Looking Back Through a Misty Film: Recollection from the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop

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by Bura-Bari Nwilo

In December 2019, I stood over Oly in my apartment in Nsukka and drew her attention to posts of Facebook friends who had screenshot acceptance letters signed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the year’s creative writing workshop. And in my eyes, she could see mild fury hinged on disappointment. I deafened her with tales of my yearly rejections and why I felt I had a right to be disappointed with all things Nigerian.

Then by whatever stroke of fate it was, I checked my email and saw my own letter. Like a letter I had once received explaining how I was among a shortlist of 50 amazing writers and the apology for what could not become my invitation letter, I read those years of rejection and apology into what was an acceptance letter for 2019. When I read through to the second paragraph, I felt an inch taller and almost swiftly, I was massively subdued, like I stood on a tower of resentment for all that had been my misfortune and it turned out it was a day of glory.

When I read through to the second paragraph, I felt an inch taller and almost swiftly, I was massively subdued, like I stood on a tower of resentment for all that had been my misfortune and it turned out it was a day of glory.

Oly shared kind words with me and I went back to the email to see if I had not been too optimistic to have read into a poor letter an acceptance that was only in my imaginations. And I was not dreaming. I was truly invited to the now renamed Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop after more than five rejections.

At the workshop, I shared experiences of my years of application and some of the wild thoughts I had nurtured. Once, I had thought that my serial rejection, after many of my friends were invited, was because I was not Igbo and I thought I could change my name to allow me entrance. Don’t die yet. And for the year I received a consolidation email signed by Ms. Adichie, I could not mix anger with such obviously patronizing letter. Goodwill messages from Facebook friends, of how I was such an interesting writer, added in me some courage to keep writing. And looking back at such thoughts, I am grateful it ended up between Arinze and me.

And for the big question in class, I asked Ms. Adichie what interested her in my entry that did not meet her many years ago, especially since it was just a regular story, something I had not even taken seriously, against the many I had written with all hopes and concern. And there, I concluded that maybe what makes the big mark comes in the funniest wrap. I had written a story about a serial killer who lured her victims, especially taxi drivers. The killer writes about the incidents on her blog. The few paragraphs I sent were the reason I was invited.

And there, I concluded that maybe what makes the big mark comes in the funniest wrap.

I come from a place of ‘serious’ literature. And I have tried creating most of that seriousness. I have given elbowroom to experimentation and maybe it is why I am yet to decide on writing a novel. And after listening to other participants share their acceptance tales; I knew that I was not alone. We were a universe of people motivated by Chimamanda and would do as much as applying for several years just to hear her up-close, watch her read and share thoughts on story writing and being a writer while addressing us by our names and whatever it was that made us stand out.

The 2019 workshop had it a bit unfortunate. The classes were cut to five days instead of ten days and a lot of things had to be stuffed into a really tiny car. Chimamanda, Lola Shoneyin, Eghosa Imasuen, and Novuyo Tsuma Rosa gave us thrilling experiences with backbreaking tasks: reading multiple stories into late night and class writing tasks that would see you read aloud your writings and listen to others and give constructive feedback. We made a coolly glossy family in a few days than would have been imagined. And maybe the shared rooms enabled bonding, but the 2019 workshop was tense, practical, overwhelming, indulging, compelling and it ended on such evenings where writers knew tears like they knew words and sentences. And those whose tears did not make the warm walk through cheeks, it formed a bubble in their hearts and stayed there as a priceless memory.

Her brilliance lies more in her ability to share quite controversial yet informed thoughts without breaking anyone’s back.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliant and adorable in giving kind words. We share a birth date with a ten-year age difference and that’s my consolidation for being a lazy writer. Her brilliance lies more in her ability to share quite controversial yet informed thoughts without breaking anyone’s back. Her playfulness and humane jibes and photo sessions informed me that it takes more than a fine head and great skill to be a superstar. A sprinkle of warmth, friendliness and sometimes vanity could be other awesome additions.

With the workshop, Chimamanda builds confidence, encourages collaboration, and invents homes for broken yet agile storytellers whose shortcomings are not only placed outside the spotlight, but their strength and wellness are given so much cheers and support to germinate.

