You are near yet you are far

You are Cameroonian. Yet all your Nigerian writer friends say you are Nigerian. You’ve never even been to Nigeria before. So how can this be? You wade through their observations about your Nigerianess.

“You’ve got our vibe…you look Igbo…you speak like a Nigerian…you’re a Lagos boy!…who lives on the other side of the border – in Cameroon’s Lagos: Douala.”

Is it because one of your short stories is titled, “Wahala Lizard”? Is it because you’ve read too much fiction published by Nigerians? Were you influenced by the countless Cameroonian born and bred Nigerians and your Nigerian classmates? Or your interactions with the staff of the defunct Air Nigeria, Arik Air and Nigerian passengers at the Douala International Airport where you work? Did you pick up your Nigerianess from Nollywood and Nigerian music videos?

Travel between both Nigeria and Cameroon is supposed to be easy since citizens of both countries do not require entrance visas. However, the land route between the Cameroonian border town, Ekok and the Nigerian border town, Ikom is currently barricaded. Don’t ask why.

It is your first time in Nigeria. You have come on an invitation by the Nigeria Cameroon Literary Exchange Project, a partnership between Bakwa and Saraba Magazines. You don’t need a visa into Nigeria. An entry stamp is sufficient for a month’s visit.

The words spoken by the Zimbabwean novelist, Panashe Chigumadzi during her 2016 Aké book chat are ringing in your head.

“You want to confirm everything you’ve seen and read about. So you’re kind of looking around for all those things you’ve seen or the way people are.”

“Welcome to Lagos,” a young female attendant of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport says. Not the title of Nigerian writer, Chibundu Onuzo’s novel. A burly man behind the queue orders all of you to get out of his way. He flies past, hurrying to God-knows-where. Howard mb Maximus, a young Cameroonian writer also invited to the Literary Exchange Project walks up to you and tells you an immigration officer just asked him for money. You smile at déjà vu. At the Douala Airport, it is called karaa. He says if it happens in Cameroon, it would have been normal. But you are in another country. It is odd. He gives the money anyway.

The Lagos luggage chute shoots your bag at you –fast and furious. Like a Vin Diesel race car. Unlike the Douala chute. Another Cameroonian workshop participant, Godwin Luba’s bag suffers from a broken ankle. Something tells you,

“That’s how things are done here. Only the strong survive.” You leave the arrival hall. You cannot spot your hosts.

“When you are in trouble in a strange land, talk to a lady,” Godwin wisecracks. He’s the father figure here. You walk to a girl and politely ask for her phone. It works. You phone Dr Dami Ajayi, the Nigerian workshop facilitator. Dzekashu Macviban, the Cameroonian workshop facilitator texts Safurat Balogun, Head of Library and Information at the Goethe Institut Lagos on an airport driver’s phone – all for free. Response: They are not far from the airport. First myth debunked: There is kindness everywhere. The Nigerian comedians’ jokes that nobody in Lagos cared about you is inaccurate.

You dramatize to Dami how their airport’s chute crankily ejects luggage. Like an Olympian athlete throwing a discus. A smiling airport driver who has been watching you dramatize the luggage delivery suddenly appears.

“Sah, I thought you were shooting me dollar.” You grin and almost holler, “your fada!”

You all alight on the hospital bus Doctor brought to the airport with the inscription, Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital Yaba. The driver pilots you to the right and out of the airport. He performs your passage rite to the tide of madness, via a ride that constantly transforms a bunch of harmless people who write, into a horde of primeval lunatics confined to the automobile prison of a facilitating psychiatrist. Each time you are caught up in brief traffic hold-ups, a neighbour driver would glance at your bus in an, “Oh, look at all those chic mad people!” style. But you are not worried about madness now. You are worried about those eternal Lagos traffic jams you’ve read about. In Douala, people call the jam embouteillage.

“We are driving against traffic,” Safurat says. Your heart regains its normal rhythm.

“Your school buses are yellow?” You wonder. Your hosts laugh.

“Those are Danfos.” Some look prehistoric, as if they were assembled by hand.

“I am a Danfo Driver suoyou sing the hit by the twin music duo, Danfo Driver.

“It’s from these commuter buses they got their inspiration hein?” you realize.

“Yes!”

