THE AMAZON EIGHT (A (Partial) Review of The Sky is our Earth)

Title: The Sky is our Earth (An Anthology of 50 Young Nigerian Poets)
Editors: Abasi Torty Tortivie, Senator Ihenyen & Emmanuel Dairo
Genre: Poetry
Format: Paperback
Extent: 185 pages
ISBN: 978-978-52838-6-0
Publisher: WriteHouse Collective

“… I hear a tongue shriller than all the music…” Julius Ceaser.

The INTRODUCTION is merely stating the obvious when it says that “the current landscape of Nigerian poetry is such that there are more male than female voices.” It doesn’t clarify though whether this is because the female is not drawn to this genre of literature as to the other genres, or whether it is because the male enjoys more access to platforms that grants them both voice and audience. Whichever way, what matters is that the female voice (16% of 50 contributors) in this anthology got the ticket based on merit and not because there were leftover pages to be filled up by all means.
Not knowing about most of these female poets until now makes me feel quite ignorant. It begins to dawn on me how enriched my mind and soul would have been if I had been sipping their brew all this while. And for that I am compelled to pray that a day would come when there would be as much female poets as their male counterpart.
Iquo Dianaabasi Eke opens the floor with CHOSEN. The poem is a clarion call to all predestined messiahs. I like the profuseness of powerful verbs in this poem, verbs like: approach; arise; walk; uproot; increase; refill; break; unfetter. Clearly, this poem is calling for the end of inertia. It is a call to duty.
“Again
You are called upon
To re-write the elegy that entangles
To rewrite the elegy that entangles” pp 11
Doesn’t the repetition produce a musical effect? And doesn’t the “Again” suggest there may have been several calls before now which went unheeded?
“You are the chosen one to break forth…
The one in whose vein flows the blood
Of valiant warriors and resilient amazons

Approach your destiny with fearless intent
For your cause is unchangeable
Though it be pickled in the womb of becoming…”

What does this remind me of? Macbeth! In Act 4, Scene 1, the Second Apparition says to Macbeth:

“Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.”

But CHOSEN is not urging us to become another Macbeth. Rather, we are called upon to uphold honour and to accept the past even if it is unpleasant as we chart a new part for the future.
The seventh stanza reassures us that even though the road is not a smooth one, many others have walked “these stony paths” before. In other words, others have done it before you. In other words, the task is doable.
Recall the ordeal Frodo goes through in Lord of the Rings. Recall Joan of Arc. Recall the biblical Samson. Wouldn’t you conclude that every true hero ought to know that on the way to the crown lay the agonal goblet? And the mere contemplation of this price can be so horrifying that not a few would pray to drop from the race and be spared this cup even if that means being jeered at and being labeled ‘faint-hearted.’ Perhaps that’s why, in a way to reassure you, the poet keeps repeating that:
“you are the one in whose vein flows
The blood of valiant warriors and resilient amazons.”

Ucheoma Onwutuebe’ A FIRE PAST PUTTING OUT trims the yellow tongue of fire ignited by the previous poem to a cool blue flame. It is about an incursion by a foreign body into one’s personal space. It is about domination by a stronger force. And this encroachment is not a one-off incidence. The persona has learnt to not only look forward to the next round but to also relish every bit of it.
“…when I first saw you across the busy street,
jutting out like a rock in sea… unruffled by the chaos
around you.”
Perhaps it is this order in the midst of chaos, this imposing figure (not necessarily of stature than of personality) that captivates the persona in the first place. But then, who wouldn’t be captivated by such a thing?
“…you walk towards me…exciting a flurry
of activities. Papers swirl in the wind…beasts
leave their lairs to watch, eagles fly from their aeries to peep.”

Some circumstances blur boundary between reality and the surreal. It is just like the bullet in Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the Brain which “first appearance … in the cerebellum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions.”
There is no talk of being taken advantage of, since even though “years have crawled past”, the persona still “burns for” the charmer.
And then:
“… Let your warmth spread a covering over
me. Let me love you without skimping…”
Which is what sex is actually: a total bodily surrender to a more powerful force.
The beauty of this poem is that like a freely soaring kite it is unhampered by the urge to don certain conventional literary devices yet it remains complex in a simplistic way. You can call it a prose poem or whatever else you prefer, as longer as it doesn’t diminish its sexiness (which I believe is a beautiful thing).

