2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction Award ~ Winner: A Dialogue With Frances Ogamba
Frances Ogamba explores varying themes in her writing. Her short story is forthcoming in the New Weather for MEDIA anthology. She won a joint first place for the 2019 Syncity Ng Anniversary Anthology. She is on the shortlists of the Writivism Short Story Prize, the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Non Fiction, and the 2019 longlists of OWT short story prize and the K&L Prize for African Literature. Her stories appear on Enkare Review, Munyori Literary Journal, and Arts and Africa. Few of her stories are interspersed in Afridiaspora and Writivism prize 2016 anthologies, Dwartonline and Ynaija websites.
BY TSHEPO PHOKOJE
This dialogue happened between Maun, Botswana and Nigeria through an exchange of Whatsapp texts.
Tshepo: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. The Valley Of Memories is such a great read. Take me through the inspiration behind the story and why there was a need for you to write it.
Frances: I come from Aguata, a place that draws breath from her past. Growing up, there was constant reverence for the ancestors and the guardians of our forests and lands. The elders broke the kolanut and poured libation to the dead saints who drank from the rivers we drink from. The modern Christianity threatens this culture and has succeeded in annihilating it in many areas. Acknowledging the ancestors is often considered heathen. Some of these ancestors often take to anger and strike their descendants with ill-luck. In the story, I was at that point where I needed to reconcile with this version of myself that lay anonymous, which I had for long refused to name because of my religious affiliations. At first, I put up a wall in the earlier versions of the narration, a divide that would keep the reader at bay. The revisions I had with Beatrice Lamwaka put down the defense slab by slab until I unearthed the whole story.
Tshepo: Interesting. How does it feel like to be shortlisted for this prize?
Frances: Firstly, I am thrilled about the attention the story is getting. I am equally honored to be on the shortlist because it has exposed the story to a wide readership, to criticism and commendation. It is often a marvel how readers weave meanings into this story, invoke it in interesting renditions that were not part of my narrative.
Tshepo: The journey to adulthood is challenging, and one of the things I appreciate about it is how as an adult, I have the freedom to choose my beliefs without the fear that was instilled in me as a child. I have come to withstand external pressures of fitting in or caring about what people will say. When you talk about the ancestral beliefs and how the modern Christianity threatens that culture, I am reminded of just how liberating it can be to allow yourself to listen to your inner voice and receive guidance from the Higher Power. At some point, personal journeys to self-discovery are inevitable and necessary.
In your journey, what else did you find that you didn’t share in your story?
Frances: You are absolutely right about the choices adulthood gift us. The realization that our lives belong solely to us helps us see these options with clearer and unabashed lens. In my journey through that hill and valley, and the series of consultations I had with spiritual servants and seers, I realized that God exists in all religious factions, both the old and new. Like you mentioned in your comment, there is a Higher Power which is replicated as the God we lean on at almost every turn. This Power cuts across sometimes as the inner voice, as our chi (guardian god), as the artisan behind the formation of rocks, as the artistic ripple of the stream, and these symbols some individuals revere. The source of this power is mystery, and is handed to chosen people from every race and credence.
I discovered that God holds no bias like the modern theist who lays special claim on him. God resides with the seer who does not receive the holy communion as much as God lives in the Pope. The seer may not say ‘Jesus’ but he is gifted to see my past in clear fonts, because he is also a man after God’s heart.
“Growing up, there was constant reverence for the ancestors and the guardians of our forests and lands. The elders broke the kolanut and poured libation to the dead saints who drank from the rivers we drink from. The modern Christianity threatens this culture and has succeeded in annihilating it in many areas. .“
Tshepo: Wow, such an amazing outlook about God and how he is for all of us. History seems to have overlooked some vital details about your uncle and the other miners who died with him. Your story is about reincarnation but it also serves what I believe it was supposed to highlight, your late uncle Okwueke’s kindness. In this era where good deeds are often not applauded enough, reading the story reminded me to be mindful of what good deeds I did which people will remember after I have died.
History also probably forgot to zoom into the ugly results of mining. Climate change is real, and well done on speaking on behalf of the people of Iva Valley, of its destruction by coal mining. You described the valley so beautifully, thank you for having taken us on the journey with you.
Frances: The mining activities in Iva Valley have been grotesquely expunged from our country’s history. It appears that the only stories we are allowed to know are from the events of the post-independence years. There are highlights on the pre-independence years; otherwise they are filled with blanks. Many young Nigerians are unaware that Iva Valley was once a home to coal. They do not know of the heavy industrial activities of mining coal in Enugu from 1908 to about seventy years later.
