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PAGES: 236 +iv.

In October 1989, as a third-year student of Theology at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, yours sincerely was appointed to the editorship of the flagship students’ magazine of the seminary known as The Torch. For our first edition and for Christmas of 1989, the board chose to work on the topic: “Education” which had then quickly becoming an important issue of serious national concern. To accompany the series of articles in the said publication, I sought and obtained an hour-long interview with the world-famous novelist, Prof Chinua Achebe, -at his Umunkaka Street residence at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As the interview session was coming to an end, I fired my last question at the celebrated story teller, “When, sir, are we going to read your autobiography.” He quickly confessed to not having ever thought about the subject and went on to concede its importance. “Now that you have said it, I shall begin to think along those lines because each generation owes the succeeding one an account of the past.”

Cover of the book

Later, in 2011 while doing my doctorate at the University of Notre Dame, IN, USA, the professor (now bound to the wheelchair came calling for three days of lectures). On the last day of the visit, as he was attending to a long line of admirers who sought autographed copies-of his books, when it came to my turn, I gently reminded him of his promise, to which he replied: “I have been busy working on that.” The result was his last published work. There As a Country, which consists in large part of memories of our country’s civil war (1967-1970). Following the release of what amounted to his last testament, the professor bowed out three months later in 2013. In that seminal work, Achebe put the present state of our country into perspective, reflecting on the promising country we once had, on how it was lost, and the progressive deterioration of its national life ever after.

In the book under review, Ukwuaba discharges an important responsibility towards the generation of Nigerians which succeeds his, proffering an engaging memoir of the civil war through an unforgettable cast of characters and their struggles for survival in a brutal war of attrition which defies all known conventions of armed conflicts. It is an intensely personal and reflective piece of literature. Delivered in 23 short chapters, the author provides readers with an important slice of his own history, yet, in doing so, he tells the story of a people under siege and military occupation in a time of war. It is also a story of coming of age, as the eleven-year-old quickly grows into a young adult in the course of the war.

There are many easily recognizable areas of excellence in this latest output from a growing body of literature on the civil war. The first thing that strikes the reader is that the author is a real storyteller: he has a story burning up his vital innards and he knows just how to tell it. Thus, the reader is transported first into life in the months leading up to war (through the keen eyes of a rather precocious eleven year old); then the reader is plunged into the impactful, sudden outbreak of hostilities: the unpreparedness of Biafra (despite loud and audacious propaganda); the easy collapse of the northern boundaries of the new republic to the first wave of attacks; the routing of the ragtag army of Biafran forces and the quick melting away of resistance in the border towns up to Nsukka; then the sheer dread of everyday life as summary executions, abductions, betrayals, rape and chaos become the staple of daily life under enemy occupation; the endless pining for information regarding the progress of the war; the conflicting claims of Biafran and Nigerian propaganda machines; the displacement of families and social life; life in refugee camps; the scourge of hunger and disease; learning new skills for survival —paramilitary tactics, hunting, wine-tapping, etc.; subtle resistance and subversion of occupation force; and, finally, as a young adult, witnessing the denouement of the war.

Emeka Ukwuaba

Unending Jackboot Rhythm is not one of those books to be breezed through quickly; it invites reflection and thoughtful self-interrogation and would reward careful rereading. Each chapter, which has an appropriate title, focuses on one of several aspects of the multi-layered experiences of war behind enemy lines. Through his deft storytelling, the author is able to address multiple audiences and issues at once. For instance, he points out the bitterness which underlay the prosecution of the war; the uneasy relationship between southern and northern Igbo; the treachery and self-defeating opportunism rampant in Igbo society; the highhandedness of indigenous militia that arose during the conflict; the sheer nerve of sundry lackeys that were propped up during the military occupation to help administer the so-called ‘liberated areas’ of the Biafran enclave; how mutual distrust exacerbated the suffering of those under occupation; and the use of rape and abductions as an instrument of war and domination.

