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Okey Ndibe’s funny, charming, and penetrating memoir tells of his move from Nigeria to America, where he came to edit the influential—but forever teetering on the verge of insolvency—African Commentary magazine. It recounts stories of Ndibe’s relationships with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and other literary figures; examines the differences between Nigerian and American etiquette and politics; recalls an incident of racial profiling just 13 days after he arrived in the US, in which he was mistaken for a bank robber; considers American stereotypes about Africa (and vice-versa); and juxtaposes African folk tales with Wall Street trickery. All these stories and more come together in a generous, encompassing book about the making of a writer and a new American.
A funny narrative, told in an amusing and endearing manner
Okey Ndibe, a talented writer with links to all three African literary giants Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o – and who never fails to flaunt that fact – presents this book with a combination of great storytelling and commentary on race, colonialism, Nigerian history, and the problems inherent in immigration to Western countries.
This is a book to read, particularly for young Africans whose dreams are centred around immigration to Europe and North America.
Never Look an American in the Eye contains none of the droning dreaded in memoirs and biographies. Ndibe is a great storyteller, and so he teaches and entertains us at the same time, chiefly employing humorous stories and anecdotes.
A story to get lost in, the narrative pulls you in right from the very beginning and leaves you wanting more even after you have turned the last page.
Read an excerpt from the book below:
English Dreams, Communist Fantasies, and American Wrestling
I spent much of my childhood drifting in and out of dreams. Sometimes I pined for a piping-hot plate of pounded yam and egusi soup filled with succulent meat, beef bones with coagulant marrows I could suction into my mouth with just the right sucking kiss, soft fresh fish that melted on the tongue, and hard, chewy smoked or stockfish that, one day, I overheard an elder castigate as nutritionless, even though he saluted it for working the dentures to stalwart strength. I dared to dream in the day, wide-eyed, often as I listened to my parents’ catechism that a good name, which they had in ample supply, surpassed riches, which they didn’t have.
Sometimes, seized by boldness, I disdained dreams of food. Even though I lay on a mat, huddled with my siblings in a cramped room, I entertained no curbs to my dreams. Many a night, ensconced in that room that at times reeked of piss, often from my production line, I fought off the languor of sleep. Awake or half asleep, I prodded myself to turn away from mere matters of food. Instead, I cast my mind to more ambitious planes. Sometimes my fancy would fasten on a car. I would picture myself owning a marvel of an automobile. It was always a Mercedes, a Citroën, or a Volvo. I imagined myself behind the wheel, my hands lightly placed on the steering wheel, the chassis a gleaming wonder, the engine as soft and dainty as the English accent. When the car ran into potholes, it did not whine. Bumps did not shake it, could not speak to it.
Sometimes, I yearned for yet grander escapades. I would block out the symphony of snores that filled the stifling sleep room. Then I would ready myself and soar, off to faraway places.
That was how, sometime just before I entered secondary school in 1973, my itch for America began. America had not been my first childhood dream. Long, long before America, it was England that occupied my dreams. Nor was America even in second place. That position belonged, once upon a time, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). By the mid-1970s, each of these three foreign addresses seemed to me mythically remote—and, for that reason, alluring. Each enchanted me in its own manner.
In those days, Britain was the country everybody called Obodo Oyibo, the land of the white people. These were the pale people who, years ago, had journeyed by sea from their far-flung land and emerged like ghosts to turn our lives upside down, to conquer and rule us. They represented imperial power. As far as we were concerned, they were the ones who, in Senegalese novelist Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, bewitched the African soul. A major female character in that fine novel seeks to “learn from [Europeans] the art of conquering without being in the right.”
