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Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door

I knew when I began my first book that my main character would develop a telepathic link with a woman who lived far away. It didn’t realize that my love for places that are difficult for me to get to would continue on into the remaining five books in the collection, with each book each containing events occurring in a remote part of a different continent. But that is how they turned out.

Two things about far away places appeal to me. One is how different they are. The other is how similar they are. I think I like the second fact even better.

The modern and independent young Nigerian woman I write about in x0 has a run in with her village’s older practitioners of traditional medicine, known as dibias. In order to make her conflict as realistic as I could, I researched the history of traditional medicine in her Igbo culture, and enjoyed what I learned. It did not surprise me that mixed in with the sorts of superstitions that plague humans everywhere, was both wisdom and centuries old knowledge of ways to heal the human body.

I tried to include the point of view of the dibias, and to accord them respect, even while my character was in conflict with them. And yes, I loved learning about the ways of others that were so different than my own.

But I never forgot how half of my story ended up taking place in Nigeria in the first place.

It’s a country I have yet to visit, which makes it an odd setting for a beginning novelist. But I began the book right after taking a new job in the Houston office of a Nigerian company. They were cramped on office space, and several of us were crowded into a large workroom. Most of my co-workers were young Nigerian scientists and engineers and over the ensuing months I became seeped in their conversions, their food, and their memories of home.

Did I hear about things that were exotic to my ears? Occasionally, and some of those are in the book. But far more often what I heard were things like this as they made their phone calls home.

“Yes, mom, I am eating well. I know. Vegetables.”

“Of course I miss you, dear. It’s just that last night you caught me still at work, trying to get something done. I had a big presentation today.”

“You’ve got to pass chemistry. Email me the your review sheet your professor gave you. We’ll go over it together. Tell mom not to worry. I’ll help you.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the sound of humanity, from my home town and from every one else’s home town in every far away place in the world.

You see, we have our differences, and I think that they are fascinating. But then we have our common ways of showing care and concern for those we love. And I think that commonality is even more amazing. That is why I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics and embraces a fear of the rest of the world.

I no longer live in Houston. Today, I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I was interested to find the John Denver Song “Take me Home Country Roads,” being performed by Playing for Change. I’m a big fan of this multimedia music project that “seeks to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.”

I can’t help but notice that much of the nationalist movement that concerns me so is being driven by people who live on country roads, just as I do. But a lot of the world lives on country roads, and drives home on them each day to those we care about. We all have that, and so much more, in common.

Enjoy this video of musicians from Japan to Brazil  as they sing “take me home country roads.”

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place, Caring About Far Away Places, As Far Away Places Edge Closer  and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2017 in empathy, music for peace, Nigeria

 

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“For What It’s Worth”

27-Courage-21Like most people, I reacted with horror at the video of a Columbia SC police officer grabbing a high school student by the neck and throwing her across the room. No classroom infraction warrants this, and certainly not a refusal to put away a cell phone or leave class. But today, my thoughts are with the girl’s friend, Niya Kenny, who was handcuffed and arrested as well for daring to object. Speaking up to others, saying “this is wrong, somebody do something” was deemed illegal too, and that is even harder for me to believe.

I filled the novel x0 with music that spoke to the part of me that wants a better world. I’m going through each of my blogs and expanding my writing on each song, and on today’s to-do list was the 1967 Buffalo Springfield song “For What it’s Worth.” As part of the rewrite, I’ve just watched about a dozen different videos of it, and each time I listened to it, the echos of the Columbia incident would run through my mind.

“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away”

Yeah.

Both girls were charged with “disturbing school”, a criminal offense in South Carolina. I listen to this old song and remember the feeling that we all need to “disturb school” and disrupt life when it means standing up for what is right.

Because life works that way, today I also came across a moving post entitled Why I’m prejudiced & So Are You and in my humble opinion it ought to be required reading for the human race, preferable followed by lively and healing discussions held among people with vastly different bodies. Allow me to quote one of my favorite lines from it. “I know that every body on this Earth has equal, unsurpassable worth.” Who can disagree with that? And yet …. well, read the article.

Here, by the way, is the updated post on my music page. For what it’s worth.