Finally, I must not fail to remark on the timing of this publication and its potential for deconstructing the illusions of some of our more impressionable youths. Ukwuaba, by exposing the sheer ugliness of war in its unvarnished, gory details, has done a very important service to the Igbo whose younger generations are so easily sold on the dream of secession as the cure-all remedy for the many ills and injustices of the Nigerian nation. Ukwuaba can now proudly take his place alongside the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun – for providing the young and upcoming generations with a cautionary tale about the horrors of war as borne out by the experience of Biafra.

Indeed, here is a book to read and ponder, a well-written first-hand account from an intelligent, non-combatant observer of a dreadful conflict. One must not fail to commend the author for the picturesque details of his memory, a sad teachable memory etched into his child’s mind and so preserved with passionate intensity for over fifty years. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to the author’s parents, James Onoima and Josephine Omada Ukwuaba, who were created, courageous and daring in the face of life’s limit experiences of unimaginable proportions. This is as much their story as ours: let us hurry to take possession of copies of this book: read it, ponder it and be wiser.

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Image: Portrait of Chika Jones. Credit: Imogirie Gaston

A young Black man thriving in the poetry scene in Nigeria and the U.K. is Chika Jones, who is only 32 years old.

His poetry and writing prowess got him an endorsement from the Arts Council of England for a Global Talent Visa. This aided his relocation to the U.K. where he continues to make waves through his talent.

In an exclusive interview with FunTimes, Jones opens up about what inspires his creativity and how poetry contributes to storytelling, which is the base of cultures.

Please introduce yourself and your poetry/writing career

My name is Chika Jones. I am a 32-year-old Nigerian, born by Yoruba and Igbo parents. I lived most of my life in Lagos and recently immigrated to the United Kingdom. I think that’s it, really.

About my poetry/writing career: I fell in love with books at a young age, and that love was honed when I stumbled on a library in my secondary school – Akokwa High School in Akokwa, Imo state. I started out writing poetry and fiction.

In 2013, as a university undergraduate, I got the chance to perform on radio – Rhythm FM in Port Harcourt, and I got quite good feedback from that performance. This made me more interested in performance poetry. At the end of 2013, I auditioned for and won the National Poetry Slam – War of Words in Lagos, and that was a launch pad into a career of writing and performing poetry.

I have written fiction and non-fiction, but the bulk of my work is in written and performed poetry. Performing in Lagos, Owerri, Abuja, Abeokuta, Kaduna, Berlin, and London, among other places, has made me fall in love with this art.

What topics do you usually write about in your poems?

I would like to preface with this – I did not set out to write about certain, most of my initial poems, have been responses to societal issues. I have written about gender-based violence and rape, about how the poor are marginalized in Lagos, about Lagos itself as a city, about the Biafran war, about what it means to be Igbo in Nigeria, about love like most poets, and more recently about racism. However, since 2021, I have been very interested in the concept of joy, what it is, why it is important, and how to capture and share it through poetry and performance.

How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a standard ‘Chika original’ poem

In my earlier years, my poems came from seeing something and feeling very strongly about it. Most times, this feeling was anger. This formed the bulk of the poems I wrote and performed. Of course, there were poems that weren’t borne out of anger. I had the occasional poem that is inspired by a book I read, or by a concept shared in a poem by a poet I love. These days, the poems rarely come from anger; they usually come from reading or feeling something, usually joy.

Because the process has been fine-tuned by the years, I can talk through it. Usually, I start with what I am trying to say or a feeling I am trying to elicit from the reader. The writing usually comes in a burst. After the initial draft, I then go over it to strip away the excess, the over explanations, and the unnecessary. As part of the final steps, I look at musicality and technique. Three final questions I ask are: Do the lines sing or hum at the end? Does the poem make you relook the familiar furniture of everyday life? Does it bring joy to read? Of course, as with most poems, these are questions you never answer, but I find it helpful to ask all the same.

What’s the best advice someone has given you about storytelling through poetry?

I would say it is to always allow space for the reader to come in. And this was something I read in an essay about photography either from Emmanuel Iduma or from Teju Cole. Maybe both. When writing, never let it be closed off, finished, done. Always allow space for the reader to enter because only then can they really enjoy what has been written.

