Saturday, December 27, 2014

Encounter with Historical Materialism

Discovering Historical Materialism

As I mentioned earlier,  we did only two departmental courses in our first year. The rest were electives and outside, compulsory courses such as foreign languages, and general studies such as  use of English and general studies,  introductions to the social and natural sciences. French was my choice of foreign language. I also opted for electives in the English department that entailed taking courses in spoken English (I had aspirations of becoming a radio DJ or television broadcaster at this time ) and literary appreciation.

However,  it was the social science segment of the general studies courses that proved eye opening for me. It included papers by sociology, anthropology  and political science lecturers that  covered topics such as historical materialism, the family and the forming of classes, socialization and behavior and so on. Prior  to my introduction to historical materialism, all I knew of how the world came to be was based  on the Bible and its creation story. It was just the story of how the Snake deceived  Eve and how she got Adam involved and the rest was history.

As I became more critical, I  began to have problems with the creation story primarily because  it excluded  my kind,  the African, the black man. I only  saw white-looking people as the main cast and characters who now came to save us. The Catholic catechism didn't help matters with its own teachings in prayers such as The Prayer for the Conversion of Africa, whose thesis was essentially that the African was wandering in the wilderness of ignorance, where he would've been lost forever, until the white man chanced on him.

Though the prayer was withdrawn by the 1980s, that idea of white supremacy pushed by European slavers and colonialists, packaged with the Christian salvation message and backed by a superior coercive technology, made quite an impression and its message still deeply ingrained in many Africans. It only served to reinforce  a sense of worthlessness,  of being outsiders in the history of human evolution and civilization - a state of savagery mercifully cut short when the civilizing mission landed on our shores.

Historical materialism was now giving me a different narrative that relied on what was known about the path of transition humans had trodden over time. Therefore, it moves from the earliest known forms of human society,  the hunter - gatherers,  and progresses to the emergence of agriculture and settled societies, through the evolution  of feudalism to the emergence of the modern  capitalist  society. I was also thrilled by the idea that that evolution is driven by dialectics  - the conflict between the old and the new and how it leads to the emergence  of synthesis,  which in time become the thesis  that is confronted by a new anti-thesis over time, to generate  a new synthesis and  so on.

This was further complemented  by the lessons on social stratification and  the emergence of social classes and  social  discrimination, the formation of capital and the crucial role played by the dominant mode of production in a given society in shaping culture and it's expressions. Socialization explained to me the process by which people were assigned their place in society  and  made to accept them happily in most cases.

These  lessons were primarily taught by Professor Ikenna Nzimiro,  Dr Inyang  Etteng and Dr Ada  Mela at different times. They were all sociology lecturers who excited us with new concepts and new vistas on the world. I found Nzimiro the most exciting of them because of the bold and cheeky way he tore down ideas we thought were cast in stone and ridiculed political figures we had come to deify.  That was how I now began to attend his Sociology 101 (introduction to sociology) even though I wasn't offering it officially.  It was very popular, with the Arts Theater venue full on the days  he taught.  I  attended as much as I could and enjoyed them thoroughly.

One day while teaching something  about the family he dwelt on love. Then he made a distinction between love and romantic love, which  he said we young adults were prone to toward the opposite sex. He went ahead to describe some of its symptoms, including  a certain indistinct, feverish feeling of  not knowing quite what was wrong with one, accompanied by fluttering hearts and loss of appetite. It seemed everyone who had once been a teenager was familiar with those symptoms, and he had the class in uproar with laughter.

A self-described Marxist, Nzimiro would on occasions tear at Nnamdi Azikiwe, one of the prime movers of the nationalist movement in Nigeria and across Africa, who went on to become Nigeria’s first indigenous head of state at independence. He denounced the Nigerian elite as a collaborationist class, "a comprador bourgeois clsss" that betrayed the greater destiny of their people for the chance to dine with colonial oppressors and be like them. He held Azikiwe,  who was also known as Zik of Africa,  substantially responsible for this state of affairs. Nzimiro had been a member of the Zikist Movement, a radical and revolutionary group formed around Azikiwe in the 1940s and 50s, denied by their mentor when he thought they were taking things too far.

