The Art of Conversation: An Interview With Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe’s timbre is a delightful mix of soft-spoken insight and passionate ideals. A conversation becomes an art form as Ndibe incorporates stories, anecdotes (and advice) to exemplify a point. My interview with Ndibe about his new book, Foreign Gods, Inc., seemed like an evening spent eavesdropping on the rich art of conversation between Nigerians from a different age whose words carry history, passion and an uncanny understanding of the possibilities of the future. – Etinosa. 

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe

ABR: Where did the idea for Foreign Gods, Inc., originate?

NDIBE: Many years ago a cousin of mine told me that the statue of a deity from my town had gone missing and just reappeared after a week or two. And I was intrigued. I wondered who could have taken it…when I don’t understand something, I think of it in terms of a story as a way of making sense of it. As I thought about the missing deity I said, ‘wow it would be good to do a story about this.’ The story I originally wanted to write was that perhaps members of an evangelical Christian group had been urged by their pastor to steal and destroy the deity…but living in America and seeing wealthy Americans buy things that are African which they consider primitive and exotic and desirable in that sense (because people like to harvest their fascination with what they think is out there), I thought about adding a gallery in a place like New York City, that buys and sells statues of gods from around the world.  And that’s how the idea grew.

ABR: There is a deeply rooted religious tension between the Christian fundamentalists and traditional worshipers in the story. Is this reflective of modern Nigeria?

NDIBE: Oh yes. The tension is a long one and is still very much there. There was a military governor who was a Christian and set about burning shrines of deities. He said they were demonic centers and there was no place for them under the state he governed. More recently, there is a phenomenon amongst our people who, because they’ve become Christian, change names that their families have borne, especially last names. So you find someone with ‘Ogun’ [a traditional Yoruba God] in his name changing it to ‘Oluwa’ [the Yoruba name for the Christian God]…he doesn’t want to be beholden to Ogun…. So there is that pervasive superstitious regime that is taking a hold in Nigeria and I think a lot of Pastors exploit that kind of superstition in a country where things are already extremely difficult.

ABR: It’s also interesting how much history is being wiped away and rejected when a person with the last name ‘Ogun’ changes it to ‘Oluwa.’

NDIBE: Yes. The people of Ike’s town have a rich and enduring memory of their deity. They know its origins. They know that it was born to strengthen their war prowess and ability to defend themselves. So that memory is there. And it’s very strong. And even though we don’t have written records, the memory of past lineages is always there…There are always people within a village who can tell you the story of the village, the background to its spiritual customs and the justification for certain practices. That memory is always fascinatingly present when I return to my home town.

I used to sneak into the shrine of a deity in my town to listen to the chief priest perform invocations especially when people came to seek favors from the deity or thank him for the things (real or perceived) that he had done. And the priest used to say to the deity in eloquent Igbo, “You said that your followers should not share. That they should scramble…fight for things, we are in that fight.” I thought that the deity stipulated this fight because there was enough for everybody, but when I asked a devotee what the phrase meant, he told me that in the days of yore from time to time the deities would have a feast. And when they got to the feast, sacrifices would be made because deities eat just as humans eat. The deity from my town was so convinced of his own power that he suggested the gathered deities fight for the food instead of sharing it, because he was confident he would get the most food. So what I thought was a theological issue for his followers actually had a sort of ethical, historical background.

ABR: And it reflects on his followers that this is the god they have chosen to serve. 

NDIBE: Right. And Ike falls into that rough theology because though he could make a living from driving cabs, he wants something more. So in the end he goes from gambling to the ultimate gamble …stealing a god.

ABR: Ike’s personality seems to change between Nigeria and America. In America he feels alienated because he apparently doesn’t have the right accent but as soon as he gets to Nigeria he is more confident, correcting others’ grammar. Is that change reflective of the African immigrant’s experience in America?

NDIBE: Ike has been changed profoundly by America but hasn’t yet come to terms with the meaning of the changes that he has undergone, so he is acting in ways that are deeply ironic. On some level he thinks ‘I have done what America expects of me. I have an excellent degree; I have gone to a great school, so America has to deliver on its own promise.’ Then America introduces this new ingredient, ‘When you speak, you reveal yourself to be foreign…and even if you are foreign we don’t want you to be this foreign.’  So he’s upset that America is selling things [the American dream] to people, but suddenly remembers that he has an accent when it comes to offering him a job…but consistent with that complexity in his character, he is extremely close to his uncle yet is willing to steal the man’s deity.

ABR: The women of the novel seem to have a joint mania whether it’s religious like Ike’s mother or sexual like his girlfriend in New York. There’s also a joint passivity that women like Regina possess and I wondered about that.

NDIBE: In Regina’s case, I particularly wanted to tell that story… I am aware of a particular trend were if a woman loses her husband, especially if he has money, the man’s family will accuse her of being responsible for her husband’s death and chase her off her bequest. So I wanted to bring out that issue out.

ABR: To what extents are stories like Regina’s still present and relevant?

NDIBE: I would say to a large extent…men still have this idea of ‘the privilege of being a man.’ And when the woman says “Look you’ve got to help to clean the house, you’ve got to help change diapers,” some men who have this sense that they’ve married a wife to serve them, think ‘wow I can’t marry you and come and be your wife.’ But Regina was compelled to marry her husband on account of his wealth. And that’s the bargain she’s invested in…[a] relationship defined by that wealth… So I was cautious when writing that, I wanted to give her some power because that’s the kind of woman I’d like to see, but I also know of too many women who simply don’t have the resources within traditional society to sustain them in that kind of situation. But clearly, it’s also a way of pointing out a situation that needs to be addressed, that we need to take into account the full humanity of our women.

