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#BookChaser: Nigeria’s present darkness and the beauty of Shehu’s ‘The River Never Returns’  

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There’s a lot to cry about, and so much to scream out in frustration in Nigeria, and across the world. But there’s a bucket list of good things to be thankful for, as our reviewer found out looking through a collection of poems by Emman Usman Shehu.

By Nathaniel Bivan

The moment I saw the title ‘The River Never Returns’ I unconsciously added ‘dry’ as my mind went to Ameerah Sufyan and sixteen others kidnapped right in the heart of Nigeria’s capital city Abuja, days ago. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but there’s something about the metaphor of a river and the fact that it never returns that pricks my skin until I almost literally experience pain. Maybe I’m relating it to little things humans do that later haunt them, or the manner in which it seems like the government of my country is unaffected by the sorrow that’s swallowing up its people and yet feel it will never have a resounding counter-effect. Or maybe it’s just me being affected by this title so much.  

And of course, it’s not just Ameerah on my mind – it’s the train passengers kidnapped on March 28 on the Abuja-Kaduna line, and the incessant incidents of terrorism that plague Nigeria as a whole. But let’s forget about my musings and ‘return’ to this ‘river’ that flows into multiple possibilities. It could be a traveller with adventures neatly folded in his luggage, a hiker backpacking somewhere where there are mountains and ships set to sail. Emman Usman Shehu’s titular poem is most likely not talking about a return to the past, but a future filled with possibilities, whether good or bad, smooth or rough.

The collection of poems, ‘The River Never Returns’ is made up of 75 poems not divided in parts or limited by themes. In the opening piece, ‘Rising,’ the author pays tribute to poetry, dwelling on its power to transport us to places known or unknown, on page 12:

a poem takes us

without a ticket

without a visa

without a passport

without biometrics

a poem

takes us

somewhere

near here

far out there

or some latitude

between

It’s probably no secret that poetry is the first port of call for many writers, where they express themselves and learn how to string words and language together. Some remain faithful to the art, but others cheat on it by exploring other genres, while others remain eternal monogamists. Whether Shehu is in the latter category is left for readers to judge. However, his work so far in the genre continues to remind us that he’s not a tourist poet. Not when you recall the experience with ‘Questions for Big Brother,’ his debut collection, ‘Open Sesame,’ ‘Icarus Rising,’ and several more, including those featured in other publications.

It’s said that one needs to know the rules in any art before he or she can venture out to break it. Shehu has most likely earned that right, and is probably breaking it in more than a million pieces, yet remains consistent to a great level in the manner his lines and verses are arranged. 

For one, as an African and then a Nigerian, it’s impossible to write an entire collection without pouring out your hurt as regards the present undiluted terror in the land – from Borno to Yobe, from Yobe to Adamawa and from there to the north-western region where terrorism eats into Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto. Then there’s the separatist type of terror in Eastern Nigeria and the corruption that seats in places of power like cow dung bent on smearing the buttocks of every politician and public servant privileged to hold a high position.

But the poem ‘Break the Spell,’ is dedicated to Bello Buba Jangebe, and points an accusing finger at the hypocrisy in the land. On March 20, 2000, one of Jangebe’s hands was amputated for stealing a cow in Zamfara. This, in a country where corrupt politicians loot billions and are ignored or granted pardon, where hypocrisy dipped in a bucket of religion is like an intoxicating incense that blurs the essence of life itself. On page 70, it reads in part:

trammelled by manipulators,

impoverished after cyclical

ballot-box ritual,

maimed by hypocrites

wearing masks of piety,

mocking adornments

of moral rectitude.

O Zamfara,

When will the push-back

Break the cistern of lack

And be your lifeline?

Still, Shehu has many reasons to smile, and it’s the beauty of Nigeria even in this present darkness – this is evident amid the chaos in cities like Lagos despite its gory history of jungle justice, the splendour in Abuja’s topography, the “mishmash of civilisations” in Abeokuta, the “ghosts of pyramids” and lush history carved into Kano. Benin, Lokoja, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Awka, Yenagoa, Gusau, Jos, Makurdi…

In nine pages, Shehu serves us the beauty that is Nigeria in the midst of a dark, dark time characterised by general insecurity, and it’s a reminder of a people’s much hoped-for unity (and beauty) in a sweeping current of armed violence and ethnoreligious division. Maybe we are not ugly or wicked. Maybe we’re simply dry, thirsty for a kind of love we’re yet to know.

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Review: ‘Magic Pen’ is an example of the difference a film school can make

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When a pen can make you get high grades at school, why study?

