Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Literature, Nigeria, Poetry

Nigeria, A call to arms: The Anger of Unfulfillment

Jekwu Ozoemene is an award winning poet from Nigeria who has written three plays about Nigeria’s most difficult social challenges: human trafficking, the HIV/AIDS stigma and lack of early testing, and politics. Performed on stages beginning in 1999, Ozoemene recently published his works in a new book: The Anger of Unfufillment: Three Plays Out of Nigeria.

Review

If an adage such as, “charity begins at home” [1] is anything to go by the learning within Jekwu Ozoemene’s, poem Night Falls2 (Chi Ejie) and then The Anger of Unfulfillment,3 which apart from being an education, for me personally, is a call to action and not just in the sense of home life or homecoming just for a share of the national cake but to Nigeria, indeed the entire continent of Africa. In Nigeria today charity does not begin at home, rather it begins with financial worth. Here, I restrict the focus to reviewing this collection of three plays namely, The Anger of Unfulfillment, Hell’s Invitation and This time Tomorrow as summarised in Chi Ejie (i.e. Night Falls) in light of the neo-colonial issues it portrays and their far reaching impacts on Nigeria and Nigerians in particular and the African continent in general as is alluded to directly or indirectly throughout the collection.)

The book, starts with, Night Falls (Chi Ejie) a poem by Jekwu Ozoemene, in which, he laments Nigeria’s uncontrollable troubles. The publisher of The Open Sore of a Continent,4 writes a blurb that Nigeria has become “the outcast of the global village,” and anyone concerned can’t but cringe. The cracks were already apparent, from a personal perspective, in 1985 before I left for the UK where I still live albeit in exile. Nigeria’s problems are well documented but now over fifty years, it is as if no such document ever existed. We want to ask the question, why but the asking gets stuck in our inquiring throats, ‘wrapped in fear’ as we are confronted ourselves with mirages. ‘Who knows who the hooded slayers are?’ If we are being honest in this, ‘home for all’ we all play our part in the nation’s ill health as The Anger of Unfulfillment suggests. I heard the identity calls, ‘I am, I am’ of things happening as “night falls,” the flow of petrol from the, ‘wet wastelands’ and we are left in no doubt of the plight of the Ogoni people.

Then there are the freedom fighters made famous by Ken Saro Wiwa and enshrined in ‘the death of an Activist’. The sense of the ‘dark cape stealthily sweeping’ which evokes the delusions of our times and their inevitable consequences. However even more so, I feel a certain readiness when I hear, ‘a call to arms on this date’. I feel ready to bear arms myself but the explosion of images stays my hand when I’m confronted by the religious allusion, ‘serially Sodom[y],’ forewarning unspeakable ills of state sponsored, “social stigma,” the repercussions still run deep. How can I miss all these vices? Descending into the apathy of ‘silence’ in the process? ‘…darkness rolling in rolling in cow dung,’ constant, ‘freewheeling’ of ‘our collective will lost in the sand,’ or our craving for a share of the national cake, or the impotence of it all… ‘Nigeria we hail thee’ indeed.

We cannot see the reflections of ourselves as the ‘terrorists (freedom fighters), kidnappers, criminals’ who make it their business to, ‘desecrate our land.’ It is always easier just blaming others, isn‘t it? Politicians merely lead the way and the rest of us take what we can but I’m left wondering if charity still does begins at home, in Nigeria -our country, or even in Africa our ‘collective’ continent? Without a decolonialisation of our minds [5] can we claim to understand nationhood and why ours is failing? The Anger of Unfulfillment has answers for us but we have to be able to absorb the punch and pack as many as we need to mend our ailing nation. Bearing our joint colonial beginnings (heritage, if you like) in mind Ngugi Wa Tiongo again on Colonialism and its impacts on the colonised offers a clue when he asserts the following:

So what was the colonialist imposition of a foreign language doing to us (our fore parents’, our parents’, ours, and that of other generations to come) children? The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life… [6]

If we can locate our symptoms we can cure the illness. Just when you think things could not be as bad as that the psychological jolt spirals that spiral out of hand the deep seated neuroses rears their ugly heads sooner than we care to admit as the follow statement makes clear:

‘Catching Them Young’ as an aim was even truer of a colonial child. The images of this world and their place in it implanted in a child take years to eradicate, if they ever can be… [7]

And the legacy of past incursions persists ad infinitum. Before, since and today the aftertaste has left its tang as we are invited to sample here. All we have had for generations on end has been more of the same stuff, followed by Afro-European extension in a Calibanesque8 orgy of utterances or rather usage as Jekwu Ozoemene concurs here by bending language to ‘our’ service using pidgin English… ‘Yes oh…’ when he remoulds the borrowed tongues that proved too confining to express certain emotions he found other ways round as in, ‘I no fe shout’ or, ‘Chi e’ (translated as, Night Falls) sufficed to seal proliferating gaps. In this, I heard a prophetic beginning to the eradication of dependence and an eye set firmly on better futures.

