Asaba. Enugu. Lagos. London. Oxford. Liverpool. Manchester. Bournemouth. Swansea. Ibadan. Makurdi. Abuja. Kaduna.
The 9th of January 2012 was the day I had chosen, months earlier, for the launch of The Ghost of Sani Abacha in Asaba. Unfortunately, on January 1st, President Jonathan’s government decided to (more than) double the price of fuel. In retaliation, civil society, led by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and a coalition of The Angry went on the warpath and announced a nationwide general strike. Naturally, the date chosen for the start of the indefinite strike was my launch day. That showdown seemed calculated to throw a truly wet blanket over the 12-city tour of my new collection of 26 short stories. I tried to salvage things: Come and hear how the Ghost of Sani Abacha affects the price of petrol, I preached, putting a desperate marketing spin on those who cared to listen, but Nigerians are pretty pragmatic about where they get their gospel. That afternoon of the 9th of January, I went out on the NLC-led march – where genial policemen in troop carriers fairly outnumbered marchers. In the evening, by dint of scaling down the venue from a 250- seater to a 40-seater hall, we managed to achieve a full house, with standing room only, on the first of my dozen readings. The storytellers were mostly in the audience, to judge from the stories that came back to me after my reading, with a retired wing commander (C.C. Iweze) regaling us with his Abacha anecdotes. In the picture, David Diai and the Chair of Asaba’s NUJ watches the presentation.
The following day the launch train traveled three hours east, to Enugu. This is my university town, the inspiration for my poem, Enugu in the Sky (Memories of Stone). But there is serious problem here: a few days ago we had lost our planned venue because the title of the book was too ‘dangerously political’. At short notice we found another hotel. Throughout a reading (whose tone was raised by the interrogation of Onwuka Igwe) though, what stayed with me was the picture of a bustling Enugu where life continued as normal compared with much of the shut-down country west of the Niger and north of Lokoja. I spent an extra day in town with a small group of old law school colleagues, thinking and talking our way through the core issues in the conundrum of a country where national crises wore different regional regalias. More on this later.
The Ibadan reading had been scheduled for the 12th but there was a curfew on and the streets were violent. Any fans who attended a book reading in those circumstances would probably need counselling. It seemed prudent to postpone indefinitely. That left the readings scheduled for Lagos and Kaduna, in that order, before I was due to travel to the UK. The national strike was an overwhelming success, to judge from my daytime drive from Asaba to Lagos: five hours down Nigeria’s busiest highways on which I encountered perhaps a dozen vehicles. It was also one of my fastest drive on record (I wasn’t breaking any speed records, honest) and I arrived in Lagos in time to catch the celebrated Ojota demonstration, certainly the largest human gathering I had ever witnessed on the ten-lane Ikorodu Road.
My Lagos reading had been scheduled for Friday, 13th January. My friend, Tope – who was organising Lagos – was not superstitious about the coincidence of a Friday and the number 13, and felt confident of a good turnout at Terra Kulture. Unfortunately we arrived at the venue that evening to find bemused guards behind front gates that were both chained and locked. Even Protest Culture was on strike as well. We did not give up Lagos without a fight though. One call to Ugoma Adegoke later, and we rescheduled the first Lagos reading of The Ghost of Sani Abacha to The Lifehouse on Victoria Island, on a more propitious 14th January. This would have clashed with the Kaduna reading, but Kaduna was now under a “24-hour” curfew, so we postponed Kaduna indefinitely and did the Lifehouse reading with good conscience.
On the 16th of January, I left for the UK for the London launch at the Brunei Hall of the School of Oriental and African Studies. At short notice, Marc Sands, Marketing Director at the Tate, kindly stood in as chair for Ian Birrell who had been otherwise detained by a dictatorial diary.
Brian Chikwava, author of Harare North, was discussant – we were sharing a panel for the first time since the Olaudah Day event in the Channel Islands a couple of years earlier.
It was great meeting up with old friends and new. The reading itself was not bad either. I do not get the sense that I am trying out my material before a ‘foreign’ audience. This group gets it. I have been here before, reading, of all things, an Asaba folktale…but beyond that they are well informed Africanists and the conversation is spirited, engages me.
We are off to a great start in Britain.
On the 18th I had a second London reading at Calder’s Bookshop and Theatre. A more modest affair, the intensity of the post-reading conversation overwhelms the main act.
