Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Stranger on the 36

Some of my more wholesome and fulfilling human interaction have been with strangers that I've met in transit. I enjoy talking to strangers on trains, buses, bus stops, cafés. This evening, on my way back home, I got talking to a young woman who's studying theatre design. Within minutes we were chatting passionately about theatre, she relayed her feelings about the relationship between the set designer and the director, and I talked about a performance of Romeo and Juliet I was involved in, where the set was devised solely from four ladders. Then we launched into Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare, extolling the virtues of the Baz Luhrman approach, and the pervasiveness of Shakespeare in the modern story. The last play she saw was A Few Good Men, with Rob Lowe, and the last play I saw was Death of a Salesman (last year, I'm greatly slacking).

After the most invigorating bus ride I've had in ages, I asked her for her name, which she said was Stella. I told her mine, and then she got off the bus. And that was that, no telephone number, no email, no nothing. A long time ago, I would have insisted on getting her number, in the hope of establishing some kind of friendship. It seemed a shame to waste the serendipity, especially when we had gotten on so well. But that's precisely the draw of strangers, you connect, and then you let go. Not every acquaintance is supposed to blossom into a lifelong frienship or even a romantic relationship. Seetha Hallet who presents A Place by the Sea on Channel 4, met her husband on a train. But they don't all end so blissfully. A friend of mine met someone who turned out to be a bit of a madman after his car pulled up beside hers at traffic lights. This sort of thing might be a daily occurence in "whatchu sayin' ma" New York, but in staid Britain, it's as rare as chicken teeth.

A few years ago, I met this wonderful young woman at the coach station in Birmingham. I was coming back from a wedding, contemplating my post-uni future, and she was also about to start the rest of her life. She was off to be a beautician on a cruise ship, and was at a crossroads in her relationship with her boyfriend. She wasn't sure where it was going, but she still had a ring from him on her finger. I had also just come out of a long relationship, and so I could understand her muddle. We were both at a point in our lives where waiting at a coach station in Birmingham, and a three-hour drive to London seemed like the most cathartic experience in the world. We promised to keep in touch, but never did. I hope she's well, and I hope she saw the world, as she'd wanted to.

In the constantly urbanised world we live in, we become individuals disjointed from our immediate surroundings. We exist in the cocoon that is the ipod, or some other personal accoutrement. Relationships are conducted over the phone strictly with people we have chosen. There is nothing wrong with this, but we restrict ourselves greatly by doing so. One of the most touching things happened to me some months ago. I cherish my plantain, and I've said before that I base judgements about where I live on proximity to buying plantain. After a year of buying plantain at this particular shop, the man asked me to take an extra plantain (normally four for £1). I grinned all the way home. Apart from the extra plantain, that supposedly insignificant gesture meant that, to a certain extent, I was now part of a community. I was customer. I was no longer represented by just Queen's heads, ink on a receipt, the anonymous ring-ring whenever one enters these shops, but a living breathing human, part of a whole.

In Britain, I've found that the North-South divide is not only manifested in economic terms, but also in the way peope interact. Up north (where I lived for five years), when you stand at a bus stop, you talk to people. And it's hardly ever tired bromides about weather and all that jazz. The weather is always predictable up north - sleet rain - why waste time on what you already know? I looked forward to going to the laundrette, because I'd give the laundry woman little vignettes about how most modern so-called African princes had no physical kingdoms to claim, while she called me a southern nonce for saying "detergent", when the real northern word was "soap powder". Down south, most people are too concerned with the vicissitudes of life that they want absolutist control of at least one thing - who they interact with.

One thing I'll get no prizes for noticing is another North-South divide of a different kind, that of human relationships in the global south and the global north. Something that struck me when I went to Egypt earlier this year was the importance of human interaction in Africa. In London, I can get anything I want from the comfort of my room. I can order food online, I can pay my bills on the phone, I can choose what films I watch on digital television. Even if I venture into the netherworld that is the shop, I can use the automated check-out till. On the African continent, for anything, you must interact with your fellow man. Some of the interaction might be grudging, say, that of the bribed to the briber at a police checkpoint. But man still interacts with man, for better or for worse. To steal biblical terminology, one must commune with another. And the "dark continent" is richer for it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fayah descends from on high!

Fayah descends from on high in da shape of a lion
Bun da sacrifice of pride and ride an ta Mount Zion
- Chorus of Fire of Heaven/Altar of Fire

No doubt most of you have heard, or heard of Matisyahu (pictured), the Hasidic Jewish rapper reggae star. Matisyahu makes music for the soul, which is what good music always does. When music is done well, it speaks to one's inner being in many ways - the jungle music syndrome, where you abandon your faculties and revel in the soundscape. Judging music for me is easy. I get goose pimples when I hear achingly beautiful music. If any artists wants to impress me, all they need is to inject the cd with goose pimple dust. Above all else, music is the major artform which speaks to me directly. I love watching films, especially old classics (they don't make 'em like they used to), I love reading, but music is number one, and theatre a close second. With music, I don't instinctively have to intellectualise it, the immersion is immediate and simple. The intellectualisation comes after.

Back to Matisyahu. Much has been made of the fact that he is a white boy Hasidic Jew from Broooklyn, and that he's doing reggae music. Thinking about it, Judaism and reggae should be the most natural allies. Reggae in its infancy, was, and still is heavily influenced by Rastafarianism. And Rastafarianism is to some intents and purposes Judaism, skewed towards Caribbean afrocentricity. And contemporary Judaism is in no way alien to black people or Africans, the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia being a case in point. Obviously, Matisyahu will be seen as the saviour of reggae music, some will try and nail him to a cross, and some will try and start a movement. He's no messiah, nevertheless, he is a man who makes damn good music.

