ktravula – a travelogue!

art. language. travel

Reading JP’s America

It’s amazing to think that an African writer/journalist had the kind of access that Nigerian writer JP Clark had to the corridors of US power in 1962 during the Medicare debates, and some of the most high-stakes political period of the country’s history. The writer, then a playwright and journalist working in Nigeria, had won a Parvin Fellowship which, at the time, had been set up to bring young African professionals to the US for one year in order to interact, socialize, learn a bit about the American political system, and gain some skills to take back to their young countries. The result of that experience, and the subsequent fallout from his abrupt ejection from the country, was his 1964 book America Their America now re-published in a 50th anniversary edition by Bookcraft, Ìbàdàn (2015).

At that time in the 60s, all of the countries on this continent had either just gained independence or were in the process of doing so. The coup d’etat hadn’t started rolling in (as they did in Ghana and Nigeria in 1966). The CIA hadn’t started getting too involved in the political process of new states that turned away from the western-type ideals enough to start helping to assassinate them. Names like Wọlé Ṣóyínká had not become household names yet, and Chinua Achebe himself was still in the United States on a different study programme. In short, it was the golden years of statehood of many African countries on the world stage, and this benefited students from the continent who took adequate advantage of America’s attempt at a global outreach through soft diplomacy. It was also during this time that Barack Obama Sr had found himself in Hawaii as a father of a new American son, Barack.

And there was JP Clark, a young and boisterous playwright and journalist from Nigeria with, not unlike what has been described of Obama Sr, an acerbic voice, a confident gait, and a snarky outlook at the elaborately choreographed introduction to the American experience, which the Parvin Program had packaged for him. Even in his own accounting of the times, he was a rude, and unfiltered guest, willing to poke where the society he found himself had decided needed to be left alone: religion, politics, and race. He spent most of his time pursuing his own creative and personal haunts than spending time participating in the rituals required of the scholarship that had brought him to the United States, and he did these all while throwing his weight and sometimes solicited opinion around, often to devastating personal consequences. In the end, his host had had enough, so they kicked him out rather unceremoniously.

The country had, until then, seemed never had such a caustic guest. It certainly had not expected it from this African, half expected to be grateful and obsequious for the privilege that the opportunity had brought, and certainly expected to take the opportunity as one that may never come again. They, apparently, hadn’t met Mr. Clark, the saucy poet, who traipsed around America among some of the most influential members of that country’s society, in culture, academia, literature, and government not quite like he owned it, but like his critical opinion should matter as much as any man, intellectual, and journalist of his competence. And why not? Was he less of a journalist because he carried a green passport or a black African skin? Is America, a country founded ostensibly on the freedom of speech, not naturally best suited for, and welcoming to critical engagement by all that live in it towards “a more perfect union”? At the time, it certainly didn’t seem that any negative or uncomfortably frank perception or opinion was expected of this stranger, and he was informed of this, subtly and directly. He didn’t care. And, today, it is in that quality of brutal honesty and self-indictment that the book America Their America earns its stripe as a cultural landmark – a work of both political, journalistic, cultural, and literary value, packing an unapologetic look at the American political and cultural landscape with an attentive recollection of one man’s travels and travails through its corridors at a crucial time.

JP Clark (Author’s photo from the 60s)

I had moments of deja vu, while reading America Their America, not just because of the eerie similarity of those times and the depicted political realities and the current one, but also because of the similarity and dissimilarity of the visiting experience of Mr. Clark and myself. He had been invited into the country as a Parvin Fellow (a fellowship that was discontinued a few years later, perhaps no thanks to his fiery and bold-faced ungratefulness for much of the fellowship except for parts of it that allowed him the freedom to travel and experience America on his own terms) and I had made my first contact with America as a Fulbright Scholar in 2009 on similar terms. Except in the location of my fellowship and the teaching responsibilities expected of Fulbright fellows, we seemed to have been invited to experience the country in much the same way, through its generosity and openness to exchange of new ideas, and packaged through a rote of American perception of itself as exceptional.

Reading America again through his eyes brought moments of intense recollection, sometimes of nostalgia, but mostly of envy for the kind of access the Parvin Fellowship offered the writer and other fellow scholars. I certainly never got a chance to visit the Capitol building in order to watch legislative deliberations or have 0ne-on-one conversations with congress people. I did walk in front of it, but only because of my own restlessness. Neither, except for my own equally deliberate and constant rebellion against the constraints of a regimented school session, did I experience a year of such intense and colourful freedom. But it is the literary and historical value of the book that packs the most punch for an interested reader as myself committed as much to its contribution to understanding the 60s and early black scholars in and out of the West and the trajectory of the early African writers’ literary voice. Mr. Clark delights both as an astute storyteller of a tale in which he’s both the hero and the villain, and a travel writer experiencing reality through a fiery literary lens.

