Black Writers on Democracy Life-Writing commissions:
Niki Igbaroola is a prolific reader with a BA in Classical Studies and English Literature and an MA in American Literature and Culture. Her love of Literature has seen her develop the platform: @blackgirlrumble which has allowed her to connect with and interview authors like Dorothy Koomson and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. She is also a published poet, with a piece appearing in the 2018, The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK. More of her writing can be found on Black Ballad UK, The Book Banque NG and Genevieve Magazine NG. As a storyteller, she has explored multiple mediums, with a two-year stint as a Radio Presenter for Reform Radio and Copy Editor credits for the FinTech Digital series: #DoughStories. Currently, she is working at writing more short stories and looking to create more content for the audio space.
We’d done this a few times now, paused or working days to converge somewhere in the
downstairs of our home to vent about the state of the world today, yesterday, what feels like
an unending forever.
Today, it was mum’s voice calling out yet another COVID death in Nigeria that pulled us from
too high desks and laptop screens to the kitchen. The gong having tolled for a new life every
day of the last two weeks. Some names I recognise, others I don’t, the impact surprisingly
Who to blame? The government? Laughable to me who had never known a Nigeria whose
government was deemed suitable, not in the years I spent living there and not in the years
since I have become more visitor than resident. Twenty-six years of watching “Africa’s Giant”
decline to nothing, our outward bravado a mask for the meteoric decline of our everything.
No light, no water, terrible roads, laughable healthcare, the idea of an education system, but thank God
for the music, am I right?
Or is it thank God for the weddings? Because “if you weren’t at Governor X’s daughters
$3million wedding last weekend, you missed out on something spectacular,” boasts from the
mouth a person whose daddy miraculously fell into wealth somewhere in ‘84 by virtue of
being a friend of a friend of the minion of a Head of State. The kind of pedigree one only gets
from being part of one of the most well known “business” dynasties. You know them – the
“business” dynasties with no notable offices than public ones.
It doesn’t matter that the naira is N390 to $1 or that a Governor’s annual income is
N10,000,000. Who is doing the math when cash is talking?
If you look quickly enough, you see questioning facial expressions swiftly concealed by
masks of indifference or deference, depending on the occasion. Adjustments, artfully made
by people who have something to say but have long learnt that anger is best swallowed
speedily because the consequences can be fatal – not just socially, physically.
Sure the Nigerian flag is a garish green, white, green, but if you look closely enough, shine
your eye well, you will see the stripe of red going diagonally across. Two slashes meeting
only in the middle. Touch it and fall in line with Macbeth’s Lady.
I had just turned 4 when Abacha was “assassinated”.
My sister on the cusp of 6 still remembers the jubilation that filled the air that day. The staff
member at my mother’s office whose excitement saw her rip a frill from my mother’s blouse.
She recalls this memory today, her 27-year-old body attempting to recreate what her almost
6-year-old body witnessed.
Comical gold meets sobering history.
Yes, the frill was white, a signal of our surrender out of the hands of tyrannical military rule
into what we now recognise as democracy. A New World where the addition of an official
title to a person’s name is all the incentive their belly needs to grow to proportions that defy
But not just yet – on the other side of Abacha was Head of State Abdulsalami Abubakar with
the promise of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, my mother reminds me.
“We were sceptical,” she shares, her face clouded by images of the past. She quickly
becomes a mother of one, unknowingly about to become one of two, a business owner,
slowly growing into herself, a sister who still does not know what happened to her brother
who disappeared shortly after the Vashta coup of 1985. We are old enough now and know
not to probe this memory. Old enough to understand that it is more than a mystery of the
past but an ever present pain.
So we focus instead on another past, roll the dice and land on June 12:
Coincidence or coordinated, you decide?
I wonder if she’d have chosen differently; if she’d have asked to be born another day, if she’d
known that her birth date would become synonymous with one of the greatest democratic
injustices to hit Nigeria.
“The first free and fair election we ever had in Nigeria,” a lament I have heard at regular
intervals in my life.
Nigeria, today calls it Democracy Day, I call it Mother’s birthday.
Where were you on June 12, 1993?
The month of my conception – the day Nigerian’s thought to give voice to their dreams of a
Third Republic. A second attempt at a democratic election, a chance to lend a more pinkish
hue to the blinding red.
“I didn’t go out to cast my vote that day, God showed me in a dream that the will of the
people would not be answered. Your dad thought I was being silly,” she says into the lull in
our animated conversation.
