Okey Ndibe: Writing as activism
Hewett (2005) describes the third generation of African writing as a group whose account “is one of triumph over adversity, a story of courageous individuals refusing to be silenced and the greater community supporting them. It is a remarkable story, one that is still being written by critics and the writers themselves.” (74) As such, they exhibit certain literary idiosyncrasies in thematic and stylistic explorations. In addition to this, Ndibe is an active participant in social media as evidenced by his personal blog, www.okeyndibe.com and he is a celebrated personality in Nigerian social media space.
The topography of Nigerian literary history does not follow a bold straight line as many of the writers in generational brackets are still writing, however, the generation of writers classified as ‘third’ generation of Nigerian writing emerged soon after the fiery second generation which includes such names as Niyi Osundare, Olu Obafemi, Tanure Ojaide, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun and several others. This second generation shares a lot of affinities with the generations before them. More importantly, this generation of writers, according to The African Writing Magazine, “are writers of a disillusioned Africanist enterprise, who are not naïve about international realities but have become more hesitant about blaming outsiders because they have experienced a lot of enemies within”
The third-generation writers are heirs to a heritage of socio-historical commitment from their antecedents. This has been described as a major feature in African literary enterprise. In Chinua Achebe’s words: “It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant, like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames” … If an artist is anything he is a human being with heightened sensitivities; he must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in the African writer cannot shy away human relations. The African writer cannot therefore be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer.” (Achebe, 1975, 78-79)
Indeed, the “Achebean” mandates makes it incumbent on the writers to engage issues that are of social and political relevance to their contexts. While of these writers are home-based, a number of them live in the diaspora. Through their artistic renaissance, they share the same vision to reposition Nigerian society for the common good. Members of this generation include Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Sefi Attah, Jude Dibia, Lola Shoneyin, Toni Kan, Okey Ndibe and several others. These writers have been described as products of peculiar socio-historical circumstances which motivated their writings.
Okechukwu Ndibe was born in Yola, Nigeria on May 15th, 1960. Ndibe is of Igbo extraction and hails from Anambra State, Nigeria. His family was forced to relocate from Yola when the Nigerian civil war broke out in 1967. A chance meeting with Chinua Achebe in a filling station shaped his career forever when he was invited to the United States by Achebe to help co-found the journal, African Commentary. Before his relocation to the United States in 1988, Ndibe worked in Nigeria as a journalist and magazine editor and has over the years remained one. He has published essays across various news media in Nigeria as a columnist and contributor. As an essayist, Ndibe is known for his satirical writings and political commentaries. Like several writers on the continent, Ndibe combines several roles as an academic, journalist and public intellectual. He is an active participant in social media as evidenced by his personal blog, www.okeyndibe.com and he is a celebrated personality in Nigerian social media space.
Ndibe holds MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been a Professor in Universities and Colleges in the United States. These include Brown University in Providence, RI; Trinity College in Hartford; Connecticut College in New London, CT; and Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA. From, 2001-2002, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, and he was a Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (2015-2016). In recent times, Ndibe has been actively involved in book readings across the United States of America.
Okey is married to Sheri Fafunwa, the daughter of a foremost educationist and former Minister of Education in Nigeria, Prof. Aliyu Babatunde Fafunwa. She is a Professor of Art at Central Connecticut State University, Hartford, Connecticut Area in the United States.
Ndibe is a prominent member of, what is known as, the third generation of African writers. His first novel, Arrows of Rain, Okey was published in 2000. This was followed by another, Foreign Gods, Inc. in 2014. Foreign Gods, Inc. was identified as one of the best books of 2014 by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Mosaic magazine. His memoir entitled, Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American (2016) won the Connecticut Book Award for non-fiction in 2017. He has also edited Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, a book of critical essays, with Chenjerai Hove, a Zimbabwean writer. Ndibe is a regular columnist for The New York Times, BBC online, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera online, The Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Fabian Society Journal, and the websites www.saharareporters.com and www.thisisafrica.me. He has been preoccupied for over twenty years with issues around Nigerian politics and culture in his role as a journalist and newspaper columnist. His next novel will be entitled Native Tongues. In his works, Ndibe presents a globalised vision of social satire.
