Get Print Edition of African Writing Home Page
HomeAbout UssNewsinterviewsProfiles of Emergent African WritersFictionPoetryCultureArtReviews

  Femi Osofisan
  Tanure Ojaide
  Brian Chikwava
  Hugh Hodge
  Helon Habila
  Muhammad Jalal A. Hashim
  Ogaga Ifowodo
  Edwin Gaarder
  Harry Garuba
  Toyin Adewale-Gabriel
  Zukiswa Wanner
  Ike Okonta
  Maxim Uzoatu
  George Ngwane
  Ike Anya
  E. E. Sule
  Beverley Nambozo
  Obi Nwakanma
  Matthew Dodwell
  Ikhide Ikheloa
  Afam Akeh
  Femi Oyebode
  Chika Unigwe
  Linda Chase
  Mohamed Bushara
  Wale Okediran
  Niran Ok
  Remi Raji
  Ahmed Maiwada

  Laura King

  Chuma Nwokolo


Obi Nwakanma  

For Structure & Infrastructure in Nigerian Culture

Obi Nwakanma, a doctoral candidate  and humanities fellow at the St. Louis University, is author of the poetry collection, The Horsemen and Other Poems.


The current domain of cultural production in Nigeria can hardly be said to be arid; it is rather in fact, fecund with new and vital ways of expression. In the last decade or so, for instance, Nigerian film has altered the landscape of filmmaking, with its own unique pageantry of images and drama; so much that a new name has been attached to that phenomenon: it is called “Nollywood.” Nollywood is assumed, though we make much of the assumption, to form an intricate, even increasingly important part of a triad of the industry in tinsel town, that include Hollywood in Los Angeles, Bollywood in Bombay, and the Nollywood in Lagos. The evidence of the health of this industry is rampant, evidenced enough in the wide distribution of Nigerian images, values, and desires, along the West African corridor, and as far up as the horn of the continent, where one newspaper article reveals, that Ethiopian girls now speak Igbo – a variant of it learnt from the Nollywood movies: cheap, low budget, video productions, whose technical as well as creative depths are still evolving, to say the least. But the industry of film, an emergent tradition of Nigerian films, is no doubt in the horizon, and the increasing presence or influence of the industry has been aptly captured in a New York Times article on the billion dollar value of Nollywood.

These dynamic activities are equally present in other sectors of the culture domain – in the literature, in the fine arts, in music, and even in architecture. In the last five years, a new generation of Nigerian novelists, for example have attracted cross-border attention: Helon Habila, with Waiting for an Angel, Chimamanda Adichie with Purple Hibiscus, Chris Abani with Graceland, Helen Oyeyemi (Icarus girl), Uzo Iweala (Beast of No Nation) and Segun Afolabi(Goodbye Lucille). These new novelists have, if they have done anything extraordinary, proved that contemporary Nigerian fiction still flows from the springs of a vast complex drama and experience, whose dimensions are yet to be fully marked. Indeed, these novelists constitute what I personally call the advance guard of new or contemporary writers, who have provoked the attention of a new international audience for contemporary or current Nigerian writing. A vast archive of that domain is yet to be unveiled, and may reveal an even richer harvest, especially as such important voices like Maik Nwosu, Ike Okonta, Sanya Osha, Akin Adesokan, Promise Okekwe, and many other individuals whose works began to emerge and circulate especially from the middle of the 1980s and 1990s in Nigeria, and who are central to a very important movement of new Nigerian literature, begin to draw a deserved attention. The current dominance of fiction equally belies the exciting presence of a generation of highly talented Nigerian poets, whose works are yet to attract the kind of wider, trans-national audience or attention, which the new novelists currently enjoy. Yet indeed, the dominant mode of creative expression in one generation was indeed the poetic form, and an examination of the full range of Nigerian poetry from the 1980s would reveal a texture of the imagination so diverse and varied, and a richness of utterance so refractive of the mood or temper of the society in a most turbulent, transitional moment in Africa of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

