Friday, July 3, 2015

HOW TO ACT APPROPRIATELY WHEN YOU DON’T WIN THE CAINE PRIZE (TWICE)


By the time you are reading this, it will be only hours before the announcement of the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. Five writers who identify as African will be headed to Oxford to hear which of their stories has been selected by the judges to win 10 thousand pounds. I like to think of it in naira. Not because I think of winning. Because “3 million naira” sounds sexier.

Competitions will be competitions. Many may claim not to care, but there is a spirit that invades people and does things to them. As one of those shortlisted, it would be a disaster if I became visibly angry or allowed whatever disappointment I feel in my heart make its way to my face or body. I will explain.

The prize is announced at a grand dinner with many important people. All eyes gaze intently at each of the five shortlisted writers. Many will be checking for the slightest signs of discomfort. Some will put their hands on your shoulder, telling you they hope you win. They will probably have said the same to the others, but that’s not the point. The point is that they care enough to say something they don’t mean. Some will ask if you are nervous and by doing that, make you nervous, because then you have to lie that you are fine and that it doesn’t matter who wins and that you love everyone on the shortlist dearly and that there is peace in the big bad world at last. Crap like that. That “I swear I am not nervous” speech that one is lured into is often followed by an awkward, exaggerated smile, which discredits everything one has just said. Then as the prize is about to be announced people start looking at all five of you even more intently. This is the killer. You don’t want your body language or facial expression to change too much the moment the winner is announced. If your smile suddenly drops, people will notice. If you appear too excited even when you have no reason to be, it will be artificial and people will notice too. Eventually, when you lose – because four people have to lose – the news will filter out that you were a sore loser. And the news will be exaggerated as it passes from ear to ear. It will end up changing from your smile dropping when you lost to you becoming distraught and smashing property belonging to the British government.

When I was first shortlisted in 2013, I had the foresight to visit a pub around the corner before the announcement and down many whiskeys. I will not say how many because I don’t want to be a bad example for children. But it helped. Plus my (I admit not very elegant) story was about a poor, starving child fighter and could not have won anyway. Poverty porn and all. But old things have passed away and I am on the shortlist again. This time, God be praised, the children in my story are not starving or killing people. They are mostly good, obedient, well-fed children. The children even have fruits in their diet. Mangoes. Ripe mangoes. However, there are other awesome stories on the shortlist. Stories that stop me in my tracks as I think of what 3 million naira can buy. Stories that make it necessary for me to practice my losing face. Because the thing is, if like me you have lost before, people will look even harder at you for signs that this time, you broke down and were devastated that you were rejected twice. Thankfully, I am not the only one who was shortlisted before. So statistically, at least two of us who have been on the shortlist before will lose. I will have company.

My plan is simple: I will visit that pub around the corner in Oxford. I will change the shots from whiskey to tequila this time. I will go into the dinner smiling, but not too much because if the speeches are too long then I will get tired of smiling and if my smile drops and suddenly the prize is announced and I lose, the stories will start. “Nigerian Caine Prize Nominee Breaks Down After Losing (Twice).” God forbid that bloggers use me to get hits. God forbid.


The good thing about the prize this year is that they have given each of the shortlisted writers 500 pounds. I am happy about this. It means I can buy an air conditioner and maybe even a small generator for my studio apartment in Abuja. Whatever the case, my levels have changed and even with a second loss (especially with my new air conditioner), God has kinda blessed my hustle. And that is all that matters.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

HOW TO ATTEND AND ENJOY A NIGERIAN CONFERENCE


Conferences are a very important part of the life of the Nigerian professional or civil servant. After working so hard it is important to take a break by attending one. To have a year go by without attending a conference, especially one you have to travel for is to have a wasted year. God forbid that you have a wasted year.