The 1949 massacre, in which my uncle was a victim, was a tragedy I inherited. That I carry his soul made him indelible because people who knew him always squinted in recognition when they met me. We shared little physical resemblance, yet people said they felt a piece of him walk by them each time I appeared. It scared and excited me that I was a metaphor for him. My uncle’s kind nature seemed to be the only virtue people remembered about him. This sort of puts pressure on me to replicate his values. He was kind-hearted towards my father especially. It was glaring in the manner my father idolized him, and how he stared at me at rare moments as if silently thanking me for letting him see his brother again. I wondered often why my uncle’s selflessness and all that goodness people weave around his memory could not save him from such callous end. I also often thought of the point of doing and being good when only few miracles and lifelines are available to us. But like you said, perhaps the memory serves some good purpose.
Thank you for letting me lead you on a journey through the Iva Valley. The Milken hill and the valley that flanks it stimulate pleasure at first meeting. The erosive effects of coal are visible in some areas, and I hope that the new trend of filling the earth space with houses and industries does not entirely ruin what already risks to be ruined.
Tshepo: I do hope so too. Though the story is mostly about your uncle, please accept my condolences about your father as well. I can understand why he saw his late brother in your eyes and subtle resemblances, kindness shown to us is something worth holding on to, even just as memories.
You said in the story that at some point, carrying your uncle’s soul felt heavier, how are you now, health-wise and all?
Frances: I feel a lot better now. I had no inkling that everything that was wrong with me could have something to do with the man who reincarnated me. The claims were laughable at first, linking my afflictions with the bullet wounds of a dead man. I would have laughed it off except I was too frail to. Writing made it easier, and fetched me temporary relief. I am free of the ailments to a great extent but my body still juggles a lot of noise which is no longer alarming, because I have made peace with the way things are.
Tshepo: I honestly believe that it is more of a gift than a curse for you to have had the amazing experience of carrying your late uncle’s memories. Reading about how familiar some of the places you went to while visiting where he lived made my hairs stand. How was it for you?
Frances: It is a blessing, especially when I am not ill. I cut an interesting figure growing up, and the stories of who I could be were passed around. My siblings often say that I was a weird child and had conversations with invisible beings. Children do this often, except that everyone said mine was different. I carried a certain kind of familiarity everywhere and it was disturbing. Pieces of the earth and tree groves appeared as familiar as the splash of blue in the sky. There was a feeling of déjà vu to almost everything I encountered. I always restrained myself from saying, “I have been here before.” My life has been spent as if in a constant dream state where the world is revealed to me twice, where the cosmos shows up in multiple colours, in grayscale or sepia and then the real thing.
This is exactly how I felt exploring that valley. I have heard reincarnation tales and none of the humans is as attached to their reincarnator as I am. People often carry the physical attributes or other qualities of their reincarnators, but rarely the memories. To share the memories of a man I have never met, this man who has been dead for forty years before I was born, equally makes my hair stand.
Tshepo: Finding peace is necessary. I am glad that you are free from the bodily aches that might have been directly related to being a host to an old soul, but even more glad that you took the trip to visit where he used to live.
I am glad that there exists exceptional writers like yourself who can open up themselves to share their truth. Can we expect more Creative Nonfiction work from you sometime soon?
I bet you are as wonderful a human being as you are a writer and saying that your story is amazing will be an understatement. Thank you for your time and your gentleness.
Frances: Thanks for your thoughts, Tshepo. I hope to burrow away in my memories to summon something worth telling. I am toying with the thoughts of writing a true account of how motherhood clashes with the career and dreams of a young Nigerian woman, especially a woman who wants much more for herself and from life.
Tshepo: Now, that is something to look forward to and be excited about in advance. I hope to read more of both your fiction and nonfiction work in the future. I wish you all the best with the award.
Frances: Thank you, Tshepo, for your kind words. Thank you so much for stimulating this conversation. It helped me lay bare again the shrouded terrains of my mind.
Tshepo Phokoje is a writer from Palapye, Botswana. She writes both Fictional and Creative non-fictional short stories as well as Poetry. Her first fictional short story was published as part of 36 Kisses; an Anthology of Short stories & Poems by Botswana Society of Human Development, which was aimed at promoting commercial tourism. Her poem Battered, Bruised & Abused, is part of Silent No More, a PDF anthology about Gender Based Violence. Her poem “FEAR” has been featured in the May 2018 edition of Writers Space Africa, an international online magazine. In her spare time, she edits her fellow writers’ works. She is an overall lover of Arts and hopes to start her own blog, which will focus on Mental Health, Gender Based Violence, Loss, Motherhood, the ripple effects of unemployment and/or liquidation of mines and Survival stories