Review of Isaac Newton Akah’s Living in ‘Gidi | by Ikhide Ikheloa
February 08, 2017
If you go to Amazon and search for Living in ‘Gidi by Isaac Newton Akah, a slim e-book less than eighty pages in length will impishly raise her hand and ask to be taken home. Buy it and enjoy a brisk read, an entertaining and playfully eclectic piece on Lagos, well, mostly Mainland Lagos.
For fans of Lagos, this is about the Lagos in our consciousness, Lasgidi, mainland Lagos, that peasant with swag, that rebel that sticks his head out of a danfo bus and trash-talks down to Lekki, that pretend American suburb in the island where the middle-class proudly take selfies in front of Western fast food joints like KFC. Where Lekki is your uncle, that Walter Mitty character from America that loudly insists he is not a loser, Lasgidi the mainland is Lothario, gleefully objectifying and seducing men and women with all his senses and meager resources. And the reader breaks into a grin with each turning of the page.
One good reason you should read Living in Gidi: The lovely pictures by the talented writer and photographer Lẻ Bowii. The photographs are beautiful stories of life in Lagos each with a compelling narrative. Lagos comes alive through Bowii’s lenses and it is just awesome that the photographs are generously spread out throughout this slim volume. You should see this pictures, they are so pretty they look like portraits that were drawn by hand. This is the kind of collaboration that will take African literature to the next creative level, narrative that engages a readership increasingly afflicted with social media afflicted ADHD issues.
In Living in ‘Gidi, Akah’s eyes and senses are firmly on Lasgidi, er Mainland Lagos, beginning with the first page where he exclaims: “In Lagos, chaos welcomes you with a firm handshake and insanity grips you in a fierce bear hug.” Akah loves Lagos, and it shows. However, like a perpetually spurned lover, he observes wistfully: Lagos is not New York and other nice places in the West where according to him, well-mannered policemen shower you with smiles and helpful directions to places in your heart. The West is overly romanticized and idealized (those who live here know that it is perhaps not smart to ask American policemen directions to anywhere, they do have their issues). But the reader understands, everything has a context.
Akah’s Lasgidi has ambience, that unique environment. You can feel it here, in Living in ‘Gidi. Lasgidi is gritty, edgy, and sometimes heartless. Lagos is sweaty, gritty and edgy, this is Fela’s jungle, Sensual. Sexual. Misogynistic. You will get ripped off, by someone, an institution, you will get heart-broken as some unwashed thug rips your dreams off your shivering hands. It is what it is. But you will love Lagos still. Lagos is that girl that breaks your heart over and over again but you keep going back because she lets you dance with her. And what a dancer she is.
I’ll tell you about a typical Gidi party. The ashoebi are colorful usually—there could be twenty of them. The music is loud; an ISIL bomb blast would come off as a subtle thud. There are loads of uninvited guests. The thugs—yes, red-eyed like daytime vampires, charcoal-lipped and noisy, with their awkward dance moves—invite themselves. They don’t need your IV; they’re nice like that, saving you print cost and all. They’d smoke enough weed to make Marley high in his tomb, and they’d wee-wee all around the neighborhood. Drinks are hardly served at these parties, yes, get your own alomo from Sikira on your way coming. And then, there’s the food—the part for which this episode was given a nod. [In case you were hoping for a celebrity party, go suckle Bellanaija’s udder.]
This is not a perfect book. There is a lot to be irritated about, but when it is good, there is passion and brilliance and the prose reeks with poetry and attitude:
Lasgidi is one of those cities of the world that revolve faster than the earth itself. A city perpetually on ‘fast-forward’ that the inevitable fallout is a collage of chaos. It’s only 5 am in the morning, and the bus conductor barks ‘funmi lowo jor!’ with a scowl that makes you wonder if you had seized one of his balls. The street is a theatre of hustle, everyone completely oblivious of motions outside their field of focus. On these streets you are strictly on your own. You fall off your bike unto the centre of the road and you don’t get yourself up in time you risk generational curses from folks who are in no mood for any extra hold-up. Your ankle is bleeding? Yeah, take a trip to Samaria!
In the sentence, “Returning home was not easy, and going forward was, well, a great difficulty,” there are hints of the late great Kofi Awoonor Williams’ epic poem, Songs of Sorrow that probably should have been acknowledged but it was great to be reminded of that voice again.
Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus
It has led me among the sharps of the forest
Returning is not possible
And going forward is a great difficulty
The affairs of this world are like the chameleon feces
Into which I have stepped
When I clean it cannot go.