ON BIAFRA & NIGERIA

ABR: When you were young you experienced the war on the side of Biafra. What was that was like from a child’s perspective?

NDIBE: I’ve written a few essays on the war. I was born in Yola, the current capital of Adamawa state. I spoke better Hausa than I did Igbo at the time the war started when my father sent us to our hometown with my mother. And in the 30 months of the war with the bombardment of the sentiment that the Northerners who were killing us were evil and with the inability to speak Hausa to anybody, I lost Hausa completely. So that becomes a sort of price that one has paid.

But you can also imagine as a child the incessant rumble of fighter jets that really shook the ground in their speed, sometimes they seemed to come so close to the ground and you saw the bombs coming out of them and then you heard the incredible explosions. The bunkers in which we were sometimes thrown or the banana trees under which we sometimes had to duck… It does things… people have said to me that they are surprised I have a sense of humor and that I am emotionally stable and so on. And a lot of my friends who went through the war adjusted. I don’t know how we did that. I imagine that there were kids who paid the great price, but somehow we were able to come out of it and adjust.

On one occasion I was fetching firewood with my siblings and other friends when an enemy jet flew very close and as we all fell to the ground, looking up ahead, it seemed to be hovering over the place where we lived. We saw the bombs coming out, heard deafening detonations and we were so scared because we thought it had landed in our house, we thought our parents would be dead. When we came out, our parents were still alive and worried for us because they thought we had perished.  It turned out the bombs had fallen near the place where we went to school.

I’ve also recounted the story of standing in line with my parents to get food and a man standing a few paces in front of us just collapsed, wobbled to the ground. People surrounded him and took him out, and I sort of remember my parents blocking me with their bodies to prevent me from looking. Also the images of children with bloated heads and tiny stomachs…the effect on a child of not having enough food to eat and being afraid to ask, and of hunting lizards which we roasted and ate and so on…even then we didn’t have enough of the flesh of the lizard to eat. It’s….it…was scary.… It was as if the world could come to an end at any moment and you had no control over when it would happen.

ABR: What and how was the process of integrating into ‘Nigerian’ society after the war. 

NDIBE: It was a messy and complicated process. First, I think there was fundamentally an injustice in a people saying ‘Nigeria is an unjust space and we don’t want to belong to it’ and the rest of Nigeria saying ‘no you can’t leave.’ And then when they returned, the government says to them ‘The assets that you left in Nigerian banks when you ran, whatever it was, you’re going to get only £20′ and told people in many parts of the country that the properties they owned were considered abandoned and in some cases people were compensated but in a lot of cases, highly connected and powerful people just took over those houses.

But there were always people who acted heroically. With moral decency. I’ve told the story of the Lamido of Admawa who saved my father. He happened to be passing in his convoy by the post office where my father worked and saw a mob gathered breaking down the door because my father and the other staff had barricaded it and were hiding in the post office from the mob. And the Lamido asked the mob outside what was going on and they said ‘there are some heathens that we want to collect and kill.’ The Lamido rebuked them and sent them away, he collected my father and the other workers and kept them in his home for about three weeks until things calmed down, after which he took them to the river Benue and put them on a boat to the South-East.  And when I went to talk to him in 2008, I asked him why he did that and he said
“I did it because I am a true Muslim. And as a true Muslim it was my duty to ensure that innocent blood was not spilled under my watch.”
And there were lots of people, Yoruba and Hausa and from other ethnicities who preserved the homes abandoned by Igbo landlords, who even collected rent on their behalf and kept those rents in trust and turned the money over to the Igbo owners at the end of the war. But the Nigerian government’s official policy was that those properties were abandoned.

ABR: The Biafran war was highly covered by foreign media, but not many post-war narratives have emerged about it. Gen. Odumegwu Ojukwu especially, died without producing an official account of the war from his perspective. Why is there a reluctance to talk about it?

NDIBE:  I think there is a certain reticence that comes from being a ‘defeated people.’ The narrative of defeat, however just your idea of the war is, remains a difficult narrative to put together. I think that’s one thing. I also think that quite simply, the continuing injustices in Nigeria account for part of the paucity of narratives about the war. You get the sense that the country that compelled Biafra to remain part of Nigeria is absolutely reluctant to address the injustices that triggered the war to start with, and people don’t know where they stand… the war is still an emotional thing.

Having said that I think there are also quite a few books that have been written and more will be written but because of the nature of the publishing industry in Nigeria, those books are not easily accessible…that ought to change. We should have indigenous local publishers producing books about the Biafran war and then the extraordinary product of this endeavor would inevitably make it to the international market.

ABR: What do you want readers to take away from Foreign Gods, Inc.?

NDIBE: I don’t like to be prescriptive but I hope that any reader whether Nigerian, African, American or European will turn the last page of the book and say “this is a good story.” I think the art of storytelling is under siege. In contemporary fiction there is a certain fixation with linguistic dance and performance that is not wedded to a story. So I’d like my readers to say “Even if I would have wanted a different kind of outcome, I was engaged by the story.”

Okey Ndibe is the author of Foreign Gods, Inc. Born in Yola, Nigeria, he earned an MFA in fiction and a PhD from the University of Massachusetts. His first novel, Arrows of Rain, was published under the esteemed African Writers Series. He is a visiting professor of African and African Diaspora literatures at Brown University.