Wednesday, 18 January 2012
By Anote Ajeluorou
Sefi Atta’s first novel, Everything Good Will Come, came with a startlingly conversational and reportorial style that fed its readers doses of daily events in Nigeria that foreground her narrative. It was her own way of keeping abreast of events back in Nigeria from her base in Mississippi, United States. There is no doubting that the style worked as it did not only endeared her to readers, she has several awards to show for the work.
However, the lifestyle of the protagonist tended to have given Atta away in certain respects, as most readers felt she and her protagonist are one and the same. Like her protagonist, Ata schooled in England and had her early haunts in Ikoyi neighbourhood. This was a price she was to pay for writing a successful novel. But unassuming and even shy Atta felt somewhat outraged at being one and the same with her protagonist.
Her use of the first person narrative and many readers’ inability to separate the fictive character from the author, Atta found herself at the receiving end of conversations amongst some of her peers. And she said she felt exposed at being so regarded. Her strong, sexiest stance also did not help matters as her protagonist shows.
“When I wrote Everything Good Will Come, I felt exposed,” Atta said at a reading she held as part of The Life House’s Christmas event last Friday in Victoria Island, Lagos. “People thought I was the main character. It was annoying. So, for my next book, I felt I had to step out of myself.”
The yet-to-be titled new novel, although set in Lagos and New York, has begins with the life of a woman at mid-life, who is just starting out life anew. In this new work, Atta has kept faith her old style of dredging up bits and pieces of Lagos (and hopefully, Abuja) life to foreground her narrative. It is her way of keeping up with activities and events back home here in Nigeria even while she lives abroad with her family.
As Atta said, “I write about Nigeria when I’m out of Nigeria. I’m living abroad because I love it; my husband works over there and my daughter is schooling there. But I’ve always been connected to home. I’ve never stayed away from home for a long time. It’s the who I am”.
Perhaps, it is Atta’s penchant for staying in touch with home and visiting often that separates from the other band of writers pander to the stereotypical whims of publishers abroad that have a nose for negative stories from Africa. Atta is not flattered by such writing, which she takes a personal exception. Her path in insisting on the correct mode of writing about country and continent has pitched her against publishers who often insist on offensive nuances Atta finds irritating.
She told her audience, “My path has not been easy as a writer, especially in finding a publisher in the U.S. If you’re doing something the right way (that portrays Nigeria, Africa the way they are), you’ll have a hard time, you will have a hard time as an African writer. I often find myself asking difficult questions that others just ignore… I’ve had difficulties but I’m grateful for what I have become. Editor, publishers want us to talk about dictatorship, terrors and bad governance in Africa…”
Atta’s sexism and her attempts to right whatever wrong men have inflicted on women (in the raging war going on between men and women) is unmistakable in her writing from Everything Good Will Come, Swallow and News from Home (Lawless and Other Stories). However, she would not be drawn into the penis-bashing portraiture of men argument in her works, as it seems all too evident in contemporary society, saying, “I don’t feel the need to defend myself on this issue”. Nevertheless, Atta said she was cutting a different posture in her yet-to-be published work from which she read an excerpt.
In her yet-to-be published work over which she and her publisher are still agonizing over a suitable title, Atta returns to England, where she schooled. For Atta, England holds a certain fascination; it is the reason she said, I wanted to write about England, my experiences in boarding school. That is why it’s easy for me to about England. I wanted to write about U.S.”
However, Atta stated that her preoccupation in the coming season would be to revise what she had written.
Literary Star Search, which has been described by newly appointed spokesman and Abuja-based journalist, PR practitioner and publisher of Housing Circuit magazine, Seun Jegede, as truly grassroots contest, has congratulated all Nigerians, especially writers on the solidarity expressed for the survival of the Nigeria people and the strengthening of democracy in the country during the strike protest over subsidy removal. Jegede noted in a statement that with the protest over subsidy Nigerians would seem to have cast overboard the negative tag of docility in their inability to confront those who rule over them to ask hard questions how public affairs are run in the country.