Lydia Abiodun’s AN ODE TO MY BLACK HERO is more than just a love song. On one plain it reads like an article of surrender, yet on another plain it is no less a tool for seductive hypnosis. It doesn’t require magnifying glass to notice that the persona utters “I want to” ten times. The persona issues commands in a pleading voice so that at the end nobody’s ego is bruised. The man doesn’t feel ordered about yet the woman gets everything she wants from him. The man thinks he is the conqueror but he is the conquered.
“I want to feel comforted
in the safety and strength
of your strong arms around me.
I want to lay my head
on the shallow slopes
of your ebony breasts…
let me sit on the muscled
cushion of your lap
and enjoy the steady strength of your legs”
Those that are quick to tag women ‘fragile’ and ‘weaker vessel’ will also be quick to conclude from this poem that a woman craves a pillar to lean on rather than be the pillar to be leaned on. But it is those that underestimate the strength of a woman that gets to feel the impact the most. The great Samson who killed a lion with his bare hands and slayed hundreds of soldiers with a mere jawbone of a donkey eventually becomes a corn grinder. What could be more helpless? Without his knowing it, this “black hero”, this “virile African hunter”, is being tamed into a pet.

MY COLOURED IMPACT by Nkemjika Christien Akudo Okeke is an action painting; a childlike experimentation with colours which ends up leaving a picturesque mosaic. In this poem, broad enough a palette to accommodate all colours, Nkemjika defies the ‘normal’ order of colours. Here, YELLOW + BLUE is not necessarily = GREEN.

“My black develops a white
that brushes purple in blue shades
producing a green
that forms red
in lilac’s pink
that orange has turned
to shades
of gold’s brown in
yellow life.”

Even though it is the colour BLACK that sets off the chain reaction, no particular colour (or a group of colours) is given preeminence over the others. The ease and flexibility with which the individual colours appear on the canvas leaves you guessing (most times, inaccurately) which one will follow next. And this unpredictability also adds colour to the poem.

“The assurance of ebony
has sent indigo on an expedition
to experience
the glamour of violet
while sitting comfortably
in chats with peach…”

Moyosola Tugbobo’s GONE WITH THE WIND changes the beat to a somber note. This poem also touches on an aspect of dominance, a negative form of it which tilts to the point of parasitism and scavenging.

“With greed on their smoke-coloured lips
They a-starving desperately, suck
The sour milk of those dying clans
Till in hunger’s cave they limp and crawl…
Men, with claws in bins, stay a-searching
For life, for hope, and the women’s claims…”

Juxtapose this with William Butler Yeats’ SECOND COMING:
“… Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…”

I wonder what Tugbobo is trying to achieve with this work. Is she trying to disillusion her readers? To reinforce pessimism? To what end, then? Or maybe she is merely stating the obvious, as Bob Marley would say: “Think you’re in heaven/ But you’re living in hell/ Oh, time will tell. But then, what should be the duty/function of the artist (the poet, in this case)? Is it to diplomatically avert panic in a chaotic world, or to acquaint worldlings with the true state of affairs not minding the consequences of such revelations? The persona in this poem tends to opt for the latter.
It is curious that while “Churches pant, graveyard sings/ Of fear, of death, and hellish floods” the persona can afford to remain indifferent to the point of observing “the wailing earth” “with arms akimbo”. However, in the last stanza the poet admits to “watch with pain”

“the greeneries turn brown
And, from a distance, the cloud turns black!”
The cynic would still question this “pain” felt “from a distance”.
Another thing worthy of note is that there is no mention of tomorrow in this poem. At least Yeats leaves us a bleak future but Tugbobo has left us no future at all.

Chinonyelum Ibe’s STARRY NIGHT is a short poem (12 lines) about attraction, enchantment, communion, intercourse and fusion of body and soul. Just like haiku, it drops short phrases which say volumes.
“Twinkling like stars,
Winking like diamonds,
Her eyes bewitch my throbbing heart.”
This poem is like plain diamond which takes on different colours depending on the colour of light you point at it. For example these two oxymoronic lines
“Velvet and Steel
Soft and firm”
could be interpreted to mean many things among which are phallus and breast at their stages of excitation.
Bodies become amorphous as two become “clasped in this dance of intricate rhythm”.

