By Oyin Oludipe
Not long ago, it was reported that one president—a flawless depiction, by the way, of what our generation has devolved into—uttered something about African nations and shitholes. The aggregate African response? Flames and flames of ire.
For many, especially Nigerians, and I am facing Nigerians now, the combustion is valid. It is a just retort to racism, or to crude, obscene infantilism that derides historical sensibilities, and without decorum—although, I’ve always thought that Decorum is, in most scenarios, just a fancy word for legitimate deceit—go on, you really can be full of shit; in fact, we know you are; but as long as you don’t spill shit right here and right now, we shall wipe your shittiness away, and quickly convince ourselves that you weren’t always full of shit, and, therefore, shouldn’t be full of shit.
For others, the “shitholeity” of Africa is the gospel truth. Whether it is hinted-at by outsiders, sublimated as prejudice, or uttered by satirists, or alien presidents; that is not the matter. For these, the matter is that Africa’s realities are just as truly disappointing and undignifying as the running mouth of a global political figure.
Surely, Fela Anikulapo Kuti must have felt this way as well. Or, didn’t he sing, in his “Beast of No Nation”, of an Africa: a “craze world”, ruled by “animal[s] in craze man skin”?
Craze World and Shit Hole. What’s the difference? Don’t tell me the number of alphabets.
Witness a shitholeic scene in Civil Peace, one short story in a collection of short stories by Chinua Achebe, “Girls at War”: It is midnight. Survivor of a bloody Civil War, Jonathan Iwegbu, a poor yet resolutely industrious man, is about to lay his head to sleep along with his wife and daughters, when “a loud and imperious knocking” rattles the rickety door.
“Who is knocking?” he asked then, his voice parched and trembling.
“Na tief-man and him people,” came the cool reply. “Make you hopen de door.” This was followed by the heaviest knocking of all.
Maria was the first to raise the alarm, then he followed and all their children.
“Police-o! Thieves-o! Neighbours-o! Police-o! We are lost! We are dead! Neighbours, are you asleep? Wake up! Police-o!”
This went on for a long time and then stopped suddenly. Perhaps they had scared the thief away. There was total silence. But only for a short while.
“You done finish?” asked the voice outside. “Make we help you small. Oya, everybody!”
“Police-o! Tief-man-o! Neighbours-o! we done loss-o! Police-o! …”
There were at least five other voices besides the leader’s.
Morbidly hilarious, yes, but also highly reminiscent of the kind of helplessness that modern Africans live out too often in the conditions of the defunct amenities of public and private life.
Despite his quite rational plea for mercy, as an incompetent target, compared to the looting big men of vanquished society, Poor Man Jonathan gets robbed. Although, he shrugs it off the morning after, telling commiserating neighbours, Nothing puzzles God.
But Man puzzles Man?
I mean, why, for instance, do the unprivileged oppress the unprivileged? Why do thieves never plunder from thieves??
Achebe’s Girls at War seethes with existential puzzlements. Each short story in the collection led me into the spirit of people and societies whose ideas and ideals must wrestle with the demands of dreams and the commands of survival.
In The Madman, the ever-threatening world of alterity is prodded through a mad man’s delusional eyesight, fake memory. “He used to walk in the middle of the road, holding it in conversation.” Scorned by outsiders to his dialogue, he ironically holds men, women and children as insane meddlers.
So, perception and anti-perception collide, two differing worlds in a contest of contempt, like the often differing factions of real human society, till the resolution is a blotting out of the sublime line that separates mad from un-mad.
Our beloved mad man exerts vengeance on Nwibe, imaginary enemy. And what ensues is a lesson for the un-mad, or those of us who revel arrogantly in the space of our imagined sanity.
Like this, the lessons of human co-existence are codified in Achebe’s stories throughout “Girls at War”. The authentic proverbs, the allusive settings, the energetic characters, sometimes bare, sometimes absurd, all serve to teach universal lessons of acceptance and accommodation.
Therefore, Prejudice, what allows for the perpetration of hate and bigotry in this world, is strongly addressed with stories like Marriage is a Private Affair and Dead Men’s Path. One stars Okeke, Igbo father who fights his son for choosing to love and marry a non-Igbo woman. The other stars Mr. Obi, overzealous village school teacher—a familiar equivalent of Wole Soyinka’s Mr. Lakunle in “The Lion and the Jewel”—who destroys an ancestral path in his ambition to rebrand a school. For appeal, one is emotional. The other, rational. In any case, the two protagonists come to understand that our deepest strengths are not when we are apart, but only when we come together in ways that we uniquely can. But Achebe, being didactic, makes them lose first, and in the end, they only think back.
I should say that I really enjoyed stories like Uncle Ben’s Choice and The Sacrifical Egg. Scarcely these days does one come across modern African short stories that are based on indigenous myths and legends.
Akueke and The Voter open up socio-political worlds. Both stories, I suspect, hint at underground realities during Nigeria’s Free Primary Education era and a dated election crisis.
But perhaps the most powerful of all the stories is the last one, Girls at War, which is the title-story of Achebe’s book. In fact, I strongly suppose that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun” must have been inspired, in part, but substantially, by this work.
Reading through the excerpt below, the palpable world of Odenigbo, Ugwu and Olanna was transmitted suddenly to me through an abridged aesthetic space.
“Plane!” screamed his boy from the kitchen.
“My mother!” screamed Gladys. As they scuttled towards the bunker of palm stems and red earth, covering their heads with their hands and stooping slightly in their flight, the entire sky was exploding with the clamour of jets and the huge noise of homemade antiaircraft rockets.
Girls at War is a tragic Biafran love story set in one of the most intense periods of the Nigerian Civil War that began in 1967. The war has been an enduring portico of creative inspiration for modern Nigerian writers like Adichie with her referenced star-work; and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo with her novel, “Roses and Bullets”; and even Chigozie Obioma with his poem, “The Road to the Country”, published in 2015 on The Virginia Quarterly Review.
In Achebe’s story, what one mourns are blown bridges, blown markets, forgone ambitions, disjointed childhood, and the (very, very painfully) short-lived romance between a militia girl and a Minister of Justice.
And as starvation grips the neck of Owerri, prostitution rapes the land. In fact, by “girls at war”, Achebe is referring to young girls of Biafra, full of energy and dreams, who did metamorphose, fatefully, for survival’s sake, into prostitutes in the desolation of the Nigerian Civil War.
But this, this one story is the story you should read for yourself. To review the power of its substance and message is a task I do not think I can sufficiently fulfill.
Its motif is a grim, shameful, outrageous, emotive thing.
Oyin Oludipe is the recipient of the 2016 Christopher Okigbo Poetry Prize.