The first time that Lola learns of the complex and sometimes destructive history of oil exploration in Nigeria, the song “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (1967) begins to play in her head. The haunting tune and veiled warnings of this forty year old song perfectly fit the troubled tone of the news article that she is reading and also describe the feelings of  helplessness and anger that learning of this history produces.

http://www.amazon.com/For-What-Its-Worth/dp/B0011Z76UA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1328835150&sr=1-1Lola turned to the major news outlets and found that British news, particularly the BBC, did a far better job of covering news from Africa that any U.S. source that she could find. Reading through BBC articles, Lola learned that less than a month ago, on June 30, Amnesty International had released a report calling the years of pollution and environmental damage in the Niger Delta a “human rights tragedy.” The report claimed that the oil industry had caused impoverishment, conflict, and human rights abuses in the region, that the majority of cases reported to Amnesty International related to Shell, and that Shell must come to grips with its legacy in the Niger Delta. The report noted that Shell Petroleum Development Company is and has been the main operator in the Niger Delta for over fifty years and is also facing legal action in The Hague concerning repeated oil spills that have damaged the livelihoods of Nigerian fisherfolk and farmers.

Lola found Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 hit “For What It’s Worth” starting in her head while she read the news article on the internet on her lunch break. Was it because the song’s haunting tune and warnings fit the troubled tone of the story? Or maybe she had just heard Bob whistling the refrain in the break room….

In the article, the BBC went on to report that Shell had defended itself in a written statement provided to the BBC arguing that “about eighty-five percent of the pollution from our operation comes from attacks and sabotage that also puts our staff’s lives and human rights at risk. In the past ten days we have had five attacks.” The Shell response added that “in the last three years, gangs have kidnapped one hundred and thirty-three Shell Petroleum Development Company employees and contractors while five people working for our joint venture have been killed in assaults and kidnappings in the same period.”

The general insecurity in the area, according to Shell, is what prevents it from running maintenance programs that might otherwise be run. Meanwhile, militants in the Niger Delta say they stage attacks on oil installations as part of their fight for the rights of local people to benefit more from the region’s oil wealth. Others argue that the attacks are staged mostly for the attackers’ financial gain.

Lola read the article with sadness, feeling for so many individuals now trapped on multiple sides of a bad situation. She had no trouble believing that Shell had behaved poorly, maybe even abysmally, decades ago, destroying the livelihoods of Nigerians they probably had barely noticed. But today, she needed an armed guard in Lagos to go from the hotel to the office. Who was in the right? How did one solve this sort of mess?

When it comes to this classic, one has a lot of fine video performances to chose from. Dates range from 1967 through a live Buffalo Springfield performance at Bonaroo in 2011, not to mention a wealth of covers by notable artists and several moving montages created on YouTube showing scenes form the Vietnam War and various protests. I decided to step out of the box on this one and link to the original Buffalo Springfield performing way back when on the Smothers Brothers show. This clip will remind you of just how young these guys were when they wrote this song, and of the goofy humor of that era in the midst of the turmoil. Enjoy!

If you’re interested in more, you can learn about the history of the song, hear serious performances from 1967, 1982 and 2011, or buy the song at Amazon.com.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2015 in music for peace

 

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Electrify Africa

Writing a novel in which at least half the action takes place in a sub-Sahara African nation made me more aware than I had been about the day to day struggles in a developing country. Mind you, “more aware” merely means less ignorant. I’ve never lived anywhere without electricity, clean water, and ample food and my research produced information and sympathy, not understanding. But as my hero of x0 concludes, knowledge and concern are a start.

beautiful life3I work with several Nigerians, in real life, and enjoy the occasional opportunity to see the world through their eyes. They give me a feel for how complicated their homeland is, and how well-meant simple solutions often fail. Obviously, problems everywhere else can be complex too. I work in the oil industry, and have a grown child who makes his living trying to understand climate change. We both want what is best for this planet, and we each spend our days surrounded by those with very different opinions about how that should be achieved.

All of this came together for me recently when I received an impassioned email plea, from Bono of U2 no less, to support the Electrify Africa Act. It was described as “a life-saving bill that would help Africa bring electricity to 50 million people for the very first time”. This sounds wonderful. Nigerian co-workers tell me that much of the electric power in their country comes from diesel generators, a smoky, noisy, inefficient part-time solution that they suspect puts money in somebody’s pocket. I am all for a better answer and even willing to see some of my tax dollars used to get there.

I received a follow-up email a few days ago saying the bill had passed. Wahoo! Furthermore, I was informed that my representative,Texas Republican Congressman Kevin Brady, had voted for it. Wait a minute. Maybe I am being too cynical here, but over the past several years I have noticed that Congressman Brady and I don’t agree on a while lot of things. If he voted yes, perhaps I’m not as informed about this bill as I thought.

