For a moment, I complimented myself on timing my arrival when I saw the heavy traffic on the other lane of the Third Mainland Bridge – sense will not kuku kill me. It was night, the rush hour of Lagos traffic. Traffic was free on my lane – towards Lagos Island – like a deserted highway. The other side was a gridlock of people getting away from the Island, characteristic of this particular hour. The bridge, or the body of water below it, the Lagos Lagoon, is an embodiment of a social divide between the people in Lagos. ‘Most of the people who work on the Island can’t afford living there.’ Femi, a friend of mine and thorough Lagos born and bred, had explained to me years ago. Hence the commuter traffic on the bridge in the morning and night on weekdays – and it can be so frustrating, enough to make one mad.
A cool breeze came from the lagoon, rushing in my face. Neon lights, streetlights, headlamps and tail lights, shimmered in many colours. The skyline, skyscrapers on the horizon. A feeling I can’t name flooded my whole being.
The bridge has always fascinated me – it is a monumental symbol of the city. It is also the setting of one of my plays. The eight-lane bridge, overstretching the Lagoon and connecting the mainland and the island of Lagos, was constructed by Julius Berger Nigeria PLC. The bridge is about 11.8 km in length and was opened by the former Nigerian military dictator Ibrahim Babangida in 1990. As at then, it was the longest bridge in Africa, before the 6th October Bridge was completed in Cairo in 1996.
I disembarked from the bus at Obalende, the last stop, and joined the throngs of people making their way to whatever their destination was. The time was slowly ticking. It was almost 10 pm. Nighttime vendors of different varieties of goods claimed the roadsides. I remembered I needed a pair of socks and probably a shirt but kept going and made a mental note to buy them later. The goal was to keep moving and be extremely conscious of pickpockets. I ducked the dirty pool of rainwater somewhere under the Ring Road Bridge. Sex workers stood promiscuously and claimed the frontage of closed shops by the roadside in their lustrous outfits and make-up.
I tried asking where I would find a keke to my final stop. Some people were evasive, refusing to direct me to the right place. The fear of talking to strangers in Lagos is the beginning of wisdom. It is an unwritten rule. Many had lost their valuables at such an instant. It is rumoured some had even lost their genitals by a mere touch – how is that even possible? Perhaps that is a story for another time.
My stars were with me though; I soon found a woman, one of the roadside vendors, who pointed me the way from a safe distance. I got into a keke and gave my stop to the driver. He knew the street, even the hotel, and okayed my request. He called for more passengers before he left.
Old Buddies Again
Meeting again with my old-time friends, Emeka and Biyi, was exciting – they are much more than friends, they are brothers and mentors. I had been at the hotel lobby awaiting their arrival. I was also looking forward to meeting in person, for the first time, other Wawa Book Review (WBR) Young Literary Critics fellows. We were all in Lagos to participate in the literary criticism workshop marking the end of the WBR ten-month mentorship program. Emeka was the first to meet me. Then the pair, Biyi and Joy Chime, the Managing Editor of WBR. Little by little, the gathering became larger as Nureni Ibrahim, Munah Tarpeh, Timi Odueso, Omotola Otubela, Ayodele Ibiyemi, Dumebi Ofuonyeadi, Veronica Ugian and Ekemini Pius joined us for the informal introduction.
‘You see this guy and his shorts ehn, nowhere e no fit waka reach.’ It was Emeka introducing me to the other fellows, chuffed I had not taken Uber and had still found my own way to the hotel, calling no one for directions. He turned to Biyi now, ‘That’s how he came to my place sometime ago after that Africa road trip. His appearance alone gave him away at once as a writer.’ He was referring to a time I still had my hair bleached. I had gone to meet him at a bar. I remember one of his friends, that day, asked me if I was one of Emeka’s writer friends. He didn’t seem surprised of me wearing shorts, had my hair bleached gold and plaited into cornrows wearing a Yoruba cloth cap loosely atop my head like a fervent village drunkard, and my fibrous moustache and spectacles that confirmed his hunch of me as a writer. But he was genuinely surprised when he learnt I don’t take beer. Another writer friend of mine, Benson, who had jokingly renamed himself Beerson after his love for the brewed stuff, had asked too, ‘Where do you get your craze from?’ for being a teetotaller and writer together.
‘Don’t worry, he is mad already,’ was Emeka’s response when his friend threw that same question at me.
Timi, after we’d all introduced ourselves, raised concerns about the WBR editorial process which prompted a conversation about editing and the role of literature in society. The analogy made by the duo of Emeka and Biyi was satisfying. ‘Your sentence should be clean and clear as water only that it is not water. When one sips it, it should have the deep potency of gin.’ Biyi admonished.
‘The role of science and literature in the society is connected. I have often thought literature identifies problems in the society while the role of science is to solve those problems. So, the two are very much connected,’ Emeka concluded. And then we filled the lobby with banter and laughter before we returned into our various hotel rooms.
