Friday, June 08, 2007

Interview with Chimamanda

In today's Grauniad. The thing I like most about Chim is her insistence that Nigeria is home and her desire to live there as much as possible. If only more writers and intellectuals in the diaspora would do the same - continually try to engage with Nigeria on all levels - then the country's collapsed education system may stand a chance, and the thugocracy may begin to be challenged from the perspective of ideology. Writers should not seek places of comfort, but places of engagement. Any conception of aesthetics that attempts to insulate itself from the political is ultimately complicit with the iniquities of that political moment. Chim is fully aware of this. I also love her explicitly feminist stance..

Also see this on the Beeb's site today.


obinna izeogu 11:05 am  

Make una give this naija girl credit o! abeg which kind ting be this. i neva see such playa hating for such a young talent. na wa!

Doyin,  2:50 pm  

Jeremy, I am sympathetic to your point, but let me play the devil's advocate here - why is it important for Nigerian intellectuals to come home frequently? Some intellectuals in exile have done a lot and some say that being in exile causes intellectuals to be more self-conscious of their identity and culture.

Anonymous,  7:22 pm  

who cares what the west thinks of us. I don't think our writers should be obsessed with trying to convince the west we are decent people. why give them the power to validate you.

Anonymous,  9:45 pm  

"writers should seek places of engagement..." why should you prescribe for writers and how is this different from what they tried to do in the former soviet union. What a writer choses to do or not do is his business.

Ladybrille,  8:58 am  

I am actually working on finishing her book for a book review and last time I checked, her BIO says she divides her time between the US and Nigeria. By not packing up and moving to Nigeria,a "place of [less] comfort," is your point that Nigerians in the Diaspora do not then engage on "all levels"? BTW since you say state "writers should not seek places of comfort, but places of engagement" I hope that includes writers and intellectuals in Abuja and other elite areas in Nigeria. It would only seem fair according to your stmt that they move to the more uncomfortable parts of Nigeria to actually "engage." I fail to see your logic. One need not be in Nigeria frequently or move there to "engage on all levels." It is no secret Nigerians in the diaspora have been at the forefront of pushing educational reforms and contributing significantly to Nigeria. The country still has 120million in it. Of those 120 million surely there is more than an army of writers and intellecutals who can and should help revive the educational system along with the government. Citizens in the diaspora who from my rough counting make up about a million should not be designated the sole and heavy burden of reviving Nigeria's educational system. There are still highly intelligent individuals in Nigeria.

Jeremy 9:29 am  

Ladybrille - unfortunately there are many errors and flawed assumptions in your comment:

1. Factual error. There are approximately 10m Nigerians in the diaspora, not 1m. Your 'rough counting' is out by 9m. There are approx 1.5m Nigerians (legal and illegal) in the UK - according to UK govt estimates, and approx 6m in the US. The balance is made up by Nigerians elsewhere.
2. Of this figure, there is a disproportionate number of Nigerians (relative to back home) in top professional jobs, in health, education etc. There is a burden placed upon diasporans, in terms of submitting remittances and in terms of supporting grass-roots development projects. To say there is no burden is a cop out.
3. You say, 'It is no secret Nigerians in the diaspora have been at the forefront of pushing educational reforms' I fail to see what you mean. What educational reforms? As far as I can see, there have been no educational reforms (its a case of same old same old), nor has there been any diasporics pushing them.
4. You fail to catch my drift about what engagement might actually entail, reducing it to the idea that one must physically move to Nigeria to engage. In many cases (Chimamanda being one), upping and moving to live 365 days a year in Nigeria might end up being counter-productive. Teaching abroad gives her the wherewithall to engage as she chooses in Nigeria (one hopes that one day she will teach Nigerians in Nigeria as well as the overprivileged in America).
5. You talk about an 'army of intellectuals and writers' already in Nigeria. Sadly, this is a flight of fantasy. There is no intelligentsia in Nigeria. The cultural elite in Nigeria is tiny. There are no think tanks, or other organisations trying to think through problems etc. Again, this is where the firepower of the diaspora can help.
6. My point about Nigerians in the diaspora either responding to the burden placed upon them, or becoming aesthetes complicit in the ongoing collapse of institutions in Nigeria can be made much more generally. We all have an ethical relation to the world which we can either deny (and thereby become complicit with all the bad stuff) or respond to. People in the West have a burden placed upon them to reduce carbon emissions, much more so than those in developing countries. Either you do your little bit, or you end up being a negative contributor. The point is about how ethical obligations exist by dint of a specific situation, and how one responds to this ethical obligation.
7. All of the above therefore means your point about Abuja being a place of comfort is not relevant. One can move to Abuja and be just as sealed off from the world and the concerns of Nigeria as if one lived in Ontario. On the other hand, one can live in Ontario and be engaging far more with positive interventions in Nigeria than someone living in Abuja. A 'place of comfort' is a way of relating to an ethical relation (by way of denial), much more than a physical location.
8. Finally, look at who actually does volunteer activities at the grass roots level in Nigeria. How many Nigerians in the diaspora seek to do voluntary work back home in their area of expertise? Compare that to how many Europeans do voluntary work (via VSO or similar organisations) in developing countries. Nigerians getting defensive about these issues is a smokescreen for the reality that a lot more people in the diaspora could be doing a lot more with their talents and experience and capital than they actually are doing.