By Nathaniel Bivan

In March 2022, Uzoma Ihejirika, a writer, concluded a three-month training at EbonyLife Creative Academy (ELCA), where he studied screenwriting. Then he wrote on Facebook: “the decision to take the course came at a perfect time: I’d just quit an underwhelming job and needed the thrill of learning a new skill; it was also a welcome distraction from confronting the uncertainties that stared me in the face.”

One of the results of Ihejirika’s latest adventure was being a part of the team that brought ‘Magic Pen’ to life – one of their four student films at EbonyLife Creative Academy available on YouTube. And so, I decided to take a peek and realized this is absolutely stuff to talk about, for if students can accomplish this in only three months (note, it’s one out of four such projects), then Nollywood has no reason not to be making fantastic stuff. Anyway, here goes.

When the first scene opens in a classroom where the major character, Charles, thoroughly anxious in an exam hall, vomits on his coursemate, I knew I wanted to continue watching. Then, as expected, going by the title and synopsis, another coursemate offers him the key to scoring high grades – a magic pen.

Now, the Nigerian film industry is still warming up as it tries to dive into the sci-fi world with movies like ‘Kajola,’ ‘Ratnik,’ and several more. Then came the Critics Company, a group of teens at the time, who made news for shooting sci-fi shorts with a smashed phone. So, yes, I was expecting magic, lights, and thunder, and… magic on Charles’ exam answer sheet. An addition to the growing effort. But I was disappointed, and I mean this in a really good way. The twist concerning the pen and everything it stands for totally ruined my expectations and yet earned the team responsible for this short film a standing ovation.

The actors didn’t annoy me, interestingly. Who are they? Are they new? Is this their first outing or what? These are all questions I need answers to because sometimes it’s frustrating to watch a Nigerian movie and wonder what the criteria were for selecting some actors. But then, I’ve heard that sometimes producers or anyone in charge tends to impose and even get a son, relative or friend on board no matter the consequences. This is sad. To the detriment of excellent work?

Bottom line: The acting is really good. If it isn’t, I’m sure I’d have gotten irritated and simply stopped watching and wouldn’t have wasted my precious time doing this review. I’m like that most of the time.

One take-away from this film is that not everything is the way it seems, and sometimes success is more than just what we do – it’s a mindset.

So, thumbs up to EbonyLife Creative Academy, to Ihejirika, and the entire squad, particularly the actors. And lest I forget, the videography is really good too. I particularly enjoyed the images in Charles’ mind that, for me, made watching ‘Magic Pen’ electrifying and, yes, sci-fi!

Watch the entire film below:

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#BookChaser: EB makes poetry ‘medicine’ that heals

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In a collection that transcends poetry, our writer discovers it is music, interrupted by rhymes and rhythm.

By Nathaniel Bivan

I met EB through his words on a blog – laden with stories and poetry – that made me reach out long before Covid-19 became infamous. I realized EB was famous before the pandemic and then, writing for and editing the arts section of a major national newspaper then, I reached out to him.

When I dug deeper, I found that EB also did Spoken Word. In fact, it probably is his core art. This was when his words stood out on a song, a cover if my memory serves me correctly. Then in 2022, his album ‘Incarnation’ drops.

‘Guns don’t kill, bullets do. My poems are guns and bullets. People should read me and let me be their bulletin,’ he says in ‘What Will Humans Do.’”

Then, “Today I am not the poet. Today I am the poem. Recite me when you are down, recite me when you are bound.”

So I chose to read EB, and this is what I found. When everything fails, what will humans do? Will we make more sophisticated aircraft? Try to make the sun shine after sunset? Maybe through a lamp against the sky when the moon refuses to brighten the night?

So I chose to read EB, and this is what I found. When everything fails, what will humans do? Will we make more sophisticated aircraft? Try to make the sun shine after sunset? Maybe through a lamp against the sky when the moon refuses to brighten the night?

These are the questions I find in EB’s work, just as I also find Nigeria’s dilemma, embedded in his poems. For instance, so-called banditry and terrorism in the north, where people are unable to go to their farms for fear of being killed, or worse.  

I’m writing this review a few hours after an acquaintance tells me about how his father evaded death in Southern Kaduna, a part of the north whose inhabitants prefer to call the middle belt. So, when I listen to EB again, his story of a mother and son’s encounter with terror is heart-wrenching. I picture Kagoro, the place where terrorists visited not too long ago, killing many. But it’s not only Kaduna, there’s Zamfara, Katsina, and most recently Plateau State where terrorists, commonly called ‘bandits’ have plied their deadly trade.

These are the images EB’s poetry paints in my mind, and without even trying.

