Letter from Nigeria

Perhaps it wasn’t destiny for me to have knocked that book off the table, but I do know I was destined to discover literature that day in 2013, and all things would come the same way.

At the time, books with an even ratio of words to images were the most popular ones for my age group. It was surprising to see me walking with a brick of a book with words almost too complex to grasp. But from the very first word Chukwuemeka Ike wrote in The Potter’s Wheel, I was thrown into the deep end. It took me more than a month to complete the book and another two years to finally comprehend what I read, but as I sat surrounded by noisy elementary students, I knew even at that young age that life would never be the same.

Arise, O Compatriots!
Nigeria’s call obey

African literature’s foundations were laid by oral storytelling. Voices filled the need for entertainment in the times before writing at all was common, let alone writing in English. It is those voices that I echo to write these very words. On cool evenings, voices were employed to grab your interest and attention. Voices sang to the local residents, informing them of the most recent news. Singers used their voices to caress the skin of youthful couples. The quaking, twisting, and slamming of calloused feet into the tan soil were accompanied by voices that soared high and low, moving in time to the beat.

The old would wait patiently while the children ran and engaged in games—Tinko Tinko, Eré Ìjàkadì, Ma wo eyin wo, Boju Boju, Suwe, and many others. Boju Boju, which involved one person covering his face and counting till ten while the other friends ran laughing hysterically to hide, is still very popular today and is in fact called hide-and-seek in English.

When the moon is full, only then would the elders clear their throats and call the attention of the children to a tale that instructs the young and teaches them to respect their customs. Whether the stories are true or not, the children will never know, but they are aware that they have had some sort of impact on their lives. These traditional lessons were not only found in the Yoruba tribe but across 371 other tribes, including the Hausa, the Igbo, the Efik, and the Tiv. The origins of many contemporary literary works can be found in these traditions. Nigeria—the giant of Africa—has made massive strides in international literary recognition thanks to her rich history of oral tradition. Voices brought us here, and when our voices gave birth to written words, we were reborn.

To serve our fatherland
With love and strength and faith

Olodumare funra re lo da mi. Pẹlu ọwọ rẹ ni o ṣ e mi lati iyanrin ati pe iyanrin ni Emi yoo rọ sinu. Joko, jẹ ki n sọ itan naa fun ọ. Orukọ mi ni ______. (It was God Himself that created me. With His hands He created me from sand and it is still sand that I would fade away into. Sit down and let me tell you the history. My name is ______.)

With pride, the Yoruba would croon on and on about creation. It was no surprise that the first English-language literature in Nigeria, pioneered by legend of the 1950s Amos Tutuola, involved Yoruba mythology. In 1952, The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published in London by Faber and carved a path toward bringing Nigerian cultures to the colonial writing form, and advancing the world of literature.

The labour of our heroes past shall
never be in vain.

Chinua Achebe and his contemporaries proceeded to blaze that same path between the 1940s and the 1960s, seizing the bull by the horns. This was noted as a turning point in the history of Nigerian literature, both then and in the years to come. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark, and Cyprian Ekwensi—commonly referred to as the first generation—were the authors who gave African literature its smoky flavour of culture, purpose, and direction. They boosted efforts to correct misrepresentations of Nigeria while also addressing African issues, including colonialism and neo-colonialism and promoting African values abroad.

It seemed back then that a black and white world had burst into colour when Chinua Achebe, trying to explain the confrontational posture adopted by writers of that era, said, “Europe conceded independence to us, and we promptly began to misuse it. So we got mad at them and came out brandishing novels of disenchantment.” Nigerians were beginning to see that white people were not our only problem, there was also our government. Books at that time became protests against injustice, from both colonial powers and from the African nations themselves. Critical works like Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Path of Thunder by Christopher Okigbo, and Madmen and Specialists by Wole Soyinka were published during this era because writers were mostly concerned about issues of corrupt governance and injustice in Nigeria.

Books were used to encourage people to be aware, to take action when needed, and to know they were not alone in the fight. A moment would come when music would speak just as much as books did. The Afro-beat genre developed by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and contemporaries in the 1960s marked the arrival of a time of heightened political awareness. While not everyone will read literature, music cannot be readily avoided, and his songs engulfed the masses and resounded in the ears of both the innocent and the guilty.

Although the Yoruba were some of the first Nigerians to write literature in English, the Igbo— Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo, and others—were responsible for maintaining the flame. They wrote with such fervour, humility, and skill that they drew emotions from the soul that cannot be adequately named. The Igbo literary giants were a major factor in the national and worldwide success of Nigerian literature.

To serve with heart and might,
One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.

At six in the morning, I am hunched over the balcony, breathing in the chilly air from the rain that poured overnight. In a moment, I will head inside and search for my copy of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. No, I do not like the way she ended the book, but I will read it again. Just as I will read the other books to come, and I will read them again and again.

Rachael Joshua