ladybrille,  5:20 pm  

Not so fast my friend! :)
"Factual Error": Where are you getting the numbers of 6million Nigerians in the USA? The US Census Bureau as of 2000-2004 puts African immigrants as a whole at about 800,000 to 1million. 39% of the Africans in the USA comprise of Nigerian immigrants. While I am not a mathematician, that does not get us to six [6]million. On the contrary your numbers are questionable, even if we gave room for illegal Nigerian immigrants factored into the equation; which calls into question your stats on the British Nigerian immigrants if 6million are supposedly in the USA. Immigration restrictions have become doubly hard esp. since 911 so I highly doubt there has been over 5million and a half growth in the USA with Nigerians. I think you are off about 5million buddy at least as to the USA stats on Nigerians.

I agree on your point #6 and feel your initial stmts were too sweeping and broad. As to the Abuja point, I hope I did not touch a nerve since you do reside there? Anyway, whether you reside there or not, my point is your call for writers and intellectuals in the diaspora not to seek "places of comfort" would seem to apply to writers and intellectuals in Abuja or other elite areas of Naija. The intellectuals in Nigeria, generally speaking, and those in other areas of Nigeria are well exposed and atimes have obtained education overseas. They are highly intelligent individuals that should be doing their part in helping with the educational systems in Nigeria, not waiting on the govt. to do everything. Abuja is a "place of comfort" using your definition that does not necessarily allow writers and intellectuals to "engage" again if I use your logic. I again based on anedoctal observation, not necessarily statistics which I don't have readily available but would appreciate you posting if you do have, think that Nigerians in the diaspora do engage on so many levels. The same US Census Bureau shows Africans as a whole and Nigerians comprising a large percentage sending billions each year to their respective countries. I am also quite aware having been involved in Nigerian organizations in the USA that send books, medical supplies, uniforms and more each year for decades now to Nigeria, not counting the many writers and intellectuals that contribute in education, science, technology and other fields to Nigeria. I think I now understand your concerns as it seems to take the line of the much debated brain drain argument. My point,however, is that I believe lots of "writers and intellectual" Nigerians in the diaspora understand their obligations and have been doing a lot and your statements should be careful not to put all weight and responsibility on these persons abroad or make sweeping requirements as it pertains to what you think is the best way to "engage" ala "places of comfort."
BTW, I am yet to meet Nigerian writers or intellectuals in the dispora who do not have a strong sense of giving back and do so to the best of their abilities

Jeremy 5:33 pm  

Ladybrille - by your arguments, everything is well in the relationship between Nigeria and its diaspora. There seems, from your perspective, little else that should be done, over and beyond what is being done. The brain drain is ok as is.

Sounds like a massive overdose of complacency to me. You keep talking about writers and intellectuals in Nigeria and the diaspora doing their bit. I just don't see it. What is admirable about Chim is she seems to be trying to walk down that path. Very few in reality are bothering. In a way how can you blame Nigerian intellectual abroad, when the climate in Nigeria is so anti-intellectual?

Jeremy 5:36 pm  

On the Census figures - since when did any govt's official census figures reflect the reality? The UK govt admits there is a huge gap between official immigration figures and the reality -for Nigerians as for other nationalities. The same applies to the US. The figure of 10m (6m for the US) is widely discussed as the best estimate unofficial figure. Just count how many unofficial Nigerian immigrants you know and do the maths!

Bitchy 7:09 pm  

I am beginning to agree with your critics J.

Your statements are far too sweeping. "There is no intelligentsia in Nigeria. The cultural elite in Nigeria is tiny. There are no think tanks, or other organisations trying to think through problems etc."

Nigerians may not have made the huge leaps and bounds you conclude ought to have been made aeons ago, but I think you ought to do a lot more research into the Nigerian psyche, and the effects of Biafra, military dictatorships and cultural dynamics etc on the average 40-50 yr old in Nigeria today, before you pounce with your abrupt judgement.

Where were you when the "cultural elite" and "intelligentsia" were persecuted and harrangued by the military? And when our esteemed professional classes were wiped out one after the other?

Have you sat down to really think about the serious reconstruction that needs to be done in a country that has been led by one bad example after another? I don't think you have! If you had, you wouldn't constantly string together these cleverly construed statements so carelessly!!

Come to think of it, I highly doubt Chimamanda would be a fan of yours...

I understand that it's your blog, and so how you choose to express yourself is your prerogative, but I think you ought to take a step back from the constant critique/analysis/evaluation. What makes you think you have a good insight into Nigeria's economic migrants, or into their motives and their aspirations? Your THREE years spent in the country??

A number of people here have accused you many a time of speaking from a high horse, and I really think it's about time you climbed off it.

Bitchy 7:13 pm  

Oh and let's also not forget that the years you've spent in Nigeria have been some of the best it's had since the '60s!