He complements the narrative with occasional poems written at moments of distress or contemplation. This one was written while thinking of James Meredith (the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi) and composing a letter to his brother in India:

Last night, times out of dream,

I woke

to the sight of a snake

Slitering in the field, livid

Where the grass is

Patched, merged up where it runs

All shades of green – and suddenly!

My brother in India, up, stick

In hand, poised to strike –

But ah, hiimself is struck

By this serpent, so swift,

So silent, with more reaction

Than a nuclear charge…

And now this morning with eyes still

To the door, in thought of a neck

Straining under the sill,

I wake

To the touch of a hand as

Mortal and fair, asking

To be kissed, and a return

To bed, my brothers

In the wild of America!

(page 56)

Of Washington DC, he wrote, a terse indictment:

A morgue,

a museum –

Whose keepers

play at kings.

(page 184)

In each poetic offering on the state of his mind at different moments, one glimpsed doses of frustration, mirth, mischief, inspiration, and more. It was a peek into the creative potential of the – at the time – 29 year-old author. The style, in which poetry and prose were effectively deployed to serve the purpose of memorizing, would also be deployed equally as effectively in Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s The Man Died (1971).

Politically, what impressed and fascinated me, even more, is the relevance of the debates that JP Clark diligently documented of the Senate debates surrounding the passage of the Medicare Act of 1965, and how little seemed to have changed. As I write this, the US Senate has just given up on their latest attempt to repeal the healthcare law signed into effect in 2009, a law that takes care of the most vulnerable in the society just like Medicare did in 1965. And watching the US media debates surrounding healthcare as I had when I lived in Illinois in 2009-2012, the following passage seemed very familiar:

“How are you sure he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps?” I asked.

“He darned well will want to,” the man said. “Why, he’ll all be provided for. I have built this business up for what it is today so no member of my family will lack for anything.” And here he brought out another photograph, this time of the entire family, even with the old parents included. Radiant in the centre with a strapping son and two daughters on her either side was his wife. 

“Now, they’re pretty well taken care of, for now and the future as far as human hand can provide.” He congratulated himself and the American system of which he was a shining ‘success’ example. 

“Don’t you think by all this provision and security, you deny them their great American privilege of paying their own way through life?” I asked. 

“How is that? he showed genuine surprise and disbelief.

“Well, I can appreciate the point of your doctors when they say they want no medicare for the old,” I began. 

“Go on,” he prompted me, calling out for more drinks for us both in the bar where we sat. 

“As I see it, the doctors seem to be insisting that every American citizen should have provided for himself fully by retirement age. So why ask government now to pay their full medical bills?”

“That’s right, boy, you’ve been following pretty close our American debate,” he cheered me on. Until I added: 

“Well, it seems to me you’re denying exactly that sacred principle the doctors are insisting on by wanting to lay on everything for members of your family.”

“Young man, are you calling all my life’s effort vain? No, no, don’t withdraw or make any apologies for beliefs you honestly hold to. But tell me, as a writer, of what I don’t know, don’t you want to make money?”

(page 182-183) 

As a Parvin Fellow, Mr. Clark was based in Princeton, but the traveller’s gene in the poet carried him around the country, from New York to Boston, and to DC. As a Fulbright fellow, I resided in Southern Illinois, with aspects of my work taking me to Rhode Island and Washington DC. But much of my emotional connection to Mr. Clark’s delightfully addictive rant against his uncomfortable participation in American life comes also from my hitherto lack of sufficient time and discipline to put my one-year experience into the words and images, with diligent markings of its most notable moments, as the writer has brilliantly done. America Their America was published about a year after the writer had returned unceremoniously after being kicked out of the fellowship for failing to show up in class. The closeness of that recollection to the space and time of the event’s happenstance probably helped its acerbity. But its ability to endure, even till today, as one of the most honest accounts of an African writer’s sojourn in America is tribute to the writer’s impressive talent, creative fire, and artistic integrity.

