Funke Egbemode, Conversations with my Country, Numero Huit Ltd, 2013, 258 Pages
How does one hold a conversation with his or her country? That is the question at the core of Funke Egbemode’s second book, Conversations with my Country born out of a series of back page commentaries she has run at The Sunday Sun for years now.
The answer lies within the pages of this 258 page, wildly funny, often sad, deeply upsetting and keenly reflective pieces.
In writing this book, Funke Egbemode is proceeding with sure-footed aplomb in the footsteps of illustrious forebears who mined the seedy underbelly of human foibles with the chisel and shovel of humour.
And it is in this respect that her facility with the language and the form shines through because as many people believe the world over – women are not very good at being funny and who is to blame them? The trouble they get from men is enough to dry up the very pond of humour.
But Mrs Egbemode does it well and her weapons are mainly from pithy proverbs and idioms to well-aimed sarcastic barbs and flat out diatribes.
Her favourite proverbs is “we have left the itch to treat leprosy” which I suppose captures in so many ways the Nigerian dilemma, because we always leave things to the very end from the bad roads that swallow our cars to badly maintained aircrafts that fall out of the sky like overfed birds.
Funke is lacerating and direct where she says “They address someone as minister of works and she shamelessly answers when nothing works.”p.112
You can feel the rage and anger when she argues for the death penalty in her piece about the man who poured acid down his daughter’s throat.
Funke Egbemode might be a satirical writer with a humorous bent, but most of the pieces in this book, once you look past the humour, are keenly observed, thought provoking and provocative pieces especially when she lets go the cataloguing of our many ills to bring us deeply human stories that tug violently at our heart strings.
“By the time mummy returned it was too late. The acid had finished its job and ended mummy’s joy.” p.41.
In seeking to describe this book, my thoughts have returned always to a broken monody; a truncated dirge and it is there clearly on the front cover where the word Conversation is cut in two.
“Conversations with my Country” is broken into three parts. The first section is ‘Heart of the Polity’ which addresses, directly, the ills that bedevil Nigeria. In these pieces, Funke Egbemode is a whip wielding, stern mother intent on flogging sense into our heads but how successful is she in her endeavour? Why does she keep on writing when no one ever seems to listen and nothing seems to change?
“Sometimes, I write out of anger, many times in frustration,” she explains in her Preface to the book.
Frustration must be a daily experience for our author because reading this book, the image that persists in one’s mind eye is of a prophet trudging the streets, screaming out his auguries in a loud voice to an unperturbed nation of deaf people.
Fela Kuti sang many years ago: ‘if I sing say corruption dey, na old news be dat.’
Why is Funke Egbemode so intent on crying herself hoarse? Why does she keep cataloguing the ills we live with every day? The answer must lie in the fact that she is a mother and a journalist, one of those whose lives are dedicated to righting wrongs through the nibs of their pen. And as a mother who has birthed children, she obviously feels a moral responsibility to ensure that her children grow up into a future that will not swallow them whole like a hungry monster.
In ‘Impotent Anger’, Funke Egbemode’s calm demeanour slips and her frustration shows as she writes “I really don’t care now if that guy sells the whole country into slavery or auctions Aso Rock. All I know is I’m not in the mood to publish any hot documents. What good will it do to me and my family. If he is caught…will the money be used to fix the roads?”
But her rage is like that of my old mother who will smack you with the right hand and then pull you close into an embrace with the left hand. That is how short her anger is because the next week she is penning a new article and seeking to make sense of our crazy nation and people.
In 1991, Ben Okri became the youngest writer ever, until 2013, to win the Booker Prize. In The Famished Road, his award winning book, Okri describes our country as an Abiku country. An Ogbanje.
Funke Egbomode’s writings can sometimes appear like an exorcism; as if she is trying to, as we say on the streets, “make our country head correct,” to flog that Abiku into line.
Her style is breezy, funny, and simple without literary pyrotechnics. In fact, when she uses the word ‘conflagration’, Funke Egbemode is quick to apologise. It is clear that when she writes she wants to be read as can be seen from the readers’ reactions she publishes most weeks.
In her writings, Funke is neither judgemental nor selective. The leaders and the led are both complicit and no one escapes her lacerating pen.
Her approach is also unique. Sometimes she is stating the facts and making a catalogue. At other times she assumes the role of an inquisitor raising questions after question like an exasperated mother who has finally cornered a way-ward child.