He commended the Nigerian people for standing up to their rulers and insisting on their inalienable rights to hold government accountable. Jegede then urged Nigerian writers to seize the gauntlet by writing masterpiece short stories for the literary contest that appropriately capture the peculiar Nigerian ethos in charting a way forward for the country away from under-development to the country of their dream where writers can practice their literary craft and be amply rewarded as a way of overcoming the challenges or hardships a deregulated economy may foist on them. He further called on writers to take the opportunity of Literary Star Search contest to realise the fruits of their creative labour.
As a way of boosting writers’ image as community leaders, Jegede disclosed that Literary Star Search’s parent company, Creative Alliance, was shopping hard for corporate sponsors and partners to make the contest truly grassroots. He stated that apart from awarding N1 million grand prize money for the best short story, the winner will be assisted with a further N.5 million to develop a community project, preferably stocking a public school library in his or her alma mater so as to help indigent students have access to reading materials.
Jegede also restated the goals of Literary Star Search contest to include nurturing, promoting and rewarding to raise the profile of Nigerian writers and also providing avenues for them to express themselves creatively. The first and second runners-up to the grand prize winner will go home with N300,000 and N200,000 respectively while the best 25 short stories will be published in a collection to called Stories Nigeriana. Writers that make it into this collection will be promoted in reading tours. Jegede, therefore, advised writers to direct their enquiries on how to be part of Literary Star Searchcontest to visit: www.creativeallianceng.com and www.literarystarsearch.blogspot.com.
Last Sunday, Prof. Niyi Osundare tackled the monster of fuel subsidy and how impoverished Nigerians would be by the time the IMF-induced policy would have run its course. Osundare passionately appealed to President Goodluck Jonathan to remember his famous ‘shoeless boy from Otueke’ campaign days and why subsidy removal is an ill wind likely to rouse Nigerians from their perennial docility to confront those who have ruled them to ruin. In this concluding part of the interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Osundare takes on the familiar malaise in the educational sector, and how only through education can the citizenry be made to overthrow the yoke of insensitivity amongst Nigeria’s class of rulers. He regards the current ASUU strike as part of the distrust that exists between government and the governed. Excerpts:
So, how do we address this malaise of docility?
Education, and education and education through conscientisation! Our people need to be aware of the power they have as citizens; their inalienable rights as people; the fact that the power enjoyed by the rulers should actually flow from the people. They should stop glamourising and beatifying the bad rulers that make life and living impossible for them and their children. Honestly, there is too much power-worship in this country, a habit I see as part of the Baba ki e pe (Boss, may you live long) syndrome. Just look at it: in Nigeria, the political ruler (and virtually anyone in a position of authority) is treated and venerated, like on with royal and/or priestly/divine powers, appeased with abject genuflections and lavish prostrations. Their birthday ‘felicitations’ take up substantial spaces in the newspapers; their oriki (praisename) is loud, lurid, and ludicrously extravagant.
So, in a way, it is Nigerian people that tell their rulers: rule us forever; rule us the way you choose; rule us the way that pleases your whims. Surely, this is one of the terribly negative parts of our traditional culture that is blatantly antithetical to the idea of democracy. For, the pervasive vestiges of divine kingship which tend to colour our concept of political power actually dis-empowers the people by erecting their rulers into some kind of sacred, unquestionable Kabiyesi alaye lorun (the unquestionable on who has dominion over heaven and earth). From this apparent verbal hyperbole emerges a state of mind, a political habit, and followership style that makes democracy impossible by belittling the people while inflating the essence of their rulers. All over the world, we know that tyranny never flourishes without the people’s abasement.
Urgently needed: a regimen of political enlightenment! The kind of education we have at the moment is cheap and pedestrian; it is education for enslavement. How many universities did we have when this country made most of the progress that we rely on today? Four! Compare what we have now to what we had in the 1970s and 1980s. I was an under-graduate in 1969-72, and I knew what this country was at that time; the quality of education, the quality of graduates at that time and the caliber of teachers that produced them. Nigeria was more literate at that time, and more purposeful, and more honest.