Arrows of Rain, is set in the fictional country of Madia. It features the burden borne by a Bukuru, the “madman” who was the last to speak with a young prostitute who runs into the sea and drowns. His testimony was used against him as he was charged with the prostitute’s death. The novel dramatizes the precarious state of the nation as encapsulated in the metaphor of the drowning prostitute narrated from the point of view of Bukuru whose testimony in court becomes revealing and damaging to the country’s political leadership. The novel stresses the fact that, “for the self to triumph, the psychological disposition must embrace pragmatic engagement” (Coker, 37). Thus, Ndibe, like several members of his generation fictionalizes the development challenges of his enabling context. This is probably why Wumi Raji describes the novel as “the narrative of a postcolonial nation” (145).
In other words, Arrows of Rain narrates the experience of a nation under a political leadership best described as “messiahs of pain”. This clearly agitates the mind of Pa Mathew Ileka Ata, father of Reuben, the corrupt Madian minister when he asks rhetorically: “Can anything be done?’ I asked. He sighed. Yes. First, we must ask ourselves, what is the identity of this space called Madia? Why does our present bear no marks of our past? What is the meaning of our history? These questions can only lead us to one truth, namely that we live in a bastard nation. Then we must decide what to do with this illegitimate offspring. The first step is to turn it into a completely different nation. Not by means of violence but symbolically through our constitution.” (Ndibe, 2000,123)
In a sense, one can say Ndibe’s association with Achebe clearly rubs off on him. Actually, his novel, Arrows of Rain is in many ways preoccupied with the Achebe’s central thesis in The Problem with Nigeria as Ndibe also thematises leadership questions and deploys artistic insights into providing pragmatic solutions to political corruption in Arrows of Rain.
In Foreign Gods, Inc., the central character, Ike, is a New York-based Nigerian cab driver. The protagonist embarks on a suicide mission to steal a priceless artifact from his home village in Nigeria with the aim of selling it to a gallery in New York. The novel narrates the experience and despicable lives of immigrants in the United States and elsewhere. The pain of rejection on account of Ike’s identity propels him to indulge in several vices to manage his myriad of problems, and to escape the trauma and travails of his existence. The poignant message of Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. hardly lies in the immigrant tribulation. Rather, it comes out strongly in how Ndibe weaves his narrative to capture the many foibles of existence and other extremities. He strikes a delicate balance between modernity and tradition deploying humour and satire as mechanical tools of his artistic engagement.
By foregrounding the disillusionment that accompanies the immigrant, especially one coming from Africa, Ndibe offers a commentary on the illusion of grandeur fueled by paternalistic ideology. Thus, the decline in human value which necessitates a consumerist mentality results into an ultimate fascination and the thrills of modern life. The novel thus confronts global angst through individual aspiration, which leads to frustration, in the final analysis. Foreign Gods, Inc. therefore engages the globalised world in a most creative as well as critical way.
Ndibe’s memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye (2016) is a different kind of narrative than the novels. It chronicles a first-hand experience of Ndibe’s migration to the United States. He also deploys humour to reduce the real pain of integration, especially his battles to retain his dignity as a human being in face of unending hostilities. There is a connection between Ndibe and his protagonist in Foreign Gods, Inc. It is a fact-fiction binary intersection that makes one to complement the other. Ndibe’s experience challenges man’s inhumanity to his fellow man as well as condemning racism which continues to be prevalent in the United States, despite the effects of globalisation. In a commentary on the book, Elnathan John underscores that “in many ways the book is a tale of towering giants and mythical figures, of ideals and illusions. America is majestic, casting a shadow over the author and invading his consciousness”(33). This suggests that Ndibe’s memoir is a tale of his own (mis)calculations and immigrant troubles in aspiring to come to “dreamland”. There is no doubt that Ndibe’s motivation for writing this memoir stems from his personal encounter with the contradictions of American society when he arrived. According to him in an online interview: “ I was a victim of a police arrest ten days after I came to America. The police arrested me for bank robbery. The police saw me at the bus stop, picked me up and said I fit the description of the robber. The story ended well because I told them I had just come to this country. The officer drove me to my apartment, and I gave him my passport. He realized I had just come to America and unless I was a genius, I would not have been able to pull off robbery.”
