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In the early days of the coup that brought
General Haroun Al Mahmud to power
the press of the world
camped on state house lawns
day and night day after day
dozens of them

Their gear hung from every tree
their goings on created a festive air
it was a carnival such as the city
and the country
had not seen

The new Strongman reveled
in the media blitz
he paused for photo ops and granted interviews
he gave press conferences
in his eyes these confirmed without a doubt
his own greatness and invincibility

One night he ordered a barbecue
and invited the press of the world
to eat, drink, dance
and be merry

The wily journalists
encouraged and fanned
the General’s every idiosyncrasy
and busily made footage
a media hungry world waited

In Lagos Nigeria
a mother returning home
after a punishing day at the market
hearing BBC and CNN voices
doubles up

“What ting Al Haroun
dun do again?
he dun kill another Archbishop?”
folks like her were insatiable
and they were legion
there was blood and there was fun

At the court of
General Haroun Al Mahmud
at the grand old colonial mansion
the British built to display power
there was never a dull moment

A marriage bid today
for the hands of the daughter
of one of Europe’s ruling family

Tomorrow battle plans in all earnest
against neighboring states to teach them
in the General’s own words
lessons they will never forget

Now and then a mocking cable
dispatched to Washington
to the most powerful man on Earth
timed to cause the President
the greatest discomfiture

One morning fresh morning
a gift of a young virgin
kidnapped the other day on her way to school
now handed to his friend and companion
the young Scottish doctor
who saved his life from the syphilis bug

Now in the cool of the African evening
the barbecue sizzles
oriental and African aroma
mingle and add color to the night
oh such a night

Wine and conversation flows
the press of the world is in hot pursuit
they reach for their little packs
trinkets, perfumes, handguns, electronics
gifts for the General from the labs
and workshops of Europe

Now the General was a true natural
protocol abandoned
he does what only he can
sprawls on the grass
his monstrous legs akimbo
bantering and hollering

Soon wine and whisky take their dues
the moment arrives and the past returns
and the General is back again
where he once belonged
there now he hears a voice

“You and I must make a pack
we must bring salvation back
where there is love I will be there
“I’ll reach out my hand to you
I’ll have faith in all you do
Just call my name and I will be there

It was the King of Pop
but in Michael’s amplified voice
the General hears the voice of his own mother
it brought him back to the warmth
and comfort of the old colonial barracks
at the river’s mouth

Away from power and pomp and intrigues
away from the slaughter of innocent men and women
that his men carried on a daily basis on his behalf
away from the haunting cries
of the dying and the dead
back to the simple life he once knew
and loved

Years ago his own dear mother
writhed in agony on the dirt floor
of their simple hut
and bestowed upon him
on that silent night
the ultimate gift

Now here he was where it all began
here where as a young man
he and his buddies marched happily to the drill
of the Scotsman’s horse voice
none but Commander Neil Graham

And now the Union Jack flutters again
triumphant again in the cool African breeze
as he and the others march proudly
in tune with the crazed hollering of the Scotsman
Eyes right!
Presenter armes!

Rifles click!
the men come to a dead stop
and for a moment nothing moves
the band strikes God Save the Queen

With a jerk the General returns to the World
back to the Country whose President
he had just shot
and found himself surrounded
by the Press of the World
fighting for a shot of his silly moon face

someone save my life tonight

John Otim


story by john otim

Oh it was a night

Early last year I returned home to Uganda after years of teaching on a Nigerian campus. To my surprise I found that Nollyhood, the Nigerian equivalent of Hollywood, had taken over the local video scene. It was generating a lot of interest in all things Nigerian especially the Nigerian woman. Friends would stop me on the streets and ask. Are Nigerian girls that cute? How would you compare to East African women. Are they that sexy?

I told the story of my encounter in Lagos years ago. When at the arrival hall a uniformed official confronted me. It was my first time in Nigeria. Nothing hostile mind you, Nigerians are a warm and friendly people. Anyhow the official demanded my passport, whereupon I surrendered.

You are a teacher? She asked, as she scanned through my details.

Yes! I nodded. Whereupon she looked me in the face, straight and direct in the eyes as only a Nigerian can. She said or rather commanded.

Teacher! Teach me!

I was nearly put of balance but I considered the prospects. And for the first time I saw beyond the uniform. She smiled. I smiled. We exchanged personal information. And I thought no more of it. Weeks later at my new quarters at the Ahmadu Bello University up in northern Nigeria during the cold months of the harmattan far from steamy Lagos on the coast there was a gentle knock on my door one evening.

