Saturday, 21 December 2013

Decade Blogs - Ikhide R. Ikheloa - This life, London, tribes, and the Internet

Decade Blogs
Pa Ikhide, as we all know him as on the Social Media (Twitter and Facebook) haunts where he holds court as the king of acerbic wit, the conjurer of piercing satire and the scourge of the pretentious in all professions from writing to politics needs no introduction.
He styles himself a reader who writes, I guess that makes him a better writer than those who have to pen something for their supper.
I had barely asked that he contribute to my #YourBlogOnMyBlog Series commemorating my Decade of Blogging and he immediately consented, I am greatly honoured.
His story here is the story of many of us who left Nigeria from excited to disillusioned young people when we realized we might have greater opportunities for adventure, discovery and more, yet we harbour a nostalgic yearning for a much better Nigeria.
Yet, once you resist the temptation to do the sums, Pa Ikhide personifies youth, the life of the party, the agglomerator of diversity too broad to define and the master of ceremonies that gives ceremony meaning and purpose, we all want to be like him when we all grow young too.
You can find Ikhide R. Ikheloa with the Twitter handle @ikhide, he blogs at www.xokigbo.com and before he cycles away slowly on his trusty old palm wine tapper’s bicycle, you could befriend him on Facebook.
Meanwhile, This life, London, tribes, and the Internet
Three decades ago, I left Nigeria for America, a scared man-child. I was used to being away from home; my life from childhood is a blur of restless movement, from boarding school to boarding school to life on campus, but I had never been this far away from home. I missed Nigeria. I missed my girlfriend, she who filled me with the joy and mystery of fellowship with a truly beautiful soul.
The hunger to be with someone, to touch someone was a heartache that turned life in America into one large cold and desolate graveyard. I was miserable. I came to America two whole decades before the cell phone and the Internet became commercial possibilities. My girlfriend and I wrote long heartbreaking letters to each other. It took weeks for these letters to be delivered. I had to walk what seemed like a mile to get the mail from the mailbox. You have not experienced exile in America until you have trudged a mile to a mailbox in the depths of winter only to meet an empty mailbox. I had yet to discover earmuffs, in the winter, my frostbitten ears would threaten to fall off as the wind howled and mocked me each time after a trip to the mailbox.
When I left Nigeria, the telecommunications system was being bullied by state-sanctioned incompetence, mediocrity and corruption. In any case, my girlfriend did not have access to phones. I would like to see her again and thank her for the gift of her friendship. In my stories, as in Cow foot by Candlelight, her laughter reverberates across the canyons and both comfort and make me yearn for a beautiful time of innocence.
The eighties in America were a whirl of darkness, a violent, persistent separation from my umbilical cord, literally and figuratively. My restless spirit wanted to kick the claustrophobia of physical walls and be home in Nigeria. It was not all bad. In 1986, news came that Wole Soyinka had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Our local newspaper in America carried the news, with a picture of him. Excited, I shared the newspaper with my colleague. She took one quick look at it and muttered, “He needs a haircut!” Americans are not that into good literature. The pain of exile was also blunted by the kindness of many Americans who tried to make America a home away from home. Still, the distance hurt and nothing could console me.
The early nineties were not much better. Television helped, but American TV had her own priorities and one only learnt of Africa through bad news; dark smoke, rapes, murders, pillage and looting, apartheid, pot-bellied generals stumbling through badly written speeches announcing coups, etc. However, I do remember when the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s national football team came to America in 1994 to participate in the world cup. Even after all these years, memories of the pleasure of watching them play on television still send shivers down my spine. When they lost and they had to leave for home, I was heartbroken; it was as if my brothers were leaving me behind.
To say that the Internet gave me life would be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the Internet seemed made for me. I remember my first interactions in 1994 with fellow Nigerians on the list-serve Naijanet, the first ever social media network for Nigerians. Until I was admitted into Naijanet I had never come across such a robust body of intellectuals and professionals all in one place. I soon learnt that there is a mystery to the human spirit, that the flesh is simply flesh. We made lasting friendships, and in a few instances, lasting enemies. But it was the market place to be in. We loved, laughed and fought like siblings. And shared our opinions and to a great degree became the communications conduit for the fight against military dictatorships in the Nigeria of the nineties.
The advent of the Internet has been a lifesaver. Susan P. Crawford once wrote a lovely piece in the New York Times, The New Digital Divide (December 3, 2011). It is a thoughtful essay but I respectfully beg to differ with Crawford. I do not see a digital divide; I see a digital bridge. Today, the Internet and social media continue to remake the world in counter-intuitive ways – with spectacular muscle.
Every day on the Internet, new tribes (yes, tribes) are formed, and these tribes have great impact on the analog world. It is hard for me to think today of a world without the Internet. The Internet and smartphones have empowered women and children in Africa in ways previously unimaginable. For a change, the literature of Africa sails free and unfettered on the Internet, free of the cloying influence of Western editorial standard.
For me personally, it has given me life, I was born to express myself, and the Internet has given me the platform to do just that. More importantly, it has given me the gift of friendship, true abiding friendship that I access in real time. It is very interesting, when I finally meet these friends in person; it is as if we have known each other forever.
I remember London in April 2013. I was visiting my friend and her family. At the immigrations desk, the young official asked me if I had ever met her. It seemed like a trick question. I knew the right answer: I had never met her. But that was a lie. I had met her, only not in the flesh. I told the requisite lie; no, I had never met her. And he let me into London to see my friend I’d never met, but that I’d met. There was no drama to our meeting, we had known each other for so long, there was nothing to say or do, but continue where we left off on the Internet.
In London, I met many friends, mostly writers and readers I met on the Internet. And I met Akin Akintayo, a fellow citizen of Twitterville. Over several moons, we have bonded wirelessly as can be seen by our friendly banter on Twitter, threads that are defined by a playful tensile strength. He is the personification of all that makes me love life as a digital citizen. Once I wanted a copy of the UK version of Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was a Country, because its book cover of a soldier sitting on a car was evocative of a certain era in my life and it spoke to me. I announced my wish on Twitter and Akin set about getting it for me at considerable inconvenience, financially and logistically. I’d never met Akin of course, until I finally met him in London in April months later.
My days in London remain special for many reasons. One of them is of hanging out with Akin, and many of us on the streets of London this fine evening, going to dinner. Akin was the very picture of splendor, grace and charm under trying circumstances, a brave man politely giving the gatekeepers of life the middle finger, modeling for all of us how to live – without fear. I salute you, Akin. Keep on blogging and talking, we are listening to you.


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