Africa’s Narrative Agency: Teaching Pius Adesanmi, By James Yeku
For Adesanmi, the question of narrative agency remains central to the task of accurately representing Africa. As a public intellectual whose excellent concatenations of satiric writings were a constant ‘viral presence’ on social media, Adesanmi was greatly invested in a continent which now possesses what he saw as the ability to self-write, self-inscribe, and self-globalise because of new modular forms such as Web 2.0.
The one-year anniversary of Pius Adesanmi’s passing finds me at a time when I am grading a batch of student reviews of You’re Not A County, Africa for my ‘Introduction to Africa’ class at the University of Kansas. Adesanmi, whose life was cut short by the Ethiopian Airlines crash of March 10, 2019, would have been 48 last month. I have taught his You’re Not A County, Africa in the last two semesters at KU and have been fascinated with students’ stimulating responses to Adesanmi’s personal take on Africa’s contemporary history. Drawing its title from a line in Abioseh Nicol’s poem, “The Meaning of Africa,” Adesanmi’s collection of essays explores the politics of knowledge production and new ways of writing Africa that frees it from the grips of essentialist discourses, which another Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, refers to as a single story. In a post-humous publication, Who Owns the Problem? Africa and the Struggle for Agency, the late Adesanmi yet again fixates on this urgency of owning and accurately telling the African story, “our stories as Black people, our stories as African people”, as he phrases it. For Adesanmi, the question of narrative agency remains central to the task of accurately representing Africa. As a public intellectual whose excellent concatenations of satiric writings were a constant ‘viral presence’ on social media, Adesanmi was greatly invested in a continent which now possesses what he saw as the ability to self-write, self-inscribe, and self-globalise because of new modular forms such as Web 2.0.
As I read his new book and reread You’re Not A County, Africa and the reviews my students submitted, I remember the circumstances of Adesanmi’s death, and the way he appeared to preempt his final exit through a Facebook post. For some, this prescient sense of discernment has connections to Adesanmi’s acceptance of himself as Abiku, that “roaming spirit-child fated to repeated crossings between the worlds of the living and the dead”, as he describes it. Adesanmi proudly enthuses that, “my undergraduate students in North America can’t have enough of me”, whenever he taught J.P. Clark’s or Wole Soyinka’s ‘Abiku,’ foregrounding his own embodied iteration of the Yoruba worldview and spirituality that defined his writings.
In this two-part series, I have curated and presented two undergraduate students’ reviews of Pius Adesanmi’s You’re Not A County, Africa, presenting in the second part a metareading of the reviews by Sakiru Adebayo, a doctoral candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand — an institution that hosted several seminars by Adesanmi. The goal of this series is to hear the voices and perspectives of students who are not unlike the many students that have been mentored and taught by Adesanmi. The American students I have taught so far have engaged critically with an important text on Africa, demonstrating an awareness of Africa as misperceived in many parts of the U.S. Highlighting these reviews is also intended to contribute to the excellent initiatives that memorialise the author, as we further circulate his ideas to publics beyond Nigeria. The first review, by Sam Proctor, underscores the key points in Adesanmi’s nonfictional account, bringing into view what Proctor calls a “naked humanism that Adesanmi conveys in his interpretation and analysis of social issues.” I have obtained the permissions of Messrs. Proctor and Tomkins to publish their submissions, offering very few edits only when necessary. I will conclude by introducing the second essay and offering some additional thoughts.
Sam Proctor’s Review of You’re Not A Country, Africa by Pius Adesanmi
The book You’re Not a Country, Africa by Pius Adesanmi describes cultural and political issues in Africa, perceptions of Africa within the continent’s borders and abroad, among many other important topics. The book is divided into four parts. Part one explains how his upbringing in Nigeria gave the author his identity through cultures and traditions, and how that identity shaped his contact with the western world. Part two lingers on travel, enumerating and illustrating the many meanings of Africa through the author’s experience in Africa and the West. In part three, Adesanmi recounts his interventions in the representation of Africa by some “perpetually vexatious” Western spokespersons. The fourth and final part of the text reflects on issues in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country.
