Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Horror at the Caine Prize 2017

Over at the Johannesburg Review of Books, Elinor Sisulu, a judge of the Etisalat Prize, gives an account of the 2017 edition. Her account mostly belongs in the travel writing genre, with names, places, and aw-shucks dropped, but at one point she makes a comment about her host’s relationship to literature.

“It was clear that this literary competition, for the Etisalat team, is about more than brand promotion and return on investment,” says Sisulu. “Their passion and commitment to literature shone through their administration of the prize…”

Was it necessary to put in this defence? Almost certainly not, yet Sisulu’s sentiment does speak to the insecurity at the heart of most award schemes for the art. On one side, the corporate bodies want to appear cultured; on the other, writers want to be unsullied by such philistine concerns as corporate branding,  At the least, the tribe doesn’t want to hear it, but thanks ma’am, the money will be taken. Better still if that money comes with the media might of the Caine Prize. There are richer prizes but none as well-known and certainly none as prestigious for African writers.

Once again, Nigeria dominated the list of nominees. Three citizens of the country made it. Two of the three stories have horror elements. Only one of these stories has true literary quality. It’s almost surprising that the other is up for the same award.

Chikodili Enelemadu’s Bush Baby appears inspired by tales from Nigerian boarding schools. Once the rage from generations of hostel dwellers to a younger one, those tales have lost their once formidable powers. Perhaps this is why the story follows people out of school: they after all belong to the generation aware of the powers of the bush baby and tales surrounding the creature. Anyone born with a smartphone in hand can brandish Google as crucifix against those demon stories.

Shortlist, Caine 2017: Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, Chikodili Emelumadu, Bushra al-Fadil, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Arinze Ifeakandu.

We meet the story’s narrator, Ihuoma, as she welcomes her brother. He is sickly. He is in trouble. The morning following an inexplicably torrid night, he explains to his sister what has happened: After gambling and losing, he has had to steal a mat with magical powers from a bush baby. In return, his creditors will let him have back his losses. Ihuoma, a distrusting sibling at the start, believes him after the events of the preceding night, which were sound-tracked by the wailing of an unseen baby:

The crying seems to be bouncing off the walls, building as it travels through the hallway, waves upon waves, making the hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand on end. Okwuchukwu claws at his ears, making guttural noises as if he has lost the ability to speak. The crying grows until it seems to be coming from all around us, seeping out of the floor, pressing down on us from the ceiling. The pressure in the room is the type you get in an aircraft cabin; my head becomes as tight as balloon and my ears pop. Something wet and sticky spreads all over the carpet. It’s cold, numbing. When I try to move, I find I can’t. I am rooted to the ground. My heart beats in my head, pushing hot blood and adrenaline through my limbs. Everything feels tainted, infected by fear. Okwuchukwu crashes through the coffee table.

As far as the reader knows, there is no solution to the problem. The malevolent creature whose mat has been stolen would eat away at Okechukwu’s essence until he is dead and then the creditors will come for the mat. The only hindrance is Ihuoma. Or as the writer will have us think, love, love of a sibling, is the only obstacle to certain death.

The story is caught between portraying that love and depicting fear. The first is passed along in such bathetic gestures as the sister remarking that her brother’s beautiful beard is out of place on his face as she touches it. The other is shown through obvious means, most of which the cursory reader or watcher of horror narratives will be used to: Coffee table breaking, use of words and phrases like “cold”, “numbing”, “adrenaline through my limbs”, “heart beats in my head”.

These are clichés of phrasing as much as clichés of the imagination. Neither sibling love nor fear comes through in fresh terms. And when the story ends on the cusp of a showdown, the reader might think regreattably: just what exactly was all of these for. As said, it is surprising this is on the Caine shortlist, but it might be tricky to get it on the shortlist of a genre prize as well. The story fails to give the climax that genre readers crave; its language, the prose, the fabric of the telling, is inadequate, way short of the standards of literary fiction.

