ktravula – a travelogue!

art. language. travel

New Project: A Yoruba Names Dictionary

Hi Blog Readers,

Happy new year to you! I hope that you’ve been busy. I have.

IMG_6258 - CopyAlong with a few researchers (and with anticipated support from a few institutions), we are proposing to build a multimedia dictionary of Yoruba names. It is a project that has been dear to my heart for a while now, and a continuation of an earlier project from university days. As the name suggests, it will be a dictionary. And being a dictionary, it will have a number of important linguistic, cultural, and artistic resources attached to each entry. We envision a cross between a wiki and a dictionary.

I wrote more about it on the Indiegogo campaign page. Please donate and help make it happen. (UPDATE: I hear that the previous link wasn’t working. I’ve fixed it now. Thanks @hardcorekancil on twitter)

It’s been ten days so far, and we have already been featured at Tech Cabal, WeRunThings and The Cable, and in countless retweets and words of mouth. We thank them! We have also raised about 30% of our target, which is incredible considering the period (after a major spending holiday). We have 50 days to go, so there is still time to chip in no matter how little.

Many of you readers have already heard about the project, and many of you have donated. Thank you. If anyone of you are interested in joining in the campaign in any way (or supporting it in any other non-financial way), please drop me a line at kt at ktravula dot com.

So, what have you guys been up to?

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At Agodi Gardens, Ibadan

IMG_5833 IMG_6082IMG_5835 IMG_5836 IMG_5837 IMG_5841 IMG_5863 IMG_5865 IMG_5885 IMG_5887 IMG_5889 IMG_5891 IMG_5896 IMG_5914 IMG_5943 IMG_5988 IMG_5989 IMG_5990 IMG_6032 IMG_6045 IMG_6065 IMG_6072 There’s a reason, I assume, why the midwest United States appeals more to me – of all the regions in the country – than places like the coast, for instance. True, New York City and California are dream destinations for the amount of fun and activities that they pack. What I’ve heard about them, however, in terms of serenity and the freedom to pursue contemplative vocations, aren’t encouraging. I could be wrong, of course.

In any case, living in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon (both in Southern Illinois) accustomed me to a certain standard of serenity that I haven’t found anywhere else. Not in Lagos, anyway, where the drag of motor traffic coupled with the bustle of daily rituals combine with noise, filth, and other minor indignities to distract a questing mind. The nearest open park I’ve been in in Lagos is the Lekki Conservation Plaza which, as good as it is, still leaves much to be desired. Terrible walking planks, poor labelling, and a general poverty of ideas regarding the management and purpose of the establishment. Still, it’s a great respite for the concrete jungle that Lagos is. There are other great places in Lagos, of course, but they are not open, public, parks with affordable access to families and chasers of serenity. (Sure, Tinubu Square is better looking now than it used to be. Bridges and other public places have been fixed up by the APC-led administration in Lagos. But for a city with so many people and such busy and hardworking people, more avenues for relaxation is needed. If you want to relax in Lagos, and you have some money, go to Inagbe Resorts).

Enter Ibadan, a town that has always been equally notorious, equally famous for both its serenity and its capacity for turmoil and mischief. On the mischief side, the republican town has been quoted in almost all the political turmoils of note in Nigeria, from the Wild West 1965 crises to the Adedibu imperial areaboyship of the early 2000s. Notably, the state has never reelected a governor. Ever. Every election season is a battle, and it always leads to the defeat of the incumbent. For me, more than being my home, Ibadan is also a getaway location for serenity after months in the jungle that is Lagos. Unfortunately, the typical rap that the town gets – especially as relates to its uneducated populace – manages to get more airplay than its reputation as a destination for serenity and intellection. Go to Linda Ikeji’s Blog, Nigeria’s most popular gossip blog, and the most popular post relating to Ibadan is likely to relate to a crowd at the opening of a Mall or a decrepit arrival lounge at it’s local airport. For some reason not far from mischief, it has always been better to laugh at Ibadan for its inadequacies than to celebrate its distinctiveness.

