rather the Nigerian politicians for their own mistakes, without reference to the wrongdoings of outsiders.
Nels flags up problems with roads, electricity, crime, politics, the health sector and life expectancy, but his main issue is a bad education system. This, for him, explains why Nigerians are successful abroad, but not at home. A national tragedy. His conclusion is that Nigeria’s brilliance needs to be unleashed at home.
In #Representation Matters: The Oppressor in the Mirror, Yomi Adegoke brings us straight back to the impact of colonialism, with a twist. On identity…
British Nigerians, Yomi tells us, are sometimes unsure of ownership and culture, and on other days “doubly proud of who you are”. This means “Straddling two cultures”.
Yomi then focuses on class and classism, the wealth gap between rich and poor black people, and unfair education opportunities. The role of the police also comes under scrutiny. This links up to the class and wealth divide, and stems from history. The Nigerian police force was created in 1861 by British colonists. The modern day authorities emulate them in order to maintain corruption and protectionism, in favour of rich Nigerians. In response, the #EndSARS protests, spearheaded by the young, are vital. Sadly, with her final words, Yomi isn’t sure that Nigeria is ready to be “Corrupt free.”
Cheluchie Onyemelukwe presents Education as Saviour.
Being the first in your family to do something special, to be someone, is a big thing.
Cheluchie refers to the class divide, again, and the restrictions this places on opportunities for all. She bemoans the rise of private education in Nigerian. This is one of my own causes of sadness in the UK, where old Etonians have so many privileges and dominate the upper echelons of power and influence.
Cheluchie tells us what’s written on the gates of the law school at the University of Nigeria in Enugu:
“To restore the Dignity of Man”
I can see this might pose a problem for 49% of the population in Nigeria, but that’s missing the point. Education should be there to uplift people, not to divide or demean them. And then there is the age-old impact of the English language. We learn that Engli-Igbo children learn everything in English, and all about English history. Cheluchie sees this as
Finally, we come to Abi Dare, and You Are Not Going Back.
Abi covers so much. Good and bad. Like many, she has dual nationality and mixed feelings. Nigerians have a drive to succeed, but are prone to self-exaggeration. Nigerians have also suffered “Years of shattered expectations and broken promises.” But they still remain optimistic. The quest to define what it means to be Nigerian never ends.
Abi tells us that Nigerians are “a resiliently happy bunch”.
Humour is massively important. Abi knows a family with a baby who was named Degree by his grandmother, since the mother got pregnant at University.
But beware. Nigerians do not like outsiders criticising them. Who does? Abi maintains:
“the cord that ties us is thick and tight and reserved only for us”
I fear I have ignored this warning by offering my reflections on this anthology.
So what does Abi hope for?
A new Nigeria. The end of patriarchy. Fair distribution of wealth. Accountability.
This doesn’t seem too much to ask for. And Abi believes this is already happening at pace. There is “A wind of change becoming a tornado.”
In the meantime, Nigerians are simply seeking somewhere that they can genuinely call “home”.
Of This Our Country provides a wealth of fascinating personal reflections, stories, examples of cultural engagement and reasons for celebration, all set down for us by creative wonders. There is much joy and beauty conveyed throughout the collection. There is also great soul searching, and disturbing social commentary, by the very same writers. This inevitably goes beyond national boundaries and travels back and forth in time. There are some tough facts which cannot be ignored, both within and beyond Nigeria. Truth and justice must prevail. This is a challenging read, but a must-read. Perhaps for non-Nigerians even more than for Nigerians.
© Eddie Hewitt 2021