The album Youth, is a peach of an album. It requires listening. A friend of mine who didn't like it at first, but grew to like it, described it as righteous, thinking it was a disparaging term to use for music. There's nothing wrong with music being righteous. Some music I hear doesn't even make the customary in-one-ear-out-the-other, failing even to hit the first eardrum. You must listen to what Matisyahu is saying, layers reminiscent of Bob Marley and roots, rock, reggae, with a bit of hip-hip thrown into the mélange.

My favourite song is Ancient Lullaby. If you get any song from the album, procure this song. Steal this song, raid your grandma's piggy bank for this song. The bridge in the song is of the beremole ("get down and dance" to the uninitiated) ilk. The song melds into what can only be described as Thanksgiving Sunday in a charismatic church. The drummer goes crazy, the guitarist who appears to have been brought in from the Congo plucks away like a plantation boy, and you can just picture the gélés and the agbadas gyrating with abandon. The coup de grace though, comes 2'40'' into the song. The drummer is hitting the hihat, but it sounds like the bells used in traditional music, being played by a little boy whose greatest responsibility in life is to "knack that bell". I had to clap. Rhythmically, of course.

My only quibble with Youth is the song, Jerusalem. I have no problem with anyone talking about the persecution of Jews over many millenia, or even their right to a homeland. But I'm not so sure about reference to Jerusalem, the city. Jerusalem is probably the sticking point in the Middle East crisis, and to stake some open claim to it is insensitive. However, in the lyrics, he makes no direct reference to Jerusalem belonging to the Jews, so on that basis, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. Iffy, but no sin.

If you want to find other artists who make music far removed from their own existence, you could no worse than Marta Topferova, Konono No 1, and Antibalas. Marta Topferova sings Latin music in her third language, Spanish, with Czech and English being her first two languages. I recommend Semana Azul from the album La Marea. Konono No 1 have been described as an afro-techno-punk band, in existence in a Congolese vacuum, without Sid Vicious ever landing the shores of Kinshasa. Antibalas (which means bullet-proof in Spanish) are a personal favourite. I saw them in concert a few years ago at the Jazz Cafe. Where did afrobeat go after Fela died? It went to Antibalas and resided with them in New York, politics and all.

Friday, May 26, 2006

They can play but...

I've just finished a one month internship at the left-leaning New Statesman magazine. For this week's cover story, I helped out with part of the premise of the article and some research for David Runciman who wrote the piece.

Bursting with talent and eternally tipped as the coming force, African countries won't win this World Cup, or the next one, writes David Runciman. The reason? For all the money splashing around, nothing is changing at the grass roots... read more.

A rose by any other

As can be seen from the profile, my name is Nkem Ifejika, pronounced, in-kem e-fay-jee-ka. Or as I try to explain to people on our first acquaintance, “Nkem, pronounced in chem-istry.” This tends to do the trick. But before I thought up “in chemistry”, my name would be bastardised severely. When new teachers read out the class register, they would get to David Johnson and then get a sudden bout of the stutters, choking while trying to imagine how on earth "the k can come after the n". Seasoned teachers didn't even bother, looking up to see if I was in class, and ticking me off. They probably thought, "It's 9am, it's too early to splice my tongue on account of pronouncing some obscure African name." Some felt an unfortunate need to add previously unseen vowels, “Nokem” and “Nyekem” replaced my beautiful name. Bless their hearts, at least they tried. But my absolute worst was a lazy twit who said, “Why don't we just call you Nick?”

I have enough names, thank you very much, five of which made it onto my birth certificate. We in Nigeria have a tradition where all the senior members of the family give the new baby a name. Passports are strewn with names from paternal and maternal grandfathers, paternal and maternal grandmothers, aunties, uncles, etc. Sometimes, even strangers who are in the vicinity when the news of a new addition to the family is received can contribute, so I have a name by an old friend of my dad's whom I've never met.

Like many Nigerian names, Nkem is a unisex name, apparently. In my many years, I have met many female Nkems, but not once have I personally met another male Nkem. There are rumours that they exist, but nobody has been kind enough to introduce us. Male Nkems are like the chupacabras of the nominal world: do they (we) really exist?

This lack of conviction on the unisexuality of my name isn't helped by my mother, who always tells me that she wanted a girl. So certain was she that she would have a girl that she never bothered to check what sex I would be while she skipped around London with her swollen belly. She stockpiled girls' clothes, but claims she never put them on me. However, I could swear the pictures from my christening show me wearing a dress, but once again, Mama says the christening clothes are unisex. On account of my delusions of machismo and certitude of testosterone, I'm inclined to believe her. Or should I?

Thursday, May 25, 2006


I was going to make this so much more elaborate, but I've failed. All my mandarin and arabic-speaking friends are unavailable, so I'm having to reveal it to you in the form of a riddle on this website, actually, this post. Let's see how smart you guys are!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Can you tell I'm enjoying this? There'll be a prize for anyone who can guess what it is. Just as family members of Kelloggs cereal employees are not allowed to enter prize draws for fluffy Snap, Crackle, and Pop dolls, close associates of mine are barred from answering. And don't you dare give any of the commenters a clue, I possess a few books on medieval torture techniques. What's the prize? I haven't thought of any because I'm so sure nobody will guess. All will be revealed tomorrow.

ps. Who is the President of?

I sing

I sing (though, I'm no Pavarotti) because I'm happy (rather ecstatic, actually),
I sing because I'm free (you know moi, free spirit and all that),
His (yes feminists, I know "His" could be a "Her"...) eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me (lil ol' me? aww shucks!)

No, nobody has asked for my svelte uncalloused hand in marriage... Details as and when.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mrs Omokorede

Lenny Henry's pushy mum sketch is so funny, but so true. Most, if not all Nigerians can relate to Gina Yashere's portrayal of the mother. My mum was never pushy in the "you must be a doctor" sense. But I remember when I ditched engineering for a Mickey Mouse degree, no less, my mum asked me, "is that a real degree?" She proceeded to ask my uncle about it, and then told me, "your uncle said it really exists, who would have imagined, ehn?"