For us, the British Isles summed up that other world that lay well beyond the borders of our unsettled lives. It was the world of White magic, White mystery and White power. If it was said that somebody was traveling to Obodo Oyibo, it was understood by all that the adventurer was headed for Britain. This country was so powerful it had other names: England, the United Kingdom. It had the best of everything in the whole wide world, including the world’s two best universities, Oxford and Cambridge. It was said then, in awe, that Britain’s two venerable universities were places where, on occasion, a man’s head exploded when he tried to read too many books, to stuff too much knowledge into his cranium. Else, it was said that many an Oxford or a Cambridge man—and occasionally a woman—would sometimes be beset by isi mgbaka, an evocative phrase for madness, for the miswired brain.
Beside Britain, every other foreign country was relatively inconsequential, designated by its proper name: America was America, Australia was Australia, France was France, and Germany was Germany. Britain—and Britain alone—was Obodo Oyibo: the white people’s country.
I was born in May 1960. That same year, on October 1, Nigeria threw off the British colonial yoke and took on a chic new identity, that of an independent country. Independence, or the pursuit of it, was a hot idea, very much in vogue in the decade of my birth. My experience of Britain, of the British, was essentially abstract in character, much unlike, say, that of my parents.
My paternal grandfather had worked, ever so briefly, as a sawer of wood for British merchants in Nigeria’s deltaic region, thickly forested, creek veined. He had quit the job, fed up with his British taskmasters’ Olympian flights of rage, their incessant verbal assaults. Despite the brevity of his employment, he picked up a few English invectives, words like “scallywag” and “nincompoop”. His pronunciation of the words, which entailed the addition of extra syllables, lent them an archaic edge: “sukaliwagi” for “scallywag”, “nimucomupoopu” for “nincompoop”. His rather slim harvest of mangled English words inspired the legend that my paternal grandfather was the first person to bring oyibo, the English tongue, to his hometown of Amawbia.
My maternal grandfather had had a far-more-enduring relationship with the British. One of the early learners of English, he became versed enough in the strange tongue to earn a job as an interpreter. In those days, interpreters were few and far between. Their facility in Igbo and English translated into tremendous power. They became arbitrators between the conquered but resentful natives and the conquering, haughty colonialists. Many of them raked in fortunes by exploiting their unique position. Interpreters acquired a reputation for corruption. Some of them, for the right inducement, would willfully distort the facts of a case, the better to ensure that the highest bidder became the winner. Those who had cases before British administrators’ courts reckoned that victory hardly depended on having the facts on their side. Frequently, the key was to convince an interpreter—with gifts of money, farm produce, or livestock—to shape a case in their favour.
If the British colonial administrators, merchants, and missionaries were to have any form of communication with the native, then the two sides needed the figure of the interpreter, a veritable bridge. Interpreters played an undeniable, essential role. But they were also often characterized in a harsh light. They were deemed to occupy a position of moral dubiety and cultural ambiguity, committed neither to their English masters nor their Igbo brethren but entirely to an illicit desire for lucre. They were sometimes distrusted by the British but prized for the communication they enabled; often feared and despised by their fellow Igbo but nevertheless courted. The Igbo sometimes described an interpreter as that man who could go into the white man’s mouth and pluck words from it.
Being in a lucrative post, the interpreter often had access to a harem of women. It was the case with my maternal grandfather, Joseph Odikpo. My maternal grandmother was one of the women who caught his fancy. She had three children for him—two daughters and a son, my mother the oldest.
Unlike my parents and grandparents, I grew up in a world in which the British were a rarity, hardly physically present. In fact, through my secondary school days, I don’t remember any direct interaction with an Englishman or -woman. Even so, Britain and the British exercised a claim on my imagination, on the consciousness of my generation. We read, memorized, and digested textbooks that unabashedly gave credit to the British for discovering every significant geographic landmark in Nigeria, Africa, and the rest of the world. One of them, a Scottish explorer named Mungo Park, had discovered the river Niger, one of Africa’s most majestic bodies of water. Even though the river flows through Onitsha, my mother’s hometown, it never occurred to me to wonder whether the Africans, who for millennia had lived on the banks of the great river, had all been afflicted with blindness. That questioning would come later, much later, after years of mental awakening, aided by my extracurricular reading of history texts written by Africans, from an unapologetically African perspective.
