The university as narrative canvas in Lola Akande’s ‘What it Takes’
The university has been central to the consolidation of Nigerian literature in many ways. While a great deal of the literature is produced by members of the university communities, the university system has also become a subject matter for Nigerian literature. Many a Nigerian writer has had cause to depict the Nigerian university system in prose, drama and poetry. In Femi Osofisan’s Kolera Kolej and Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper one finds unforgettable satirical portraitures of the university in Nigeria. Blistering as the satirical imports of both novels are, it appears that there are other ills bedeviling the universities which new writers are taken up
Every year, thousands of hopeful doctoral degree candidates queue up in Nigerian universities seeking to upgrade their academic qualifications. Almost simultaneously, scheming thesis supervisors raise a thousand and one obstacles to prevent them from reaching that goal. On admission, the students are buoyed with boundless optimism, hoping to prefix their names soon with the coveted title of Doctor of Philosophy, only some steps away from professorship.
But their supervisors, who are almost always professors themselves, deny them their academic wish, eroding their confidence bit by bit such that the meek in spirit abandon the programme midway. Frustrated and humiliated, it takes till “the second coming” for some others to complete their PhDs.
It is no surprise, therefore, that out of thousands of PhD candidates admitted into universities, only a few hundred make it through to the end. In a country with a ratio of at least a hundred students to a lecturer in most tertiary institutions, anyone would reasonably expect that supervisors expedite action for PhD students since most of them take up teaching appointments in institutions of higher learning. Alas, that is not the case. Rather, the supervisors employ a range of ruses and bullying tactics in thwarting the efforts of the doctoral candidates. Consequently, PhD seekers in Nigeria often spend more time obtaining their degrees than some other institutions of higher learning in the world.
For the duration of the programme, the relationship between student and supervisor is not unlike that of an obsequious acolyte and an overbearing master. In short, PhD students are, most of the time, at the mercy of their supervisors who oftentimes play God. No wonder some university wit insists that PhD actually means “Prostrate, Hard work and Dobale,” dobale meaning to prostrate in Yoruba.
Why do supervisors, most of who have reached the highest rung in academia, exhibit such negative traits? Why is there a demonstrable dislike for the students by their supervisors such that the former can do little or nothing about the animus? Why would any supervisor worth his academic gown discourage others from becoming like him/herself or contributing to knowledge generally?
What it Takes, a recently published novel by Lola Akande of the Department of English at the University of Lagos, provides the answers and the author distills them so brilliantly that readers may begin to assume it is a lived experience of the author. By this publication, Akande follows the footsteps of renowned female authors, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Karen-King Aribisala, in the same department. In Our Place, Akande’s first novel was published in 2012. What it Takes is her second novel. It is everything a great book should be, and mercifully free of errors. The author’s effort shows clearly, especially in creating the central character, who the author employs as a first-person narrator.
Funto Oyewole, the protagonist and presumably the author’s doppelganger, recounts in harrowing details her experiences in obtaining a PhD. Akande herself recently completed her PhD programme in another university before her teaching appointment at the University of Lagos It took her longer than she expected with all kinds of unforeseen incidents in-between. At a reading of What it Takes in the boardroom of the department last month, a student wondered if there was any authorial intrusion by Akande. She neither confirmed nor denied it. Still, there may have been some uncanny coincidences and similarities between author and her alter ego.
Funto is a just-retrenched single mother aiming to further her education. So, she secures admission for her PhD in the Department of English in the National University of Nigeria, Abuja. It is not enough that she wants to add to her knowledge, as she later learns. There are certain conditions she must meet or obstacles she must overcome to proceed with her dream of becoming a PhD holder. All of them are as ludicrous as they are incredible. A potential supervisor tries and fails to have sex with her on her first day in his office, leaving the student wondering: “How do I respond to a prospective randy supervisor?”Another, a woman, turns her down because Funto lacks the financial resources to, in the professor’s words, embark on a PhD programme. “Funto, you don’t talk like someone who’s ready to embark on a PhD programme,” Professor Lara Owoyemi accuses her pointedly. “An unemployed, husbandless, middle-aged woman whose only relation sells yam flour in a local market seems to be more suited for a tramp. When did loafers become qualified to dream, let alone aspire for a doctorate degree?”