I can say, from other experiences, that I’ve found many more rare books in bookshops in Ibadan than anywhere else around the country.  Today’s steal are “An Overview of the English Language in Nigeria” by Ayo Banjo, and “Iwe Itan Ibadan ati Die Ninu Awon Ilu Agbegbe Re Bi Iwo, Osogbo ati Ikirun” by Oba B. Akinyele (Olubadan of Ibadan from 1955 to 1964). Books are not the only things that make the town a premier in innovation (The University of Ibadan, founded in 1948, is the first university in the country, and the television station, WTNV – later NTA – founded in 1959, is the first on the continent), its spacial peculiarity (it’s the largest city in West Africa) and it’s intellectual pedigree in the Nigerian space (produced Soyinka, Achebe, Clarke, etc) makes it the most natural claimant to the role as a significant watering hole.

That said, this post, is about a new discovery in Ibadan: the Agodi Gardens. It’s not a new place, of course, but it has now been newly renovated by the current administration and made conducive for visitation and contemplation. It was never always like this. Like the Trans Amusement Park and the University Zoo inside the University of Ibadan, the Gardens used to be an eyesore. But unlike the earlier two, this one has been diligently fixed up to be just as good as any community/city park in anywhere in the world. The following is true: if someone else had taken the following pictures, I could have been confused as to where they were taken: Illinois or Ibadan. That’s quite impressive, but it shouldn’t be. We have the resources. Let’s hope that the administration of the state continues to use public funds for more public good of this kind. And, to temper the enthusiasm a little bit, the zoo ensconced in the Gardens is still terrible looking. Hope that this gets a similarly impressive upgrade to a standard worthy of such an important city.

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Memories from Ake (i): Okey and the Students

Last week, between November 18 and 22, writers and thinkers converged on Abeokuta for the second edition of the Ake Arts and Book Festival. It was also my second time of participating in the event, but the first as a guest. For some reason, the organisers thought it important this year to involve a linguist with but a finger or two in the literary pie in a festival of poets, writers and other makers of creative ideas. (Fake modesty out of the way, it was a beautiful, engaging, and stimulating event of which I was glad and proud to be a part). On Thursday the 20th, I gathered fourteen students from Whitesands School where I currently teach English, along with a colleague and award-winning journalist Bayo Olupohunda, into the school bus and headed to Abeokuta.

IMG_734910443236_885590758127197_8532045416560099830_oIMG_7317IMG_4475The drive to the quiet rockhill town north-east of Lagos has always been a delight, at least the second leg of the journey that begins on the Abeokuta-Owode Road. The Lagos-Ibadan expressway is still under construction and subject to surprises in the form of potholes, narrowed lanes, broken down vehicles, and diversions. For someone meant to host a Book Chat at 10.30 am on that same day, the choices are limited. One either leaves Lagos as early as possible so as to avoid all traffic-related delays, or sleep in Abeokuta in one of the luxurious hotel rooms already booked for guests at the Festival. If one is a teacher in a high school, traveling with students who have been brought to school by their parents and need to be returned to school on the same day; and particularly if one is a husband of a working wife, with a nine-month old baby who one would terribly miss if one were to take the second choice alone, the choices become hard.

We were supposed to head out of the school by 8.am, but by almost nine o’ clock, we were still stuck in Ikoyi traffic. By even the most conservative calculations, we were starting to be late. I began to worry that I might miss my session. The author I would be chatting with, notable columnist, journalist, professor, and novelist, Okey Ndibe, had just returned from the United States a couple of days earlier. How could someone from the US arrive earlier in Abeokuta than someone who lives in Lagos? How disappointing. Lola Shoneyin (poet and author, organiser of the Festival) would be even more disappointed, I thought, as I urged the driver to speed up as much as he could within sensible limits. By 9.30, Lola started tracking me via text messages. I assured her of my location, and pleaded that if I didn’t show up on time, my panel be swapped for someone else’s. She assured that if the worst happens, we’d postpone it for an hour. A few minutes later, a tweet went out that our book chat would begin at 11.30am. That was a relief.

We arrived at the June 12 Cultural Centre, venue of the event, at about a quarter to eleven. Fifteen minutes later, I was in the hall meeting Okey Ndibe for the very first time. Weeks before, I read everything I could find about him on the internet. Some I’d read before, some I was reading for the first time. His life, work, and opinions have made him an interesting person and personality in the Nigerian literary and political space for a very long time. Conversations with other friends and colleagues about him have also guided me into a number of relevant points of inquiry. Our Book Chat was going to be one hour of conversation in front of a room full of writers and festival goers. Okey is a simple but dignified man, as his poise, dressing, and personality immediately showed. While he chatted with a few other folks around the hall, I glanced at a few of the questions I had prepared. His latest book Foreign Gods Inc is a fast-paced thriller of many layers of social and political commentary. I had two copies, one on my kindle, and one hard copy which a couple of my students had developed an attraction for on the way to Abeokuta. On arrival at the venue of the Festival, Lola Shoneyin hinted to the students that two of them would win an electronic tab for thoughtful questions. 