Bura-Bari Nwilo is the author of The Colour of a Thing Believed, a book of short stories.

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Death, Diarrhea and Late Night Sackings: The Inside Story of an Unfolding Staff Nightmare at UBA and Dangote

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Last November, thousands of Lagosians including hundreds of UBA Bank employees attended what was billed as the ‘party of the year’ at the Lekki Special Events Centre on Admiralty Way.

The UBA RedTV Rave had everyone from Wizkid to Olamide to Jidenna to Burna Boy thrilling the festive crowd as UBA chairman Tony Elumelu and CEO Kennedy Uzoka mingled with the artists and guests.

On the surface, this was the best of times, as a bank that was clearly in rude health celebrated a successful year with thousands of employees, friends and family. The bank had also recently concluded a recruitment exercise that would add nearly 4,000 new employees to its staff strength, so the year ahead looked to be a promising one for most employees present. 

Unknown to them, while senior executives danced with Wizkid in the VIP area, one of the most brutal staff layoffs in Nigerian banking history was just around the corner. They partied well into the night and then showed up for work the following week as usual. A week went by. Two weeks. Four weeks. Then right at the start of the new year – a shocker.

Closed at 5.30PM, Terminated at 10.30PM

Ifunanya (name has been changed) was asked to wait behind at work on Friday January 3. As a 12-year UBA veteran including a long stint in her role as a Branch Operations Manager at a branch in Ojodu, Lagos, this was not an unusual request to receive. She was even used to working weekends so that the ATMs could remain functional and she could troubleshoot other onsite customer-facing issues. This time however, was different. 

Along with other staff members at the branch, she was asked to wait for a board meeting. By 10.30PM, the assembled staff were informed that their services were no longer required. They were then told verbally to write out their resignation letters on the spot and leave voluntarily or be forced out. At this point, her security pass was taken, and along with the other affected staff, her profile was unceremoniously deactivated from the bank’s internal system. She was reminded to drop her work ID on the way out, and thus ended a 12-year association with the bank.

When a relative of hers reached out to tell the story, he was keen to make the point that she was not an agency employee, but a full UBA employee on a monthly salary of N153,000. He could not understand why the bank would treat her that way. I heard similar stories from two other sources who insisted that they were coerced into resigning after being told that their services were no longer required right at the start of the new year.

Shocking and callous as these stories may have sounded, one of the first things you are taught in any professional journalism program is to always balance the story. So I sought an alternate account of what transpired, with the goal of putting the picture together to tell a complete story. There were conflicting accounts of the events of January 3 flying around, with some accounts describing a recruitment and promotion exercise without mentioning any firings, while others reported a purported “restructuring” at UBA, which is a well-known euphemism for “mass sack.”

I managed to establish contact with a current senior employee at UBA who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak about such matters. This was his account of what happened at UBA bank at the start of this year:

“Usually when anyone joins UBA with a Bachelor’s degree, they are put on a GT1 level (N80,000). After one year, they are promoted to GT2 (N100,000), then after another year ET1 (N140,000) which is where a lot of people get stuck on. If you are lucky, you get to ET2 (N165,000). So what UBA did was to meld those 4 levels into one (ET) so any one who was on GT1 and GT2 gets automatically promoted to ET2. Those that were on ET1 and ET2 got promoted to SET (Senior Executive Trainee). 

So it was a promotion of sorts, but honestly it was long overdue because compared to other banks, N80,000 for entry level staff is quite low. About the layoffs: I only know 4 people personally who got affected. The people affected were on manager grades and worked at the head office, they all reportedly got 6 months arrears.”

According to this source, he was not personally aware of the fate of any branch staff or what he termed ‘OND staff.’ He did however say that in his opinion, the bank handled the situation poorly and that Nigeria does need stronger labour laws to protect young graduates fresh out of school from exploitation for cheap labor at the hands of corporates like UBA. He also mentioned that he knows current UBA staff have not had a salary increase in ten years – a remarkable situation for workers in a country whose currency has declined 195 percent over the same period.