"That is why he has  declined from Zik of Africa to Owelle of Onitsha," Nzimiro declared to gasps in the hall. "Do you know  the original role of the Owelle in Onitsha monarchy?  He was the person that looked after the king's wives and should normally be an eunuch."

We now burst into real laughter.

Azikiwe himself, who was the university's founder, lived in retirement at the time at his Onuiyi Haven, Nsukka,  sharing a common wall with Zik ' s Flats, our hostel, which was part of his estate. He lived quietly in his large grounds covered by trees through which the imposing three-storied building where he lived was visible. We only saw occasional glimpses of the great man apart from one occasion when he came over to the hostel to remonstrate with us for noise-making.  Otherwise his presence merely loomed, casting it's shadow over the neighbourhood and the wider university town.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

As the University Passed Through Me

My first encounter with our head of department, then Dr S.A. - he became a professor much later - was in the introduction to mass communication class. A man of just about average height, he walked into the classroom on the first day dressed in a black suit, revealing an underlying white shirt over which he knotted a sky-blue tie. He walked to the lectern, placed his right elbow on it and watched the class waiting for the racket to die down. His prominent, dark forehead reflected light, his lower lip drooped, revealing disordered incisors. He had no notes on him.
     When he was sure he had our attention he said, "Good morning class!"
     "Good morning Sir!" We roared at him.
     "Well, class, my name is Dr S.A. Some of you probably know me already. I also happen to be your head of department and I'm taking you in the introduction to mass communication class, a six credit course. It's a favourite course of mine because it's an opportunity to welcome you to the university, especially those of you from village schools who never imagined they would make it to this place..."
     This caused some laughter and several students were pointing at one another as suiting the description.
     "I want to tell them that I was once like them, and that we're here to make you better, more civilized and hopefully wiser.''
     The laughter continued.
''What I always tell my students is this: Do not pass through the university without letting the university pass through you. Looking at you now, I can see a class almost evenly split between men and women. In my days there were very few women, like one or two in a whole class. And for people like me there was no chance, I was neither rich nor handsome.''
     This bit got bellies rolling with laughter. And he just stood there with a barely visible grin, twitching his right leg intermittently to some rhythm, really looking ugly while he waited for us to recover.
     "So what I'll say to the men is that you don't know how lucky you're. Some of you don't believe it yet. But I'll advise you do take the ladies out, take them out to drinks. Take them to the C.E.C. Don't be afraid. There's no formula for winning a woman. Some you win by being wise, some by being foolish. So take your chances.''
     It was useful advice that stayed with me for a long time in my life.
     ''Now, for the course I'm going to teach you, if you give me back what I gave to you, you'll get a C. That's the bare pass. To get anything more than that, you have to give me more than I gave to you, you'll have to surprise me. Then you're likely to get an A. So what I'll give you are study guidelines; I want you to go into the library, bookshops, find relevant books, read them and come and surprise me.''
     Dr S.A. went on generally in that vein, making him an instant favourite of mine, whose lectures weren't to be missed for the fun they promised. His style remained the same chitty-chatty approach, where he would enter the class without any notes and would engage us in arguments and discussions on given topics in mass communication and then some up with lesson outcomes at the end.
     "For those who want something to write down," he would say. Then he would dictate some key points for the class to write down, always from the top of his head, without notes.
     In our first year we only did two departmental courses, introduction to mass communication and another one called elements of journalistic style. Dr S.A. took us in both courses, and was the only departmental teacher we had that year. In introduction he made a general description about the various aspects of the field, from newspapers, through radio/tv/film as well as advertising and public relations.
     Then he talked about the various theories of the press, from the authoritarian to the libertarian to the Soviet-socialist models. An often cited authority was Marshall McLuhan and his oft-quoted phrase, "the medium is the message." Dr S.A. also talked about American theorists such ss Wilbur Schramn and their modernizstion theory, which suited the idea of the civilizing mission in Africa, to which he and most of his contemporaries appeared to subscribe to. We were expected to improve as we imbibed the norms of the civilizing agent or stagnate, regress to the extent we failed to copy.