_DSC0121One hour went by like a flash. As I’d been told of him, Okey Ndibe engaged each question with the thoughtfulness and breeziness of a seasoned professor, with humour, friendliness, tact, dynamism and thoughtfulness. Why did he dump on James Hardly Chase so much? What does he mean by Achebe saving him from Chase? How did he meet Chinua Achebe and what was the relationship over the years? What does he mean by Nigeria not having a real national character? What is “an ethnicity of values” anyway? What influenced him to write Foreign Gods Inc.? Any influences from the real life event in Soyinka’s autobiography of having to sneak into Brazil so as to kidnap a supposed stolen god? How would Professor Ndibe like the book read: as an ethnographic material on African people, or as a migrant literature, like Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah? How has the reception been so far? Would he like to read a part of the novel to the audience? By the time it was over, the seats had been filled, and the applause was genuine. I had a great time, and so did the students. Questions were asked, by the students and by other members of the audience, and we were done. Two students won tablets for their questions (and the rest were mad at me for not calling them when their hands went up. We resolved it on the way back to Lagos).


A few other questions went unasked, because of time: What’s the relationship with Christopher Okigbo and his family? He was afterall the keynote speaker at the Ohaneze Ndigbo event in Belgium in honour of that important poet about two years ago. Okey, being a young boy during the Biafran War, remembered a little of it, detailed in his essay My Biafran Eyes, how deep was that experience in shaping his upbringing? What does he think about language use in African literature? As a child of a culture with dying languages all around, how does he think that this can be reversed? Which writer in his generation does he consider an influence? What of older generations? And younger ones? He’s working on “An African Doing Dutch in America” – a memoir. What can he tell us about that? When will it be published? What was his experience as a Fulbright scholar teaching at Unilag? What inspired his first novel Arrows of Rain? He currently teaches fiction and African literature at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. What’s it like there? Has he stopped being harassed by the SSS at the airport?


IMG_7331IMG_7271FB_20141129_15_27_57_Saved_PictureThe students split up and attended one more session. In the session involving the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Professor Remi Raji and author Yejide Kilanko, which was well attended, one more student won a tablet for his thoughtful question to the author. He seemed very pleased. Their day being sufficiently made, not only by their winning of electronic tablets but the idea of meeting and chatting with world-famous authors and learning a few things they hadn’t heard about before, they headed to lunch downstairs by the festival bookstore before heading back to Lagos. There a few of the students met with some other writers, chatted them up about stuff, took autographs, bought books, and generally took in the festival air.

In the bus on the journey back, conversations ranged from the shock of realizing that their English teacher was a relevant enough person to have been invited to take part in a book festival (“You never told us that you were a writer! What book have you written? Aren’t you Mr. Olatubosun? Why does it say Kola Tubosun on the guest list? How did you know Okey Ndibe, Lola Shoneyin, and all these people? Do you know Wole Soyinka too? Where is Wole Soyinka anyway? Why isn’t he ever here when we’re around? among others) to the choice of theme in writing (“I write too, you know, but I never knew that one could be famous by writing African stories”, “Are you serious that people will buy your work if you set it in the Nigerian environment rather than abroad?” “I never knew that. All my characters have English names.” “How do I get published?” “Would you read my work?” “Can I come next year? Alone?” etc).

The most heartwarming comment followed later, halfway into the trip homewards when lethargy and torpor had us all but sprawled around the seats: “If I don’t make it into the final list of students coming here next, or after I leave school a couple of years from now, I’ll try to find my way to the next Ake Festival, or another one in the future.” Seems like a comment that the organisers will thoroughly enjoy. In the end, the decision to bring them along seemed like a great idea.