Jeremy 7:45 pm  

Its more a call-to-action than moralising Bitchy - if it sounds like Im on a high horse then that's a weakness in the way I communicate sometimes..

If all goes well, then the new administration will welcome thought-leadership from any number of organisations. Its looking that way already.

The point is to embrace this process. Nigeria will not be as Nigeria was. That alone takes some believing and a leap of faith, but its perfectly possible.

Your point about my living in Nigeria for only a few years is a weak one. There is no discernable relationship between length of time one spends in a place and depth of insight.

By all accounts, Nigeria was a better place to live in the 1970s. Let's hope the next few years it surpasses those days by a long way.

Bitchy 10:25 pm  

I hope it does, and I know you do as well. I guess like others, I was getting fed up of you consistently making these sweeping statements and generalisations about a place of which, if you think about it, you know very little.

There may not be a "discernable relationship between length of time one spends in a place and depth of insight" in every case, but in yours Jeremy (and especially as you are attempting to engage with an entire country, not just a single village or town) I believe there is!

Your consistent judgement tells of someone who believes they have heard every story there is to hear, and understood and considered every single factor at play.

I know several people who are far more qualified (both in terms of research and personal experience) than you to talk about Nigeria and its development, and even they (being more aware of the sensitive nature of their subject matter than others) tread more carefully.

I assure you Jeremy, that you have only scratched the surface. And I think until you take that into consideration when discussing Nigerians, you will continue to be criticised and berated by us. You could brush off negative sentiment towards you as defensiveness, and unfounded pride, but it's becoming pretty clear to me that until you stop being so condescending, your call to action will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Jeremy 10:48 pm  

Not quite sure why you are so antsy about all this Bitchy. I would never claim to be an authority about Nigeria in anyway. I know a few small things about the Yoruba religion after a decade of reading, but only the surface of the surface - I don't need you to tell me this. Nigeria is so utterly complex that I would automatically distrust anyone who claimed to have a good handle on it.

To return to the point - that intellectual returnees are in short supply in the context of a tertiary sector near-collapse - I don't see any argument from you, except the accusation that this is a 'sweeping statement'. Do you, like Ladybrille, think that Nigeria is awash with think tanks and organisations doing fresh contemporary research? It is clearly not the case right now and not a sweeping statement.

As much as there piles of problems for Yar'Adua to address, Education has to be near the top.

Bitchy 11:28 pm  

See email.

It's not about arguments, it's about your attitude.

Antonio,  12:41 pm  

To Ladybrille:

I am quite intrigued by your comments that 'It is no secret Nigerians in the diaspora have been at the forefront of pushing educational reforms' I was a consultant for 2yrs at your ministry of education and NUC and I was not aware of Nigerians in the diaspora 'pushing for educational reforms'. In fact, I was trying to get some leading international authorities in the field of educational administration who are Nigerians to assist us with policy and come up with a reform agenda for the country. Nothing came of this. I wrongly assumed that because we had succeeded in getting Ghanians and Ugandas in the diaspora to help develop their country's educational policy it would be easier to get Nigerians in the diaspora to the do the same. No such luck. When we approached some of them to get seconded to Nigeria and even when their organisations had agreed they kept saying they were too busy. This was quite a surprise to me, because many of the same people had showed interest when we were doing Ghana and Uganda.

So it would be really useful to let us know of the Nigerians in the diaspora who are contributing to the educational reforms. The problem as always is that too many people are working in isolation from each other and reinventing the wheel. So lets start providing examples of remarkable things people are doing so that we all know about them and I am sure Jeremy will also be enriched by such information.

I agree with Jeremy when he says that we cannot really say what is going on with the education sector is truly a reform. As a non-Nigerian with first hand experience of Nigeria's recent at attempt at educational reforms and 30 years experience in the education sector of over 10 other African countries, I am afraid we cannot truly say that there is real reform going on. It is not enough to have people who are passionate about change to be at the elms of affairs, these people have to be complimented by people with technical no-how, people who have a real understanding of the educational sector and have been engaging with drafting policies etc. Many people at the ministry of education and NUC are actually very competent and capable people. They have real understanding of whats need to happen, but do their boss listen to them? of Course not. Instead, they had rather bring people in from the private sector who haven't got a clue about the role of government in education. whats currently happening is not really a reform, it is just cosmetic surgery.

Having worked in several Africa countries, I have met some really amazing and bright Nigerians, the reality however is that many of those bright ones are not been replaced by a new generation. The current education system is really failing the young ones. Everytime, I had to do a tour of schools or universities in the country, my heart bleeds. I get really angry about the demage that is happening to the country's educational sector. Compare to its neighbour in Ghana, Nigeria's education system is very much in a sorry state. We can either get defensive about Jeremy's sweeping statement or we can ask ourself whether we would be prepared for our children to go through the current Nigerian education system or not, especially the university system. If we can answer yes, then there is nothing that needs changing. If we can answer no, then we need to start getting angry and agitating for change on a more structural level.

Nigeria is moving economically, but knowledge/intellectual-wise, the country is not moving at all. Ultimately, this will affect the economic progress of the country and we are already seeing the effect.


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