So the other day, my friend Okwy Okeke called me from Richmond Virginia. And he said, Oga Ikhide, Professor Tanure Ojaide is doing a book reading in my neck of the woods, oya, come, let’s go. And so, I waved goodbye to my family in Washington DC, hugged my legendary laptop computer Cecelia and my imaginary dog Siddon_look PhD and drove many miles across rivers named after beautiful women and dead white men to go see Okwy and Tanure Ojaide. Where is this all leading, you ask? I don’t know, but please be patient. Thanks to mapquest, I found Okwy, and we ended up in the house of our good friend, Dr. Joe Obi, Ojaide’s host for the evening. It was a delightful evening. Professor Tanure Ojaide was there, soft spoken, his eyes twinkling gently as he sized us up. Dr. Obi, a gentle soul with a brilliant, yet unthreatening mind tried to convince me that he was responsible for all the delectable meals that had been prepared for the occasion. After all these years, it was news to me that Dr. Obi could boil hot water! But here I was, faced with pepper soup, and to-kill-for ogbono soup with chunky pieces of “spare parts” jostling for position in an oversized pot. A young lady showed up with several mounds of pounded yam that reminded me of that famous wedding ceremony in Chinua Achebe’s great book Things Fall Apart. And with great gusto, we proceeded to introduce said pounded yam to said ogbono soup with bottles of Kongi-class wine chasing our greed down our gullets. Ah, who was the fool that said exile hurts? Me!
Yes, it was a fun evening alright. Chuck Mike, the distinguished playwright and director was there looking eerily like a younger Wole Soyinka, both in mannerism and physique. Peter Badejo the legendary choreographer showed up cradling a good bottle of wine. It was an enchanting night as we all reprised the Nigeria of our youth. Okwy and I literarily sat at the feet of these legends as we reveled in a delectable evening and I am not just talking about Dr, Joe Obi’s alleged culinary skills. It was njakiri night galore as Peter Badejo came alive through the wit and poetry of his stories. We laughed and cried as he regaled us with his own inimitable brand of njakiri. That evening sent me home with fond memories of the Nigeria that I left many moons ago. Tanure Ojaide had a duffel bag full of his books; he is certainly prolific. And thanks to my favorable impression of him from reading his poems in Farafina magazine, I eagerly bought several of the books including his latest offering, The Activist published by Farafina. Meeting him in person, and accessing his fecund mind, I was convinced that several weeks of delectable treats awaited me in his numerous books. I have only had the opportunity to read The Activist. I can honestly say it was a mistake. Yes, writing the book was a mistake. Certainly, reading the book was a mistake. And I must say with extreme frustration that the reviews I had read about the book were insincere puff pieces that do not advance the cause of Nigerian literature one iota.
When I think of Ojaide’s latest book, The Activist, two words come to mind – sheer drivel. It fairly reeks of unalloyed mediocrity. There is no sugar coating it, The Activist is an inarticulate rendering of a heart wrenching story that still needs to be told. Some books should never have been written. The Activist is high up on the list of books that should never have seen the light of day. From beginning to finish, this book is a nightmarish exercise in design and structure. It is quite simply an output beneath the status of a celebrated poet like Tanure Ojaide. My honest advice is that Ojaide should stick to writing poetry and stay away from prose.
What is this book all about? It is a tired formula: There is suffering in the land! Whine! Whine! Whine! And a black Tarzan comes back from sojourn in America to rescue the people. The main character, awkwardly named The Activist, returns to the hell delta of Nigeria from America, to begin an improbable life of righting decades of wrongs inflicted on the people of the oil rich delta, by Shell Oil Company (thinly veiled as Bell Oil Company, clever!) and the Nigerian government. It is a familiar story that could have taken the rich history of the struggle in the Nigerian delta to a new literary high. There is certainly a rich mine of sources to sing a song of despair and hope to the world. In a telling piece about how intellectuals seek to wipe their share of responsibility in the mess that is euphemistically called Nigeria, The Activist decides to partner with a local thug to engage in illegal oil bunkering and somehow persuades himself that this is for the good of the long suffering people of the Niger Delta!When our intellectuals look in the mirror they see what we don’t see and the result is a self-serving narcissistic hagiography like The Activist. The late activist Isaac Adaka Boro would turn in his grave at the thought of reading this poorly researched stream-of-consciousness brain dump posing as a book. This book is a riot of unadulterated mediocrity. Awkward sentences jostle merrily with awkward, inchoate dialogue and the result leaves this reader rolling his eyes in exasperation.
Fishing for good prose in this book was like fishing for shrimp in the barren waters of Ojaide’s troubled childhood. It was tough but I found occasional glimpses of Ojaide’s poetic gifts. His passion stirs when he talks about the waterways, the streams, the rivers and the ocean, and like a stricken mermaid the grace almost surfaces. He writes fondly of “fishing from the smaller creeks that flowed into bigger creeks that soon turned into streams” and he waxes poetic about how “the different streams, like fingers of a hand, raced into the big river that widened as it poured into the ocean.” In this book, Ojaide knows his rivers, but not much more, I am afraid. The various subjects that the book skims are poorly researched and one comes away with a sense that this was a book that simply had to be published for less than altruistic reasons.
I will be remiss if I don’t comment on the shoddy work done by Farafina publishers. This book needed a good editor. The book was rife with grammatical errors and sadly, my copy had a few blanked out pages that made the book even more incoherent (I know, I know, it was the printer’s devil!). The book’s pretty cover is a disconcerting disconnect from the disorganized thoughts within giving voice to the saying that you must not judge a book by its cover. This book was not Farafina’s finest outing.
Where the book is forgettable, its intended message is not. The hell-delta of Nigeria rages on without succor, its angry landlords refusing to be consoled, as their termite-tenants rape them and their land repeatedly and without mercy, if it is possible to have a mercy rape. Somebody needs to rise up in song and show the world what our people are capable of doing to our people. That somebody is obviously not Ojaide. The Activist fails mightily in that quest, and that my friends, is a crying shame. Those without voices crying in the delta must continue to pray for the return of strong voices to stop their dreams from drowning in the ocean.
In The Activist, Ojaide weaves a wretched tale that is at once formulaic and improbable. This one should be filed under how not to write a novel. Stilted contrived conversations provide the only moments of hilarity in an otherwise arid tome. This book is a disquieting tale that takes the reader on a bumpy ride through a tunnel vision hatched by Nigeria’s intellectual class. This book is a wretched ode to the Nigerian intellectuals’ lack of vision wrapped in suffocating reams of self absorption and narcissism. If anything, the book unwittingly makes the compelling case that the Nigerian intellectual is clueless when it comes to addressing Nigeria’s myriad problems. One comes away convinced that the Nigerian intellectual is as much a problem as Shell. Hmmmm…maybe this book is not that bad after all. Not! Not much fresh thinking here; everything is tired. My honest recommendation: Do not even think of buying this book. But Dr. Joe Obi’s alleged cooking is to die for. And Peter Badejo’s njakiri? Priceless!