Monday, May 22, 2006

No, it is not a summer shirt

My blog is called African Shirts for a reason. I lurve African print shirts. I wear them as a *fashion statement rather than some militant adherence to negritude, or that I have a shrine to Mother Africa in the corner of my room. The fact is that these are shirts (and short trousers) I used to wear when I was in primary school in Nigeria. There is no reason whatsoever why I should stop wearing them now in my twilight years, unless I was ashamed of them. In my teenage years when one might have been more inclined to ditch African shirts in favour of the ubiquitous Tommy shirts, jeans, and Timbolos, I stood fast and wore my shirts with pride. The key was my mother. She always made very fashionable shirts with the well-chosen local material, and they always matched perfectly with contemporary stuff like jeans.

Fast forward to Her Majesty's dominions aka England. I was in the land of Oxford Street's human traffic shopping, a hop, skip, and jump, away from NYC, and Paris was on the other end of the Chunnel, haute couture, or something, should have been screaming my name. It was screaming my name, but I wasn't listening. If I listened, I would have looked like every other Thomas, Richard, Harold, Kumar, and Wazobia child out there. My dad doesn't call me the "non-conforming conformist" for nothing. Fashionable status could be attained on the cheap, with shirts ferried in from Mama in Lagos, funky jeans still remain, and footwear would be mix of Timbolo, and And1s. Non-conforming conformist.

My wardrobe has reached a stage where it's about half African print. The intention is not to totally replace Western style clothes with shirts from the motherland, but having enough for it to be a wardrobe on its own merit would be a worthy achievement. This whole exercise is pointless if I only wear this kind of attire to Nigerian/African events, so I wear them everywhere. I mean everywhere. I've worn them to interviews, meetings with executive types, to work. If they don't like it, they can sue me (I've slandered/libelled too many people, so I have my lawyers on speed dial). Now, I work in the creative industries, so I could probably get away with it more than most. Eccentric dressing can almost be a badge of honour in the media, but African shirts? That's just taking the mickey.

If you wear African shirts in south east London, where I live, nobody bats an eyelid. Peckham, Lewisham, Woolwich - African shirts central. But as soon as you wear them in more, shall we say, genteel circles, the sirens start to wail.

So I'm at work, right. And I'm in the toilet, doing a number one in the urinal. And this dude who, like, sits near me at work, and he looks like he's also doing a number one, he says to me, "that's a cool summer shirt". So I says to him, "summer shirt"? and I looks at the shirt I'm wearing (pictured, top). I agree, it's a colourful number. Some (mainly British people) might even say the combination of patterns and colours is a bit hypnotic and blinding. I can appreciate that, but summer shirt? Wait just one minute, you'd never find this shirt on Miami Vice or Hawaii Five-O. So I says back to the dude, "this is no summer shirt, it's an African shirt, and I wear it in winter as well." All this while, I'm washing my hands and trying not to call him an ignorant pompous English twit, because really he isn't. But that's how I'm feeling.

This is just a slight illustration of what I have to deal with regularly. I can remember going into the BBC offices once, and my one of my colleagues said to me, "you look very Nigerian today". And of course I said, "well, erm, I am Nigerian, you know".

But of all the African shirts stories which have dismayed me, was in Nigeria a couple of years ago. I went to a party in this dodgy place called Victoria Island. It's supposed to be a posh part of Lagos, but the safari grand prix roads had too many gullies and pot holes to convince me. I wore one of my favourite African tops, not thinking twice about it. One thing I had told people in Britain was that African shirts aren't odd things, they are everyday fare for people on the streets of Lagos or Bujumbura. Market men wear them, marker women wear them, it's what we wear. However, in Lagos, on this very night, my African shirt was not everyday fare, but the exception. The sole exception. Over a thousand black people at a party in West Africa, not one person wearing African style clothes of any type. Tragic.

And it is due to such incidents that what is simply the covering of nakedness becomes a political act. Wearing an African shirt goes against the grain wherever you are. It becomes an act of rebellion thrust upon the wearer. This shouldn't be so, as we needlessly politicise clothing. It is the act of nakedness which should be rebellious, not the act of clothing oneself.

I think it is also interesting to note that OBJ never wears Western style clothes. Look at last year's G8 summit picture, OBJ and former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konare (in his capacity as AU chairman) are in traditional gear. From left to right, the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade wears a suit, so do Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, Tanzania's Benjamin Mkapa (is that a dog collar?), Algeria's Ahmed Bouteflika, Ghana's John Kufuor, and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki. OBJ obviously exudes a pride in his Yoruba heritage, setting an example his countrymen should be following.

The wonderful thing about Nigeria's National Assembly (yes, wonderful and the NA in the same sentence) is that the senators and congressmen tend to wear traditional attire. While many other parliaments in African have men wearing drab colonial hand-me-downs, Nigeria gets bold and colourful dressing, a true expression of the constituents they represent. There is a practical element to all of this, which is that suits are notoriously unsuited to the Nigerian heat. Yet bankers, accountants, and all the other pen pushers insist on their ridiculous T.M. Lewin status symbols. Heaven forfend!

*Little ditty I made earlier;
Shirts, shirts of Africa, once proudly on our back
Shirts, shirts of Africa, it seems we lost the knack
Shirts, shirts of Africa, we have you on the brain
Shirts, shirts of Africa, you'll find your place again!

*Disclaimer: I am neither a fashionable, nor a poet. Just unfashionably unpoetic.

A Life Elsewhere

There was a review of Segun Afolabi's collection of short stories in Saturday's Guardian. Nigerian literature coming on strong...

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A civil discourse

There have been insults, stabbings, attempts at murder, assaults, and most commonly, jackings, in this sphere that we inhabit. Yes people, I'm talking about e-crimes in the blogosphere. Many bloggers are victims of verbal e-stabbings, by unknown assailants, ie they go onto people's message boards and plunge the e-knife. Other bloggers have attempts made on their e-lives, with many having to shut down their blogs. But by far the most common, are the blog jackings, which is where unknown assailants (as they quite often are) hijack a post and deviate from the point in question. As most of these forums have no police, the law of the jungle applies. But what can we do?