And there she was: my uniformed interlocutor at the arrival hall, adorned in national costumes, totally transformed, a more beautiful woman I never saw. The words returned to me. Teacher! Teach me!

John Otim
Kampala Nov 2011


reflections on the post colony
by john otim

The great Hall teamed with postcolonial students in their trademark red gowns. Present were nearly the entire faculty and quite a few members of the country’s political and administrative elite from downtown. The occasion was the debut of the play: Not now sweet Desdemona, written, directed and produced by Murray Carlin. Murray Carlin was a White South African teaching literature on campus. Murray Carlin fancied himself a liberal. And in the dense postcolonial atmosphere at Makerere he was.

"Makerere University"

makerere university (photo James)

To appreciate Murray Carlin’s drummer one had to know something of the politics and the workings of South Africa’s Apartheid Society as it then existed. And one aught to have some familiarity with Othello, the great Shakespearean masterpiece. In the play set in the medieval city state of Venice, Desdemona, a young White woman of  beauty, grace and nobility, marries Othello, a Black General and war hero of  charms, grace and nobility. That Shakespeare’s Othello, though black was in the age of imperialism,  a commanding figure in the small city state, spoke volumes.

The context of Shakespeare’s play differ from that of Murray Carlin’s;  the women differ too. But Shakespeare’s Desdemona suggested Murray Carlin’s Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is young, vivacious and ready for life. Carlin’s Desdemona is older; wedded to the State, and one might say over with life. Neveretheless in their private lives both women run into currents of racism at play in their two societies. For the younger woman in the prime of life, matters end in tragically. For the older woman there are frustrations, but in the end it is politics and officialdom that dominates.

In Murray Carlin’s play the white President of South Africa fortunately or unfortunately turns black whilst making love to his wife at State House.  In the eyes of the Apartheid State, of which he as President is the ultimate symbol and representative, his and his wife’s relationship become at that moment, both immoral and illegal. In the confusion the First Lady, a true daughter of Apartheid, reaches for the phone and calls the police, to report the illegal presence of a black man at State House in the bed chambers for that matter. Was he an intruder?

Within moments apartheid police burst into the Presidential Mansion located at an exclusive suburb of Cape Town. Police could recognize the President for what he was. But now they saw only a black man, who was naked and who was in bed with a white woman who was also naked. Police arrest the pair for a breach of Immorality Act. Law and order following its due course. Shocking headline revelations across the land, the President and the First Lady go on trial, charged with the crime of making love across the color line. In the Republic such as it was, this kind of situation had occurred before. But now it was different.

At the trial, perfectly legal according to the laws of the land, the onus is upon the prosecution to prove that the transfiguration of the President from a white to a black person occurred in the heat of passion. If the color change occurred after the act, the President and the First Lady had no case to answer. Although the President, now as a black man, could still face other charges. If  the color change occurred, during the act or before the act, the pair were clearly in breach of the famous Immorality Act and would face long years of jail terms.

In Not now Sweet Desdemona, Murray Carlin was determined to demonstrate the absurdity of Apartheid. Look how stupid it is.  But in realiy Carlin ended up trivializing the horrors of a system that had blighted the lives of so many; the systems whose legacies stood to haunt South Africa for years to come. Of course it is true that many African rulers today by their own deeds have made Apartheid look like child play.

At the trial the President pleaded not guilty. The prosecution listened sympathetically and turned to the First Lady for explanation. Madam at which point during the affair did the President turn black?
Ah it was, it was, it was …it was …
Madam speak up! Tell this Court precisely the moment in which the President turned black? Was it before, was it during, or was it after?
Ah it was, it was, it was du-du-during … Madam was a Stateswoman.

Makerere students and faculty burst into laughter. On stage before them a white woman and a black man stood side by side accused of making love together. The audience could not withhold itself. At that moment it saw only the luscious act of sex, not the scores impoverized or jailed and murded by apartheid.

Murray Carlin nervously paced the grounds outside the great Hall. When he heard the burst of laughter and the prolonged applause at the final end, he was elated. He knew the evening had been a success. Many in the audience of Makerere University students and facul thought so. But in reality this was a sad moment. Few if any in the audience came out of the play better informed or more engaged with the burning issue of the continent that apartheid really was at the time. 