Indeed, a little more research showed that the bill is controversial and the issues are complicated “Access to power is a principal bottleneck to growth in Africa. Six hundred million Africans lack access to a power grid” reads one headline. Yes, we need to do something about that.  “Two U.S. initiatives to provide Africans with electricity seem likely to lead to large, climate-polluting projects rather than the locally sourced renewable energy rural Africa needs” says another. Okay, I may be starting to see where my pro-oil-industry congressman fits in.

sungazing7The Nation takes it a step further and adds that “Proponents of Electrify and Power Africa have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent, which has many African activists wary of a resource grab.” USAID, a U.S. Government agency working to end extreme global poverty puts it somewhat differently. “Power Africa encourages countries to make energy sector reforms while connecting entrepreneurs and U.S. businesses to investment opportunities.”

What to do? Go with an initiative that will be backed by many more, and yet may well invite more problems into a continent that desperately needs less of them? Or hold out for a better, more environmentally friendly and Africa-centric solution? Remember “electricity allows businesses to flourish, clinics to store vaccines, and students to study long after dark. But for more than two-thirds of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa, these opportunities simply do not exist.” Politics is a messy business. For now, I’m going to reluctantly cheer on the passage of this bill on the grounds that trying to solve a problem is better than doing nothing. Let’s hope that is true in this case.

(Thanks to the Facebook pages of Your Beautiful Life and Sungazing for sharing the images shown above.)

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2014 in Nigeria

 

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Why in the world would you write a book about Nigeria?

Authors note: My third novel z2 is currently on blog tour through the fine folks at Reading Addiction Virtual Book Tours. The post below is part of that tour and it appeared a few days ago on Always Jo Art, a fun blog about books, motherhood, and product give-aways. My thoughts were inspired by a post I wrote here back in 2012, three whole books ago. A lot has changed for me since then, but apparently other things haven’t changed much at all.

http://nollywoodonline.info/?p=5After I finished my first novel, x0, I was told that writing about Nigeria was a poor choice because it just isn’t a place that particularly interests many readers. Paris or London would have been better. I found this funny. Lots of novels take place in Paris and London and it seemed to me that the world didn’t need one more. Nigeria, on the other hand, has a plethora of rich stories to tell which are far less known, at least in Texas where I live.

I chose Nigeria originally because I wanted to write a tale of two very different women helping each other. About the same time that I started the book, I also started a new job exploring for oil in the Niger Delta and had the chance to work with many Nigerians. One day I asked my office mate, a Nigerian geologist, to describe to me how his tribe, the Igbo, were unique. He responded by telling me a legend about Igbo slaves coming to America. It startled me at first that he would even speak of such a thing, but in the end I was touched by both the moving story he told, and by the powerful way in that he told it. I tried to capture each of those when I retold this scene in x0.

95As I wrote, I discovered how much the fascinating details of a far off land appeal to me. That meant that I had to find a location for my second book, y1 that was even less well known. Once I found it, I was writing about the remote Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, exactly on the other side of the globe from my first story.

The plot of my third novel, z2, dictated that my characters not wander off too far from Texas, so instead I found a way to let my readers wander around in time. Although z2 never leaves North America, it includes visits to a Mayan village under siege in Guatemala and the camp of eighteenth-century lumberjacks on the coast of Belize.

image014No, I’m not done with my armchair travels yet. There are three more books in this collection and the one I’ve just finished, c3, takes place partly in the isolated Himalayan nation of Bhutan. The one I’m working on now is taking me to the far North, where I am learning fascinating things about Greenland and Iceland.

Why Nigeria? Why anywhere. Every spot on this earth is teeming with tales of its own and with great settings for new ones. These stories not only have the capacity to entertain us, but they can also give us new information and a fresh perspective.

 

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Nigeria

 

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Understanding the underwear bomber

As a human, I wish fervently for a world filled with empathy and mutual respect amongst the many nations, religions, races and preferences that fill this globe. As a writer, I understand that a story filled with nothing but such enlightened people probably isn’t going to be much of story. Instead, I must create, understand, and bring to life those who would do others harm.

hippiepeace5The worst villain I have created may be the crime lord in my new novel c3, a ruthless man who harbors a taste for unwilling virgins. Or it may be my Nigerian fanatic in x0, who works to blow up an airplane leaving Lagos right before Christmas 2009. Of all the characters I have ever written, I struggled the hardest to understand both of these men, and to describe how they justified their actions to themselves.

How realistic is such horrible behavior? Clearly most of the folks in line with you at the grocery store are not capable of these kinds of atrocities, and we are all thankful for that. But even my worst characters are based on information I have come across in real life. Some of x0 was born out of my interest in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the “Underwear Bomber”. A 23 year old Nigerian, he hid plastic explosives in his undies and attempted to detonate them while on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.