Photos courtesy of self, Akefestival.org, and Chidera Ezeokeke, and Tamilore Ogunbanjo

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Indigenous Language in Literature: What Hip-Hop Can Teach Us

One of the highlights of my participation in the recently concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival was at a panel I moderated titled “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense: Taming Colonial Tongues”. In that panel were Mukoma wa Ngugi (writer and son of prominent African writer and perennial Nobel favourite Ngugi wa Thiong’o), Kei Miller (a Caribbean novelist and poet), and Eghosa Imasuen (author and publisher from Kachifo Farafina). Our task was to examine the use of languages in contemporary fiction by African writers, perhaps with hopes of prescribing a better dynamic for the future. It was during that panel that this new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature was first announced, a prize that broke new grounds for being the first major prize on the continent that awards literature in indigenous languages.

The discussion on the panel had focused on this issue itself, examining the complexities of contemporary language use and the logic in the argument of those who insist that English has already taken root as one of Africa’s languages. If not the largest, certainly the one with the most reach around the continent. But nagging us back to the importance of using languages native to the continent in literatures documenting hopes, aspirations and experiences on/of the same continent, was the embarrassing lack of a large industry among intellectuals for publishing in the native language. Excepting Miller (who is from Jamaica) whose first and only language is English and its creolized cousin (the Jamaican patois), the argument eventually coalesced into the diametric poles of Ngugi’s description of the use of English in the third world “metaphysical empire” and Eghosa’s acceptance of English (this time of the Nigerian variation) as a first and most intimate language. It’s an old debate, featuring Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. I highly recommend this video too, as well as this review by Mukoma’s of the recently published Africa 39, anthology.

Why do Nigerian publishers shy away from publishing in Yoruba, or Igbo, or Hausa, to start with the country’s biggest languages? According to Eghosa, the publisher on the panel, it has to do with the nature of the market. In the Q&A, Bibi Bakare (publisher at Cassava Republic) rejected this premise, citing the case of Onitsha market literature and a number of locally produced literature in northern Nigeria that have sold out in the hundreds of thousands through mostly informal means. Unfortunately, the panel ended too abruptly for the discussion to thrive. The consensus however appeared to have favoured the resurgence of literature in African language through a conscious and concert effort by those concerned. English, after all, isn’t going away anytime soon. It will never have a reason to worry about any threat to its existence. We can’t say the same of the indigenous languages of the continent.

I have just watched a music video by Nigerian hip-hop rave of the moment, Olamide, whose fusion of Yoruba slangs, proverbs, and codes with sparse English and pidgin  English words stands out in a unique genre, made famous by the now late DaGrin a few years ago. What the success of people like DaGrin, Olamide, Olu Maintain, etc teach us with respect to language is that the market for local language in art production is still a booming one. It will only take the courage to take the risk, and the conviction to persist. The market usually responds to novelty and dynamism more than they do compliance and monotony. The inauguration of the Mabati-Cornell Prize is just the start. We need even more of those types of incentives for literature in African languages, for works in translation, for bold new experiment s that reject the bland consensus that English has won. We are richer for more ways of expression, not just in style and content, but also in language. Our literature (and, most importantly, our imagination) and our cultural experiences will be the richer for it.


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Of National Neurosis and Private Psychosis: Preliminary Reflections on Dami Ajayi’s Clinical Blues

Title: Clinical Blues

Year: 2014

Pages: 88pp

Author: Dami Ajayi

Publisher: WriteHouse, Ibadan

Reviewer: Tosin Gbogi


Of National Neurosis and Private Psychosis: Preliminary Reflections on Dami Ajayi’s Clinical Blues[1]

At a time when a whole nation has become a nest of singing birds, when the same stylistic path is repeatedly trodden in the name of a certain kind of dubious ‘tradition’, and in poem after poem, the thematic character of a failed postcolonial desire called Nigeria constitutes the formulaic lens through which good poetry is (re)interpreted and ideologically legitimized, Dami Ajayi interrupts the dirge with a riveting collection of poems entitled Clinical Blues. As the title suggests, CB simultaneously drags a nation into the hospital and drags the hospital into a nation but also permits us—within that overlapping spectrum—to conceive of the two as irreducible to one another. Divided into five sections that draw on imagination, memory, history, and the quotidian wisecracks of a beer-parlour strain, the collection frankly interrogates love, sex, emotional longing, alcoholism, hypertension, amnesia, schizophrenia, and other clinical concerns. Of course, Ajayi is neither the first to bring his medical training into poetry nor the first to set poetry within the uncertain despair of the ward. The avant-garde Williams Carlos Williams, perhaps, remains one of the best known to date. Before him, Anton Chekhov had experimented with stream of consciousness and mood in both his short stories and plays, making him one of the key figures of early modernism. And to return ‘home’,[2] Lenrie Peters is not just famous for his ‘writing back’ gestures but also for his use of medical terminologies in poetry. The same holds true for Latunde Odeku, Femi Oyebode, Niran Okewole, and Tolu Oloruntoba. Ajayi connects with these poets in many remarkable ways. Consider, for instance, the first three stanzas of the ten-part title (and longest) poem, ‘Clinical Blues’:

