A clue from Ilya Kaminsky’s Five Dials essay on Mandelstam, and on the lyric voice:
“Mandelstam’s life is full of dualities, arguments, contradictions. A Jew born in Poland, he was Russian poetry’s central figure in the twentieth century. A Modernist, he openly defended strict classical forms. He wrote in rich, formal verse structures. Then sometimes he didn’t. He rarely titled his poems. Sometimes he did. He kept more than one version of the same lyric, and sometimes inserted the same stanza into different poems. He composed aloud and recited to his wife, who wrote the poems down. Mandelstam was Russia’s ‘most civilized poet’, ‘a child of Europe’, yet he found his ‘fullest breath’ not in worldly European capitals but in exile in the provincial town of Voronezh.”
The question I have chosen to pose, as I prepare to leave Libreville, is simple: what is the value of duality? It is simple, and it isn’t. The question that had actually played in my head for a long time, after hours at Gare-Routiere, hours spent mostly with two Nigerian traders, was ‘what does it mean to be Nigerian?’ The standpoint, therefore, is questioning Nigerianness when faced with testimonies of people who express the need to be somewhere other than Nigeria, yet remain Nigerian. To put in proper context, this ‘somewhere other than Nigeria’ is not a Western city – and this reminder is important, because one of the stories grossly under-told is that of an African diaspora within an African country.
Onyebuchi Ukachu and his brother Morris are Nigerians from Imo State who have been in Libreville for more than a decade. They spoke with Emeka, Ray and me, mostly lamenting the difficulties of living in Gabon, the complexities. Our interaction began at an Igbo restaurant where we had gone to eat, after Morris walked up to us and asked if we had the time to see his shop. The suddenness of his request, as though our presence at his shop would mean more than a mere presence, would later be justified by the details he and his brother shared about being Nigerian in Gabon.
Is Mia Couto right? “My border situation, between cultures, does not come from being the child of Europeans…The ambivalence of African[s] … should be seen as positive, an efficient mixing of blood, a means of finding their own solutions. It is an enriching departure point in the creation of an identity which can only be conceived as dynamic and changing. To be both inside and outside is a privilege in a world in which frontiers are disappearing. To be at the same time indigenous and alien puts them in the position of a privileged visitor, the seamstress of different cultural cloths.”
But Onyebuchi and Morris may think otherwise. They claim they’re persecuted for being Nigerian. This persecution is as a result of many factors: One, Nigerians, at a certain time in Libreville, about three years ago, were notorious for fraudulence and armed robbery. Two, Nigerians have overpopulated Gabon, numbering, in Morris’ estimation, more than two times the Gabonese population (the recent figure is about 1,500,000, about a third of that number the population of Libreville). And third, the Nigerian government, unlike their Chinese and Moroccan counterparts, haven’t made infrastructural investment in Gabon, thereby causing Nigerians to be accused of taking from the economy and giving nothing in return. There is no way, therefore, for Morris and Onyebuchi to be properly assimilated into Gabon when constantly feeling endangered, estranged.
Other complexities accompany being Nigerian in Libreville. Returning home for holiday is nothing less than a luxury. An air ticket is hard to get, as only one airline is now operational, AirSky. Flights to Lagos, which had cost around 225,000 francs now cost 285,000 francs, almost 100,000 Naira. Although Lagos is not a city of choice, given the fact that most returnees from Libreville are South-easterners, the difficulty lies in the lack of flights; travellers have to book for a flight two months earlier. As with almost everything, Morris and Onyebuchi blame the travelling difficulty on institutional failures, this time on the fact that Virgin Nigeria has stopped operations and Air Nigeria hasn’t stepped up to the challenge.
To travel by sea, a journey of about three days, in some cases, takes up to seven days. Morris and Onyebuchi tell the story of their neighbour/friend who lost a son because a ship captain was corrupt and steered the ship to Sao Tome before stopping at Calabar. The captain did that to ensure that the food vendors on board sold off their stuff before the ship docked. Going ‘home’, then, was as difficult as staying away from home. We see the middle kingdom in which they occupy, being in a place and yet being away from it, wanting to be somewhere else and not being there. In one breath they express a strong displeasure for the Nigerian government, and in other they wish to be nothing else but Nigerian, knowing they can be nothing else.
Too many words, and I feel I haven’t captured what I felt listening to those men speak with passion in their voices about being Nigerian out of Nigeria. A different approach, then, might work. If perhaps I attempt to define ‘African’ and thereby define ‘Nigerian.’ Of course, as this definition would show, it is no definition at all:
Achmat Dangor – “…there is something noble about being an African, despite all the inherent contradictions. It is an intuitive sense of being and belonging, intangible almost. A ‘feeling’ more than a knowledge, and hence capable of transcending all the painful contradictions, and given the right conditions, of healing the deep ethnic, linguistic and religious schisms that Africa as a people.” Replace ‘African’ with ‘Nigerian’ and there’s an attempt at understanding, not merely the duality of being in one place and originating from another, but the duality that comes from being the intersection between what is and what could be.
Morris and Onyebuchi are a product of what it means to be Nigerian in Gabon at this point in time and what it could mean to be Nigerian in Gabon in another, say, two decades. We had met Ugochukwu, a Nigerian married to a Nigerian who’d studied in Belgium; their daughter is about ten. The ten year old stands at an intersection, in the middle kingdom of what her parents were in Nigeria, what they are now, and what she could become as a product of those two elements. So, it’s that state of flux that defines the little girl’s Nigerianness – and it’s equally that state of flux that defines for Onyebuchi and his brother the extent of being Nigerian. And it wouldn’t be different for ‘Onwa WW’ a rich Igbo merchant who, as reported by Morris, detests returning to Nigeria for fear of being kidnapped, seeing as he owns tens of properties in Libreville, seeing he has become a millionaire.
That essay on Mandelstam speaks in a trans-figurative sense because it locates the lyric poet outside and inside of his time. It puts a hyphen on his life, defines him for instance as a modernist and then as a postmodernist. And the interesting fact, as Kaminsky reports about the poet, is that he is always struggling to capture the unspeakable in the language of his day, and because of that attempt, he is said to have ‘intuited’ language, living on the threshold of inarticulacy. Yet, “from the inarticulate comes the new harmony.”
Which is what I must emphasize – that from the inarticulacy in addressing the question of being Nigerian in Gabon a new harmony is rising. I am aware of the need to bring this knowledge of existent dualities to the attention of many; so that in trying to understand what it means to be African, more and more people can locate themselves within the possibility of living in a country other than theirs, places apart from their origin, appreciating the freshness of the duality that would subsequently occur. I hope I am not being idealistic.
The difficulty I have had, writing from Libreville, is that every paragraph I write is something different from what I meant to write. I wanted to write about the tapestry of survival and I couldn’t, typified in the women Novo has been working with. I wanted to write about a new addition to the group after Mario and Christian’s departure, Ignatio Gloyer Evita from Equitorial Guinea, who speaks little English in addition to French and Spanish, and showed us a beautiful documentary he shot, ‘Felicidad.’ I wanted to write about all these, and yet I feel a heavy hand is upon me, as though a mantle, the unshakeable feeling of speculating about Nigerianness.
But I am still here. But I wouldn’t be in a number of hours; we leave on Saturday.