Another part of the book caught my eye:

Americans, very true to their candidatural role, like being liked a lot by foreigners. The picture they cut is of a big shaggy dog charging up to the chance caller in mixed feelings of welcome and defiance, and romping one moment up your front with its great weight, all in a plea to be fondled, and in the next breaking off the embrace to canter about you, head chasing after tail, and snout in the air, offering furious barks and bites. “Where are you from?” they breathe hot over the stranger to their shores. And before you have had time to reply, they are pumping and priming you more: “How do you like the US? Do you plan to go back to that country? Don’t you find it most free here? In Russia the individual is not free, you know, he cannot even worship God as he likes and make all the money he should.” And from this torrential downpour of self-praise the American never allows the overwhelmed visitor any cover, actually expecting in return more praise and a complete instant endorsement. God save the brash impolitic stranger who does not!

Little wonder why his visit ended with such infamy!

But such a shame that the fallout from the perception of his “ungratefulness” for writing the book had coloured the author’s subsequent negative perception among Western gatekeepers of African literature from which he never recovered. Heck, it had coloured perception on the continent itself, allowing publishers (many of which had ownership in the West anyway) to distance themselves from it. The book, for all of fifty years, remained invisible on bookshelves, earning its reputation only by word-of-mouth while other memoirs that came after it (The Man Died; 1971, Second Class Citizen; 1974) had enjoyed multiple print runs. Hard to think of any other book of such fame/infamy not having a second reprint for fifty years.

“Out of Print-Limited Availability” on Amazon today.

Yet even if we ignore the much more fruitful contribution of the author to the African literary space, the service that the presence of a book of this nature offers continues to be relevant, not just for African writers, many of whom have found less assertive ways of navigating the American immigrant experience either through soft engagement (see: Americanah, Open City, Never Look an American In the Eye), or through silence (see: Ngugi, Achebe, Soyinka), but for writers in general and for people interested in the enduring power of documentation with honesty and verve. JP Clark won’t be with us forever, but many of the issues raised by the book continue to be a relevant mirror to the American society, just as valid as those by its own active citizens, from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

To call it merely an “African” classic is to do it too much disservice. It’s a classic nevertheless.

—-

(Rating 5/5)

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

A Visit to Ojukwu’s Bunker

with Arinzechukwu Patrick

In 1968, in the second year of the Nigerian Civil War, the military leadership of Nigeria successfully repelled the Biafran government from Enugu where the new country’s headquarters had earlier been located. Desperate for a new staging post, the Biafran Army secured a building in Umuahia and built an underground bunker to be used for strategy and coordination, and a new HQ of the rebel government. It also became, in time, the location of Radio Biafra, a mouthpiece of the administration.

I visited this bunker during the week to see for myself what it looked like and to, in a way, relive the experience of what it must have been like during those precarious times. The building still stands, at Michael Opara Drive, Umuahia, a street so-named because the building used to belong to Sir. Michael Iheonukara Okpara, the first Premier of Eastern Nigeria. For many years, the building had been managed as an extension of the Nigerian War Museum. But today, it has fallen into the hands of those who call themselves the Indigenous People of Biafra, headed by Nnamdi Kanu. Much of the building has endured, including the famous bunker where photos of Biafran heroes of those times now line the wall. In front of the building are busts of Ojukwu and Michael Okpara.

With five hundred naira, a visitor gets a tour of the premises and the bunker itself. A video of the tour can be found here (courtesy of Naij.com). More photos from this twitter thread.

___

Arinzechukwu Patrick is a reader and a writer, when he isn’t writing or reading he’s hawking gala to fund his lifestyle and survive the harsh economy. He tweets at @nofstnme and blogs at www.rodneypatrick.com

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

At Titilope’s “Open”

When I lived in Ibadan, there was these jazz sessions at Premier Hotel which took place every weekend (can’t remember now if it was Friday or Sunday nights). It held in a ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel and featured an ensemble that played non-stop for about four hours, late into the night. The music swayed from highlife to jazz, and sometimes to juju, but always within a range of danceability. Guests who sat around the stage in different arrangements often got up from their tables to dance, alone or with their guests. There was always food and drinks.

I attended a couple of those sessions while I was a student, with friends and colleagues from the university. It always provided a kind of relaxing end to the week. We had nice stimulating conversations, got our fill of good music and food, and exercised the stress away. The location, on top of the hill at Mọ́kọ́lá, also provided not just a beautiful overview of Ìbàdàn at night, but also a very relaxing access to cool breeze. By morning, one felt refreshed and ready to take on the next week.

Yesterday, I had an experience very close to that, which brought the memories back. It was at 16 Kòfó Àbáyọ̀mí Street, Lagos, on the eighth floor of a building I never knew existed there, with a relaxing view of the Lagos Lagoon, and a high-up-enough location to soothe a most exhausted traveller. The event was Títílọpẹ́ Ṣónúgà’s poetry concert event titled “Open”. Gate fee: 5000 naira. It is the first of a three-part performance show slated around venues in Lagos.