Sing me a song

Not from your larynx;CB_Final3

Probe deep,

Deeper into lungs

The recesses of your soul.


I am a lonesome observer,

The clinical sentinel

Who sits still to wage

Wars against infirmities


And your organic sax

Plunges snot and sounds

Into my drink of patience

The truth is eerie, tall

Like swabs of heavy winds (42)


The above introduces us to the caustic tone and medical register that permeate the entire collection. Like the Child-persona in J.P. Clark’s ‘Streamside Exchange’, the poetic subject of this poem asks us to sing, but from our lungs (the depth of our being), not from our larynx (voice box). With the task taken over by the persona himself in the second stanza, we soon realize that this is only a griot’s legerdemain to draw us into the performative, call-and-response space of the poem. The task remains the griot’s and the rule he sets for us also applies to him: to sing nothing but a sardonic song from the ‘recesses of … [the] soul’. Apart from this, the poet also permits us to extrapolate from the third stanza that this is a modern griot’s song, using such instruments as sax and harmonica to reproduce on the page an organic blend of Afrobeat, Highlife, Jazz, and folk songs. More importantly, this voice presents us with an observer’s account of an ailing health system and country. This is the point here:


The blip of an ailing heart

Tolls a symphony of symptoms

But I am no open chest surgeon

For I am a jazz pianist

With a little stint with blood (42)


In the above, a patient’s ‘ailing heart’ becomes symptomatic of the worsening state of a dying nation. Ostensibly a doctor, the persona informs us that he is no surgeon. He is a ‘jazz pianist’ and the alliterated ‘symphony of symptoms’ certifies just that. Beyond this, however, the confessional lines above intersect neatly with Chekhov’s oft-quoted dictum: ‘Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one I spend the night with the other’ (91).[3] Here, then, is where the fictional persona of the poem merges with the supposedly external personality of the poet. The result is a confrontational lyricism of stark honesty that speaks directly to one of the crucial centres of power:


I know of clinical meetings,

Not where doctors wage

Wars against themselves with literature,

But where diseases wield

Their many forms in a game

Of hide and sick (sic). (43)



Doctors wield wide bore cannulae

Plastic pistols don’t repair tissues

The clinical truth is Post-Mortem

At least we can lie that we tried. (45)



Three hearty cheers

To the Registrar who gave

Rave morning reviews

At the sitting of grey

Obstetricians and medical students

Who warmed his bed and beer table. (45)


Meaning-layered, the three stanzas bring to our attention a system that often evades critical attention. It is not uncommon, for instance, for doctors to assert their omniscient selves while dealing with their patients. Not uncommon either to find them constructing what Norman Fairclough calls passive ‘subject positions’ for their helpless ‘technical objects’ (one implicit meaning of the word patient).[4] The consequence, often times, is that in the minds of patients, doctors become gods. Ajayi shatters this illusion. First, he makes us realize that the petty politics of the trade might just be as dirty as any other. In other words, like any profession in Nigeria, doctors engage in petty battles, not with regard to best practices but for supremacy. Because these battles are symbolically oriented, it would seem that the one adjudged to have the highest epistemic and linguistic capital (within Medicine) dominates.[5] That, of course, is why it is a ‘war waged with literature’. But the poet is not interested in these battles (though he is, for the mere fact that he denies it!) as he tells us. He is interested in ‘clinical heavens/ where doctors’ hopes levitate when they die’ (43).

Second, his concern revolves around another of the illusions: Post-Mortem. Because we have, for the most part, come to accept science as infallible, Post-Mortem becomes a ploy used to absolve the doctor of culpability (at least in our own context) while transforming the cause of death into a medical puzzle and abstraction. Of course, anyone familiar with the Nigerian medical system might have heard stories of pathologists who, constrained by medical equipment, embarrassingly scratch their heads while trying to determine the cause of death. These are the same pathologists who, nevertheless, still go ahead to report a definite cause to the coroners. The second of the stanzas excerpted above jolts us into this reality and reverses the much-vaunted truth of Post-Mortem to that of a clinical lie.

