Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Exiled lives, complicated lives, Minneapolis, 2011

By Okechukwu Nwafor

This is my first trip to the United States. Having spent almost three years as a PhD student in History Department at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, I moved to the University of Minnesota as an Associate Researcher at ICGC. This prestigious post comes from the collaboration of ICGC with Center for Humanities Research at UWC where I was a doctoral fellow. I was one of the three fellows that went for the programme. The rest are Steve Akoth from Kenya and Vilho Shigwedha from Namibia.

Just the next day in Minneapolis I had gotten a sim for my phone through the help of Sara. Sara did not know much about international calls so she took me to a Somali shop where I bought a sim and the Somali shop owner taught me how to make international calls. I called my younger sister who lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and children. She was happy that I arrived safely. I was also happy to hear from her and my mum, who has come to visit them since December 2010.  This is the first time I spoke with my sister after about a period of 5 years. I heard her voice and the long stretch of silence was broken. We connected back. For five years, distance, imposed by exile, has severed all communications with her. She was also disconnected from many others at home (Nigeria). Hearing my sister’s voice after five years reminds me of how unpleasant exile can be at times. Exile disconnects you. It makes you invisible. Not only that, it makes you ambiguous, and your personality, your life, becomes complicated and open to multiple interpretations.

Mind you my use of exile here is not as simplistic as the ordinary meaning of exile. For me exile could be a communication disconnection for those in the diaspora.  While it might not matter whether one is at home or in the diaspora, I concentrate on those in the diaspora for a particular reason. If you migrate from a hinterland in Nigeria into a self-imposed exile in Lagos, people at home wouldn't regard you as living in exile. They will not bother you much. To  them you are still with them. But as soon as you migrate from Lagos and head towards the 'West,' exile hovers over your image like a halo. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and Liisa  Malkki may have taught us a lot on exile. You may refer to  Agamben's Homo Sacer or Malkki's  Purity and Exile for more on the theoretical  and conceptual readings on exile.For now let me talk to my popular folks. 

Exile was the case of few Igbo people I met in Minneapolis in just two weeks. My sister called her friend who lives in Minneapolis and she came with her husband over the weekend to see me. She and her husband were good people and they were happy to see me. We exchanged pleasantries.  We discussed about home (Nigeria) and then briefly about Cape Town where I have been studying for about 4 years. Our discussions about home (Nigeria) cut across a range of subjects including failure of governance, the challenges of Nigeria as a nation state, kidnappings, Boko Haram bombings, Niger Delta, power failure, insecurity, among other issues.

Reminiscing on the above discussions, it was obvious to me that Nigeria is really an unresolved conundrum.  I thought that Nigeria is a behemoth that scared and terrified her own children.  I thought that Nigeria drove her children into exile. It was from my interactions with some Nigerians in exile here in Minneapolis that I draw the conclusions of my text on exile. As my text will show, exiled lives are complicated. Speaking to someone in exile from home always sounded like reading a book in esoteric language. There was always a communication gap.  And no middle ground was ever established. The question remains why exiled lives are complicated.

Larry, the husband to my sister’s friend came on Saturday to take me to meet some Igbo people in Minneapolis. We went specifically to Anambra State Association Meeting in Minneapolis. Larry drove in a beautiful, posh Toyota jeep. After about 20 minutes drive we arrived at the venue of the meeting. The neighbourhood looks quite dignified: well cut lawns, beautifully planned estate, and exquisite apartments made up of duplexes and well fed dogs. The dogs backed and jumped around with confidence. The sight of this neighbourhood immediately reminded me of an idealized image of paradise in the book, My Book of Bible Stories which I read as a child. In that book, paradise was constructed as a place of grand pleasure where calmness, exotic beauty and scenic wonders converged. Paradise was produced as a place where the wild engaged humans in a gesture of harmless and innocent embrace. Peace, harmony and tranquillity were the threads that bound humans and the wild together in this paradise. And this is just a place you would want to retire permanently.

This neighbourhood of the Anambra Association meeting in Minneapolis is similar to the above image of paradise. The only difference is that, unlike the beatific naiveté and harmless charge of the wild in the paradise of My Book of Bible Stories, in the paradise of the Anambra Association neighbourhood, dogs violently ‘roared’ at us, with menacing aggression, like lions. ‘Roaring’ dogs in this neighbourhood made me ponder one thing: could it be true that beneath the picture of beauty and peace that this apartment and its neighbourhood portrayed lie some feelings of inadequacy, nostalgia, and loss. I wondered. I shall discover subsequently.

