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  • I just heard the best joke about Bond Emeruwa.

  • I was having lunch with him just a few minutes ago,

  • and a Nigerian journalist comes -- and this will only make sense

  • if you've ever watched a James Bond movie --

  • and a Nigerian journalist comes up to him and goes,

  • "Aha, we meet again, Mr. Bond!"

  • (Laughter)

  • It was great.

  • So, I've got a little sheet of paper here,

  • mostly because I'm Nigerian and if you leave me alone,

  • I'll talk for like two hours.

  • I just want to say good afternoon, good evening.

  • It's been an incredible few days.

  • It's downhill from now on. I wanted to thank Emeka and Chris.

  • But also, most importantly, all the invisible people behind TED

  • that you just see flitting around the whole place

  • that have made sort of this space for such a diverse and robust conversation.

  • It's really amazing.

  • I've been in the audience.

  • I'm a writer, and I've been watching people with the slide shows

  • and scientists and bankers, and I've been feeling a bit

  • like a gangsta rapper at a bar mitzvah.

  • (Laughter)

  • Like, what have I got to say about all this?

  • And I was watching Jane [Goodall] yesterday,

  • and I thought it was really great, and I was watching

  • those incredible slides of the chimpanzees, and I thought,

  • "Wow. What if a chimpanzee could talk, you know? What would it say?"

  • My first thought was, "Well, you know, there's George Bush."

  • But then I thought, "Why be rude to chimpanzees?"

  • I guess there goes my green card.

  • (Laughter)

  • There's been a lot of talk about narrative in Africa.

  • And what's become increasingly clear to me is that

  • we're talking about news stories about Africa;

  • we're not really talking about African narratives.

  • And it's important to make a distinction, because if the news is anything to go by,

  • 40 percent of Americans can't -- either can't afford health insurance

  • or have the most inadequate health insurance,

  • and have a president who, despite the protest

  • of millions of his citizens -- even his own Congress --

  • continues to prosecute a senseless war.

  • So if news is anything to go by,

  • the U.S. is right there with Zimbabwe, right?

  • Which it isn't really, is it?

  • And talking about war, my girlfriend has this great t-shirt

  • that says, "Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity."

  • It's amazing, isn't it?

  • The truth is, everything we know about America,

  • everything Americans come to know about being American,

  • isn't from the news.

  • I live there.

  • We don't go home at the end of the day and think,

  • "Well, I really know who I am now

  • because the Wall Street Journal says that the Stock Exchange

  • closed at this many points."

  • What we know about how to be who we are comes from stories.

  • It comes from the novels, the movies, the fashion magazines.

  • It comes from popular culture.

  • In other words, it's the agents of our imagination

  • who really shape who we are. And this is important to remember,

  • because in Africa

  • the complicated questions we want to ask about

  • what all of this means has been asked

  • from the rock paintings of the San people,

  • through the Sundiata epics of Mali, to modern contemporary literature.

  • If you want to know about Africa, read our literature --

  • and not just "Things Fall Apart," because that would be like saying,

  • "I've read 'Gone with the Wind' and so I know everything about America."

  • That's very important.

  • There's a poem by Jack Gilbert called "The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart."

  • He says, "When the Sumerian tablets were first translated,

  • they were thought to be business records.

  • But what if they were poems and psalms?

  • My love is like twelve Ethiopian goats

  • standing still in the morning light.

  • Shiploads of thuja are what my body wants to say to your body.

  • Giraffes are this desire in the dark."

  • This is important.

  • It's important because misreading is really the chance

  • for complication and opportunity.

  • The first Igbo Bible was translated from English

  • in about the 1800s by Bishop Crowther,

  • who was a Yoruba.

  • And it's important to know Igbo is a tonal language,

  • and so they'll say the word "igwe" and "igwe":

  • same spelling, one means "sky" or "heaven,"

  • and one means "bicycle" or "iron."

  • So "God is in heaven surrounded by His angels"

  • was translated as --

  • [Igbo].

  • And for some reason, in Cameroon, when they tried

  • to translate the Bible into Cameroonian patois,

  • they chose the Igbo version.

  • And I'm not going to give you the patois translation;

  • I'm going to make it standard English.

  • Basically, it ends up as "God is on a bicycle with his angels."

  • This is good, because language complicates things.

  • You know, we often think that language mirrors

  • the world in which we live, and I find that's not true.

  • The language actually makes the world in which we live.

  • Language is not -- I mean, things don't have

  • any mutable value by themselves; we ascribe them a value.

  • And language can't be understood in its abstraction.

  • It can only be understood in the context of story,

  • and everything, all of this is story.

  • And it's important to remember that,

  • because if we don't, then we become ahistorical.

  • We've had a lot of -- a parade of amazing ideas here.

  • But these are not new to Africa.

  • Nigeria got its independence in 1960.

  • The first time the possibility for independence was discussed

  • was in 1922, following the Aba women's market riots.

  • In 1967, in the middle of the Biafran-Nigerian Civil War,

  • Dr. Njoku-Obi invented the Cholera vaccine.

  • So, you know, the thing is to remember that

  • because otherwise, 10 years from now,

  • we'll be back here trying to tell this story again.

  • So, what it says to me then is that it's not really --

  • the problem isn't really the stories that are being told

  • or which stories are being told,

  • the problem really is the terms of humanity

  • that we're willing to bring to complicate every story,

  • and that's really what it's all about.

  • Let me tell you a Nigerian joke.

  • Well, it's just a joke, anyway.

  • So there's Tom, Dick and Harry and they're working construction.