Lagos is Douala on fast forward; bigger, wilder, richer. Every place on earth must surely be quieter than notorious Lagos. The eleven-kilometre bridge over the lagoon is grand. The one kilometre bridge over the River Wouri is petit. Douala has got Bekoko. Lagos has got Makoko. But antique Makoko traumatizes you, unlike urban Bekoko. Not because of the way Makoko is, but because it is located in the heart of Lagos. There are fishing villages like that in Douala, like Manoka, but they are located far off the Douala coast, in the marshlands and islands stretching into the Atlantic. Safurat says despite all the NGO aid which has been pumped into Makoko, the place has never had a face-lift.

You learn new names of neighbourhoods. Yaba, Ebutte Meta. You already know Surulere and classy Lekki from the Africa Magic channel. You hear Banana Island is swank. It doesn’t seem to be part of a banana republic. You disembark the mad bus at Ikoyi. The place has the feel of the Bonapriso neighbourhood in Douala. You become the pilgrims of Pilgrims Brooks hotel, happily hugging and tugging your Nigerian workshop mates: Caleb Ajinimoh, Sada Malumfashi, Socrates Mbamalu and Adams Adeosun. It’s been six months since the first phase of the workshop in Limbe.

Generators growl in every Ikoyi building like bad-tempered dogs. Almost everybody in Nigeria has a Gen. You knew that before. Some people even tell NEPA to disconnect them from its national power supply. They don’t want to pay electricity bills and buy fuel at the same time. That is new. Sada says all the past governments claim they have injected money into the power sector. But nothing has changed. The sector has remained in the same terrible state – on again, off again. Power has threatened Socrates’ literary career so much he ran to a market and bought a Gen. You gloat to the Nigerians about your relatively constant supply of electricity. You don’t need generators. They know that from their Limbe trip already.

You are driven to Freedom Park in the mad bus. Every time another driver stares at you, you joke about madness. Sada Malumfashi is a pharmacist. He is always on the phone, generally giving medication retail orders, in his characteristic measured sweeps of Hausa. Doctor Dami Ajayi wrote the prescriptions. Pharmacist Malumfashi relays info how the medication will be delivered. But the mad writers don’t take any of their medication.

Safurat takes you around Freedom Park. It is ironical that a place, which was once a prison, is now an artistic leisure spot symbolizing freedom. You ask Sada something about Yoruba culture. He says he’s a Cameroonian in this Lagos, kindly ask him about Kaduna. There’s a private open-air party going on in a corner. The host’s boyfriend is acquainted with Safurat. He invites you all to crash his girlfriend’s birthday party. You are all very sceptical.

“When you visit someone on a feast day and eat in their house, it is not because you didn’t eat in your own house. So please, come and get seated.”

When someone starts going Chinua Achebe on you like that at Freedom Park, you don’t have the liberty to say no. You all crash the party. The host’s boyfriend introduces all of you as Cameroonians. The cold party springs to hot life. Every guest starts to remember the little French they know. One guy’s French is really good. He says he has lived in Cameroon. You are happy to parade French. The music is booming. Mouths are gulping. The Frenchy guy wants to know if you know how to dance.

“I dance better than all of you here,” you brag. They refuse. ‘Try me!’

They play “Kweta” by the duo, Toofan. One party guest challenges you to the dance floor. He even teases you by asking if you know the song. You tell him that the livelier one in the duo, Barabas, was born and raised in Douala, in the Ndogbong neighbourhood, before he moved back to Togo as a teenager to form Toofan. They widen their eyes. But you are already on the paved floor, unleashing leggy, Kweta moves. The party goes ballistic. However, your workshop people are laughing instead, as they film you with their smart phones. You don’t care. You are the Barabas of Freedom Park, Kweta-ing freely. Tous fan de Toofan. Your Nigerian challenger dances. He’s got good skills but you win the dance battle. The steaming party is now an erupting mountain, spewing the lava of life. The host happily hands you food packs. Howard tells her she looks familiar, like he’s seen her on TV. She says she’s an actress. Howard then goes,

“Are you the one playing so and so role on the series, Battleground”? She says yes in a burst of joy. The Nigerians are all awed by Howard’s grasp of Nollywood. They do not watch Battleground, so they don’t know her. They also don’t know that Howard is an emerging actor. Cameroonians are shocked that the Nigerians do not watch Nollywood at all. Why?