Chizu Ogbonna’s THIS WORM is a beautiful three-stanza poem about the worm, the canary and the bard which I suspect are all referring to one and the same entity.
Is the poem trying to validate the saying that while all writers are readers, not all readers are writers? In the first stanza, we see the persona as a (book)worm labourously journeying through leaves, (whether of books or of deciduous trees carpeting the forest floor) devour stacks of books, even “savouring the taste of words.” But switching to play the role of the bard, the persona develops cold feet. What (performance) poet has not feared that their words might not be accepted as “lines and stanzas” of a poem? It takes courage:
“Doubts, yet speaks.
Fears, yet stands.
Till muses turn to lines and stanzas.”

Toluwanimi Adeniyi completes the team of eight with her poem titled CONFIDENCE which until the last stanza, is rife with the notion of absurdism, surrender and the futility of action:

“Standing up against my fears like a magnificent hill
Seems nothing like the answer. What more to do?…”

Breaking the walls of fear with its chains shredded,
Opens a fresh wound of fear that overwhelms the victory

Every feat accomplished only opens up a new frontier. Read the second stanza of A. G. Herbertson’s THERE’S NO SANCTUARY FOR BRAVE MEN:
“There’s no satiation of brave deeds,
one draws another as wit ever heeds
the hour’s necessity and springs to it”

“Why strive to make a change!” the persona in CONFIDENCE despairs if “It only takes me back to the origin”?
In the last stanza the persona has learnt that it is fear that incapacitates the magic which makes things work. The persona learns that the secret to success is to be “Hopeful! Fear not! Be courageous!”
By now it should be clear enough that the Amazons 8 have made their voices heard loud and clear even when you fear that they would be swallowed in the roars of forty-two other rushing waters.
Few of the very many things these eight female poets’ works have in common are superhumanness, love, bravery, surrender and fusion. It only goes on to prove the power and ingenuity of the Muse which holds and guides multiple hands into penning lines and stanzas that end up saying almost the same thing.
The Sky is our Earth is an inexhaustible goldmine. Every piece is a still of the poet’s world, a world so rich that it leaves the reader caked with gold dust. The compilers and editors of this anthology- Abasi Torty Tortivie, Senator Ihenyen and Emmanuel Dairo have done remarkably well in bringing together these fifty (both established and emerging) voices in one food basket. That is how classic mix tapes are made which we don’t get tired of playing decades after the first time.

NOSTALGIA, HOMESICKNESS AND HOPE (A Review of Su’eddie Vershima Agema’s HOME EQUALS HOLES)

Title: Home Equals Holes
Author: Su’eddie Vershima Agema
Genre: Poetry
Format: Paperback
Extent: 72 pages
ISBN: 978-978-53122-0-1
Publisher: Sevhage Publishers

Time and distance do lots of things to us, lots of bad things. For one, they blur the memory. They are like termites, though small and fragile, yet capable of eating through the hardest of woods. Time and distance do to memory what fat does to blood vessels. If memory is blood, then time and distance are fat deposits and hospital is home. The longer it takes one to visit the hospital, the more fat deposits will coat the walls of one’s blood vessels and narrow the channel until the vessel is blocked and communication is lost completely.

Memories are like provisions. As you continue drawing from it without returning home occasionally to restock, the sack shrinks until all you have left is crumbs. And then one fine morning, you dip your hand into the sack only to find that even the crumbs are no more.

Some of the poems in Home Equals Holes impress this sad reality on the reader, and leaves the latter drenched in nostalgia and homesickness.

WE LONGED FOR WARMTH strikes the first punch and then leaves us with a vital question: where is home? What makes a place home? Is home a thing of the mind, or is it necessarily some geographical location? Sometimes exiles are deluded into thinking that they have packed home along with other valuables into a briefcase as they set out to travel out. They are confident that home will remain intact. But to their dismay, they find that it rusts and decays sooner and faster than their other belongings. Eventually, all that is left of ‘home’ is an empty shell, a form without substance. They soon find that trying to think of home is like trying to navigate a minefield. At best they can spark up a brief fire which in turn leaves them with a heap of ashes:

