Once upon a time in Oyo, there was an onigbajamo, that is, a professional barber, who worked the streets of the downtown area. You knew he was in the neighborhood the moment you heard the call-out about his diverse skills: the clean shave, beard trimming, youngster’s styles, Rico Bay, and the like. Only after having reeled out his services in this way did he turn to acknowledge the environment, by greeting the people around him.
I never lived in Isale Oyo, but have been privileged to audit public readings by the poet Adebayo Faleti, a native of Oyo, who used the style of the barber to announce his act. Once at the podium, the writer went right ahead to read a few short pieces without preambles, explanations, or justifications, without providing a context. After two or three short poems or excerpts Faleti, with a peasant’s demeanor, would then explain why he has chosen to act thus. One day, the barber was confronted with a question on the rudeness of this approach. He apologized, but explained that salutations depended on the time of the day, but the nature of his job was unchanging.
What is the matter at hand, and what has this got to do with it?
I began this column a few months ago without any attempt to court the reader by announcing its objective, expectation, or orientation. This could be puzzling because, right now, there are probably more columnists than reporters in the Nigerian print media. Everyone who has a view to offer about the country’s unrelenting crises does so freely and starts a column to pontificate. Who needs another one?
I do not live in Nigeria. For over a decade, I’ve made my life outside the country, as a professional writer and teacher in the United States, visiting Nigeria for short, month-long periods, once every two years, if I can afford it. That is not enough to get a deep sense of things. Even for those who live in the country, fully aware and even more fully involved in the country’s political life, understanding Nigeria is an on-going task, incomplete and uncompletable. Add to this the peculiar circumstances of living in expatriation. I am a Nigeria national and carry the country’s passport. Beyond this, nothing commits me to the country as a citizen. I do not pay tax to the Federal Inland Revenue Service. I am not required to vote in the elections. I was not a statistic in the last national census exercise. I am not aware that a mechanism exists which requires me to inform the Nigerian consulate near me of my existence.
The real issue about living in expatriation is that it creates, for someone who looks at things from an imaginative perspective, a sense of being twice removed. There is the fact of physical distance, of living in a place other than the one you address or make your primary preoccupation. There is also the fact of intellectual distance, that of being unable to relate to realities as they are. This is the more problematic kind of estrangement and the more difficult to describe because every kind of intellectual engagement is always already mediated. One cannot meaningfully appraise a situation that one has not, at the very least, put at some kind of objective distance. But in order to understand the nature of this kind of distance, I ask you, dear reader, to attempt a comparative analysis of the newspaper columns of Edwin Madunagu and Biodun Jeyifo, both published in Nigeria’s The Guardian (on Thursdays and Sundays). You will notice that Jeyifo’s writings are mediated in a way that Madunagu’s aren’t. It is not a simple case of different temperaments, though that counts for some. The really consequential factor is that Jeyifo, both by the fact of his long period of sojourn outside of Nigeria and of his immersion in complex intellectual traditions, necessarily produced writings that are weighted with these two forms of distance. It matters less that he spends more of his time in Nigeria nowadays.
My point here is that trying to engage with the current realities in Nigeria calls for a specific form of alienation. One has to will the distance into existence. This is ironic; the engagement is possible because of technological changes that make distance less important. Nigerians write an enormous amount of columns—online, in print, and so on—because the Internet has redefined the notion of distance. But, wait a minute: why is the overwhelming tone of the columns critical? The German writer, Theodor Adorno, has a phrase for it: “hating [Nigeria] properly.” Though physically removed from Nigeria, I know it enough to know how to hate it. Or love it. This is what this column is about.
*Adesokan, a former reporter is a writer and professor of literature at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, in the United States