“You could feel the neighbourhood buzzing – everyone made sure they cast their vote. I just
stayed indoors, praying.”
There is no way to respond to this. I am silent. So are my sisters, and my brother. What does
it mean to have this level of faith? A birthday spent awaiting the drop of the guillotine on the
hopes of the people. I wonder if this shaped the eternal sceptic in me. From umbilical cord to
fetus, a situational feeling of watchful scepticism births an eternal distrust of government.
At what point did hopeful jaunty steps become angry marching ones – people ready to die for
a chance of Government, “of the people, for the people and by the people.”
They say that a 100 died in the immediate aftermath but we know that the effects of a thing
lives beyond official reports, especially when the aftermath of this “election annulment” was:
General Sani Abacha.
I am yet to meet a person who can say Abacha’s name without tasting blood.
“That was the season where Hired Assassins reigned. For N1500, you could hire someone
at Balogun Market to take out an enemy. People were pricing meat and pricing murders in
broad daylight. People were dying like flies. That was how X’s dad died. He ended up on the
wrong side of a business deal.” Every syllable drips in disgust as she talks about the years I
took my first breath and first steps, said my first words and made her a mother of two. My
brother, born a year after me in 1995, would make her a mother of three.
I like to think of my sister, born in 1997 as the celebration baby – we need a name for
children born on the other side of coups and dictators, bloodshed and fear. In my house, we
call them Olufolajimi. The Lord has given me good fortune.
But the world does not stop being bad because my sister was born. I know this because the
headline, “Funsho Williams, Lagos Gubernatorial Candidate Found Murdered” is in the
highlight reel of my childhood memories.
It was the first time I understood that a person being found “bound, strangled and stabbed”
was more than a thing that happened in fiction. It happened to men who dared to challenge
the electoral status quo. I was ten, swept up in the excitement of election season for the first
and last time.
What is a free and fair election to a country where candidates can be permanently silenced
and nobody is brought to justice? Where on July 27, 2020, 14 years after the fact, people are
still pleading for an investigation into the murder of Funsho Williams?
No, seriously, what is a free election when Obasanja can have led the country as both
military and twice elected democratic leader?
When Buhari can come back and do the same – each time worse than the last?
When we can vote in a Conservative government led by David Cameron and end up with
Teresa May and Boris Johnson in the same term?
When Hillary Clinton can win the popular vote but Trump the Electoral College?
Earlier this year, I sailed on the Nile in Sudan and listened as people spoke about the
protests that had occupied much of 2019. It was a beautiful day, and I was a guest, so we
didn’t talk about the grit of the revolution, we spoke of the aftermath. I listened and asked
questions about what had changed and stayed the same. In the responses, I could not miss
the caution tinged hope, the furtive glances, tense hands and feet, jaws straining under the
weight of clenched teeth.
So perhaps Democracy is the choice you have from pre-selected choices you dare not
question. Because what many people are learning today is that questioning the status quo
can see you disappearing into an unmarked van, playing with the odds of one day
Tomorrow, I will ask my friend to tell me about Lebanon, watch her eyes become dark pools
– her teeth worrying her bottom lip as she thinks of her younger sister, cousins, father, home.
Next week, I set my eyes on Turkey.
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto (@ChinuaEzenwa) is from Owerri-Nkworji in Nkwerre, Imo state, Nigeria and grew up between Germany and Nigeria. He has a Chapbook, The Teenager Who Became My Mother, via Sevhage Publishers. He became a runner-up in Etisalat Prize for Literature, Flash fiction, 2014. He won the Castello di Duino Poesia Prize for an unpublished poem, 2018 which took him to Italy. He was the recipient of New Hampshire Institute of Art’s 2018 Writing Award, and also the recipient of New Hampshire Institute of Art’s 2018 scholarship to MFA Program. In 2019, he was the winner of Sevhage/Angus Poetry Prize and second runner-up in 5th Singapore Poetry Contest. He won the First Prize in the Creators of Justice Literary Award, Poetry category, organized by International Human rights Art Festival, New York, USA, 2020. His works have appeared in Lunaris Review, AFREADA, Poet Lore, Rush Magazine, Frontier, Palette, Malahat review, Southword Magazine, Vallum, Mud Season Review, Salamander, Strange Horizons, One, Ake Review, Crannòg magazine, The Question Marker and elsewhere.