“the fires are burnt

the ashes fill the tent

of ours souls…

the ghost of a furnace burns in the hearth

but there are ashes sprinkled in our hearts…” pp8

Plodding down memory lane can be a torment yet, yet being inherently masochistic (to a degree), there are times we cannot help but go that way. It doesn’t make much difference whether in the process we water the lane with tears or thicken the air with sighs or try to brighten the path with a sad smile. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when asked to about her fictitious sister, Viola replies:

“…she never told her love-

but let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,

feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought:

and, with a green and yellow melancholy,

she sat like Patience on a monument,

smiling at grief…”

Su’eddie Vershima Agema also knows how to brew despair and misery so deliciously you would pay for a sip of it. The poem I REMEMBER introduces us to a gracious woman who endures and continues to support her unfaithful husband until he dies by the drug defier (AIDS or some other terminal disease). The poet persona goes on to grudgingly recall how the woman begins to bow to pressure and depreciate in physique:

“…flooded dreams stretch to soul’s edge

I try to turn away but memory

pushes me into the rough tides

where pain growls to the tune of added thunder…

The fats of an essence

fizzle to bones

sockets stare where eyes once dazzled

smiles twist to crooked lines

and rugged lines spiral to rib your new physique…”

and then

“…all through a candle has burnt out

dead flames hidden in melted wax

it’s gone like you the spirit of the light…” pp15

ECHOES OF STONE touches at the transient nature of moments and times. Now, things are here, and then they are no more. What matters is what we do with them in the interim. Do we cherish and embrace them, or leave them out in the rain and sun?

“…gone then are the visions of mellow moments

times touched, fondness felt…

…we wake to wonder at a forgotten star…

that has left us all alone.” pp 20

IT WASN’T YOU, IT WAS ME is politeness and face-saving taken too far. It is one of such letters meant to absolve you of guilt but which ends up making you hate yourself the more. It is like saying it wasn’t one’s fault that one pulled the trigger but the gun’s fault for being in one’s hand just then.

“It wasn’t you

it was me.

It wasn’t that you were late

it’s just that you made convenience expire…

Did you know that I had to bite my fingered thoughts

as I ticked those moments waiting…

nearly falling off cliffs in dumb worship of your awe?

I hung on the glee of the magic

that you always carry with you…” pp56.

It makes you wonder, since (s)he loves him/her this much, why not wait for a few minutes more before walking away? Maybe we should blame it on the deplatable nature of grace and the uncertainty of the future. How are you sure they will show up in the end even if you wait? How can you be sure that they have not found new love elsewhere?

But Su’eddie Vershima Agema’s HOME EQUALS HOLES is not all gloom and gnashing of teeth. There is also hope for blue skies and sunshine. There is no certainty, though. There is only hope. Besides, what makes one to even bother to wake up from sleep if not the hope that the new day would be better than the previous one? The last poem in the collection, AT THE LAST MOMENT, is full of expectations of better days:

“…the storms shall cease

The floods finally fade

Our rainbow would spread…

… the ghost would have found fires

And the spirit would’ve warmed our homes

No holes then dear, we would have a long lasting laugh. amen.” Pp72

Su’eddie Vershima Agema approaches poetry with the confidence and dexterity of a master craftsman who seems to have so mastered the ropes that he can walk its entire length even without a balancing pole. Therefore, I don’t hesitate to conclude that the few uncomfortable bumps I suffered through the ride are avoidable on the part of the poet. There are only few other things that turn a reader off as having to turn to footnotes unnecessarily. Most of the local words used in this book add very little or nothing to the individual poems or even to the whole collection. If you are writing in English, it becomes baseless to resort to Tiv or Igbo for nouns that have common English terms. The use of Swange and Girinya, which we are told are Tiv traditional dances, are okay since there possibly aren’t English equivalents for them. But why say ‘Mfe’ when you can just say ‘Wisdom’? Or is Mfe a particular type of wisdom different from the ‘wisdom’ we all know? What type of wisdom is Mfe? Or take this other word, Aôndo, which is used as God. If Aôndo is a Tiv God or a particular God among the Tiv Gods, then the usage of the word would be understandable. But the footnote insists otherwise. Which is why, I am sure, some readers will easily get confused as to which God the poet is referring. Is Aôndo the same as the God that comes to some Christians’ mind or the one that comes to some Muslims’ mind or the one that comes to some Buddhists’ mind?

