By Josiah Ikpe
PROMPT—I am grateful for ...
He talks about how Africa is forlorn with black shadows dotting the map of the world. He talks of how relegated Africa is and how she has been pushed to the background. He also talks about how underrepresented Africa is—that our leaders don’t care about us, that we are the cause of our problems, and that everything about us is black just like our skin color. As he says all these, I know for a fact that he is right; except for the latter which itself is a blatant falsehood. To tell a story one has to tell a couple of other things. As much as I tell a story about how relegated Africa is, I also have to tell the story of how she inspires us to spread and enlarge our tentacles far beyond her territories. As much as I write a story about how our leaders don’t care about us, I also have to tell the story about how we thrive to succeed despite their nonchalant attitudes. And as much as I tell a story of how conflicts and poverty and hardship ravage our land, I also have to tell the story of how we love and create relationships and aspire and map out our future. And why is that? Because I know that amidst wars and uncertainty and oppressions and disarrays, there is an entity called love, remolding itself in shapes of dreams and ambitions and aspirations and hard work and laughter. And also, because I know that a story becomes the only story if it is told repeatedly. He looks at me and waves his hand to know if I am with him. I blink and I tell him that I am. We continue to talk and in the course of our conversation, he makes an analogy of how the death of Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart portrays the death of the African society and achievements. I disagree with him and I tell him that the African society and achievements died not because of the arrival of white men, but because we allowed it to. Think of a society that had laws and structures and procedures in place, but shifted them aside because they felt and thought that the white men’s ways of doing things were better than theirs, I say, rolling my eyes for further emphasis. He looks at me again, his gaze peering into mine. He asks how sure I am that all those were in place and how sure I am that the system was as efficient as compared to the White men's system. I fall back into my chair, and before I made any attempt to answer and bid his questions some response, I think of the stories that my grandmother frequently told us—myself and my older siblings—about how her childhood was governed by laws and injunctions. The one which she often told us was about a man who slaughtered his brother and inherited his wife for himself, much to the dissatisfaction of the gods and contrary to the laws of the land. In that story, the man, after he had killed his brother and had put things in place to inherit his brother’s wife, writhed and died on the night of the supposed consummation of his love for the woman, right in that moment of sexual outpouring. And always, at the end of that story, grandmother often made us relate it to present life experiences and situations and to draw a comparison between it and the things that we had done that made us quite similar to the man in that story. Whenever she asked us to do that, I became filled with guilt. My forehead puckered and I glanced at the ceilings to avoid any sort of eye contact with my grandmother and with my siblings. At that moment, all the evil I did emerged from the dark and dangled itself before me. One of them was submerging the bed with urine at night and pulling my shorts off and exchanging it with that of my brother’s and subsequently tossing him to that part of the bed drenched with urine. And when it was my turn, after my siblings had done theirs, my tongue became stiff and hard, unable to be twisted and contorted to different directions to let out words. And as such, I frequently felt the sudden urge to relieve my bowels. He places the coffee mug noisily on the table, drawing my attention back to the conversation at hand. I blink and the corner of my mouth quirks up. I tell him that that is where the mistake is, comparing our system with that of the white men. If there were no laws that had governed our forefathers, then you and I probably wouldn’t be alive today, I say and smile broadly. Cultures differ, and people make culture and not the other way around, and accepting our culture as different doesn’t in any way invalidate ours or make it inferior. Our culture stands separate and unique from the white men. If people make culture, then our culture should be unlearned and certain things should be changed. Because as it is, our culture hasn’t in any way contributed to our growth as an individual and as a society, he says, and grits his teeth together. I take a glass of water sitting on the side table beside me and I dangle its content to all sides of the cup. I know that it’d surely come to this. I know that this would serve as a justifier or a propeller for his hell-bent ideology that the African society and achievement withered away at the arrival of the white men. If cultures could so easily be changed and exchanged for another, then what is the point of having one, knowing quite well that it would be changed in the future? I ask, raising an eyebrow. Culture serves as an identity, something that maps you out and distinguishes you from others. I am not saying that the totality of our culture is gibberish, but what I’m advocating for is that all of them are. Look at it this way—you’ve identified yourself as a member of a certain culture, but what I know and what you know is that that culture so far hasn’t made you any better, he says, rolling both his eyes at me. This is something that I always cannot wrap my head around. The constant reiteration of the idea that our culture means nothing and that they were just the making of some old and archaic men who, after they had filled their bellies with palm wines, gathered themselves together and made laws for themselves and posterities. It is not that I argue that certain parts of our culture shouldn’t be unlearned and changed, but what I argue for is that all of it shouldn’t be unlearned and changed. Amid great wealth and knowledge, there would always be something, something that wouldn’t measure up. I look at him, a flush creeping up my face, and I wonder what it means to be the author of culture and its sole defender. This man who, I’ve been friends with for more than forever and who bears the mark of his culture on his forehead and cheeks, would eventually write a book that draws its themes from what used to be the communal spirit of the pre-colonial African society, and whose subject matter linger on the clash between identity and culture. This same man who, after his book wins The Booker Prize for Fiction for its outstanding form of storytelling, would give a long speech about how he is grateful to be an African and how lucky he is to tell the African story. This same man who, when invited for book readings and various lectures, would talk endlessly about culture and about African history and literature and where they both intersect. And also, when asked at one of the airports in Europe why he is standing on the first-class queue, would talk back about how particular skin color isn’t the forerunner of intelligence. And after this incident, back in his hotel room, he would write an essay about how certain white people take pride in parading their ignorance. This same man who, when watching and observing the discrimination and injustice that are being melted against his fellow brothers and sisters would be forced to take up cardboards and join in the protest going on along the streets of Philadelphia. And when swinging the cardboard up in the air and saying out loud that black lives matter; that all lives matter, would get shot at the chest and then fall flat to the ground. And a night before his death, he would request for me and hold my hands tight, and would then tell me that the universe does not belong to a particular set of people and that everybody’s story matters and that it just has to be told well. But on this day, as he sits right opposite me, a vein popping out in his neck and his eyes glistening, we speak long into the cold night about identity and individuality and where they both end in the African society.
Josiah Ikpe loves the Lord. He is a writer, one who is constantly evolving, and a book lover, born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Right from childhood, he had always nursed this crazy fantasy of being a character in books, and writing is just one way of seeing to that. Ikpe's work has been published by the Kalahari Review, Nnoko Stories, the BAIA Africa Initiative, and is forthcoming in The Lanke Review. He is presently a Law student at the University of Ibadan. You can say hello to Ikpe via his twitter handle @JosiahIkpe.