The Guardian's august columnist, Polly Toynbee, wrote on the Guardian's blog about the lack of civility on the part of people posting comments blogs:

My friend and fellow columnist Jackie Ashley made a valiant plea for civility from Comment is Free correspondents yesterday. A forlorn hope. Every medium shapes the nature of its message: newspapers, books, magazines and broadcasting all invite their own way of writing and speaking. But there is something about the wild empty universe of the internet that encourages violence and naked aggression. Or as Jackie suggests, maybe it's just that a handful of obsessive and persistent bullies set the tone and silence others who may want more measured discussions... read more.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Wingers and monkeys.

A Nigerian rugby player, "Topsy" Ojo (pictured), won an award for try of the season. Nigeria apparently have some special monkeys, which were observed in a Nigerian national park, apparently. One would hope that the intelligence of the Nigerians isn't diffusing from the people to the animals. But given the mind boggling dumbness that passes for political discourse in Nigeria, one could be forgiven for thinking the country might end up with a Planet of the Apes scenario. To quote Taylor at the end of the film, "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God... damn you all to hell!" Nigerians are a capable people, capable of screwing it up. And you know what? Even though religion is one of our sicknesses, only God can deliver us from ourselves. How's that for a paradox?

One can only hope that just as the solar eclipse was a chance to engage young people in science, this will be an opportunity to engage some in biology. What are we doing letting people who live near the North Pole (St Andrew's) flying all the way to the equator to study our own monkeys? Shouldn't we be publishing this stuff ourselves in Nature? Wake up people!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Elizabeth Ese Alabi

There was a story in the Punch a couple of days ago, about a Nigerian woman who died in the UK shortly after childbirth. I didn't read much into the story and assumed it was simply another case of a visitor dying while on holiday, or something along those lines. The front page of today's Indy, on closer reading, tells a different story... I am seething.

A pregnant Elizabeth Alabi came to visit her partner in Grays, Essex. While in Britain, she fell ill. Doctors diagnosed dilated cardiomyopathy. The solution was for her to get a new heart. No problem. After all, the UK is proud of the National Health Service - the fifth largest workforce - she would get good treatment. There might be donor shortages, but she'll at least be put on a priority waiting list. Right? Wrong.

Elizabeth Alabi was a tourist in this country, and therefore not entitled to free treatment on the NHS. This ensures that only people who are entitled to treatment get service, along with those who pay for the service (such as people in private care, but using NHS facilities). In the past, there had been issues of health tourists who come into the UK, simply for the NHS's "free at the point of use" ethos. What if you didn't come to the country as a health tourist, but as visitor who fell ill while in the UK? Under new rules, Her Majesty's Government makes no provision for such people.

After several legal challenges, the stroke of a judge's pen condemned Elizabeth Alabi to death. She might not have gotten a heart in time to save her life, but she wasn't even considered. And that is the rub. She should have been considered for the simple reason that this was an organ donation issue. It would not have mattered if she was paying for service or not, because organs for transplant are not bought and sold commodities. They are free.

It should be noted that she couldn't go back home to Nigeria because she was too ill too travel. It should also be noted that she never once overstayed her holiday visas. And it should be remembered that her partner pays taxes in this country and has leave to remain. If he was in her position, the state would have looked after him. But the state could not extend that courtesy, nay, right, to his nearest and dearest.

A callous, faceless, and deeply prejudiced immigration system is partly to blame for Elizabeth Alabi's death. The British Government might not have its hands dripping with Elizabeth Alabi's blood, but the splashes are there, perhaps on its lapel or a speck on its sleeve. The blood is there.

We all talk about immigration, about keeping the "others" out. I emphasise, as I always have, that none of use chose where we are born. Yet, in today's world, where we are born might just determine how we die.

I was originally going to attack the way immigration is debated, not just in Britain, but in the US, and the world over. But I saw the Indy story, and it overshadowed things somewhat. "Illegals" appears to be the mot du jour, as if a human being can be described as illegal. I, in my obvious ignorance, thought that perhaps an act could be illegal. But never did I think human being can be an illegal person. As if the act of being was against the law. Once you dehumanise a person, you can reduce them to statistics and characterise them using their immigration status. As if that were what a defined them as human beings. The case of Elizabeth Alabi, sadly, has proved this.

Why not...

Bored at work? Your boss not making good use of your talents? Blog surfing becoming tedious because too many idiots leaving clueless comments on people's posts? Want to get the sack at work? Then play Europe country thingy. I got to level 9 and then gave up...

Monday, May 15, 2006

What core values?

"The Mothers Summit, the first of its kind to be held anywhere in world, is designed to create a platform for mothers to discuss and agree on ways by which traditional Nigerian values can be propagated and inculcated in the younger generation of Nigerians." This is a sentence taken from a press release by Niyi Ibietan, of the Ministry of Information and National Orientation. The ministry, with Frank Nweke Jnr (pictured) at its helm, has become the government's juggernaut, steamrolling opposition as the president's chief propagandist - a kind of rottweiler at the gates of Aso Rock. It is evidently a measure of how primitive Nigeria's democracy is that it needs to have a ministry of information. Sophisticated democracies don't have them because, information is part of the package of governance, i.e. it goes without saying. But that's a mere quibble.

My gripe is not with the president's rottweilers, but with the concept of "traditional Nigerian values". Here in the UK, especially since last July's London bombings, there's been talk of Britishness, and what it means. The prime minister that might never be, Gordon Brown, talked about what he saw as Britishness, and so did David Cameron, before he became Tory leader. Since the bomber's were British born and bred, there must have been a huge chink their sense of Britishness to do such a thing to their fellow citizens. Patriotic people don't just strap explosives onto the backpacks, detonate them while their compatriots read the Metro during rush hour. The great debate has been about how to marry Britishness with Islam, so that British muslims can fly the Union Flag alongside the Black Flag of Islam on their collective flagpoles.