To start with, you must be vigilant in identifying possible conferences you can attend. If you leave it to chance you may never attend, or you may be left with those silly local half-day conferences that don’t even serve lunch. God will judge those stingy people. The conference you want to attend is one where you travel, possibly get a per diem from your office and certainly a hotel room. A hotel room, even if the conference is in the same city you live in, is the minimum requirement for a decent conference. The best ones are the conferences outside Nigeria. Those ones are hard to get and many times you have to lobby to get them. Do what it takes. If the boss wants something in return for putting your name on the list to a conference in Brussels or Paris, don’t think too much about it. Just do it. After all when you are posting photos from abroad on Facebook and Twitter, no one will ask what you did to get there. People will be happy for you.

At a conference, it is important to collect everything they give even if you do not need it. Collect as many jotters, pens, and conference materials as your bags can carry. Especially things like branded bags, fez caps, and t-shirts. You did not come to the conference to watch these things go to waste. If you do not collect them, what will they do with them? Waste is bad.

There is the important point of nourishment at a conference. You need to be well fed to be able to follow the people reading their speeches at the conference. There is no need to be shy about rushing to join the queue for food. Some conferences make mistakes and bring too little food. In this matter the first (to get food) shall be the last (to worry if the food will get to you). If it is a buffet, take as much as you can on your plate. Or find a way to wrap some meat or rice and take it up to your hotel room just in case you get hungry at night. Never leave anything to chance.

Networking is extremely important at a conference. Indeed you will gather many worthless business cards which are less valuable than the glossy paper they are printed on, but do not despair. Out of a hundred useless persons, you will find at least one useful person. Useful people at conferences are in two categories: people who can help you enjoy the conference and people who can help you attend another conference. Sometimes these two categories merge. The first category - people who help you enjoy the conference - consists of persons who may, following a good first impression follow you to your cold, lonely hotel room later at night. As a child of God I am not sure what goes on during conferences inside the hotel rooms at the end of each day. I am just telling you what I have heard. The second category of persons are big ogas and madams who can include your name in a future conference. Those ones are very important. Keep their business cards separately. Send them nice texts from time to time. Ask for their birthday and send them a message. Wish them God's blessings in their life. And if per chance you end up with a conference controlling oga or madam in your hotel room, then glory halleluiah, the two categories have merged for you and your conference hustle will be forever blessed.

If you have not been asked to speak at a conference, do not despair. Wait for the question and answer period. As soon as they invite the audience to make contributions, raise your hand. Usually, the moderator will ask you to keep your questions brief and to the point so that more people can participate. Some moderators even go as far as saying things like “questions only, no comments”. Take it from me: it is all a trap to stop you from freely expressing yourself. Ignore it. When you have been given the microphone, tap it (or blow into it) to make sure it is working. If there is no microphone, don’t worry. Begin with a detailed introduction of yourself. If you have any awards, titles or recent achievements, please feel free to mention them. To avoid having rude moderators attempt to cut you short in the beginning, open with the phrase: “My question is”, then go ahead to make your own little speech. They will be more patient with that opening than with you admitting that you want to make a comment or speech of your own. Do not stop speaking until the moderator is visibly uncomfortable and has asked you, “please can you go straight to the question?” Then you can either throw in a question or just conclude your remarks.
  
Sometimes you do not need to wait to attend a conference that you need. As long as you are not paying your own way to a conference, try to attend as many conferences as you can attend, whether it is about girl-child education, offshore technology or humanism. A free conference with hotel accommodation is a free conference with hotel accommodation. No need to discriminate.


It is just the middle of the year and I hope that if you haven’t already attended a conference, God will bless your conference hustle and recommend you one abroad where their souvenirs and hotels are of higher quality.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

WHY AFRICANS NEED TO HARMONISE THEIR POSITIONS


The past week has been hard for me. Many things have happened that have required a strong response from African intellectuals all around the world. Things like Greece thinking of leaving the Euro zone (and becoming a poor, third world country, and cheap holiday resort for Germans), like white Rachel Dolezal colouring herself brown at the age of five and reading Baratunde Thurstons’s “How To Be Black” and emerging from white ashes to become a black woman, like America donating 5 million dollars to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram (yes 5 million not 5 billion), like the president of Sudan, Al-Bashir leaving South Africa in spite of a court order stating that he must not leave the country before a warrant for his arrest was considered. 

