Wednesday, 24 June 2015

THE FIDELITY EXPERIENCE: Memories of the past

                                (For my friends, the "privileged twenty")

The 2010 Fidelity Bank Creative Writing Workshop has come and gone. Our expectations were not cut off.  “You made it to this workshop not because your stories are in themselves artistically perfect and flawless but because we find great potential in them,” Helon Habila, moderator of the event told us. I do not say we were lucky. No, we were privileged - the privileged twenty. Today, I am like a farmer; the ground is fresh and soft. I sow my seeds.  They will germinate. They will grow and blossom, because the soil is rich.

Invitation to the workshop was a big surprise and indeed my first literary outing. Even after I printed the invitation, I was still like a man that dreamed, and so it was, until the cab pulled up in front of Grace Point Hotel, venue of the workshop.

“Check the hall downstairs for your registration.” The silky voice of the receptionist fell on me.

I am inside Ajanwachukwu Hall, a theater of dream for me, and for many of us whose literary dreams, aspirations and appetite would in a short while be whetted. There is a near tendency that I develop some sort of eerie feeling or emotions. I hold firm. There are few strange and plain faces. I can only measure the anticipation in them. I made for acquaintance with each of them: Stanley, Esther, Ebele, Seun…. We shook hands and managed a faint smile.

At Brick Land Residence (our new home for one week) we met the gentle man called James. He congratulated us and unveiled the program schedule to us, telling us what to expect. But I already had great expectations. I watched him speak with utmost prudence and clarity, producing his words with little effort. His broad chest divided into two halves by an orange tie, exactly the way an opening divided his upper teeth. His address was simple and precise, like a news lead. This is the beginning of the journey, I said to myself when everyone dispersed. I have a room to myself. Tomorrow the workshop begins. God is kind.

April 16th, 2010. Today we return to the theater of dreams, to be tried, burned and beaten, like gold; to be molded and straightened, to be formed and informed. I longed for this day. I pined for it. I am full of hope. My state - I suppose - is appropriate for the occasion.
I recall these days with sheer reminiscence.  Remarkable memories of friends and events, of places and people I do not want to forget. I write this, that if you love it, like I do, you keep and guard it with joyous abandon. This memory of meeting with great mind and busy hands; we started as individual participants and facilitators and ended up as friends. Now I remember them with a huge sense of pride.

I know I had met Helon Habila before, but that was on the pages of a book and over the cyber wavelength. This morning, I am the privileged one. The hall is quite simple and modest, befitting a conference room. Helon is already seated at the far side of the table, patiently waiting as we arrive periodically. He is not overdressed - simple and plain in that green collar T-shirt and black jeans, I still remember. I walk up to him, bold and proud. “Christian is my name.” He pulls a charming smile and extends a handshake. There is something about this moment of handshake. You do not understand.  I am sure. It is a special occasion when I surrendered my head and hand and say:
Take, master, I submit to you
Like a piece of clay in the hands of a potter
I avail myself
Like paint and brush in the hands of a painter
I obey
Like a piece of gold
I offer myself to be burnt
I belong to you, oh master
I surrender.

It is a landmark. Perhaps because it reminds me of my literary dream and ambitions to be like him. Now my hope is coming alive, the night is giving way to the day. I see the sun rising in its beauty and splendour. The radiance is breathtaking and the world is wrapped in great hope and anticipation. I follow the sun, like the wise men followed the stars, stardom my destination. Holding my breath I gaze at his hand, his busy hand; this hand that write so beautifully and creatively, as if with no effort. I pause and ponder. I want to run off with it. But no, I should have my own hands, my busy hands. Now the trick is here – to listen to my master, to obey, and learn.

So it was that Fidelity Bank did not let us down, not with such moments when Helon would stand before us, our heads tilted towards him like curious children listening to moonlit tales. He made us think like him.  Hunched over our computers, we listened to him. We believed him. We obeyed him. Sometimes we forgot our real selves – as starters, and felt as though we had arrived, like him. But that’s just him; always creeping subtly into your subconscious and making you see and be what you dream. This is what we have become: our dream selves or at least on a sure path to our dream selves.

I do not forget other busy hands as well. They were co-facilitators with Helon. I find it extremely difficult to talk about Tsi Tsi Dangaremgba, the one whom I love so much to call her name even though it made my tongue twist in my mouth. It is hard not because she is not worth to be spoken of but because her personality, as I perceived, in that one-second-week is so unique that I  am at war finding words fit for her description. But there are remarkable things that I cannot forget about her: she took me to Zimbabwe. I saw it in her appearance – calm, true and original. She was always different; her hair, intricately plaited in long, fairly brown ropes, grazing her backside. I love this originality in her person, I do not lie.

In front of us she stood, African, traditional. Now I miss her subtle smile. When she talked about the middle of stories and the mid-point reversal she opened up the dormant part of our heads. Tsi Tsi had her ways, though a little fast, she always made her point. At other times we sat close to her as if in heart to heart talk, and like a mother she attended to our individual literary difficulties. She could tell a story with a chat. “Your story should have this…; you must be able to show when the beginning of a story ends and when the middle begins…”

There are just no memories without those of the memorable Maddie. Over here, the night is cold. I bow my head, my lips kiss the table. I close my eyes in prayer – God please keep Maddie; a friend so simple, graceful and true, a rare gem.  Madeleine Thien, was (and still is) to us - and perhaps more particularly to me – a great friend and companion. So doting, she made us feel like little children.
 Her face ever without smile, she stood in our front, confident, and read in that tiny voice that permeated our hearts. She was patient with us. Elias, can bear me witness and Stanley wouldn’t disagree. When the time for an exercise elapsed and we were yet unfinished, she asked us in that filtering tone, “Does anybody need more time please?” Then we chuckled. Oh, Maddie.

