words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

liberty leading the people

A little over a week ago, hundreds of women in Ekiti protested electoral fraud in the state. Some of the protesters went half-naked. The images from the protest, splashed across the front pages of newspapers and websites, inspired horror and pity.

There was great respect for the women by some, others were revolted (and suggested that the protesters had been manipulated). There was fury at the politicians who had forced them to such a dramatic pass. Consensus opinion is that both the PDP and the AC made use of thugs during the recent elections. Journalists were intimidated, citizens beaten, and officers of the state were subjected to appalling personal threats. The independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission came under question. Olusola Ayoka Adebayo, the Resident Electoral Commissioner, who is in her 70s, was put in fear of her life by political goons. Bizarrely, she was also threatened with arrest by the Federal Government if she resigned her position.

The situation was an unsalvageable mess. At a point, a group of elderly women in the state said: “Enough is enough.” Twenty or so of them, clad in white cloth at the waist, their breasts exposed, led a crowd of some three hundred (mostly female) protesters to the streets and demanded that Mrs. Adebayo be allowed to conclude her duties in peace. The protest was under the body: Ekiti Women for Peace and Development. The sight of any woman half-naked in public is significant. It draws startled attention, wherever in the world it might be taking place. Within the specific context of Nigeria, women marching with their breasts exposed has a great ethical and political resonance. This resonance is founded on the seriousness with which we consider elderly women: they are all mothers, regardless of whether they have children of their own or not, regardless of whether they are related to us personally or not.

To a large extent, political activity in Nigeria is still dominated by men. But when things become messy and frustrating, when legal avenues are exhausted, the elderly women (these mothers who are the true repository of the society’s wisdom) advance the fight. They do so with the only tools available to them: their voices and their bodies, and nothing is more powerful than the mothers’ ability to remind their adversaries of the norms of our culture. They warn the powers that be that they are supposed to nurture the people, not strip them of their rights.

Viewing the images from Ekiti (viewing them, one hopes, with great discomfort), everyone would have understood that the shame that comes from being naked in public accrues not to the mothers themselves, but to the symbolic children who have forced them to expose themselves. Indeed, it would also have been understood that to ignore the message being sent by these women would be to invite a curse on the state’s leaders. A strong part of the impetus for the protest was the disrespect shown to the person and office of Mrs. Adebayo. And without shoes, their waists wrapped in white (white evoked the spiritual aspect of the march), the Ekiti mothers stood tall on behalf of another old woman.

Few of these women, I imagine, would style themselves “feminists.” Yet this was precisely a protest that showed the power and dignity of women in particular. These are the facts, regardless of any suggestion (as some have claimed, without evidence) that these women were tricked into marching for the AC.

There are historical precedents. In November 1929, at the beginning of the struggle to free Nigeria from British rule, thousands of rural women from Owerri, Calabar and environs (after months of preparation and strategy) participated in protests against the British colonialists or the African Warrant Officers who aided them. The conflict was over a harsh taxation policy, and the Ibo and Ibibio women involved were scrupulously non-violent. The main tactic was “sitting,” which was the act of following the Warrant Officers everywhere, until their demands were heard. They also destroyed the colonialists’ property, but never laid a hand on any person. The British response, predictably, was brutal: Many women were massacred and their villages were burnt. But the women did not quit, and the eventual result was that important concessions were earned, and women were themselves appointed as warrant officers, and to positions on local courts.

This early struggle, which came to be known as the Women’s War (or, in the pejorative term of the colonialists, the “Aba Women’s Riot”), served as an exemplar for women-led protests throughout the twentieth century. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti organised one such protest in 1949 against the Native Authorities, a successful action against another harsh anti-female taxation regime.