For years, I had been at peace with the British-told or British-inspired story of my world—indeed of the world, period. Yes, the British body, as such, was not in my face. It was its ghost that my friends and I had to contend with. My uncritical acceptance of the British-fangled account of the world indicated the omnipotence and omnipresence of that ghost. My credulity revealed the sheer scale of British imperial power, even in the decade when I was coming of age.
The British body had receded, but its ghost haunted, menaced, ordered, my world—my classmates’ world. One of my classmates in secondary school, whose parents were affluent, spent two or so weeks in London during one of our long breaks. For us, then, London was Britain in microcosm, a city that was the synecdoche of the phenomenal country.
My classmate returned with a mouth filled with amazing tales. Those of us who were luckless, who—as a local phrase went—knew that we would never “smell” London, gravitated to him. His London intoxicated me. I was dazzled by stories of crowds of shoppers milling on streets with rows and rows of fashion stores; of meat and fish shops where there was not a single fly to be seen, everything neatly cut and nicely laid out on glass shelves. I could not get enough. I was desperate to become, through his impressions, a vicarious visitor to the very center of Obodo Oyibo. He had bathed in the rose-tinged perfume of London. His stories brought me some of the city’s whiff and transcendent touch.
In fact, by going to London, he’d made himself, in my estimation, a figure of History. He was the equal of the Scottish adventurer Mungo Park. Park had discovered a great river in my backyard; my classmate had discovered London!
I joined the coterie of the curious who stalked the discoverer, pestered him with questions. I was not the only one who, at every opportunity, rephrased the one question he’d been asked, the same question he’d answered numerous times. How, what, was London like? There was something monochrome about the discoverer’s answers, but we didn’t care. We were caught in a frenzy of curiosity; London and all it represented made us giddy, bewitched.
“You’ve never seen a place like it,” the one who had touched and smelled London would begin; a London-inspired half-smile would etch itself on his face. Even in their prosaic ordinariness, his words conveyed something of the sheer dazzle of London, confirmed our sense of a city that exuded an air of calm and charm, composure and enchantment. “Everywhere you look, as far as your eyes can go, all you see is concrete. There’s no patch of grass in London. In fact, you can’t see any sprout of grass.”
That picture of an infinitely paved landscape struck me. It cast a spell over me, stayed branded on my mind for years, even past the time when it dawned on me, finally, that it was a false, concocted portrait. All these years later, even after I had made several visits to London, after I had beheld the city’s tree-lined streets and tree-rich parks, after I had seen the English countryside in the summer, with its verdant hillocks and endless rolling greenery, my classmate’s first portrait still has a vestigial fascination. To this day, a part of me still holds out hope of taking a turn someday on a visit to London and stumbling on an unyielding, relentless carpet of concrete.
For sure, in those days, grass and trees were part of our shame. They accused us as inhabitants of accursed Africa. They spelt our lives as “bush” people. They connoted the absence of “civilization,” which meant that we were “native” and backward. Grass and trees marked us as primitives who lived in a state of nature. To me and, doubtless, to many of my classmates, a landscape that was grassless and treeless, covered in concrete, was the epitome of civilized glory. I couldn’t wait to escape my shrubs and trees, to land in London’s flora-denuded paradise, to waltz on London’s plastered streets, and, if I wished, to lie down and roll over and over on that eerie, endless stretch of concrete. (Along with that dream came a desire to savour Obodo Oyibo’s canned delicacies, instead of the pot-cooked meals I was condemned to eat, often with my fingers.)