The Anger of Unfulfillment is the depiction through this triadic collection of neo-colonial life and the seams are on display for all to see throughout the book. The Narrator, Ben and Orji ruminate the state of the country’s spiritual decline over a drinking session to burn time. The subject matter of their deliberations are human trafficking of women and of girls through the complicity of those sold into slavery for the European market as prostitutes, hairdressers and cleaners or whatever as long as the money came back to pay the sponsor’s fee. Prophet, Madam Boy’s Quarters and the congregation all play their part in this denigrating trade just to make a living. Christianity and black magic or juju intertwined to keep investment safe and human resources obedient with near to no questions asked of the party’s morality. When questions are asked faced with other troubles even the questioning are quite happy to throw principles to the wind for dear life’s sake as Adesuwa must at some point (faced with Nari and his Niger Delta activist/militant cohorts.) Her friend, Iyobosa has no such qualms obsessive to the core with men for sexual ends.

Even in the Diaspora, the feeling is so ever proximal. The trafficking of women was the theme of a documentary programme looking at women, girls and the role of their male relatives in that odious trade. When I tried investigating the situation on the land a friend of mine claimed, “Nigeria is no longer like that. Come with me and see for yourself,” she said but I couldn’t get the thought of her threat earlier on in our friendship go. “If you speak out in the way you do in this country I’ll leave you to face the consequences of doing so.

In Nigeria, we do not have the time for the vulnerable in that way you Europeans do.” She was laughing as though it was all a big joke. I caught myself mouthing, ‘Nigeria we hail thee.’ Faced with such appalling responses to identity or worth, it is no wonder that certain people ask, and I return to Jekwu Ozoemene’s poem again, ‘…who are the hooded slayers?’ The answer dropped in my lap literally, ‘those whose confidence you thought you could depend on’ said the said friend above. Perhaps Nigeria is going through its own disjointed version of Orwell’s, 1984 in which personal identities, sexualities or freedoms were deemed criminal activities as is seen in contemporary migrant ghettoes in Europe as in the respective African homeland, if not much more so.

The social stigmatisation of those living with HIV/AIDS is the subject matter of Hell’s Invitation. Bimbo, Emeka, Aliyu, Stella and Lateef are university graduates and housemates all struggling to make ends meet, living on near to nothing but with plans. Through the Jah Lord cult Stella gets a job despite a third class degree and Aliyu with a better degree does not. While Bimbo freewheels with ideas of starting a Church of his own and getting his friends involved all the others resist but Emeka relents as soon as he glimpses an opportunity. However gradually the subject of conversation changes to the social stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS of which Stella seems the most knowledgeable. Fear, lack of knowledge, denial, stigma, and the uncheck-able spread of the viruses are explored. Sammy cannot bring himself to take a test preferring not to know because of his sex life. In the end Bimbo gets him in trouble for fraud, Aliyu get an HIV/AIDS test and a job at the same time and Stella test positive and continues to educate those around her in Harm prevention.

And Night Falls again as I look around in the migrant ghettoes of Europe among Africans where the fear of the unknown is so burdensome on those on the receiving end. At one time, I volunteered in a HIV/AIDS programme like one of the ones mentioned in Hell’s Invitation or the social stigmatisation of the viral epidemic. I remember the inhuman nature of social stigmatisation particularly faced with the idea that HIV/AIDS was deemed an LGBT epidemic by those that didn’t understand the ailment nor the community blamed for its spread. There was so much ignorance to the point that patients chose to be silent. Those, outed, for one reason or the other faced ostracism so those who did not want to be public about their status risked dieing in silence.

