In her well known TED talk, The danger of a single story, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the necessity of countering stereotypes and ignorance with stories that reflect the true diversity of societies, countries, continents and humanity generally.
As I write, events that occurred in France last week are dominating the media. I won’t say that there’s a single story about these events, although certainly you could argue that a dominant ‘single’ story equating Islam with trouble may have contributed to the extreme alienation of the young Muslim men responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket siege murders. Sadly, the murders will probably reinforce that story in the minds of people who already fear and hate Muslims.
There seem to be plenty of different stories around, as people of various political and religious persuasions try to come to grips with what has happened. The ones I find most valuable are those which talk about the role of racism and discrimination towards migrants in France, or that try to analyse why this small number of western deaths has triggered a global outpouring of grief, outrage and solidarity that is rarely seen for victims of terrorist attacks in non-western countries.
The depredations of Boko Haram, for example. A day after the Paris killings, Boko Haram slaughtered 2,000 people in Northern Nigeria. But we don’t see a #jesuisnaija hashtag taking off. (Since writing this I’ve found #bagatogether & #jesuisbaga have gained a little traction, but mostly with regard to making the same point that I am).
Of course, the Boko Haram massacres play well to the existing single story of Africa as a basket case of violence, disaster, corruption and death, and are thus a bit easier for the west to ignore or dismiss.
So here’s a piece of music to pull your thoughts away from that single story of Africa: Fela Kuti – Water got no enemy.
By coincidence, this week I finished reading a novel that not only contributes to the diverse canon of Nigerian literature (creating many, not single stories), but also lays bare the emotional damage wrought by the insidious, casual and institutional racism that migrants too often experience. While the travails of Ike (Eee-kay), the anti-hero of Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. are not really comparable to those of North African and Middle Eastern Muslims in France, there is still a common thread: the experience of being an outsider.
As one commentator has suggested about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the children of Muslim migrants in France are acutely aware that the French ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, do not really apply to them. On the other side of the Atlantic, fictional Ike also knows that the much touted freedoms and opportunities of the great old US of A, don’t apply to him. His thick Nigerian accent trumps his university achievements and qualifications every day. 15 years after he arrived in America to study at Amherst, he’s driving a taxi instead of practicing as a corporate economist. His ex-girlfriend calls him ‘Zulu’ as an insult.
Ike’s solution is not terrorism. A religious sceptic, he’s really only out for himself. He plots to steal a statue of his home village’s war god, Ngene, so that he can pay his gambling debts, get a nice place to live a life of leisure, and send some money back home to his mother and sister in the village of Utonki.
Here’s the soundtrack Ike listens to in the taxi on his way to Utonki: Victor Uweifo, with Joromi.
Perhaps Ike fancied himself as the heroic, devil-wrangling Joromi, as he readied himself to wrestle Ngene from his rightful place in the Utonki shrine. Or perhaps the author was referencing the wrestling Ike had already had to do, with the unfriendly systems and structures of America, in order to survive. Or maybe I’m overthinking the choice of song. Ike’s enjoyment of the music is, in any case, interrupted by the realities of Nigerian life – a police checkpoint. It’s like a warning that his theft of the god will not go according to plan, and of course it does not.
I would say that Ngene has the last laugh, but that would make the book sound more fun than it is. While it has moments of humour, and keen characterisations of an entertaining assortment of individuals representing different facets of Nigerian and American life (religious zealots, scammers, corrupt officials, exploited and exploitative women, nagging relatives, the filthy rich, etc.) Foreign Gods, Inc. is really a tragedy.
Ike is a weak, easily influenced man driven more by greed and desperation than by any sense of integrity. These unlikeable qualities are exacerbated by his situation at the bottom of the pile in New York. I found it hard to have any sympathy for him, even though I could see that any emotional and moral strength he ever possessed had been eroded and almost destroyed by his loss of hope and the destruction of his aspirations to the American dream.
I was strongly reminded of the character of Okonkwo in fellow Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In fact I wonder if perhaps Foreign Gods Inc. is, in part, the latest instalment in a series of literary conversations stemming from that ‘archetypal modern African novel’ –Okonkwo also resembles a character in Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, and all three novels explore themes of religion, community, integrity, masculinity and change. I will have to keep reading African literature to find out, which is fine by me, as I enter my second year of Kinna’s African Reading Challenge.
Okonkwo and Ike are similarly flawed, and similarly adrift, unable to flexibly respond to the challenges they face. The difference is that Okonkwo is facing radical changes and challenges to his power within his own society, whereas Ike is battered, damaged and disempowered by the experience of leaving his culture and community, and by having to contend every day with the racism, ignorance and contempt of Americans. Okonkwo cannot change; Ike has changed too much. Okonkwo has been left behind, whereas Ike has lost connection with the cultural anchors that could sustain him.
Of all the significant characters in Foreign Gods Inc, the happiest, and most grounded, are Ike’s Uncle Osuakwu, who is Ngene’s Chief Priest, and his friends, who adhere to the traditional religion and find strength, comfort and companionship in its rituals and routines. However I don’t think Ndibe is necessarily making a simple argument that the old ways are the best, or that western culture inevitably harms and corrupts.
As Ike careened inevitably towards his doom, I was hoping, until almost the last page, that he would somehow redeem himself. But by the time he realises that he must, it’s too late.
It’s clear that at every turn, Ike has the opportunity to make different choices; that he has agency, if only he could open his eyes and his mind enough to use it to turn his life around without relying on theft and deceit. The fact that he doesn’t, is the tragedy of the novel, and is often the tragedy of our human condition. In his self-delusion and single-mindedness, Ike’s not so different from the religious militants who’ve convinced themselves that the only path forward is to kill those who disagree with or offend them. His actions certainly also result in disaster for others, albeit on a different scale.
People lay blame. People tell and believe single stories not only about others but also about themselves. And so the mad cycle of self-destruction, hatred, and violence goes on.
In my line of work we talk about the importance of an ‘enabling environment’. If you create and sustain the economic, social and legal conditions that enable people to make safe choices for themselves and the people they care about, then they will. Racism, prejudice, inhumane or unjust treatment and marginalisation on the other hand, don’t enable them to make good choices. On the contrary, they contribute to harmful choices. That’s what Ndibe shows in Foreign Gods, Inc., and that’s what we’re witnessing with the recent events in France, in Martin Place in Sydney last December, and I suspect that similar issues play a role in the rise of Boko Haram and other extremist organisations.
So even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it (because I like a happy ending) Foreign Gods, Inc. is definitely worth a read. It’s a call for more humanity and social justice.
And Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, with Shango, is definitely worth a listen. I share it in tribute to Ngene’s power, even though this is actually a chant to a Yoruba God of Thunder, and Ngene’s a creation of Okey Ndibe, an Igbo man. It’s all in the spirit of multiple stories.