The second section, ‘Stories and Dialogues,’ shows Funke Egbemode at her comedic best. The series of imaginary conversations will leave you reeling. Sometimes, it is her voice that we hear, at other times we hear the voices of her alter egos, Koko and Kaka who, despite what appears to be their knuckle-headed cluelessness, continue to interrogate our social and political spaces with humour-laced dialogue.
Reading Kaka and Koko, I am reminded of how many of us here would clog up the traffic, refuse to move or give way but then once a mad man or a cripple with one hand stands in the middle of the road and begins to direct traffic all of us would suddenly obey. It has always made me wonder who the mad person really is.
Since we are on the topic of politicians and men of power, let me say this: once you lay your hands on this book you must read the imaginary interview with Adedibu in “Amala Politics is better than salad politics.” The piece is witty, wickedly funny and painfully sad all at once.
As you read this book, you will find yourself laughing out loud at many instances but make no mistake about it; the laughter is just to keep yourself from crying because Nigeria is one really sick country.
What is a country without its men of power and its politicians? That is Funke Egbemode’s pre-occupation in the third section of the book, ‘Reality Takes’ which opens with an in-depth, incisive and well written piece on the Senate President. “One Day with David Mark” is the kind of journalistic examination that every government official holding high office should be subjected to. We need to know what they really do with our time.
Funke Egbemode was a few years ago, the only female editor of a major title in Nigeria. As a journalist, she has worked from the ground floor to the rarefied heights of the executive floor but like many journalists she has not lost the common touch, the intuitive feel for a story, that nose for hard news.
And as a journalist working at the level she now operates, her path often crosses with that of those in power but has that made her powerful? No. Funke Egbemode still gnashes her teeth when it’s time to pay school fees. The road in front of her house still gets flooded. In effect Funke Egbemode is just a bloody journalist.
And journalists have always straddled this dangerous divide; one that provides them access to the rich and powerful, while they continue to perform daily miracles of survival. But if you think the Nigerian journalist began to suffer this century, let me take you to the book Awo published in 1961 and written by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Writing on page 80, Awolowo who worked at the Daily Times for eight months informs us that “journalism was an unprofitable, frustrating and soul depressing career at that time in Nigeria. There was a general but inarticulate contempt for newspapermen, particularly the reporters…journalism was not as well-paid then as a good job in the civil service or a mercantile house. Only editors and their immediate assistants could afford to own a bicycle.”
So, the point has been made that it is more profitable to work in the civil service or to be a banker or hallelujah, become a politician.
While we may all find this hilarious, my take away is completely different. If I asked this august gathering what Nigeria’s currency is, almost everyone will say the naira. But that is the wrong answer.
The currency we all trade with in Nigeria is Nostalgia. Every day we hear things like:
In the good old days, when you left university jobs would be chasing you.
In the good old days, every graduate got a car loan
In the good old days government subsidised food for undergraduates
In the good old days, the naira exchanged at N1 to the dollar.
In the good old days we were ruled by a Saint called Sani Abacha.
Yes, give it time, five years from now, today, December 12, 2013 will be regarded as the good old days despite our bad roads, our corrupt officials, our bad leaders, Boko Haram, Niger Delta militants, rampaging kidnappers. Just give it time.
But nostalgia is not really a bad thing. It is a national pastime and our coping mechanism. It is that which makes us Nigerians, imbuing us with that innate and uncanny ability to compartmentalise pain, to compare it to past pains and say “wetin sef, you never see pain o. go Somalia.”
It is that same nostalgia that drives Funke Egbemode to ask in Chapter 5 of her book “Why’s our past better than our present?” My answer is simple, my sister because Nigeria doesn’t ever get better we begin to see yesterday’s evil as if it was good.
In conclusion, let me talk about a few things that I did not quite like. A typo jumps out at you on page two where we read “there are babies who will chose Lagos” instead of choose while on page 228 we read that David Mark was dressed in “stripped short sleeved shirt” instead of striped.
Page 111 is virtually unreadable because it was badly positioned on the printer’s plate but my biggest issues were the omissions. The author should have ensured that she provided the dates when each piece was published. If she did we would have found out that 5 years ago, she was writing about an ASUU strike and a Doctors’ strike and today, she is writing about those same things.
What does that tell us? The good old days are here again.