In a way, the last of the three stanzas seems more troubling. Building on the frame of battle that he sets up at the beginning of the poem, the poet gives the familiar military salute of ‘Three hearty cheers’ to the Registrar in whose bed medical students finish their postings. Comically satirical, this stanza paints the rot that pervades not only the Nigerian medical institution but also the entire Nigerian educational system. It particularly shocks us with the unfortunate fact that what Okey Ndibe describes as ‘Sexually Transmitted Degrees’ is no exclusive problem of any one field of study in Nigeria’s higher institutions.[6] This is the level of the poet’s audacity.

‘Clinical Blues’ does not, however, stop at an external level of interrogation. By the sixth part of the poem, the exploration narrows down to the mind. Much like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Mental Hospital’, in which the observed transforms into the observer, this part of the poem reveals a complex relationship between a patient and his doctor(s). It partly reads:


The Man with the bald pate

Is Ward Seven. We

Are mere gate-keepers.


Isn’t that Upper Room glossolalia?

But Keke says it’s a synonym

For God, the answer to all things. (46)


In this atypical encounter, the patient and the doctor reverse their hierarchical roles.[7] Keke, his name a reduplicated echo between whisper and silence, personifies the psychiatric ‘Ward Seven’ and his doctors are his ‘mere gate-keepers’. Although reduced to the characteristic clinical specimen, Keke generates a tedious equation—’the answer to all things’—for his attendants. At once, the equation—a ‘[n]ew differential for intactness’ (46)—points the doctor-persona(e) to the limitations of their body of received knowledge. That they ambiguously ask if the equation is not ‘that Upper Room glossolalia’,[8] a symptom of neurosis/psychosis subtly expressed through a Christian metaphor, shows their own level of confusion and helplessness. And in this confused state, the reader is transported into a national theatre of madness where the sane intersect with the insane at the crossroads of tongues: glossolalia.[9]

Importantly, this fantastic poeticization of schizophrenia reminds us of those moments, in the words of Michel Foucault, when we ‘come to notice [the] words of madmen in our own speech’ (217).[10] The poet-persona admits exactly this about himself when he croons, ‘[a]nything but Haloperidol/ For this schizophrenic poet’ (47). But apart from this, if as Mae G. Henderson opines, the ‘psyche functions as an internalization of heterogeneous  social voice … [and] speech/writing becomes at once a dialogue between self and society and between self and psyche’ (350),[11] then Romasinder can be conceived of as the elusive answer/treatment to a national neurosis. The straightforward implication of this analytic mode is that Ward Seven at once becomes an allegorical setting for a nation while the patient and the doctors figure, respectively, for a confused, solution-proffering citizen, and the clueless elite who preside over Nigeria.

Besides ‘Clinical Blues’—my singular central concern in this preliminary note—there are many other interesting poems in this volume. There are the earthy, playful ‘Konji Blues’ series from the first section where a persona bids a ‘Baby, [to] take off your cool,/ That brief frock that abuts/ Above your knees. Let me unclasp/ You, free you of all earthly girdles’ (26). There is the androcentric ‘Love in Alcohol’ in which ‘[t]he future is shaped like a testicle’ (34) and so also is ‘Measuring Resistance’ in which we meet Rex Lawson and Orlando Owoh’s ‘Yellow Sisi’ sitting down in a corner of a poem,[12] her hand on her jaw! In the third section, similarly, are such remarkable poems as ‘House of Hunger, Revisited’ where we stumble on ‘a popular African street./ We’ve all passed by’ and ‘A Libretto for Fela’ in which ‘Fela christened a new breed of/ Mutated idiots who feed, eat/ And seek national cakes/ Dug from underground and water’ (67). The latter is specifically interesting in its deft appropriation and reproduction of Fela’s lyrics through what Julia Kristeva famously calls ‘a mosaic of quotations’ (37).[13]