From most of Su’eddie Vershima Agema’s pictures that I have seen, he loves to use mufflers that mark him out as a Tiv. I understand that creators can come under (serious or illusionary) pressure to do all they can to popularize some parts of their constituencies which they feel are less recognized. But it behoves us to do that so craftily without holding boldly inscribed placards that scream “NOTICE ME! NOTICE ME!”

A SORTIE INTO OKPOSI, EBONYI STATE

Okposi is an agrarian society approximately 206km from Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State of Nigeria. Nothing extraordinary from a regular small Nigerian town, apart from that it hosts of one of the very first three Federal Government Colleges in this country and also produced the First Minister of Education in the First Republic in the person of Onyiba Aja Nwachukwu (late) whose massive house lies along the way to the centre of town (Court Area). The southern part of Okposi looks like a large farmstead devoid of basic utilities (there seems to be fewer than five manual boreholes and a dozen wells), yet skeptics would agree that it would not be long before this trend is reversed. Already, a few modern buildings are challenging the dominance of mud houses while a good proportion of the youths are turning from subsistence farming to the university with the hope of transforming the land into Small London eventually. But one thing the average Okposi household seems to have in excess is hospitality.

Okposi might not be one among the two largest towns in Ebonyi State, but it gave the State the alias ‘The Salt of the Nation’. The town is most famed for her salt pool, which I couldn’t visit due to the contradicting information I got about the site. While some of the locals insisted that men and premenopausal women were forbidden from venturing anywhere close to this wonder pool, another account had it that anybody could visit the site but only postmenopausal women could draw from the pool with a special clay pot. Legend has it that a certain hunter, Enechi Okuma (some say two hunters) got very thirsty during one of his expeditions in the wild. Eventually, he stumbled upon a murky puddle which he thirsted and found very salty. Somehow, he chanced upon a diviner who insisted that the spirits of the puddle required a big offering in order to come fully alive. And this hunter, ever so gracious and curious, sacrificed his virgin daughter after which the puddle grew into a large pool. Even today, it is taboo to fish from this pool. One can only fetch the brine, which one boils until the water evapourates and leaves behind a pot full of salt.

I had the privilege of sighting the purely green snake, the totem of the land, sliding gently and gracefully into the bush. In the past, this green snake was revered and offered gifts but now that almost everyone profess Christianity and treat it with apathy, the poor creature has learned to fend for itself and to keep an arm’s length from humans. I was assured that even today nobody killed the snake since there was no account of it ever harming anyone whether indigene or stranger. Legend has it that when the patriarchs were migrating to the present location, it was this green snake that led them. They would stop where it stopped and continue when it moved on, the same way that the pillar of cloud and fire led the Israelites during their migration from Egypt.

Another remarkable landmark at the northern border of Okposi is the defunct Leper Colony in Uburu, Ebonyi State, founded by the Presbyterian Church and at some point funded by the Dutch government. I took the liberty of strolling down to the ruins of what is left of it and ran into one Pastor Kingsley at the top of a hillock which I had climbed for good view.

“All of this area used to be an evil forest before the missionaries came,” Pastor Kingsley told me, waving his hand over the undulating landscape dotted by colonial-style cottages with chimneys that have not pouted smoke in decades.

Back in the days the white staff of the institution lived in a quarters close by and would come out during the cool of the evening to play football with the locals at the open field beside the borehole built by UNICEF (God did that with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, remember?). The lepers and lungers were fed, clothed and sheltered while their children were given scholarships. It was strange that Pastor Kingsley had no signs of leprosy or tuberculosis because the way he talked about the ‘glorious’ past of the Leper Colony, you would think that he used to be a beneficiary. You would think that back then, it was enviable to be leprous.

But not long after the institution was handed over to the local personnel, the whole thing began to crumble. They began to bicker for offices and to misappropriate the monies meant for the institution. Workers began to get owed while the lepers and lungers were left to deteriorate and starve. Now even the dilapidating quarters are overgrown with weed. Now you needn’t be told that nobody longs to be leprous or tubercular anymore.