In the opening chapters of Part one, Adesanmi explains the ideological tensions of his upbringing, showing how these shaped his immediate and extended family, as well as the consequent formation of his identity. His father and mother had been affected by colonialism in the early 19th century, eventually abandoning their inherited spiritual beliefs and practices to become followers of Catholicism. As a result, Pius’s family changed his name several times. At birth he was given a traditional name, Adebola Oota Adesanmi. Then, his parents excised “Oota” from his name, leaving him as Adebola Adesanmi. Eventually, at the age of 10, he received his current name Pius Adesanmi, which is attuned to his Catholic heritage and the colonial modernity it represented.
Proceeding forward with his inquiry into the meanings, identities, perceptions and mis/representations of Africa, Adesanmi articulates his personal history of living in Nigeria. He then retells the evolution of his intellectual career in western countries such as France, Canada, and America, as well as how Africa is perceived and spoken of by Westerners. After a discussion with a classmate at UBC, Adesanmi surmises that westerners are largely ignorant of African cultures, history, and politics. Furthermore, people seemed to perceive Africa as a single country with one unified culture.
This culture is represented in the Western mind as largely wild and primitive. Although Adesanmi’s project largely focuses on conveying the richness and diversity of cultural values in various parts of Africa, he does not shy away from discussing important criticisms of African social, political, and cultural issues. In part four, he discusses several negative realities existing in Nigeria, for instance. From issues of poverty and corruption, to the politics of gender, Adesanmi provides his interpretation of that which presently plagues the country, the causes of such situations, as well as warnings to Nigerians about the future of the people’s livelihood under a Nigerian Northern elite that sometimes puts sectarian interest ahead of national growth.
Another aspect of the book, which deeply struck me, was the naked humanism that Adesanmi expresses in his interpretation and analysis of social issues. It is apparent that the author’s mission is not merely to condemn those people who ought to be condemned. Rather, his intentions appear genuinely to spread knowledge to all people who are willing to think critically about African and global issues.
Going back and forth between describing personal experiences and speaking objectively about some of these kinds of topics, You’re Not a Country, Africa may be categorised as both an autobiographical book, as well as an intellectual and political one. In my view, the author does a masterly job of weaving back and forth between the personal and the non-personal. Adesanmi clearly feels quite strongly about articulating in an intellectual manner the state of affairs in African countries, the identities of African peoples, the perceptions and representations of Africa, and much more. Yet, at the same time, he intends to tell his own story as someone who grew up in Africa and describes from his own perspective how he fits into all of the events occurring around him.
Another aspect of the book, which deeply struck me, was the naked humanism that Adesanmi expresses in his interpretation and analysis of social issues. It is apparent that the author’s mission is not merely to condemn those people who ought to be condemned. Rather, his intentions appear genuinely to spread knowledge to all people who are willing to think critically about African and global issues. Whether he is constructing an argument about the history of colonialism, or the horrors of the American slave trade, or religious terrorism in Africa, or corrupt government elites in Northern Nigeria, Adesanmi consistently aims to tell a balance of stories. He wants to see poverty decrease. He craves to see corruption decrease. He desires to promote gender equality. He wants to combat xenophobia and stereotypes that people have about Africa.
In short, he wants to present an honest depiction of the state of things in order to promote well-being and understanding among human beings. This notion of enhanced humanism is clearly portrayed in chapter two of part one, when speaking of his African American friends who criticise him for listening to the music of southern white racists, he writes: “I told them jokingly but truthfully that my humanism was expansive enough to accommodate Satchmo, Mozart, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ajadi Ilorin, Rossini, Comfort Omoge, Kassav, Lady Gaga, Beethoven, Rihanna, Obesere, and most certainly Don Williams!” In conclusion, while many of the harsh realities discussed in You’re Not a Country, Africa do not necessarily spark joy, they are critically important to learn and think about, and I will definitely be recommending this book to my friends and academic peers!
James Yeku is with the African and African American Studies programme and the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas.