BY WANA UDOBANG A friend once came to visit me and said, “You are one of those black people”. Unconsciously I retreated into an internal monologue, “sorry to disappoint you but true”. You see I am one of those black people. The ones that buy Fela and Oumou Sangare records, which hang Dadaist collages of black empowerment and mental emancipation on their walls, the ones that join the band wagon of save the children campaigners hoping I could contribute something to our ever so rapidly decaying world. The ones that tattoo self affirming messages on their wrists; Yes I am one of those black people. Those black people that grow afros in a bid to prove that they will not be a part of the machine, until I realised that even an overdose of painkillers couldn’t numb the excruciating pain that came with trying to tame the natural goods that the most high had bestowed upon me. Who said Madam CJ Walker didn’t know when she invented the perm kit.
When I became a journalist, I thought it would be like it said in the books. I thought I would epitomise the fourth estate, become the mouthpiece between the feudal powers and the proletarian masses. My mother had dreams of her last child becoming the next Amanpour. She still talks about Christianne like she had lunch with her just the day before. I was already on my way to becoming an award winning documentary filmmaker, just after I would have obtained a distinction in my futuristic masters degree in documentary film from the London Film and Television School or even Goldsmith University(Home to some of the most avant-garde Brits in the world). It would sit very nicely just next to my first class degree from a premier European arts institution. It will be sweet in the mouth, just the way Nigerians say it. I would re-incarnate Micheal Winterbottom’s eye and merge it with a certain kind of Nick Bloomfield curiosity. I would become a national conscious treasure and my people would be proud.
I was still mastering the art of documentary radio, making moving pieces of sound art and features that would move any suicide bomber to tears. I made pieces of campaign journalism. I was told that I was way beyond my years; I knew how to hit the core of the human psyche. My ambition was to re-ignite the public interest debate. I religiously studied the “Unreported World”. I would have given anything to become a concoction of Sourious Samura and Hunter .S. Thompson. I would go Gonzo in pursuit of the truth. Then something happened.
I got a commission to make a feature for BBC Radio Four. It was for a daily programme called Woman’s hour. Dare I say, “The home of intelligent speech and drama”. Woman’s Hour was what it was, an hour long daily programme about women. I had pitched an idea to them about the indecent dressing bill in Nigeria which certain people in power had been trying to pass as a piece of legislation. I did also mention that the proposed bill was spearheaded by a woman in charge of women and youth affairs for the federal republic. Of course this was the sort of thing that Woman’s hour would love to sink their teeth into. Then I came to Nigeria on assignment. (As a freelancer, such travel expenses were unpaid for). It was about the cause and maybe the CV too.
A few interviews and atmospheric sounds later, there was still one missing piece. The interview from the senator Grande Dame, Madame Ufot Ekaete. Thankfully the different strands of the BBC were at peace with each other and had an open policy which allowed the borrowing and exchange of sound bites from one anther. I was able to obtain a recorded interview previously conducted by Alex Jakarta for the World Service programme “ Africa have your say”. There it was, my feature was complete. I would get to Woman’s Hour a report on the bill that was about to become a gross violation of women’s rights even before they could get it for themselves. I was excited. I would make the first extended report on the indecent dressing bill and spark an international debate. Finally i was doing the kind of work I wanted. I was about to start living my dream, just before my hopeful next assignment on investigating child abuse by UN peace keepers in Ivory Coast .
I was already gleaming from ear to ear. The phone was ringing and I was about to be told what day and time my feature would be aired. Then I answered the call, “Hi Wana, its Alex from BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour”… I know you have worked so hard at this report but im afraid at Woman’s Hour, we like to give our audience a sense of place and actuality, we think that the atmospheric sound doesn’t fit very well with the piece, so we decided we wont be able to use it”. There I was on the other side of the telephone feeling a rush of heat through my bowel. With an equal dose of despair and desperation I said “you don’t have to pay me, I don’t mind if you use it anyways”. Then she retorted “im afraid we won’t be able to use it but please make sure you always keep in touch with us because we love your ideas, enthusiasm and energy”. Then I dropped the phone and retreated back into one of my internal monologues. Though more fired up this time around. You mean to tell me that in one of Africa’s most populous nations, some maniac is about to make it illegal for young girls to wear sleeveless and knee length dresses, it is about to become a punishable offence(imprisonment actually) to wear spaghetti straps, women could be raped in jail, and you are more concerned with atmospheric sound that doesn’t fit in, the way you want it to. The only words I could hear echo in my thoughts was that of my friend Rotimi and it went thus “What is point”. I eventually got a couple of other commissions , mostly for the world service. Somewhere along the line, I successfully became jaded. I packed all two suitcases of my life’s belongings and hopped on a plane to Nigeria . I eventually got a gig prostituting myself as a radio personality on the airwaves. I couldn’t even read the newspapers because every article was paid for. Either in envelopes of cash, recharge cards or branded Tee shirts and note pads. I realised the papers were controlled by publicists and corporate communications people. The airwaves by advertisers and sponsors. Some news journalists just copy and paste from other news websites, waiting for supplementary information from the state spin doctors. These days I try to exercise the little conscious fibre I have left by writing bitter social commentary. Thanks to blogville, comment is free. I also have a radio show where I try to give as much airtime as possible to underground recording artists. It’s become my form of campaign music journalism. I tell myself it’s a public service. Though I must admit, they start to bore me the more popular they become.