As it later emerged, more than 2,000 staff were affected by the shocking late-night cull at UBA. It also became increasingly clear that the firings had nothing to do with a harsh operating environment or decreased profitability. The bank which had brought together Nigeria’s most expensive music stars to perform at its end of year shindig was anything but struggling – it actually hired more people than if fired. What the sackings did though, was clear out a number of people in roles that the bank considered obsolete, particularly within branch operations.

It can definitely be argued that such restructuring is inevitable in the face of rapidly changing technology, which is hardly a terrible thing. What is also true however, is that the bank that paid huge sums of money to bring Burna Boy and Jidenna to an annual vanity event that adds nothing to its bottom line could also afford to retrain its redundant staff to fit into new roles –  instead of just sacking them and instantly bringing in thousands of readymade replacements.

Yet again, the actions of a Nigerian corporate made the point that Nigerian labour law, in addition to be being poorly enforced is also woefully inadequate and unfit for purpose. If after 12 years of useful service to a bank, Ifunanya could be dumped out onto the street without even a few hours of notice – and no regulatory action was forthcoming – then clearly, Nigerian employees working for Nigerian companies have a problem on their hands.

As much as the UBA situation made that point, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to unearth about another Nigerian corporate behemoth.

Diarrhea in India, Death in Ibeju-Lekki: The Unbelievable Story of Dangote Refinery

While senior executives at UBA House were going over the finer points of their plan to log 2,000 employees out of their work systems and force them to resign on the spot, a different level of labour exploitation was entering its fourth year about 73KM east of the Marina. There, at the site of the Dangote Refinery at the Free Trade Zone in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, the refinery was taking delivery of the world’s largest crude oil refining tower.

While this was predictably being celebrated across local and foreign media as the start of a glorious new chapter in Nigeria’s industrial history, I was speaking to a whistleblower with close and detailed knowledge of the project. What he had to say about the refinery project, the Indian project managers, the company’s internal culture and its much-publicised trainee program left me absolutely floored. Naturally I reached out to Dangote Group for a comment, but at press time I have received no response or acknowledgment.

My source, whom I shall call “Mukhtar” worked in and around the refinery project between 2016 and 2018, and what I found most distressing amidst everything he said was the revelation that deaths due to onsite accidents are not just known to happen at the refinery site, but are effectively covered up by Dangote. This he said, is because the people who die are mostly site labourers who are hired through staffing agencies instead of directly. When they die, it becomes the staffing company’s problem and the Dangote brand distances itself from it – even though the site owner is legally responsible for all safety-related incidents onsite.

Something else that struck me was that he implied that – contrary to all its public posturing – the company actually has no intention of using Nigerian engineers to run the refinery anytime soon. The trainee program that sent dozens of Engineering graduates for a one-year training program in India? “Strictly PR,” he said.

Accidents
The first batch of Dangote Refinery trainees head off to India in March 2016

For full effect, I have decided to reproduce the full and unredacted transcript of our conversation instead of using quotes and reported speech. Here is the conversation below:

ME: When we started this conversation, you mentioned that Dangote Refinery is exempt from Nigerian labour laws. What were you referencing?

Mukhtar: Because the refinery is in the FTZ, it is not subject to certain laws like local content laws. As such, even mundane jobs are given to non-Nigerian companies. Even the refinery’s fence wall was handled by a Chinese company. This didn’t stop long stretches of the fence from collapsing sometime in 2017. The FTZ affects Labour laws too. The company is not really under any obligation to employ Nigerians. They do so mostly for PR. All key decision makers are Indians (say 98%).

ME: There have been several horror stories about Indian-run businesses in Nigeria. Was this one of them?

Mukhtar: Yes, the Indians are quite racist. Some even demand to be referred to as “master”. To be fair, when this is reported, the HR unit makes a show of cautioning them. But I dont think anyone has ever been dismissed for it or seriously punished. Most of workers who meet their death on site are labourers. So their names might be known to many staff. I’ll see what I can get. It happens. It’s kept under wraps but it happens.

ME: Now you mentioned onsite deaths earlier. I want to know all about this. Why haven’t we heard anything about this?