Many Africans have gone head to head and ended up insulting each other because of differing positions. I think there should be a weekly meeting of Africans online to decide what our position on global issues will be. 

Let us take the case of the Sudanese president for example. Some Africans were of the opinion that Omar al-Bashir should have been handed over to the ICC to face the music for war crimes in his country. They made passionate arguments about how he allegedly killed hundreds thousands of people and should be locked away for good. They called him a war criminal and demanded justice. They urged the South African government to respect the court order preventing him from leaving the country. But somehow, after shopping, Bashir drove to the airport and left. I don't know what he bought. Maybe he bought some Jack Daniels which I hear is hard to find in Khartoum. Or maybe some good chocolate and designer wristwatches for his wives. In Hausa we say, zato zunubi ne. Assumption is a sin. It is Ramadan. I will not sin. 

Now, there are other Africans who loved the fact that the South African government bumped fists with al-Bashir and told him he could shop and leave whenever he wanted. They complained about the ICC and the West being selective about the application of international justice. They cited the cases of George Bush and the American government who, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, invaded Iraq and turned the country into the mess it is in today. They said that we do not need white people telling us what we can or cannot do. That we do not need white people enforcing justice in Africa. That it is disrespectful for the South African government to invite al-Bashir and then turn around and arrest him just because white people said so. 

The arguments made me dizzy. Respected African intellectuals were on different sides of the debate. And me, I had made a resolution in 2015 not to take part in these kinds of arguments. I have resolved to make peace with all persons. So I watched as people quarrelled. Black people. This is what got to me. White people weren't fighting. White people always know what they want. For example, look at how the white media in America unitedly showed empathy for Dylann Roof, the white terrorist who killed 9 black people in a Charleston church. They told us that he was troubled, that his father was mean, that he was so thoughtful he almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so nice, that his sister had to cancel her wedding because of his murders, that he was taking medication that could have made him go crazy. They humanised him. If it was Africans, we would have been insulting each other on Twitter. This is why I think we should resolve things in-house. That way white people won’t see how divided we are and won’t know that it is easy to divide and rule us. 

That is why I am happy about the Rachel Dolezal story - the woman who took tips from books and the internet and successfully became black for over a decade. We were united there. We came out en masse to condemn Rachel for pretending to be black. She had perfected her scam so much that she became a prominent black voice. And when she was interviewed after she was caught, she said that she had begun identifying as black from the age of five when she started colouring herself with brown crayons. (A crayon can do great things I tell you.) As black people we were united in our condemnation for this now ex white woman. We wanted to throw her down a tall building because she had desecrated our blackness and made it a joke. I prefer knowing what our position is. 

There is at least one position I wish we could take. Like when the United States of America thought it was necessary to put out a message correcting the news that they had donated 5 billion dollars to help us fight Boko Haram. They said that what they promised was only 5 million dollars. Someone should give America a few tips about donations in Nigeria. In Nigeria, when you are making a tiny donation, you do not come out in front and take a microphone to announce your donation. You roll the money in your palm and sneak it into the palm of the person you want to give. The only persons allowed to use the microphone are those making huge donations. You may think 5 million dollars is huge, but when you remember that Nigeria is spending 43 million dollars on clothes for just 469 members of the National Assembly, 5 million is chicken change. America should have secretly called Buhari and squeezed the check into his hand. That is how we do it. I hope someone from the American government is reading this and will take correction. God bless them as they do.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

THE GOD OF BEN MURRAY BRUCE


Let me start by saying that I love the 8th National Assembly. It fills one with so much hope just seeing the new set of Senators and members of the House of Representatives who will be in charge of assisting President Buhari take this country to greatness.

Once I saw people like Senators Ahmed Sani Yerima and Dino Melaye, I knew Nigeria would never be the same again. They say God works in mysterious ways and I do not know what we did as Nigerians to deserve this gift. As if it was not enough that he ordained General Buhari and Professor Yemi Osinbajo, he also by the same electoral process gave us agile men and women in the legislature. How do I know they are agile? Take Senator Yerima for example. He may have exceeded the Nigerian life expectancy of about 52 years, but the fact that he is still able to satisfy his teenage wives at is a clear sign than this 55 year old man is not afraid of hard work. We all know how energetic teenagers can be, especially when they are between 13 and 16. 

