My new book, The African Piper of Harlem,focuses on the lives of a Nigerian-born family living in Harlem, New York. Here, I describe some of the influences that inspired the book.
True confession. I have never been to Nigeria. But that has never stopped me from admiring the literati emanating from a country vying with South Africa for the title of Africa’s biggest economy. To listen to the voices of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka is to become one with the legacy of colonialism and the frustration of a Nobel laureate calling on a new generation to fix intractable political problems. If lofty reading is not your thing, then look at Nollywood – second only to Bollywood’s film industry in output.
What does the country look like that gave birth to these and other creative voices? Larger than the US state of Texas, Nigeria is located on the western coast of Africa. It is bordered to the north by Niger, to the east by Chad and Cameroon, to the south by the Gulf of Guinea, and to the west by Benin. It is also Africa’s most populous country, with hundreds of languages spoken by different groups, including the Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, Hausa, Edo, Ibibo, Tiv, and English.
According to the author, Martin Meredith, an experienced Yoruba leader, Obafoni Awolowo, has this to say about Nigeria in a 1947 book: “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are “English”, “Welsh”, or “French.” The word “Nigerian” is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria compared to those who do not.”
Finding a constitution satisfying all parties proved to be a delicate balancing act. It is worth mentioning that northern Nigeria – where Boko Haram continues its activities – was an autonomous division within Nigeria, with customs, foreign relations, and security structures that differed from the southern part of the country. Nevertheless, a proud country was able to join the different regions and, in 1960, became independent from Great Britain (ultimately choosing to remain in the Commonwealth).
My own interest in the Yoruba – one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria – stems from admiring their art in different museums across the globe. Many of the masks and figures were elongated, resembling shrine figures. Speaking of religion, the term orisha ie., references to the indigenous deities of the Yoruba people extends beyond the borders of Nigeria and was imported to the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries, where the concept was subtly, but significantly, sculpted by local social and cultural environments.
But orisha does not just mean deities. The first syllable, ori-, refers to the physical human head. The head is a visible vessel for the invisible ori-inu or spirit and personal essence. The ori-inu exists before birth, comes from God, and “rules, guides, and controls a person’s actions.” Orisha can be sub-categorized as primordial divinities, deified ancestors, and personalized natural forces. Primordial beings such as Orunmila existed before man and emanated from God without any human aid. Deified ancestors, as the phrase implies, were mortals that made such an impression while alive, that their descendants continue to promote their memory. Spirits can also dwell in non-human vessels such as the Earth.
I stumbled upon a name for the Nigerian goddess in my book, The African Piper of Harlem after reading about Orunmila. This deity is regarded as embodying wisdom, knowledge, and omniscience. Simply put, Orunmila “speaks to the complexities of life.” The philosophical meaning of Orunmila can be found in the deity’s interactions, including his numerous wives e.g., Odu Iwapele, Apitibi, and Osun. I changed Apitibi’s name to Apekebi in the book.
Based on feedback, I want to give a shout-out to people who enjoyed the book. Many were disappointed because the story finished to soon. So, I would love to hear back from you which characters you would like to see fleshed out more, and if you want to hear more about spinning Yoruba lore (mentioned above) into a follow-up, expanded tale. You can respond by signing up to the newsletter below to stay informed about any updates or by commenting on Facebook.