Monday, August 29, 2005

Archive: On Beauty Queens

* My sound-off on the Miss World Contest (2003 edition), and Nigerian Beauty Queens...

On Beauty Queens

Last month in Sanya, China, the Miss World contest buried the ghost of Nigeria 2002 when the pageant had to be moved hastily to London at the last minute. The beauty queens will never forget the experience, a luxury more than 200 who died in the riots will never have. As the contestants fled so did Isioma Daniel who now lives in a foreign land somewhere - fearful of the fatwa.

Another year and a new Miss World to be crowned, and all Julia Morley of the Miss World organisation was prepared to say about the previous year’s upheavals in Nigeria was: “last year was sad.” That was it, nothing more; just “sad”. I guess to expect any depth from this devotee of everything surface would be like waiting for stone to bleed.

Beauty contests are no longer deemed politically correct in western countries but elsewhere, they are booming. In Venezuela and India, beauty contests are all the rage. We in Nigeria are also wild about them. I hear contests are now being held even for young girls, taking us down the slippery slopes of the objectification of children. Every title imaginable is vied for by our girls, even those verging on the ridiculous. It has gotten to the point where we can never be sure which one of our top-range title holders will show up at the international pageants. That was exactly what obtained in Miss World 2003 when Miss Nigeria made her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. The poor girl was unrecognisable, an unknown! It cant be easy though, when Nwando Okwosa gets all the press.

The contest got under way and the only African in the semi-finals was Miss Ethiopia, her country’s first beauty queen. Another semi-finalist was Miss Venezuela who told us her country had won the crown five times and didn’t we think it was time to get it back? Not! Miss Switzerland sounded more like a beach surfing Californian; and Miss Norway would have been perfect for the TV series Baywatch as she strolled in a bikini, boobs-a-jiggly.

Agbani Darego’s triumph at Miss World 2001 was a huge source of pride for Black Africa. It also boosted the confidence of then Miss Nigeria, Sylvia Edem. This led to comparisons between the two girls in which Sylvia was nearly always judged to be the more beautiful. Is she automatically better looking because she’s lighter-skinned? Sylvia Edem went around during her reign with an ever present choker round her neck. She paraded a predictable style, with the dated glamour of a southern belle (and we’re not talking southern Nigeria here). As for her hair, it was pulled back into the same ponytail hairpiece look for a whole year, and she thought she was the height of fashion!

The world is full of pretty girls who look like Sylvia Edem. Beauty goes beyond the face. Outstanding beauties have more, a certain je ne sais quoi which sets them apart. And Miss World judges saw that something in Agbani Darego in 2001. The UK Guardian hailed her win, saying that political incorrectness sometimes had its compensations. Agbani has a cutting-edge style that is timeless and cannot be taught. And now, she has that ethereal air of a supermodel while still looking like the girl next door. On the panel of judges for Miss World 2003, Agbani looked stunning in a daring cut-away dress. But Agbani, Pride of the Niger, why so skinny? I swear I could see ribs!

Entertainer Bruce Forsyth was in the audience in Sanya with his wife who long ago placed third in the Miss World contest. She could still give today’s contestants a good run for their money. It made me think how some beauty queens prove their true worth in the passage of time. A lifetime after she won the Miss Nigeria contest, I ran into the ageless and peerless Julie Coker in London’s West End. I approached her to say what I couldn’t keep to myself: she looked very well. She was gracious and though old enough to be my mother, thanked me with full courtesy in Yoruba: “e se”.

Other past Miss Nigeria winners arouse in me only mixed feelings. Take for instance Bianca Onoh, wife of the Ikemba of Nnewi, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Bianca undoubtedly gave Ojukwu what some might call an enviable love life, but she also helped hasten the great Igbo leader’s descent into irrelevance. During the 70’s, there was a huge vessel used for party cooking which in my part of Yorubaland was called “agbari-Ojukwu” meaning Ojukwu’s head or skull. Nothing politically correct about this, but I don’t think the term was used in a purely derogatory sense. Beyond hinting at the shape of the Ikemba‘s head, “agbari-Ojukwu” alluded to qualities associated with the Biafran leader. Looking at the agbari-Ojukwu, my mind would conjure up the romanticised idea of a fearsome, mythical warrior with superhuman strength. Ojukwu, to me, was an inspirational, anti-establishment figure - a legend.