Today, it’s about 120 universities, and still counting. There are so many universities now that some well-run high schools are much better, more genuine, less crude than these latter-day pretenders to higher education. Yes, indeed, the days of the Ivory Tower seem to have receded into memory; what we have in Nigeria today is nothing better than Straw Towers. Just consider the galling politicization of the location of many of these “universities”. Along the pot-holed, blood-sucking Lagos-Ibadan express road, “new universities” are now contesting for space and notoriety with evangelical temples. (I counted four of these roadside “universities” on my last trip two weeks ago, and there is every possibility that the number may have increased since then!).
And what do we say about the Federal Government’s recent additions to the flood: nine universities, two of which were donated for siting at the birthplace and/or local government area of the President of the Federal Republic and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and some functionary in the Federal Ministry of Education?
So, we end up with a saddening paradox: more universities, less education. It’s as simple as that. Look at some of the universities, too, particularly the private universities, the religious ones. Many of them are so fundamentalist I wonder the kind of graduates they are turning out: you must not wear earrings, no make up, no cell phones, no talking at certain times of the day (And these are no monasteries!).
In some universities, teachers are made to sign attendance registers; stand and bow when the proprietor passes/enters. Painfully at work here is the loss some of the desiderata of free enquiry and intellectual assertiveness, the triumph of robotization over purposive education.
A university is not made that way; that is not the idea of a university; high school, yes! It is in high school that you are supposed to go through some of these regimentations because you are still young and still cannot make up your mind and so on. The moment you get into the university, you are supposed to have acquired a certain level of independence, a certain level of liberation of mind and of thought and action. As I said in my valedictory lecture a couple of years ago, a university is a place where you are supposed to experiment, stumble, fall, pick up yourself again and walk, ask questions, do the right thing most of the time; at times do the wrong thing and see what it means to do the wrong and the difference between wrong and right. We all learn through the seek-and-find, the experimental way.
Today, in many of the new universities, that kind of policy doesn’t exist. All decisions are taken for the students; they are like robots, but they end up with a first class degree all the same. I don’t know how many first class degrees the private universities produce every year. There is a serious inflation of grade and class of degree. Not much of quality control. And many rational people are asking: how many of these high-flying degrees are genuine, and how many are obligatory rewards for the exorbitant fees paid at these universities? Besides – and this is very important – there is no proof yet that graduates from these expensive private universities are better than their counterparts from public universities.
These universities are being run as commercial enterprises, not real universities, or if they are universities, they are universities with the universe in them missing. This is why we have more universities and less education.
(cuts in) The public universities are not even faring better, even when the minister of education is usually taken from amongst them. Why is it so?
Public universities are freer, although some people see this freedom as libertine. Such people are saying we should measure the length of the ladies’ skirts; we should make every holy effort to banish provocative cleavages; we should gauge the lushness of lipsticks, and so on. We really have no business doing all that. Let students do whatever they like so long as it is legitimate and within the law. If students dress in an attractive way, if you don’t like that, take away your eyes. Why must you say you have to… No, no, no; we cannot put students through Talibanic torture and hope that they will come out as broad-minded, free-thinking, and independent adults and citizens. Many private universities are doing that; public universities are also concerned. They put too much premium on appearances. Of course, appearance is important, but we must make sure we go beyond the conspicuously external in our consideration of the important things of life. It is worth noting that most of the so-called ‘stakeholders’ in the educational sector who worry so much about external appearances take little or no interest in the not-so-conspicuous aspects of our students’ education.
How many parents, for instance, have raised issues regarding the institutional facilities that produce their wards’ education: the laboratories, classrooms, the library, bookstores, etc? How many show interest in the books they read, the curricula which undergird their education, the ideology which inflects their thinking? We have to reconsider our narrow and hypocritical definition of ‘discipline’ and realize that our students do not live in a societal vacuum. They are listening, for instance, when the story is being told about public functionaries who play foul with the public purse. They know practical thugs and illiterates who have become millionaires through political jobbery and blatant corruption. Incidentally, many of these thieves are impeccably turned out in the garments bought with money stolen from the Nigerian people.