“The actors are good but the film scripts are generally bad.”

Is it the arrogance of writers spoilt by too much high quality literary fiction and non-fiction? Before you leave, your party host presents an Absolut Vodka bottle to Howard. Caleb later owns it, parading all over the place with it. Like Rigobert Song did with the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in Surulere, after that final in 2000.

Everybody descends on the Vodka later at Pilgrims Brooks, with peppered plantain chips and popcorn and Gala. Another stereotype debunked: Lagos residents can also be very hospitable, especially towards strangers. But the old gate man who tried to rip you all of five hundred naira just for parking space which is supposed to be free, reminds you of Dami’s words during the workshop in Limbe.

“In Lagos, everybody is trying to rip you off.”

*

You head to the University of Lagos the next day for the readings, precisely to the English department, upon the invitation of the Head of Department, Professor Ijagha. The huge campus has the feel of a small town, from student housing, banks, ATMs, a student market, hospital and library. It is unlike the University of Buea where you, Dzekashu and Howard studied. UB is strictly a school campus. You do almost every other business in the Molyko neighbourhood. The UNILAG classroom buildings tower into the sky. Yemi Alade studied here. A lift carries you to a hall where you read your workshop stories to an audience of mostly university academics. You answer questions and try to connect the dots between both nations. Someone asks why none of you wrote about the Bakassi conflict with Cameroon. Also, that other rift between writing and publishing in English and in French in Cameroon pops its ugly head. The snail-paced literary translations are partly to blame, although Cameroon boasts of some of the finest translators working for international organizations. That is where translation money is.

One Peter in the audience meets you later and says you look Igbo. Dzekashu laughs because he has heard it before. You all jest about alternate identities. Dzekashu is Kenyan, so is Socrates. Howard is Bangladeshi. Adams is Professor Limbe, so he’s Cameroonian. After the reading, Professor Ijagha invites you for a chat in his office. Prof sounds more like a concerned father rather than a know-it-all academic. He listens to all your stories. You feed him Cameroon stories. Political stories. Writing stories. The former more than the latter. He looks a little stunned, after learning a lot of new information about Cameroon.

“These things are happening just across the border here and I don’t know about them. But I know what is happening in America!”

You are near yet you are far. The air route is open. (It was closed when Ebola afflicted Nigeria). The land route is closed. (Bakassi Peninsula almost took you to war in the past.) The sea route is closed. (Some Francophones call you Anglophones Biafra). The phone lines are pricey. (About a dollar a minute), so are the flight tickets (about eight hundred US dollars for a round-trip ticket on Asky Airlines), for a one-hour flight to Douala.

The first drama book by an Anglophone writer, Sankie Maimo was published in Ibadan in 1959. But there is very little literary exchange between both countries. It is even ironic that it is through the auspices of the German cultural centre, the Goethe Institut, that you are currently bridging the literary gap between Cameroon and Nigeria. Not a national initiative from any of the two nations.

Bate Besong, one of Cameroon’s finest Anglophone playwrights and poets, studied in Nigeria, founded a literary journal in Calabar and won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) award. Many Anglophones of the older generation studied in different Nigerian universities, before the first Cameroonian Anglo-Saxon university, the University of Buea was established in 1993. Yet the early connection between the two neighbours doesn’t guarantee closeness today.

You wonder where the commitment of African governments and institutions that are supposed to forge the bond between at least, neighbouring African countries has gone. You remember too that the Caine Prize for African writing and the Miles Morland writing scholarship are some of the biggest literary prizes on the continent – European institutions organizing writers’ workshops that bring together writers from different parts of the continent, more than the writers can do so themselves.

“I think this project is worth it then. I really hope we organize more of these in future,” Prof adds. Godwin is in story mode as you leave, elucidating on the experiences of his university days in Nigeria. He would have been among the first batch of students who studied at the University of Buea if he wanted to in 1993. Bate Besong taught him in Cameroon, before he moved on to study in Nigeria. A few old friends have been visiting him at Pilgrims Brooks.

You eat your first meal of pounded yam and Egusi at Terra Kulture in Virgin Island. All the copies of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky disappear from the bookstore’s shelf into greedy hands.