     People like Dr S.A. were the been-tos who had been annointed by the masters to help educate us.
     "Those who practise journalism for newspapers, tv, radio - tend to be very famous. But those who practise advertising and public relations are the richest," he once told us. We laughed at the time, and how true it turned out to be?
     Then he would talk about the famous American investigative reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. Often he would talk of the great anchors of American television such as Walter Cronkite, Oriana Fallachi and Barbara Waters! They were all head-swooning names that left us repeating them in awe and wonder.
     That was generally the vein of the class.  And it was a large class that included English, Fine Art and other social science and humanities majors who took it as an elective. Dr S.A. had a habit of paying more attention to the pretty girls in the class, especially Chinne, a Philosophy major; Chinwe, an English major; and Barong, Awele and Angela in our class.
     With Chinne he often woukd discuss newspaper or tv stations in Michigan (Dr S.A. had attended Michigan State University and Chinne was born in Detroit). With Chinwe he discussed the Irish Times. newspaper. And if the rest of the class showed any discomfiture to these often prolonged. exchanges, Dr S.A. accused them of being envious of people who were more exposed and had traveled to civilized places.
     As he said this someone hissed in displeasure.
     "Who was that that hissed?" he queried in anger.
     No one owned up.
     "If I catch you hissing in my class you'll get a CD."
     "Don't mind the ewu (goat)," a young man named Obaze said.
     Dr S.A. turned sharply towards him. "If you ever say 'ewu' in my class again, you'll get a CD. Do you understand that?"
     "Yes Sir!"
     Thus were the ground rules of conduct established by Dr S.A.
     If his introduction to mass comm classes were informal, even more so were those of elements of journalistic style. We were the first set to take the course, which was Dr S.A.'s pet idea, and the curriculum was still evolving. So he impovised. The basic text he recommended for the course was Elements of Style by W.H. Strunk and E.B. White, popularly known as Strunk and White, a small book that was to be my companion for many years.
     Essentially, he focused on those very simple mistakes that make crucial differences and the importance of clarity. These included the spellings of names, places, the contextual meanings of words, the importance of attribution and so on.
     "For instance, that town in northern Nigeria you all mispronounce Kotangora is not Kotangora, it is Kontagora," he would say, setting off giggles. "Or you may say you're going to Makurdi, the people who own the place don't call it Ma-kurdi, it's Makurudi.
     "There was a Nigerian going to the United States of America and his American friend here asked him to take a message to his sister in New York. He said, 'Ok, I'll knock her up.' In America to knock her up means to make her pregnant!"
     The class burst out laughing.
     "Well, as reporters you have to always ensure you're reporting what you see and not what you think. One effective way you do this is by attribution. You have to make clear your source of information. For instance, there's that Christmas carol that says a long time ago in Bethlehem, as the Holy Bible says. The singer makes it clear he's not the one saying, that the source is the Bible.
 That's clear attribution, so you can't hold him responsible for that piece of news as his source is clear."
     By now the class would be quite animated. He hardly joined in the laughter. Each time he started he would become conscious of exposing his bad dentition and would shut it down.
     He also made fun of our English pronunciations.
     "I hear you people always saying 'monki, monki.' It's mon-keey, not monki. It's cor-ffee, not coffi, coffi."
     My fondness for him took a dent not long afterwards when I went to his office along with Timi and two other male classmates to have him sign off on our course registration forms. Normally, we would leave the forms with his secretary and come back to collect them. But I think on this occasion the secretary reasoned that since. Dr S.A. was already with some of our classmates in his office, we might as well join them. So he asked us to go in.
     As Timi stepped in followed by me, we found him seating and surrounded by three girls in our class, eating groundnuts and bananas. He flared up when he saw us.
     "How dare you walk into my office like that?" he glowered at us. Before we could say secretary he shouted, "Common will you get out of my office this very second!"
     We turned and fled in a twinckle, our hearts pounding. The secretary apologized to us later, saying he assumef since he was with our classmates, who had also asked to sign the same documents, he thought it was ok to let us in.
     We had no doubt in our mind the reason why the he-goat harbours so much hatred for fellow males.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Ivory Tower Beckons

My one year studying for A-Levels also saw my taste for books expand well beyond proscribed texts. In the school library during break one afternoon I encountered the pamphlet, How to Be a Nigerian by Peter Enahoro and was won over by authors great sense of humor, lively prose and the picturesque, accurate characterization of Nigerians in the 1960s and its enduring accuracy. Subsequently, I bought his You Gotta Cry to Laugh, and continued my exploration of Enahoro's irreverent style of poking fun at everything, even the very idea of God. Then I began to look out for more of his writings in Africa (published by Ralph Uwechue and edited by Enahoro) and later Africa Now, published by Enahoro himself.
     On another day I went into the library and saw a copy of Fragments by the Ghanaian writer Ayikwei Armah. I had a little ago read The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a recommended text for our African fiction class, and enjoyed his hazy realism. I found the same haunting quality in Fragments and read it through in two days, spending two hours each day with the book in the library.
     Through reading more into the history texts we used, such as Europe and the Revolutionary Years (by E.M. Thompson), Egypt and the Nile Valley by P.M. Holt and English Social History by (xx), I found my horizon broadening. Further studies in A-Level economics increased my theoretical knowledge of the subject. As we prepared for university entrance exams, I found that the past question papers I used for practice were yielding more easily than they did a year earlier, when I took the exam in my final year in secondary school.
     So it wasn't surprising to me when I passed the university entrance exam and my name was second on the list to study mass communication. It was JAMB 2; I had done JAMB 1 and didn't pass. We were the second set of candidates admitted through the joint matriculation process, instead of the previous system where individual institutions conducted their own entrance exams.
     My father was particularly overjoyed. He said I had spared him the indignity of having to go begging people to help him get a place for his son in the university. On the eve of my departure, he called me into his room for pep talk, as was his wont.
     "Never forget who you are and why you're going to Nsukka," were among his words. His words usually struggled with his stutter before breaking through in clear ringing tones. They are still clearly etched in my mind decades later. "You are going there to learn, pass your exams, earn your certificate, so that you can get a job and help me to train your younger ones."
     I was sitting next to him on his bed and my mother sat on the chair by his writing table, concurring by chorusing an end word or by some other phrasal interjection.
     "You are going to find all manner of people when you get there.”
     “Gbam!” mother said.
     “You'll find those who are serious and those who have come to play,” father continued, ignoring her. “I won't bé there, your mother won't bé there to tell you what to do. The choice will bé yours and yours only to make. And I believe you'll make us proud," he concluded.
     "It's not for nothing that your grandfather named you Chukwudulue," mother said. "Oga edulu gi o!."
     My father then gave me money for my fees and feeding, with a modest sum as pocket money. I thanked my parents for their love and support, promised to make them proud while at the same time thinking: "Freedom! Freedom!" I was giddy.
     The next day he drove me in his car, a Peugeot 504 L, accompanied by his good friend Alphonse Madueke, for the about 300 km journey from Umuahia to Nsukka, with my suitcase and other stuff in the booth. Madueke was later to sell me my first and only manual typewriter, but more on that later.
     We traveled on the newly completed Port Harcourt to Enugu expressway, which passed through Umuahia. At Enugu went through the winding Milken Hill, a high stone cliff on the left and a scary-deep valley on the right, with a road etched in between, to link up the 9th Mile junction. There we joined the northward highway to Makurdi, Jos and the rest of the north. Somewhere along the road, probably near the town of Ogbede, we saw an accident scene involving a posh car with a badly mangled front. I was later to learn it was the accident that killed Ezenta Eze, the head of my Mass Communications department.