In both areas, Lesley Nneka Arimah shines. Her story about one woman’s quest for a child in a universe where men don’t exist and kids are fashioned from materials, give both a literary pleasure, and rather than avoid a climactic confrontation between human and not-quite-human, she goes the whole way. Her story, Who Will Welcome You At Home, also wears its influences: the films “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Omen” and “Godsend” have representation, but Arimah reclaims it all from them. And on the way, she gives a snapshot of grace in relaying what grief and loss might be to someone who has gotten what she wants but at an expense so much, it is pyrrhic victory.

Yet the writing is as elegant as one has a right to expect from the New Yorker, the publication in which it appeared. Arimah tells a genre story in prose that is by itself remarkable. The last few sentences are some of the best in recent Caine Prize history. After a series of failures, the protagonist is ready to start again on the journey of creating a new life:

Let this child be born in sorrow, she told herself. Let this child live in sorrow. Let this child not grow into a foolish, hopeful girl with joy to barter. Ogechi formed the head, the arms, the legs. She gave it her mother’s face. In the morning, she would fetch leaves to protect it from the rain.

This is how a remarkable tale of horror and of great expectations ends, leaving the reader with a character hanging precariously on a string of hope.


A Nigerian critic’s manifesto

Literary starter pack

Over on Facebook, an artist friend queried the paucity of reviews and reports on the art scene in Lagos. It led to the response below. As with most things social media, it isn’t the most edited piece existing in the world…I reproduce it here because someone on the thread asked that it be published somewhere. Here goes:

Part of the motivation for me to write reviews was the realisation that there was nothing of the sort when I was at the university. Yet each time I picked up Time, Richard Corliss was writing these forceful reviews of cinema, someone else was reviewing an album. Then Ikhide showed up propelled by Next. Good times.

And yet when this gets written I feel something akin to what you’ve written up there: that no one is paying attention. Actually, O, your post proves my point. In writing what you have I fear that you have dismissed some of the work a few of us have done. We write film and pop music reviews. Not your preferred form I know and maybe you have removed us from the people you address up there. But you know what they say about old women and brittle bones.

Suffice to say that it isn’t just the regular artists who are upping their game. While we labour in some kind of obscurity as your post perhaps hints at tangentially, critics, some at least, do want their work to receive the attention you mention. Not now but later. We, too, despair that it’ll never happen because we are where we are.

The true critic wants to write something that might even outlive the work itself. The best of us are trying to create art. It is why I don’t think highly of the newspaper column: too tied to the news and thus too disposable.

Now the problems: You have a legit complaint but I wonder if you’ll be as sanguine if you were on the receiving end of a harsh review. That aside, do you realise how hard it’ll be for a single person to do what you ask? I attended one or two programs at the festival and those were the free ones. You think any blasted critic has money to pay, to spare for these programs.

Fact is, to have any sort of authority to make pronouncements one has to put in the hours. Putting in the hours is expensive. The culture was just lucky that some of us put in the hours young and when we could afford to be idealists. We loved whatever art forms we loved, learned about it informally and came across elegant pieces writing on those forms and thought we could adapt the style and thought and rigour for our local scene. We are older now and see that to put in the hours is to take away those hours from paying endeavours. It is a privilege to have been foolish at that time but while we indulge the privilege still, the foolishness has had to go, forced out by the necessities of bills and adult living. The hours anyone spends to be an authority have to be rewarded. There is no hope otherwise–for the critic or the culture.

The hope is that younger persons today are still falling into that trap of foolishness and privilege. The heartbreak will come but just as we did, they, too, will have to find a way about it. The alternative is a culture scene in the future deprived of even the paltry reviewing system we have right now.