This collection, however, clearly has its pitfalls. The most disappointing, for example, seems to be the conflation of ‘Romasinder Blues’—earlier published as a separate poem—with the other bits in ‘Clinical Blues’. Not only does this poem seem out of place in its new space, its full force is stifled by both the part that came before and after it. This point also connects with another: a couple of the poems in this volume are needlessly long. Generous editorial suggestions would have done well to cut them to shape. I have no doubt also that some of the poems ought not to have appeared in this collection for the simple fact that they are thematically repetitive. Further, the book’s title makes one ask a slightly different version of Louis Gates’ question to Joyce Joyce:[14] what has blues got to do with it? That is, reading this work, one wonders what kind of blues is being presented here. Are these the ‘work songs and secular songs of sorrow and tough luck known as the blues’ (Schuyler 662)[15] or the ‘field hollers, sacred harmonies, proverbial wisdom … elegiac lament’ (Baker 231)?[16] While clearly a couple of the poems fit into the blues matrix as we know it, many more clearly belong to different genres: Keneri, Afrobeat and Highlife, among others. However, Ajayi’s use of blues as part of this book’s title reflects a general tendency in new Nigerian poetry. As more of the older voices of modern Nigerian poetry cross the world into the Americas, re-uniting Black vernacular traditions with their ancestral origins and relatives (see Osundare’s Random Blues and Ojaide’s Delta Blues),[17] blues titles appear to be emerging as a new categorial feature. In other words, if the songs of the ‘traditional performer/raconteur’ (as Ekwuazi calls this group of poets)[18] dominated the last two decades of the 20th century, blues seems to be the new dominant trope since the beginning of the 21st century. Unfortunately, unlike the song motif that can be classified based on its use of traditional songs as backdrops, the new blues titles are structurally diffuse, correlating with the sort of ‘incoherences, contradictions and multiplicities without . . . resolution’ (65) that Harry Garuba has delineated as a feature of the ‘post-’88 poets’ (68).[19] Perhaps as we plunge deeper into the 21st century, a more definite schema for understanding this emerging aesthetic will be developed (or perhaps not)! But then, these few issues do not detract from the overall value of such a well-paced offering as CB.

Consistently, what seems to me the sheer exuberance of the poems, their vulgar character, their investment in the ribald language of the body—something that Charles Nnolim and Femi Osofisan have regretfully noted about the new Nigerian writing—is carefully counterbalanced by a tenor of contemplation that turns even the most mundane of these poems into the essentially sublime.[20] And what this collection lacks in terms of a spiritual focus, it gains in its deep concentration on the intra-psychic conflicts that both make and unmake the human subject. While CB will be particularly relevant to both faculty and students working in the field of Literature and Medicine, it will generally be appealing to all those who are keen on understanding the shifting vistas of modern Nigerian poetry in the 21st century. A pleasure to read!


Tosin Gbogi is the author of the tongues of a shattered s-k-y (Blackgraphics, 2012), Tosin Gbogi is a doctoral fellow in Interdisciplinary Linguistics at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA. His research interests cover hip hop linguistics, African literature, and literature of the African Diaspora.




[1] Far from the neat linearity that my title suggests, I like to think of neurosis and psychosis in this volume as always inscribing themselves on a national or personae’s psyche(s) in a criss-crossing, overlapping manner. In fact, I am more inclined to see the two as rhizomic, as schizophrenic, both disconnected and connected in ‘multiple entryways and exits’ (Deleuze & Guatarri 21). See Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987.

[2] I pun here on Lenrie Peters’ famous poem ‘We Have Come Home’.

[3] See letter to Alexel Suvorin dated 11 September 1988 on p. 91 of Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends. Trans. Costance Barnett. Pennsylvania: PSU’s An Electronic Classics Series Publication.

[4] Norman Fairclough, Language and Power. Harlow: Longman, 1989; see pp. 58-62 for the discussion of subject positions and p. 103 for the connection between the word patient and helplessness.

[5] Just as Pierre Bourdieu notes (in Language and Symbolic Power) of the inter-class symbolic struggle over legitimate language, I hold that the same degree of struggle for domination takes place at an intra-class level. This is why it is legitimate and commonsensical that within the (Nigerian) medical practice, a sort of hierarchy will be set up: (a) Academic: Professor > Consultant > Senior Registrar > Junior Registrar > House Officer (a.k.a. Intern) > X & Y and (b) Non-Academic: Chief Medical Officer > Principal Medical Officer > Senior Medical Officer > Medical Officer > X & Y. Expectedly, the struggle to both sustain and dismantle this hierarchy has fuelled many crises within this institution. The last nationwide doctors’ strike is one clear demonstration of this. I suggest that this is equally one of the things that Dami Ajayi draws our attention to with the line that he foregrounds by pretending to background.

