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 NwachukwuEgbunike 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 humanize, 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” criticize 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 politicization 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 commercialization 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.
“AIDS: let’s face fact” is the author’s head on assault on condom promotion as the most promoted method for HIV/AIDS prevention. Invoking facts from molecular biology, Nwachukwu argues that condoms are not as safe as they are presented to be. The central message is that all three methods of prevention:abstinence, fidelity and condom use should be promoted and the final choice left to the human agent. As we say in reproductive health campaigns on safe sex, the choices here are as clear as ABC. In another article, the author looks at the issue of gay rights and how these align or agree with African world views and here one notices for the first time a sign of rigidity in position which contrasts sharply with Nwachukwu’s largely liberal attitude in most of the essays. One is tempted to attribute this rigidity to his Catholic background!
Part IV, which is on the humanities, is a thrill to read and all the more thrilling as Nwachukwu shows in it that, his background in the sciences notwithstanding, he is at home with all the techniques of incisive literary criticism and sociological analysis. This section kicks off with a lament of the dearth of new literary giants in Nigeria since Achebe and then broadens to treat the reader to an excellently executed reviews of a novel, of a book on democracy by Jega, of Munoz’s book, “The past in the present” a book in which Munoz struggles to reconcile the past with the present and to suggest ways in which knowledge from and of the past could be used in the present as Africa struggles to go forward. There is also a review of Mark Nwagwu’s book “Forever chimes”, a novel with very intricate plots and sub-plots and surprising denouement. Each of these reviews is done with great compassion, delicacy, depth and thoroughness. The guided tour of the Oshogbo Sacred Groove is done with style, charm and one almost feels as if one were there in person with the author.