You also need institutional backing. No matter how bad publishing gets, the New York Times will always have a film critic, a theatre critic, a music critic, a book critic etc. Over here not one paper has a resident critic for any art form. They have reporters, badly paid ones. For those reporters to survive on a paltry wage they need to make friends and connect; they need those envelopes. Make no mistake, those envelopes are for coverage, PR that is. Most times the events already have what they need published and only have to send it. The work-swamped reporter can hardly breathe under all of his work–remember that she edits herself, attends all those events at her expense and has to file in a few hundred words under no-light and noise and a daily/weekly deadline. Where is the time for reflection for a reporter, before we get to discussing a critic?

As for this particular event, M has tried in getting a few of the programs mentioned. Ideally the papers and other online publications should have a team of reporters and critics to go out and cover these things. It is how festivals and publications work elsewhere. Anyone who writes the same piece M did would be paid pittance or nothing by any publication. M is different and lucky; he’s the editor of the platform he has written for.

But really the best way to review the Lagos Theatre Festival is to discuss the politics of the event itself. How helpful is the manner in which some of these organisations do the things they do? As D points out above there are things wrong with the BC’s approach. How many persons of the press did they contact? Are they online? Do they know if anyone writes reviews of any art form in Nigeria? If they do know will they get them to write about their program? Because they ought to know how freelancers work and slave here, will they want to pay? I say this because every one of the handful of people writing reviews really well are freelancers. I have my list and you probably have yours. Is BC aware of any of these people? Aren’t they still looking at This Day and Guardian and the rest, where it is reporters in charge, where one has to push and push to be ignored by editors too scared to run anything unpaid and of true value to the culture.

There’s a certain above-the-fray manner some organisations work and you wonder if they know anything at all about the culture space they purport to work in. And this is perhaps about the space itself–if our culture ministry is clueless as to these things, is it a foreign organisation that should know better?

I’ve gone beyond the brief I know. But I’m a working critic or I strive to be one. I work in the literal and metaphorical dark. And these things keep me up at night.

Why No One Laughs When Qudus Dances


I have attended enough events to believe that for the Nigerian audience, laughter is the preferred response to a failed or strange performance. Not boos, not insults, not at first. This holds even for some comic shows, where it helps to understand the difference between laughing with and laughing at. Mostly this laughter begins with an individual chuckle that, if encouraged by a companion, spirals into a fit. Faced with ineptitude or inscrutability and seeking release, others join in.

It could be a commandment handed us pre-life: Any work failing to earn its time, due to novelty or incompetence, will be mocked. After that we decide to either endure the performer or throw her out.

Considering how much of the dancer Qudus Onikeku’s work is novel to a Nigerian audience raised on ‘cultural dance’ and now caught between the frenetic movements of twerking and the swagger of the shoki, it’s surprising no one laughs when the man dances. So that a recent comment from a lady who saw his last show bears repeating.

“After Qudus’s performance, I went home and wanted to kill myself.”


At ‘We Almost Forgot’, the show that inspired this suicidal pearl of criticism, I stood watching and taking notes.

Oriental music blared from a spot offstage. A girl, kung-fu gesturing with deltoids pronounced, appeared. At the end she seemed out of breath. The beat turned foreboding. Behind her a group of five came out. Qudus, head honcho, among them.

They screamed, overwhelming the music. Later Qudus strutted alone, like Hamlet about to burst into a monologue. The music morphed into discordance as Qudus attempted to telegraph the aural trauma through movement. Female dancers surrounded him, arms behind their bodies, faces grimacing.


Another male comes onstage. Qudus fell over him. A little homo-erotic. A group hug of both male and female. Back and forth and side to side they move. A woman stood away from the hugging group. She will be the audience’s guide.

“Why do people remember?” asked the non-dancing woman. The others watch on, their ultra-expressive faces moving from curiosity to blankness. “We almost forgot what life’s about,” said the narrator. The sound has turned threatening. The movements on stage are frenetic, they look un-choreographed but you bet they are not. If only for how much they appear to not touch each other. Qudus’s eyes appear to be covered by a transparent screen.

