Monday, 22 April 2013

Culture go hang

Just last week, Chinua Achebe was honoured by the New York Senate and Omotola Jolande-Ekeinde made Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Reading the comments flying around the internet there’s no escaping the importance we continue to place on the good opinion of foreigners, even though Omotola's elevation appears to be problematic to a certain section of Nigerian society anxious about ‘protecting the natural women [sic] dignity and virtues’ against the ‘disgusting appearances’ of ‘models’ who ‘dress shamelessly in the public arena’ and thereby betray ‘African values’. I never quite thought of it like that, having watched a number of Omotola's films, but it is as well not to get distracted by those who have the luxury of believing that they live in a country where said women's 'dignity and virtue' is not hostage to those who make it their business to make it so, as a visit to the nearest university campus will confirm.

Still, Nigeria has been recognised for achievement and that is enough given the country's reputation in the same US which saw fit to celebrate these two icons of Nigerian culture, for instance Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State - and almost that country’s first 'black' President – for whom Nigeria is 'a nation of 90 million marvellous scammers' on account of 'their national culture,' so perhaps the Senators in New York and the editor of Time magazine were simply attempting to balance the books, as it were, and why not? Our scammers aside, Nigeria is still nonetheless a member of the international community, whether it will or no, and it doubtless needs all the help it can get, only a pity that African womanhood should be called upon to maintain ‘appearances’ lest we be found out, but then we are all responsible for what we have become as a nation.

Achebe. of course, is unassailable, although irony, his stock in trade as a writer, might very well be his parting gift to a nation whose irresponsible leadership 'robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-range developing nation in the twenty-first century,' as he put it at the end of the civil war, a civil war we appear intent on fighting all over again - are, indeed, fighting all over again – but in a more protracted manner. His famous novel, Things Fall Apart, was published two years before we were ‘granted’ our ‘independence’ and began the descent into the anarchy raging all around us; his memoir, There Was a Country, was published two years before our imminent centenary in 2014, by which time there may very well no longer be a country called Nigeria. The tragic symmetry of things falling apart in a country that once was would appear to be irresistible given the current end-game the ‘father of African literature’ anticipated but was mercifully spared.

As for those who have a problem with scantily-attired Nollywood goddesses, the salient fact is that Nigeria is only taken seriously because of its creative artists, however otherwise they might be intent on destroying a culture which seems to find nothing 'disgusting' in stealing with impunity, defiling 13-year-old girls and fathering children on one’s daughter-in-law, such is the scale of the hypocrisy we daily witness in the name of governance, only a further pity that, for all the fanfare, Nollywood itself seems reluctant to interrogate the consequences of the social mores it purports to examine. On the contrary, any number of home movies persist in the pleasant fiction that Nigeria is a society where virtue – however under-dressed - is invariably rewarded when the society itself daily proves the exact opposite. In other words, it’s not a question of Nigerian artists going too far in the vexed matter of African culture as not going nearly far enough, which is why the federal government was happy to announce a N25bn grant for the industry now that Time magazine has given it its imprimatur.

Achebe proved a more awkward customer given his rejection of two successive national honours on the grounds that his beloved state had become a ‘lawless and bankrupt fiefdom’ with ‘the connivance, if not the support, of the presidency’. But never mind. The awkward voice has been stilled forever and so it is now safe for that same state government to get up a committee to ensure the safe homecoming of his corpse, and with it the opportunity to squander yet more money that would be better deployed building schools, clinics and all the other necessities of the modern state we claim we want but do nothing to realise.

All of which leaves us with the vexed issue of African culture, so easy to evoke, so difficult to elucidate because it was never about culture but the lack of it. This is at the heart of Nigeria’s ongoing dilemma. In a country where the notion of culture is reduced to what women do or don’t wear in the movies, politics fills the vacuum. And not just any politics but the murderous kind practiced by those who nevertheless seek to corner the moral high ground by promoting themselves as the guardians of all that is good and wholesome. The only wonder is that we ever gave them the time of day. That this is no longer the case is the lesson of the militants in the Niger delta unwilling any longer to acquiesce in the theft that goes by the name of governance, and the Islamic fundamentalists for whom any government is anathema. And so, at last, as we approach our centenary, we might very well find ourselves contemplating the country that might have been, a fit subject for Nollywood if ever there was one.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories, and
Dream Chasers.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:


1 comment:

  1. hi, don't know Omotola Jolande-Ekeinde (of course i could google just as i cut and pasted the name here) and couldn't really tell what in fact you are saying???

    or how achebe's "stock trade as writer" is "stock in trade as a writer" --irony and humour are sorely lacking in achebe.

    but yes, nigeria is a nation that'll rather squander than use funds to build infrastructure nd a future. a real situation of disorganized gorillas if ever there was one (the vikings are gorillas too, just so you know it's no race thing, and are now as scandinavians, organized gorillas. of course you can say no one ever colonized them!)

    PS: when you post these your post, try to engage your commenters in a back and forth at least.