I don’t know if “concert” is the right word, because the poet approached it like a soulful conversation between an artist and her audience. But the word still closely captures some of the show’s best aspiration. In a space that felt intimate because of its size, the lighting, and the mood, an artist performed to an audience, and the result was delightful.

I haven’t been to many spoken word concerts. My contacts have been limited to more public spaces like the halls of the June 12 Cultural Center in Abẹ́òkuta where poets from all around the world have performed to a much larger audience during the annual Aké Festival, and to YouTube channels and TED Talk videos, where poets with verve, rhyme, and sass have dazzled with inspirational and stimulating turns of phrase and soulful rendition of their work. There are a few other avenues that have popped up over the years though. I know, at least of Taruwa, which (I believe) featured open mic events for amateur and established spoken word artists to come impress an audience. But this one felt different, perhaps because it also included an element of music necessary to move even the most inexorable skeptic of the beauty or relevance of poetry in performance.

Accompanying Ms. Ṣónúgà last night was a bass guitarist, a pianist, and a man on the drums, along with a certain Naomi Mac whose voice carried the soulfulness demanded of the intimate occasion with ease and grace. With their accompaniment, the show was fully realized not just as a celebration of the power of the word or Ms. Ṣónúga’s poetic capabilities but as a ritual of mass catharsis; an artistic triumph.

The poems performed came from some of Títílọpẹ́’s recent works, a few of which I’d read on other platforms or heard in other places. Perhaps it was deliberate, a way to get the works performed again in a perfect setting of her choice, recorded along with the audience reactions. Some I was hearing for the first time. What united them was the theme of the evening: an openness to possibilities, in love, in life, and in public engagements. Navigating the tale of personal heartbreak, the process of finding love, coming of age, political instability, societal dysfunction, naivete, lust, love, and consent, the poet details her personal artistic response in a voice and style that is as open as it is reserved. (In a notable poem about a seeming first sexual encounter, for instance, the poem ends “he knows the punchline to this joke, and I’ll never tell“).

In the end, it was as much a beautiful intimate gathering as it was a much needed artistic intervention in a city space much in need of a lot more events of this character. We need plenty more.

_____

More about the last two performances here. Títílọpẹ’s earlier work “Becoming” was reviewed here. Photos 1 and 2 from Titilope Sonuga’s Instagram page.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 2.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

SIUE Grad Student Launches International Nonprofit Org to Fill West African University Shelves with Textbooks

For Immediate Release (June 5, 2017)

 

A brand-new nonprofit organization initiated by a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) graduate student and a native of Nigeria is filling shelves in African universities with much-needed textbooks donated by faculty and students around the world.

Efiwe, Nigerian Pidgin for “bookworm,” is the charitable organization founded here in Edwardsville with a growing presence at book-drive locations on campuses across the United States. SIUE graduate student Philip Alabi’s fervor for equipping West African post-secondary students with badly-needed textbooks and related resources is resulting in the formation of a 501(c)(3) and two boards of directors, one in Edwardsville and one in Nigeria.  

When Àlàbí first arrived in the U.S. two years ago to begin his master’s of science degree in chemistry at SIUE, he saw first-hand how relatively affordable university-level textbooks are to acquire in the U.S. compared to Nigeria. He also saw stacks of still-relevant textbooks in good condition that were being discarded.

“Even for university instructors, textbooks and relevant resource materials are extremely expensive and difficult to come by in West Africa,” Àlàbí said. “In the U.S., there’s the university bookstore, online academic resources and online vendors such as Amazon.com through which students can access the latest versions of textbooks required for their university courses. Sadly this is not the situation in Nigeria, even at the university level. Hard-copy books for courses are typically outdated and there are not enough to go around. If they are attainable, it is generally only the instructors who have a copy of the text, not the students.”

Adding to the challenges, Nigeria’s sporadic power supply and expensive Internet access makes it nearly impossible for university faculty and students in West Africa to access and download online academic resources, according to Àlàbí. “Our aim through Efiwe is to collect relevant textbooks across U.S. colleges and universities and send the books to university and community college libraries in Western Africa,” he said. “Our organizational mission is to send more than one million textbooks to African universities by the year 2030.”

The mission is ambitious, but Efiwe and its boards of directors, inspired by Àlàbí’s passion, are well on their way. In Spring of 2017, before Efiwe was formally conceived, Alabi and fellow SIUE colleagues launched an on-campus book drive with the same purpose. The results were astounding.