I still cling on to my Fela records and my Dadaist collages. I swapped the afro for a perm. I even tinted it blonde and added some hair extensions. My mother still hopes I can be like Amanpour someday. Somehow I hope so to. Im allowed to dream aren’t I.
wana udobang So Nicholas Cage is broke. So is one time 50 cent and Paris Hilton producer Scott Storch and believe me the list does go on. Although not so deep inside, i say “you had it coming, you deserve every bit of poverty that is about to be unleashed on you”. As i get more and more entrenched in the Nigerian entertainment business, i uncover new and not so new wonders every day. I recently chastised a friend for taking a fifteen thousand naira corporate cab whilst his pocket were a tad bit try. I wondered why he couldn’t just give some guy two thousand naira to buy petrol and five grand for some change. Not to seem overly condescending but Wole Soyinka went to Mo Abudu’s show on a bike just to bypass the traffic, and really it doesn’t get any bigger than that. I then went into a tirade about other celebrities who were already paying over twenty five grand per day in car hire services, meanwhile they had just managed to elevate from the apartments they were squatting a while before, of course with other numerous squatters and floaters too. Not to bore you with arithmetic but twenty five grand a day in five days equals one hundred and twenty five grand. In a month its half a million naira and in two months its a brand new kia. And that can tie you till your next consignment of cash, then the logical process of upgrading takes place. He said i was mean and a bit harsh. Actually he said i was being very judgemental. He went further saying i was acting like i didn’t know how difficult it is for people to take you seriously in the business. He gave me a scenario and it went thus. Imagine you had an important meeting to go to, where you had to negotiate with brand managers and you are constantly being sized up or down depending on your automobile of choice. The thought in itself was a bit too warped for me to grasp because to me it was simple. If they offered you a fee that was unacceptable, you just say NO. I was always of the school of thought either your talent or hustle experience should speak for itself without having to buy a Murano with your last show money and then living in it afterwards. The thing is that this phenomenon penetrates and disperses into other sectors of Nigerian society. From banking to oil and gas, earning a hundred thousand naira a month and buying designer suits alongside Peruvian hair on credit is perfectly normal. Even hawkers make it perfectly ok for you to have a credit facility. I had been told a fair few times to get a loan and buy a car. That way when i attend negotiation deals, i can be taken a bit more seriously. I deliberately omit the part that my meetings never materialised because the powers that be are more concerned with an all night rendezvous as opposed to my means of locomotion. My friend keeps telling me you have to fake it till you make it and i want to tell him you have all faked it for so long and none of you seem to have made it yet. The interesting thing is, whether you got of a bike or a plane, no one might take any notice. He later tells me i won’t understand. Then i respond with the epistle that is my life story. I explain that i have been rich before, then dirt poor, and i understand what it feels like to need to fit in or to need to be taken seriously by the elitist confraternity that is Nigerians. Still its no reason to bankrupt yourself even before earning a wage. As my face book status reflects my every random thought, i engraved my rhetoric as my status update and received an interesting reply. The reply said “you think therefore you are and if you tell yourself long enough then you will become it, so living a false life might not be so false after all.”He added that is was called faith. And then i thought to myself when you start misinterpreting biblical concepts to aid your stupidity, then i see why we are the way we are. Nonetheless maybe i need to get acquainted with this new way of thinking. I’m off to purchase my Rover and fix myself up with an apartment in park view. I reckon this will propel the genesis to my life of financial surplus. Like a ten thousand pound student loan I’m still paying for isn’t bad enough. Thanks but no thanks. Though India Arie says “i am not my hair”, i say “i am not my car”. For now all so called embarrassing means of public transportation will do just fine.
WANA UDOBANG The last six decades saw the mass migration of our Nigerian folk to the Americas and British Isles. Fast forward to 2009, then came the new great depression, right behind it followed the default in mortgage payments, default in council tax, default in television license, and every kind of payment defaulted. Then it happened. All "Oreo cookies" and “Uncle Toms” ran back like repatriated slaves to rediscover their roots. In our case we hid under the umbrella of national service in a bid to find some kind of solace in the land we once rejected.
On Independence Day, I was invited to the beach with a returnee friend of mine. Of course all his other acquaintances were repatriates as well. I got chatting to one of them. We went over the whole cordial greetings and then, that all important question sufficed from somewhere. “so what do you do”. She told me she had just finished her very expensive MBA in the states and was weighing her options since she got back. She added that it wasn’t that she was not getting job interviews, but she didn’t really have much interest in the areas of finance they were offering. Then I had to ask “How much exactly are you looking for because that could be a bit of a problem”. She said she wasn’t going to collect anything less than half a million naira a month. I wanted to say to her that “Look my dear jand and yankee is pure water so I suggest you better settle for the hundred thousand or maybe hundred and fifty thousand, cos an MBA don’t make you so special”. These days the average twenty three year old already has a PHD. I remember when you had to have a minimum of three years working experience before you could be accepted for an MBA, but now it’s different. Foreign universities are heavily dependent on international fees to stay afloat, so every child who graduated from high school in 2005 can boast of two first degrees, a masters and a doctorate. The thing was that she wasn’t the only one living the returnee illusion. I remember being coaxed up before I got here, “babes you, shouldn’t collect anything less than five million naira a year with car and driver…meen you have a British degree”.
Some of us fail to understand that the dawn of globalization came with it the demon of exploitation and slave labor. In Nigeria paying peanuts for mediocrity takes precedence any day. If brands like Nike and Primark can use Asian child laborers for less than a dollar a day, who are you, to think that you get automatic rights to be a star in this show.
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