[6] Okey Ndibe, ‘Sexually Transmitted Degrees’. Sahara Reporters. Web. 11 Jul. 2011.

[7] For some discussion of this hierarchy and how Felix Guattarri sought to reverse them, see Franҫois Dosse, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. NY: Columbia UP, 2010.  

[8] I admit that this single question has the most plural of the meanings expressed in this poem. With the graphological cue in ‘Upper Room glossolalia’, the poet foregrounds the patient’s capital neurosis/psychosis. And taken together, the entire phrase, which may also be taken as a code phrase among the doctor-personae, suggests the ironical nature of the patient’s supposed madness, which though is unknown to him, is decipherable in his speech by the doctors. This interpretation works well when we consider that the same irony holds for glossolalia in the Bible: apostles spoke in tongues whose meanings were apparent to others but perhaps not them. As Apostle Paul notes, this phenomenon may mistakenly be interpreted as madness in the absence of such interpreters that the apostles had: ‘if unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your church meeting and hear everyone speaking in an unknown language, they will think you are crazy’ (NLT 1 Cor. 14:23). Of course, in psychiatry, a radically disconnected, inaccessible speech that compares to glossolalia can be taken as a symptom of madness since this is not taking place within the boundaries of the church. I suggest, further, that the hasty connection that the doctor-personae draw between Keke’s speech and neurosis/psychosis sharply reveals the normalized habit of discarding words of psychiatric patients as hopelessly meaningless. The implication of this is that Foucault’s point about pre-19th century psychiatrists not critically analysing/listening to the content of one of the primary means—i.e. speech—by which they distinguished between reason and madness may still be very much true in today’s practice of psychiatry. Of course this is my argument about the psychiatrist(s) in this poem not being less mad than the patient they pretend to help.

[9] This is, perhaps, why a more ambitious reading of this poem will be to think of it as a fictional response to Fanon’s reading of the colonial subject. In other words, if Fanon is more interested in the psychological questions of colonialism as they affect the colonized subject, this poet is interested in similar questions but with regard to the oppression/violence/failure called Nigerian post-colonial project. See Frantz Fanon. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto, 2008.

[10] Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse on Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books. See also Foucault’s History of Madness.

[11] Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, ‘Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition’. African American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Winston Napier. New York & London: New York UP, 2000.

[12] It is also possible, however, to read this poem as having gynocentric possibilities since the male sex is only left with a testicle!

[13] Julia Kristeva, ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 34-61.

[14] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘“What Has Love Got to Do with It?’’: Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom’. New Literary History 18 (Winter 1987): 345-62.

[15] George S. Schuyler, ‘The Negro-Art Hokum’. The Nation (1926): 662-663.

[16] Houston A. Baker, Jr., ‘Belief, Theory, and Blues’: Notes for a Post-Structuralist Criticism of Afro-American Literature’. African American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Winston Napier. New York & London: New York UP, 2000. 224-241.

[17] I am of the opinion that Niyi Osundare has been more influential in both the songs (first with the publication of Songs of the Marketplace and later with both the Sunday Tribune and book versions of Songs of the Season) and blues directions (with the Sunday Tribune version of ‘Random Blues’ especially).   

[18] Hyginus Ekwuazi, ‘The Portrait of the Nigerian Poet’. Nigerian Literature Today: A Journal of Contemporary Nigerian Writing 1: 123-8. See also ‘Modern Nigerian Poetry—A Long Night’s Journey into Creation Day’. Nigerian Sunday Guardian. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

[19] Harry Garuba, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Re-Figuring Trends in Recent Nigerian Poetry’. English in Africa 32.1 (May 2005): 51-72.

[20] Charles Nnolim, ‘Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun: A Comment’. ANA Abia Review: Journal of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Abia State Chapter 1.1 (1st Quarter, 2009): 13-20. See also Femi Osofisan, ‘Wounded Eros and Cantillating Cupids: Sensuality and the Future of Nigerian Literature in the Post-Military Era’. African Literature and Development in the Twenty First Century. Ed. Joy Eyisi, Ike Odimegwu, and Ngozi Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Owerri: Living Flames Resources, 2009. 30-60.

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