Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Gospel According to a Stolen Book


Obododimma Oha

Many scholars and knowledge workers get extremely hurt when they lose their books to thieves, fire, flood, and other disasters. For them, it is indeed a great tragedy, especially if the books they have lost are very rare and cannot be replaced easily. It could be frustrating to realize suddenly that a particular book one needs for an academic article or for some other kind of writing has walked away from one’s personal library without one’s permission! Thus many teachers, apprehensive of losing their books either to their students or their colleagues, try to guard those books jealously, and try to keep lending registers to be able to keep track of them. They have learned from experience that some “friends” borrow books and forget to return them. Some borrow and do not return them, hoping that the lender would forget to ask for their return, or keep promising to return the books and hoping the lender would grow tired of asking for their return. A game of forgetting to remember and remembering to forget to remember!

Lola Shoneyin, a Nigerian poet noted for her exploration of very interesting sides of human behaviour that many of us often take for granted, writes about this experience of losing books to one’s friends in a poem, “Plunderer of Bookshelves,” which appears in one of her volumes of poetry entitled, So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg (2001).The irony in the presentation of a “friend” as someone who uses tricks to steal one’s books is unmistakable in Shoneyin’s poem. The trickster-friend named Charles comes begging to be lent a book, seducing the owner with the act of praising:

After begging and pleading,
his eyelids changing channels
like an electrically underfed TV,
he seduces with lore,
tales of what a gem I’ve always been,
then swears by his first-born son
to return my book after a sleep-fast of forty-eight hours.
I succumb.

The power of rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion, works well for the trickster-borrower. Who wouldn’t lend a “friend” a book after being shown through language use that the “friend” thinks about him or her very highly? To refuse is to suggest the self as being unworthy of the friendship and as being extremely selfish, or what in the idiom of Nigerian English is called having “the hands of glue.”

But the trickster-friend would not return the book after forty-eight hours as promised, not even “six or ten fortnights.” The performance of forgetfulness and contrition follows months later when the trickster-borrower and the unhappy lender meet elsewhere.

Then he spots me approaching
at some accidental social engagement
and puts up a brave embarrassed face.
He proclaims he’s been in a coma or some other continent,
he vows to deliver first thing the next morning.
I believe.

Who wouldn’t forgive someone who is sorry for forgetting, especially when that “someone” is a friend? Human beings can forget sometimes; not so? Human memory, even as a computer, could have “technical” problems and some files may be deleted! Also, to err is human; isn’t it? To forgive has to continue to be divine. Moreover, there are understandable incidents also contributing to the non-fulfillment of the promise of returning the book. And now, the promise is renewed. Why won’t you be happy that your book is coming back after all?

Well, forgetfulness could be recursive. And since time changes everything, the signification of the ownership of the book also changes, to the chagrin of the original owner-lender.

At another friend’s house,
fifteen months later,
this other friend rattles on
about some fantastic text he’s read
and shoves it triumphantly into my face.
I take a look at it and sigh.
My name used to be on the clinically-cropped corner
Didn’t need to ask who lent it to him.
A violet personalised stamp rainbowed the print
On every other page.

Repetitiveness in identification is both a warning and a suppression of other narratives against ownership. Repetitiveness has to be read before the reading of the book, or at least along with the reading of the book. Ownership is part of the meaning constructed by readership, even in subtle visual iconicity or symbolization. Every page of the reader’s mind acknowledges the book that acknowledges the marked ownership. It is credit-giving that debits the relationship between a friend that remembers to forget and another that forgets to remember.

The poet-persona warns:

And if you encounter that friend of mine
Do make sure you take a stand.
Don’t be softened by histories fine
Just tell him straight,
“From MY library, YOU’VE BEEN BANNED!”

But it so happens that owners of books cannot stop lending them out. It seems that it is even when they refuse to lend out those books that the books may decide to walk away with someone else who keeps a glittering eye on them.
The tactics of practised book pilferers are well-known: they come to your office and pick a book, or you bring out the book yourself to explain a point, and they take it to examine it. From examining it, they hold it tighter on their minds, and then try to engage you in a long attention-distracting conversation. When they feel you have relaxed your alertness, they place something else they are holding on top of the book; in other words, pretending to have mixed the book and their own possessions in error. Who would not understand an error as an error?

But beneath this canvas of error is a “prayer” that you the owner do not come back to your watchfulness or remembrance that a book was brought out from the shelf. Very soon afterwards, your book would be on its journey out of your intellectual prison.

A colleague in one of the universities where I have worked once confessed to me that he liked stealing books from other people’s libraries, not because he needed them or wanted to read them, but because he loved seeing them as his own possessions. Stocking the books was what gave him a sense of satisfaction!

These days when values of many seem to have changed in the university environment, and asking students to read a particular book seems to be a punishment, one is no longer so much afraid of losing one’s books to them. One is no longer afraid of leaving students in one’s office while away to the restroom for, indeed, they would not be tempted to touch or steal the books. If they steal the books, of what use are such books to them? Are they going to read them? Re-sell them? Wouldn’t the books become unnecessary luggage? Well, except maybe the particular student in question is like my bibliomaniac colleague mentioned above? But such bibliomaniacs are rare these days! On the contrary, keep your mobile phones of superior quality or an iPod in your office and allow students to come in and go away without being monitored. As universities become more and more interested in entertainment than in reading, books also became less and less unmarked as targets of the pilferer.

Interestingly, books that walk away with friends or foes sometimes manage to find their way back home to the libraries where they rightly belong. Sometimes the “custodian” of your book for years receives a religious feeling and becomes “born-again” and the spirit tells them to return their neighbours’ goods in their possession. And so, one holy afternoon, there is a knock on the door and it is a parcel of words you have missed so much.

Stolen books know that “No condition is permanent,” for those that stole them may close their eyes and never be able to open them again someday. And so, the books in captivity rejoice, hoping that someone filled with the spirit of justice would liberate them and send them to whence they came. It has been happening.

Work Cited

Shoneyin, Lola (2001)So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg (2nd edition), Ibadan: Ovalonion House.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Arrested Arrests & the Rest of Un/certainties


Obododimma Oha

Who writes, reads, rewrites arrest?

It seems normal for security agencies in a country like Nigeria to create a mystery in order to be seen to (be busy) solving it.

The ways of the police in Nigeria baffle me sometimes. They want to arrest someone and would not do that quietly, at least to make sure the operation succeeds. No, they must first make it public knowledge. They must first go to the village square, beat their loud gongs, and announce that so-so-and-so is wanted, perhaps in the false pursuit of their own heroism. In spite of the assumption that accused persons who believe that they are innocent do not need to run from the Law, the reality is that, as the Igbo proverb says, “ọ bụ naanị osisi nụrụ na a ga-egbutu ya wee kwụrụ” (Only a tree hears that it would be cut down and stands where it is, instead of escaping). James Ibori is not a tree. He is a human being and knows at least the damage his arrest and trial would bring to him. So, at least, why shouldn’t he think of postponing that embarrassment, since in Nigeria “No condition is permanent”? In Nigeria, one could be a convict today and tomorrow become a chest-beating president or minister. No condition is permanent, except the Nigerian type.

The design to arrest someone like Ibori is already arrested. The noise that one hears is only a performance. The arrest makes sure that there is no arrest.

The arrest in an arrest is much like sending someone to the local market with a basin of salt and then going to the rainmakers to ask that the heaviest of rains be brought down.

And, by the way, who is arresting who? Can the Party be arrested? I gwọrọ ajụ, sị m bo gị ala, a na-ebu ala ebu? (Do you prepare a pad and ask that I lift the earth and put it on your head, does one carry the earth?) The guinea fowl may be very beautiful but no one in their right senses sacrifices it to the gods!

In the name of Sanni the son of Abacha, why are they acting this type of poorly scripted play? The plot is too simple and the surprises predictable!

The arrested nature of a nation’s moral reformation may have an Ibori script as its metaphor. Seriousness is not measured by noise in the tidiest war.

Our narrative has atrophied, with carnivals of things speaking with authority against authority.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nigerian Christian Gospel Music and the Discourse of Discontent


Obododimma Oha

Contemporary Christian gospel music in Nigeria may annoy many people who have respect for originality and creativity with its tendency to recycle earlier songs played by other well-known Christian singers like Voice of the Cross and Patty Obassey and Obi Igwe. And if recycling the songs of earlier Christian singers is not a violation of “Thou shall not steal” commandment, what about the recycling of say the Dynamites’ Christian Makossa album into a Yoruba Christian gospel by another group of Christian singers, barely a year after the appearance of the original? Perhaps, in the logic of Christian entertainment, no one owns the Christian song except maybe the Holy Spirit and so there is nothing like violation of copyright.

If this tradition of recycling and pastiche making raises moral questions about what the Nigerian Christian singer is saying in recent times, the very discourses presented in some of the songs simply make the songs difficult to ignore, at least from an academic perspective. The Christian gospel singer knows the need to create a market and so makes efforts to let the song have an orientation to tenor, targeting the interests of specific groups of listeners and directly addressing such groups. The Christian singer talks to the barren woman, the unemployed person, the student wrestling with academic problems, the employed person looking for promotion, a lady looking for a husband, a man looking for a wife, the Nigerian looking for a visa to a foreign country, etc. Sometimes such a singer speaks to Jesus in place of these named groups and sometimes preaches to such groups about the wonders of having Jesus as an advocate. Obviously, the Christian singer as an advertiser of Jesus Christ or marketer of God is well in line with the evangelical assignment by identifying these target customers and presenting the wares in the assumed rhetorically attractive ways.

One needs a gift of patience to listen from the beginning to the end of the song, enduring the monotony of rhythm, exasperating repetitiveness and formulaic patterns, in order not to miss the logic of the discourse entirely. Here is one example: King Innocent Eziefule’s ablbum entitled My Year of Promotion is playing in my sitting room. It plays almost every day and I think someone between my wife and my children likes what the Christian singer is saying. It is not my kind of Christian music but it would be wrong to go and stop it. I am sure you can guess why. OK. It is not for me, but my ears have to listen anyway. Sometimes one benefits from what one does not like.

What? Listen to what the singer has just said: “Ekpere na-eme ka agbọghọbịa wee lụta di obodo oyibo” (Prayer makes it possible for a lady to get a husband from overseas). Jesus Christ! I check the jacket and find that the track is called “Ekpere na Abụ” (Prayer and Hymn).

This Christian gospel singer must have the impression that husbands from overseas are far better than husbands back here in Nigeria! Simply put, suitors back home are not suitable for the lady based in Nigeria. The hope and prayer of such a lady is to get a husband from across the oceans. It is an economic thing in marriage: dollars and Euros perform better at weddings these days in Nigeria than the local wall paper called Naira. Local suitors stand no chance when it comes to competing with dollar or Euro-laden suitors from overseas. Most fathers-in-law won’t hesitate to set their dogs on you if you insist on trying your luck with your Naira when the “di obodo oyibo” has already sent an email saying he is coming on the next flight!

Thank God my marriage is fifteen years old now. Otherwise, how could my wife still agree to marry me after listening to this Holy-Ghost filled, tongue-speaking gospel singer? Surely, I would have stood no chances competing with my Nigerian friends based in the US and UK such Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Ikhide Ikheloa, Obiwu, Sola Osofisan, Pius Adesanmi, Biko Agozino, Chiji Akomah, and many celebrated scholars out there. Thank you for saving me, thank you my God!

But wait a minute! This singer does not also say that with praying and hymning a bachelor back home in Nigeria could get a wife from overseas! Why? Is miracle marriage for women alone? Is being married to a Nigeria-based husband a condemnation? Oh no. This is unfair, very unfair.

I continue to listen, although I am boiling with rage. This guy is also talking about getting a visa to ship out as one of the miracles of prayer! I am really mad with him now and will turn off the music soon. I could apologize to whoever is playing it much later. Imagine, getting a Nigerian visa is not a miracle but overseas visa is! I think I have also seen a similar celebration of foreign visa (especially visa to the US) in some Nigerian Christian video films. So, it appears Nigerian Christian evangelical rhetoric is literalizing the idea of an American “Promised Land” and is already constructing the Nigerian space as its sharp contrast! I don’t like this one bit. I’m still a patriot and cannot consume this crap!