What’s the worst advice someone has given you about storytelling through poetry?

I rarely receive or solicit writing advice; most of what I know and have taken to heart is from reading. So, no worst advice.

What do you feel is more freeing in poetry that is restricting in other forms of literature?

Nothing. I don’t think anyone comes to literature looking for freedom. However, if we consider differences in medium, I have learned that they are not all that different in goals. In all forms of literature, we are trying to tell a story and hoping that someone out there will understand it and it will change their life for the better.

Has there ever been a moment when you didn’t want to share one of your poems with the world because of its subject matter? If so, what did the subject matter address, and why did you choose not to share it?

I have a few love poems written solely for my wife that I haven’t shared anywhere. Mostly because I want them to live only for her. Sometimes, publishing or sharing a poem takes on a commercial nature, and I want to leave those poems out of that.

Do you think poetry will gain its deserved relevance in Nigerian/African society? Why or why not?

Poetry has always been relevant in Nigeria and Africa, and it will always be. If the question is about popularity as compared to, say, music, for example. Then the answer is there is poetry in music. Omah Lay’s recent album ‘Boy Alone’ is a good example of this. Will poets ever be as popular as musicians? On aggregate, no, because the audience they cater to are different, despite the overlap, and it will always be like that. Because you need a certain deliberateness to listen to and enjoy poetry that music does not always require, life places a lot of demands on people, and they will always find it easier to listen to music than to listen to poetry.

What do you feel poetry can or cannot contribute to a country’s political system, culture, and traditions?

Poetry contributes to storytelling, which is the base of cultures. And everything else comes out of culture, even political systems. Can poetry change Nigeria? Yes, and it does every day. Everyone that reads a good poem is changed by it. However, what is more urgently needed is political activism and protests and even poems cannot be a substitute for that.

Now having a duality in two different countries, England and Nigeria, how can fellow artists in your position bridge gaps to create work that resonates across multiple countries?

I would not encourage artists to try to make work that resonates across multiple countries. Instead, they should focus on making work that they personally enjoy. My guiding principle is your work should always be, and this is a phrase from Teju Cole, ineluctably particular. When your work is so particular, it gains universality. Never start out with the universe in mind, start out with yourself in mind. That is easier when you have a firm grasp on the things you love and the things that are important to you.

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In the ’80s, every song Lionel Richie wrote became a hit. He had that magical touch. In the words of Kenny Rogers, Richie wrote music with words every man would want to say and every woman would want to hear.

Sample this: “Hello, is it me you are looking for…, Lady, I am your knight in shining armour, and I love you…Three times a lady…” These songs demonstrate creative abilities of Richie on the subject of love

Then, that creativity and soulfulness sublimated into thin air, never to return. I will tell you what happened, and it involved a woman…

Let us go back in time and briefly look at Richie’s (music) journey.

In 1981, executives of Motown asked Richie to record a solo album after the massive success of the song “Lady” which he had written for Kenny Rogers, and “Endless Love” which also became the theme song for Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel “Endless Love.” (He did this song with Diana Ross). To pursue a solo career, Motown wanted their prized asset to leave his brothers at the Commodores.

While initially uncertain of the move, Richie’s first solo album “Truly” assuaged any fears he had when it reaped big at the 1982 Grammys

Lionel Richie Songs

In 1983, Richie’s song “All Night Long” soared to global success, breaking all records en route to becoming the all-time Motown best-selling song.

In 1985, Richie scooped 6 awards at the American Music Awards. Later that night, he teamed up with more than forty other artists for the “We Are The World” project that raised millions of $$s for hungry families in Africa. He was one of the lead songwriters for this project

While studying at the University of Tuskegee in the 70s, a woman named Brenda Harvey, the daughter of a World War II veteran, met Richie, and the two hit it off. It was love at first sight. A year after graduation in 1975, Brenda and Richie tied the knot.

