Posts Tagged West Africa
To add to my most recent piece about the music of Mali, here’s a great piece from That’s How the Light Gets In on West African music (with a strong emphasis on Mali, naturally!)
This is the second of three posts which round up some of the music that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one discussed music from beyond these shores that I have been listening to in 2015, particularly some fine West African releases.
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During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events. His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of Port Harcourt. During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over. His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:
No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)
Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)
Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006
World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012
di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.
Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.
If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?
For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.
World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.
When I was 9 years old, my family lived in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria. It was 1966, and a series of coups d’etat were hiking up tensions between the north and south, tensions which in May and September of that year resulted in mobs seeking out and killing on the streets, in the schools and hospitals and churches, anyone recognised as being of Igbo origin. I don’t know how many died. Probably no one does. Because of the civil war that followed, the pogroms in the north have received little attention – though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her stunning novel Half of a Yellow Sun portrayed these events incredibly powerfully. I was a child, and my parents protected me and my younger siblings from the horror of what was happening. But even as a child I heard and saw enough – even when the adult conversations stopped abruptly in my presence – to be haunted by what I’d half overheard, seen out of the corner of my eye. I’ve needed to try to understand what happened, not just in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but whenever an attempt is made to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.
We’re told that we must remember the past in order not to relive it. It’s a lot more complicated than that of course. In order not to relive it we’d have to understand it. Memories aren’t necessarily trustworthy – after the Liberation, Michel Butor has spoken of how his parent’s generation said of the years of occupation, 1939-1945 was a nightmare, but it’s over, so we’ll forget all of that and pick up where we left off. His generation of writers has been preoccupied with memory, and how we revisit, rework and reshape as we try to master the past. The simple imperative to remember would seem to have done us little good in the generations since Auschwitz. It didn’t stop, or even slow down, the slaughter in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica, decades of pogroms in Nigeria, the devastation in Darfur, the killings in Cambodia. But remember we must. The important thing is that we remember right, and we remember well.
I’m reminded, oddly perhaps in this context, of a song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.’ Frances McDormand’s character in Mississippi Burning echoes these words very closely: ‘Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible… At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.’ And so we need to teach the opposite, for the sake of the future.
And for the sake of the past. The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives. First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity. For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice. Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability. As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed. This load may also scream.
And so, for the sake of the past, we need to give back to the victims of genocide what we can – their names, their stories, their voices. Serge Klarsfeld reconstructed the convoy lists from the French internment camps and gave the people once herded onto cattle trucks a name, an address, sometimes a photograph, a letter. The photographs of the children – see them if you can bear it, and I think one has to bear it – in their best clothes or on summer holidays, looking solemn or smiling for the camera, tell you everything, in a way, about genocide. Sheffield’s wonderful Ensemble 360 performed music last spring by composers who were imprisoned at Terezin – music created in the midst of a nightmare, by composers who had barely begun to achieve their potential before they were silenced.
Hélène Berr is one of the people I will be thinking of on Holocaust Memorial Day. She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne. She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise. She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy. It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen. She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated. Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers. Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.
Hélène Berr, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008)
Les 11400 enfants Juifs deportés de france (Mairie de Paris, 2007)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, 2007)
My probably infrequent entries to this blog will, I anticipate, fall into three categories, potentially overlapping. Firstly, the work of Michel Butor, nouveau romancier, far less well known than he deserves, one of the most fascinating writers of the postwar era, and all of whose works are rich in allusion and reflection, ideas and passion, intellect and humanity. Secondly, I’ll occasionally write about what other things I’m reading (currently Proust and Stephen King), listening to or watching. And there may be events, anniversaries, and other sources of inspiration that prompt an entry from time to time.
I’m an administrator at the University of Sheffield, where I’m also a part-time student, studying French Language & Cultures for my second undergraduate degree (the first, in English & Biblical Studies, was also with Sheffield, many decades ago). I grew up in West Africa, an experience which has been hugely influential on me, and which can be evidenced not only in my enthusiastic support for Ghana’s national football team (in contrast to my despairing loyalty to Nottingham Forest), but also in my interest in postcolonial African history and, because I lived in Northern Nigeria during the bloody preamble to the Civil War, in genocide and xenophobia wherever they manifest themselves. Alongside my work, and my studies, and my family life, I am passionate about music, literature and visual art.
My entries to this blog have proved to be more frequent than I had anticipated. And the topics I’m covering have shifted too. I completed the degree referred to above, and am now a part-time PhD student, doing research on Michel Butor and W G Sebald, and that is absorbing all of my writing/thinking energy on those topics. What I’m reading, listening to or watching does inform my blogging, as do events and anniversaries. But if a theme has emerged over the years it has been more political than I anticipated with a strong focus, not just during Refugee Week, on the plight of those who flee war zones and persecution, and how we respond to their need for sanctuary. I retired from my post at the University of Sheffield at the end of 2015 and hope to have more time to think and write, some of the output of which may end up here. You have been warned.
Anyone interested in finding out more about Butor – and it would delight me enormously if anyone was inspired to read him by this blog – should start with the novels, which is fine if you read French, a tad more tricky if not, as the English translations are not easy to track down, or rather expensive if you do. I’ll give details of both editions, where possible:
Passage de Milan (Paris: Minuit, 1954)
L’Emploi du Temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)/ Passing Time
La Modification (Paris: Minuit, 1957)/ A Change of Heart or Second Thoughts
Degrés (Paris: Gallimard, 1960)/ Degrees
Mobile: étude pour une représentation des États-Unis (Paris: Gallimard, 1962) / Mobile
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe: capriccio (Paris: Gallimard, 1967) / Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape
Anthologie nomade (Paris: Gallimard, 2004)