Locations of African Literature: The State of Literary Criticism
At Angels and Muse, venue of the workshop, the next morning, surrounded by the genius of the Nigerian visual artist, Victor Ehikhamenor, the workshop began in earnest. I met again my long-time friend, Katja Kellerer, who is now with Goethe Institut, the co-organiser of the event. We sat around a long table and were introduced by Joy to the three facilitators: Indra Wussow from Johannesburg, Otieno Owino from Nairobi and M Lynx Qualey from Rabat.
Indra is a jovial and remarkable woman. She works as a translator, amongst other things, and is the editor of a series of contemporary African fiction called Africa Wunderhorn that ‘is regarded as pioneer work, focused on introducing contemporary African Literature to a German-speaking readership’. She has translated several works of fiction from English and Italian into German. Her likable mannerism reminded me of one of my beloved professors, Femi Oyebode. They both talk in a certain way – that mild chuckle mid-speech.
She schooled us on South African literature and the German reception of African literature. In Germany, there was this erroneous perception about Helon Habila as a crime fiction writer, for instance, because of his book, Oil on Water. And the implications of deriving another title for Chigozie Obioma’s book, The Fishermen. She also said they’ve only managed to sell a few hundred copies of some contemporary African authors in German translation, unlike their more popular counterparts such as Chimamanda Adichie and Teju Cole.
I also learnt from her presentation about the South African readership that they read more nonfiction. Unlike the readership in West Africa with our predilection for fiction. At the end, she invited questions from us. During her presentation, it had occurred to me to ask if Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard had ever been translated into German, given its wide acclaim and linguistic notoriety. But I later found a paper about its other life in German. I knew it would be a botched job.
Before Otieno began his presentation, he asked us to observe a minute’s silence in honour of the recently deceased beloved Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainana, fondly remembered as the Binj. His face, projected on a screen, animated the silence. This was the man who had paved the way for many other African writers and who was the torch bearer of a generation. This was the man who equally loved Nigeria as he did his Kenya. I remember my last conversation with him, on Twitter, about publishing the Ugandan novel, Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, in Nigeria – I was probably the first Nigerian reader of the novel. His final reply that would have set the course of my direction never came because he fell ill thereafter and I quit my job with the publishing house I was working with.
Otieno promptly guided us through his presentation on East African literature. The famous Makerere conference that heralded modern African writing and the literary magazines of the time, Penpoint (1950s) and Transition (1961). He highlighted and talked about contemporary literary organisations, such as FEMRITE, Writivism, Africa Writers Trust, publishing in East Africa and his work with the Kwani? Manuscript Project that ushered in Kintu. I had been looking forward to meeting him particularly because he worked on that project. He has had the privilege of reading in manuscript form some of the books that are gradually becoming part of contemporary canons.
During the writing clinic with him, the following day, in a one-on-one session, I got to know him better. He is a gentle listener and has the very calm personality befitting an editor. The tufts of his brownish hair were becoming dreadlocked, and that gave him a kind of aura.
‘Why do you write like a Prof, huh?’ he asked. It sounded more like a compliment than an accusation. We laughed together and he showed me the printed version of some of my reviews fetched from the WBR website. There were markings and comments in the margins that led us into a discussion about clarity, editing, intertextuality and the pons asinorum of many reviewers.
The final presentation was from Marcia, a critic, editor, translator, and independent scholar who runs the ArabLit website and quarterly magazine, which won a 2017 London Book Fair Award. I’ve always been an admirer of her work on Twitter – she’s an authority on contemporary Arabic literature. She just seems to be possessed with a great energy. The rapidity of her speech matches very well her enthusiasm for Arabic literature.
She guided us through the pre-Arabic literatures of Egypt, the mid-20th century novels, films, theatre, poetry and music from the Maghreb, the politics of translation and publishing, and theatre culture in North Africa. All my senses flashed in recognition of names like Tawfik al-Hakim, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Alaa al-Aswany, Naguib Mahfouz, Ibn Battuta, one of the world’s most renowned travellers. It was Femi Oyebode who first mentioned him to me, followed by my ‘travel patron’, Paul Theroux, who said, ‘If you’re looking for a model, the greatest writer-traveller the world has known is the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, who set as his goal to travel the entire Islamic world, including China, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa, in the mid-14th century. This took him 29 years.’
Another point I took note of in Marcia’s presentation was the vibrancy of playwriting and theatre culture in North Africa, especially in Egypt where plays and theatre thrive even though they are considered very seditious by the state and censored. Unlike here in West Africa, Nigeria to be exact, where plays, in their text form, are hardly given an outlet. There are only a number of literary magazines that are opened to submissions in the dramatic genre. I have shouted myself hoarse and I have made it a point of principle not to submit my work to editors or magazines that do not accept plays.
Listening to all three of them left me buoyed. I felt sharpened by our interactions and more informed about literatures from different parts of the continent. It is laudable that such a workshop was organised to nurture young literary critics and raise the bar of literary criticism, especially amidst claims by some persons that nothing was happening on the continent to support writers. I feel very proud I was part of the workshop. And, in a way, I felt validated as a literary critic.
