A young Nigerian lecturer in a Canadian university explains the challenges of changing the negative perception of Africa abroad, writes Ogochukwu Ikeje
Not every Nigerian who goes overseas bends over to mop floors, shine shoes or clean corpses only to stretch out a hand for the almighty dollar or pound. Some settle down to decent work for decent pay. Still, even for those in this latter batch, frustrating embarrassments, even insults, at the hands of their hosts, seem the order of the day. For four years, Pius Adesanmi, a PhD, taught African and black Diaspora literatures in a United States university. He must have made a good job of it for, just across the US border, a Canadian university beckoned him over. He went, and Carleton University, Ottawa, engaged him to help start a centre that would focus on new African writing, as opposed to works done in the 50s and 60s.
Why? Adesanmi who visited home recently, told NewAge that for the past three or four decades, the teaching of African literatures in North America has essentially been restricted to the works of such writers as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Once in a while, they thumb through works by second-generation writers like Niyi Osundare, and that’s it. In other words, there is scarcely anything called African writing outside what the Achebes and the Soyinkas have done. Perhaps, that is embarrassment number one. Adesanmi’s centre in Carleton is meant to address this convenient ignorance. He says the centre called PONAL or Project on New African Literatures organises seminars for colleagues and draws their attention to “what has been happening in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia (and elsewhere on the continent) 15 to 20 years”.
PONAL has been trying too to shift the focus to not only award-winning foreign-based young writers like Helon Habila, Chimamanda and Segun Afolabi but also home-based ones like Maxim Uzor Uzoatu.
Still, the humiliation of the black man persists. Last year, Adesanmi went to the administrators of his American university over his benefits. After listening to his complaint, one of the officers told him he had an accent, another way of telling him he was not an American. Adesanmi did not consider it a crime that he was a foreigner, and tactfully threw back the jibe. If you were in Lagos among 15 million Lagosians, you would also have an accent, he told the officer.
“OK, OK,” said the administrator, appearing to be letting sleeping dogs lie. “What is your student number?”
“I’m not a student,” Adesanmi replied. “I’m a professor (lecturer) in this school.”
“Oh,” replied the American, “you are welcome. Where are you from?”
“Oh, and you have a PhD; isn’t your country proud of you.”
To the American, you can almost count all the people of such high learning on the fingers of one hand.
Adesanmi also had another encounter same year this time one of his students was the star. As part of his work to change the negative Western perception of Africa, he designed a seminar on Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry. Some 25 students (doctoral and PhD) were in attendance. Adesanmi showed them scenes from Nigerian movies. But as soon as the first session of the seminar ended, one white student dropped the course. He even went a step further to send his lecturer an email telling him of his decision, and that he could also come to his office to tell him to his face, if necessary. The American indeed showed up, and in typical Uncle Sam parlance, said, “This ain’t Africa.” How could Adesanmi show them scenes of cars, tall buildings and modern structures? The student also proceeded to accuse his Nigerian teacher of projecting a false image of Africa. Africa is known as the jungle. Case closed.
It is frustrating, says Adesanmi, because, sadly, that student is not the only one with that sort of mindset. “You sometimes find yourself constantly explaining to these people; it is a vicious circle but you can’t give up. It’s got to be done”
Africans themselves could also be part of the problem. Unfriendly conditions at home have driven many overseas, including writers who are sponsored and published by the West.
“As long as there are these writers who find outlets abroad rather than home, so long shall we have this problem,” says Adesanmi. But for the show of it, just to balance things up a bit, the West remains interested in the African, especially the best of the best. Adesanmi calls this the filter system, and so one spectacularly bright African is scooped up by the Western system. Adesanmi’s father was recalled from England in the 50s to head one of the missionary schools being set up in Kaaba area now in Kogi State. His mother was a head-teacher. He soon fell into the hands of some Canadian missionaries in whose homes he buried himself in books. In time, he took a took a degree from the University of Ilorin, did a Master’s and went to South Africa before ending up in the US.
The task of re-branding his country and continent remains tough, but Adesanmi doesn’t look soft either. And he is only 34.