"Makerere Main Hall"

Makerere Main Hall


Not now Sweet Desdemona had reduced the serious business of Aparthied to something as mundane as sex. It directed attention at the outer trappings of Apartheid and hurled insults. The audience for sure had a good laugh. But the play and the performance left no dent in the bulwark of Apartheid. Had the President in reality turned black as the play imagined him to do, he would have been swiftly and smoothly replaced. The system would would have gone on. Apartheid like postcolonial barbarism in Africa today, was a logical system within itself. There was nothing in it to laugh at. Apartheid was not a commedy of the absurd. There was everything in it to be abored and opposed, to struggle against, and to defeat.  as eventually was done.

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala, June 2011

Copyright john otim 2011


how ‘things fall apart’ was written
by john otim

If we seek to understand history, few events would illumine better the moments and the circumstances preceding and surrounding the rise of the modern African novel and by extension modern African literature. One seemingly mundane event was a dinner party at the campus home of Professor Molly Mahood, head of the department of English at the newly created University College Ibadan in colonial Nigeria. At table was the entire faculty. Among them was the German Ulli Beier. In the years to come Beier along with his wife Suzzane Wenger, a talented artist, would become central figures of the new literature.

"university of ibadan"

university of ibadan

        Ibadan was the lone university institution in the country; one of only a handful in all Africa. In 1947 Professor Kenneth Mellanby, a liberal British academic, had become the first Vice Chancellor of the new college. The college was affiliated to the University of London. That meant it awarded degrees and diplomas of the University of London. Mellanby’s declared intention was to create in Africa, a higher institution of learning comparable to any in the world. In pursuit of his dream Mellanby put together a crop of young and talented academics gathered mainly but not exclusively from Britain. Molly Mahood was one of the young pioneers.

            That evening at her home despite the tropical heat her guests all showed up in stuffy formal wear. Perhaps it was colonial pride, but the mode kept everyone free of such tropical pests as the feared mosquito. The mosquito had kept Nigeria free of white settlement. The country had avoided the severe form of oppression that came with settler dominion that one saw for instance in Kenya, which eventually resulted in a brutal war of liberation in that country.

            In the colonies among the white communities, who had few other options for entertainment, such evenings were rare and they were valued. They were invitations to drop all pretensions and become human again. Colonial situations forced everyone within it to act the part. At such party someone was sure to come with exotic tales about Africa, true or otherwise. The kind the author of the Last King of Scotland weaves about Africa in the award winning novel.

          Stories are important. The guests at the dinner party compared notes and told stories as they settled into the evening.  Africa was fun. But Africa was for many white people a place out there on the fringes teaming with the unknown. Stories were a way of mediating the unknown. They were a way of positioning one’s self where one wanted to be and putting others where you desired them to be.

          Joyce Carry’s novel Mister Johnson set in Nigeria, published in the year of the dinner party, was not unusual. It was a work that mocked the Nigerian character and by extension the African. In accordance with the times, Time Magazine declared Mister Johnson the best African novel published in the last fifty years. It was a sentiment most of the guests at the dinner party easily shared.

          By now dinner was over, the drink session well underway. For the expatriate community life in the colonies was good. The dinner hall was a large colonial room, high ceilings; large low windows set to catch the breeze. White clad black servants hurrying about dispensing drinks and delicacies. There was a romantic feel about the evening.

          The dinner hall buzzed with small talk about Africa. Guests discussed their role as teachers in the heart of darkness. They were the first university people in Africa. To be white in Africa was to be Lord. Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim, although located in South East Asia, read like it was set along the water fronts of Lagos. Lagos was the administrative capital of the colony. Ibadan was its intellectual center.

          Conversation and the partying ate deep into the night. But beyond gates of the colonial campus, a parallel world buzzed, full of its own life. Barring James Baldwin’s Harlem Ibadan was the largest black conglomerate there was. It was chaotic, slummy, and vibrant. A thing “monstrous and free”, Conrad would have said. Ibadan was exploding as few other places on the continent were, with what it meant to be African in the middle of the twentieth century. Ibadan was the future.

          Where in Africa, would you have come upon a joint like the Black Morocco? At Black Morocco, city crowds and campus hot heads rubbed shoulders. Whites and blacks came together. It is two in the morning, music still on, the drinks are flowing. The girls are doing a special show, something like this Yemaya and Oshun dance. There is hardly room inside. But the joint is still filling. In the years he lived in Ibadan as a young man about town Black Morocco was playwright Wole Soyinka’s favorite haunt.

