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An African Man’s (Re)Orientation in America: A Review of Okey Ndibe ‘Never Look An American In The Eye’.

Many Africans desire to see the life beyond the shores of their continent. For Ndibe, this desire lurked deep inside him as a child growing up in the Eastern part of Nigeria. The mystery that the White man posed to him triggered an unending desire to travel to America and the United Kingdom. According to him “For us, the British Isles summed up that other world that lay well beyond the borders of our unsettled lives. It was the world of white magic, white mystery and white power.” Okey Ndibe was born in May 1960 just when Nigeria was nearing the threshold of Independence. He met the white man in books he read at school which according to him “gave credit to the British for discovering every significant geographic landmark in Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world.” The world he was used or introduced to was one that defined Africa in Western contexts. It was the reason for his deep fascination and desire to one day go outside the shores of the country.

Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe’s memoir chronicles his journey as a young boy in Nigeria and his very sudden yet exciting trip to the United States . This opportunity was as a result of his encounter with the famous Chinua Achebe. Okey Ndibe had read Chinua Achebe’s books and considered him one of Africa’s finest writers. The first time Okey Ndibe saw Chinua Achebe was when the man drove past where he sat with his friends and they waved to him excitedly. And then another time, Ndibe met him at a gas station and exchanged pleasantries with the writer. Then, the meeting that defined all meetings was when Okey Ndibe went visiting a friend who told him that Chinua Achebe was her uncle. She took him to see him and Ndibe got Achebe to commit to an interview. At this time Ndibe was working with African Concord. Ndibe does not spare any details as he chronicles all that happened in that meeting. But more important is the result of that interview. Achebe offered Okey Ndibe an employment to be a founding Editor of an international magazine in the US. This was beginning of Okey Ndibe’s many hilarious adventures.

Ndibe’s welcome in the US was not a warm one because he was greeted by a brutal cold weather and he was not in any way dressed or prepared for. However, before he left for the US, he had received all sorts of counsel but most important is the one that he received from his uncle which became the title of the book. According to his uncle, Americans abhorred anyone who looked them in the eye as it is seen as a form of disrespect. Also, his uncle said that every American carried a gun. Ndibe’s life in the US was not a smooth one but with every up and down experienced, it was a story that was waiting to unfold. While his uncle did hold some very funny beliefs of America, Ndibe discovered the funny beliefs Americans also had about Africa.

There are other stories to recount but Ndibe points out areas that can be culturally shocking for a Nigerian and how he was able to navigate through these experiences. One that isn’t so surprising is the shallow understanding many Americans have of Africa. For many, it is just a place where animals live and people there have no access to civilisation. It is notions like this that make you grateful for the likes of Okey Ndibe who points out this ignorance and corrects them through the pens they wield.

Another experience worth mentioning is in the chapter ‘Nigerian, Going Dutch’. Okey was asked to lunch by a lady (Karen) who he had decided to help find her Nigerian father. After the meal at the restaurant, Okey Ndibe did not know that he had to pay for his own food. He thought (like every Nigerian that if someone asks you to lunch, the person was going to pay) Karen would pay but unfortunately he found out that wasn’t the American way. He had to tell Karen he forgot his wallet in Nnaji’s office and asked her to loan him the money. As much as it was another orientation process for Ndibe, it was an orientation too for Karen because she also learnt how it is done in Nigeria.

Okey also discovers how Americans hold their pet in high regards with tremendous amount of care much to his own amusement, he was shocked when someone says that she wasn’t planning on having children but the animals (cats and dogs) she has will suffice. As an African reading that, you might cringe a little because in Africa, having children is seen as a necessity. These are some stories that give you a glimpse of what life can be in America and how unnerving they can be for a Nigerian.

He also recounted his experience with a police officer who mistook him to be a bank robber just because he fitted the description of a man who robbed a bank. The incidence though shocking to Ndibe revealed the disparity between the Nigerian police and the American police. He feared that the policeman being a policeman would cause him harm. His own awareness of how Nigerians had experiences of police brutality made him scared. However, he followed whatever orders he was given keeping his fears within himself. The policeman even responded after he was cleared of any wrongdoing “Thanks for being a gentleman”. Though, the crux of this story is not about disparities of law enforcement agencies of Nigeria and America but how this experience was an initiation into the American society. It became an educative experience for the author and a story he would tell for a long time.

Ndibe also shares what inspires his writings and even how this career path as a writer began. Okey Ndibe does not hide his humorous tone but underlying it are lessons any upcoming writer should learn. Okey Ndibe’s love for books and reading helped his writing and also with the needed guidance of prolific writers he was able to produce his first novel. Ndibe further recounts his journey in writing but pauses to introduce us to his father’s friend Tucker.

Ndibe interaction with his father’s English friend Tucker symbolically speaks to shared human experiences that pays no regards to race, ethnicity or beliefs. Tucker and Christopher (Ndibe’s father) had fought alongside each other during the world war. Despite the distance between them, they still wrote letters to each other. The relationship was “a friendship that breached several barriers… there was also the taboo of race, embodying all historical distrust between white and black. There was the line of religious affiliation: Tucker an Anglican prelate, my father a Catholic.” However for years, these two men had a beautiful friendship in spite of divides. More symbolic is how this friendship shows that it is possible to be from both worlds and live peaceably. Even when a person embodies both worlds as a Nigerian-American, both cultures can find a way to co-exist. Ndibe can be Nigerian as Nigerian can be and also be American as American can be.

The book is a quick read. As a memoir, Okey Ndibe speaks of his development and transition as a writer more than he speaks of his transition and development as a person. Sometimes, he writes more about others than he writes about himself but in the end, sheds light on how all his encounters impacts him (albeit vaguely). He does not shy away from discussing the problems in the Nigerian political space. Though, he does this towards the end, he uses this to speak to the need for writers to be the voice that people need to hear and instigate the much needed change. “‘A story that must be told never forgives silence’…Those who shut their eyes in order to see no evil, to denounce none, those who plug their ears and gag their mouths, should be under no illusion. They may delude themselves, but they cannot enter a plea of innocence in history’s great carnages, its galleries of gore and horrors.”

It is a good read and can be recommended to anyone who seeks to understand the intricacies of writing, immigration and post colonial discourse.

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