I remember the glorious day Ojukwu returned from exile in the Ivory Coast. Thousands lined his route along Ikorodu Road to welcome home their hero. One of the dailies, the National Concord I think, emblazoned on its front page: Agaracha Returns! I wanted Ojukwu to continue in the same vein, inspiring strong emotions forever and to never compromise. But now the Ikemba seems content to act the lovesick old man to Bianca Onoh, and he wants the rest of us to marvel at this great romance! He forgets that she may not even be everyone’s idea of the perfect woman.

For Ojukwu’s 70th birthday, Dare Babarinsa of TELL called on the Ikemba to fulfill his last great duty - and write his account of the Nigerian Civil War. Ojukwu himself declared in one newspaper: “I am the Final Biafran Truth”. But there’s no point being the final truth if that truth is not told. For her part, Bianca has told us: “Ojukwu is still romantic and active at 70”. A bit too much information, Bianca. I wish the Ikemba long life but I guess this is why some people prefer their heroes dead. Millions who carry Che Guevara in their hearts like a torch know he died in a blaze of glory. From beyond the grave he remains a beacon for the living and can never disappoint.

Like Julie Coker, the former Helen Prest is a source of quiet pride to me. The famous picture of her back then showed the newly crowned Miss Nigeria 1979 perched on her Peugeot 504 prize. I saw that picture and dared to think that maybe, just maybe, poor little me could one day compete for Miss Nigeria. Never mind that there were a few obstacles in the way of this dream, not least a scar acquired at age five in a hot water mishap - involving an agbari-Ojukwu, no less! Now Mrs Ajayi, Helen Prest remains a stunner any day, a willowy beauty with impeccable taste.

But not all former beauty queens go on gracefully. Anyone seen a picture of the 1984 winner, Rosemary Okeke, lately? Someone switched a light-bulb on inside Rosemary Okeke! The lady who won Miss Nigeria as a brown sugar has become one big bottle of fanta. Okeke has gone very pale and thinks we cant get enough of her, so she wishes to live perpetually on the pages of soft-sell magazines. I don’t know which is more objectionable: that a standard bearer for gorgeous brownness has gone yellow, or that a magazine then praised her “glowing new look” and “flawless light-skin”.

Is it only pale skin that can be flawless? Can dark skin not glow? What kind of message does this send to our young girls: you’re no good unless you’re light-skinned? Rosemary Okeke has shown herself to be an irresponsible role model to all the little brown girls who might have dreamt of being like her one day. Skin bleaching is the result of crude minds using crude methods and produces only jaundiced apparitions who think they’re beautiful, when in fact they’re hideous.

It was alleged recently that Miss World results are sometimes fixed according to Julia Morley’s priorities - allegation denied. But I wonder if third placed Miss China (to be fair a beauty by any standards) would have fared as well if the 2003 contest had not taken place in her country, which paid Morley £10m for the privilege. Second place, and to me the rightful winner, was Miss Canada, Nazanin Afshin Jam. She was born in Iran from where her family fled during the Revolution. Iran’s loss is Canada’s gain and Nazanin combined a beautiful bone structure with intelligence - looking like a greek goddess in an ivory dress. Here was an undeniably beautiful modern Arab woman. If the Miss World organisation had any vision at all, it could have made a profound statement for the world as it is today by making Nazanin Miss World.

But Julia Morley had a frothy fairy tale to get on with. And Miss Ireland, daughter of singer Chris de Burgh, was declared Miss World 2003. Her father sang the slushy 80’s love song “Lady in Red.” Miss Ireland wore pink. After lifting a 54 year ban on beauty contests, China has warmed to Miss World and will host the pageant again this year. Like Cinderella, 12 is the magic number for the new Miss World’s reign - 12 months that is. The show’s presenters called Julia Morley “the lady who makes dreams come true”. I suspect the greatest dream being fulfilled is Julia Morley’s.

  • Published in The Guardian, January 11, 2004

Archive: Happiness As Survival Mechanism

By Molara Wood

We awoke recently to news that we are the happiest nation of people on earth and were incredulous. If by some miracle we were the happiest, what was there to be happy about? Looking around, all we see is a nation languishing in chains. For the common man, daily existence has become a choking nightmare. So how in the midst of intolerable hardship could we be happy? Or are we - like the foolish Galatians - just an unthinking nation of alainironus?

But the New Scientist magazine says we are happy. We came tops in a survey of 65 countries carried out by respected scientists. The magazine is not a Nigerian publication so we cannot cry foul and shout "419!" No election rigging took place, no bribery, no corruption. It all appears legitimate. This should be reason in itself to be happy - that our country is numero uno with regard to something good. It is hard to remember when last we led the field in a positive way. Agbani Darego did her best to reverse the trend but look what rotten egg the whole Miss World fiasco left on our faces in the end.

