“I am The One That Writes, the artistic finegeh who also does some kind of medical stuff that no one bothers to understand…my short hair is edgy but acceptable because I write things that white people like, so I am a curiousity left unbothered. Yes, conversation slows and a few husbands are clutched a little tighter if I enter a room with the wrong smile or too much swagger, but that’s normal…”
Literature is never rendered in isolation; it always has, as its centrepiece, one or more characters around which all the major ideas are built. It could be a woman, a racial group, a social stratum or an ideology, but every literary piece comes with a set of characters and a central theme; poems about love interests and human objects of affection, novels about ethnic groups, plays bordering on societal ills. Now and then, though, towns and cities deviate from their roles as being part of the settings of literary works, and assume the form of characters, almost appearing to have a life of their own.
“My Africa, My City”, published in 2016 by the Afridiaspora Magazine, is an attempt to portray Africa in a different light from the usual Western media coverage, via creative expressions of the sights and sounds of some of the continent’s major cities. In about 150 pages, the anthology tries to capture the essence and diversity of African life in prose, in poetry, and of course, in photographs.
The beautiful Hawa Jande Golakai (author of “The Lazarus Effect” and “The Score”) gets things off to a flyer with “Zombieland”, a non-fictional piece on her love-hate relationship with Liberia’s capital city. A social media – centric and futuristic Ibadan is explored in “The Last Brown Roof”, there is a poem for tough Kenyan landlords and Nairobi transport in “Everyone Knows A Kamau”, a fresh undergraduate basks in the euphoria of touching down on a new city in “This Road From Immapancy”, Tanzanian traffic barely delays the final moments of a turbulent marriage in “Forget About A Chicken”, Kenyan nightlife and accompanying debauchery are expressed with prosaic poetry in “The Journeying Man – The Nairobi Days”, youth restiveness in post-apartheid South Africa is the theme of “Rhodes! Rhodes! Rhodes!”, and an old flame mingles with gruelling Lagos traffic in “The Lagos Everyman”.
“Ponte” is a short poem illustrating South African economy with its crowded streets, “Why I Went In Search Of A Soul” chronicles a journey to find cultural identity in Botswana, “Iworoko” explores weather dynamics and fleshly passions at a small town in Ekiti State of Nigeria, “Life In Pictures” is a humorous take on photo competitions and a subtle dig at (the usual ideas of) African photography in verse, “Earth, Fire, Air, Water” is a speculative short story on drastic climate change in South Africa, “Lagos Does Not Stop” is another prose offering that has to do with Lagos’ chaotic road network, “Katsina” is a plus-size young man’s perspective of national youth service year as experienced in Northern Nigeria, “The Fisherman’s Daughter” makes room for friendship and love in Ghanaian airspace, “Cape Coast” is Ghanaian city streets in poetry, and superstition is highlighted amidst a pregnant lady’s disillusionment with her live-in lover in “Abiku”.
“Johannesburg” is a story of grappling with newly lost love and loneliness in South Africa’s largest commercial city, fragile friendship in modern South Africa is the theme in the poem “Avuxeni”, home and a sense of belonging are what “Windhoek” is about, “The Lives Of Echoes” is an ode to Motswana winds and skies, “The Thing About This Place” is a Lagosian’s eye-opener to the expensive nature of Port Harcourt, “The Concubines Of Jos” is a poem of adoration for the streets in one of Nigeria’s north-central states, and a writer decries the misplaced priority in expending state resources in “On Freedom Falls & Contrastive Realism”. There is some photography too in this body of of work, courtesy Victor Adewale and Nana Osei Kwadwo.
Some of the works in this anthology really pack their punch. Golakai’s “Zombieland” is one of the more memorable ones, Diana Nyakyi’s “Forget About A Chicken” is a pretty good story, Abigail George swings hard with “Johannesburg”, Kibo Ngowi and Munukayumbwa (Mimi) Mwiya spin the yarns about sojourning and home quite well in “Why I Went In Search Of A Soul” & “Windhoek” respectively, and Manu Herbstein shows in “Earth, Fire, Air, Water” that he really knows how to do this speculative fiction thing. Basit Jamiu’s “Iworoko” is a decent offering, and Jumoke Verissimo is better known for her poetry but still puts up a good showing with “Abiku”. For the poetry, Aminah Jasho (“The Journeying Man: The Nairobi Days”), Joshua Omena (“The Concubines Of Jos”), and Gaamangwe Joy Chedza Mogami (“The Lives Of Echoes”) churn out the more gripping verses here.
There is readability, and then there is the quality of being memorable. A number of the pieces in “My Africa, My City” fail to give us much to care about. “The Lagos Everyman” is proof that Dami Ajayi is a whole lot better in poetry, Maya Surya Pillay’s “Rhodes! Rhodes! Rhodes” was bedevilled by distraction, Yinka Elujoba’s “This Road From Immapancy” is a poor effort at city appreciation, and Olubunmi Familoni keeps in touch with his dark side in “Lagos Does Not Stop” but his story (sadly) slips into predictability. “Katsina” is an account of service year so unremarkable that even Amatesiro Dore knows he has written better prose, Frances Ogamba’s “The Thing About This Place” had promise but left me with a feeling of “ok, Port Harcourt is expensive, ehen, and so?”, and “Life In Pictures” is funny but Bolaji Olawale’s poem had an unfinished feeling to it. Maybe it’s because I have travelled quite much, & maybe it is because I have come to expect a lot from creatives in my country, but the non-Nigerian stories and poems appeared to grace the pages with a lot more urgency and a sense of the exotic; there was something, uh, lazy about the efforts of the Nigerian contributors.
It’s funny how Adewale’s and Kwadwo’s photos fit into the jabs swung by the poem “Life In Pictures”. Smiling children with a football and cloth markets…really? Really? We’re tired of seeing shots of rooftops, crowded markets and vehicles closely following each other in tight spaces; give us the selfies in restrooms, give us the nightclub scenes, give us the slay queens and mogbo moyas at weddings! If we want to change the portrayal of the continent in CNN’s photo stories, we would have to entertain more modern ideas of what “African visuals” should entail.
Kudos to the editors of this body of art for the compilation of the stories and poems herein, but you just can’t help but feel that the perspectives could have been more expansive and diverse. There is, definitely, more to the motherland than just Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana. North Africa has no representation here, and we would have loved to read from Mogadishu, Yaounde, Dakar, Libreville, Addis Ababa or Kigali, though in their defence, it could be said that the editors had to work with what was sent to their table.
Sure enough, you can’t tell people how to whip up imagination or paint the realities around them, but a little more soul would have been nice. Is “My Africa, My City” a perfect literary expression of the continent’s urban interactions? Of course not! But the contributors and curators deserve credit for this, and there is hope for an improved compilation in the future.
Jerry Chiemeke is a lawyer, author, editor and critic. His stories have been published in The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Syn City and The Musty Corner. His features have also appeared in Pulse Nigeria, Viva Naija and True Nollywood Stories. He critiques African literature at Bellanaija on behalf of Okadabooks, and he runs a personal blog at pensofchi.com where he writes fiction and creative non-fiction. A lover of travelling and finger foods, Jerry lives in Lagos.