Saturday, October 17, 2015



Aye ti mo wa yi
Ko ma ye mi o;
Sebi eyin lo’olorun
Keji mi laye…
This world I live in
I hardly understand;
You’re gods over me
Here on earth….

Here is the child in the late Christy Essien Igbokwe’s 1981 hit song, Omo Mi Seun Rere (My child, do what’s good).

They walk beside you, clasped onto your arm. You break lose and lope in a bashful attempt to lose them, these street things. But they give chase, calling all sorts of sweet names after you: oga, uncle, brother, sir, daddy….you know what other names they will call you if you don’t stop – these street things.

You stop to ask them what they want. You know. What else can kids this sallow-looking, with ribs sticking out, want from you this early morning?

You ask, anyway; that’s what you must do. One of them screws his lips to the shape of a pig’s snout and scoops some invisible food to it; another raises his tattered shirt and thuds his hollow stomach. You don’t expect that they speak good English; you know all that. You know what they mean – they mean: “We’re hungry; give us money”. You tuck you hand into your pocket, hold a rough bill up above them, searching for your main character: that is the kid for whom your pity is strongest so that the moment you hand the bill to him or her, your heart is freed from thought of their real needs by a momentary smile and a happy cheer.

They circle you now, their eyes fixed on the raised bill. Infant eyes turned red by the wildness of the streets burn your fingers. Left, right, your eyes dart.

There she is, pushed aside to a corner. She’s the youngest one – not more than five. In an oversize, shabby gown, she nibbles at her bun as she stares up at you. Those eyes sear your heart. You bring down your hand and push the rough bill into her tiny hand. She perks up clenching it in a fist to protect it from the others.

There’s a gridlock. Cars and bikes move clumsily on each narrow lane, impatiently honking their hones with their lamps on. You imagine the raised pavement dividing the road into two narrow lanes to be a lighted pedestal; smokes writhe through the beams of light, silhouetted against the canvas of impalpable darkness. The noise melts into a surreal ambience of shiny sequins and chandeliers, with beautiful turned-out people giving an ovation. You catch yourself saying “thank you” on the podium, with a bland smile; and then, folding up your file, you walk centre-stage to take a bow and allow a few snaps. You really gripped your audience. The moderator, a British man, is congratulating you on the “electrifying talk”. He adds that your novel, Through the Eyes of a Gutter Child, takes the plight of the African child one step further than those contained in the shelves of literature extant on the subject.

“Carry your dead body comot for road, o jare!” the curt warning of an Okada-rider jolts you back to reality. He misses you by an inch, but you come off with a fine spray of mud water on the legs of you trousers.

The ground is wet from the night’s rain. It’s cold. The kids run from one stranger to another, barefoot, driven up this early even when dawn, if thought of as human, could yet be seen along the horizon withdrawing tardily from her star-spangled bed of retreating darkness. Ideas form in your mind: Through the Eyes of a Gutter Child.

You know there are “shelves of literature extant on the subject”. If you’ll make any headway, you know you must spin a more gruesome tale – the “one step further” to grip your imaginary audience scattered over Europe and America.

You’ve met these children so many times. Well, not them exactly, but the protean effigy of them in fiction books, bearing different names; being different things and of different nationality; speaking different languages – Kiswahili, Kinyawanda, Kikuyu, Pidgin English….and you’ve learnt to feel for them.

But none has looked into the eyes of this very little girl – eyes like a kitten’s.

Let’s assume you turn out type and in a few months submitted your manuscript for the novel Through the Eyes of a Gutter Child to a publisher. In a few weeks you get a manila envelop with positive response. You get published.

If the novel is good, you get blurbs from top-flight journals. It becomes a best seller. Nominations follow shortlists; prizes follow awards. The story is well received. But that’s not the success of the story. Scattered over the pages of that book, couched in subtle literary forms, are your own ideas on seeing a need and trying to meet it. For you who have seen, on whose conscience the need to act has been impressed, your part is really not to write. Rather, your part is to act.

To write is partly to bring a need to the notice of a larger audience urging them to rise as one man and act; it’s partly to bear one’s mind. But it’s never to eschew one’s own response by creating it in the minds of others; never to eke out the guilt from ones inability to act to others, making each get a portion of the bitter broth placed before one by one’s own conscience. The story is therefore incomplete if the end for which it was written remains unmet.

While the words “fiction” and “fact” have different definitions in theory, they are, or are fast becoming, synonymous in practice. Even when one creates a purely imaginary milieu, whether William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Chinua Achebe’s Kangan, it’s impossible to interpret fiction without drawing on its direct relation and correspondence to reality.
The reader and the critic take into account the relation between fiction and fact, but seem oblivious of, or treat with a lot more flippancy, the relation between purpose and actualization.

The subartist, like everyone else, knows we all prefer to see these kids, these street things, on the pages of a book of fiction or the news papers. There, when they stare at you with eyes like kittens’ you don’t simply get them off your conscience by pushing rough bills into their hands. Rather, you respond with an equally illusory compassion. You even invite them into your home; care for them and send them to the best schools.
In the mind, all men are Mother Theresa. And if you succeed in writing a really pathetic story out of that roadside experience, you make the world aware of a need.

This exaggerated need to spread abroad the plight of the African child, little by little, has imprisoned a really pathetic image of them in fiction books. Like cowboys and Indians. If the child is chubby and round, happy and smiling – it couldn’t be African. To be African, it has to be thin and shrivelled, with a pale face. And it doesn’t matter whether it existed on the streets of Africa. It could be imaginary – like the kids in Kony2012. Any sad tale about the African child is believable. But that’s not where the problem lies.

The problem lies in the fact that an onslaught of such sentimental writing might plunge the African child and its needs into the realm of literary romanticism, so that when one actually sees the child in need one feels nothing save a withdrawn, arm-chair sympathy. One learns to philosophize over its needs and abate the consciences by placing its situation in the novelists’ context of conflicts and resolutions: only the world can do anything to help this child.

Writers will win awards; they’ll be invited to give talks; they may be assigned really nice posts on matters touching under-privileged children. But these children whose story they have taken, and told in even more heart-rending ways in fiction, will remain on the streets, running from stranger to stranger. They will live a pathetic life whose very pathos was already felt and adapted to.
The readers’ question becomes: could there be a more heart-rending tale? And the writer, whose very vocation is to feed the neurotic fantasy of its readers, is bound always to answer: yes.

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