So, public universities are fairer as far as the liberal attitude to university education is concerned, but in terms facilities they are worse. Our laboratories still remain underequipped, our libraries still remain outdated; our book stores are still without books; our classrooms are still over-crowded, and teaching is not being done the way it should be done. Morale is low amongst university teachers and I think many of us have to be more conscientious in the way we practise the profession. When you are given a student to teach and/or supervise, do it well. Read the thesis chapters with thoroughness and dispatch. Don’t just put them in your drawer, and two weeks to the deadline, throw them at the student and say ‘go and type’. Don’t use your big status as “Professor Sir” or “Professor Madam” to intimidate junior colleagues and students. Don’t hide behind that big status to evade your professional duties. The Kabiyesi syndrome we identified with politicians earlier on in this interview is also very much present in our institutions of higher learning. There must be a reasonable democratic atmosphere before adequate teaching and free inquiry can take place.
Some of the documents that pass as PhD theses, MA dissertations, BA long essays in Nigerian Universities are simply atrocious. Real, genuine education is disappearing. To bring it back, we need students who are willing to learn and teachers that are prepared to teach. There is an urgent need to restore performance evaluation and quality control in our universities. The time for the introduction of compulsory Student Evaluation of teachers is NOW.
What do you make of the current strike in the universities?
The current ASUU strike follows a familiar pattern. First ASSU complains, ‘we cannot teach because the conditions of service are bad’, ‘we cannot teach because we don’t have the tools to work with; we are poorly paid and so on’. Government pretends not to listen. Then a short warning strike; government still pretends not to know. One week passes, government pretends not to hear. Then one month or even longer. Then the real strike, and parents start complaining: ‘ah! my children are idle at home; they are eating all the food, and they go out at night. Please, let them go back to school’. Traditional rulers will also join the plea, and then government will reluctantly set up a committee to look into issue and the government committee and the ASUU committee will meet and it will take a long time and then a decision will be taken. Eventually, after a long period of deliberation, both parties reach a conclusion and sign an agreement. Back-slapping and hurrays! ASUU will go back to work, expecting government to honour the agreement. But government will not fully do so, thus setting in motion another round of crisis. It takes a keen sense of honour to sign an agreement and abide by it. But that virtue is in short supply with Nigerian public functionaries..Hence this recurring cycle of strike, school closure, and reopening.
Now to the point you made earlier on about the present minister of education being from the university herself. Well, you use a monkey to catch other monkeys. Yes, it is not the first time it has happened. We have always had more problems with professors as ministers for education in this country. Remember Prof. Ben Nwabueze and his ‘Parity’ bogey – a hot, nasty issue that rammed a wedge between the administrative staff of universities and the academic staff, a devious divide-and-rule subterfuge with a strong Babangida streak? Our university system never knew a moment of peace during Nwabueze’s tenure. Of course, you remember the tenure of Prof Jubril Aminu as education minister, and the unending round of crises in the education sector. And M.T. Liman and the six-month strike of 1996, when both General Abacha and his education minister pretended for weeks that they did not know that Nigerian university system had been done down by a protracted strike.
I think the only exception to this vicious rule is Professor Aliyu Babs Fafunwa, the avuncular education expert with a lot of insight and sagacious diplomacy. He served as a useful buffer between the federal government and the Jega-led ASUU, and there was progress in the negotiations the negotiations under his watch.
Let the Nigerian people take more interest in the quality of education their children are receiving. Convocation time is not just time for the wearing of the mortarboard and the gown and the eating of jollof rice and chicken. Let parents go to the laboratories, the book stores, the libraries and the classrooms and the halls of residence and other places on campus which aided the acquisition of their wards’ education. Let the parents interact with the teachers and understand their problems. This is important. The interest of parents must go beyond the glittering diplomas dished out to their ward on convocation day. They must ask why our graduates are becoming less and less competitive nationally, and why internationally the Nigerian certificate has lost its value. It is not enough to beat your chest and proclaim: I am parent of a graduate; the crucial question now is: what kind of graduate?
And, as a country, we need to consider the connection between educational failure and the failure of the nation. The virus of Illiteracy is killing this country slowly, silently. Nigeria is moving from a pursuit of know-how to the doldrums of know-not. This is certainly not the best way to become “One of the World’s Twenty Greatest Economies in Year 2020”. If what we are experiencing in the educational sector now is not a profound crisis, then I don’t know what else is.