President OBJ, attended the "Mothers Summit" imploring the women to "instill such core values as honesty and accountability, patriotism, community spirit, discipline, industry, exceptional sense of duty, and, above all, the fear of God into their children so they could be groomed effectively into future leadership." In the course of Gordon Brown's speech, he mentions community more that 20 times, and David Cameron more than five times. These three men, of starkly different political backgrounds - Gordon, the Labour son of a prebytarian minister; Dave, the blueblood Eton and Oxford educated royal relative; and OBJ, the soldier and farmer, raised four thousand miles away - all believe in a sense of community. OBJ's press office even precedes his speech with a press release claiming they are "traditional Nigerian values". Which means that Dave and Gordon have been stealing grand philosophical ideas about Britishness from former African military dictators.

Searching for national "values" is an exercise in futility, as there are no values that are truly unique to any country. The French Revolution motto of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, brotherhood) which might be seen as unique isn't necessarily so. The French and American Revolutions were fraternités aux armes, pulling on the same guillotine to decapitate their respective monarchs. Whenever the debate about national identity arises, most of the ideas are in reality, human, and therefore global. Is there a country that would reject a notion of fraternité, of brotherhood? Ah, my broda, how body? Even arch-theocracies would never say that women were lesser than men, hence all countries aspire to egalité. Liberté? Who would swap liberté for balls and chains?

In the past, I have said that I was proud to be British or proud to be Nigerian. On close examination, though, it is difficult to explain why. For a while now, I've decided that pride in one's country can be a very silly thing, a juvenile form of jingoism. After all, nobody has a choice as to where they're born. Why should I be proud to be a Nigerian or a Brit, especially since nobody asked me when I was being born? I might have chosen to be from Ghana instead of Nigeria (charley, they're peaceful people), or Spain instead of Britain (siesta was invented in Spain, not by despotic Nigerian parents).

What can be distinguished between many countries, is the foibles and idiosyncracies of the countries. Call them national stereotypes, call them anything, people can identify them easily. What it means to be British? People automatically queue, it's in the British DNA. Tea? Tea is the holy grail (can't stand the stuff). Someone died, half-time at the world cup, your 18 year-old daughter pregnant? Tea will solve everything. (It could be argued that the mochachino grande latté culture is killing tea... but nevertheless.) The British countryside, the rolling hills of England are not just the fantasy of Jerusalem-singing WI members.

Immigration officer: welcome to Nigeria, sir. Do you have any questions you want to ask?
Visitor: Is it true that Nigerians always answer a question with a question?
Immigration officer: Who told you so?

Nigeria will be Nigeria wherever in the world there are Nigerians. Little pockets of Nigerians in Peckham, in Thamesmead, in Hendon, at Heathrow Terminal 3. It is only when long lost Nigerian friends are greeting each other that other people ask, "is there a problem? Why are they fighting?"

These all seem like stereotypes, but they represent our individual identities better than bland words like "community" and "patriotism", which, in the grand scheme of things, mean absolutely zilch. The whole world would like to embrace these, so what makes them uniquely British, Nigerian, or even Icelandic? Core national values? They don't exist.

The wrong "Guy"

This has got to be one of the funniest clips ever on television. But it also shows the silliness of 24-hour news, and the constant need to get someone from the commentariat to pass judgement on any recent judgement, including, say, a judge's ruling on the price of bread in the market. The clip comes from the day of the Apple Corps (Beatles publishers) v. Apple Computer, when an unsuspecting francophone taxi driver is thrust in front of the live cameras to say if he was "surprised" by the verdict. Of course he was surprised, he was there to pick someone up, not talk to millions of viewers. Video courtesy of the Sun.

Just lifted the link to Guy Kewney's blog on the mishap from jojo's blog.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Genes and sprinting

On Friday, USA's Justin Gatlin broke the world record for the 100m sprint, shaving 0.01 seconds off Asafa Powell's 2005 record with a time 9.76 seconds. More noteworthy though, was the time of the man who came second, Nigeria's Olusoji Fasuba. He clocked in at 9.84 seconds, which equals the fastest ever second place, but which also puts him in the top 10 times of all time. At the time I posted this, the website hadn't been updated (waiting for ratification), but my calculation puts him at eighth fastest time. Lest we forget, Fasuba also came second behind Jamaica's Asafa Powell in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

At +1.7 m/s, the wind in Doha was obviously more favourable than in Melbourne, when it was +0.9 ms/s. What's wonderful is that Fasuba is in the mix, coming second behind two sprinters who look set to play world record ping pong over the next few years. Sadly, he might end up like Frankie Fredericks, who has four silver olympic medals, but no gold medals. Something else to note from that race, was the presence of Uchenna Emedolu, and Francis Obikwelu (now running for Portugal), meaning that the race was made up Nigeria (three), USA (four), and the rest - one Canadian.

This reminded me of Jon Entine's book, Taboo (read extract), which caused a bit of a furore. Basically, he was saying that black people, in the form of sprinters, middle distance, and long distance runners, dominate athletics because of their genes. I think his research said that out of all the top 200 times were by black athletes, and possibly most, have been of West African origin. If you take the routes of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, this makes sense, but could get a bit blurry when you include the fewer numbers taken from the central to southern African coasts. Personally, I can actually only think of Fredericks (Namibian) who is explicitly not from West Africa.

The argument of genes being responsible for athletic prowess worries me. Genetics have been used by eugenicists such as Hitler's human-experimenter-in-chief, Josef Mengele, to justify ethnic cleansing. Racist theories have used genes to proclaim that white people are more intelligent than white people, and some say that yellow skinned people (Chinese, Asian etc) are smarter than white people. The hypocrisy of these positions is that many black people are prepared to accept the argument about brawn, but not the other about brain. Many white people are prepared to accept the argument about brain, but sometimes also accept the brawn argument. Presumably, in a world where one can order their food on the internet instead of having to go out hunting for it, physical prowess counts for nothing. They are happy to relegate that attribute to some darker skinned people from the "dark continent".