“We thought maybe we’d receive a couple hundred donated textbooks at our initial book drop-off sites on campus at SIUE,” said Àlàbí, who will pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry from Brown University in August. “That initial donation topped 1,000 textbooks in only a few months. We also raised funds to pay for the cost of transporting the books by ship to my home university, Tai Solarin University of Education in Nigeria. We are absolutely confident that we can continue the momentum and tap into the generosity of teachers and learners in the U.S.”

Tai Solarin Deputy University Librarian Jasiliu Kadiri said the donated textbooks would add value to teaching, learning and research work at the university. “We acknowledge with profound thanks the receipt of these volumes of books covering various fields including general and pure sciences, education, social sciences and children’s books,” Kadiri said.

Right now Efiwe is identifying university and community college campuses that are willing to establish a textbook drop-off site on their campuses. Efiwe is also seeking students who will operate and champion book drive initiatives in their respective universities and colleges, Alabi said. Ultimately Efiwe will ask for financial support to pay for the transportation of the books by ship from the U.S. to Nigeria and other West Africa destinations. But for now, the biggest and best way supporters can assist the nonprofit organization is by donating new or gently used textbooks on any and all academic subjects.

“We encourage individuals and student associations at community colleges, technical colleges and universities across the Midwestern states who are willing to designate a location on their campus as an Efiwe textbook drop-off site,” Àlàbí said.

Web developers are currently working to create an online book inventory of all the texts and supporting materials that are being donated so recipient universities can order the volumes they need.

For more information on Efiwe, go to Efiwe.org or email info@efiwe.org.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Traveling in Style: Classic Screen Cars Going Global

Most of us would love to travel the world. See the sights, experience the magic, explore new environments, and immerse yourself in cultures more exotic than your own. As a California kid, I was always entranced by stories told in film and television. Having Hollywood just a few miles away from my little suburban town, I was always drawn to the big blockbuster action films. As I grew older and worked my way through my education, I began to appreciate the value of stories that came from other cultures. I began watching more foreign films, reading classic works of literature from all over the world, and desired much more greatly to explore and travel. Sadly, such dreams and aspirations can’t always come to fruition for everyone. But a kid can still dream, can’t he? With Mexico below and the rest of the States to the east, I’ve been to some interesting places. But I often wondered what it’d be like to revisit some of that Hollywood hype and imagine myself traveling the world in classic screen cars.

Imagine whipping the General Lee, The Dukes of Hazzard’s 1969 Dodge Charger, out of the rough country of the fictional Hazzard County, Georgia, and into the Australian metropolis of Sydney; cruising across the Sydney Harbor Bridge and chilling out on Coogee Beach. Pretty cool idea, huh? Especially with Daisy Duke in your passenger seat. Or how about rolling in style? Taking James Bond’s 1964 Aston martin DB5 from Goldfinger for a stroll through Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera. Hopefully you wouldn’t need all those defensive gadgets that come with it, but activating that ejector seat to parachute down onto Pampelonne beach wouldn’t hurt.

I kind of like the idea of taking some of these rides out of their elements and into unexpected ones. Can you imagine driving Smokey & the Bandit’s 1977 Pontiac Trans Am through the streets of Hong Kong, down the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade? Or “flying” Doc Brown’s 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future through Rio de Janeiro, blasting some bossa nova? Kowalski zoomed his 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco in Vanishing Point, but how about doing it from Lisbon to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona? Or revving up the Striped Tomato, the 1975 Ford Gran Torino Starsky and Hutch car around Lagos? Take Hollywood to Nollywood, instead of prancing around in a Peugeot 505.

Of course, I’ve also always wanted to visit Tokyo. Immeasurably rich in culture and history, stylish and exotic, and alluring with its architecture and cuisine. I can’t think of any other way to explore it than with the Batmobile. From the Imperial Palace through Tsukiji Market, there is no other preferred method of transportation. And if I wanted to take a long-distance, cross-country European voyage, it would have to be in Speed Racer’s legendary Mach 5. I’d start in Amsterdam, race over to Brussels and on to Paris, zip down to Zurich, then up to Munich and Prague, whisking to Vienna, across into Budapest and down into Zagreb, then Venice, and ending in Rome. Yeah, a kid can still dream, can’t he? It sure beats tarrying around the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys in a rusted 2006 Toyota Corolla.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Facebook Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com
Page generated in 1.161 seconds. Stats plugin by www.blog.ca
%d bloggers like this: