Monday, March 20, 2017

Mouse versus Mouse


Obododimma Oha

Imagine a mouse, a real mouse, a real miserable mouse, launching an attack on my computer mouse, chewing off the cord from the central processing unit, biting off the keyboard cord too! What could this mouse be after? Was it angry that the computer mouse aided and abetted the movement of troops of information to the battle-fields of texts uploaded to my blog? Or was it envious of the identity of “mouse” which computer technology has chosen for the hardware? Wondering and angry that, of all the identities in the world, its own had to be “stolen” and given to that component? And what the hell made those captains of computer language think that that “mouse” looked like a mouse?

It is difficult to get into the head of a mouse to find out what it thinks, whether it thinks at all, and how it thinks! The much I can imagine is that a mouse launched an offensive against my computer mouse, chewing off the cord! The whole idea of a mouse against a mouse makes the experience worth thinking about. A friend suggested (whether to tease me or to set me on the course of a wild, traditional human superstition): “Probably, your enemies are after you!” We laughed and laughed. Probably my enemies are mousing after me. Probably my enemies think that my type of warfare is textual and crippling the means of my textual battery is more strategic. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Are you surprised at the military fatigue that my language wears in this blog post? Don’t be. In the first place, I live in a country at war; or, rather, a country starting many wars, fighting many wars. Even a war of the stomach. In that war of the stomach, a mouse stranded in a lecturer’s office has experienced a double tragedy. Is it not when the lecturer gets his full monthly wage that he could buy ordinary biscuit, and, if God answers the prayers of a wandering mouse, the lecturer might “forget” the biscuit in a drawer for the miserable mouse to sniff out and devour, and after go for thanksgiving in a congregation of mice? Too bad for the miserable, wandering mouse that enters the lecturer’s office (through whatever tunnel) at a time when the dollar is gaining against the local wallpaper in the stock market. The economic war has left a miserable drawer for a miserable mouse in a miserable office in a miserable country.

Discourses we encounter have ways of exercising some influence in the mental geography of our minds. It is like an infection. My mind is already prepared in thinking of the problems around in terms of warfare. Everyday in the life of the citizen in this postcolonial country is a war or rather a day spent at the battlefield. Actually, we should be talking about the everyday battles of the postcolonial vassal. Battles in the streets. Battles with other embattled folks on the potholed roads. Battles at the bus stations. Battle at the marketplaces. Even battles while you sleep. Battles in church or mosque as one prays, for Satan may be close by to sponsor the prayer or oppose it. Battles as you breathe in, for you must breathe out to breathe another day. Battles in everyday life. Battles.

And the language of battles in discourses of war might just be there to ignite the primed semiosis of wars processed and recorded by the mind. This morning, after trekking past a battlefront mounted by my fellow angry workers who have not been treated fairly by the government, I bent down at one of the many “bend down” bookstands around and I beheld a copy of a rare book, Antitank Warfare by G. Biryukov and G. Melnikov. A 1972 publication of Progress Publishers, Moscow, the book opened a direction in my rethinking of the attack on my computer by the miserable mouse (I was actually on my way to a computer shop to buy a cordless mouse, as a preventive measure, after which I would consider a biological weapon in my counter-offensive – rat poison!). It was a surprise find at a give-away price! Ideas on a page that I opened reinforced my thinking of my experience with the mouse that ate the cord of my computer mouse as a warfare or part of the wars I have to wage in the fictiveness of my reality in a postcolonial economy: “The enemy’s tank losses must be such as to deprive him of striking power and force him to abandon the offensive” (p.103). I see! So, the mouse was probably on a counter-offensive that would possibly disable my computer in this information war? My friend was probably right in teasing me with the assertion that my enemies were after me! Who is my “enemy” but he that tries to cripple my efforts in producing a blog post, like this one?

Now, I know I must go for a chemical weapon in fighting back, no matter what the UN Security Council says about such weapons. Imagine the likeness, as our village folks would say, to register a sense of being utterly amazed, no, being flabbergasted! Imagine a miserable, stranded mouse in a stranded economy trying to disable my computer tanks! Imagine the likeness!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

March 15: Some Reflections


Obododimma Oha

Events of life do not occur by chance. There is a network of relationships running through all happenings. Our challenge as humans is to discover those relationships, to comprehend the deep meanings in the syntax of events. Ignoring the syntax is to fail to put into use the competence that underlies attentive living; indeed, it is a semiotic competence through which we understand not just individual signs but also the main grammar of signs and signification in the Divine Plan of creation.

You might call it a coincidence. Another, a case of serendipity. For me, more than both.

Perhaps, what led me into this experience I am trying to find its meaning was my incurable desire to buy and read books, to search for relevant ideas, voices, to which I could connect my own. Inside our heads as book people, don’t you have a number of ideas, a number of other thinkers, holding conversations? Are we, as book people, not made up of quotations? We are connected to other thinkers through their ideas. Call it a testimonial strategy when we refer to other people and their ideas in what we write and say. We are, indeed, connecting ourselves to other selves in an intersubjectivity, establishing a network of thoughts. Even the ideas we do not endorse but cite or criticise are linked to our thoughts. They call this connectivity of a text to text, of a voice to another, “intertextuality.”

Now, you see, I did not set out to write about Obi Nwakanma’s poetry today. I did not even know I would meet Obi Nwakanma today, speaking eloquently in 73 pages. When I set out in this morning, there was no Obi Nwakanma on my mind. But he was there at the bookstand waiting for me. I was just writing something that had to do with the first cry a baby gives out when it is pushed out of the mother’s womb. I wanted to cite a poet in this regard, to let a poet say it along with me. A handy name was J.P. Clark-Bekederemo; remember his poem, “The Cry of Birth”? But I could not lay hands on J.P’s collection. Books move around a lot on my disorganised bookshelves! So, I planned to search for J.P. at a convenient time. But it looked like by thinking about J.P’s poem, I had roused the village of poets, a village of cooperative voices that took interest in the significant event of birth.

At the bookstand, outside the hall where I went to listen to a scholar tell me why we should take it easy with the postcolonial state that does not want to see another – Biafra or Oduduwa – born out of it, was Obi Nwakanma waiting to be bought and read. I had just listened to a talk that cleverly dodged telling me about a system that would rather have other states that are waiting to be born, strangled at birth, or to prevent them from being born, even when the mother is in travail and must inevitably give birth to! And there was Birthcry, Obi Nwakanma’s collection of poems, seemingly metaphorically challenging repressed birth of new nations with its eloquent title.
When I saw the book, I knew immediately I would buy it, at whatever cost, for I needed a poet’s inspiring counter-discourse badly. Please, note that the poem might not have been written about Biafra, but it resonated with the eternal idea about coming into being (of persons) and could be gainfully harnessed to my discourse about the unstoppable births of larger entities in a networked Divine Plan.
I opened the book. Or the pages of the book flew open. Better, the book opened me! I like open books!

There, yes, the lead poem, surely, was titled “Birthcry.”

Two very striking stanzas:

Did you, from the portals of the unborn,
Hear the many footsteps
Those who have gone before you
The birthcries, inviolate moments,
On the lips of mornings?
The birthcries are the same.
The first is all –
Is always the beginning
Of the pristine journey to life.
Without a kink.

The birthcry and the foetal blood; the birthcry, with someone bleeding. A mother always bleeds. A motherland, too. She is made to bleed. Motherlands that oppose the continuation of the colonial project in Africa are always made to bleed, especially if they are heavy with children and want to give birth. Someone, probably acting on behalf of the colonial invader, would always want to prevent the birth, or to kill the baby at birth. Why are colonial mercenaries afraid of the legitimate child that is waiting to be born?

We will still have to return to “Birthcry” and and penetrate its semiotics from many angles. But Obi Nwakanma completely swept me off my feet with another poem in the collection, “March 15”! Today is March 15 and right before me is Obi Nwakanma telling me about that very date in a poem! Now, this is more than a coincidence! From “Birthcry” (read in relation to struggles for post-colonial self-determination) to the temporal deixis of my encounter with the text, the exact location in time of my encounter with Obi Nwakanma’s inspiring voice!
Here are some verses that engage my attention greatly:

Flight of the white bird, O she
Who shapes the form of the bough,
Remember, there is nemesis for the hand
That yokes the bow to the arrow.

I saw the falcons
On the rise of five suns,
They flew inclined
Towards the East.

Yes, “… the hand/That yokes the bow to the arrow” waits for nemesis. I can relate with that, too. No one escapes natural justice, societies too. Worse, if societies still repeat their past mistakes and arrogantly refuse to accept that they have erred. Postcolonial societies that think they have to continue the coloniser’s project, have already submitted themselves to the hand of nemesis. Their intellectuals know the truth, but they would not say it. They are probably afraid of something or somebody. They would rather maintain silence, as an avoidance strategy. But such avoidance strategy doesn’t always work. They have already made themselves victims by denying themselves a vocal resistance as an assertion of their fundamental human rights.

Watch how some intellectuals that analysed and criticised tyranny in other lands choose to dance around the issue when their own countries are involved. They have been caged by fear or the bonds they share with rulers who do the very things they criticise about other countries. It could even be shared prejudice.

I am happy that I have met Obi Nwakanma at the bookstand today. I am delighted that his thoughts strengthen mine. Glad that I have found great thoughts and great words to lean on. Roll on, March 15.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Oduche, Ezeulu's Son in Chinua Achebe's in Arrow of God, Writes to His Father


Obododimma Oha

Dear Nnaanyi, Ogbuefi Eze Eziokwu,
I am writing to you this letter as a way of providing you with a report of my experience with the white man’s ways, particularly because you asked me to be your eyes and your ears in what the white man has brought to our land. I wish you had lived a bit longer for me to give you this report directly in your obi, two of us alone. That would have pleased me greatly. I know you would have put in a word here and there in response and would have couched your advice in a powerful proverb or two. I hear that one can actually talk to a dead relative through a letter by writing it and burning it on the dead person’s grave. I don’t know whether it is true, whether it works, but I want to try it. I am going to burn this letter on your grave secretly, around midnight. I am not sure our priest would approve of that – and I have neither asked for his views on it nor his permission. I want to try it secretly first, without letting anyone know.

Father, I know that you would first like to know whether I have mastered the white man’s magic of putting down thoughts in the form of marks on paper. Yes, I have. Of course, the evidence of that fact is that I am the one writing this letter privately! I wish you could rise from your grave and see me. Or can you see me? Can you also read what I am writing since you are now a spirit? I really would be delighted if you could read my letter by yourself, not employing the services of another spirit who is literate. You never can be sure, that other spirit could, afterwards, let out our secret. He could pass the information to another spirit who cannot keep secrets and before you know it, one of our church members would get the information in his dream and I would be disgraced! Just as I am your eyes and ears here, it would be nice if you become my eyes and my ears too in the land of the spirits, revealing things to me once in a while, please.

Ogbuefi, it is not how the chewing of the bitter kola sounds to the ears that it tastes on the tongue. It is good to embrace the white man’s values – learn something like writing a letter and reading it or other written things, as well as join the white man in his worship – but these are not the whole story. Do you know that with all that learning and all that praying, the people still practise wickedness, still discriminate and hold on to selfishness? There is still a lot of quarreling here and there in church and in school; there is still the nwannadi in everything. You would think that those who have attended school would be more refined and peaceful. It is not so! Indeed, father, human beings will always be human beings; their conversion to new life can never be complete! I am ashamed to tell you about the nwannadi they are doing to me in assigning positions in our church council. I indicated that I would like to serve as secretary, because I can write very well now, having completed my Standard Six. Even the priest commented that he was amazed at the speed at which I could learn and was very happy with me. That Thomas the son of Ilo opened the mouth with which he eats yam and cocoyam and said that I was too ambitious, that I should wait for my own time! I even heard from a reliable source that he said that people won’t take the church seriously if I become secretary!

I passed my Standard Six examination and should have been selected to go to teacher’s college, but Enoch the catechist suggested that Oliver the son of Edogo should go instead, that he was the first to indicate interest. You see, they just want to show me that they have influence. They even ridiculed me because my father was the priest of Ulu, asking me whether you have seen the new moon now and can authorize the eating of the new yam. When they gang up against me like that, they won’t call me by my baptism name, Paul, again, but would prefer to call me Oduche. “Oduche!” “Oduche!” Yes, I am Oduche and will always be. I am no longer anxious to be addressed as “Paul.” I am Oduche the son of Ezeulu! Not that I cannot withstand njakiri, but using it constantly to attack my person as a convert is not acceptable at all. If I had known that I would meet that kind of politics in the new religion, I would not have joined in the first place. I blame myself. Father, is it not the person that Imo sees his feet that it carries away?

I know you were not pleased with the way I treated that sacred python I put inside a box. I was meaning to apologize for it. It was Enoch that persuaded me to do it to prove my conversion and seriousness to other converts. The same person has turned back to say that there is a curse in my family and it is because of that that we do strange things! I am sorry that I listened to him; it was an act of extreme zeal. Please, forgive me for doing that and almost causing the family to be ostracized.

This other message would infuriate you. I hear the white people plan to stay in our land and to rule us for a long time. I don’t like that at all. I thought they just brought education and a new religion to help us to become better human beings. Now, they are talking about ruling us for a long time as if we are their slaves. I thought they would just show us the way and allow those of us who have embraced their ways to rule our land. How can strangers become the landlords? Does the stranger know or understand the ways of our people? They just used the religion to deceive us and rule our land.

Father, I want to be your eyes and your ears in a meaningful way. I now realize that I am not just there to listen and observe the white man’s ways and the white man’s plans. I am there also to say something and to do something about what I see. Isn’t that a better way to be your eyes and your ears, to be you, actually?

Eze Eziokwu, Ezeulu! Eze Gadagwom! I greet you! Now that you are not here physically, I long for your noble presence greatly. Sometimes, I wish I could see you and share my feelings of anger and disappointment with you. I need your wise counsel now. If you can get this letter, I would really be very happy. I have to end the letter here. I don’t want it to be a long one. If you get it, talk to me in my dream, please.
Thank you very much.

Your loving son,

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Myth of akwụkwọ anaghi atụ asị in Igbo Discourse


Obododimma Oha

Arising from the awe with which the early Igbo who first encountered Western written communication held the book, and indeed, all written texts, is the myth of Akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị (The book does not lie, or the written text does not lie). The early Igbo were amazed that what someone said could be recorded in marks made on a surface and retrieved afterwards, even several years later, just exactly what that person said. For them, it was some kind of new magic or superior art that bore witness against an attempt to falsify the true situation or that exposed situations. This was reinforced by the fact that the art could be employed to convey what one wanted to tell his relative that lived in a faraway land; the written text would reproduce one’s message to that relative, just like that! Those who mastered that art of writing, that white man’s magic, was venerated as special people. Thus, early Igbo education in the White man’s ways was principally devoted to the mastery of that art of recording messages and happenings and being able to interpret same when the need arose. In a word, the book or written text came to be trusted mainly because of the errand it ran. An errand person that does what he or she is is sent to do or is expected to do is normally liked.

Early Igbo persons that acquired a bit of Western education (in English) reinforced the written textual errand in various community contexts that required the recording of messages and events: minutes of community meetings, land sale agreements, tax payment receipting, and so on. These, of course, were in addition to the writing of letters for non-literate members of the community who wanted to communicate with relatives in other locations. Unlike oral messages, the written message hid there in those signs, pretending to be asleep, but would wake up any time and say the same thing. In serving as the memory of the group in a meeting, a group like the age-grade, it would record that Okeke Okolie paid ten shillings owed as dues when the group held a meeting at Okonkwo Unoka’s house on 23rd October, 1923. And the members would agree that that was exactly what happened! It would also remember that Nwoye the son of Okonkwo was fined one penny for coming late and that his excuse that he was delayed in his Whiteman’s house was not considered genuine. Truly, akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asi, they would nod their heads in agreement.

The early Igbo did not understand that that same art of writing could be maniputed to falsify situations, to tell lies. Gradually, that myth of akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị matured on the lips of the people and joined the ranks of “wise” unquestionable sayings in Igbo public discourse. Once in a while, one hears an Igbo person utter that “wise” saying as proof or backing in an argument involving what has been recorded in writing in a community meeting, sometimes in an attempt to rest the matter. Once that wisdom and power of the book is invoked, the force in contrary arguments about the factuality of what is recorded is demobilised. If akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị and many accept this, then the individual further pushing the case to the contrary is viewed as a trouble maker or liar.

But it so happened once that I attended an Igbo community meeting where issues about the indebtedness of members was being tackled. Once or twice, the akwukwọ anaghị atụ asị wisdom was invoked to settle the doubts about the person not paying the dues at previous meetings. With so much grumbling, the fellow accepted the judgment that, according to the book, he had not paid. Then, came another interesting situation. The financial secretary was asked to read out names of members who were not regular at meetings for them to pay fines for their absence. The financial secretary read out the names and the fines were collected as required. But when he said that he had concluded the task, the chairman said NO, that he had skipped some names, an allegation he denied, claiming that all other people not mentioned were regularly present. Many other members of the executive committee supported the chairman, arguing that the name of a particular person present at that meeting (who, they knew, had been absent without apologies) was not called. They clearly alleged that the financial secretary was probably trying to exclude that person and probably had received an egbu-eri-akụ, a bribe! At that point, the person sitting beside me (who had invoked the akwụkwọ anaghi atụ asi narrative in a previous situation at the same meeting) also muttered that probably the book had started telling lies! And those close by laughed at the joke.

The Igbo who created the myth of akwụkwọ anaghị atụ asị have also started interrogating it in various discourses. Just like all other myths that once in a while reign in the lives of a people, only to be exploded as they make their journey through life’s experiences.

As someone attached to books, surrounded by books, nourished by books, I have come to love and trust books. But I know that the magical power of the book, of written things, is not greater that the power of human memory. It is such a wonderful thing to be able to remember. As we remember, we re-member, and remain members of a thinking community. What the book has recorded may be skipped; in fact, people may decide not to record certain things in a book (OFF RECORD, as they say), but human memory can never decide not to remember what it has recorded. To decide to forget is to remember what one has decided to forget.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Is Your Photograph You?


Obododimma Oha

A friend shared the following joke on a WhatsApp group platform:

Abeg anybody with 1000 Naira mtn should snap and send to me. I am in a remote village no recharge card … I will snap the 1000 note and send to you, please ….

That bore the signature of Nigerian 419 fraudsters who would break into someone’s email account and send an email to the person’s contacts claiming he or she (the owner of the account) is stranded in Istanbul, New York or London on account of being robbed or loss of his or her wallet and credit card, and is in urgent need of some cash to pay some bills. The mail usually evokes a lot of pathos and strikes a note of urgency. Who would not want to help a friend sending an SOS, what more when the supposed sender of the mail is an important public figure whose credibility is not in doubt? The stealing of the person’s email account is clearly the theft of the person’s identity, the image of the person, the credibility and all the person stands for. The 419 criminal who must have studied the mails in the folders could even refer to a previous mail to erase doubts.

Small-time Nigerian 419 criminals copy this pattern (thieves steal ideas from thieves!) and ask for recharge cards, claiming that they are stranded in remote villages and cannot recharge their airtime on the network. Again, as in the earlier case, they could be using a phone that they have stolen, pretending to be that person. Who would not want to help a friend stranded in a remote village, after all it is just a few Naira on recharge of airtime?

But it gets more ridiculous and unbelievable (for people who can think deeply or who are given to playing the doubting Thomas like me) when the 419 criminal in copying and stealing patterns takes the targets reasoning ability for granted and reproduces the deceptive text in an illogical fashion. Of course, 419 criminals capitalise on people’s orientation to gullibility and poor reasoning. The small-time 419 criminal in the case cited at the beginning of this piece hopes to benefit from the following, among others:

1. A group sense of solidarity, demonstrated in assisting a colleague. The criminal must have broken into the phone owner’s access to a social media platform, like a WhatsApp group, and now sends the message with the stolen identity, hoping to get MTN recharge cards, after which he would discard the SIM. Who would not want to assist a colleague, maybe a professional colleague, in a social media forum, especially when the person (impersonated) is highly admired and/or respected within the group?
2. The ubiquitous nature of camera phones and the growing skill in using the camera in recording and transmitting texts or situations.
3. The somewhat pervasive orientation towards not examining issues/situations very critically, especially given the growing religiosity in some societies, plus the tendency to pretend to be a good person (through giving).

The 419 text reproduced as a joke throws up some interesting philosophical issues. As I responded jokingly when I read the text, if you take a photograph of the money and send to your helper (who sent a shot of the MTN card), can he or she spend the photo? Is the photo of the money the same as the money? Is your photograph you? I think it raises an important ontological issue about a thing and its representation, a signifier (the form taken by a sign) and the signified (the concept or material object represented by the form). Is the signified the signifier?

Long ago, the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, in seeking to systematise Semiotics, the study of signs and signifying systems, made a distinction between the signifier and the signified. A photograph, which is an example of what Charles Sanders Peirce, another semiotician, classified as an iconic sign, signifies something or someone which is not the same thing as that person, even though by definition iconic signs reveal some resemblance of the signifier to the signified. But resemblance does not mean sameness. And that is where the deceptive act of the conman lies. Deceptions, as acts of falsehood meant to mislead, present resemblance as sameness, hoping the target being deceived would accept the blurred lines of distinction.

Your photograph is NOT you; it only resembles you through visual features and excites recognition through a kind of cognitive analogy: the viewer compares the mental image of someone with the photographic reproduction of that image. There could, of course, be other reproductions by other media. In fact, the photographic image may be close to reality but it is always removed from it, even twice removed, to echo Plato.
What is particularly amazing about the 419 recharge card text is that it eventually succeeds it getting a victim, however ridiculous and illogical it looks. Doesn’t it show that some people do not reason deeply at all? Is it the same weakness of the populations which “clever” politicians capitalise upon, making promises they have no plans of fulfilling, and even later denying that they made such promises? First, they deceive people into believing that they would fulfil the promises once they get voted into power and the people believe them. Then, when they cannot fulfil those promises, they claim that they never made them, that they were misinterpreted. The people, again, believe them. They create problems and blame their opponents. The people yet believe that they did not cause the problems but that the opposition did. They could pretend to be solving the problems they blamed on the opposition, and the people would again believe that they are doing what they claim to be doing. When they run out of denials and blames and excuses, they could create a problem as a distraction, to be seen to be busy solving a situation that arose inevitably. They people, yet, believe them!

All 419 fraud, whether in ruling gullible populations or making them part with their money (as a practice of the survival of the most clever in our time) assume that not many people could make use of their heads, and that one proof of this is thinking that your photograph is the real you hanging up there on the wall.