Indeed we were on our way to continuing the debate at a club across London when we lost our ‘host’ in one of the tortured recesses of the London Underground.
On the 19th of January I arrived an hour early at the Albion Beatnik, Oxford, for my reading. Dennis’ place is probably the best place in the world for a literary cup of coffee, especially with Ray Keenoy for a comic foil, but I thought I could run an Oxford errand in the time it took them to set up the bookshop for a reading, so I ended up at least fifteen minutes late for my own event. I had to put a brave face on it, but it was an eerie experience, walking into a roomful of patient readers that included my old friend, poet and essayist, Afam Akeh.
But I am no stranger to either town or bookshop, and they were gracious, my audience.
Next I traveled north to Liverpool for a reading organised by Writing on the Wall at the Kuumba Imani Millenial centre. This is a lovely venue, with a room laid out as for a family meeting. Great to finally meeting up with Phina Oruche, the lovely BBC presenter who had interviewed me over the phone for her radio programme some days earlier.
(Speaking of the interview, of course it was Meme’s section of my novel, Diaries of a Dead African – first published in London Review of Books – that was selected by La Internazionale…) There was a laid-back TV camera, keeping a beady eye on proceedings, which is why you can now watch extracts of the event on Youtube.
Manchester was next. Cue another interview on Karen’s BBC show. The reading proper was held at the Samuel Alexander building at the University where I have read twice already. Geoff Ryman is scandalised by the poor turnout of his fellow Mancunians, but I come from a large family, so the occasional small audience is a welcome relief. Afterwards I go on to a new reading club which met in the city proper. We are pelted by a very British rain but it is quite unable to extinguish our very literary buzz. They had just selected my Diaries of a Dead African for their next reading. (They have good taste, even if I say so myself. ;-)) We indulge a nice instance of literary grub-and-gist on a table bossed by Jennifer Makumbi who is not above stewing fiction of her own. Onward then to Bournemouth where on one day’s notice we had the first of two readings at a small Boscombe restaurant. This was another opportunity for me to test my commitment to start reading once I have an audience of two.
The Swansea reading should by rights have been cancelled: My local organiser had to leave town unexpectedly on a family emergency. But Nigel Jenkins would not hear of it. He had originally signed on to review and introduce the book, but when I called him up with Ireti’s news, he undertook to organise the entire event. So we rescheduled it for 12.30pm on Saturday. This was cutting it finely, since I was due to fly back to Lagos by 10pm that same day – and Swansea was about four hours by train from Heathrow Airport. Still we pulled it off handsomely. Indeed a nice lady, running late, apologized as she took the last seat in the middle of my presentation, ‘No, thank you,’ I say to her, (taking this picture) ‘I can now say “we had a full house in Wales!”‘
It was my first trip to Wales and I spent a little more than 12 hours there, arriving at 12.30am on Saturday morning (talking life and literature with a long-suffering Nigel – who will later introduce me to the local breakfast delicacy of leverbread – till 2am) and leaving on the 2.30pm train to Heathrow on Saturday afternoon. But between 12.30pm and 1.30pm that Saturday we had a signal reading at the Dylan Thomas Centre, which boasts an interesting Abacha anecdote: apparently the last scheduled African writer there was Ken Saro Wiwa, then a PEN president, who had missed his speaking engagement because he had just been executed by the government of Gen Sani Abacha. He was represented by a fellow Nigerian writer…
So I made it to Heathrow with plenty of time to spare. It is of course a settled natural law that if I am running late for a plane it takes off on schedule, but when I arrive early, it is then seriously delayed. This time, on account of the snow, the delay was in a class of its own. We boarded on schedule but we sat there on the tarmac for so long that they had to serve us dinner, to stave off a hunger-fueled continuation of Nigeria’s Fuel Uprising on that Virgin flight to Lagos. I watched some films, fell asleep and woke up seven hours after boarding to find that we were still at Heathrow Airport, waiting for a runway to be deiced to start our six-hour flight.
Back in Nigeria, the fuel crisis is ‘over’. Where you can find it, petrol is now officially 97kobo per litre, down from 141kobo, which was the new price set on January 1st. Naturally, the old price of 65kobo per litre is history. This is of course the tried-and-tested way to raise fuel prices in Nigeria. It works every time: yank the price up preposterously, endure a week of public protests and then magnanimously give in to the public demands and reduce the price to the figure you always had in mind, to the cheers and gratitude of the public. As any visitor to a Nigerian market will appreciate, haggling is the joy of the whole process.
