Nigeria Bites Back

by CHARLES R. LARSON

It’s no surprise that a number of the younger Nigerian writers who have spent significant portions of their lives in the United States focus their novels on the tensions between the two countries—not the political ones, but the personal ones that question their characters’ identities.  Who are these young Americanahs (to use the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel)?  For those Nigerians who have spent many years in the United States, how easy is it to return to the motherland and fit back into their cultures—especially if the cultural is rural, not at all similar to the American cities where most of these writers have lived?  To be fair, other African writers are also blending their stories with American and African settings.  But it’s the Nigerians (because of the country’s highly educated, large population) who still dominate the scene as anyone who reads Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc will quickly realize.

Ikechukwu Uzondu (“Ike for short”) graduated cum laude in economics from Amherst College thirteen years ago and assumed that he would quickly be hired by an American financial firm.  But he only had a student visa, not a green card, during his university days and—worse—his accent is so thick that no company has wanted to hire him.  So Ike’s been a taxi driver in several Eastern cities for all these years though he also married an African-American woman in order that he could get American citizenship.  A familiar story, to be sure.  But the marriage didn’t work out (his wife continually spent all of his earnings and then some) and eventually resulted in divorce.  Thus, Ike still has no decent job, just debts.

This is the information quickly provided about Ike at the opening of the novel but also one further fact that Ike is certain will solve all of his financial problems.  Another Nigerian told Ike about an article in New York magazine, highlighting the successful business of an American businessman called “Foreign Gods Inc.”  The boutique artifact dealer specializes in carvings, statues and other sacred objects from non-Western traditional societies, ritual objects so valuable that they can sell for as much as six figures.  To hell with the fact that most of these objects have probably been stolen from traditional societies.  The owner of the niche gallery clearly isn’t bothered by that.  The buyers no doubt even less as long as they can get their hands on an authentic piece of tribal “art.”

When Ike read the New York article, his initial reaction was negative, but weeks later as his finances became more precarious (his wife got everything during the divorce), he changes his mind.  All it really took was remembering Ngene, the god of his own village—a god of war.  “The idea of a few wealthy 9781616953133individuals buying up so-called foreign gods and sacred objects just didn’t sit well with him.  The sport struck him as the height of arrogance.  If you had loads of cash, you could purchase deities torn away from their shrines in remote corners of the world.  You could install these displaced, forlorn gods in your expensive city apartments or country mansions.  And then you could invite friends and relatives over to gaze, in astonishment, admiration, or awe, at your odd acquisitions.  What did it all prove?  It was sheer decadence.  When Ike read in the magazine that anybody who acquired a deity was known as the god’s ‘parent,’ he paused and suppressed a rueful laugh.”

Never mind that the West spent several centuries robbing non-Western societies (and sometimes other Western ones as in the case of the Elgin marbles), plundering the pasts of much of the world.  The biggest difference today is that rich individuals can afford to acquire these sacred objects.  No questions asked.  It’s a little like the truly rich buying paintings stolen from art galleries and museums and drooling over them in the secrecy of their own digs.

It doesn’t take long after Ike returns to Nigeria that the reader understands that the young man himself has become a foreign god.  He’s had to borrow money from his friends to undertake the trip to his remote village, so there’s not a lot of extra money to pay for bribes as soon as he enters the country.  He’s immediately regarded as a rich American.  Con-artists are out to take advantage of him as soon as he exits the airport in Lagos.  Policemen seek further bribes along the way.  A fair bit of money has already been spent by the time he reaches his village, Utonki, in Igboland.  But then, immediately, villagers and members of his extended family regard him as a cash cow who ought to be able to drop money on them in order that they can rise above their daily misery.  Ike is acutely aware that he hasn’t sent his mother any money in several years and her situation is dire.

Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc is one of the most impressive African novels that I have read in years.  Comic, sad—even tragic—Ndibe is a master craftsman, weaving his narrative with ethnic materials (and surprises) and a profundity that will startle you by the end of the story.  One clue I’ll offer here: Ikechukwu Uzondu’s journey into his past is as moving and frightful as Brutus Jones’ fate in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, The Emperor Jones.  Clearly, this is one writer to watch.  Moreover, his insights into both America and Nigeria will take your breath away.  What a way to begin 2014.

Okey Ndibe: Foreign Gods Inc.

Soho, 332 pp., $25

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  His many books include The Emergence of African Fiction. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?