My father, Christopher Chidebe Ndibe—CC to his friends—added to my fascination with Britain. One reason was that he had an English friend, Reverend John Tucker, with whom he exchanged letters and postcards several times a year. To me, Tucker was as mysterious as his country—and every bit just as alluring. I couldn’t conjecture who he was, or reckon how and where my father had met him. And it wasn’t easy to ask, either. I grew up at a time and in a world where children could not march up to adults with personal questions. Children did not pry into adult affairs. The incautious, overcurious child was liable to get a hard knock or two on the head, delivered with the nub of clenched fists, a slap with the open hand, or a few sizzling “corrective” strokes delivered on the buttocks with a sturdy cane. Asking my father about his English friend was out of the question.
In a sense, it was all for the better. As I knew next to nothing about Tucker, he became putty in the service of my fantasies. I could mold him into any shape I wished; I could knead him to suit the twisting contours of my dream. And there was no question that he occupied an extraordinary spot in my life.
My father was a postal clerk, my mother a schoolteacher. They were altogether too poor to take my four siblings and me on vacation anywhere, much less to London. I had to make do with Tucker. Since Father had a friend in Obodo Oyibo, I permitted myself to fantasize that I had ties, however tenuous, to that famed location called Britain. Tucker “snuck” me into Britain; he became my unsteady grasp on a fragile, slipping dream.
A British fetish accompanied Father’s shaving routine. Each morning, he shaved on the veranda of our country home. Chin raised, lips sucked in, hand guiding a razor in a delicate motion up and down his lathered cheeks, Father had his small transistor radio tuned to the World News Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
For me, the radio was a thing of inscrutable magic. I remember it as one of the first objects to strike me with awe. At first, I imagined that the newscaster was some kind of mysterious being, contorted in shape and miniaturized to fit into that radio. How did the white man manage that amazing feat? At some point, of course, I realized that the speaker was not inside that metallic box.
Yet, far from settling the mystery, the realization deepened it. How did these white people conjure up the marvel of planting words that spun and sped in the air through thousands of miles in order to resound in my father’s radio?
I wondered whether some people had the wizard eyes to see the words as they floated in the air, all the way from London, to my hometown. Surely Indians, renowned for their talismans, would have those special eyes that saw things invisible to the ordinary eye. In my days of youth, India was the world capital of magic and wizardry. Adults said Indian athletes had been banned from the Olympics because they had talismans that enabled them to defy time, gravity, and height. In any track contest, the Indian athlete would appear at the finish line the instant the whistle went off. Indian high jumpers could clear any height, even as high as a skyscraper. As for the pole vault, Indian jumpers could vault themselves high above the clouds. Their swimmers could swim from one end of the pool to the other in—literally—no time. Nigerian newspapers and magazines carried advertising featuring a variety of Indian shamans and gurus. I recall that each shaman sat cross-legged, face and bare upper body elaborately painted, a serpent curled around the neck, a staff curlicue in one hand. The advertisement vended potions, talismans, and elixirs. If you desired any woman’s affection, there was a romantic potion called Touch-and-Follow. All you had to do was smear the ointment on your palms, draw close to the object of your desire, and touch her. She’d abandon everything, forsake everybody else, and follow you. It was that simple: guaranteed. If you had an exam, there was some talisman to enable you to score perfect marks. It made the answers appear on the palm of your hand. You just copied the answers from palm to paper. And, just like that, you soared to great triumph, guaranteed. If your heart ached for riches, why, the Indian shamans had just the code to bring a shower of cash into your life. If you wanted a third eye, to see far beyond your fellows, to behold the mysteries and secrets of the spiritual realm, there was just that Indian-made formula to help you acquire it.
Surely, a people who had conquered distance and mastered time could see words spoken in London, floating in the spheres, headed for Father’s radio. How come these Indian seers were never tempted to reach in the air and snatch up the flying, tumbling voices?
For me, it all meant that the magicians of Obodo Oyibo were more versed, equipped with far more spellbinding skills, than those of India. And if the inhabitants of Obodo Oyibo could pull off the wonder of words in the air, what other tricks could they play, what other spells cast?
I would—I could—find out if I ever had the chance of landing in Concrete London. So I yearned for London.
Then, one fateful day, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics blasted into my childhood dreams and seized centre stage.
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