The New Scientist seems to have revealed onto us a quality we never knew we had. There has been much inward looking since to check whether we really do have the secret of happiness. And we check, half expecting the New Scientist to be proved wrong. The publication and its scientists have validated us massively as a nation and yet we remain curiously unconvinced. But how far-fetched is this notion of happiness?

I have always thought that the average Nigerian must have certain reserves of joy to withstand the ever worsening conditions in the country. One sees everyday scenes of life's little joys in spite of the suffering, plenty of unintended humour to make one laugh out loud. The need to laugh no matter what may even be rooted in our psyche. The Yorubas for instance have the saying: “Oro buruku toun terin” - meaning that the matter at hand is so bad, it has to be tempered with laughter.

Looking at the many western societies where Nigerians are queuing in their thousands to emigrate to, it is not difficult to see how they would fare badly in the New Scientist survey. These are countries with accountable governments, economies that work, and all the material things. Yet the happiness that the New Scientist seems to be talking about (which cannot be bought with money, remember) seems to have eluded a significant number of the citizens of these countries, who should ordinarily be a lot happier than we are.

On a London Underground tube train in the morning, to cast a glance at fellow passengers can be like gazing upon the many faces of misery. A cross-section of commuters in the London rush hour can be representative of people with averted eyes walking unseeing past others as they hurry through identical days of monotonous lives. A smile in England hardly ever reaches the eyes; it appears as if by remote control and disappears just as mysteriously, and fast. It has more to do with an exertion of will than the emotion, and does little to edify the soul. Any wonder Britain would not fare well in a happiness survey?

Then there is America, the land of the free where the constitution guarantees every citizen the pursuit of happiness. Didn't stop America becoming what in the nineties was known as Prozac Nation. I am sure several other happiness drugs have long superseded Prozac. It is just as well the New Scientist says we are happy since the average Nigerian cannot even afford fake Prozac. To watch US television talk shows is to see the truth of another Yoruba adage: Ayo lo n pani, ise kii pani, which roughly translated might mean it is too much joy that kills, poverty doesn't. In the Nigeria of today of course poverty kills, but that was not the case in the days gone by when the saying truly had meaning.

In America too much joy - even if it doesn't kill you - certainly messes you up pretty bad. Here is a nation of people for whom things are so honky-dory that they invent problems for themselves. My dad never hugged me and that's why I became a serial killer. If I had N100 each for the number of times I have heard Americans utter similar and shouted at the TV screen: Come to Africa and see what real problem is! More Americans are in therapy than perhaps anywhere else in the world; psycho-babble is the new American gospel and its Chief Apostle is Dr Phil. How highly would they rate on a happiness scale? If asked in a survey, most of them would readily verbalise their unhappiness, define it and contextualise it.

Then take popular entertainment. When was the last time you cried to a piece of Nigerian music? But in popular (western) music, for every song that tells you to "Jump Around" or "Get Ur Freak On", there are twenty that ask you to weep in time to the music for some imaginary lost love. And how we weep - those with over-active tear glands among us anyway. One British band from the late eighties, Enigma, even went as far as to call their most famous single "Sadness Part 1”. Kurt Cobain with his group Nirvana sang the angst-ridden anthem of troubled youth: "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The millionaire icon promptly crowned his disaffection with life by committing suicide, and is revered in death by millions of equally disaffected western youth for his tortured genius.

Now that's a phenomenon alien to our music. However weary you are, put on your favourite Nigerian musician and next thing you know, you're dancing round your house like a merry fool. Our music induces joy; it is sunshine on compact disc; Prozac for the ears and the soul.

Soon after the happiness survey came another league table that firmly put us back in familiar territory. Transparency International (TI) published the annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI). It rates countries according to the level of corruption and Nigeria is at rock bottom, at number 132. Only Bangladesh is rated lower than Nigeria and methinks the Bangladeshis may have been 419ed; could they possibly be more corrupt than we are? One thing is certain, in Nigeria the stakes are higher - and therein lies our tragedy.

TI chairman Peter Eigen says of corruption: "Millions are left in misery and poverty, and that provides the breeding ground for hopelessness." It is that hopelessness that has eaten away into the lives of Nigerians. And the outright callousness of successive leaders has made it almost impossible to see a brighter day. Sometime last year, I saw a piece on the BBC website about Nigeria entitled: "The Land of No Tomorrow." My spirit rose like a vanguard against this writing off of my country as a lost cause. I was going to fire off an email lambasting them but defeat set in and weighed heavily down. What arguments could I readily advance to convince the BBC they were wrong? I regret to report that I couldn't think of many.