*

Abeokuta is laidback and serene. A small town immortalized by Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti, Lola Shoneyin and the legends of Olumo Rocky, its rocky hills. Abeokuta is Limbe, without the “black waves” of the Atlantic Ocean lapping against the shores of its rocky feet. They are both Siamese twins of tranquillity. You can see why the Aké Arts and Book Festival is hosted here. Africa’s first million dollar novelist, Imbolo Mbue (who is from Limbe) would have been the icing on the Aké cake this year, had she managed to attend Aké. You look forward to Aké. You also bask in the thought that, an African writer can bring together both accomplished and emerging writers from all parts of Africa, and even the world, to the cradle of Africa’s first black Nobel Prize for Literature laureate.

You discover groovy Fuji music in Adunni & Nefertiti at Aké. You marvel at this Fuji queen as she enchants the audience with her soothing voice and rhythmic melodies and sharp, thumping drums, pricking with needle-like precision. You cannot understand her Yoruba lyrics, but those next to you tell you that, she’s telling insightful stories. She rocks the crowd, pacing the hall, from left to right, right to left, this seat to that seat and back on stage. The evening couldn’t be crowned better.

You are in Sanja gear the next day, the traditional attire of the Sawa people. It was Cameroonian novelist, Mbella Sonne Dipoko’s trademark outfit. He was famous for donning a grey, bushy beard that almost reached his belly. You leave Park Inn hotel where you lodge and head to the main building on foot, for the opening ceremony. Your workshop mates are flying ahead. You can’t keep up.

“Guys, do you realize I’m putting on a traditional wrapper today? I can’t walk quickly.”

They return, laughing at your slow gait. You all hop on the hotel bus to the main hall. Your bladder fills up. You want to pee. But you can’t do so easily in a Sanja. Your loin fold is your belt. If you weaken it, you’re finished. Plus, Safurat is already up on stage, glittering in a black gown. And she announces that your meticulously wound Sanja has won a Sylt Foundation writing residency prize to Germany, for three months! You gasp. Your Sanja slowly pulls you to the stage. People clap for your Sanja and clap for Sada, the Nigerian Sylt prize-winner, instead of clapping for you. Your 2015 Caine Prize workshop facilitator, Zukiswa Wanner shrieks your name. You smile. Your Sanja skips. Your bladder weeps,

“I want to pee!”

The Aké cameraman who films you during your interview keeps staring at your Sanja. He says he will come to Park Inn and collect it. The journalist girl who interviews you agrees. The Europeans are curious about it. The Africans tell your Sanja, “weh done sah.” You finally get jealous of the damn Sanja and feel like peeling it off your body and disappearing into the restroom. But if you peel it off just to pee, you will become naked and everybody at Aké will embark on a screaming spree,

“Mad writer! Wahala dey for here o. Dr Dami, please bring that your mad bus. Carry y’im go. A man’s body is not a country!”

Your Lagos to Limbe cross-country conversation panel is a full house. It is spiced by young Nigerian writer, Adams’ stroll across the stage to look for his story in Howard’s phone – just when the moderator, Nigerian novelist and workshop facilitator, Emmanuel Iduma introduces him to read an excerpt of his workshop story. The action triggers a look of bemusement on Iduma’s face. The hall giggles. Cameroonian writer, Djimeli Raoul steals the show, with a reading of the cynical story in English about his father, and comical articulation of its Bamileké dialogue. The story is set in his village in the French-speaking part of Cameroon. The hall erupts in laughter once more, when he says he is not bothered about his family reading the cynical story because none of them read English, only French. But all your laughter has to temporarily give way to a few attacks and subsequent explanations why there aren’t any female writers on the Lagos leg of the programme, in an Aké year thematically styled, “This F word.”

You really don’t know how to execute the daunting task of writing about the four wonderful days of Aké. It is your first experience of a literary festival, so you happily kiss every Aké moment. But the four days are so brief when Aké ends it feels like an interrupted French kiss. You spend time with South African novelist, Diane Awerbuck, who says you now look like a man, especially in that Sanja. You looked like a boy when you both attended the Caine Prize workshop in Ghana two years ago. She’s been to Sylt, so she gives you tips, so does British novelist, Giles Foden. Nigerian writer, Ayobami Adebayor’s sweet singsong reading from her novel, Stay with me stays with you. You meet and chat with virtual Nigerian writer friends. Otosirieze Obi-Young. TJ Benson. Roy Udeh-Ubaka

You eat Nigerian Jollof rice for the first time at Aké, that popular food which has sparked a Jollof war across West Africa. Your taste buds immediately contrast it with Cameroonian Jollof, playfully styled “jellof” which most Nigerians don’t even know exists. Some even find the idea of Cameroonian jellof absurd. You later publish a food review on Bakwa Magazine that concludes that Cameroonian jellof is more spicy and tastier than “Almighty Nigerian Jollof”.

