Education & Health

Before I became a writer

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This week, LR features Chika Unigwe. A very remarkable young lady who one of our LR Team members first met about 4 years ago at a Pan African event. For want of words to sum this lady up, we explored all avenues and penned many a highlight. However, we had to discard them all, and borrow the very succinct but apt introduction Wikipedia used for her.  Permit us to quote Wikipedia:  “Chika Nina Unigwe is a Nigerian-born author who writes in English and Dutch. In April 2014 she was selected for the Hay Festival‘s Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define future trends in African literature”.

See what this lady who is dedicated to using her talents for cross-cultural continental integration has to tell us this week.

Before I became a writer…

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Let me begin with a story – for that is what I am after all, a storyteller. I would like to share a short piece I wrote on commission in 2008 for a library in a little city in Flanders. Once upon a time, in a village far, far away, there lived a people who were very peaceful. The ground of the village square was littered with stories. Every night, the villagers gathered in the square, picked up the stories and told them to each other. Sometimes, the creative ones mixed up parts of different stories to come up with entirely new stories with which to entertain the rest. One day, an order came from the capital that they were to be given a King. ‘But why?’ asked the villagers. ‘We’ve never had kings. Why do we need one now?’

‘Because it is progressive,’ came the response.

The King was everything they could hope for in a monarch. He was regal in his bearing, elucidated his words carefully. But he thought it was against the spirit of progress to have the market square littered with words, with stories. He ordered that all the words be gathered up and burnt.

What do we do when we need to entertain ourselves? The villagers asked him.

You recollect the stories that you know and share with the rest. You must know enough now by heart! And at the end of every gathering, I want all the words you have let out burnt. I do not want to have any words littering the village.

Every night, the villagers gathered but not one person could completely recount any single story in its entirety. They quarreled amongst themselves, accusing each other of not remembering rightly, of not telling the stories ‘properly’. Every day, they had to create new stories from nothing.  This village that was once very peaceful became unrecognizable. The King sent for the wisest man in the kingdom, Akpauburuumuomam. Tell me, the King said to him, how can I have peace restored?

Your Majesty, Akpauburuumuomam said, the world’s misery begins when a people can no longer recollect their history. When they no longer remember their stories. Think about it.

The King thought hard for three days and three nights. At the end of the third night, he gave an order that a huge, fortified building was to be built. In this building, he ordered that every story remembered, every story told was to be kept in there. Every night, the words to the stories were let out and the villagers built on those half remembered stories until they had full ones. At the end of the night, they locked away the stories securely. Peace once more reigned.

We hear it very often predicted: the book is dead. There is nothing further from the truth.

The book will not die because the story will not die.   It’s too protean. It only grows more indispensable as the world becomes at once much more global and much more complex, as humans continue to seek answers, not just to life but also to the meaning of life.

I am humbled to be a member of that group of people who call themselves ‘writers.’

However, before I became a writer, I was a reader. My parents ensured that our house in Enugu was one where books and dreams, no matter how ambitious, thrived.

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When I was in primary school, a classmate brought an American children’s magazine, Highlights for Children to school. I enjoyed it but could not finish reading it before school broke. She would not lend it to me. The next day she brought it to school. I read a bit before I had to return it. When I got home, I told my father how very much I would like a subscription to the magazine. He asked me to note the address when next I was allowed to borrow it. I did. He subscribed my sister and me to it for several delightful years. Whenever my parents travelled abroad, they came back – not only with boxes of clothes and shoes- but with books as well. And when a bookstore opened within a walking distance of our house, I got extra pocket money to spend on books.
Not content with just reading, I began to write, badly imitating the writers I had read and admired for so long, particularly Enid Blyton whose books were a stock in many homes at the time. I had my own version of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five; I had my characters partaking in the sort of adventures that I only partially understood from the myriad of characters I experienced from my reading galore. I also tortured my parents with my bad writing but their encouragement never wavered.

For most of my childhood, we often vacationed in Osumenyi, my ancestral home, during the long vacation. One year, I must have been about 10 years old, I told my father I wanted to write a book. As far as I was concerned, writing a book meant typing out all the stories and poems I had collected in my journal, myself. He did not laugh at me. He went and sourced a typewriter for me, and it is only in hindsight that I appreciate the lengths to which he went to get me that machine. I still remember my joy at spending those months behind a typewriter, hunched over the keyboard typing slowly as I could not type blind, one letter after the other, being a ‘real writer.’
I remember my parents’ praise of my handwork. They were my first audience. They nurtured my belief. They gave me the gift of faith. They led me on the road to discovering the magic of words, and claiming them as mine.

 

All for one, one for all! Women on the Pan-African Innovation Horizon supporting each other. From left to right, Chika Unigwe, Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli and Chimamanda Adichie.

All for one, one for all! Women on the Pan-African Innovation Horizon supporting each other. From left to right, Chika Unigwe, Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli and Chimamanda Adichie.

That faith propelled me, when I moved to Belgium. It propelled me to enter for a writing competition, writing in a language I was only passably good at. I sent off my entry and thought no more of it. When I got the phone call that I was one of the ten winners to be published in an anthology, I was overwhelmed. Wining that competition opened up the doors to the publishing industry in my new home to me. More than that, it gave me the courage to think that perhaps, I could make a career of writing. It gave me the permission to continue using my gift of writing.

Everyday since then has been a reaffirmation of that gift. Every difficulty, every rejection – for those will come – is humbling, and every success is a reminder that I am perhaps on the right path. And I do not take that for granted.

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Chika Unigwe with Ngugi Wa Thiongo – what did one great author tell the other?

Dr.  Chika Unigwe with Professor Ngugi Wa Thiongo – what did one great author tell the other?

A few of us at the LR Team during the work on this release, commented that the first part of the write up, got them thinking. “It was quite abstract one said”. ‘Why should we include it – our readers may find it difficult to comprehend?’ Another asked. A member of the team who had been silent volunteered to throw more light on the first few pages. He explained that Chika just told us all, about what is happening on our African continent. Like the “King” in this write up, our ‘Rulers’ wrongly begin to hallucinate that it is against the spirit of progress to “have the market square littered with words, with stories” meaning, they fail to comprehend when the citizenry begin to speak and ask questions. Like the King who ordered that all the words be gathered up and burnt, so do African Rulers often time institute actions that gag and curtail the expression of followership. And we all know that until and unless followership awakens, “true leadership” does not evolve. We all need to be part of this awakening in our own unique way. After this analysis, it became clearer what a great writer Dr. Chika Unigwe really is because when a vote was eventually taken, The LR Team members voted 100 percent that the first part of this write up stays the way it is – to enable each and every one of us awaken to our followership responsibilities or give it our own interpretation.

However, before she became this world famous writer she is now, Chika tells us she was first a reader. Her parents’ and her own dedication laid her foundation through reading. She read her way to become a graduate in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She read some more to acquire an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium as well as a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, having completed a thesis entitled “In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting” in 2004.
We are very proud of this daughter, sister, mother, wife and Pan- African Literary scholar whose stories have been aired on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria, and other Commonwealth Radio Stations.

On a final note dear readers, we here at the LR can assure you that many of you will almost not be able to guess right where we are heading for next week even if you tried. It is this unpredictable but unique nature of this “borderless motivational space”, your feedback has indicated that keep you all coming back. In the interim, it is worth giving our foundation or roots some thoughts to clearly chart the course of our future. Before we each became what we are now, what were we? Let your reflections this week; find their way onto our comments section.

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