A Thesis Written While Sitting in an Empty Theatre
…you’ll wonder if this compass will ever change
― Sally Wen Mao
Objectification of Anomalies
Remember the white and green Orchard.
Let’s also call it a country.
And its trees grow a wagging history.
I wonder why there is a name, long forgotten,
scratched into the bark of an Iroko
adulted at the beginning of its anthem;
I wonder why a pair of hands sits by its fireside
and knits napkins with azalea and
keeps muttering without inhaling;
I wonder why a man swallows
his ghost just to prove that its President eats his own arms.
The adopted theory isn’t a false minor.
The trees in the Orchard turn invisible at our mistakes.
Chapter one (Introduction):
When the window into the white and green Orchard broke,
there was nobody bothered about the people and the birds
and the animals loosening and melting in the fire not lighted by God.
A hundred residents and a hundred children dying into the earth.
There was nobody handling the register of bodies
genuflecting before the teeth of the Sun.
One man puts up a theorem about a new beginning
and how everything is to be reborn: a 2 deaths – b 2 birthsτ = c New Darwin
And the mouths from the news beckon: shouldn’t he be called a clown?
I press my hands against hearts and feel a lifted sign:
who steals and hides and runs from his own country?
Chapter two (Literature Review):
There are poems. There are fictions and dramas.
Privileging histories without marked voices and feet.
Everything smells like a box of angst and worries
flowering by the televisions, hearths and dreams.
A brother walks home and snacks his own liver.
A woman sits by a Government factory
and swallows her voice and retirement allowance.
Eyes keep getting numbed by some Government torch lights.
A child by the car park is pointing at
the country’s flag set-up on a rusted pole.
And I wonder as read somewhere: here is it awesome how praying pains
backward creates backward pains praying how awesome it is here?
Chapter Three (Analysis):
The mistakes continue: these horrible, horrible mistakes
we make and cannot name. I hold dreams like prayers,
prayers that I burn with their weights. Tell me, how can
one wear loses enough? how can one wear what
has no words enough for its translations and explanations?
Here, everything becomes a monologue for nothing.
Chapter Four (Analysis):
This is my opinion: I have tried to explain a country’s time
and cannot find the exact constant for it. I have applied other
possible theories and mathematical rules, yet my answers
run into binaries of 1001000111000100… infinity.
At the end one voice becomes a lone sprout in the desert of chaos.
It matters. It doesn’t matter. It matters.
As long as there is a voice, there’s a trusted paragraph.
Note: I’m sorry that part of the thesis conclusion came on at the this chapter
Chapter Five (Conclusion):
Is there a postscript for a postcard postpain?
Is there a postpain for a postcard postscript?
I have to ask: how do we carry well our worries, our losses?
Who said that we should know pain to understand happiness?
Should we touch our neighbours to get how to feel and grow?
Shouldn’t we speak for ourselves to hear our intents?
I gather the summary and findings of a burning country with care
to avoid the push play on another scene where a bomb is a misfired truth.
If you look well enough, there is no work cited here, no reference either.
Yet here I am, holding this place’ map in my hands
hoping it will grow into a constellation of great possibilities.
Olu Alakija is a playwright, screenwriter and script reader. In 2020 his play “Mr Ten per cent”reached the final 3 in Just Some Theatre’s Forward Dialogue Prize. In 2019 he was long-listed for The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and he was shortlisted for the Theatre 503 Five. Olu was one of the Tamasha Playwrights 2017/18 and he has had his work published in Oberon’s “Hear Me Now” an anthology of Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour and his play “The Only Way” was shortlisted for The Bread and Roses Playwriting Award 2016/17. He is a script reader for The Papatango Prize and his work has been performed at various festivals and theatres including The White Bear, The Space Arts Centre, The Bread & Roses Theatre, The Vaults, Rich Mix, The Drayton Arms Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, The Arcola Theatre, RADA Studios, The Bunker Theatre and Soho Theatre.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no 14 – Moonlight Sonata plays.
Priest, who is dressed in black and wearing a clerical/dog collar slowly adjusts the
camera angle. Priest stares at the screen slowly as if taking in the eyes of his online
Priest: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today via Zoom due to the
current crisis to pay a deep, heartfelt tribute to the recently departed
Hope, a pure and innocent soul. Why her? And why now? We find
ourselves wondering why did she have to die? It is said that we all
have our time but I’m sure that I’m not the only person attending this
service who thought that Hope would live forever. We live in a world
where we need her ray of sunshine smile more than ever. We need her
warm embrace to help us through these dark times. Grown nations
stand idly by as warmongers kill, maim, rape and torture innocents
across the globe.