It is impossible to accept one without the other, so I reject both. There might be specific instances where the physical make-up of a human body determines their athletic ability. But it is interesting to note that while blacks might sprint off in the the distance, whites also swim off in the distance. There have been black medal winners, but they are just as rare as white runners. And as with sprinting, nuture factors should be taken into account. Many more black people will see an athletics career as a way out of poverty, and will possibly make more of an effort in the sport. They will have more role models than they do in other spheres of life, and are likely to think that a career in track and field is a viable one. This is likely to be different with swimming, where financial security matters. Suburbia is filled with pools, and black people are more unlikely to live in suburbia. West Africans are also less likely to be swimming, unless in some obscure riverine village.

There are some rogue athletes breaking the mould. When USA's Jeremy Wariner won the the gold medal in Athens, he was the first white man to win the 400m Olympic final since Moscow '80. In the same Athens Olympics, China's Liu Xiang won the gold, equalling Colin Jackson's 11 year old record. If you think that was a drug induced fluke, he came second in last year's World Championships, but clocked the same time as the eventual winner, Ladji Doucoure. In Athens, Malia Metella won the silver medal in the 1,500 m freestyle, and at the Sydney Olympics, Anthony Ervin won gold in the 50m freestlye (a sprint of sorts). The point is that in both athletics and swimming, there are a few athletes running and swimming against the racial grain. In a perfect world where man would have to run and swim to establish physical prowess, it seems that blacks and whites would balance each other out.

It has already been established that statistics used to claim that African Americans are less intelligent are skewed. The tests are invariably culturally biased, which renders them pointless. In the UK for example, one cannot say that black children perform badly in school, because the underperforming group has been narrowed down to boys of Caribbean origin. These Caribbean boys come from the same gene pool as Caribbean girls and other West Africans, but their performances are different. This makes the question one of nuture, rather than nature.

I can rabbit on about nature and nuture, and their balance, but it's a huge argument. Even the generous folk at wouldn't give me the space needed to do the subject justice. Recommended reading: Race and Sport, and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, review in the Guardian, and the New Yorker.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Set Forth at Dawn

A review of Wole Soyinka's (pictured) new autobiography, You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, appeared in last weekend's FT magazine. The reviewer, who is the FT's Africa editor, levels the same accusations at Wole Soyinka that very many people make - that he has a tendency to grandiloquence. I agree. I haven't read the complete works of Soyinka, but I've read enough of his articles to make have an informed opinion. He is obviously a man who has words aplenty beneath his statically charged hair, but only very few people and others employed by the OED have such a large vocabulary. Having a large vocabulary isn't even a problem, but Soyinka sometimes uses a scattergun approach when using words, very few bullets hit the target, and the audience can get lost.

Now, I'm a lover of words and their usage, but the context has to be right. And this definitely isn't some reverse snobbery against people who know more words than I do (okay, so what if it is?), but just an observation of Soyinka and his ability to kill a story with his use of words. The arts should invite people into a world, rather than exclude them. But perhaps he writes the way he does because his duty, as an author, is too explore the complexities of life, which invariably involves the use of complex language.

All this though, doesn't detract from the fact that he is a very fine writer, one of the finest ever from Africa. My love of the theatre really started when I played Chume in a school prodcution of The Trials of Brother Jero. Great writers are always prescient to the point of spookiness, and the Jero plays still apply to today's Nigeria. His Reith Lectures in 2004 sparkled with wit and candour, and if nothing else, is testament to his worldwide appeal. Even though I'm not the greatest fan of autobiographies (huge ego trips, David Beckham already has three at age 31), I will be reading Set Forth.

The Guardian's Maya Jaggi wrote a very good profile of Wole Soyinka in November 2002.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Damn good video

I've seen a wonderful Nigerian music video by rapper, eLDee. The beauty of the video is in its simplicity. It is basically a montage of pictures from the African continent, interspersed with eLDee's face, plain shot of him rapping, and shot of him in New York. The shots of his face are in greyish, and don't stray to any part of his body. The greys allow for artistic flair, but also hide any evidence of spots, blemishes, tribal marks, or bleaching for what can be a superficial audience. The shots in New York are also simple enough. His lyrics give much weight to the images and vice versa, so we have a hard-hitting song, with a correspondingly hard-hitting video. Nothing flashy, nothing likely to be very expensive, just a bit of inventiveness - and voila!

Thanks to Wunmi for the heads-up.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Be ye not afraid of the BNP

One the many highlights of the Thursday's local elections, was the election of 11 BNP councillors in the London borough of Barking & Dagenham. By the end of the night, the party had doubled its number of councillors countrywide, with multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, multi-everything else Barking the source of many of the councillors. I lived in Barking for nearly a year after I left university. There wasn't an icicle's chance in hell of me moving back in with my aunt (bless her), especially after years of university independence where I came and went as the whim took me. So I kipped with my cousins in Barkers.

Given the 1960s style free love that flowed between the Nigerian guys and the white girls in Barking, one would never guess that there were any racial tensions. But such is the nature of these things. The election of the BNP and the reasons for their ascendance have thrown up some weird paradoxes. The BNP sometimes threatens to be succesful in all-white areas that have no immigration problems, with the locals citing "fears" as their reason for contemplating support for the racial nationalists. The BNP also tries its luck in diverse communities that have lived together for decades, picking at scabs that exist. Whether each racial grouping lives in its own bubble, without interaction with the other groups is another matter, but they would have lived in the same space for a long time. Areas in the north of England such as Burnley and Oldham have had Pakistani workers since the 50s and 60s, so immigratiomn is hardly a new issue.