It is no surprise then, that the man responsible for nominating the man who eventually emerged as our new Senate President was no less a personality than Senator Sani Yerima.  He will look back on his career one day and say to himself: I nominated the third most powerful Nigerian politician. Good for him! I want to be like Senator Yerima when I grow up.

The selection of the principal officers of the National Assembly was not without drama. In what some have suggested was a revolt against the omnipresent Lion of Bourdillon and Asiwaju of the Universe, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, many members of the APC decided to form a coalition with the PDP and elect persons other than those agreed upon by the APC in a prior meeting.

I think Buhari deserves credit for the boldness and independence of the legislature. Since he pronounced “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody”, Nigerians everywhere seem to have been trying hard to put this into action in their lives. That is what a good leader does: inspire people to action. This is the change we have all been yearning for.

Following what was considered a defeat for her husband, Senator Oluremi Tinubu, as the oath of office and allegiance was being administered, refused to shake hands with one of the architects of that defeat, Bukola Saraki. I totally support her. Why would Bukola Saraki try to shake her? That is like the winner at a World Cup final forcing the members of the losing team to do a victory lap with them. People should be allowed to mourn.

While the APC have been crying over what they call “disloyalty” of their party members in the National Assembly, I think there are certain advantages.

One advantage is that this new arrangement, which has seen some at least one major legislative member of the opposition PDP return to power, has contributed to preventing brain drain. Let me explain. You remember how before the elections, Chief Bode George of Lagos threatened to go on exile if APC won at the federal level? Like many Nigerians, when APC eventually won the elections at the federal level, I worried about Nigeria losing an important personality like Bode George. What would Lagos and Nigeria be without people like him? So when I heard he was (still) in Lagos rejoicing about the National Assembly elections, I was elated. This gives me hope that he will stay. And that I think is a wonderful thing. We cannot afford to be losing our best minds to other countries.

Also, it has contributed to the enrichment of our political lingua. Before now there was the danger that people in Nigeria would go through life without ever hearing the words “coalition government” used in reference to Nigeria. Children would be watching CNN or BBC with their parents and when they heard news about a coalition government in say the UK, they would be discombobulated and their parents would have to explain what a coalition government means. In such a situation they would have no local examples and the child would never really get it. But now that we have a coalition government in our legislature, parents can explain to their children using local examples like the PDP-APC merger. I think the National Assembly deserves commendation for this.

I watch the National Assembly with hope and pride, trusting that exemplary persons like Senators David Mark, Stella Oduah, Sani Yerima, Dino Melaye and Ben Murray Bruce will lead our country to the land of milk and honey. Especially people like Senator Ben Murray Bruce who out of the kindness of his heart and love for poor Nigerians, “introduced electric cars into Nigeria” as a way of solving the fuel crisis. His brilliant suggestion that people should abandon fuel queues and ride in electric cars will revolutionize this country. His detractors might ask how this will help a country where almost 100 million people live on less than a dollar a day. But this is what his detractors don’t know: God works in mysterious ways. A worker who earns the 18,000 naira minimum wage can miraculously afford an electric car that costs several million naira. There is nothing the God of Senator Ben Murray Bruce cannot do.







Saturday, June 6, 2015

HOW TO IDENTIFY A MIDDLE CLASS NIGERIAN


We have a new president who, for the first time in a long while, inspires confidence in a lot of Nigerians as well as the international community. For the first time in a long time too, many persons are beginning to take our economy seriously and have begun to ask that knotty question: who is a member of the Nigerian middle class? There are several definitions of “middle class”, many of them not valid for our peculiar context. Also, I don’t like all that jargon that economists use. I have therefore decided to explain what this thing called middle class is in Nigeria and which people fall into this category. Forget what foreign economists say. This is the real deal.

1.
In Nigeria, a person who is able to purchase a generator for personal use and run said generator every time power goes off is a member of the middle class. Note that this is different from the group of lower class people who are able to save to buy generators for their small-scale business like hair or barbing salons. Middle class people own a generator at home.