THE THEORY OF LEARNED HELPLESSNESS IN HELON HABILA’S MEASURING TIME

Measuring Time revolves around the small town of Keti and the house of Lamang the womanizing father of the twins Mamo and LaMamo. Having lost their mother at birth, the twins find another mother in their father’s sister, Auntie Marina who has suffered a failed marriage and has returned to keep house and look after the infant twins. Fully convinced that he will die young owing to his sickliness, Mamo is determined to achieve fame and immortality (a project he drags LaMamo into) even though he is not sure how exactly to attain this goal. This crave for an extraordinary life drives the twins into conspiring and killing the old witch’s dog and applying its rheum to their own eyes with the belief that they will be able to see spirits. But instead, Mamo gets a bloated face and eye infection while LaMamo falls from a tree days later and fractures his left wrist. What is meant to be an adventure turns out into a long torture that lasts for days with the twins having mutual nightmares. Fantastic, isn’t it?

To the joy of the whole town, the empty shell of uncle Haruna miraculously returns home seven years after the civil war. But it is not long after the celebration of his ‘resurrection from the dead’ that he begins to act strangely. At first the doctor thinks “his mind had withdrawn into itself and would eventually recover with time.” And then not long after, the doctor thinks he is “losing his mind.” Eaten up by PTSD, Uncle Haruna fails the resilience test and finally hangs himself. Mamo and LaMamo’s “Eureka” moment comes at the burial ground as family members and friends drown Uncle Haruna’s corpse in eulogy. “We could be famous as soldiers”, the twins tell themselves.

In a number of ways Auntie Marina reminds you of Constanzia (Connie) the only daughter of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Connie suffers a failed marriage and returns to her brother Michael who has succeeded their father as the new Godfather. At the end, she not only begins to consent to assassinations but also takes up the task of executing Don Altobello. Quite early in Measuring Time, pain and suffering have baked Auntie Marina’s heart such that when she finds Uncle Haruna’s corpse hanging from the flame tree, she just cuts it down and moves it indoors. At Lamang’s death Auntie Marina doesn’t cry either. Even Mamo must have been shocked as “…he watched his auntie step forward and raise the sheets in a single motion and cover the body with it… and she went out to the verandah, her face calm and collected…” And when she finally breaks out in a wail, it is only to notify the community of what has happened.

Lamang is a schemer from his youth. He gets to marry the beautiful but sickly Tabita whose father not only waives the bride price but also showers him with gifts. Soon his father-in-law dies having willed his entire wealth to Lamang who goes on to become “the biggest cattle merchant in this state”. We are told that he is ambitious and always avoids whatever step will pit him against the community. When electric power reaches Keti, Lamang sets up a free TV viewing centre in front of his house where he also feeds the villagers that come around. We read that it is him “who first saw how electric power could be converted into political power” to the extent that his politician friends on visit from the State Capital out of envy gasps “Ah, see how the people flock to you.” One thing you can’t deny Lamang is foresight. He seems to have no doubt on where he wants to go and how to get there. He seems to have mastered the laws of “demand and supply”.

It is highly remarkable how Helon Habila fills up obvious vacuums not by what his characters witness or experience but by what they imagine. At age 22, Mamo masters the art of daydreaming which buoys him whenever boredom and melancholia threatens to drown him. From his room Mamo can imagine the gestures and thoughts and reactions of the people in the political meetings at the sitting room. During another expeditions Mamo takes us to the warfront back in 1967 where his uncle Haruna meets with Captain Okibgo of the Biafran Army, how the two soldiers escape the war to Cameroon from where they proceed to Dar es Salam and then to other parts of Africa before Haruna realizes ten years later that they have arrived at Keti. “I am home.” He says to Okigbo as they both part ways.

Presently, Mamo raises his tactics of daydreaming to the point of denial, most probably to absolve himself of all responsibility and guilt. He begins to convince himself that LaMamo has always been the one who calls the shots while he just follows. But facts prove it is actually the other way round. It is Mamo’s idea that they pursue fame and immortality. It is Mamo that brings up the idea of killing the blind witch’s dog while LaMamo asks “How?” When Mamo says they extract the rheum from the dead dog, LaMamo asks “How?” It is Mamo’s idea that they join the army. It is Mamo who insists that LaMamo and Asabar most go on without him when sickness holds him down.