There! Electricity failure! Thank God for answering my unsaid prayer! Who says miracles of prayers don’t happen in very mysterious ways?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Voyage to English


Obododimma Oha

For many speakers of English as a second language, especially those encountering the language from the double margins of the rural context in Nigeria, learning to speak and write the language is a kind of voyage with its many experiences of bewilderment, strangeness, adventure, shock, and even pain. Many learners of the language indeed struggle to identify ways they can transfer meanings of expressions in their first languages to English and vice versa. Our teachers in their wisdom thought that it was best to compel us to speak English in class. If we were to make a successful trip to English, we needed to leave behind, at least temporarily, the luggage of the first language, identified as “vernacular.” Laws always have to reinforce impositions, and so our teachers decreed that anyone that spoke vernacular instead of English in class was to pay a fine. In some classes the punishment was manual labour: either removing the bucket of urine from the urinal and pouring it on the compost heap and turning the heap that gave out a pestilential odour, or cutting the grass on the lawns (which was always in generous supply for offenders at school). A voyage to English was, in my elementary school days, a divestment of one’s right to speak the language that one liked or was familiar with.

Our teachers took no chances and welcomed no excuses from us their captives. They knew our problems, our needs, our fears, more than we knew. They were determined to deal with these, to liberate us, or rather to liberate our tongues that were supposedly tied by Igbo our native language, for indeed our main horror was in being asked in class to stand up or come to the front of the class to speak English. Naturally, we considered it a great misfortune to be picked to speak English, especially while facing other members of the class. If one uttered the wrong thing, one was sure to get a terrible boo, even from those who equally couldn’t express themselves in acceptable English! What more, whatever wrong English one uttered was sure to be a source of an annoying nickname that members of the class would start using in addressing one. Good God, it was really a misfortune to be picked to utter what one didn’t have a clue how to utter!

One day, our teacher in Elementary Four took everyone by surprise by calling our names at random and asking us to stand up and say in English what was going on in each picture he displayed in front of the class. He brought out a picture of a man taking snuff and asked one of us what he saw in the picture. The fellow was visibly terrified beyond measure. He scratched his head. He bit his lips. He looked up, as if to find out if what he needed to say was written on the ceiling. Then he looked down on the floor, as if the right utterance eluded the ceiling and rested on the floor. Beads of sweat started running down his frustrated face. “Speak!” the teacher barked, reaching for his cane. With this jolt, the pupil simply said, “This man is kpoo otaba!” The class burst out laughing. Even the teacher could not help laughing too. Our colleague was really clever, having combined both the familiar and the unfamiliar, at the same time inserting the unwelcome vernacular into the authorized English expression. He didn’t know the word “snuff” or how to say “taking snuff” in English. Just like the rest of us, he was not really expressing what he saw in the picture but translating what he saw from Igbo to English. And somewhere along the way, the journey to the appropriate English expression ran into lexico-semantic trouble. Which escape route would have been better (in his thinking) than code-switching, which required making a convenient diversion from the route to English to that of the Igbo language? At once, I later realized, our fellow pupil eloquently expressed, beyond the semantic sense of the sentence, a meta-message about his cultural circumstances as a speaker of English as a second language. Of course, our teacher had no interest in this additional meaning of the pupil’s expression in English. What mattered to him, I could imagine, was the fact that the pupil’s utterance revealed a deficiency in the latter’s knowledge of the right English words to use in naming things or representing experiences. Surely, we the pupils lacked such knowledge, but we were also puzzled as to the relationship between the English we were forced to speak and the Igbo language we knew but were not allowed to speak in class.

The torture did not end with the English of snuff-taking! Our teacher called another pupil who was sitting next to me. You can be sure that I almost got a heart attack, for I was afraid that I was the one asked to disgrace self this time around! The teacher displayed a picture of a doctor examining patients and asked my neighbour to say in English what he saw in the picture. This time the fellow did not waste any time and thinking through his answer. Right away he answered: “The doctor crock. The doctor say. The doctor ….” Before he could say more, our teacher signaled him to stop, and as usual the class had a good laugh. In this second case, there was no mixture of English and Igbo. Perhaps our friend had concluded that the teacher’s objection in the previous case was the mixture of English and vernacular, which we naturally saw as being few inches away from the forbidden Igbo speech. Anyway, the greater fun, for us, was not as much in knowing the right thing the boy should have said as in providing some comic relief in a captive, tensed up class, and by extension, the source of a new nickname we would celebrate outside during the break period! Our friend became “The doctor crock” right from that day.