There are just no memories without that of my friends, great friends. Twenty is not a small number to mention, but I will talk about Elias Chukwuemeka, the one I call “Emmy Hills”. I have this sentimental attachment towards him, maybe because we hail from the same place and perhaps more because we share the same surname. My brother from a different mother; I love his eloquence and activism. His visual imagery and originality in ‘The pot of life’ amazes me. I also love to think about High Chief’s gratified grammar pattern and how we laughed our heart out during his presentations. Good as his works were, he had a comic touch to his presentations, and it was fun. Beautiful moments.  Stanley Azuakola got himself stock on my heart, like a piece of metal on a magnetic object. Please don’t ask me how; I don’t even have an answer, a friend whose departure that hazy morning left me broken. Cold and forlorn, I gathered myself, dried my tears and counted my steps down the street, the rain behind my back.

There are more stories about us – memories. Although I am constrained by strength and capacity, I have been able to make out one simple and unbeatable truth: that we are all wonderful people; the privileged twenty, my people, and my friends.

There are other moments of pleasure and of course pain and sometimes mixed feelings. These are memories of time, now our past – one whole week gone in a second. One week that made us one people and gave us a common identity. In hours we measured our length and breath, our strength and weaknesses. Then, gradually we learned to live and accommodate ourselves. We had begun to live like a family, hatching the egg of our dreams, so often gathering to talk in groups, sometimes round the table, talking and chatting over clattering spoons.

I think about the tours. I close my eyes. I hold my head, calling memories back: the beautiful art pieces at the craft villages; the serene lush green park. I still have pictures of them.

Swept by the fun and undeniable emotions of hope, we thought less of an end coming, creeping slowly but steady and sure. It did. Now, like pages of a blank book, everything is bare. We have walked away, so sure of where we are headed but unwilling. We have set off, everyone to his way. I saw tears. The back of our hands did the job– wiping rolling-salt-water off our heavy faces; faces once wreathed in smiles and glorious laughter, now trails with wrinkles from the root of the emptiness that has befallen us. Such was the pain inflicted on us by time and widening distance.

Together as friends, we dread the swiftness of time, this time that we prayed and pined for when we received our invitation to the grand occasion. It has come and gone, leaving us pale and frail, like orphaned children. This is the scar. I can show you if you can touch my heart, the scars of friendship and love.

There are more pictures that I can paint of those moments with Fidelity. But like I said, I am constrained. I will write again if you need to refresh your memory of this fabulous experience.

One big hug to the literary family.

Yours, always.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

This is not "change"

It has been said that the only reason someone or people are voted out of power is because people found better person or persons. Have Nigerians made mistake? If the 8th National Assembly members in the hallowed chambers receive N8.64b as wardrobe allowance, then the change we seek must be at best imaginary.

Few months ago, when we (some of us, who believe that Nigerians have been victims of mercenary politicians for long) defied the odds, endured “name callings” to cause and vote for a change of government, it was because we believed that change was due, not necessarily because the All Progressives Congress came with it as a campaign slogan. It has been a long way coming, many Nigerians have hoped for it. Nigerians did not just want a change of government. Not just, as some critiques called it, a “change of baton” between political parties. No, it was something more: government with a human face; one that recorgnises and identifies with the people and their many challenges. In a sense, we asked for a total departure from the old ways of corruption and impunity, polarised governance, and political, religious/ethnic bigotry. We wanted a government run by altruistic humans and not some materialistic and overzealous politicians. And so we joined, and made popular the change mantra. And it happened.

Thankfully, or is it fortunately, the people (not Buhari or APC) won and saw a former opposition party take charge of government. The new and traditional media have been agog ever since, celebrating our victory and congratulating the new governments. The new president, governors and legislators have since been sworn in and swung into action. And following the growing level of hope, anticipation and expectations, as raised by the APC during the campaign period, organisations and individuals have warned that the anticipated change may not come so easily and called for patience and prayer. President Buhari himself has said that he does not possess a magic wand to perform any magic. The crux of the matter is that time is needed if we must experience significant changes in the system. But president Burahi and the APC government would have to show us that they are willing to give us the change they promised. A body language, even, will suffice.

But the drama in the National Assembly that produced Senator Bukola Saraki and Hon. Yakubu Dogara as Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives respectively served a great concern as to the possibility of APC producing the expected change we expect. In any case, the fight for the soul of Senate and House of Representatives has been fought, won and lost. Senator Saraki is the senate president and Hon. Dogara is the speaker of the House of Representatives. The rest is history. But can we expect a credible representation in the 8th National Assembly?

The 8th Assembly is to receive N8.64b as wardrobe allowance. And this is where my hope is beginning to wane and my fears on acceleration mode. What kind of shoes, clothes … are they going to have? I actually thought it’s time to be show empathy with Nigerians, for the many years of hardship they have endured under our past leaders. But this development is practically disapproving. How can a government allocate nearly N9n as clothing allowance to a senator in a country where many states owe workers for months? And considering the fall in oil prices, our major earner, one would naturally think that the ideal thing is to cut down on government expenditure and save money for developmental projects. The National Assembly must reconsider and review their stand on this and many other issues if they must retain the confidence of the people. This, certainly, is not the change we asked for!