Many people don't know what the BNP stand for. Before the election, some voters said they would vote for the BNP because, get this, they felt their jobs were threatened not by black Africans, but by Eastern Europeans - the so-called Polish builder. If the man had done his research he'd know that the BNP is in support of keeping Britain free of "non-European" immigration. He'd puts an X beside the BNP on his ballot paper thinking that he's voting against EU expansion to the east (or at least all immigration), but he's unwittingly voting in favour white pan-Europeanism, of which Polish plumbers are an integral part.

Of the 22,000 council seats the UK, the BNP now has 44 seats (controls no councils), a mere 0.2% of the total seats. This is not the performance of a political force to be reckoned with, or one that could find itself with a seat in parliament. If this is compared with Europe where there are BNP-esque parties in government and in oppostition - such as the Austria's ruling Freedom Party, the National Alliance in the Italian, or even the Front National garnering 5 million votes in the the French presidential elections of 2002 - the BNP has far to travel.

Whenever far-right parties seek power, they have to undergo several transformations, cosmetic or otherwise, to be voted in. The BNP has undertaken a massive rebranding programme, calling themselves nationalists, dropping several key tenets of their ideology. For example, they are against miscegenation (I detest that word), but Nick Griffin (bottom of picture) has said that even though he doesn't agree with it, it's a private matter which he has no desire to legislate against. As they carve their extremist ideology at the edges, they become more electable, but lose the original vitriol that characterised their political discourse. If they didn't do this, nobody would vote for them.

Even though power corrupts, power also tempers. Extremist parties would have been on the fringes for so long that they don't realise how complex the actual process of governance is. Even if all dark skinned people accepted the BNP's policy of "voluntary repatriation", such a measure would not improve transport, provide nurses, or even improve rubbish collection - the issues voters care about. The parties often can't carry out their proposed agenda because most countries have an opposition. And the opposition when an extremist party governs, is more primed for a fight than it would if a mainstream party was in power.

What tends to catch up with extremist parties is losing the faith of the very people who elected them. In Palestine, Hamas has shown this very trait. Over the weekend, police in Gaza staged violent protests against a government which has run of funds to pay their salaries. Such a failure registers in the minds of voters, and come next elections, they might well turf them out. Voters realise that these people are all talk and no trouser. Nick Cohen talks about the BNP in today's Observer, recounting how useless they actually were as councillors in Burnley and other cities. The beauty of democracy is that voters can chuck 'em out in a few of years, or if out of desperation - impeach them.

Barking has nothing to worry about. If anything, the voters (especially ethnic minorities) will realise that they cannot sit at home and watch Three Pints of Lager on election night. In the wards with BNP victories, the turnout was as high as 40%, way above average. As they say, people get the governments they deserve - and this rings true whether one votes or not.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Gullible Nigerians?

"88% of Nigerians trust their media", is the deduction from a recent worldwide survey. Oh, woe is we! How can the Nigerian media, which can be, at the worst of times, chiselling little crooks (to borrow from Red Ken), and at best, as pathologically honest as Pinocchio, be trusted so? All media should be consumed with healthy dollops of salt, and viewed with sufficient scepticism. The media is shady in the most honest of countries, how much more in Nigeria where corruption is as common as rice is in China? Hell, I'm a journalist, and even I don't believe everything I write!

Perhaps I'm exagerrating slightly, but the figures jumped out at me. More than anything, it illustrates the mistrust with which the Nigerian government is viewed. One only has to look at the Bellview 210 plane crash in late October when the government said the plane had crashed in Kishi in Oyo state. It transpired that the crash site was actually in Lissa in Ogun state, more than 200km off the mark. The government then shut down AIT (which found the crash site), claiming a breach of broadcasting codes of conduct.

I blogged about my experiences in Egypt, where some of the journalistic practices were somewhat iffy. A fair bit of the news in Nigeria is still government propaganda: today the minister of health opened a clinic (should he be opening grenade factories?), the governor's wife visited a motherless babies home (at least she isn't selling drugs á la Maryam Babangida), or get this, today was the commissioner's sister's granddaughter's christening. This is the claptrap that passes for news.

At university we had a Chevening Scholar from Nigeria who was researching the role of the media in ethnic conflict. He gave an example of a typical domestic dispute in a place like Ajegunle. A man takes the chicken of his neighbour, they fight, and as sometimes happens, someone dies. The next day, the headline will apparently read: MUSLIM KILLS CHRISTIAN IN CHICKEN FIGHT, or vice versa. Quite how the story goes from a simple chicken acquisition to the return of the Crusades, we will never know.

However there is some good journalism happening in Nigeria right now, but not on a grand enough scale. Many of the EFCC investigations have been aided by investigative reporters trawling through the political underworld for potential dirt. In some unexplainable way, I've also been fascinated by some of the tabloid journalism. The Sun does a wonderful job of mimicking Rupert Murdoch's red top scandal sheets, the Sun and the Screws of the World. My mother's neighbours even featured once, after some man-leaves-wife-for-other-woman-then-goes-back-to-wife-then-other-woman-pours-acid-on-man, or was it wife? I'm no defender of tabloids, but I have to admit that they do their human interest stories well. Nothing riles a man like some injustice amplified by a tabloid.
The Nigerian government should be ashamed at the figures, and should take steps to rebuild public trust. The Nigerian media should also realise the amount of power it has, and wield the pen with brutal abandon (you could argue that given the rubbish writing, they already do that, although more reckless than brutal). They should lop off the heads of the kleptocracy, instigate mass but constructive hysteria, offer no succour to citizens involved in any dodgy dealing. Attack, attack, attack. Yeah, and also, act responsibly-ish.

All politics is local

Today is local election day, and at least we can be sure that Tony Blair wishes all politics was local. After last week's triple whammy of national calamities, he'll be hoping that the electorate base their decision on local issues. Many borough councils are up for elections, including all of London's - a key battleground for all the parties. Seminal Labour councils like Camden are under threat, Hammersmith & Fulham (after apparent Labour aided gentrification) could fall to the Conservatives.