In this category, lower middle class will be people whose generator cannot power all the appliances in the house and have to make crucial decisions like whether they will run the refrigerator or the air conditioner. The upper middle class are those whose generators can carry all the appliances they own and who don’t have to worry about the refrigerator being off when the generator is being turned on. So, in a lower middle class house, you will likely hear someone screaming as they try to turn on the noisy generator: "una don off evrytin?"

2.
Mobile telephony is big in Nigeria. Often however, many in the lower classes have need to say that their “credit” ran out. Some times they send those “Please Call Me” messages. Members of Nigeria’s middle class however are those who never have to tell you “I could have called you but I don’t have credit.” They can afford to top up as soon as their credit runs out. In this category, lower middle class are those who can afford to top up almost immediately but sometimes have to tell the people they are calling: “Please let me go across the road to buy recharge card, I will call you back.” I know many lower class people use this line too. But the difference between a lower class person and a (lower) middle class person is that the middle class person often does go and buy the credit. The middle class person calls you back. The upper middle class person in this category is one who never runs out of credit, because they top up regularly without waiting for it to finish. That is the main difference: lower middle class waits until their credit finishes before running out to buy credit and upper middle class doesn’t need a reason to top up.

3.
I know that we don’t have a big cinema culture, but at least in our major cities, this is one way to know persons who are in the middle class. Middle class Nigerians can afford movie tickets, often for themselves and their families or lovers as frequently as once every week. What differentiates the middle class from others is that they can also afford the overpriced popcorn that is traditionally part of the cinema experience. While lower class people can save and go to the cinema on special occasions like Eid, Easter or Christmas, the middle class person doesn’t need a special occasion to go to the cinema. In this category, the upper middle class people actually avoid the cinema on public holidays so as to avoid mixing with the lower class people who have saved to enjoy this experience.

5.
A middle class Nigerian often has a car. If they do not have a car it is usually because they are saving to buy a really cool car and would rather take taxis than go through the stress of driving a problematic second-hand Japanese car. However, some lower class people happen upon some cash and buy cars like those who are able to save and buy taxis. There are cars and there are cars.

While a lower class person will often abandon their car as soon as fuel scarcity bites hard, the middle class person is often able, albeit through much complaining, to buy very expensive fuel from the black market to keep their car running. During periods of fuel scarcity, the difference between the upper and lower middle class becomes clear. The upper middle class person will experience no change in driving habits while the lower middle class person will do things like stop using the car air conditioner or turn off the engine in traffic or when they stop at traffic lights. On social networking sites like Twitter for example, you will find lower middle class people tweeting about their fuel woes and how much they bought a 10 litre gallon for. Or they will shamelessly put out an SOS asking who knows where they can get fuel. Upper middle class people never tweet photos of their fuel tank during fuel scarcity or celebrate when they find fuel. This is because (a) they are usually connected to someone who can provide them fuel and often never have to queue themselves and (b) they are afraid that if they confess they do have fuel, their lower middle class friends will beg them for some. And there are many in this lower middle class. You help one, they go and brag to all their friends and you find a dozen strangers begging you for fuel. Because yes, no one brags like lower middle class people. To avoid this kind of situation, it is not uncommon for upper middle class people to become hypocrites: join the rest of Nigeria in complaining about the fuel situation without providing any specifics. 

5.
Cable television is an important aspect of middle class life in Nigeria. DSTV is one defining characteristic of Nigeria’s middle class. Again, sometimes, a person from the lower class may happen upon some money and buy a DSTV satellite dish and decoder. But often the lower class person will go some months without a valid subscription. A middle class person always has a valid subscription and even when DSTV increases their charges, they will complain and create hashtags to protest the increase, but go ahead and pay. Because they cannot live without DSTV. The difference here between the upper and lower middle class is that the upper middle class person will never complain about subscriptions and will always have the premium bouquet. The lower middle class person changes bouquets depending on their finances. And they always complain.