Mukhtar: The refinery site is not really the best place to work. Mortality rate on site is quite high. People falling from heights or getting crushed by heavy vehicles/machines is quite common. These numbers are not reported because most staff are contract staff (or outsourced) so the company gets to wash its hands off such cases. But safety on site is the ultimate responsibility of the owner of the project. The construction site has a board that is supposed to display the safety statistics but it is never displays the truth. According to that board, there has never been a fatality on site. But in reality, I think 2018 had about 5 fatalities between January and March. If I were to guess, I’d say there have been over 25 fatalities since construction started in 2016/17.

ME: Now you said earlier that the trainee program was a washout and a disappointment. Fill me in on that.

Mukhtar: I was one of the first batch of engineers sent to India for training in 2016. In my opinion, the whole scheme was either poorly thought out or the company was somehow compelled to do it, and did so for PR. Our salaries were being paid into our accounts in Nigeria, so we were using our debit cards to access our Nigerian accounts for expenses over there) Around July 2016 when the naira went from around 160 per dollar to nearly double that number, our spending power was effectively halved.

ME: I also remember that there was a forex shortage crisis in 2016 and Nigerian bank cards stopped working outside the country.

Mukhtar: So when the banks eventually stopped all cards from functioning abroad, we were stranded. The company resorted to selling us dollars or rupees at the black market rate.They deducted the money from our salaries. We had accommodation (two adults per room) and feeding (Indian food which many of us did not like). Some of had to buy intercontinental dishes regularly, because Indian food is really not nice if you’re not into many smelly spices. It was crazy. Meanwhile we were told categorically that we would have Nigerian food and Nigerian cooks. It was a blatant lie by the Indian HR director.

Also, no arrangement was made for our medical care. Those who fell ill had to treat themselves from their pockets. During the currency crisis, those who fell ill had to rely on the rest of us to put together our spare change to pay for their treatment. The company promised to refund medical expenses, but this shouldn’t have been the situation in the first place.

ME: Tell me about the training program. What was the course content and the experience like? Was it what you were expecting?

Mukhtar: The training itself was a mess too. We were supposed to be trained to operate the refinery (at the time, it was said that it will be completed by mid 2017), but we were sent to a design company. These (designing a refinery and operating it) are two very, very different things. The trainers did not want us there in the first place. It was not a part of their initial contract with Dangote. Plus, they didn’t know what to teach us because designers are not operators. They were confused, several times, they asked us what we wanted to learn. But we could not know what we wanted to learn cos we knew nothing about the entire business. In the end, they reluctantly settled for teaching us design (skills we were/are unlikely to use cos the refinery was already 90% designed). 

ME: If you say that the refinery was “already 90% designed,” and you were learning design in India, that sounds like your presence was superfluous. Was the company really serious about sending you to learn skills to run a refinery?

Mukhtar: Indians will run the refinery. It will take many many many years before that refinery will be populated by just Nigerians. It was strictly PR. Anyways, the training with that design company was suddenly terminated on December 31st. Apparently, Dangote had not paid them a dime for all the months were were being taught design. They didn’t want to send us back to Nigeria so they moved us to the Dangote office in India. The office housed the Indian engineers (around 150 – 200 in number) who were supervising the design work being done by the design company. Now, it is interesting that these guys were working and earning as expatriates within their own country.

But realising that the “training” was a blunder, the company sent back some engineers to train in an actual refinery. So what was supposed to be a 1 year training became 2 years.

ME: Since returning to Nigeria, is there anything else you have noticed about the project that worries or disturbs you?

Mukhtar: Yes. So we have only the refinery at the FTZ, but the company gets to import things meant for other branches of the company duty-free. As a matter of fact, with the Dangote jetty in place and a customs office right there, the company no longer needs to clear stuff at Apapa. Dangote empire effectively has its own customs and port, because we cannot assume that the custom officers stationed at Dangote’s jetty/FTZ are extremely meticulous in checking what comes in and goes out. Personally, I find this disturbing. No non-military entity should be able to import stuff that easily into any country. This is bigger than just skipping custom duty payment.

–Ends–

Between bank staff being fired at 10.30PM and refinery site labourers being killed by workplace accidents without accountability, the sheer grimness of the picture facing Nigerian workers comes into stark relief. It is afterall, an employer’s market, with several thousand qualified people jostling for every job opening, which creates the possibility and incentive to treat staff like battery animals.