Walls of hatred are being put up to divide us. Children are being
separated from their families and put into cages. Women and children
are being tear- gassed just for trying to find sanctuary. Angry men with
automatic rifles are committing mass murder on a regular basis. Our
elected leaders blatantly lie to us. Officers of the law commit murder
before our very eyes. Good people stand and watch claiming “not our
problem, not our country, not our war” or “we need to look after our
What do they actually mean by this? Are we not all members of the
human race? People often thought of as being lucky to live in a
democracy are given the chance to vote but often the truth of what they
are actually voting for or against is concealed within a web of lies.
Hate and fear seem to be winning the battle hands down without even
trying too hard. So where does that leave those of us who choose love
over hate? Did we honestly think that people would always do the so
called “right” thing?
Have we become so complacent about the world and our ability to
make a difference that we just gave up? When hate was spreading,
initially as always in small pockets here and there did we just dismiss it
as random acts, random unconnected acts, the bloke in the pub
mouthing off, your family member or colleagues at work with their
occasional racist, homophobic, transphobic and sexist comments? Or
how about the newspaper headlines and acerbic columnists just trying
to appeal to the worst in all of us? Did you challenge any of it? Will you
in the future?
Do I need to stand here today and quote from Pastor Martin
Niemoller’s “First They Came” poem? Tell me something my grief
stricken online congregation, if the hate is not aimed directly at you but
you happen to be in the room when the trigger is pulled do you have a
moral responsibility to try and disarm the gunman? And if you don’t
then we can’t be too surprised about the death of Hope can we?
We left her in our droves, we unfriended her on Facebook, we un-
followed her on Twitter, we abandoned her with our apathy and
allowed the armies of hate to rise up against her and destroy her. There was
little or no defence as we were all too busy worshipping celebrity,
playing games and looking after our own.
Hate never sleeps, never has and never will, he takes the odd rest
every now and again but he has always been a workaholic and is
always recruiting for more fanatics to replenish his armies. And he finds
them to enlist in every generation, make no mistake about that. So I
ask you this. Those of you watching today, dressed in black with tears
gently rolling down your cheeks, once we have laid Hope in her final
resting place, what comes next? After the sadness, the grief, the
inquest, after the lockdown is officially over, what will you do? And
perhaps more importantly who amongst you will be prepared to offer a
hand to care for Hope’s children?
WE DON’T KNOW THEM
We know the people,
We are the people,
We have not seen us up there.
We don’t know them.
They are like UFOs.
They are way up there, and
We’ve never seen one land.
We don’t know them.
They told you they are our faces and voices?
Those faces are chameleon masks,
Those voices are auto-tuned.
We don’t know them.
We would help us if we were up there.
If we broke out, it was treason.
If we called for reason, it wasn’t the season.
Now you see, we don’t know them.
We gave them the sword and staff, they gave their word.
We raised them in our image and likeness,
They left us in the darkness.
We don’t know them.
We know the people,
We are the people,
We’ve not seen us up there.
We don’t know them.
Did we see you,
Did we tell you this?
No, we don’t know you.
Is there ever enough time to experience your full self, for me as an artist, writer, environmental activist, educator, researcher and mother? I have been on a fragmented journey where writing and art making have intermingled with charity management, cooperative development, business ethics teaching and academic research into values. My writing is practical and emotional. It draws upon experiences gained through questioning the purpose of a Fine Art degree, of interrogating the inequity in education and challenging the systems and institutions that have degraded the fabric of society and divided us. Inspired by my own multiple stories and those of others in the local and wider communities that I am part of, I am now exploring where my writing wants to take me. Some of the places are joyful but not always full of light. Others are fantastical and cannot be contained by time and space or reality. My intention is to be fully present in my work and life as this age of uncertainty unfolds.
Taking the Bridge
Things have changed. I find myself collectively organising against racism in my sleepy little town of
Shoreham-by-Sea, having thought I had just about got through life without being front and centre in
opposition to anything. Keeping quiet, having children, being co-opted into a respectable white
middle-class family and equally respectable white spaces has not always been easy but it has been
possible. I was bumbling along nicely towards my comfortable older age with some gentle pub nights,
gardening, and a useful collection of qualifications in hand thinking, that this was not bad at all. What
might have been reactionary about my peroxide punk Mohican hair of thirty years ago had now
transformed in to a majestic low maintenance semi-militant growing out of my grey. Well it felt radical
at a time when others were still hitting the hair dye. In addition, I had met someone new who joined
me up to a group where women of colour were sharing thoughts on their lives. This was interesting.
