Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happy New Year!

As the year comes to an end, enjoy a (very brief) selection of memorable (in my judgement, thank you!) photos taken by me in Scandinavia between September and November 2008 (my own imitation of a TIME Magazine Photos of the Year edition)

[PS. The Accenture photo, taken in Helsinki, is there 'cos I used to work with the Nigerian office of Accenture, I left in January 2008 to take up my current job in a mobile phone company...]

All images by Tolu Ogunlesi, (c) 2008

All images by Tolu Ogunlesi, (c) 2008

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Sly's Stockholm Sunset...

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Notes from Uppsala [10] - To be continued...

Published in The Guardian Life Magazine (Sunday, December 07, 2008)

This will be the last of the Notes from Uppsala.
The varied wanderings – physical and mental – of the last three months have now come to an end, and it is time to embrace the life that I let go. Time to readmit the life of sweat and of cold baths and repudiate the one of snow, steaming breath and hot baths.
Wherever two or three Nigerians are gathered (outside Nigeria), ‘Nigeria’ insists on being in their midst – in their words, in the perplexed tenor of voices, the involuntary wringing of hands and shaking of heads – the silent listener provoking speech, the unacknowledged protagonist of all stories, the overbearing waka-pass in an impromptu (& purely absurdist) plot.
I spent my final Sunday evening as guest of a Nigerian family. The second Nigerian family to invite me to dinner in Uppsala. Away from home it is the closest one can get to home; sitting across a table from people who know – or knew – Nigeria from the inside; who despite packing their bags and leaving at some point, still allow themselves to face and to feel the wayward homeland.
At every such gathering of fatherlanders it is impossible to resist dwelling on the great African territory that owes its famous name to a British Dame.
A land that inspires, constructs, destroys and re-invents stories. All sorts of stories – the surreal, the merely comic, the tragic, the nostalgic, the brashly magical. As Nigerians we congregate in far-away lands to speak of (failed) politics, corruption, migration, of encounters with new cultures and new languages, of the negotiations of disparate (and often violent) forces that play in the many vacant spaces of the exiled mind. The recently-arrived are expected to regularly update their ‘seniors’ on the state of the green-and-white union.
There is plenty to laugh about, and to shake the head about. There is the air of undeclared contest – my story is bigger than yours!
And there is of course the food – the mention of pepper or an apology for its absence; the delight at seeing that garri and/or ogbono are not averse to exile; the possibility of abandoning fork and knife and settling for the flawlessness of painstakingly-washed fingers.
I spent the day before the Nigerian dinner enjoying another dinner. My Nigerian colleague (at the institute) and I were invited by another colleague (a Sri Lankan whose husband is Swedish) for dinner at their home in the Stockholm archipelago, about 15 minutes from the city centre. The area is what you might call the ‘Banana Island’ of Stockholm, with generously-gardened houses priced in the tens of millions of Swedish crowns. On the drive to her house she pointed out the houses of famous persons. Tiger Woods (whose wife is Swedish) has got a summer residence there. On a tiny island all by itself lies the home of one of the members of the famous Swedish musical group ABBA.
In the thick of winter, the sea, which lies only metres away from the twisting road, freezes over several inches and becomes a giant skating rink.
Someday, when I do a ‘Highlights of a Scandinavian Tour’ piece, certain experiences will stand out, one of which will be this:
Walking through the Uppsala cemetery one evening, in the dark, trying to see which tombs were Viking tombs amidst the sprawl of concrete slabs. The only available light was the weak, ghostly (no pun intended) one from the lanterns that burnt on some of the tombs (it was a few days after ‘All Saints Day’). It was so calm, so peaceful, that before my eyes ‘Requiescat In Pace’ seized for itself new meaning (or perhaps merely reclaimed the purity of its original meaning).
Perhaps I should just do a Top 5, or Top 6 countdown of most exciting experiences in Scandinavia:
Top on the list should be the 17-hour ferry trip from Finland (Helsinki) to Sweden (Stockholm).
Then there would be my guided tour of Oslo, worth every cent of the cost – starting from the Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded annually, to the Holmenkollen ski resort, to the Vigeland Sculpture Park to the Kon Tiki Museum to the Viking Ship Museum, and finally the newly-built glass wonder, the Oslo Opera House.
There would be Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s ‘Old City’, with its imposing entrance and quaint air and narrow walkways and tiny shops.
How can I forget Helsinki, wet, windy, gray city, with its bloody history and Stone Church (which played a role in the Biafran War) and colossal bookstore and a language so generous with vowels you can’t but wonder if consonants are not being victimised for some disguised complicity in the Swedish and Russian conquest of the country.
Oslo, hands folded in a gesture of perpetual apology; a plea for understanding, for being so self-effacing in the midst of so much wealth.
Copenhagen, city of bikers, joggers, and artificial lakes. And an elusive Little Mermaid.
Last but not least, Uppsala, the oversized University campus, suffocated by designer shops and famous graves, and watched over by the oldest church in the whole of Scandinavia.
Thank you for not swallowing me. Or at least for not forgetting to spew me out again.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Three Months Up North...

My short essay/ mini-travelogue Three months up North... has just appeared on the website of the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden, my 'office'/Host Institution from September 1 to November 28, 2008.