Later in the evening, when we closed from the workshop, in a bar somewhere not far from my hotel, watching the Arsenal vs Chelsea Europa League final with Emeka, Nureni and Ayodele, my mother’s phone call came through. I could barely hear her. The noise of football lovers and music from loudspeakers interfered with my hearing. The network reception was poor too because her voice was breaking. I noticed her voice was quaking. She was angry with me again for switching off my phone. I stepped out so I could hear her clearly. It was almost the end of the first half and it had been a drab goalless game anyway. But I lost the call. My brother’s call came immediately and he broke the news to me: uncle, who was my foster father, had just passed away. I didn’t know how to process it immediately. My mother called again and shared the news too, this time her voice was clearer.
I did not return to the bar. Instead, I went to the meshai whom I had told to prepare noodles and a scrambled egg for me. I was eating when another family member called. He seemed broken, almost on the verge of tears. I felt ashamed. And even unworthy that I had not been able to muster such emotions in the instant. It seemed to me then I needed to join in the network of mourning, so I called my cousin to offer him my condolences.
I imagined all of them sitting in the living room, crying, commiserating with one another the way it had been when my father died. But grief is one emotion I don’t really feel. Or maybe the way I mourn is different. I didn’t even shed a tear when my father died a decade ago – the only one who didn’t. I can remember they were all worried for my seventeen-year-old self because I wouldn’t cry or even look sober. The last time, and only time, I ever cried for a death was when my maternal granny, who had raised me, died in the early 2000s. I merely cried or joined in the crying frenzy because I saw people crying and thought it was the sane thing to do. Not because I felt grieved.
I could not finish my food and just retired to my hotel room. The burr of the AC was hypnotic and at once soothing. Some late-night horror film kept my eyes busy as I tucked myself in the duvet. I tried conjuring memories of my foster father. The most cherished and enduring one was the time he introduced me to the book The English Parnassus: An Anthology of Longer Poems, where I first read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. I guess that experience influenced me a lot – most of my poems are long. Another memory of him which has passed into a legend in the household is of a night he came home with his driver, from one of his many bouts of heavy drinking with friends, and was so drunk that he was talking gibberish. It was one of the very rare occasions on which I was the only one at home. The mischievous sense of me had taken in every detail of what he had said and done – there were no smartphones back then to do a recording. When he called me the next morning and asked me about the previous night, he was astonished and laughed at how I narrated or rather reenacted all his antics.
Some time later, when the match was over, Emeka came to my room. He was crestfallen.
‘Where you con dey? I no see you again.’
‘I left during the first half.’
‘Ah, those mumu Arsenal players.’ He felt pained, the way a club fan would over cup finals.
‘Wetin con be final score?’ I had not even bothered to follow it online.
‘Dey just killed the match. Dem beat Arsenal 4-1.’
Good riddance, I wasn’t surprised. I shared the news with him about a deceased member of my family. He stayed on late into the night. We chatted about the workshop and our impressions. He left at some minutes past one in the morning. Then I returned to reflecting on my seeming apathy which they have always complained about at home.
One Sunday morning, we dressed for church but as we were about to leave the house someone called and broke the news of the death of a friend of the family – shot dead in broad daylight by political thugs. Suddenly the mood of everybody in the house became sombre and they cried. But I didn’t. I remained cheerful and nonchalant. When I eventually got tired of them crying, I asked if we were not going to church anymore so I could change my clothes. I would have been biffed on the face for my comment, had I not ducked. They had complained several times before about my apathetic nature but that day I became the topic, once more, and I almost regretted that I lacked the will, interest, or whatever it may be, to cry, like the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
The next day, a public event was held, with Indra, Otieno and Marcia as speakers, and it was equally exciting. There were valuable comments from the audience about the state of literary criticism on the continent.
The next day, after the public event following the workshop, which was equally exciting, marking the end of the program, I woke up to the mating cry of two birds on a telecom pole outside my window. They flew away just before I could get my glasses so I could identify their species and capture the moment with a camera. I ate my breakfast and had my bath before I checked out. It had been an intensive training with the facilitators and an exciting time with my colleagues.
As I sat in a cab riding over the Third Mainland Bridge evading conversations with my Uber driver as much as possible, KSA’s song, which I had heard in a boutique along Tinubu Square the previous day, kept playing in my mind:
G’ésin ńkésé, b’ó d’énú baba won bí ò d’ókàn won g’ésin ńkésé
Pátákò esin kìí j’ésin ó subú
Ìrù esin kìí w’é m’ésin l’órùn
Ìyá eni bàbá eni kìí j’ójú ó t’ini.
It haunted and left a tinge of sadness in me. I can’t help but associate the song with my foster father – how much he loved KSA. A feeling I can’t name flooded my whole being.
Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè is an editor, literary critic
Cover photo credit: Lagos State Television