It is true that the English critic of African literature of an earlier, postcolonial generation, Gerald Moore, in his 1967 essay/talk, “Modern African Literature and Tradition” published in African Affairs, demonstrates a theory of African, particularly Nigerian poetry as taking its roots generally from ritual, and the praise song, “in which the attributes of the praised object, which the poet confronts directly, are enumerated line by line. As the song progresses, the energy of that –which-is-praised (a king, a god, a chief, a bull, a beautiful girl) mingles with the poet’s own, so that both are renewed.” This is a generalization, of course, and indeed may today obscure the real nature of the transformations that have occurred in Nigerian or even African poetry. From themes of “divination, sacrifice, expiation, and atonement,” – of Okigbo’s sacral pilgrim in search of his goddess, or Soyinka’s fated carrier, or Clark’s scapegoat - all bearing their tragic burdens of history – Nigerian poetry entered the space of the secular, which deployed first, the “voice of the marketplace” of an Osundare, or of the “deep dance” of a Chimalum Nwankwo, and later the experimental, fractal insouciance of Uche Nduka’s poetry, or the limpid flourishes of Lola Shoneyin’s brash rhetoric. These transformations have occurred in the elements within Nigerian poetic tradition, from what Gerald Moore once described as poetry in “the approach to the shrine” whose distinctly ritualistic manners speak to “the fathers,” to a broader, more contemplative, sometimes intensely metrical or formal systems, as a poet like Ogaga Ifowodo is attempting to experiment with, in his current intimations, or the intensely minimalist styles of either Uche Nduka, or an Ada Udechukwu, who brings the spare and silent lines of her Uli art or painting, to her poetry.

These examples indeed only speak to the inevitable evolution of a tradition of poetry, distinctly fresh, contemporary, and Nigerian in its feel. Nigerian poetry has demonstrated continuity rather than disjunctions in the search for both individually authentic voices, and the collective voice of the community, as the expression or organizing principle in Nigeria’s poetic tradition. We see the same manifestations in the visual arts, with the important done today by the curator and theorist, Okwui Enwezor, to the installations of Olu Oguibe, or the various works of increasingly internationally renown Nigerian artists like Chika Okeke-Agulu, Victor Ekpuk, Syl Ogbechie, Victor Ehikhemenor, Krydz Ikwuemesi, and so many more who have energized the idiom of contemporary Nigerian art. I have only tried to demonstrate, in these few examples, the varied energy and power of contemporary Nigerian culture, whose implication or significance will be the inevitable subject of very important discussions, about the culture of these times, and this space in late modernity, not too long from now.

An important aspect of cultural production however, is in the superstructure – the infrastructure that girds the production of culture, and its dissemination. About seven years ago, when it was launched in London, I wrote a critique of the Caine Prize for African Writing, principally from what I perceived in the implication of its gesture. The validation of African cultural production from a presumed metropolis of culture seemed to me to undermine the very basis of its production and its meaning. I think that I have modified my stance over the years, in recognition of some of the possibilities that have emerged from the Caine prize; particularly the rather stark reality of the power and the agency of the metropolis to either silence or make writers visible. The curse of invisibility is the great fear of the writer. But I’m still stirred by the spirit behind Chinua Achebe’s 1985 letter rejecting an invitation to Sweden for a conference o African Writers. “It is time,” Achebe wrote, “that African writers begin to gather to discuss their affairs in African cities” – or such words. Achebe’s argument engages the question: what is the purpose of writing by Africans, if these are never encountered, valued, discussed, or validated by its primary audience.

It is true that the questions and implications of audience and location, and the meaning of it all, challenges a new generation of African writers, or writers who claim some African descent, but who see in the very complexity of their identity, an impossible resolution to the question: “who are you?” An answer to that question used to be quite simple, these writers argue, but not any more in a highly “globalized” world in which all shapes and forms of new complex identities are manufactured, and assumed; and in which the very reality of one’s location or (dis)location makes the subject moot, and the self ambivalent. This particular question cropped up one evening in a session at the African Studies Association in New Orleans, chaired by Sarah Manyika, featuring the novelists Chris Abani, and Helon Habila from Nigeria, and Partice Nganang, from the Cameroon. The three argued, in very strong terms, that they no longer recognize those boundaries of identity in their conceptions of their writing: “I do not in fact write for Africans, I write in the German and French languages, and I write for whoever can read, or is interested in reading my stories.” Patrice Nganang.