New friends and new perspectives. Older, younger more gay and trans than I’d encountered in one
space. I’d never had any close black or brown friends and now I was linked to a few hundred. Meeting
up in the pub was a laugh. I mean a real laugh, real throwing your head back laughter at small things
followed by the hard talk of deeply perplexing injustices experienced differently by those around the
table, by their friends, families or children. Events from the past could be laughed off more easily than
something that happened yesterday. I was stunned at having anything to say. In fact, I had a lot to
say. No one had ever talked about race openly with me before. I had never asked for advice on what
to do when you’ve been spat at with your children or made invisible by the staff at a bar. I didn’t really
know the words to use. Was that racism?
So six weeks ago I was starting to find myself in others. I was waking up to the fact that I really didn’t
know what I was like, but that on closer inspection my life seemed to had been a series of badly fitting
shoes that I’d balanced on through school, degrees, marriage, reasonable jobs and a social life. It felt
like finally knowing the questions you had never asked even if you’d rehearsed the answers in every
decision you had made, to be not too loud, not too keen, not too disappointed. This felt like an
expedition rather than a journey and I was on my slightly detached way. Rather like an observer
watching a masterclass on how to be an authentic black woman. Then just as I was beginning to find
my feet, to find the black me, there it was on every screen, in every paper. George Floyd, the latest
American murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, the black life squeezed out of him. This time the
eight minutes and forty-six seconds of vitriolic brutality were being replayed aging and again and
again. I couldn’t watch it, still haven’t. Instead, I hid away. I cancelled all responsibility of being mum,
wife, co-author to a paper, newly self-employed, generally easy going me and I hid in my room as if
the racism would just go away. Where was Nan when I needed the reassuring words, ‘just come home’
of a dead white foster mother? I didn’t want my neighbours to have to avoid asking me if
#BlackLivesMatter was more than a hashtag. I didn’t want my stressed husband to have to see anguish
written across my face as I half ignored the news. I didn’t want to be co-opted into the thrilling story
of murderous racism with its pitying commentary and suffocating empathy. It wasn’t funny being
looked at with those eyes, or sought out for some pain-filled nugget of wisdom. I had managed to
shrug this off for forty years. I had no intention of being another netted person of colour, expected to
stand up or shut up depending on whichever flavour of racist opinion was wafting over the internet. I
didn’t want my grown up children to be dragged into this either. Surely, they had all been ok living
their lives with a black mum who sometimes forgot she was black.
It was not to be and here I am, responding to another new friend incensed by the very brutality that I
was hiding from. He was not insistent, more just asking for help to organise a small protest. His
anguish was that of a local white resident fearing that he was about to get everything badly wrong.
My anguish was that he thought I was black because of my skin colour and that I would know how to
get everything perfectly right. Then again, quite selfishly, I was also worried that as the news cycle
moved on and we returned to daily life, that I would have revealed myself as a target of constant
though subtle racism and that it hurt deeply. I would have exposed my own weakness and fear.
I would seem less authentic, less genuine, if I then returned to admiring other people’s wildlife ponds,
vegan pasty recipes and Covid-19 novelty mask-making tips. What could I do, hide again? Two weeks later
and there I was, taking part in a small but perfectly formed demonstration with sounds, speakers,
marching, stewards, drumming and even police liaison, and social distancing. What a fantastically
uplifting day, or so the hundred plus members of a new Facebook group and the local paper reported
online. Our semi-retired poet of some fame took the podium after the youngsters and ex-PC. The hand
painted banner, still barely dry, survived the gales so well that as the marchers took the bridge with
historic civil rights determination, it transformed into a rectangular kite almost capable of lifting them
off the ground. It was almost too much for some, quite overwhelmed by the show of support in this
unremarkable coastal town that had recently voted in one UKIP councillor.
It is over now. Raw is how I feel, exposed and vulnerable to the elation of solidarity and the
responsibility of offering up a private part of myself that insists I continue to open my eyes wider every
day. If I am awake then it is to this small part in a bigger picture. It is to new connections over time
and space with enthusiastic strangers and ghosts from my past. It is to having started something and
worse still, it is having proposed to myself, a vision of an unattainable future to myself that I will now
never the less have to nurture until you are all ready to take it on.