The voyage to English was a voyage to humour as much as it was a voyage in fear. Perhaps the fear was a necessary element for the realization of the humorous side of learning a second language.

Even if our classroom encounters with English did not produce enough effect about the importance of the language in our lives, our encounters with children who returned from the city for Christmas and Easter celebrations did. The returnees were very proud and haughty. They had fine clothes on and spoke English (or a variety of it), to our great dismay and shame. They deliberately spoke English to us, mostly using abusive words, to suggest to us that we were not the same with them. Language difference at the playground became a weapon for subduing the other, for excluding and decivilizing the other. We saw being picked to speak English in class as a misfortune, but here, staring us in the face at the playground, was a greater misfortune. There was nothing as painful as being denigrated by one’s peers. Some of us started avoiding the city children. Those that opted to stay sometimes offered to settle the question of language superiority through exchange of blows. Being able to speak English was not the measure of superiority, they argued. A good fight was the right way!

I didn’t want my voyage to English to end with a fight at the playground and so I devised what I considered a better way of liberating my tongue from its “villageness” and vernacular hold. Back home, I would retreat to the forest where no one would see or hear me and then start uttering anything that came into my head as English. I spoke and spoke and spoke my nonsense English until I became tired but happy that I had done it. I was the addresser and the addressee in these strange spoken English episodes. Gradually, I started gaining some measure of confidence and got ready to speak English to the city children whenever next we met. The opportunity came one day and I put a vigorous display of prowess in my strange glossolalia. The reaction that I received somehow encouraged me: instead of laughing at me, everyone listened and seemed to be making efforts to understand what I was saying.

I did not stop with such glossolalia, for I knew that I was talking nonsense and that one day I would receive a disgraceful treatment from my listeners. The next move was to turn to the junior dictionary by Michael West. This helped me in building my store of English vocabulary. I also asked people whose knowledge of English I trusted what particular objects or ideas were called in English. A turning point in the voyage came when my elder brother who had gained admission into the secondary school acquired a copy of Students’ Companion. Whenever he was not around, I would fish the book out of his bag and start reading it. The section that attracted me most was the one on synonyms. It contained simpler words that were matched with longish strange words. I was excited, greatly excited, for I realized that I could, as a substitute for my glossolalia, memorize these very long words and utter them whenever the need arose, to mesmerize my schoolmates. I did just that: I memorized “cantankerous” as a better word than “quarrelsome,” “cacophony” as a substitute for “noise,” and so on. The most treasured perhaps was the word “tintinnabulation.” I did not hesitate to try it out on my elder brother who owned the book from which I harvested it. He dismissed me as speaking nonsense, saying that it was not an English word. I did not have any proof to win my case, for I did not want to expose the fact that I had been searching his schoolbag in his absence. Elder brothers and elder sisters (who always had secrets in those days) would not tolerate that kind of violation of their privacies!

I continued the voyage, armed with “big” English, giving my schoolmates a false impression that I had reached the island of English and had returned with the hidden treasures of expression. Anyway, the important thing is that I gradually lost my dread for English and my tongue became loose. I found, to my surprise, that I could express myself in English, even if it was a bad one. What is a voyage after all, if not a deliberate attempt to befriend fear, learn from errors, and recognize the difference between compulsion and the discovery of necessity!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pronouncing Haiti robertsonically


Obododimma Oha

HAITI sounds like HATE when Pat Robertson pronounces it.
The boundary between error and terror is diminishing, so Pat cooks for the devil and serves it to God Almighty.
Who uses the other against Haiti, God or Satan?
Whose Robertson speaks?
Whose Logos wants logic in the Presence of violent History?
Which otherness witnesseth the pact?

It is safer to play God's coward than to be Satan's advocate. Otherwise, why not blame Satan as usual? A clever Robertson should fear the stereotypes of his discourse,
For if freedom comes too early, it cannot recognize Blackness
If Black freedom comes at all, its reward is poverty
If poverty lingers, there is a narrative of the Fall in the rising sun.

The semiotic of natural disaster must learn to feed on the surplus of myth,
So that some god's anger makes the earth quake, makes the mountains vomit fire, makes a hurricane hurry to cane the survivors of the Deluge.

It won't be the end of literacy, even if it is the collapse of logic.
It won't be the end of language, even if it is the signal about the post-human.