I saw Anambra Igbos as they converged in the small living room where one of their own was hosting the meeting. Their meeting was organized with Chairman, Secretary, Provost, Financial secretary, and other officials important in any organized meeting. Larry, who brought me happened to be the financial secretary. The agenda of the meeting cut across many issues including developmental initiatives and how to forge ahead as a people in the diaspora.  Surprisingly to me, the level of organization I found in this meeting belied the chaos I found in similar meetings back home. People behaved in mature ways here. Everyone was respectful. Back home such meetings would only end in fisticuffs, swearing, accusations and bragging. My question again is why the organization in exile. That collective chaos at home did suddenly transform to collective unison in exile is still a question whose answer may appear sooner or later.

I attended so many other meetings and parties including Umunne meeting. ‘Umunne’ in Igbo means ‘brethren’. It was an umbrella of all Igbos in Minneapolis or even Minnesota. It was much organized like the Anambra Association meeting. Anambra is only a state of the five states that make up Igbos in Nigeria. So Umunne is thus a collective of the other five Igbo states.

I eventually came to the conclusion on why the Igbos are organized in exile. They have been driven out of Nigeria by a common goal. Their goal was to come to the United States and make it, to achieve and then go back home with proofs of their achievements. The biggest reason why the Igbos are well mannered here in exile, I think, is because the system is also well mannered. They attempt to emulate the system in language, in lifestyle, in the struggle for survival. However there is one reason which helps in bringing them together. The reason is a terrible feeling of lack and loss. They need to chart a common cause. They need to seek the face of their brethren. Their shock, on getting to the United States is the sudden realization of the non-existence of African styled neighbourhood. They realized that there is a failure of brotherhood in the African sense here in exile. To invoke this brotherhood, they form Associations where they meet regularly to commune. In the process they hope that their children would interact, know themselves and then look forward to possible life-time networking and relationships that may end in marriage. The Igbos are faced with a terrible dilemma of losing their children to the system. The dilemma lies in escaping the ugly scenario at home to face another ugly scenario in exile. There is the dilemma of the Devil’s alternative. There is a game of chance: choosing between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Of course one knows the best choice: living with the Devil in hell fire or dilly-dallying with Sharks inside the Deep Blue Sea.

The risk is that Igbo children would get swallowed by the system.  If you understand what it means for your child as a Black African to get swallowed by the American system then you would become terrified. It means that your male child would wear his trouser half way between his buttocks and his legs, and walk in a crazy way, as though his legs are flying off his trousers. It is called sagging. It means that your son would always mime one radical tune in the name of music every time you admonish him into studying. It means that your teenage son can say to you ‘Dad F*** off.’ It means that your daughter can elope with an “AKATA” to God-knows-where, among many others. Don’t ask me the meaning of AKATA because I don’t know. This is because if you were at home, you may have the ‘privilege’ of giving your son or daughter six strokes of the whip, or a sound and dirty slap, when you think he or she is misbehaving without the risk of getting suspended like the judge who did same to her daughter and was caught by the camera. You know the judge’s fate more than I do. So you lose all the privileges of ‘African’ styled moral upbringing. You lose your power as a parent. You lose your voice and your head would swell like a tabula rasa.   Now I am sure you know the reasons why exiled lives are complicated. 

Chilling out under the cold winter

Clearing the snow to sit down 
Sitting down
Make the what???
Chilling out with some Igbo men 
You see what I was telling you. I saw this on the wall of a corporate organization on my way to downtown Minneapolis to pay for my TV and internet bills
At the ASA Conference in Washington DC, November 2011. L-R Helena Porlandt-McCormick, Leslie Witz, Okechukwu Nwafor


The Longest elevator in Dupont Center, Washington DC. 
Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor.

With Prof. Obiora Udechukwu at the Late Prof. Ivan Karp lecture at the ASA Conference in Washington DC, November 2011.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Dangers for Posterity: Know it now.