Ibadan is off the boil and we promptly put it back on the circuit of Sani’s Ghost. The very next weekend, I am hosted by Laipo Reads, Artmosphere, and the University of Ibadan’s English Department at Room 32. – This has to be the best-ventilated lecture hall ever. Designers of lecture halls for tropical, electricity-starved universities should do well to visit and learn. This reading coincides with the inaugural meeting of the new executive council of the Remi Raji-led Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) so it is great to meet up with them all. The stunned student body has not quite recovered from the months of strikes by their lecturers but between Ayodele Olofintuade, Remi Fairchild Morgan and the dons, Remi Raji and Obododimma Oha, Ibadan was set for a rollicking reading.
The following weekend is a long one for the circuit, starting from Thursday the 23rd of February when ANA’s Benue Chapter hosted me at the NUJ house, Makurdi. It is not my first reading in the town since I have previously read Diaries of a Dead African at events last August /September, as a guest of ANA and the Benue State University. But this is probably the last official function of the Sam Ogabaidu-led executive as they gear up for a March election.
The next day I drive into Abuja with Su’Eddie Vershima Agema for the Abuja Literary Society’s Bookjam at Silverbird Media Stores. This is a crack lit affair by Ken Ike and team Akumbu Uche & Co. If it goes off half as well as my last Abuja reading at Lola Shoneyin’s Infusion I am going to have to start thinking relocation. Lola’s event started off with a cloudburst. This evening a similar freak storm begins proceedings. (If it happens a third time we shall have to start ‘investigations’).
In Abuja I am reading with two authors, Ozioma Izuora (Dreams Deferred) and Ropo Lawale (21st Century Joseph). Ozioma and I get some panel chemistry going by arriving ahead of the audience. Jide Attah, compeering, runs the house like a literary dictator, and by cracking a whip generates some fifty or so poems and pieces from guests who probably didn’t know what they had let themselves in for. There is some electric love poetry by a young poet that has us all in stitches. But it was all good fun, we are at it till close to 10pm. El Nathan, over from Kaduna to process a South African visa for his ill-fated Caine Prize workshop in Jozi, is able to attend. On the morrow I will beat him to the reading in Kaduna…
The following morning I am off to Arewa House in Kaduna for a reading hosted by the Usho Smith-led state chapter of ANA. It is a lovely drive that is not quite marred by the hour-long queue at Zuma Rock. I cannot leave Abuja too early on account of the Environmental Sanitation programme which requires us to wake-up-and-clean-up and I am thirty minutes late for the start of the event. But it works out well because I am not the first item anyway. I get to sit in on a heated political discussion, which served as a great entree to my own reading. I am now halfway thorough my fifteen hundred kilometre drive, and I really won’t be doing this if I am not enjoying it. Among other stories, I read Cousin Kashim, which is a story in ‘non-standard’ English. I ask my audience if the voice of the character/narrator is ‘authentic’ and our post-reading conversation flourishes. Somebody suggests that the author of The Ghost of Sani Abacha has something of an antipathy for women and pastors. Chima Ejiofor also wonders if I am ashamed of my first two books, since they rarely feature in my bibliography. My answers are short stories on their own… I was going to share my answers here, but on second thoughts, catch me at my next reading and I’ll tell you.
… it is 2am, I am in Nassarawa, a sleepy town that is not the capital of Nassarawa State…don’t ask me why… I have never seen this burg in daylight, but driving through the dreamy townscape… meeting a most helpful young man who gives me an Ekwensian explanation as to why he is still unmarried at 28… there’s a short story here, I’m telling you. There’s a short story here…
And so, via Lokoja, Benin and the yellow yam haven of Umunede, one Ghost and ‘twelve’ cities later, I am back in Asaba to catch my breath for a couple of weeks… before, surely Ghana, South Africa… beckons. (We have to tour the 26-story collection in 26 cities before year’s end!) Of course if you’re any good at arithmetic you’d probably have counted thirteen cities, but after that Terra Culture fiasco in Lagos I am not tempting fate any more; just now, 14 follows 12, after a brief delay…
This is of course a good time to get The Ghost of Sani Abacha and Diaries of a Dead African if you haven’t done so already. You guessed the main purpose of this blog, didn’t you? It is available for order at Walahi.com (great name, true). Just think: how will Earth look, with only Amazon in the world of internet book vending?
Thanks for reading my longest post yet. It’s great to be back.