     Arriving at the university just before noon, the first port of call was the student fees office. There I paid my school and accommodation fees and was then assigned a room in Zik's Flats, Block B2 Room 206, which I was to share with two other students - Nicholas Onah and Nicholas Ogbonna. After helping me drop my things there and ensuring I was settled, my father left with his friend for the journey back to Umuahia.
     The next day I headed to the admissions office, a prefabricated building by the Princess Alexandria Building, remarkable for its bombed-out facade, a casualty of  the civil war that ended 9 years earlier, to formally register as a student. Seeing a cluster of about five students standing before me, I asked the one nearest, a friendly looking, tall young man with an easy smile, if he knew where Mass Communications students were getting registered.
     “It’s here,’’ he told me. “I’m also for Mass Comm.”
      “Oh, is that so?” I responded with pleasant surprise. “So, we’re for the same course?”
     We shook hands and I fell in line behind him. We introduced ourselves. His name was Timi, he had come from Port Harcourt and like me had just completed Lower Six before gaining admission (he had attended Federal School of Arts and Science, Mubi in the northeast). Our friendship began there and then, further strengthened by the fact that his room was right opposite mine at Zik’s Flat, room B2, 207.
     I had a little scare when I went to meet my academic adviser, Dr. R. Chude, to sign my course list and verify my credentials and he told me I hadn't met admission requirements. Yes, he could see I have English and Literature and so on, but I failed maths and without maths I won’t be admitted. I quickly reminded him that the regulations say maths or any other science subject, and that I have a distinction in biology. He shook his head in disbelief. But I was already searching through my bag and brought out the university prospectus and showed him the section that spelled it out clearly, which I had read an innumerable number of times for obvious reasons. It was only then he mellowed and signed off on my courses. It left an unpalatable impression as I viewed him as trying unjustly to deny me a place I duly merited in the university.
     We were to do only two departmental courses that year, Introduction to Mass Communication and Elements of Journalistic Style, both taken by Dr SA. The rest were general studies courses, broken down into Use of English, natural science and social science, requirements for humanities majors, such as we were. Social science and natural science majors were in turn required to take humanities under general studies. So in the natural science lectures were exposed to the core principles of the physical sciences.
      Similarly in the social sciences we went through the basic principles underlining political science, sociology, anthropology, religion and philosophy. It was in these classes that one first encountered the likes of Prof. Ikenna Nzimiro, Dr Inyang Etteng, who were Marxists, as well as Dr Asobie, Dr Amucheazi, Fr Lambert Ejiofor and Dr Humphrey Nwosu. Of course, everyone had to do the Use of English course, and the lecturers often said the course was necessary because of the generally poor use of English, the language of instruction, by most of the freshmen (and women), then just out of secondary school. So it took them through the basics once again, to prepare them to handle more complex ideas and subjects using the language.
     It was in the Use of English class that I met Chiedo (he liked to write Chied on his books, mags and on his elpees). I think what did it was that I had a copy of Black Music & Jazz Review, the music magazine edited by Chris May and I think Geof Brown, or something like that. He was sitting next to me while we waited for a teacher that never came on that day eventually. He excused me to have a look at the magazine and we started talking about the musicians and his great appreciation of the magazine. We fell into lockstep, as they say, and spent a good half-hour discussing music intensely, ranging from rock to soul and reggae. We just realized we were like each other and we exchanged addresses. He was a first year English major and also lived in Zik’s Flats, in Block C.

     We walked out of that classroom as friends. It turned out we would be taking some classes together as well as I was doing two electives in the English department: Literary Appreciation and Spoken English. Before we parted that morning, we agreed to meet again later in the day, and he promised to introduce me to another friend of his called Esiaba, whom he said was deep into Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple and Sex Pistols, and had quite an interesting collection.