A certain girl thought that 'lol' means "lots of love" and sent in the following text to her boyfriend; "sorry 2 hear about your mom's death....LOL.
      In the above statement, you can see that ‘to’ has been replaced with ‘2’ and ‘mother’ by ‘mom’. She even did well, some will write it in this manner, ‘sorry 2 hr abt ur mom’s death’...lol.
     The above encapsulates the dangers posed by technology to the future generation. The danger is grave and demands urgent attention. Our children are literally brainwashed. Let my use of brainwashed not constitute a point of critical attack as in the case of the American Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain who said that Black Americans are brainwashed. I mean that our future generation have lost a sense of direction and focus. I will give you some examples.
    These days, when most young teenagers walk on the streets, they cover their ears with a head speaker and look into their phones. Is it not enough to lose track of one’s direction or navigation? When they arrive at their homes, instead of concentrating on their schoolwork, they enter facebook. Now instead of facing the schoolbook, they face ‘facebook,’ or they face the phone book through either blackberry chat or what South Africans call mixit. Is it not a way of losing one’s focus and direction from future goals?
    Because they spend most of their time in these virtual spaces, they learn a new way of conversing in sign languages. That is why the above girl thought that everything is understood in sign language. We can therefore pardon her misreading of lol. But let us be more sincere here. Is the meaning of lol not actually ‘lots of love?’ who invented lol? Are they not those who tell us the meanings of the sign languages they invent online?
And why are the younger generation fascinated by these sign languages? The reason is simple: attempt to seek short cuts. There is an increasing desire to cut shorts in the present technological world and this is part of the bane of the younger generation. The younger generation do not want to waste time writing a complete word when they can cut it short. Some of them are so dexterous with it that you need to attend their lectures to be able to grasp. They cut the words short by the passing days. In one class assignment a university undergraduate student wrote in her work, ‘tkia’ in place of ‘take care.’ The lecturer, who incidentally is also well versed in the sign language, summoned the student and she did not see anything wrong in writing that. That is why I recommend this very interesting book by Theodore Roszak: The Making of a Counter Culture, Reflections on the technocratic society and its youthful opposition.
    By technocracy, Roszak means the ideal men usually have in mind when they propose a modernizing, enlightening, rationalizing, progress in the technological, industrializing society. I do not know whether technocracy derives from techno-logy. I believe it is part of the slogans of ‘specially trained experts.’  Goethe, according to Roszak,  believes that “nothing is more inadequate than a mature judgement when adopted by an immature mind”. Therefore the argument Roszak proposes is that the expertise of our experts has succeeded in disorienting our adolescents such that they have developed a revolutionary potential towards the new inventions. They have embraced the need for ‘unrestricted joy’ promised by the new technological world.  There is no stopping them. Any attempt to stop them will hit a brick wall. We only need to stop our technocracy, simple.
    One can argue that our youths have capitulated to the excesses of our technocracy. The consequence of this capitulation is a rebellious attitude difficult to deal with.  Multiple lives are being lived in the internet and it is sheer futility to keep track of your child’s attempt to circumvent you these days. She/he talks in spirit. Even when he/she is walking with you, she is conversing but, trust, you cannot understand his/her language. You are lost. 
    Assuming you have a teenage daughter and you think she is being mislead, you are, rather, the one that is being mislead. Constantly, through modern technological Social Network devices such as facebook, her ears are at work, as much as her eyes, her fingers, her senses, and so on. You think real stuff in the physical world, and she thinks funny stuffs in online world.  You want to read a good book, be it in kindle or anywhere, she wants to read sign languages in FB or phone. You want to do real shopping for valuable stuffs in amazon.com, she wants to shop for phone or other funny stuffs in amazon.com. This is where the real ‘clash of civilization’ lies. You want to go to bed and wake up refreshed with robust energies and new, creative insights, she goes to bed very late, thanks to spellbinding sign language discussion in facebook. The consequence is her late wake and eventual loss of direction throughout the day. The above is equally true if your child is male teenager. It shocks me how these young people make it. They belong to so many Social Networks. They make numerous contacts: both humans and ghosts. They perform very poorly in their schoolwork. You wonder why. Now you know why.

Okechukwu Nwafor
University of Minnesota, October 8, 2011.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Life in Minneapolis

I arrived Minneapolis, Minnesota on August 16 to resume duty as an Associate Researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC), University of Minnesota. Since then I have been working on my dissertation and on Friday 16 September, I presented one of my chapters in the ICGC Brown Bag Series. The title of my paper is "Aso ebi and the ambivalence of Solidarity, Friendship and Oneness in Nigeria." It was well received.

I had struggled to understand the visual matrix of the city of Minneapolis. In just one month I have become acquainted with the road signs. Cecilia, one of the fellows at ICGC contacted her friend who lent me one of his spare bicycles. On October 1, I started biking. Biking made it easier for me to get to campus, from my apartment at 616 SE 10th Avenue, in just 6 minutes, a distance which usually took me 25 minutes if I walk.