And it is surely no coincidence that, in 2002, when women in the Niger Delta town of Escravos were at loggerheads with the corporate behemoths of ChevronTexaco and Shell, they made their presence felt with 10 days of “sitting” at the corporations’ offices. Crucially, their most potent threat was that they would take their clothes off. ChevronTexaco, whose Nigerian employees were alarmed at this threat, sent senior executives to negotiate with the women. They gave in to the women’s demands: Employment of more local people, and investment in electricity and infrastructure projects. These women had succeeded where young men with guns had failed.

In our local cultures, the breasts of a woman sometimes stand for the whole body, just as the woman stands (sometimes literally) for the whole society. Bared breasts remind viewers of where their nourishment comes from, where their childhood health was guaranteed, and what they should respect above all else. Looking at the images from Ekiti, I was put in mind of the famous painting by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People.

This is the central painting of the July Revolution of 1830, which overthrew the hated monarchy of Charles X. The central figure in this loud, crowded painting is Marianne, the woman who symbolises the Liberty. Marianne strides forward, over the bodies of the dead heroes of the revolution. In her right hand, she holds aloft the French tri-color, in her left is a musket affixed with a bayonet. But what we see, first and foremost, is her bared chest, on which a golden light falls. It is one of the rare instances in the history of painting where the fully-frontal nudity of a young woman is presented in a non-sexualised way. In fact, the purpose of the painting, which the French state bought from Delacroix in 1831, was to remind the new king that he served the people, not the other way around. It was a warning.

Some 50 years after Delacroix’s painting, France presented the United States of America with a gift: A monumental copper sculpture. The sculpture, by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was based on the pose of Marianne in Liberty Leading the People. Her bare breasts, in the sculpture, were covered up, the French flag was replaced with a flaming torch, and a tablet representing knowledge was put in her left hand instead of the musket.

On this slightly foggy New York morning, I can still make out, from the window of this room, the outline of Bartholdi’s statue, standing on a small island in the bay, rising some 300 ft into the air, a faint green presence: The Statue of Liberty.


Filed under: literature

pun the river

When I first got to America, I was struck most dramatically by two things. One was how new the cars were. The general class of those cars was nothing remarkable, but hardly any vehicle on the roads seemed older than five years, unlike on the streets of Lagos, where the shells of old chariots still go to die. The second was the talk shows on television, which seemed shameless to an unguessed at degree. The shows hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael and Phil Donahue shocked me by their crudeness, by the willingness of perfectly normal people to go on air and volunteer every piece of dirty laundry their families possessed.

These were the mild surprises of my first days in the US. Only later did I begin to understand more fundamental differences. Linguistically, Nigerian English is not that distant from its American cousin, and with some effort I could make myself understood, and I could understand, in turn, what Americans were saying. Misunderstandings of vocabulary, like the American habit of saying “silverware” when they mean “cutlery,” were easily cleared up. More difficult, and more lasting, were the basic attitudes about language use.

For a long time now, a certain American hostility to word play has puzzled me. My understanding of word play was that it was a welcome part of communication. To indulge in the slipperiness between sounds and meanings was to honour language. Brevity might be the soul of wit, but wit is the soul of communication. I had practically packed Achebe’s “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” in my luggage when I came to Yankee.

Americans view it differently (they have little use for palm-oil). Puns, in particular, are met with an audible groan. For years, I misinterpreted this groan as a sort of disguised pleasure on their part, a coy plea for more punnery. I was wrong: Americans genuinely dislike puns. They consider it the lowest form of wit. Why should this be so? After all, the British delight in them. William Shakespeare was an inveterate punster: Hamlet, when asked where (the recently murdered) Polonius is, he says, “at supper,” then clarifies, “not where he eats but where he is eaten.”And then he puns further over poor Polonius’ corpse: “Indeed this counsellor is now most still, most secret and most grave, who was in life a foolish prating knave.” He is “grave” (serious) when he once was foolish, but he is “grave,” too, for being dead and headed for the cemetery.

Nigerian speech, whether in English or in more indigenous languages, is also quick-witted, elusive, steeped in double-meaning. Wole Soyinka (who’s learnt more than a few things from the author of Hamlet) never met a clever turn of phrase he didn’t like.