  • And Tom opens up his lunch box and there's rice in it,

  • and he goes on this rant about, "Twenty years,

  • my wife has been packing rice for lunch.

  • If she does it again tomorrow, I'm going to throw myself

  • off this building and kill myself."

  • And Dick and Harry repeat this.

  • The next day, Tom opens his lunchbox, there's rice,

  • so he throws himself off and kills himself,

  • and Tom, Dick and Harry follow.

  • And now the inquest -- you know, Tom's wife

  • and Dick's wife are distraught.

  • They wished they'd not packed rice.

  • But Harry's wife is confused, because she said, "You know,

  • Harry had been packing his own lunch for 20 years."

  • (Laughter)

  • This seemingly innocent joke, when I heard it as a child in Nigeria,

  • was told about Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa,

  • with the Hausa being Harry.

  • So what seems like an eccentric if tragic joke about Harry

  • becomes a way to spread ethnic hatred.

  • My father was educated in Cork, in the University of Cork, in the '50s.

  • In fact, every time I read in Ireland,

  • people get me all mistaken and they say,

  • "Oh, this is Chris O'Barney from Cork."

  • But he was also in Oxford in the '50s,

  • and yet growing up as a child in Nigeria,

  • my father used to say to me, "You must never eat or drink

  • in a Yoruba person's house because they will poison you."

  • It makes sense now when I think about it,

  • because if you'd known my father,

  • you would've wanted to poison him too.

  • (Laughter)

  • So I was born in 1966, at the beginning

  • of the Biafran-Nigerian Civil War, and the war ended after three years.

  • And I was growing up in school and the federal government

  • didn't want us taught about the history of the war,

  • because they thought it probably would make us

  • generate a new generation of rebels.

  • So I had a very inventive teacher, a Pakistani Muslim,

  • who wanted to teach us about this.

  • So what he did was to teach us Jewish Holocaust history,

  • and so huddled around books with photographs of people in Auschwitz,

  • I learned the melancholic history of my people

  • through the melancholic history of another people.

  • I mean, picture this -- really picture this.

  • A Pakistani Muslim teaching Jewish Holocaust history

  • to young Igbo children.

  • Story is powerful.

  • Story is fluid and it belongs to nobody.

  • And it should come as no surprise

  • that my first novel at 16 was about Neo-Nazis

  • taking over Nigeria to institute the Fourth Reich.

  • It makes perfect sense.

  • And they were to blow up strategic targets

  • and take over the country, and they were foiled

  • by a Nigerian James Bond called Coyote Williams,

  • and a Jewish Nazi hunter.

  • And it happened over four continents.

  • And when the book came out, I was heralded as Africa's answer

  • to Frederick Forsyth, which is a dubious honor at best.

  • But also, the book was launched in time for me to be accused

  • of constructing the blueprint for a foiled coup attempt.

  • So at 18, I was bonded off to prison in Nigeria.

  • I grew up very privileged, and it's important

  • to talk about privilege, because we don't talk about it here.

  • A lot of us are very privileged.

  • I grew up -- servants, cars, televisions, all that stuff.

  • My story of Nigeria growing up was very different from the story

  • I encountered in prison, and I had no language for it.

  • I was completely terrified, completely broken,

  • and kept trying to find a new language,

  • a new way to make sense of all of this.

  • Six months after that, with no explanation,

  • they let me go.

  • Now for those of you who have seen me at the buffet tables know

  • that it was because it was costing them too much to feed me.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I mean, I grew up with this incredible privilege,

  • and not just me -- millions of Nigerians

  • grew up with books and libraries.

  • In fact, we were talking last night about how all

  • of the steamy novels of Harold Robbins

  • had done more for sex education of horny teenage boys in Africa

  • than any sex education programs ever had.

  • All of those are gone.

  • We are squandering the most valuable resource

  • we have on this continent: the valuable resource

  • of the imagination.

  • In the film, "Sometimes in April" by Raoul Peck,

  • Idris Elba is poised in a scene with his machete raised,

  • and he's being forced by a crowd to chop up his best friend --

  • fellow Rwandan Army officer, albeit a Tutsi --

  • played by Fraser James.

  • And Fraser's on his knees, arms tied behind his back,

  • and he's crying.

  • He's sniveling.

  • It's a pitiful sight.

  • And as we watch it, we are ashamed.

  • And we want to say to Idris, "Chop him up.

  • Shut him up."

  • And as Idris moves, Fraser screams, "Stop!

  • Please stop!"

  • Idris pauses, then he moves again,

  • and Fraser says, "Please!

  • Please stop!"

  • And it's not the look of horror and terror on Fraser's face that stops Idris or us;

  • it's the look in Fraser's eyes.

  • It's one that says, "Don't do this.

  • And I'm not saying this to save myself,

  • although this would be nice. I'm doing it to save you,

  • because if you do this, you will be lost."

  • To be so afraid that you're standing in the face

  • of a death you can't escape and that you're soiling yourself

  • and crying, but to say in that moment,

  • as Fraser says to Idris, "Tell my girlfriend I love her."

  • In that moment, Fraser says,

  • "I am lost already, but not you ... not you."

  • This is a redemption we can all aspire to.

  • African narratives in the West, they proliferate.

  • I really don't care anymore.

  • I'm more interested in the stories we tell about ourselves --

  • how as a writer, I find that African writers

  • have always been the curators of our humanity on this continent.

  • The question is, how do I balance narratives that are wonderful

  • with narratives of wounds and self-loathing?

  • And this is the difficulty that I face.