I biked almost the whole of Minneapolis on Sunday October 2. It was an exciting experience. Since, as I thought, I cannot ride bike in my hometown, this is a rare opportunity for me. The reason why I cannot ride back home in Nigeria is not only because of the non-availability of the infrastructures for biking, including a biking lane on the roads, peoples' notions of bicycle in my place is skewed. Bicycle is not perceived as a means of  recreation but often as a means of mobility. Cars are, however, generally preferred. Again, cars are thought of as befitting of certain individuals and classes. But let us not go into that. The point is that my people abhor bicycle. So I will avail myself of the biking opportunity here before I go home.

                           My biking route in Minneapolis, October 2, 2011. (c) Okechukwu Nwafor

           My biking route along Heritage Walk in Minneapolis, October 2, 2011, (c) Okechukwu Nwafor

My biking routes along Heritage Walk in Minneapolis, October 2, 2011, (c) Okechukwu Nwafor

My bike. Coming back from a biking trip with some groceries tied on the handle, (c) Okechukwu Nwafor 2011.

Monday, August 8, 2011

PSHA Activities from April 14 2011

Many things have happened. Forgive me for failing to update you. And permit me to enumerate these activities in  very modest form that will enable you follow. I will intervene in some texts, only when I feel provoked, to emphasize my own reading of the texts.

1. On April 14. There was a seminar presentation by Dr Pauline E.Peters from Center for International Development at Harvard University and currently at the Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) at Stellenbosch University. The title of his paper is "Contestations over 'culture' in a time of AIDS in Malawi".

2. On April 21 we read Timothy Mitchell's "Rule of Experts".

3. Tuesday May 10, Noeleen Murray and Leslie Witz of UWC presented a seminar titled, "Dislocation: Making the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum".

4. May 12. Our reading group reconvened with Colette Guillaumin's "Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology" and Etienne Balibar's "Masses, Classes, Ideas".

5. May 24. Seminar presentation by Prof Ciraj Rassool of UWC, title of paper is "Bone memory and the discipline of the dead: human remains, transitional justice and heritage transformation in South Africa".

6. May 26. Our reading group took place with Edward Said's "The Word, the Text and the Critics" and "Reflections on Exile".

7.June 10. Official welcoming of doctoral and postdoctoral fellows and faculty at Center for Humanities Research (CHR).

8. On Monday June 13. Prof John Mowitt delivered the 2011 Annual Dean's Distinguished Lecture on the topic, "The Humanities and the University in Ruin".

9. June 15. Discussion on new directions in the humanities with Premesh Lalu, Maurits van Bever Donker and John Mowitt at CHR

10. June 21. Reading Group with John Mowitt on his text: "Text: the Genealogy of an Antidisciplianry Object"  at CHR

11. June 28. We had a workshop with John Mowitt, Quadri Ismail and Adam Sitze from Amherst College on the theme, "The Humanities After Postcolonial Theory" at CHR. Adam Sitze's paper was "On Crisis", Quadri Ismail's "On Imaginations", while John Mowitt's was "On Sociography".

12. June 12.  There was a visit to National Gallery and District Six Museum

13. Between July 1 - 5 we had a joint colloquium on the Humanities and its futures with fellows at CHR and Forte Hare fellows in East London. We departed from Cape Town on June 30, by bus, and arrived East London very late at night. Professor Gary Minkley was our host. We escaped to a place known as Chintsa where we had a whole five day marathon conference. It was, however, serious business mingled with some good pleasure. It was really a remarkable and unforgettable experience and it would be overstating the obvious to say that Gary and his team pampered us. Even as we read, we also ate, such that both our reading and eating flowed with the rhythm of the joyous moments at Chintsa seaside. If  intellectual pursuit was anything close to what we experienced at Chintsa seaside then in my next life I will become an academic.

At the East London Colloquium, L-R Prof Quadri Ismail (University of Minnesota), Prof Premesh Lalu (University of the Western Cape), Prof John Mowitt (University of Minnesota).
Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor

                                          During a presentation by Prof Gary Minkley during the colloquium.
                                          Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor

                                          Return from East London. Stop over at Port Elizabeth.
                                          Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor

                                          Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor

                                          Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor

14. July 6. Visit to Robben Island.

15. July 12.  We had a workshop with Quadri Ismail with a reading of Chatterjee's "Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse".

16. July 19.   At 2 pm there was a seminar presentation by Catherine Cole of University of California Berkeley, title of paper: "Wole Soyinka's The Beatification of Area Boy as Neoliberal Kaleidoscope".

