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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Port Harcourt, Lagos & Africa39

I'm in Frankfurt, Germany now awaiting my connecting flight to New York after an amazing trip celebrating the release of the Africa39 anthology—and a LONG day at Mohammed Murtala International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. But more on my day in Lagos later.

I spent the week in Port Harcourt—designated the 2014 World Book Capital by UNESCO, a first for a country south of the Sahara—meeting and connecting with brilliant writers, students, authors, bloggers, radio personalities, publishers, ghost writers, poets, reality show personalities, journalists, booksellers, and more. As a group, the Africa39 authors, and our editor Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, spoke with students at the University of Port Harcourt, visited the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation which is about to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the activist writer’s execution, spoke on panels, and shared our work. Audience questions seemed to unite around themes of Western influence on African writing.

From prizes to publishing, some noted, validation from the European and American industry seemed to be the ticket to acclaim. What did this mean for writers on the continent without ready access to an international network of publishers, editors, and writers—or even information about less publicized prizes? Others wondered how the African voice is compromised when local languages are translated to English or French. Still, others questioned what African writing even is. Who is an African writer? Does a writer born to African parents in America/Europe/Asia qualify? Does an Asian/European/American writer born and bred in Africa make the grade?

These questions bled into our discussions outside the festival setting. On wicker clusters by the hotel's big blue pool, and in one another’s rooms, over tots of whiskey and vodka, sweaty bottles of water, and tumblers of wine, there was passionate conversation over the future of African literature and style inspirations that ranged from Anton Chekhov to Zora Neale Hurston, John Updike to Jhumpa Lahiri. 

Some of us made light of heavily religious upbringings; while others expressed opinions on sex and relationships between "modern African couples". There was a lot of talk about African history and politics and culture; why things were/are the way they are. 

Heavy discussions tended to comic relief. Corruption. Classism. Chronic standstill traffic. Ebola hysteria. South African tabloid reportage. Hahaha.

Then it was over. Our last night together burned long and slow, like a cigarette, as one writer deejayed contemporary African hits while the rest of us poured in and out of the hotel room, imbibing and passing around our anthology copies for last minute autographs. A muted cable station blared hip-hop and R&B music videos while we carried on.

The following evening, I boarded my flight from Port Harcourt. On its refuel stop in Lagos, I was awakened to the news we had to disembark because there was a crack in the plane’s windshield.

With no more information than that, we were herded onto waiting buses, then dispersed to nearby hotels. I spent this morning awaiting word from the airline and watching hours of music videos. African and American artists popped bottles (or bragged that they could). They boasted about how much Rands/Naira/Dollars they had, their world travels and their cars, and paraded a bevy of half-naked women.

The videos got me thinking about a conversation I’d had with two other Africa39 writers and an activist Nigerian blogger about the detrimental role prosperity preaching plays in African life. As a Christian, I felt my defenses go up during the exchange, but I had to admit they were speaking truth. 

Not every pastor is out to pimp their congregations for money, I told them from experience. And what about the esteem and hope the good news of the gospel provides to a people who need to be reminded they are the head and not the tail, that God is a lifter of their heads; a people that need a miracle to change their situation? But I couldn’t deny that so many of the men and women smiling down from roadside billboards advertising salvation seemed no different than the politicians on the signboards next to them. On TV, I saw one politician in conflict with the president being referred to as a messiah by a collection of clergymen. In Ghana, there are churches (and billboards advertising them) galore, and puffed up pastors with endless titles, but I guess experiencing it in another country that looks so much like my own gave me new perspective.

As I watched the music videos, I realized the rappers were preaching their own gospel of prosperity. In Port Harcourt, I went to one club and it looked like the set of a 1990s hip-hop video from the accent wall d├ęcor to the fishbowl placement of the VIP area at the center of the tight space, to the bottles only service. Prosperity is being preached in many ways and to some extent, we’re all followers. 

On the second day of the book festival a man named Bishop Kukah spoke about Africa’s future. In particular, he indicted complacency and challenged those of us in the room to evolve the world our parents bequeathed. A Ken Saro-Wiwa quote on the walls of his Foundation said much the same about writers/writing:

“The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely x-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved in shaping its present and its future.”

Here’s the poem, I wrote in the hotel courtyard trying to process all of the above:

By Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

Fuck money
Get bitches
Show these niggas how much shit you got
Not riches are the currency
Envy the commodity
Hierarchy the celebrity
A gospel of prosperity
Rapped and preached to the least of these
Get ‘em good and hooked so they believe

All this paper?
All this pussy?
All these whips?
These first class trips?
Just ride this dick.
Get on this clit.
You know you wanna be up in this clique.

Fuck bitches.
You got money.
You ain’t a nigga you ain’t got a couple shorties.
Fuck these niggas.
You got cream.
And if you don’t you got a fat ass for the team.
It’s all transaction.
You ain’t shit.
They running game and you ain’t even got a chip.

All this paper?
All this pussy?
All these whips?
These first class trips?
Just ride this dick.
Get on this clit.
You know you wanna be up in this clique.

But life is not a video
Mad hoes are unsustainable
We can’t serve God and mammon, yo
We want to reap, we have to sew
Security built on poverty
Is not secure at all

Paper? Pussy? Whips? Trips?
There’s more to life than amassing shit.
You’re really rich when you don’t buy into it.