He abounds in puns, alliteration, and double-entendres. In his hands, language is a fissile material, ever ready to explode into unexpected shards of meaning. “King Baabu” in the eponymous play is Hausa for “nothing” or “finished.” Quite apart from straight puns, what Soyinka does is place meaning on a slippery slope from which it careens into unanticipated chasms.

The Aafa character in his 1970 play “Madmen and Specialists” declares, in the middle of pun-addled speech that “the loyalty of homo-sapiens is regressed into himself, himself, his little tick-tock self, self-ticking, self-tickling, self-tackling problems…” Another character decides that “the end shall justify the meanness.” This is a finely-wrought madness, well-said as well as prophetic.

In his book Myth, Literature and the African World, Soyinka addresses the Marxist and other ideologues who tried to lay claims on him by quoting a Yoruba proverb, “A o le bara ni tan, ka f’ara wa n’itan ya.” In other words, the mere fact that we are related doesn’t mean that we can tear each others’ thighs apart. The phrase turns on the homonymity of “tan” (related) and “itan” (thigh). The most sophisticated puns I know are the Yoruba ones. Perhaps every speaker of the language knows the simplest examples such as “Nkan t’a wa lo si Sokoto wa l’apo sokoto”: What we seek in the city of Sokoto is actually in our trousers (the [Yoruba] word for trousers is “sokoto”). But in the hands of such orators as Samuel Ladoke Akintola (premier of the Western Region until his death in the 1966 coup), meaning migrates farther and sharper, casting a shimmering light on the mind.

Once, the story goes, Akintola met someone named Akpata (an Edo cognate of Yoruba, “Apata,” which means rock). He asked the fellow to spell his name, and he began, “A, K…” Akintola stopped him with an impatiently upraised hand: “Ki ni’ke nwa ninu apata?” (What is K doing in Apata?).

The triple-entendre here is that the Yoruba hearers would have known that only Bendelites spell Apata with a K, that “ike” (hump) sounds like the letter K, and that no solid rock worth the name should have a hump. Embedded in all this was perhaps a tribalistic dig as well, as Akintola was something of a Yoruba chauvinist. I would suggest that the labour involved in explaining a pun is inversely proportional to its brilliance. A truly great one has, within its brief compass, several layers; the power comes from grasping it all at once.

But I cannot resist another anecdote, more recent, which recounts how Alhaji Lamidu Adedibu, the late strongman of Ibadan politics, accused of thuggery, was reputed to have made the retort: “Ti ‘to’ ba tun jabo l’enu re, ‘giri’ to ku, aya re l’oma bosi.” Literally, this means “If ‘to’ should drop from your mouth again, the remaining ‘giri’ will land in your chest.” The joke is on Adedibu’s pronunciation of “thuggery” as “togiri,” and on the facts that “to” or “ito” is [Yoruba for] saliva, and “giri” evokes the sound of a shotgun. In other words, if you so much as say another word accusing me of thuggery, I will unload a cartridge of bullets into you. This goes beyond punnery: improvised on the spot, it traverses languages, employs onomatopoeia, and engages in deep irony. Word play on this level is the river of language delighting in its own rapid flow.

And yet Americans hate puns. This aversion of theirs has become one of the abiding mysteries in my linguistic life, itching like a phantom limb. Is it an American fear of cleverness, in this most “democratic” of countries? Is it a Freudian embarrassment at the inexpensive pleasure of luxuriating in words? I haven’t solved it yet. But I continue to pun deliriously, in defiance of their theatrical groans.

For me, punning is an act of self-recognition, a self-tickling and self-tackling hewed out of the substance of my Yoruba and Nigerian English heritage. The pun is simply an unvarnished name for ambiguity, and the ambiguous is the font of all true creativity. When I write or speak, I could no sooner stick to a single rigid meaning than walk on a solitary peg.

Filed under: literature