But to dismiss the findings of the New Scientist survey is to deny outright the notion of happiness as survival mechanism. An oppressed people can find the strength to carry on by tapping into the well of happiness that defies the logic of their daily existence. The Israelites of the Old Testament were greatly troubled and yet possessed this peculiar happiness. During slavery, blacks toiling their lives away on the plantations of America's deep south were not completely devoid of it either. Listening to old negro spirituals, one hears the slaves singing of their painful burden through which emanates a certain joy of living. Those spirituals evolved into modern soul music which straddles the realms of joy and pain, belonging fully to neither.

Here in Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo Kuti wrote the soundtrack to our lives - and the problems he sang about a generation ago have not gone away, they’re worse. Adams Oshiomhole was to have led the people into "the final battle", now called off - deferred to another day. He spoke recently about the continuing relevance of Fela's music and mentioned in particular the song Suffering and Shmiling, which Comrade Adams believes conveys a truth about the Nigerian spirit. "When you travel around Nigerian cities, you really see people who are suffering and spare a minute, you might see them smiling. It is not a reflection of their state of being, but a reflection of their fighting spirit, a determined people."

Could there be a more fitting tribute to the common man in Nigeria than these words of the labour leader? Ordinary Nigerians are, in the words of another song, "people who smile when they are low"; who have nothing and yet manage to give. Perhaps this is the happiness that the New Scientist celebrates: happiness as a reflection of the fighting spirit; a signifier of indomitable humanity. To lose this spirit is to throw in the towel, to concede defeat. The day will eventually come when the call will sound for "the final battle" against oppression, and where would we be without our fighting spirit?

  • Published on Nigeria2Day Online, October 13, 2003

Archive: Four Wives and a GiSim Divorce

* It has always bothered me somewhat, that a rejoinder to a piece of mine published in 2003 is available on the web, whilst the original article by my very self, wasn't. Not so anymore! I now reproduce the original piece. Readers can read and compare with the rejoinder - and make their own minds up.

Atiku: Four Wives and a GiSim Divorce
By Molara Wood

Many a Nigerian life today is being led under the influence of GSM. It came, and the dynamics of our human relationships are forever altered. Poorly connected and interrupted calls have inevitably led to poorly connected and interrupted lives, as one wife in Adamawa State found out recently - to her cost.

I return sooner than anticipated to the subject of Atiku Abubakar’s not so merry wives. Recently, I touched very fleetingly on: (a) how confusing it was keeping up with the many wives of the Vice-President; (b) how, with a wife from each of the main ethnic groups, Atiku could actually be the master of Wazobian politics; and (c) how the wives’ public profiles seem to alter in line with prevailing political wisdom. No sooner had I committed these thoughts to paper and, hey presto! Things got even more confusing.

My asides had been inspired by news that Adamawa State Governor, Bonnie Haruna, had appointed as Permanent Secretary Atiku’s second wife, Hajiya Ladi. Even as I wrote then, I was aware of US based Jennifer Atiku Abubakar who has been touted in the last year or so as Atiku’s "second wife". Well, can a man have two "second" wives? As Americans would say, "do the math". Something had to give, and it would appear something has.

Hajiya Ladi’s appointment could have been a serious miscalculation on Governor Haruna’s part, or Atiku’s way of softening the blow of what he was to do next. Either way, it was Hajiya Ladi’s swansong; for a coup of sorts has taken place in the nation’s second household. In order to finally make an honest woman of Jennifer, Atiku recently sent an SMS message to Ladi declaring: "I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you". And Lord knows you can’t reason with an SMS message, you can’t plead, it doesn’t see your tears. And so it was that Hajiya Ladi’s marriage of many years’ standing, which produced many children, was unceremoniously GiSiMed.

You may think it was not strictly necessary to divorce Ladi since as a Moslem, Atiku is allowed four wives. Problem was, he already had his quota, and Jennifer was actually the potential fifth wife masquerading as the second. Other wives include Hajiya Fati, who retains a fresh faced prettiness in spite of a busy child bearing career. She recently allowed a magazine to cover a dinner party she gave for her husband (perhaps her way of telling Nigerians: "I am also here o!"). Fati is said to be apolitical so I guess PDP and 2007 would not be her preferred dinner table talk.