17.  July 21 "A series of conversation and Public lecture" with Judith Butler and Wendy Brown was organized by the Center for Humanities Research of UWC, Center for African Studies University of Cape Town and English Department, Sociology and Social Anthropology Department and Transitions Research Theme of Stellenbosch University.

18. July 26. Another workshop with Quadri on Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences".

19. July 28. We had another workshop with Quadri Ismail on Spivak and Deconstruction with a reading of Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?"

19. August 2. Quadri Ismail  delivers a seminar titled, "Reading the Itinerary of Culture in the Modern Anglo-U.S. Episteme", with discussant Paolo Isreal.

20. August 5 -6. A conference convened by Christian Williams, a fellow of the Center for Humanities Research took place. Title of conference is "Camps, Liberation Movements, Politics".

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


If a poem is crimson blood colour
Painted with the brush of death
On the innocent face of truth and valour
Then I will not write it.

If a poem is the parch land of hunger
Inflicted upon the stomach of Anger
Then I will not write it
And if a poem is the hot torrent of vengeance
That pours like some cold unforgiving semblance
I will not write it.

If a poem is a senator
Selling the soul of the sacred soil
On a platter of nickels and dimes 
Then I will not write it.

If a poem is the hammer of greed
Used to smash the skull of common treasury 
Or the broom of bad
Used to sweep the dust of good
Then I will not write it.

I will not write the poem.

But if a poem’s face is powdered with a pancake of freedom
And its torso rubbed with the cream of stardom
And its spirit blessed with the guts of Samson
To push down walls of infamy
And say no to the messed up hands of the Mickey Mouse ‘House’
Then I will write it.

I will gleefully write a poem if it is the dry rag
Used to collect the lost water of struggle
Into a basin of hope.

I will write a poem if it is the instrument that solders the broken iron of our lost glory.
I will write a poem if it is the breast from which Thirst can suck from.

And if I write a poem I will know that a poem is truly
That pot of delicious plenty
From which Hunger can feed fat.

(c) Okechukwu Nwafor
The above poem was published in Radical Rhythms edited by Mature Okoduwa and Okechukwu Nwafor (Lagos: Mahogany Books, 2010). Quote as such. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Back To Cape Town

I am back to Cape Town after spending about four months in Nigeria. In Nigeria I spent about two months in Lagos where I engaged with the remaining part of my PhD fieldwork to fill up the existing loopholes. Afterwards, I journeyed to Awka, a distance of about  9 hours from Lagos towards the eastern Nigeria. From Awka I went to Nsukka (precisely the University of Nigeria) where I met with my family and my in-laws. I  spent quality time with my family at Awka and Nsukka before coming back to Cape Town on 25 March 2011. Here in Cape Town I have integrated back into our highly cerebral reading group and seminar series. I was a dsicussant on Tuesday's seminar with Ashraf Jamal's paper, "Turning Eastward, Vladimir Tretchikoff's Orient."

Our next reading which will be on Thursday, 7 April  is Michel Foucault's "Society Must Be Defended." And as I read this text I follow the heartbeat of an intellectual  pundit who attempted to articulate alternative ways of analyzing power. Foucault was interested in the representation of power and the ways in which power operate. And the strength of  his teachings on discourse is quite unprecedented. In my understanding, Foucault believes that power is polemical, contested and moves to and fro like a pendulum. My own submission is that power is counterproductive and it is also an echo, a boomerang. It is like a ball hit on the wall with force and the same ball coming back to hit the thrower. Foucault could be understood from what Arnold Davidson makes of him: "In  modern society power  has not functioned in the form of law and sovereignty, a historical analysis that forces one to find another form of representation that does not depend  on the juridical system."  Foucault reminds me of  Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer where he states that "the fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare life as originary political element and as threshold of articulation between nature and culture," what he calls xoe and bios.

My question is how do we deal with the rising influence of Biopolitics especially in the wake of the Arab Revolution. My reading of the logic of Biopolitical war rests on Ghadafi's Libya and how biopolitical drive is invoked by Ghadafi to 'defend' the nation. He invokes the idea of state racism to launch attack on his own people through a slogan of 'Western Crusaders'. It means that state racism could be invoked to safeguard territorial integrity and also to sustain a dictator in power.  Again one could see the role of state racism in War on Terror which is also a biopolitical war. American  state racism advanced the slogan of one who is either with America (good) or against America (evil).