This book was written by a screen writer who knows drama and attitude and supplies all abundantly. Everything seems to happen in and around the bus and differences get settled there and in church. Lasgidi is an amusing place gently seething, brimming with danger. Lagos can be that place from hell where dreams are born to die. This:
Back in 2003, I was going from Oshodi to Jakande Gate. The traffic was long. The driver took a detour through a local neighborhood in Isolo. There was a big party going on there. The conductor knew all the “hommies” there. One of his hommies ran up to him and handed him a bottle of 33 lager beer. He gulped it down. The bus was moving. The hommie was in pursuit, to take back his bottle. Another hommie ran up to our bus and handed our conductor another bottle. He gulped that down, too. Easybizzy. His smiles became really broad.
I asked for my change fast. I didn’t trust the alcohol not to do any damages. He handed it to me. I dropped somewhere at a church close to my bus stop. I went into the church and offered my praise to God.
Why did I do that? You still want to know? Which commuter’s bus conductor in Sweden gulps down about 70CL of liquor in 90 seconds? I mean, wouldn’t the citizens call 911? Here, my change and I survived such ordeal and you think it isn’t down to God? Na Baba oh! This is a great survival story. To God be the Glory.
Class distinctions are everywhere even among the hopelessly dispossessed. I love the insularity. This is how we speak and write, yes. If you don’t get it, google, it. Like a good movie, Lasgidi always ends on a defiant note, of triumph even. Akah’s voice is the voice of Lagos. And the poetry makes the prose swagger:
The ambience of Lagos is rented by a cacophony of voices. There are hawkers in traffic jams shoving Gala into your eyes like you were Stevie Wonder, with voices slapping your ear drums. You hear a serene blaring, it is not an ambulance but an ice cream seller. Two men at some corner are asking “do you know who I am” at the top of their voices when a few punches could provide faster answers. But permeating this cacophony is the distinct voice of the Lagos bus conductor. His is a voice soaked into the pores of the city itself from endless usage; a voice that ferries the dreams and aspirations of many a Lagosian from the streets to their various dens of livelihood. That voice that calls at a thousand bus stops, fights a thousand battles and never failing from constant use…is the true voice of Lagos.
The editorial errors are forgivable; it is a slim volume and for five dollars (the cost on Amazon) you will be treated to the kinds of bold and irreverent literature on the Internet and on social media that millions of readers in Africa are now hooked on. Akah is just one of an army of young writers boldly re-writing the rules of narrative as we know them and succeeding mightily. I follow him and brilliant young minds like Akintunde Aiki, Chris Ogunlowo, Uzoamaka Doris Aniunoh, Eketi Edima Ette, Hymar Idibie David, and watch as they fill our world with three-dimensional literature in song, dance and plain old njakiri. Njakiri? Google it! LOL!
Living in ‘Gidi has its share of errors, indeed the book is a reminder that literature as we know it is undergoing a major gentrification never before seen since the invention of the book as a medium of expression. Increasingly social media reminds us that for the African writer, narrative is powerful. Despite the muscular resistance to change by keepers of the gate of traditional literature, the rules are being re-written and new definitions of what is narrative taunts the status quo.
Akah’s generation suffers from this purgatory. They are trying to navigate two worlds, there is narrative that comes from the culture of social media, one honed from the energizing call and response culture of reader and writer providing instant feedback and audience, and there is the analog culture of the book that favors a more structured format and is flat, one dimensional compared to the three dimensional world of the Internet. In this world of the book, members of Akah’s generation are clearly uncomfortable, but they feel obliged to be in it, because the chief marker of stature as a writer is the book. You have to be a published author of books to get your cred in the traditional literary world. This is the irony though; the vast majority of narrative by African writers is on the Internet and on social media.
The question becomes: Who speaks for Africa? Increasingly those who speak for the sum total of Africa are on the Internet, however, Africa is looked at squarely from the viewpoint of books written about Africa by African writers. The narrative of Africa is thus distorted. We need to find a structural way to reach the myriad voices on the Internet and making sense of their narrative in addition to the important work in books.
Akah and his peers should not have to be forced to write books in order for their vast contributions to narrative to be recognized and appreciated. It is my hope that technology and history will rescue these awesome word-warriors from the mediocrity of analog expectations. For now, we should be content to enjoy them, warts and all.
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About the Author:
Ikhide R. Ikheloa or Pa Ikhide is a social and literary critic who writes non-stop on various online media. He was a columnist with Next Newspaper and the Daily Times, Nigeria, where he held forth and offered unsolicited opinions on any and everything to do with literature and the world. He has been published in books, journals and online magazines and he predicts: ‘The book and the library are dying. Ideas live.” Find him on twitter @ikhide