The United States of AFRICA

But contrary to the saying “Happiness is in your own backyard,” so popular and so untrue, it wasn’t—not over there, anyway. Pg.57

The United States of Africa is a deeply satiric that imagines an alternative history in which African states occupy the role of Western nations today and Western nations find themselves in the so-called ‘third world’ space, strained by its constant problems; immigration, diseases, foreign aid tinged with ulterior motives, and more.

In the world imagined between the short chapters that present themselves as news reports from different areas of the world, AIDS first appeared in Greece and ravishes the Caucasian ethnic groups: Norwegian, Belgian, Hungarian, British, Swedish, etc. A refugee fleeing ethnic violence in Zurich is treated by Gambian nurses in Banjul with the same aura of fascination, exoticism one would approach a wild animal, reminiscent of the way North African refuges arriving on Western shores are approached today.

Waberi uses actual text sources, real people and real ideologies to weave a masterful narrative. Wole Soyinka, Achebe and Wa Thiongo become globally revered heroes. And ‘birdbrained’ kids demonstrate outside of McDiops and Sarr Mbock, chanting “End African domination” and decrying the restaurants genetically modified foods which the rag pickers of Vancouver and Convicts of Melbourne are grateful to gulp down.

Despite this world being one that could have very well, in different circumstances, occurred, what emerges out of Waberi’s re-imagination is a world exactly like the one we currently occupy. Full of politics and chasms of inequality, where the rich run over the poor and create laws that protect themselves. It’s still a world dictated by skin color and origin, one where labels and stereotypes attach themselves to people with a vise-like grip determined to strip them of their humanity. And governing African bodies meet frequently to determine what to do about the world resources when they, like western nations today, have implicit roles in depleting those resources and cheating the people who directly need them out of it. Waberi seems to suggest that even if the world were different, even if African nations collectively won a series of attacks that forever altered the course of their histories, the world would possibly remain the same.

Yet amidst this furor emerges Malaika, a young girl adopted by an African doctor on a humanitarian mission to France. Now grown up as an artist, Malaika travels to the land of her birth in hopes of finding her mother—and herself. And through her journey and her art, Waberi gives us glimpses into ways of bridging the divides that trouble our worlds.

Deeply hilarious yet biting and derisive, The United States of Africa is a glimpse both into an alternate past and an alternate future. Brilliant and short yet written with an elegant simplicity that belies great depth, it’s a novel aimed for the critical thiner in all of us.

The United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi. Translated by David and Nicole Ball

Bison Books| 2009| ISBN: 9780803222625

Ahmed Yerima: An Interview with the Esteemed African Playwright

Ahmed Yerima is one of Africa’s most esteemed playwrights and has written over a dozen award-winning historical plays set in and around Nigeria. Some of his plays include; The Lottery Ticket; Yemoja; Hard Ground; Attahiru; The Trials of Oba Ovoramwem; Kaffir’s Last Game, and more. In 2006, Yerima was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian National Theatre, before that he served as director of the National Troupe. He is currently a professor in Nigeria and has served on numerous arts committees around the world.

ABR: What influenced your decision to use historical and mythical figures in your plays?

YERIMA: Historical figures are very dramatic, very interesting…because these historical figures lived a long time ago, history has set up a template for them that they can’t leave: a wicked king remains a wicked king, he killed eight wives he killed eight wives, he killed his son he killed his son. So I have a set structure to work with. Also, most of them are dead so I can add to the stories that already exist about them, I can manipulate them to some extent. The major problem is finding a way to use these characters to say something new to a different generation. So when I use historical figures, I am trying to twist, expand and extend them so that they create meaning, not just as historical figures but as images that contemporary society can relate to.

ABR: Would you cast your work as a form of social realism?

YERIMA: Well I am not conscious of categories, I’m more conscious of writing plays about human characters. My definition of drama is basically “telling stories.” I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller. In playwriting, I tell stories through dialogues and characters and in turn these dialogues and characters assist me in telling my stories. My plays can deal with rituals, they can deal with religion, they can deal with culture. They essentially explore social aspects of society and use realistic portrayals of people, so if you say that’s social, I accept it and if you say because the characters are a reflection of reality, that’s also good for me.