Like his very best performances this one looked like there wasn’t much that is directly meaningful. The words, which are meant to convey the great and mundane devastation of loss, arrive without much context.

“I miss the shelling, the power cuts…I miss…my friends.”

“In the midst of all this, you’re cooking.”

“I can’t fit in but I can’t go to my previous life.”

“If I were to sum up life here in one word, it’s humiliation.”

“We lost 38 members four family in person.”

Our narrator spoke from memory. A feat of recall. A feat that works within the work in how it captures the persistence of memory.

The scene shifted. There’s a struggle between a male and female who have now appeared on stage; the former rejecting, the other relentless. The soundtrack becomes a dirge. Then there’s a struggle between two males; and a murder. Three girls gathered the corpse in their arms. They swayed.


In my notes I write: How come no one is laughing even if there’s a Lagos crowd now gathered?

Perhaps because the monologues are especially good. One monologue has a mother looking for her handsome son John. John with the sweet brown eyes and rosy cheeks: “Has anybody seen John?” The monologues appear to signal phases in the story. Even as it wasn’t a clear story but several stories.

It was excellent stage craft. How many things seem to be happening at once and yet a lot of it is comprehensible. The best thing is how the dance-play wasn’t looking for applause. No pauses. The work was all-absorbing. The silence of the crowd was the better applause. The dance played to the gallery by not playing to the gallery. It conveyed trauma by dance. It’s a feat of brutal narration. It is why someone will consider suicide afterwards.


For something I think can be risible to a Nigerian audience, the performance kept its audience silent. It’s not a great stage at the Freedom Park venue but with the bodies, the brown leaves on the floor, the sack cloth adorning the walls, the lights—especially the light—the atmosphere was compelling. What happened offstage rivaled what was onstage: the dance kept its audience, drawing a standing ovation at its conclusion. I had a thought: this was no more than the dance deserved. It was no more than the show deserved. So intense was the experience that we almost forget to clap. Then we remembered.

I had seen Qudus perform before within his QDance Centre.

That evening he set books on the floor. “My name is Qudus…Tonight we are going to witness dance, music, poetry,” he said, stepping on the books, an annoying act, even as I understood the heavy-legged symbolism of standing on giants. “This is not a show…concert or performance. This is an experience that can only happen now. [But] what is now?”

Along with the occasional absence of rhythm to his dance, Qudus has a knack for philosophising. Both are features of his style; both can be frustrating:

“Movement, is a superior form of thinking.”

“My job as a dancer is to make you remember.”

“We are trying to let something happen not make something happen.”

Light music from guitar and cymbal in a corner of the room poured forth and the man responded with a sinuous movement of his left arm. Studious concentration on sweaty face. He moved a rod and brass bowl aside, and asked his dancers to stand. They formed a circle and Qudus danced within. Another dancer replaced him. Not quite as forceful physically or as concentrated psychically. And another and another. A man holding a flute started to sing. Most of the dancers seemed to be performing of their own idiom. The music got louder and chants flowed from the circle of dancers.


The music calmed again, the intensity reduced as the dancers started to stroll and then sat. It was time for a response but we onlookers were unsure.

“Forget all those shit I just said,” Qudus said later.

I concurred.

He spoke about the difficulties of dancing in Nigeria. “Yes, you dance but what do you really do for a living?” This question he said comes from “the guys who really do know I dance.”

Someone asked what he calls his dance: “Me, myself I don’t know what it is.”

“Would you call it contemporary dance?”

“I won’t call it contemporary dance.”

“I’ll call it pure,” said the actor Wole Ojo.

“The problem is that it connects it to pure water,” replied Qudus.

The problem for Qudus is that contemporary dance began to be a style, which he doesn’t agree with, conflicted as he is with the meaning of the word “contemporary”: with time.

He explained: “If I’m moving with time, I must connect with the past…Urban dance is only about the present…Traditional dance is about the past.” The definitions and divisions aren’t very clear but it appears what he would like is a word combining these temporal considerations with a frisson of spirituality.

“Is there anybody who would like to read something,” he asked finally.

A lady offered.

“In the beginning, there was a road,” came the words. It is the start of Ben Okri’s Famished Road. She repeated the words as someone played a wind instrument. A man stood trying to find something to dance to within the words of the novel, his left hand engaged in a tic and then some more activity—a peculiarly Qudus styling. Qudus himself gestured towards a drum set in the corner. The percussive sounds increased. Qudus had become a conductor. Somehow he had made words from that book, the flute and the dance into something musical.


The reading stopped and the music, a wondrous thing, went on solo. Some of the dancers were catching the holy ghost, hands waving, face contorted, jumping in one spot. A girl dancing collapsed to the floor and another dancer, male, stepped out to pick her. It was drama, it was dance, it was something else. It ended. And then Qudus spoke again. Something about the inability of his audience to understand. The text, he said provided context, a context that was not needed for the power of the dance.

“I’m not interested in narrative,” he said, adding that, “If I jump ten time on stage, you’re also jumping.” The aim is to make the audience as exhausted as he is.

To explain the apparent chaos of the proceedings, he said, “I don’t believe in giving my dance to somebody.” This explains his dissatisfaction with dances consisting entirely of choreography. If there is no choreography, there is no mistake. It smacked of the Nigerian impatience with order but if you can make it look as artful as Qudus then perhaps you get a pass.

A poet stood to recite “a poem written to be forgotten.” She finished and the music increased, a female dancer was wailing now in the middle of the wooden floor.

Once I saw a documentary where it was declared that “art redeems everything with style.” Here it was the conversion of words from the poet about child-rape into something poignant and I want to say beautiful but not the conventional beauty. By which I mean the poetry and accompanying dance occupied a different dimension from what we usually mean when we say pleasure.

A guy who seemed to be a krump dancer came off, another, with a different variation to Qudus came on, thrashing about. I was struck by the spatial awareness of the dancers, how out of controll they appeared and how aware of the boundaries created by their spectators, the books, the band, and their colleagues.


They finished with Qudus and the thrasher staring intently at some place in the air. I’ve always thought that the problem writers face in Nigeria is complex because of the education needed to access writing, and from that the cultural education needed for literary writing isn’t very well developed. According to Qudus this is a similar problem for dancers. Not fully, I believe. There’s something elemental about dance. If you can get past a need to laugh, it can very much become something to be engaged by.

Outside of the window of the QDance centre where this took place, a few persons watched the goings on within, most of them different from the moneyed, well-dressed people inside. They laughed at Qudus’s ass shaking as the kora man Tunde Jegede played a tune. It was the night’s first indication of contemporary pop dance in that a rhythm was more palpable. I recalled that outside of this, I had seen Qudus do a particularly frenetic form of shoki at Freedom Park.


The men finished and shook hands, two people engaging with marginal sections of popular forms of art. A Yoruba folk song rented the air and then some more dancing as Qudus, short, stocky, with hair defying order, began to sing.

He danced and threw the mic to another dancer, who screamed and danced, with Qudus joining in, shadowing him, doing enough to avoid hitting him. A plumper dancer took centre stage. Some more shadowing. It seemed a little like casting out a demon, and then a purple pants lady. She went around shouting in people’s faces, drawing some energy from the sitting dancers. Some more shadowing and then a brief shoki, which I was happy to see.

The mic ended up in the hands of a lady with a short gown who did some moves, adjusting her gown. Mic got to Segun Adefila, dancer and leader of Crown Troupe. He did his thing. And then a lady seemingly joined of her volition. Another joined.

I clutched my phone closer. No one was going to draw me into this session. And then the mic got to me. I gestured my reluctance and the mic got to a white man. He did something akin to a dance and then it was over a short while later. The books disappeared. The dance disappeared. The feeling remained. The show begged to be transmuted into text. “You lose understanding, and then you understand better,” Qudus said.