I think his story tugged at me because a week later I began work as a consultant with an oil company exploring in offshore Nigeria. I immediately got to know several young Nigerian men who were about his age. As I became friends with my new co-workers, I puzzled over the story of of this youngest child of sixteen, son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and his second wife. I learned that such huge families, encompassing multiple wives, were not uncommon in Nigeria and I could now personally attest to the fact that they produced people as loving and talented as families structured the way I was used to.

So what makes anyone decide to kill a bunch of complete strangers who have done him no harm? As I began to write x0, I knew that the villain in my book would be older, far more manipulative, and not tied to Muslim terrorist organizations or their goals. Nonetheless, I felt that I had to better understand this underwear bomber in order to create the character that would drive the plot of x0.

I read. A fellow student said that Abdulmutallab started every day by going to the mosque for dawn prayers, and then spent hours in his room reading the Quran. Unusual, especially for a young person, but hardly evil and even what some would call praiseworthy. “He told me his greatest wish was for sharia and Islam to be the rule of law across the world,” said one of his classmates.Okay, now I was getting somewhere. It’s one thing to immerse oneself in a religion, quite another to decide that every other human on earth should believe and do the same. Clearly those of many different faiths share this zeal to convert or even coerce, but in my heart, once you think that you know what everyone else should believe, you’ve entered rocky moral ground.

taboojive1Luckily the bomb went off with no injuries except to Abdulmutallab who was apprehended as he left the plane. When he was sentenced to life without parole in 2012, he declared that Muslims were “proud to kill in the name of God, and that is what God told us to do in the Quran.” I don’t know a single Muslim who agrees with that, although my knowledge base is limited to co-workers who share my hope for a peaceful world.

The underwear bomber did not hope for peace. He preferred destruction to a world that wasn’t the way he thought it should be. Once I understood that fact, I understood him. Understanding is not agreeing. I abhor what he did, I abhor death caused by anyone of any faith who thinks that the people of the world are better off bleeding than being free to make their own choices. Those who would kill to convert are about control. They are not about God, or love or peace.

(Please like the HippiePeaceFreaks and TabooJive pages on Facebook for these two clever images. Please see my y1 blog for a post about why I made pharmaceutical companies my villain, and see my z2 blog for an upcoming post about my tale of researching racist groups in America.)

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Nigeria, writing

 

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Happy 53rd Birthday Nigeria!

My novel x0 was supposed to take place in Saudi Arabia because I wanted my oil industry protagonist to develop a telepathic link with a Saudi woman. It was going to be a story of two outwardly different people who bonded over similar concerns for their younger sisters. Except that every time I started to write, it just didn’t feel right.

http://www.unfpa.org/public/global/pid/1050Meanwhile, I began a new job as a consultant for a company exploring for oil in the Niger Delta. There are many cool things about my current employer, but one of the best is that they are a very African centric company. I found myself sharing an office with three Nigerians, and learning about a country and a blend of cultures that was far more intriguing than I had ever imagined. I am endlessly curious about places far away from Texas anyway, and my patient office mates never stopped answering my questions.

http://nollywoodonline.info/?p=5 This went on for months. Working late one evening, I had to shut out a conversation between a Nigerian geologist at a desk three feet away from me and his younger brother back home.  Apparently little brother had a big test in chemistry the next day and my co-worker was trying to both tutor and encourage him. I used to do that for my sister. “We are so much alike the world over,” I thought. And it clicked into place.

About eight months later I finished my first novel. It tells the story of an American woman who befriends a Nigerian telepath who is trying to help her younger sister. While writing the book I got to learn even more about Nigeria and how it was created by the British and “given independence”  October 1, 1960. These outsiders lumped together millions of people with strong tribal affinities of their own, but with no common language and a great deal of mistrust  of the customs and cultures of the other tribes with which they were forced to share a country. Not surprisingly, Nigeria has had its share of troubles and bloodshed as the individuals within its borders struggled with the structure that had been imposed on them.

http://www.everyculture.com/Ma-Ni/Nigeria.htmlThe Nigerians I know are without exception resourceful and hopeful, and I see this in the country’s history as well. They are now fifty-three years into trying to make Nigeria as well-functioning and peaceful as most Nigerians would like it to be. I applaud them for how far they have come under difficult circumstances and I wish the country and its people the very best. Happy Birthday Nigeria.  As your national motto says, may “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress” fill your future.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Nigeria

 

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Enter on Goodreads to win a free paperback copy

Winners anywhere get a paperback book mailed right to their door. Click on the flag of Nigeria below to enter

flag

Nigerian Flag

(The Flag of Nigeria was first officially hoisted on October 1, 1960. The two green bands represent the forests and abundant natural wealth of Nigeria while the white band represents peace.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2012 in x0

 

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