Apparently, Prof. Owoyemi’s concern is not only for the student’s indigent condition but what she will benefit if needy students like Funto show up at her door. “If the government does not have a sense of fair play to remunerate me properly,” Owoyemi continues, “the students who are the direct beneficiaries of my high intellect must compensate me.”
The only professor who accepts turns out to be a sadist, a sadist with the kind of affection a German concentration camp commandant would show his Jewish inmates. Funto is not privy to that but by the time she knows, it is too late. Professor Charles Ephraim aka Professor Terror is a bigot of the very first order. His nauseating hatred of candidates from other tribes matches his cloying adulation of his own people.
“Prof. Charles Ephraim is an exceedingly hostile man with infinite capacity for hate,” a longtime staff of the department tells Funto. “He hates his colleagues in the academia because he regards them as being arrogant. He hates the senior non-academic staff because they are not cerebral. He hates the lower cadre non-academic staff because they are poor. He reviles all students for lacking intelligence, although students from his own ethnic group are exempted from his hate.”
By this time, though, Funto is stuck with Professor Terror who will later leave up to his name. Not even recharge card gifts, a bolt of fabric and sundry presents will alter Funto’s fate. What she needs most, another consoler informs her “is patience, patience and patience.” Even so, such Christian patience isn’t enough because the problem with Ephraim is that, “whether you give him gifts or not, he won’t be nice to you unless you speak the same language with him. Ethnic affinity is the only way to escape Ephraim’s wickedness.”
Ephraim starts administering his bitter doses of ethnic pills as soon as he confirms Funto’s ethnicity. First, he compels her to settle for a part-time programme instead of the fulltime she desires. For proof of his bigotry, Prof. Ephraim will later ask another student – a relation – to do the exact opposite. The effect on Funto is like an individual waking up to confront his/her worst nightmares. Determined, Funto presses on, reading up, borrowing or buying all the prescribed books, some of them by Ephraim, no doubt. In short, she proves to be an exceptional student. But Ephraim is unimpressed. Not so fast, he cautions her: “This is a PhD and not a master’s programme. It’s in your own interest not to run too fast. Therefore, you are not to put pen to paper for the first one year of your programme.”
Funto stumbles from one obstacle to another with Professor Terror whose command must be followed every step of the way. Any deviation means reprisals and there are enough for the student. At one point, Funto breaks down in tears in Professor Ephraim’s office, latching on to the supervisor’s legs, asking for mercy for an offence not committed. The plea is like a condemned asking the hangman for compassion.
Reading What it Takes recalls Virginia Wolf’s apt observation about such mental exercise, “The state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego” while “promising perpetual union with another mind.” It is hard not to empathize with Funto in her quest for a PhD she is not certain of anymore; her private anguish in disregarding her illiterate mother’s warning about the futility of the programme; her thoughts about her daughter’s future; her loveless life; her eavesdropping on a benefactor’s spouse insisting that she must be shown the door; the various measures taken to find a final solution to Ephraim’s undeserved hatred. In one instance, Funto visits a juju man who plans to kill the lecturer through magic. She develops cold feet. A dubious spiritualist tries to take advantage of her sexually. She escapes.
All of that is bound to take its toll on Funto. It does. From a vivacious 38-year-old in the opening pages, she becomes a physical and psychological wreck towards the end such that even Lagos bus conductors recognize her deterioration. If ever there is an unfortunate character so very well delineated in recent Nigerian fiction, Funto it is. Through no fault of hers, she is subjected to unimaginable indignities in a society where avarice, corruption, lust and bigotry are not only the order of the day but celebrated. Funto’s naivety does not help, either.
Confronted with the ugly reality in obtaining her degree, Funto asks: “You mean a university don would condone the kind of illegalities you’ve just described?” Answer from a more realistic friend: “Why do you talk as if you are not a Nigerian? Is the university different from the larger Nigerian society?” Still, Funto will not let up. “Why do my chances of being able to get a PhD have to depend more on what I give my supervisor rather than the quality of the thesis I write?”