At the border town in Katsina where LaMamo and Asabar hope to meet one of the scouts for the Chadian rebel army, he latter’s courage melts down leaving him with no option than to crawl back home. Although he goes about the town claiming to have fought alongside his cousin LaMamo in the Chadian rebel army, Asabar reurns to heavy drinking to numb the giant coward that boos at him inside his head. When his uncle Lamang will enter politics and make him Youth Leader, Asabar will take to dressing up in army camouflage and boots, feeling powerful and important.

In the Freudian fashion the twins develop intense hatred for their father to the point of wishing him death while loving and venerating their (surrogate) mother (Auntie Marina). In LaMamo’s letters to Mamo, there is never a mention of their father; there is no interest in his welfare whether he is dead or alive. But eventually Mamo realizes that he has become “too old… to hide in the fantastic architecture of her stories and songs…” He will find a new anchor in Zara his childhood friend, who will return to Keti as an adult and become his lover. She is strong-willed and resolute just like Mamo’s indomitable uncle Iliya who is a two-time war veteran and an amputee; who midwifes the community school which he heads until the government takes it over and runs it aground; who continues sending protest letters to the Ministry of Education years after the community school is closed down, even though its signboard now “lay face-down on the ground, its wood eaten away by termites…” Zara challenges her former husband in court over the custody of their only son but fails, and then she moves from one career to another and from one place to another in search of that inner peace and fulfillment. But it is only a matter of time before this spirit is broken. At the end Zara is bedridden and losing her mind.

The problem with most people is not that they don’t have principles but that they cannot afford the luxury of living principled lives. They may try to swim against the waves but without support from family and friends they either learn to play along or sink. The man in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born readily comes to mind. His mother-in-law calls him the Chichidodo, a bird which hates excrement with all its soul and only feeds on maggots which grow best inside the lavatory. The man surmounts all the hurdles displeasing loved ones in the process only to offer bribe at the end of the road- the very thing he has fought against all along. Mamo has an epiphany the first time he attends the Council Meeting of the traditional rulers in his capacity as the Secretary. At some point it dawns on him that “were he to be honest to his heart, he’d right now put down the pen and walk out and never again return.” But his desire for fame and immortality cautions him. “People don’t interpret the truth literally… One looks only at the big picture.” On Election Day when he runs into his father’s political thugs who insinuate that his father is privy to their possession of election materials and thumb-printing of ballot papers, Mamo chooses country over family; he sends a letter through a lad to inform the police of the electoral offenses. That is, even after Asabar tells him that the opposition party is most likely doing the same thing at their own camp. But Mamo lacks the courage to act beyond that. He hates his father and his style of politics but continues to live in his house and enjoy the benefits that come with being his father’s son. He hates his father’s friends (the three widows) but continues eating the food they help cook occasionally. And then ironically, he too resorts to back channel connections for personal gain. He pulls strings from the palace where he now works as the Secretary to get his father out of detention.

It is a broken Lamang that returns home. A number of forces bombard and humble him until he learns to give up fighting. He will suffer stroke and eventually die. And as for Asabar who likes to jump about and make things happen, what can be more helpless than being confined to the wheelchair where he knocks himself out with alcohol even before noon?

Having fought through several North and West African countries during which he loses one eye, LaMamo returns home in the same fashion his Uncle Haruna had done. This time around, he is the one that gives the directives which Mamo follows unquestioningly. “Start the fire”, he orders Mamo as he heads to the chicken coop to grab a bird. LaMamo survives several deaths abroad and returns home to lead a revolt against oppression and injustice only to be shot by the police the following day. It seems that the same destination awaits both hero and villain in Helon Habila’s kingdom. In Measuring Time, as well as in Waiting for an Angel, there is no reward for being brave or saintly. There is hardly any incentive to make one want to play by the book; to make one want to shun vices and pursue virtue.

It has already been observed elsewhere that Helon Habila seems to be at his best when it comes to works shorter than Measuring Time which sometimes begins to read like a soap opera with short chapter-episodes which often close sensationally leaving the audience grudgingly staying tuned for the next scene. One cannot help but suspect that Measuring Time was deliberately and unnecessarily stretched out to hit 300+ pages. No wonder one or two scenes taste too watery. Just days after Professor Batanda of Makerere University writes to convince Mamo to do biographies instead of the biographical history he is thinking of, the Waziri offers him a job as a palace secretary and also contracts him to write the traditional ruler’s biography. The word fight between the Waziri and Mamo after the latter has unraveled the former’s grand plot to hijack the throne is not more impressive than a match between two paralyzed wrestlers.