Then there’s the soulful music, the play with tongues that’s in reality the Hausa language. Is this a musical album or poetry? I don’t care. I’m enjoying it, I tell myself. Stories drenched in music and rhymes.

No wonder he started streaming ‘Incarnation’ early. In just a few weeks it had almost sold out.

I have listened to and read a lot of poetry in my lifetime, but nothing like what Elisha Bala brings to the fore in ‘Incarnation’. But I am tempted to ask: are the songs original? Because if they are – and I suspect this is the case – then this is not just poetry, but art that deserves to travel around the world.

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And so the cancellation of Will Smith begins

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Shocking no one really, a string of Will Smith films are ‘to be axed’ after the Chris Rock slapping incident at the Oscars divided global opinion on what to do – or not do – to the Hollywood icon. Whatever the case may be, it appears a cancellation is underway. Here’s why that may be a bad thing.

By Justina Terhember

Will Smith shocked not only Hollywood last weekend, but the whole world, when he slapped Chris Rock live on stage following a joke at the Oscars. It was such a seismic event that it pushed Ukraine to second position on the list of online trending issues. Of course, those who do not support him have been calling for his head on a spike, and even his supporters (nay, sympathizers) have made peace with the possibility of harsh repercussions, it appears the cancellation of Will Smith has officially begun.

Specifically, because Netflix and Sony have reportedly shelved plans to make films with the actor, with a string of projects facing cancellation, and some upcoming films quietly shelved. Smith, 53, dazed the world last weekend when he stormed the stage of the Academy Awards and slapped Chris Rock after he made an ill-judged joke about the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Will returned to his seat and repeatedly screamed: “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth!” while the astonished A-List audience watched on in shock, and the internet broke in two.

Will later apologised to Chris via social media and on Saturday announced that he had resigned from his position as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but as expected from the pulse of reactions on popular media, the worst is yet to come.

Will later apologised to Chris via social media and on Saturday announced that he had resigned from his position as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but as expected from the pulse of reactions on popular media, the worst is yet to come. The Hollywood Reporter claims that a Netflix film titled ‘Fast and Loose’ meant to star Smith has been shelved in light of the scandal. The film had originally been set to be directed by David Leitch, but he pulled out of the project a week before the Oscars sending Netflix into a frenzied search for a replacement.

It appears that Netflix was understandably wary of moving forward. It is unclear whether it will try to make the project with another star and director. TMZ also suggested that Smith’s other Netflix projects, namely ‘The Council’ and ‘Bright 2’ could also be tossed into the trash as a consequence of #SlapGate. To make matters worse, even frequent collaborator Sony is said to have canceled plans to make ‘Bad Boys 4’, all for the same reason.

The Smith family

Also being reported, is that the slapping incident has affected a project he has been working on at Apple+, one deep in post-production, a drama titled ‘Emancipation’ which tells the story of a runaway slave from a Louisiana plantation. The film had already been tipped to secure Will a second Best Actor Oscar nomination but the Hollywood Reporter now claims: “The streamer had planned a 2022 debut but has not dated its release.”

There are more, and there will be more, obviously. TMZ adds: “There are other Sony-tied films of his (either as a producer or actor) that might see the same fate including a Hancock sequel and a Karate Kid sequel.” I won’t be surprised if they revoke his Oscar award. All for what? Because he lost his temper? It was a slap, not a punch for God’s sake. To be honest, when I saw the video, I even thought “He hits like a girl”. But jokes aside, where and when will this lynching stop? It’s not just about Smith, you know. He represents a lot, culturally and racially.

There are cultural ramifications that might be felt for years, maybe decades. Progress for Blacks in Hollywood was slow and hard-fought, so a thing like #SlapGate shouldn’t roll it all back. It’s almost like someone, or a group of people, are eager to tear the actor down.

What these heavy-handed (forgive the pun) cancellation measures will certainly prove is that there is nothing like forgiveness in the public court of justice, or in the sanctimonious halls of Hollywood. Like I wrote earlier, it’s not just about Smith anymore. There are cultural ramifications that might be felt for years, maybe decades. Progress for Blacks in Hollywood was slow and hard-fought, so a thing like #SlapGate shouldn’t roll it all back. It’s almost like someone, or a group of people, are eager to tear the actor down.

Smith has got a production company now, so beyond just starring in films, he’s heavily involved in making them lately. Is an active cancellation the best way to go? What happened to suspensions, fines, public apologies, and community service? No doubt, Smith was clearly in the wrong for resorting to violence, but let’s not forget the joke was a triggering one. There should be a middle-ground, less-messy way to handle this situation, and cancellation is not the way. Like the end part of one of his apologies, “I am heartbroken.”

  • The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of GeekAfrique.com

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