So disillusioned by the entire process is Funto that she begins to come to awkward conclusions. “What I find disheartening is how it seems essential that I relegate my thirst for academic knowledge to the background and super-impose how not to offend my supervisor on my psyche. How would I have known that the fear of stepping on powerful toes in my university could take centre-stage in a supposedly academic pursuit? I have since learned, for instance, that one of the worst mistakes a PhD candidate could make is to concentrate solely on how to advance their academic knowledge and ignore the dynamics and treachery of human relationships.”
It is apt for readers to consider What it Takes a broadside at some senior academic staff in Nigerian universities. There is no doubt that in spite of their claims to being ivory towers, Nigerian universities are confronted with deep moral and ethical issues. If, as they say, art imitates life, What it Takes is a documentary evidence of the rot in the academia for which the author deserves some credit. In chilling details, with unpretentious and pellucid prose, the author has told a remarkable story showing the underbelly of the university system in Nigeria. As a reflection of the larger Nigerian society, sex-for-favour lecturers, Akande points out, are no better than bribe-taking police officers at street corners. Nor are they any different from bent civil servants or corrupt politicos. To the author, it is same tactics but different settings.
Her description of situations and actions are unforgettable. Describing the intensity of Lagos heat, for instance, Funto tells readers it as if she is “wearing it.” Elsewhere, reflecting on one brief post-coital moment, she says that her man “is wrapped around me like a victory flag.”
Another sub-theme explored in What it Takes is the generosity the city by the lagoon has in abundance for those who live in it. For its benevolence, Lagos enjoys the distinction of transforming nobodies into accomplished individuals. No other city in Nigeria has this uniqueness, a city where people arrive with only the shirt on their backs but depart as millionaires or they become beneficiaries of limitless opportunities, usually from friends.
Funto is a beneficiary of this unexpected largesse. Without her friend, Folake’s financial and psychological support, it is doubtful if Funto would have finished her PhD programme. Contrary to her mother’s advice that she should leave Lagos for Ibadan, Funto stays behind. It is her saving grace. She practically inherits Folake’s home and wardrobe in Lagos and because of her dependence, there is a momentary chill in her relationship with Folake’s spouse, Geoffrey.
Eleven years and one too many moments of hand-wringing and apprehensions later, Funto graduates and becomes a PhD holder at last. Graduation day is a family re-union. Folake, Geoffrey and their children fly from the U.S. specially to attend. Funto finds love with Shettima, another benefactor. But the twist in the tale is Prof. Ephraim’s unexpected magnanimity in agreeing to be a referee to Deyemi, Funto’s daughter, on her invitation to a workshop in the U.S.
Who would have expected the very man who denied Funto her PhD for 11 years to instantly agree to become a referee to her daughter? Is it the author’s way of finding good in evil? Perhaps! It all brings to mind what Akpabio, Funto’s senior colleague, told her all the while she fretted about her problems with Ephraim. “No one gets a PhD without a story.” What it Takes is a damn good yarn.
It is tempting to be carried away by the compelling story embedded in the novel as to ignore the author’s deployment of narrative techniques. First, the most remarkable narrative strategy deployed by Akande is the use of present tense throughout the novel. This device is very tasking since the author has to be constantly alert to avoid a slip into the past tense which is the conventional narrative method. The advantage of the use of the present tense makes the reader to feel that the event is unfolding before him/her and it becomes a veritable means of suspense. The use of the first person pronoun confers a degree of veracity on the story so that uncritical reader could go with the impression that it is a true life story and not fiction. Akande’s narrative prowess is unmistaken in the novel. She deftly weaves in scenes, dialogues and covers time and distance the way cinematography does. Her use of symbolism especially that of the mirror depicting her moods, ageing and her predicament adds to the novel’s aesthetic value.
What it takes is a university based narrative, but a substantial portion of it can sustain a thesis an aspects of urban narratives. The novel depicts the swarming urban spaces of Lagos and Ibadan in a way that both cities constitute a refreshing canvas of human experience. The urban solace and support provided by the urban spaces of Lagos and Ibadan serve to counter the disillusionment of the National University in Abuja. Hence, while Abuja holds a sense of dread for Funto, Lagos and Ibadan reinforce and sustain her dream.
• Michael Jimoh is a journalist and literary critic based in Lagos