Dyed Thoughts: A Conversation in and from My Country, by Nwachukwu Egbunike; Feathers and Ink, Ibadan, 2012
One of the greatest difficulties in reviewing a book made up of articles written at different points in time is uncovering a common thread that unites all the articles contained in it. I must say that this was not my experience in my review of Dyed Thoughts: A Conversation in and from My Country by Nwachukwu Egbunike and I am so happy that I was spared that difficulty. For though the book is a collection of essays, a common thread of love, patriotism, optimism, empathy for Nigerian in all her travails runs through the book uniting the various articles therein. The title also gives away some of the author's intention. Conversation is mentioned in the title and so it is indeed, for in all the articles, one meets an author who is listening attentively and also talking to his country - a talk rich in understanding, concern, compassion, humour, occasional sarcasm, sadness but never in pessimism.
The collection of articles is quite impressive and covers themes such as life, death, politics, social conditions, interpersonal relations, the spirit of enterprise, decay of infrastructure, comatose social services, gender and the role of women, the arts, religion... and all of this in a writing that speaks hope even when the subject at hand is sad, and in a style which does not patronise the reader or the subject under treatment. Dyed Thoughts can be likened to a panoramic sketch of the numerous challenges of nationhood in our country as articles in it touch on virtually everything from the problems of the Niger Delta, environmental pollution and the head on clash between a motley collection of discontented militants and local environmentalists on the one hand and the oil companies on the other, to the early beginnings of a religion driven radicalization and terrorism (the Mutallab bumble), to communal conflicts, through to the mess in our banking industry, the challenges of steady electricity generation and distribution, the growing and unsettling materialism, the demise of the arts and culture, election petitions and contested results right up to the fuel subsidy protest. The exemplary lives of successful Nigerians are celebrated in some articles. The works Governor Chime and Professor Nebo are appreciated and praised. Nwachukwu's choice of his heroes is also significant as it shows a completely detribalised Nigerian. For instance, Bajah and Sanusi are singled out for well-earned praises whilst his commentary on the activities of one Nigerian politician shows his abhorrence for politics driven by a cult of self, opportunism and expediency.
The articles are well researched and the depth of treatment gives an insight into the mind of the author. Sociological insights and empathy are strong points in these articles, particularly empathy, which is born from a palpable humanist impulse nurtured by Nwachukwu's Christian faith. It is this interaction of a humanist empathy and Christian faith that produces the general conclusion that emerges at the end of the book - that things could be better in Nigeria if her citizens applied themselves with dedication to crucial tasks of nation building.
The book is divided into nine unequal parts viz- random mulling, factual, in the public square, the humanities humanise, spoofing scripts, chalks and classrooms, accolades and farewells, Q&A and credo. It is impossible in a review of this nature to go into all the articles so I will simply contend myself with randomly picking and providing the flimsiest of commentaries on a few articles in the hope that I would have whetted the appetite of the reader to then grab a copy of the book and savour its richness.
Let me then quickly run through some articles that caught my fancy. "Mama Anambra" is lament for Anambra State, Nwachukwu's state of origin and of her political travails, whilst "An eye for details" is an essay in praise of hard work. "Justice first, mercy later" is a call for prompt and impartial judicial processes, whilst "Why are we no longer surprised" is an essay on corruption and a proposal on ways to address and gradually eradicate this plague. "Hope for a troubled land" is a recognition of our national crisis but with an appeal for all to come together and save her. "The more things change, nothing changes" is a lament over the vicissitudes in the anti-corruption campaign and forceful condemnation of resistance to change. Though frustration runs through the article, stubborn hope and faith also surface in it, "I no find kerosene buy" and "Power play" criticise failing social services, unsteady power supply, corruption and other social ills plaguing Nigeria, whilst "Sounding the death knell on the Niger Bridge" is a lament over the flip flop of policies and the politicisation of decision-making. "PhDs for sale" is a stinging critique of the Nigerian society's fondness for titles, the underfunding of tertiary institutions and the commercialisation of honorary doctorate degrees, whilst "Leeches on our roads" is about the rent-seeking and parasitic behaviour of most Nigerians who find themselves in law enforcement or gate keeping functions. "Pornographic science in schools" is essentially a plea for age appropriate curriculum content in schools. "Why African economies are teetering" takes up the issue of governance and corruption and argues that it is mis-governance and corruption that holds us down. A similar theme is treated in "I pledge to Nigeria" which is a critique of the death of values and the progressive erosion of morals in our system and how these show up in corrupt practices. There is even an article, "So you want to write?" which provides invaluable coaching for budding writers.
"Witches, MASSOB, MOPOL and my person of the year" is soaked in a fine blend of bathos and pathos - with very deft sarcasm he exposes the superstition of the average Nigerian, the preaching industry with its new found obsession with demons, witches and wizards, the unending exploitation of travellers by either the agberos or the MOPOL, the everyday drama one witnesses of east bound buses and the poor condition of our roads. "Sweet-sour adventure to Cameroon" aptly illustrates the challenges facing true regional integration in Africa. Though the experiences on the trip were harsh, it is to the author's credit that he manages to suppress any bitterness and is thus able to end the story on a positive note. "Is life a terminal illness?" takes us to a closer examination of life, living and death and touches in passing on our attitudes to death, our expensive burial rites and some of our practices at death which are inimical to women.
The foregoing is imperfect synopsis of a rich, entertaining and informative book. A number of the chapters were written in the 2004-2008 period and a few in the (Goodluck Ebele Jonathan) GEJ era. The chapters are of unequal length but the tone and language are simple and evenly-paced. Irony and sarcasm surface here and there and there is also the occasional sense of nostalgia for times past. Nwachukwu's take on corruption is quite fresh - a Fabian approach that seeks to progressively achieve behaviour change rather than a head on challenge. The author's take on the 2011 election shows considerable sympathy for President Jonathan and with it the hope that the GEJ presidency would live up to the hopes and aspirations of Nigerians who trooped out to vote for him. The hope is an important one for Nwachukwu who in a number of articles in the collection has lamented the failures of leadership and the progressive enthronement of a cult of mediocrity as the bane of our polity!
The collection of essays should be useful to any student of Nigeria's contemporary history, politics and sociology as it sheds important light on certain key events and societal dynamics. They should certainly help explain why we have fared so badly in our efforts as a nation and perhaps point to the things we need to do to move beyond our present developmental stasis. The work, especially, the excursion into the arts, is particularly impressive, given the author's background and training in laboratory science, even though Nwachukwu in a demonstration of exemplary modesty gives credit for his successful foray into writing to the role played by his literature teacher played in priming his interest in words. What greater case can one make for the recognition of the teacher? What greater case can one make for pedagogy in the Paulo Freirian sense that lights up the mind and opens it to explore, to discover and self-actualise? This is a good book and a great read and I commend it to all.
• Dr. Ihebuzor - a development analyst and aspiring poet - lives in Dar Salam, Tanzania.