In a sense, one can assert that Ndibe has contributed to migrant fiction in a distinct way. He not only fictionalizes it, he deploys his artistic insight to engage the trope of migration in his memoir. The texts are two sides of the same coin – relaying the experience of migrants and denouncing the unceasing clamour for migration prevalent in postcolonial African states. On another level, Ndibe can also be said to evoke Diaspora consciousness which is an element found across the corpus of third generation Nigerian writing. The majority of third generation writers belong to the Diaspora, but they constantly write back to the homeland. They show the “brain train” phenomenon in their engagements; bringing their experiences in the West to bear in their thematic explorations. Clearly, Ndibe’s Diaspora’s fiction is a refraction of his own experiences. He states this fact clearly in relation to Foreign Gods, Inc.: “There are always pieces of myself when I write. I don’t know if that’s true of every writer, but it’s true of me. Whenever I write there are aspects of my experience, conscious or unconscious, that permeates the narrative. Once my book came out, at readings somebody would get up and propose that perhaps I was Ike.” (n. pag)
Even when both texts homogenize under a theme; one is borne out of experience and the other, from imaginative fiction. This implies that, Ndibe’s fiction is a blend of literary aesthetics and factual accounts skillfully rendered to optimize objectivity of his story. With the lucid style of writing, both are easy reads especially as Ndibe’s wit flavours his writings. It is noteworthy that Ndibe combines the political tradition of activism in Wole Soyinka’s works while also embracing Chinua Achebe’s lucidity and literary tact. The two writers are important to his evolution and he regularly acknowledges this.
Ndibe is also an activist and social critic preoccupied with social and political challenges in Nigeria. His activities as a journalist and public intellectual have earned him arrests and intimidation from the agents of the Nigerian state. At a time during the reign of late President Yar’adua of Nigeria, he was tagged an “enemy of the state”. His offence, according to Ndibe himself, was that: “I call out the corrupt in my column, and expose the scam that passes itself off as governance in Nigeria—and occasionally elsewhere. I can’t see much of a future for a country that makes a point of shielding, even glorifying, scoundrels, but hounding innocents.” (op. cit,18)
His literary activism, expounded through his writings, further complements his roles as a social activist and public intellectual. One can only asset that he is a quintessential African writer with huge barn of humour. One can therefore infer that Ndibe is a totally committed African writer as described by Ayo Kehinde: “Despite all odds against their lives and arts, Nigerian writers continue to disentangle their dilemmas but as writers and public intellectuals. They refused to be caged, and they constantly intervene in the public sphere of their nation.” ( Kehinde, 2010, 98)
Given this commitment, it is to be hoped that Ndibe still has a lot to offer. While he has firmly established his presence as a writer of note, Okey Ndibe is still poised to showcase his creativity in greater variety and depth. One would not expect less from a writer who not only honed his skills under the master storyteller, Chinua Achebe, but also is an engaged public scholar who regular intervenes in the affairs of his homeland, Nigeria. Only time will see Wole Soyinka’s reference to him as, “a fresh talent at work here” come to optimum realisation. All said, Ndibe and his generation, in their socio-political vision and artistic instinctiveness, have faithfully taken up the baton and crusade “to confront the social realities considered responsible for the failure of the country to live up to its widely-acknowledged potential” (Akingbe, 158). As Okey Ndibe continues to thrill with the creative pen, his avowed commitment as public intellectual is certainly not about to wane.
• Dr. Oluwole Coker, Senior Lecturer, teaches African fiction and oral Literature at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.