Jekwu Ozoemene as the devil’s advocate here in Night Falls, ‘[S]erially sodomised, the raging tempest still raging… we are down on our knees’ brings the experience of the stigmatised to the fore. There is also that homo/transphobic allusion to the LGBT’s role in the viral proliferation through religious, traditional and egotistic misinterpretations folded up in that. Home grown attitudes to sexual orientation and gender identity are dealt an appalling hand when any variation is rejected absolutely. Although Jekwe Ozoemene doesn’t go this far the poem that opens the collection leaves us in no doubt what role imperialism has played to our cost. Divide and rule always holds sway as if that’s the only destiny that awaits Nigeria and the malaise runs deep as it’s impacts continue. In our neo-colonial stupor, we do not seem to have learned anything in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general to show for ourselves. Our unquestioning acceptance the colonialist’s worldview reduces us to the sum total of our forgotten cultures. What will the chattering classes say were they to find out that nobody is exempt from the scourge of HIV/AIDS? Social stigmatisation is not the solution it is part of the fall out, Jekwe seems to be saying.

In This Time Tomorrow, the state of politics in Nigeria comes to the surface. Jekwu Ozoemene portrays an engaging imagery of Nigerian politics through the egos of two rivals in love and for power but other subplots sneak in and out like a chameleon changes colour. If you tried, there’s forgetting that, comparisons between what a senator is paid in Nigeria and Western equivalents. The margins are staggering no wonder political service is deemed a better employment option in African generally. Can we be surprised at how far the exchange rate has descended?

There was the Professor of literature constantly quoting from the western canon to elucidate his meaning within his family but there was also his son, the theatre director, Jide whose ambition was revealed at the opening of the play in a demonstration at this father house. But the sexual revolution rears its head too. Keji, the Professor’s daughter (and her many suitors or the absence there of) and Folake, his wife become pawns in the professor’s household for his political rival to play him through. Chief Yagba, the Professor’s rival is one of wealthy “career” politicians that apparent got more than the fair share of the National cake and he shows it at every opportunity.

Having his fate decided by the two warring political factions is Femi, the wannabe Campaign Manager, fraudster and quark moralist who begins with the Professor’s ambitions as a senator. For his part he was broke owing everyone from his landlord to Iya Mulika who had ambitions of their own. Then we are brought face to face with the issue of infidelity: who is Jide’s father? For instance: Is it Chief Yagba or Professor? Or the issue of marrying our women off to suitable men in: Why was Keji the Lady of Shallot still unmarried? Fidelity in wedlock: Was Folake cheating on Professor? Responses to all these questions abound in This Time Tomorrow with compelling responses at every turn.

On a personal note, The Anger of Unfulfillment does not limit itself to the issues on the surface in terms of subject matter. Rather, taking the poem and the plays in this book, Jekwu Ozoemene scrutiny of the Nigerian body politic is imbued with rich pickings whether read or viewed on stage. I actually felt as if I was watching the play in a theatre. The grass-root politics of Nigerian needs this kick up the backside, this call to arms before matter get worse. Was this Banker, poet and playwright seems to be telling us is that we need to broaden our scope by engaging in the issues we are confronted by here or in our daily interactions with the world around us. But how do we do that if we fall silence in the face of the unknown? How do we raise consciousness if we dumb down in order to be loved by our peers? How do we say we exist if we are told by fathers of the church, mosque, Buddhist temple or tending our own spiritual garden ala Candide [9] whatever that was? But here the solution is an in between front of pessimism and optimism in which both or neither is a better choice to forge forth. Politics is not only the public it can also be private (both, neither) and just as effective.

As Jekwu Ozoemene asserts, ‘Let’s all rise in unison, a call to arms on this date,’ for better or worse together we can eradicate the vices of an over dependency as rooted in ‘inheritance and false heritage’ and chose nation building instead even if through raising consciousness. “Ose, O!” Yoruba, meaning, “Yes, Oh!” In English (Pidgin English to be precise.) as a friend would perpetually txt to gain favour but I must insist on no to (both and neither) such gainsaying lest we find ourselves back where we began.

Readings
Ozoemene, Jekwu. The Anger of Unfulfillment: Three Plays Out of Nigeria, IUniverse, 2010.
Soyinka, Wole. The Open Sore of a Continent: A personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Oxford, 1996.
Wa Tiongo, Ngugi, Decolonialising The Mind: The Politics of African Literature. James Currey/Heinemann, 1986.
Shakespeare, Williams. Measure for Measure, Penguin, 2005.
Voltaire, Francois. Candide, or Optimism, 2007