ABR: As a playwright, what is your approach to the blank page and your process for starting a new play?

YERIMA: Ideas motivate my foray into the blank page and I think about these ideas for a long time. For my new play The Wooden Pot, I got a phone call about an uncle of mine, saying that he had cursed his family and that’s why they are poor. So I wanted to juxtapose that belief in curses with my own reality as a lecturer in a Christian university. I was also looking at the issue of faith, where is the faith in this issue? Where is love and the role of family? Where is the logic in saying a man cursed his children. And if he did, then where is his own future? What legacy does he leave? This one phone call got me thinking about a host of issues and influenced the story that became The Wooden Pot. But I am also influenced by everything that happens to me, sometimes by past issues that occurred thirty, forty, fifty years ago and when they come back to me in strands, it’s easy to merge them into a story.

The first scene usually takes me the longest to write, once I write the first few words, I ask myself “what is the conflict of the play? What am I talking about”? In my play Hard Ground for example, a boy has just been brought from Yenogoa into Lagos and he didn’t want to be saved. So what is his conflict? Who saved him? Why? He wants to return home, he’s become a militant. I use these conversations to create the rest of the play in my head.
In the first act of Heart of Stone, I wrote about a woman looking for her son, yet I didn’t know why. I had dreamt of my daughter who died many years ago, her ghost was crying and the tears were so real; why would a ghost be crying? And her son, I couldn’t find her son. This inspired that first act and once I could understand the motivation for the idea, it became easier to tell the story.

ABR: Who are some of your influences?

YERIMA: My major influence is Professor Wole Soyinka who was my teacher. He taught me to take plays seriously. I read his plays, especially the early ones like Swamp Dwellers, Lion and The Jewel, Strong Breed; they motivated me while I was in school. His village plays would transport me from Ife where I schooled, to ilu ijinle. I also love Ola Rotimi’s plays and Wale Ogunyemi’s plays. They influenced my two best plays, Song of a Goat and Wedlock of the gods.

I used to think that storytelling had to be romantic, I believed that tampering with my consciousness to bend reality would be enough to create the play. But by the time I started reading Shakespeare and the rules of Aristotle, I began to understand how to shape characters. My teacher in England was also very good, the late John Linstrum, he was quite good, he made me write my post-graduate play called Not My Responsibility which was very funny and he made me play the role of Vasta Dada, a humongous caricature that I wrote into the play, he found it very interesting and I found semblance in his encouragement. The encouragement I got from Soyinka when I wrote Asylum in my second year in university also spurred me to keep writing plays and to read other people’s plays. I read Noel Coward, JP Presley and Harold Pinter, John Arden, and much more.

By that time I started thinking harder about what I wanted to do, and I realized I had to find my own style.

I didn’t want to write like those people, I wanted to write like Ahmed Yerima, I wanted to make my own mistakes because playwriting is a skill.

It’s like driving; my father used to say for every trip you make in a car as a driver, you are a good driver for that trip. Likewise for every play you write and write well, you are a good playwright and so I had to keep writing.

ABR: Based on your experiences as the director of the National Theatre of Nigeria, how would you characterize the theatre’s role in the society today?
Continue reading “Ahmed Yerima: An Interview with the Esteemed African Playwright”

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka in Lagos, Nigeria by Devesh Uba. Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka is a Nigerian writer, notable especially as a playwright and poet; he was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person in Africa and the diaspora to be so honoured.  Devesh Uba is from Jaipur (India) living in Lagos. He enjoys doing street photography in Lagos. View his work at snapitoga.tumblr.com or look for ‘snapitoga’ on Instagram.
Wole Soyinka in Lagos, Nigeria by Devesh Uba.
Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka is a Nigerian writer, notable especially as a playwright and poet; he was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person in Africa and the diaspora to be so honoured.
Devesh Uba is from Jaipur (India) living in Lagos. He enjoys doing street photography in Lagos. View his work at snapitoga.tumblr.com or look for ‘snapitoga’ on Instagram.