“None of the books I encountered had characters as diverse as people I knew. And African authors, it seemed, were always having to explain the smallest things to the rest of the world. To an African reader, these things will appear over-explained. Harmattan for instance. You already knew: a season, December- January, dust in the eyes, coughing, chilly mornings, by afternoon sweaty armpits. Whenever I read foreign books, they never explained the simplest things, like snow. How it crunched under your shoes, kissed your face both warm and cold. How you were driven to trample it, then loathed it after it became soiled. All these things! No one ever bothered to tell an African! This never occured to me, until an English friend once commented on how my accent changed whenever I spoke to my Nigerian friends. That was my natural accent, I told her. If I spoke to her that way, she would never understand. She looked stunned. “I don’t believe you”, she said sincerely. “That is so polite.”
After I’d come to terms with how polite I was being, I became incensed at a world that was impolite to me. Under-explained books, books that described a colonial Africa so exotic I would want to be there myself, in a safari suit, served by some silent and dignified Kikuyu, or some other silent and dignified tribesman. Or a dark, dark Africa, with snakes and vines and ooga-booga dialects. My Africa was a light one, not a dark one: there was so much sun. And Africa was an onslaught of sensations, as I once tried to explain to a group of English work mates, like eating an orange. What single sensation could you take from an orange? Stringy, mushy, tangy, bitter, sweet. The pulp, seeds, segments, skin. The sting in your eyes. The long lasting smell on your fingers.
But people concentrated on certain aspects of our continent: poverty, or wars, or starvation; bush, tribes, or wildlife. They loved our animals more than they loved us. They took an interest in us only when we were clapping and singing, or half naked like the Maasai, who were always sophisticated enough to recognise a photo opportunity. And for the better informed: “How about that Idi Amin Dada fellow, eh?” That Mobutu Sese Seko fellow. that Jean-Bedel Bakossa fellow, as though those of us who just happened to be living in the same continent could vouch for the sanity of any of these fellows.
We had no sense of continent really, or of nation in a country like mine, until we travelled abroad; no sense of the Africa presented outside. In a world of East and West, there was nowhere to place us. In a graded world, there was a place for us, right there at the bottom: third, slowly slipping into fourth world. A noble people. A savage culture. Pop concert after pop concert for starving Africans. Entire books dedicated to the salvation of African women’s genitals. If only the women themselves could read the books, critique them: this is right; this is incorrect; this is total nonsense. If only Africa could be saved by charity
Niyi said it was as simple as economic prowess. Economic prowess equalled respect and love. If we had economic clout the rest of the world would love us; love us so much they might want to mimic us. Why did I think England was beginning to resemble an American colony? Why did I think most stylish people in the world were forcing themselves to eat sushi? He made sense, I had to admit.”