Friday, December 28, 2018 4:17 pm
By Pius Adesanmi
One thing that my car crash in July allowed me to assess and put in perspective is how much of my life I spend in airports and planes. From South Africa to Europe and the US, I cancelled nine lecture trips in a three-month span because I was in no physical condition to travel. I was also mentally exhausted, in physiotherapy, in the other kind of trauma therapy Nigerians don’t like to talk about. I did not feel that I could give my best to audiences in lectures and seminars.
Three times, I drafted an email for the Germany-based Nigerian novelist, Elnathan John. It was time to notify the writer I fondly call ElJo that I was in no position to travel to Berlin at the end of September to honour a commitment I had made to him before my accident. Three times, I failed to send the email.
Somehow, my spirit insisted on the foolhardy: defy the odds and go to Germany. My doctors weren’t going to approve of it; my physiotherapist certainly would think I was crazy; my therapist would wonder if our sessions were working. My left leg was still badly swollen, and my limp was still pronounced. My right wrist was still a mess. I still risked blood clot if I flew.
I couldn’t tell ElJo that I wasn’t coming. My spirit told me to defy the odds and make the trip to Berlin to feature as guest writer in an edition of Elnathan’s Boat dedicated to satire in Africa. For nearly two decades, I have travelled and lectured quite widely in Europe, so the lure of Berlin didn’t come down to the thrill of a European trip. The deal for me, I guess, came down to the fact that I am in a phase of my life as an African writer and thinker in which I am preoccupied with institutions writ large.
Because of Africa’s chequered trajectory with the institutions of modernity, I have been focusing more on individual African trajectories in the proess of institution-building. In 2013-2014, I spent a sabbatical year as a Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana. My mandate was to design a new doctoral program, the African Thinkers’ Program, for the Institute. One of the new doctoral seminars I designed for the program proposed that African PhDs and next generation scholars should be made to approach institutions within the purview of individualized African narratives of institution building. In a continent where conventional wisdom focuses on the failure of institutions, can we begin to isolate and learn from individual trajectories of successful institution building?
The more I probed the relationship between the individual African subject and institutions, the more I zoomed in on cultural instituitons and how they constitute the material base of other institutions – social, political, economic, etc. For instance, Lola Shoneyin built a cultural institution, namely Ake Arts and Book Festival. This singular, individual trajectory of cultural institution building has national and continental dimensions of worlding between the spaces of culture, politics, education, economics that we have not even begun to probe. When Nigeria’s social scientists begin to really discourse the country’s space in globalization, they will discover that they must contend with the cultural instrumentality of an institution builder called Lola Shoneyin in that dynamic.
To create cultural spaces and institutions in Africa is one thing, to create such in the West as an African writer on the driver’s seat? Is this a feat that Nigeria’s own Elnathan John was achieving? Since the turn of the 20th century, generations of African writers, artists, thinkers, theorists, and sundry workers of culture and the imagination have shone in the West but in the context of already-constituted platforms and institutions – scholarships, fellowships, residencies, endowed chairs. What then was this El Nathan’s Boat that I had begun to hear about? Was a Nigerian writer carving out a space for African literature and the arts instead of inhabiting spaces already constituted for him through residencies and fellowships? In Germany to boot?
The headquarters of African cultural valuation in Germany has been the Bayreuth-based Iwalewa Haus, founded in 1981 by the legendary Ulli Beier. Since its creation, Iwalewa Haus has been the custodial space for African arts and writing in Germany; an institutional watering hole for African humanities.
Could a platform for African writers and artists, founded by a Nigerian writer, be emerging in Berlin? Elnathan John is the author of the brilliant novel, Born on a Tuesday. A two-time Caine Prize for African Writing finalist, he has had a meteoric rise in African writing. Was he now adding another feather to his richly-decorated cap by building an institutional and cultural platform for African arts and discourses in Europe? In Berlin? Eh! The itch to answer these questions made me defy health issues, avoid my doctor and friends who could deter me, and travel to Europe.
I travelled to Berlin. Stubbornly so. And I returned to Ottawa a very proud Nigerian because of what I saw of Elnathan John’s work yonder. Elnathan’s #BOAT first started in June 2017 and has arguably become the most popular conversation series in Berlin when it comes to literature, arts, and critical discourses from the African continent.
From inception, Elnathan John, who is both host and curator of the programme, underlined the importance of exploring political and social issues of our times through fiction, prose, poetry, other arts and their circumabient critical discourses. Conversations with his guests from varied literary backgrounds and interests provide perspectives on Africa, Europe, and literature that are unique to Berlin’s cultural scene and therefore very well received by the book loving audience attending the event, which holds four times a year.
While Elnathan’s #BOAT started in a popular bookstore in Berlin’s notorious district Kreuzberg, the event soon moved to the prestigious Literaturhaus at the beginning of 2018. There, in the former Western part of Berlin Charlottenburg, literature has been presented and celebrated since the 1980s. However, literature and thought from Africa was always missing. Therefore, Elnathan’s #BOAT is a significant game changer filling this gap by bringing in the most prominent writers and voices from the continent to speak about their work and address contemporary African issues.
While the Berlin Senat shared this opinion and publicly funded the programme in 2018, the agency, InterKontinental, organizes the event. The two founders and directors, Stefanie Hirsbrunner and Karla Kutzner, are specialized on event management with a focus on the African continent. They also run the African Book Festival in Berlin, curated by a different literary person from Africa each year, and the only bookstore selling literature from African authors in Germany.
I have hardly met a more passionate duo on African literature, arts, and culture than Stefanie and Karla. The partnership they form with Elnathan John is making Africa happen significantly on the literary and cultural map of Berlin. I was pleasantly surprised by the crowd they pull at their events. Because my own event was on African satire, I had initial doubts. How did Elnathan John propose to draw a German audience to African satire? My doubts quickly disappeared as soon as I was ushered into a full hall, with a very warm audience ready to listen to and engage me for two hours as Elnathan John interviewed me very widely about my work and thought, especially my use and practice of sartire as a public intellectual.
If I had any doubts about sustainability – whether on the continent or elsewhere, institutions built by Africans have a hostile relationship with sustainability – the behaviour of that audience quickly cleared any such doubts from my mind. I saw considerable hunger for what Elnathan John has built. It was evident to me that this Nigerian author has identified something lacking in the cultural soul of Berlin and has created a platform to fill that space, hence the city’s enthusiasm. So far, Elnathan John has hosted the following guests: Jude Dibia, Olumide Popoola, Pettina Gappah, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Nadifa Mohamed, Sulaiman Addonia, and yours truly.
I congratulate Elnathan John, Stefanie Hirsbrunner, and Karla Kutzner for what I saw in Berlin. ElJO, I told you that the significance of what you have done is lost on you because you have never even thought of it as institution building. You are just doing what you enjoy. Now you know this is much more than just what you enjoy. You must sustain it.