You make new friends who later maul you online for the food blasphemy. You are having a conversation with Adeola Opeyemi. One girl nearby stares at you,

“You look like a Yoruba demon.” You cringe. How can someone just insult you the first time they see you just like that? You ask Adeola what it means.

“A cute and successful Yoruba boy, who is good at breaking girls’ hearts!”

“Ouch! Is there any phrase like Igbo demon?”

“No.”

“Good. Then I’m not bothered.”

She laughs and spends the rest of the evening at your “palm wine panel discussion” with other friends, a few kilometres from the main building. She tells you that you speak like Igbo boys. Sometimes she just halts and marvels, wide eyed at your Igbo mannerisms.

“It’s an unconscious thing. I don’t know how I do it, but I also grew up watching Nollywood,” you say. By the way, Desmond Elliot is also lodging at Park Inn. He’s a plump politician now, not small frame, handsome Desmond in the Nollywood movies of yesteryears. You dismiss thoughts of him quickly. At Aké, it is all about the writers. Like TS Elliot, not Desmond Elliot. It is all about the publishers and the magazine editors and the musicians and the networking and the book chats and the panel discussions and the “counter Aké beer panel discussions” – a few kilometres from the main building. Those are the necessary breaks. The festival organizer, Lola Shoneyin is everywhere, telling groups of people during lunch or outside one of the halls every time,

It is exactly six minutes to this panel or four minutes to that panel, so we better get moving people! Without a watch on her wrist or phone in her hands. Yet Lola is always miraculously prompt. You attend Ama Ata Aidoo’s panel. You watch her beautifully reminiscing about her literary career and answering questions about her writing.

Dzekashu tweets, “I admire the way Nigerians celebrate their writers. The standing ovations, the endless applause, so much love.” He later tells you he doubts if the deafening applause he heard for all the writers just published by Ouida Books at the Ouida book launch can even be replicated at the Booker Prize ceremony. Aké Facebook live streams flood the Internet. Twitter feeds roll. Abeokuta based writer, Tolu Daniel describes the tendency of people not leaving the main building after the Aké gala night on the last day as post Aké fever. You sign in on Twitter and read Dami’s tweet.

“Can we all just go back to Abeokuta and do this Aké all over again?” You reply,

“This is what Tolu Daniel describes as ‘post Aké fever’. No mind yah, me too dey suffer am. Thank God it is not mental illness. I would have been facing the wrath of those your psychiatrist injections.”

Another hospital bus with the inscription, Association of Resident Doctors FNPH Yaba, drives you back to the airport. The traffic jam in Ikeja is so serious you get jittery about lateness. Finally, you move and stop. The airport guy beside the road smiles and mutters,

“Lagos doctors want to travel!” Not mad people anymore. The air border is open.

Coincidentally, you work daily on the Cameroonian side of the air border, watching planes leap into the sky. Some fly towards Lagos. Others fly elsewhere. The boundaries between Nigeria and Cameroon are always in this complicated flux. Sometimes they are shrinking. Sometimes they are not shrinking. Nigeria and its people will always play a star role in your universe, even though you are a Douala boy. But you are also a Lagos boy, living on the other side of the border in Cameroon’s Lagos.

Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a Cameroonian writer who works at the Douala International Airport. His works have been published in the 2015 Caine Prize anthology, "Lusaka Punk and Other Stories," The Africa Report, This Is Africa, Brittle Paper and Bakwa Magazine. He attended the 2015 Caine Prize workshop in Ghana, the 2017 Nigeria Cameroon Literary Exchange Project and the 2018 Miles Morland Workshop in Uganda, facilitated by Giles Foden. He is a Sylt Foundation writing residency prize winner and a Kundslerdorf Schopingen residency fellow. He tweets @nkiacha

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