Whether the Labour Ministry is willing or able to do anything about such blatant labour exploitation is anybody’s guess. Nigeria’s government is increasingly weak and unable to impose its will on the country even territorially. In the event that the government did take interest, there is a valid fear that it would go to the other extreme and adopt a lazy anti-business Hugo Chavez approach, as it so often does. The real solution if there is to be one, must come from Nigerian labour having a stronger bargaining position through an improved economy. Anything else as it stands, is little more than a sticking plaster.

As Mukhtar mentioned, even inside the ridiculous situation of being financially stranded in a foreign country at the behest of an irresponsible and insincere Nigerian corporate, the vast majority of the group chose to suffer in silence. They did so because spending a year abroad learning useless information, suffering deprivation and experiencing diarrhea after being forced to eat unfamiliar food was still preferable to whatever alternative was at home.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem facing Nigerian labour. 

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People Are Mad at Kendall Jenner for a Video She Posted on Instagram

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Kendall Jenner is no stranger to controversy. In fact, some argue that that’s pretty much what she relies on for her career. From poorly planned Pepsi ads to more than her fair share of cultural appropriation claims, to that infamous video with Bella Hadid, Kendall is basically never out of the headlines.

But her latest controversy may be her worst yet. Kendall shared a video of herself on Snapchat that got everyone talking, for all the wrong reasons. Not only was it kind of silly – but it was actually dangerous, too. Scroll on for the video that’s got the whole internet angry.

Kendall Jenner has one of the most recognizable faces in the modeling industry.

The supermodel has crafted quite an impressive modeling resume – it feels as though there isn’t a major cover that she hasn’t featured on or a high fashion show that she hasn’t walked in.

But she’s also part of one of the most famous families in the world.

via: Getty

You know who we’re talking about… the Kardashians.

Kendall has had an early introduction to fame and fortune, featuring on their reality show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, since she was barely even a teen.

But, now, the star mainly focuses on her booming modeling ventures.

From Vogue’s September issue to high fashion runways, there isn’t much that she hasn’t done.

But the star has managed to whip up quite a lot of controversy over the years.

Considering she stays relatively low-key when it comes to Keeping Up With The Kardashians, it looks like her lucrative modeling adventures have been far from plain sailing.

For example, does anyone remember that Pepsi commerical?

In 2017, the world watched, appalled, as Kendall Jenner brought a social justice protest to an end with one simple act – handing the police officer a can of Pepsi.

As problematic goes, this was definitely up there.

The ill-judged ad faced worldwide criticism, and rightly so.

The controversial commercial, which was promptly pulled following the backlash, insinuated that all the problems could be brought to a harmonious end with a can of the sugary soda – or, at least, that’s the logic that we were presented with.

But in a world wherein these are real issues affecting real people, the ad just appeared to distastefully trivialize the demonstrations fighting for good causes such as Black Lives Matter.

Of course, many viewers didn’t take kindly to the commercial.

via: Twitter

The internet was in uproar after viewing the commercial, with many people shocked at the mere suggestion that we can put our differences aside over a can of Pepsi.

And, for her participation, Jenner paid the price.

Both Kendall and Pepsi apologized for the ad, but it looked like, as far as countless people online were concerned, the damage had already been done.

Soon after, Kendall addressed the issue further on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, where viewers watched her get emotional over the backlash, telling older sister Kim: “It feels like my life is over.”

But, sadly, this wasn’t her only brush with controversy.

The supermodel has hit the headlines multiple times because of her hair.

Now, you may be thinking “hair is just hair, how can it possibly be problematic?”

Well, it can be when you consider cultural appropriation – aka the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture, which can often spark controversy when a socially dominant culture takes from a disadvantaged minority culture.

In 2016, the twenty-three-year-old found herself at the center of a cultural appropriation scandal.

via: Getty

She came under fire for being styled in dreadlocks at a Marc Jacobs runway show.

The questionable show saw a whole host of mostly white models, including bestie, Gigi Hadid, and, of course, Kendall Jenner herself, donning pastel-colored, wool dreadlocks.

People accused the show of cultural appropriation for not crediting African American culture for inspiring the look.

via: Getty

People took to Twitter to slam both the designer and the models for the distasteful appropriation of black culture.