Then there is the enigmatic Ha’aja Aishat who lives in Yola - divorcing the daughter of the Lamido of Adamawa would be like, "don’t even go there". But Atiku must have his Jennifer, and Jennifer must have her Atiku. In the process of elimination therefore, Hajiya Ladi became expendable.

Some men climb Kilimanjaro, others reach for the peak of Everest, but Atiku Abubakar - Wazobia’s political adventurer - has his sights set on the ascension of Aso Rock. The battle for the 2007 presidential election has begun and is turning out to be pretty much a two horse race between Atiku and the Okocha of Minna, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. IBB has already released his Weapons of Mass Deception, his Yoruba foot soldiers (alas, we are nation of Yes Men!). Atiku, on the other hand, is constrained by his present office from openly throwing his hat into the ring - so he threw his wife instead. The mind veers at this point to Oliver Sacks’ book: "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat". Sounds something like Atiku.

The marital cruise missile is Jennifer, the ace up Atiku’s sleeve. Sophisticated and beautiful, fragrant and delicate - with a diamond carat brain - what’s there not to like about Jennifer? If she didn’t exist she would have had to be specially made. For 2007, the North’s stake in the Vice-President is undeniable; the South West also has sufficient interest in him, thanks to first wife Titi. Yoruba historians have already told us anyway, that as an indigene of Adamawa, Atiku is a descendant of Oduduwa. The East, however, will take some convincing; and that’s where the Igbo Jennifer comes in. Following his digital divorce, Atiku changed her name to Jemila and swept her off to her folks in Onitsha to go and do the do.

These are worrying times for Titi Abubakar whose status as Atiku’s official wife looks set to erode with the rise and rise of the wife formerly known as Jennifer. An amazon, Hajiya Titi is statuesque enough to make the name Abubakar sound regal, with the dignity of ten Stella Obasanjos. And if some photographs of Titi in the papers are anything to go by, she also packs loads more style than Bella Stella. While the self aggrandising Yeye Oranmiyan of Ife preens around the country as "the only" First Lady, Titi has been busy achieving a historic first. Her campaign work against human trafficking has produced the first privately sponsored Bill ever passed into law in Nigeria.

With these attributes, and her instant recognition as the Vice-President’s wife, Titi Abubakar’s position ought to have been unshakeable. But with a husband intent on playing the Wazobia card in the run up to 2007, Titi finds herself in danger of being torpedoed by the tiny tornado that is Jemila. When it comes to determining the pecking order of Atiku’s wives, simple arithmetic will not do. Advanced calculus may be useful though, for the fifth wife is set to become the first. It gives a new meaning to the biblical promise: the first shall be the last and the last shall be the first.

Jemila the flower, it turns out, has a steely stem. And if Atiku has his way in 2007, she is to be our First Lady - our Hillary. The Vice-President’s Special Assistant on Media Affairs, Alhaji Garba Shehu, has said that assumptions or calculations as to the potential gains from Atiku’s marriage to Jemila would be in bad taste and would amount to an invasion of privacy. Erm, not quite, Alhaji Shehu. If our Vice-President parades an assortment of wives in full view of the nation, it is only to be expected that the confused people will begin to wonder. Moreover, with the chronic First Ladyism now being visited upon us, it is clear that a vote in the 2007 presidential election will also be a vote for the First Lady. Having been accustomed to Titi as Atiku’s official wife, should she be inexplicably replaced at "President" Atiku’s side by a newer model in 2007, it sure would help if we knew how we got from A to B. So the privacy argument just won’t wash.

Islamic leaders have denounced Atiku’s divorce from Hajiya Ladi as immoral. The Koran does not permit a man to divorce one wife purely to marry another, and most definitely not as a political masterstroke.
Ironically, should Atiku become the occupant of Aso Rock, the female population will be hoping for woman-friendly policies from the government of a man who divorced his wife by GSM. Some of his apologists have suggested it was actually done by normal telephone. Gentle reader, is the poison any sweeter if administered by telephone?

The best thing about Atiku could actually be the quality of his wives, and the GiSiMed Hajiya Ladi by all accounts, is no shrinking violet. We are told she will keep busy with her many political interests. I wish her luck and hope she finds some consolation in words recently attributed to Iyiola Omisore, a man tragically absent when God was handing out a quality most desirable in politicians: the ability to choose one’s words carefully. Asked if the Vice-President was his political backer, the Senator replied: "I don’t believe in any Atiku anywhere … I don’t give a damn. Who is Atiku?"

  • This article was published on Nigeria2Day Online, September 16, 2003. It was later broadcast on Naija.FM, a UK-based community Radio Station.