You can read a similar end-of-residency essay by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, inaugural Guest Writer (2001) at the Institute, here (Pages 40 and 41 of the pdf file)

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Notes from Uppsala [9] - Nigerianitis

Published in The Guardian (Lagos) Life Magazine (Sunday, November 30, 2008)

As I spend my (final) days trying to psychologically disengage from Sweden – it’s for my own good that I do this before I return to Lagos – I find myself thinking again and again about the life I left behind, and to which I will be returning in less than a week.
Accents are baggages that we carry on through life, unable to drop.
Actually, that wasn’t supposed to be an attempt at philosophical profundity. It was meant simply as an ordinary observation, open to rigorous questioning.
I think the statement is true in some ways and untrue in others. True in the sense that everyone has got an accent; as in, everyone has got to have an accent. Compulsory. Every time we step outside our ‘linguistic comfort zones’ our accents tag along, with or without our permission, compelling us to sometimes repeat words for the benefit of people who are not used to our ways of pronouncing (certain) words.
Untrue in the sense that people sometimes deliberately cultivate (i.e. drop and pick up at will) accents – at great personal cost of course. Or what else would you say to the case of a Nigerian who has never been outside the country for longer than 2 weeks at a time, but insists on speaking ‘American’ – or at least his/her idea of ‘American’ – and has to maintain the unintentionally comical (sometimes sickening) charade at all times. Chances are that if you turn on the radio in Nigeria, especially to one of those stations in love with phone-in programmes targeted at a young (hip) audience, you will hear all sorts of strange ‘Vocal Variations on a Theme of Americana’.
A few years ago I was asked by a Ugandan why I don’t/didn’t speak like a Nigerian? Whenever I get around to compiling the most baffling questions I have ever been asked, this will take a Top-10 position. How could anyone imagine that I do not speak like a Nigerian! I, who grew up in Abeokuta and Ibadan, archetypal Yoruba cities, and not in no-man’s-Land Lagos where one might assume that a ‘wannabe’ mentality reigns, the land where Money Talks, and where People-Talk-Like-Money. It took a while for me to realise what the Ugandan meant. It was all about Nollywood. As you are all aware, Nollywood is one of our greatest exports to the world, especially to other African countries. Kenyans, Ugandans, Ghanaians, South Africans, Zambians all adore our Omotolas and Genevieves and Ramsey Noahs as much as – if not more than – we do. The bulk of what these people therefore know about Nigeria comes from television; impressions piped in through Africa Magic and itinerant VCDs.
In this case the Ugandan had come to a conclusion that there is such a thing as a Nigerian Accent, and had approximated the voices he heard in our home videos into a ‘Nigerian Accent’.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking that way, or making such approximations!
Well, not exactly. There is a small problem, and it is this: Nollywood (I’m straying into potentially dangerous territory here) – at least the version of it that travels the farthest; the ones originally shot/recorded in English – is typically an Igbo phenomenon, set in Igboland or around Igbo characters, families, culture and customs. And (Achebean) proverbs.
This is where the Ugandan must have got it wrong. What he had approximated into a Nigerian accent was no more than the Igbo Nigerian accent. There is of course the Yoruba Nigerian accent, and the Hausa one, amongst many others – don’t we all know how many Naija comedians would go out of business if a ban were to be placed on Hausa-Yoruba-Igbo accent jokes?
I have just finished watching (on YouTube of course, where else?) a series of comedy sketches by the British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, on a phenomenon newly discovered by him, called “Nigerianitis”.
He defines Nigerianitis as follows:
1. “It’s when you feel slightly emotional, and a Nigerian voice just shoots out of you involuntarily”
2. “A [Nigerian] voice that shoots out of [you] for no reason”
By these definitions it is obvious that Nigerianitis is not an syndrome that afflicts/affects Nigerians. Only non-Nigerians are at risk of contracting it.
Omid singles out “Nigerian Traffic Wardens” (in England) as a set of people who inspire (rouse, arouse, instigate) demonstrations of (the symptoms of) Nigerianitis in foreigners. He talks of the wardens speaking in “unnecessarily eloquent language” (“unnecessary” because they are traffic wardens, not University Professors), and advises that in dealing with them it is important for non-Nigerians to “shout back” (and hiss and make noises like ‘Aha!’) at them in the most Nigerian accent they can muster.
Snow has finally reared its frozen head. The last few days have seen non-stop snowing that has left a layer of shin-high soft white ‘powder’ everywhere. Temperatures hover around minus-five degrees centigrade, but I’ve been told that in the past they have gone as low as minus-twenty.
I’ll be out of here (and languishing in temperatures of 30+ degrees) before that happens!

View photos and leave comments at

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Lunch Poetry @ Uppsala Missionskyrka (Thur, 27 Nov, 2008)

Tomorrow (Thursday) at lunch hour (12 noon) I will be hosted by a gathering of Uppsala poets who meet weekly at the Missionskyrka (Mission Church), located at the intersection of Dragarbrunnsgatan and St Olofsgatan. Bernt Jonsson will be reading Swedish translations of two of my poems, while I will read in English, as well as share with the audience some 'deep spiritual stuff' from Fela's oeuvre.

Lunch poetry with Tolu Ogunlesi

Images from Helsinki - Temppeliaukio Church / Temppeliaukion Kirkko (BIAFRA'S CHURCH)

Temppeliaukio Church is the ‘stone church’ (it was hewn out of solid rock) in Helsinki on whose wall the word B-I-A-F-R-A was graffitied (during its construction in the late 1960s) by young Finns trying to draw the world’s attention to the horrendous starvation that characterised the Nigerian Civil War (more famously known as the Biafra War).

NB. The close-up shots of rock below (3rd and 4th photos from the top) show where the slogans of BIAFRA were spray-painted.

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Monday, 24 November 2008

Images from Oslo - Opera House

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008