He was right. I was moved. But I couldn’t understand what had happened. And then I did. I think.


Revisiting Chigozie Obioma via John Updike’s Bech

Part of the fascination of novels is how much of real life can be packed into them. Part of the magic is how they can seem to be prescient across boundaries, across time. Take Henry Bech, the writer-avatar of the late John Updike. A womanising, grumpy curmudgeon, Bech has quite the appetite for trouble.

Lessons in literary tact can be gleaned from Bech

Bech teaches literary tact

Late in his life—but not late enough as his lover has just conceived—he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Updike uses this set-up to talk about a prize he himself never won. Bech is unbelieving. He is, however, told helpfully that no one including the voters expected him to win. As Bech sees it, ‘they were voting against themselves’ and so he won.

Cover for Obioma's The Fishermen

The Fishermen cover

The incident is close somewhat to an episode recounted in Norman Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex. Mailer is informed by a reporter over a phone call that he has just won the Nobel. He starts to go through how he is to face authors who many argue should have won, mainly Vladimir Nabokov. He later thinks he shouldn’t have bothered because it was an error.

Back to Bech. One of his laments interests me. ‘His winning the Prize had unleashed a deluge of letters that battered him like hostile winds,’ writes Updike. ‘Envy and resentment poured toward him out of the American vastness…’

For Obioma, Africa has been unkind he has said. His dispassionate letter reads in part:

“I have been appalled by interactions with Africans. I have received so many nasty mails, some so ridiculous that I had to disable the direct author contact link on my website. Various other “African writers” have engaged me in ways that approximate to hatred, some form of angst about what they believe is an unfair auspicious reception of my book. This has come from Africans—the very people I call my own. These smear campaigns, these vicious commentaries, these mean messages. I am not surprised, though. Where other people succeed in propping others up and basking in the success of the other, the African rejoices—or feels elevated—in tearing others down. It is why, from North to South, East to West, what you have is a continent failed states. Every one thinks for themselves, hence, that sense of community, of bettering yourself by raising others, is non-existent.”

What would Bech do?

When Bech gets around to Sweden for his Nobel lecture, he agonises about not having a suitable speech. He then gets his infant daughter to say hi and wave bye. This, you’d imagine, is what Obioma should have done. But in doing something fairly ridiculous like posting a rant dissing a continent on a blog he proved to be human, too real—not as tactful as a toddling, drooling fictional infant and her granddad.

At least Obioma has a usable excuse: those characters were written into being by a master.

The Small Miracles of Jesse Jagz

Sad songs are so rare on the contemporary music scene that in the last half decade one could count on one hand and still have digits left. The peak of musical melancholy is perhaps Timi Dakolo’s “There’s A Cry” off his debut album. That was back in 2011.

In 2013, the twin highlights of Jesse Jagz’s sophomore JagzNation, “Burning Bush” and “Sativa”, are aberrations on the pop single scene.


Besides sharing a titular allusion to cannabis, both songs are unified in reaching into the depth of melancholia for their effect; the latter features a background humming and a chorus delivered by the underrated, underused, Lindsey whose musical chemistry with Jesse Jagz is still intact following their collaboration on Jagz of all Tradez.

While the album may gratify patient listeners who wade through the man’s potpourri of patois and pidgin, it would surely confound deejays who’ll frequently find it difficult locating a song that segues smoothly into or from a song like say, the delightfully frank “Sex and Scotch”. The rhythmic patterns of JagzNation are that unusual.

Jesse’s words are often clear, with a memorable line occurring very early on the album’s intro: “Witness the way that Jarga rhyme, like Jesus turning water into wine.”

Cocky? Yes. Blasphemous? Perhaps. But like most of the album, beautiful and sure.

First published sometime in 2013 by Metropole Magazine.

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