The designer did apologize but justified his poorly-judged choice by saying that the look was inspired by Harajuku girls, rave culture, and London style in the 1980s. Though many people don’t buy it.

It’s safe to say Kendall is no stranger to backlash.

But there’s one area in which she’s particularly prone to causing a stir – when she’s behind the wheel of a car.

Kendall has faced trouble for this before.

In 2015, Kylie and Kendall were driving in Los Angeles when they posted a rather raucous Snapchat.

But many thought they were focused too much on their social media, and not enough on the road ahead.

And the same year saw another traffic accident.

Caitlyn Jenner was driving in Malibu when she hit two cars with her SUV, pushing one into oncoming traffic. There was one fatality and four injuries in the tragic accident.

In fact, it seems as though the Kardashian-Jenners and driving aren’t compatible.

And when you put a selfie camera into the mix, things go from bad to worse.

And Kendall’s latest move may be her worst driving mishap yet.

She shared a video of herself testing out the new Snapchat butterfly filter.

So far, so good – except for the fact she was also trying to operate a vehicle at the same time.

via: Instagram

In her eagerness to check herself out with her new (fake) look, Kendall was rather conspicuously looking away from the road.

See what you think – here’s the video.

It seems hard to deny she’s not putting her full attention into her driving, spending a few too many seconds for comfort staring into her own eyes.

And some noticed this.

Not only was Kendall not really paying attention – but she also seemed to be steering in a rather bizarre (and extreme) style.

And although some were joking about it …

It seems others were seriously annoyed. It’s one thing to be a danger to yourself – but putting others at risk through your own vanity? Not cool, Kendall.

Want some more Jenner-based controversy? Read on to see why Caitlyn Jenner’s birthday cake got everybody talking.

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American Crime Story drama

Latest series of the US hit show will recount the former White House interns affair with the then president that led to his impeachment in 1998

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Monica Lewinsky is among the producers on a new series of American Crime Story focusing on the Bill Clinton sex scandal.

Titled Impeachment: American Crime Story, the Ryan Murphy-helmed anthology drama will recount the notorious affair between the then US president Clinton and former White House intern Lewinsky, and the subsequent impeachment proceedings called against him by the US House of Representatives.

Booksmart star Beanie Feldstein will star as Lewinsky, with Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the civil servant who secretly recorded phone calls the 22-year-old made about her affair with Clinton, who was 27 years her senior.

The series will premiere in September 2020 in the US, and is expected to air in the UK soon after. The previous two series of American Crime Story have been shown on BBC Two in the UK, as part of the broadcasters syndication deal with the US.

Impeachment has been adapted by Murphy from Jeffrey Toobins book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President. Murphy originally optioned the book in 2017, but shelved plans to bring it to TV last year as he felt that such a project would be gross without the contribution of Lewinsky.

However, with Lewinskys involvement, Impeachment is now going ahead. In a statement to Vanity Fair, she said that she had been hesitant to sign on to the series, but was swayed by the opportunity to reclaim my narrative.

People have been co-opting and telling my part in this story for decades, Lewinsky said. In fact, it wasnt until the past few years that Ive been able to fully reclaim my narrative, almost 20 years later.

This isnt just a me problem. Powerful people, often men, take advantage of those subordinate to them in myriad ways all the time. Many people will see this as such a story and for that reason, this narrative is one that is, regretfully, evergreen.

FX chairman John Landgraf said that the network would not be reaching out to Bill and Hillary Clinton for their input.

The Clinton scandal has been the subject of renewed public interest in recent years, following the rise of the #MeToo movement and calls for the impeachment of current US president Donald Trump. Last year, Lewinsky contributed to docuseries The Clinton Affair, while the subject also formed the basis of the second season of popular current affairs podcast Slow Burn.

American Crime Story has attracted critical acclaim and high ratings for its retellings of landmark events in recent US history. Its first season, 2016s The People Vs OJ Simpson, won a total of nine Emmy awards for its account of the 1994 murder case against former American Football player and actor OJ Simpson.

The drama went on to win a further three Emmys in 2018 for its second season, which recalled the 1997 murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace. A further series, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had been in production but was scrapped by FX last year.

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