Richie toured the world and filled Stadia. He was a great commercial appeal and success. Richie’s public image was that of a romantic man who poured his heart into the music he wrote. In private, Richie’s love life was in shambles. He was away from home most of the time due to music and this created an emotional gap with his wife. In 1986, the couple separated. However, they kept their separation secret as they did not want to hinder the adoption process of Nicole, or the Ballerina girl. 

In 1988, Brenda caught Richie and a woman called Diane Alexander building the Sun Tzunian golden bridge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. An enraged Brenda attacked Richie and Diane violently, and the commotion went to Hollywood streets. Police were called in, and Brenda was arrested for spousal abuse, trespassing, and assault.

The media went wild with the story. Until then, Richie was only known for great love songs and a guarded private life. Now with the news of Richie’s troubled marriage hitting the airwaves, the world saw that Richie was human.

It was the separation and eventual divorce that affected Richie’s songwriting abilities. In his words:

“My world exploded. I was a love songwriter with powerful thoughts of love…and now, what would I write about?”

A wise man once said that when it rains, it pours.

While Richie was dealing with the separation and the media frenzy around it, in 1990, his father and source of inspiration died. And as if that was not enough, at the same time, doctors diagnosed a mysterious illness that affected his throat.

The man who had composed many romantic songs found himself unable to write or sing about love.

And when the love inside Richie died, so too did his writing prowess.

While he recovered from the infection, and remarried twice, there was no prosthetic for his amputated soul…and his later day music doesn’t sound the same. He still remains one of my all-time favourite singers

Contributed by Mukurima X Muriuki

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Poster for African Queen's feature Cleopatra (photo: Netflix)

For centuries, Pharaonic and by extension the Ptolemaic Kingdom, inspired painters, writers, playwrights, film, and theatre-makers. One of the most featured personalities of the distant times is Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30), who ruled Egypt from 51 BC until her death.

The enduring fascination with Cleopatra has invited many controversies, including discussions about her ethnicity, centuries after her death.

The Ptolemaic queen of Egypt was a reason for a heated discussion when, in 2020, Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in a Paramount Pictures’ film that never went to production. Apart from some media users calling it inappropriate to use an Israeli actress to depict a ruler of Egypt, the critics also described the Wonder Woman star as “very bland looking”, accused the production team of whitewashing the history, and eventually argued that Cleopatra “should be played by a Black actress”.

Today, the coin has been tossed, again. A trailer, which was recently released for Netflix’s upcoming docudrama series about African queens, has re-awakened discussions about Cleopatra’s ethnicity.

Many commentators have felt that the choice of British actress Adele James was a wrong choice since it portrays the Egyptian ruler as having black African origins. One character presented in the Netflix’ trailer clearly says: “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”

Caucasian Cleopatra?

Cleopatra VII Philopator is usually associated with beauty, an image carved in our minds with the same strength as her not-so-flattering busts is engraved on coins of Patrai.

Cleopatra bust on Patrai coin

While beauty parameters change over the centuries, the concept of a Caucasian Cleopatra was only reinforced by popular culture through numerous artists. When the Egyptian queen appears in paintings, such Cleopatra Before Caesar (by Jean-Léon Gérôme), The Death of Cleopatra (Achille Glisenti) or Cleopatra and the Peasant (Eugène Delacroix), she is portrayed as an absolute beauty with an alabaster skin, corresponding to the 19th century beauty standards.

Cleopatra Before Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, (oil on canvas, 1866) CLEO 4

More recently, the same narrative was adopted by filmmakers in historical and fictional movies: an Italian comedy film, Two Nights with Cleopatra (1954), starring Sophie Loren; A Queen for Caesar (1962), featuring French actress Pascale Petit; while Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Cleopatra (1965).

Trying to verify Cleopatra’s beauty based on the writings coming from historians of the era is no easy task. They usually comment on the queen’s character, hardly mentioning her appearance.

Dio Cassius (c.155 – c.235 AD), a Roman senator and historian who spent decades documenting the history and political changes of the time, describes the Egyptian queen as a “charming and intelligent woman who uses her beauty to captivate and manipulate everyone around her”.

The Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch (c.46–c.119 AD), said: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” When Plutarch mentions Cleopatra’s “irresistible charm,” he applies it to her intelligence, persuasiveness, and political strength, attributes that made her one of the most iconic rulers of all times.

Without a doubt, the Ptolemaic queen had to take care of her appearance – one of the requisites that allowed her to win the heart of Roman general Julius Caesar and solidify her power – yet her ethnicity, skin colour or detailed features remain a subject of debate. The known depictions of Cleopatra are often loose adaptations of history, intertwined with the personalised convictions of their creators and audiences they address.

Lineage of Cleopatra

An Egyptian expert in Greco-Roman history and a professor at Egypt’s Ain-Shams University, Hassan Ahmed El-Ebyari, has studied the lineage of her family. Cleopatra has been a main focus of Ebyari’s research; he spent decades looking into literature, historical records and other documents mentioning the queen and centuries surrounding her reign. He has shared his findings on multiple programmes aired on Egyptian TV channels.

“Cleopatra’s ethnicity should be looked upon from two angles, the lineage of ethnic groups present in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period, and her family in particular,” Ebyari tells The Africa Report. He adds that as a daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s ancestry leads to Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 BC), son of Lagus. Ptolemy I was a Macedonian Greek general who came to Egypt with Alexander the Great and his rise to power marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period in Egypt.

“Until Ptolemy V, the rulers married siblings keeping the lineage going from Lagus. As a political move, Ptolemy V married Cleopatra I Syra (204 – 176 BC), a princess of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek state in West Asia, considered a division of the Macedonian Empire. As follows, Cleopatra’s ethnicity cannot be questioned when speaking of her father’s side,” Ebtari says.

Badrashin ethnicities have the light brownish skin complexion, a completely different tone than a darker skin colour known to Southern African nationals

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII then married his sister Cleopatra V and according to official records they both had two children before the mother disappeared from court documents.

The debate then surrounds the children, with Cleopatra VII being the first born during this time the records have disappeared.

“This opens a debate of who Cleopatra’s mother was,” says Ebyari, adding that some scholars suggest that the famed queen was born to Ptolemy XII’s relation with another woman from the Macedonian royal lineages, while others point to a possibility of the mother being Egyptian from Badrashin, a county where Memphis is located.

“Badrashin ethnicities have the light brownish skin complexion, a completely different tone than a darker skin color known to Southern African nationals,” the researcher says.

Ebyari points to the fact the Mediterranean basin remains fairly similar in skin tonality. The presence of foreign nations in Ancient Egypt created a mixture, however at the time of Cleopatra, following almost three centuries of Ptolemaic rules, it is historically impossible to find African features in the royal circles, he says.

Sub-Saharan African ancestry

Away from the scholarly circles, some media followers believe that Cleopatra’s African ancestry is proved by the 2009 discovery of the bones of Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra’s younger sister. The claims made by Hilke Thur, an archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and former director of excavations in Ephesus where the bones were found, created a huge media commotion.

Thur’s skeleton presentation pointed to Europeans, ancient Egyptians, and Black African components, a fact that was not equally represented by the media. In addition, Thur’s theory was challenged by many scholars calling them “highly circumstantial”.

“Perhaps more important than the colour of her skin is the culture with which she identified herself,” says Sally-Ann Ashton in her Honours Thesis Reflections of Cleopatra VII through Time: Cultural Perceptions of Gender and Power.

“She may very well have or not have Egyptian or African ancestry, or both. Still, there is resistance to the idea that Cleopatra was Black, for it has been ingrained in the literature and in our popular culture that she was Greek and Caucasian,” she says.

From all accounts, it seems that Cleopatra did indeed consider herself to be Egyptian first and foremost, not Greek or Macedonian

“It is also important to accept that ethnicity is not only about the degree of colour or culture; it is also about choice. Cleopatra was referred to as ‘the Egyptian’ in Roman sources; even in modem films, she often calls herself ‘Egypt.’ From all accounts, it seems that Cleopatra did indeed consider herself to be Egyptian first and foremost, not Greek or Macedonian.”

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