"Yoruba Women"

yoruba women

          Dapo Adelugba, the actor and theater expert, who lived in Ibadan as a young man in those days remembers the time well. There were musicians; there were dancers, theater groups, artists, and politicians. Everyone was doing something. The city was an open space, a marketplace of ideas and activities. The coca economy, whose center was Ibadan, ensured there was a degree of affluence

"igbo women"

igbo women

 

          From where they caroused, party guests could hear distinctly the beat of Yoruba talking drums. Some of it came from the Black Morocco. The beats were irrepressible in their melodic force. They recalled the days when the names of Oyo and Ife Ile Ife were synonymous with pomp and glory. The rhythm of the music of high-life throbbed like a torrent. The music of Fela Kuti that flurished in the late sixties up to the eighties, came from here.

          Ibadan was not Nairobi. Nairobi was famous for its troupes of big game hunters that converged at the Norfolk Hotel. Then as now Nairobi was the place of royal adventure. Here Queen Elizabeth first became the Queen.

          Ibadan was not Kampala, the city on seven hills where young Africans mindlessly flaunted Oxford street gear. Where young Indians drove the latest American models and sampled the music of Elvis Presley. Ibadan was not alone. Much of Nigeria was in a state of ferment, the run up to independence. Ghana got there first but it was a close call. The three year differential doesn’t tell the story.

          In Nairobi on the white highlands in lavish whites only clubs, local whites told visiting whites. This is not Africa, Kenya is Europe. There will be no change here.

          In Kampala the Kabaka of Buganda got into trouble for opposing colonial policies. His efforts led him to exile in cold London. This and the emergency that was upon Kenya dampened the mood at Makerere University College, the equivalent of the University College at Ibadan where the new literature was brewing. At Makerere Kikuyu students suspected of links to Mau Mau, the movement that was fighting the war of Kenyan independence, were spirited by the night. Makerere was not Ibadan; East Africa was not West Africa!    

          At Ibadan guests at the dinner party were surrounded by the aroma and feel of Africa. The carousing lasted deep into the night. The sky was filled with stars. It was a night as could be had only in Africa.      

          A moment came and there was an announcement. All the ladies please to proceed at once to the ladies’ room. Left on their own the men were invited to enter as the host put it, darkest Africa. The men trooped to the spacious garden outside. Facing the late-night moon the men line up, unzip and shot straight at the heart of darkness. Uli Bleier writes about this somewhere. A few kilometers away were the shrines to the great Oduduwa, the ancient Yoruba deity.

"duduwa diety"

oduduwa

          Modern African literature got going at the University College Ibadan. Poetry, short stories, printed on the pages of crudely produced student magazines, supported and encouraged by the kindly men and women at the dinner party. Robert Wren captured the period in his book, Those Magical years, the University College of Ibadan during the period 1948-1966.

          And so the time came, it was early in 1958, the new literature had grown and matured within the rich culture mix that the Ibadan offered. Now from nearby Lagos where many of the graduates of Ibadan now worked and lived, the new literature erupted. Some critics sought out flaws they might point at.  Things Fall Apart seemingly had no flaws. This was Africa unbound, English words, African idioms skillfully crafted by a master craftsman to create the African story. Modern African literature would blossom around this single work. The novel would rise to become a classic of world literature.

          Chinua Achebe, the young author of Things Fall Apart was in those days part of a group of young people centered on the new University College. People who had graduated from, or were still students at the University College. Among them, the poet and dramatist J.P. Clerk, the poet Christopher Okigbo, the dramatist Wole Soyinka who later would win the Nobel prize, and Mabel Segun who was one of the few women in the group, and others.

"young achebe"

the author of things fall apart

          Robert Wren asked the question. How come modern African literature got its start at Ibadan and in no other place in Africa?  University colleges of equal merit existed in other places. Why Ibadan? To ask this question is to ignore for a moment those who would argue that the modern African novel did not begin at Ibadan at all.

          In our analysis we demonstrate how the political situation in East Africa: a fully fledge war in Kenya, a political crisis in Uganda, had put a hold on things there.  We show that in Nigeria, the cultural and political environment were favorable. Ibadan was the locale where all the forces needed to make the new literature were coming together forcefully and adding up.

          Intellectually Ibadan was at the core of a countrywide movement that sought to define the African experience and to live the African essence in the modern world. Out of this came the new literature.

          It helped that the faculty at Ibadan was what it was, men and women of talent who were at the same time creatures of their time. In their perception of the literature they taught, in their dealings with the students they taught, they were defined by empire. Their endorsement of the crude stereotypes of Africa and Africans purveyed by Joyce Carry in Mister Jonson was the tipping point. It was the catalyst the colonial students needed to set them free. Where before they hesitated or even shied away from things African, now in rejecting colonial stereotyping, they embraced their African heritage. In the process they created a new mode of African self representation. Things Fall Apart is the enduring symbol of what they achieved.