Saturday, February 28, 2015

Explaining the ‘Success’ of the White Man in Africa


By Biko Agozino

‘What do you think accounts for the white man’s success in Africa, Richard’, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Odenigbo, the ‘revolutionary’ professor in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, asked Mr. Churchill (no relations to Sir Winston). He was jealous of the white man with whom his earlier lover and later wife, Olanna, cheated on him. The twin sister, Kainene, and lover of the white man who cheated on her with her twin answered with an ironic twist on this query, ‘Perhaps you should first account for the black man’s failure to curb the white man’s mission’.

Ignoring the sexually charged retort, Odenigbo asserted that racism was the tool with which the white man made possible his conquest of Africa and he was challenged by Kainene to say if racism would also account for the conquest by African men over other Africans. Here, Adichie does what she does best in all her novels, mocking the pseudo intellectual masculinists in African universities who have invented nothing and have published nothing original enough to merit the recognition accorded to intellectuals.

While black men were busy committing genocide against millions of their own black brothers and sisters with machetes and clubs but mainly with weapons supplied by Europeans and with starvation as a weapon of war, all our ‘revolutionary’ intellectual could muster was a blame game with the only white man who stuck the war out in apparent identification with the victimized, who ran out with Kainene to save a deserting soldier who was being lynched by women, and later stayed to mourn the loss of his Kainene beyond the end of the war after she had gone in search of food for the idle men but did not return. By contrast, the so-called revolutionary intellectual, Odenigbo, engaged in no single revolutionary act or thought throughout the movie (except the offer to sponsor his house help through school which led to the young man becoming a writer after the war) - he never stopped to offer a lift in his beaten down car to any of the refugees trekking on foot despite having room to spare and he never volunteered for the army but chose to 'work' in the distribution of relief from international donors where he was sure to secure bottles of brandy for himself. That was probably why his landlord kicked him out, not because of rents because no one charged rents to refugees during that war.

From beginning to end, Dr. Odenigbo indulged in excessive consumption of alcohol with other professors on campus and under fire during the war but with no evidence that any of them was working on any research project nor even attempting to read a book. In fact, Odenigbo had no book shelf or even a single book displayed in his house and when Olanna tried to move in with her books and book shelf he complained that she was taking up his space! The only person doing any writing was the white man, Richard Churchill, who was writing a novel, ‘A Basket of Hands’. When Olanna introduced herself as a sociologist, the natural science colleague told her that hers was a voodoo science and asked why she did not major in real science as if he himself had anything to show for his ‘real’ science.

Therein lies the answer to the question of Odenigbo – the technological and scientific weakness of African intellectuals is what made the conquest of Africa by a few Europeans feasible and not the moral superiority that he claimed as an excuse by the victimized, Adichie seems to suggest. In this sense, the film and the novel failed to account for the awesome technological innovations by the scientists empowered by Biafra to fabricate weapons and refine oil for the war. Even if the focus is on literary scholar growth with Richard as worthy of emulation, Adichie owes it to her readers to include in her characterization of African intellectuals, such literary gems as nna anyi (our father) Achebe in whose former official residence she was brought up at the University of Nigeria Nsukka and who served as a peace diplomat during the war, the mythical Okigbo who died fighting to end the genocidal war, the indomitable Soyinka who languished in solitary confinement through out for opposing the war, the Amazon, Flora Nwapa, who was an activist in self-defense during the war, or even the prophetic Azikiwe, whose poem, 'Land of the Rising Sun', was adapted as the national anthem of Biafra, to mention but only Nigerian productive writers.

In the film, the women came across as decisive and strong characters who improvised classes to teach the children during the war, provided food for the men and the children, and comforted the men as if they were big babies. The men, except the inventive and resourceful adult male house 'boys', appeared feeble and lacking in any serious pursuits other than sleeping with any female under the excuse that the strong Mama figure, Onyeka Onwuenu, got her son drunk to get him to sleep with the maid and give her a grandchild. Even the father of the twins had no shame in attempting to pimp them to a corrupt politician just to secure a contract but the young ladies who were educated abroad resisted the sexual harassment.

The so-called revolutionary Odenigbo never plucked up the courage to ask his mother what indigenous knowledge system she had used to ‘make him’ rape and impregnate the maid after one attempt whereas he had been trying for a baby with Olanna but only succeeded in shooting blanks. Mama thought that Olanna must have been an evil witch out to steal her son but later found her to be devoted and begged her to marry him. Adichie is always trying to demystify superstitious beliefs.

‘Baby’ was soon abandoned by the maid and by the grandmother for being a baby girl, forcing Olanna to insist that she and Odenigbo should keep and raise her as their own instead of sending her to an orphanage as he had intended. Odenigbo’s revolutionary credentials were questioned when he cowardly left his mother to die at the hands of the approaching enemy troops only for him to attempt the suicidal stunt to go and bury her corpse behind enemy lines.

Biyi Bandele, the director, must have paid a lot for the archival footage of the war news but the children all looked far too well fed and the women and men too well-dressed to come close to the nightmarish experience of kwashiorkor kids and adults in rags perhaps because the focus of both the film and the novel was on the perspective of the elites who obviously did not suffer as much deprivation as the average Igbo family during the war.  On the other hand, the more garish footage may have been censored by the Nigerian censors board that initially refused to license the release without cuts.

The special effects brought back the scare of the air raids from which we ran as children during the war and the pogrom scenes on the streets of Kano and in the airport remind us of the continuing slaughter of fellow Nigerians by terrorists and by uniformed officers. The provocative newsreels from the BBC in the film raised questions about the ethical responsibility of journalists who stoke up ethnic hatred and thereby facilitate genocide in Africa. But the overall responsibility lies with Africans who have themselves to blame for abandoning our vital philosophy of non-violence under the seductions of militarism, the film seems to moralize.

Thanks to the Black Graduate Students Association, the Black Students Association and the African Students Association at Virginia Tech for organizing an Africana Studies Film Festival during Black History Month and for screening this film along with Tsotsie on February 28, free of charge in the Lyric  film theatre in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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