But Professor Abiola Irele threw an important question: “Is there any such beast as African Literature?” From what indeed does the writers experience flow? By what is it anchored. These are questions that we ought to contemplate further as the debates open, with the emergence of increasingly more “cosmopolitan” writers, publishing, and circulating, not so much in Africa, as in key western metropolitan centers. But it raises an important question: what kind of literature is being published from and about Africa? It goes back to that important question of representation. Without dwelling too much on the subject, it seems that the collapse of the economies, and the publishing infrastructure especially in sub-Saharan Africa, has reshaped the context of narrative, or oversight over the kinds of narrative that are valued and validated on its behalf. The infrastructure of publishing and the dissemination of textual or narrative authority prove to be sine qua non in the maintenance of culture – literate culture. The absence of this important industry in the cultural life of Nigeria is dangerous in the long run, for it positions two potential scenarios: the rupturing of canonical authority, validation of mediocre imagination, and the silencing and obscuring of the experimental genius, which feeds every culture with novelty. The second scenario is the possibility of ceding our capacity for counter-narrative in the larger picture of affairs: the control of the African imagination through publishing, prizes, residencies, and other means of validation and valuation, means that we must continue to live with the systematic “othering” of the African, and the black world through the proxy of the “conditioned imagination.”

The case I make therefore, in the final analysis, is for an understanding of the important question of who must pay the African piper. Residences, prizes and other forms of preferment, offered to African writers or artists from abroad are indeed welcome, for they add to the source of succour for a mostly lonely enterprise. The generosity of such international endowments, however, must neither be taken for granted nor without rumination. It so often happens that the unique history of Africa and its relations to the world, must sometimes force the African writer, artist or intellectual, to the occasional ungraciousness of looking the gift horse steadily in the mouth. But much of this may be settled, particularly in Nigeria, with the incredible resources at its disposal, if a proper cultural infrastructure is built to support the indigenous African imagination. This is happening in a number of ways: recently the LNG endowed a prize for Literature and Science to the tune of N1 million. A Trust was drawn to manage the prize from a broad range of distinguished Nigerians. The Patrick Utomi prize, just recently announced winners of its prize: the poet Obu Udeozo, and the dramatist Emeka Nwabueze. All these are important developments. They go now, to complement the ANA prizes, which have been sustained since the 1980s, as a means of validating and recognizing Nigerian literary production.

But while literature currently enjoys some significant attention in terms locally endowed prizes, and while increasingly important endowments have come to encourage literary activity, there is a glaring dearth of such prizes in the fine Arts, or Music, or Architecture, or even in the production of criticism. There is a general absence of a National Arts Endowment, long proposed to promote Nigeria’s cultural enterprise. The fundamental point to make is that supportive cultural infrastructure in Nigeria is rather basic: there are very few University libraries or bookshops currently stocking, or aiding the dissemination of new books; independent bookshops are quite few, and with the exception of places like Glendora bookshop in Lagos, and a few others, the book life in Nigerian cities would be barren; the ministries of Education and Culture are frequently out of the loop of contemporary developments in Nigerian culture, and so Nigerian children have neither access to the new authors, nor are they even exposed to museums and galleries. There are no writing programs in Nigerian Universities, no writer-in-residence slots, or workshops, or residences, and such programs, which writers elsewhere take for granted. These are fundamental absences, which must be addressed.

There is also the issue of taking our local prizes seriously enough, by the ways we organize them, for indeed, there can be no justification in the Caine Prize taking the shine from say, the Okigbo prize, or the ANA/CADBURY prize, if we properly locate these prizes to reflect the seriousness of our enterprise. Above all, time has come for an Africa-wide prize established within Africa, and supported by a superstructure of African desires and values, as well as its ways and means. The South Africans had proposed the Mandela prize for African writing, but nothing came of that. There are many African statesmen who were literary figures in the twentieth century for whom an important African prize could be named: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Nelson Mandela. Such great figures of the black world in the 20th Century ought indeed to be memorialized, with a rallying prize to in their names. That way, we may call African literature by its proper name.
  Go to Top    
Copyright © Fonthouse Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to