6.
Many Nigerians try to better their lives, but often, in the absence of real power, they leave matters to God. The middle class, while still cherishing the immense power of God, know the truth in the saying: God helps those who help themselves. A middle class Nigerian is one who knows a person in government or authority who can change the course of events in their favor. It can be admission into university for their children, contracts or the fast tracking of an application or other process or even buying bread which is in high demand from a crowded supermarket. A middle class person prays and then looks for someone who can write them a note that can work wonders. What differentiates the upper middle class Nigerian from the lower middle class are the degrees of separation between them and the person(s) with real power. So, for example, while a lower middle class person may have to go to their uncle who knows an ex local government chairman who knows one of the members of the governing council of a university who can speak to the vice chancellor for their child’s admission, an upper middle class person may have been classmates with the Governor’s wife and can beg her directly to include their child’s name on the list the Governor sends to the vice chancellor for admission.

7.
Nigerians of all social classes love to travel. Yes, they may all be travelling for different reasons, but they all at least try to travel. While many in the lower class may not be able to afford to travel or meet visa requirements, a few do, either smuggling their way to Europe and finding a way to stay illegally or taking the dangerous trip by sea or desert. Middle class Nigerians, however take pride in their travels. They invest in their travels. They talk about where they have been and show off items they bought from abroad. 

In this category, one difference between the lower and upper middle class Nigerian is that the lower middle class Nigerian is more noisy about their travels, from the visa application process to talking about the bags and shoes they bought in Dubai. For every visa a lower middle class person has, they have applied for four. They are relentless and throw dignity to the wind until they get the visa they need to travel. If they couldn't get the US or UK visa they will try Malaysia. If they don't get that they will try Dubai or South Africa. And they will keep coming back until the US or UK sees the dozen Asian visas on their passport and gives them that visa. Often, a conversation between two lower middle class persons will consist of sharing tales about visa application or asking each other what visas they have and how long it took them to finally get it.  A visa is life for the lower middle class Nigerian. An upper middle class Nigerian however, might have already schooled abroad. Yes, maybe in Cyprus or Ukraine, but to most Nigerians schooling abroad is schooling abroad. So they have gotten the visa panic out of their system. They travel noiselessly and probably post pictures of their vacations just so their friends can keep up with them. The lower middle class Nigerian will turn on their internet location as soon as they leave the plane so that no one on Twitter will doubt their travels or their middle class status. No one fears losing their status like the lower middle class Nigerian. No one brags like the lower middle class Nigerian.

Lower middle class Nigerian conversations typically begin with phrases like: 
When I was in London (or Hoostun Tezas [Houston, Texas] or Atlanta or Dubai or Chicago [pronounced Tchicago] or Europe...)
That's not how they do it in London (or Hoostun Tezas [Houston, Texas] or Atlanta or Dubai or Chicago [pronounced Tchicago] or Europe...)


I could go on and on. If you belong to one of these categories and have not previously considered yourself a middle class Nigerian because of some silly criteria from some foreign economist, I urge you to claim it. Claim it and celebrate it. And if you are in the lower middle class, I pray that God blesses you and lifts you into the upper middle class. Because, trust me, there is nothing that the Nigerian God cannot do. He can make one of your friends get into power and help you get contracts that will instantly take you from a used Honda to a brand new Kia or Hyundai. And from that point to real riches, it is only a matter of time, greed and loyalty. God bless your hustle. 

Ps. I know this is difficult, but if God does bless your hustle and you move from lower to upper middle class, try; try to respect yourself and leave lower middle class behaviour behind. Like bragging. Or talking about your visas. Or how many times you went for "summer". Or how they do it in London (or Hoostun Tezas or Atlanta or Dubai or Tchicago or Europe...). 

Pps. I know it seems like I have bad mouthed lower middle class people. But here is one great side of the lower middle class Nigerian: they are the most generous. Perhaps because of fear of becoming poor or desperation to reach upper middle class, the lower middle class person regularly gives money to beggars, especially those who beg in God's name. They tithe regularly. They will not risk losing any chance to have their hustle blessed by God. Every donation is an investment in securing their position in the middle class and possibly bettering it. God bless lower middle class people.