Insights from an insider and outsider

2011-07-27 00:00

YOU'RE Not a Country, Africa: A Personal History of the African Present is a lively and thought-provoking set of essays by a man who is still in his thirties. Like many intellectuals from Nigeria, Pius Adesanmi lives in North America (he is a professor of English in Ottawa), but he is intensely concerned about Nigeria and visits the country regularly. He thus has the advantage of being both an insider and something of an outsider.

His sociocultural position is a complex one, and his writing, though it is often partly satirical, is well able to convey the nuances that he needs. He is sharply aware of the ways in which Western nations are apt to forget the history of colonialism and to stereotype and patronise Africans. He speaks for the best features of African traditions and wisdom and for the independence and the potential creativity of Africans. As against this, however, he is appalled by various recent developments in Nigeria and in other African countries.

He is, he tells us, a practising Catholic, but he respects many of his Yoruba traditions which are humane and tolerant. He comes from a village in central Nigeria. When he was a child Christians of various denominations and Muslims all respected one another, and often attended one another's schools and ceremonies. Now tolerance has broken down, Adesanmi says, because of Islamist fanaticism. He blames the politicians in power for not condemning religious violence unequivocally.

And it is for the politicians that he reserves his harshest comments. Some of his observations have strong resonances for South African readers. He says, for example, that Americans have the ideal of the American dream, the French deeply respect "the national work", but Nigerian politicians yearn for a cake, of which they hope to get as large a slice as possible.

Here is a part of his description of a convoy: "The convoy of the Nigerian government official is obscene ostentation, intimidation, unbridled arrogance, and abject alienation from the people. It is an isle of inebriation by power, an oasis of total lawlessness … The speed limit of his convoy is determined by how high the speedometer of each constituent bulletproof SUV can go … When you see a convoy and hear the wailing siren in Nigeria, you jump into a ditch or drive your car quickly off the road to allow the man of power to pass undisturbed by the people he is supposed to be serving."

Adesanmi covers a range of themes, and his attitude is unfailingly perceptive and humane. He is fascinated by the interplay of cultures, and the essays which deal with the West are both appreciative and critical. Here too he is both the outsider and the insider.

In Nigeria he finds not only political corruption and inefficiency but a general decline in moral and intellectual seriousness. University people used to be looked up to, but a succession of dictatorial political leaders have forced many of them out of the country. He is of course himself an instance of this process. One of Nigeria's many problems, he suggests, is that it is still merely the result of arbitrary colonial mapping: its existence as a nation, its very meaning, has never been properly negotiated.

The picture that he paints is in many ways very grim. Yet his writing is buoyant and he is not without hope — hope that Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, will pull itself together and use its best instincts to devise a valid ideal and workable political and economic policies. This book helps one to entertain such a hope.

• You're Not a Country, Africa: A Personal History of the African Present, by Pius Adesanmi is published by Penguin Books (South Africa).

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