It was the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov that first observed learned helplessness in a living organism. Learned helplessness is a condition created by exposure to inescapable aversive events. This retards or prevents learning in subsequent in subsequent situations in which escape or avoidance is possible. It would seem that Helon Habila’s message in Measuring Time is that fighting the system like Lamang and LaMamo and Iliya and Zara only leads to bitterness and death. Only those that master this theory of learned helplessness get to live to see the next day.

At the battle field during the Roman civil war news reaches Brutus that his wife has committed suicide back home. He must have smiled as he says:

“With meditating that she must die once,

I have the patience to endure it now”

BEARDS: THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOT.

As far as growing beards goes, I was a late bloomer. At eighteen growing beards was still a recurrent feature in my list of prayer points. While some among my peers already had forested chins, all I could boast of was scanty shrub. But eventually, (praise the Lord!), I became fully bearded. By ‘bearded’ I don’t necessarily mean that I groom beards. I just mean that it is clearly evident that I am capable of keeping beards if I so wish to.
Beards have been, and in many cases continue to be, significant in virtually every field of human endeavor. As such, many of the greatest shapers of human life were/are bearded. Can you picture a beardless Karl Marx or Charles Darwin or Sigmund Freud? Can you even imagine a beardless Jesus Christ?
Don’t even begin to imagine what some men (adolescents and teenagers, mostly) do for beards. As an adolescent, I cannot deny to have done things too. When we got wind of a certain hair product called Hair Fertilizer which the seller swore could cause hair to sprout even on the head of a tortoise and vulture, we saved money and bought it. When Henry (A.K.A Hairy) whose mother sold ogogoro hinted us that he owed his hairiness to his habit of mixing the local gin with his body lotion, we raise the money and handed it to him to supply us some of the drink. We would wait for him at an uncompleted building down the road where he would show up with a shot of the gin which some of us would rub on our cheeks, chins and upper lips and on such other areas we wanted the hairs to grow. Needless to say, some of us took the liberty to also apply some of the local gin to the tongue. That was before someone (I can’t recall who, exactly) sold us the idea that methylated spirit had the power to pull out hair from skin pores the way midwives pull out babies from the womb.
Only a man can understand the humiliation that sometimes comes with being beardless or ‘un-beardable’, just as only a woman can understand the agony of still having a flat chest at age eighteen. The haves find that they have alternatives to choose from: they can either keep their beards or shave them off. The haves don’t miss any opportunity to flaunt it. They give their barbers elaborate instructions on how they like their beards to be carved. They claim it makes a lot of difference to have the barber devote another ten or so minutes to taking care of the facial hair after cutting the one on the head. The haves can hardly stay their hands from shooting up to stroke their beards even during religious practices, most times to the chagrin of the have-not.
Studies will readily prove that beardless men have a higher propensity of the most irritable. At the slightest provocation you hear them blurt, “Look at this boy of yesterday! Just because you have grown beards you now think we are mates, eh? Do you think I am a small boy?”
The beardless small-statured man, who is easily mistaken for a ‘small boy’, is the most miserable among men. He is derided by the bearded twenty-one year old. He is pushed about and even knocked on the head from behind and then apologized to after his old face shows he is an adult ‘man’. To minimize these mistakes, the beardless small-statured man adopts certain techniques. For instance he must dress in a way that distinguishes him from the teenager and then, he must almost always appear in public with his woman who is usually bosomy. Mind you, it is an indubitable fact that little men have a thing for large women, but that is a topic for another day.
Sometimes it can be hard not to think of bearded men as over-bearing. But you must understand that their attitude is beyond them. You must understand that this is psychology and biology at work.
And then, there is serious need to respect the beardless man (whether he is your man or a total stranger). Once again, I don’t mean the man that shaves his beard. I refer, of course, to the man that for whatever reason doesn’t have the capability to grow beards even if he wishes to. You need to make him know that you understand his agony. Always use ‘sir’ or ‘senior’ when addressing them. The smaller their stature, the more respect you must accord them.