I live in the New Cross ward of Lewisham borough. Lewisham has red Labour rosettes running through its veins. All MPs are Labour, 41 out of 54 councillors are Labour; it's one of those boroughs where even if a monkey was put up for election, the people would vote for it - so long as it was a Labour monkey. But they also have a few dissident voters, such as those who voted in the Socialist Alliance and Green Party. When I vote this morning, I won't be basing my decision on Prescott's bedroom calisthenics, Hewitt's economy of truth, or even Clarke's dereliction of duty. These are local elections, so I'm keeping it real. Real local.

For the few things I rely on my borough for, it provides a good service. Rubbish and recycled rubbish are picked up every Wednesday, the streets are swept every day, there are no ASBOs waiting to happen, all in all, I'm a satisfied voter. But that doesn't mean that I'll be voting Labour. The Labour party and the independents are the only people who actually campaigned in my area. The Labour man assumed that everyone would vote for him, and just said, "yeah, these are the people to vote for." And that was his pitch - vote for these people. The independents, on the other hand, talked to me about what they perceived to be the issues to be addressed. Even though I'm pleased with the services I use, the differing approaches of the candidates, might well play a part in how I decide to vote. Or, I might resort to tactical voting.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

My kid's a novelist

Uzodinma Iweala (pictured) has won the LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for Beasts of No Nation, and has also been shortlisted for a James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Saturday by Ian McEwan is also in the shortlist. I finished reading it a few weeks ago, hoping to find out what the fuss was about this McEwan fella. What McEwan does is make extraordinary events appear like an everyday happenings. Plane crashes, anti-war protests, car accidents, hostage taking, are all made to seem as normal as popping out for a pint of milk. Where other authors would have sensationalised these rather sensational events, the main character, Henry Perowne's laissez-faire-ness is expressed through these abnormal events. Highly recommended.

Why's the post called my kid's a novelist? I must admit that when I first heard about Uzodinma Iweala's book, a sneer broke across my face. He is of course the son of Nigeria's finance minister, Ngozi Okonji-Iweala (good Guardian interview). I reckoned, probably wrongly, that he had gotten his deal by dint of his mother's status. She's the finance minister of a corrupt African country, how much of of a box office draw is she? Hardly, if at all. So it's probably just a case of my inner green-eyed monster forcing himself into visibility. The man's 23 and he already has a critical hit on his hands, and I (at the grand old age of...) have, erm, a critical post about his critical hit.

It reminded me of Cecelia Ahern, the daughter of the Irish Taoiseach (pronounced "tee-sha") who aged 22 got $1 million for her first book. Her father's status had nothing to do with it? Incidentally, her sister Georgina Ahern is married to a former Westlifer.

My beef isn't that they're young, successful, and by default, sexy, but that they're products of dynasties. People who end up in the public eye and already have parents in the public eye, have to work doubly hard to prove their worth. It's unfortunate, but with cynics like me out here, they'll have to keep proving themselves. It could be argued that their parents are prominent in different fields, but there's no doubt that there are connections to be utilised in daddy and mummy's contacts book. The parents might not be the direct links to success, but definitely give the children an unfair leg-up. How can we create a level playing-field for all aspiring authors? So long as some are more famous that others, we can't. Such is life.

I do have it on good authority though, that Uzodinma Iweala is a stand-up guy, and that Beasts is a brilliant book (will read it soon). So I should probably poison my inner green Mr Hyde and pat the fella on the back. I will. Soon.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Amanece - ¿lo véis a la luz de la aurora?

This is the first line of the Spanish language version of the US national anthem, Star Spangled Banner. The little ditty, Nuestro Himno, has caused a bit of stir in the US with George the Younger declaring, "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English", which (though I disagree) is fair enough. But without seeing any irony whatsoever, he goes on to say, "and I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English." Even the statement is grammatically incorrect (no points for spotting it). Heaven knows that he - who declared with confidence that, "more and more of our imports are coming from abroad" - would be precluded on his own basis of proficiency in English.

I have a bias to declare here, which is that I do not believe in borders. Anybody in the world should be free to go wherever their feet, via way of land, sea, and air, can carry them. So if Mexico wants to invade America, I suggest that a few million Mexicans just stroll across the border. The US Army at just under three million couldn't stop 20 million determined Mexicans from crossing the Rio Grande. After all, a few million college students have invaded Cancun over the years, without restriction.

So what is wrong with singing the Star Spangled Banner in a "foreign language"? Nothing. To be honest, I can't understand the fuss over the insistence on speaking English. The most widely spoken languages in the US are, Spanish, American, with English a distant third. Nope, "conversate" is not English by any stretch of the OED. And who is to dictate how the people express themselves? Even though the Spanish version is slightly modified to address the current immigration laws being passed, it is fairly true to the original. This is not the first time the US anthem has been given funky treatment, including Jimi Hendrix's famour Woodstock rendition, and all the various mutilations by popstars at Super Bowl tournaments. There have been Yiddish, German, and even an original Spanish language version translated in 1919, available on the US Government website!

If George Dubya sat down and thought for a second about what the immigrants were doing, he'd realise that they're actually being patriotic. They show their allegiance to Uncle Sam by translating the national song into a language that's theirs, claiming the sentiment for themselves. But short-sighted critics don't see it, they only see lowly brown skinned border hopping nannies, cooks, cleaners, and drivers, desecrating the Star Spangled Banner en una otra lengua.

Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, however, doesn't mind the anthem being sung in Spanish (and I hope not just because her name sounds like a Mexican dish, "would you like chicken or beef with your condoleeza, sir?") Good on you Condi, I might even support you Republican nomination for 2008.

Wyclef Jean (who btw is a genius), one of the greatest champions of world music, is involved in the Nuestro Himno project. After his Welcome to Haiti project, which had a song with TuFace Idibia on it, I'll be procuring Nuestro Himno, and I hope it tops the Billboard charts.