CURIOUS things are happening in the United Kingdom. Africans are finding themselves increasingly told they are either too learned or posh to hold esteemed positions.
Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka has come out fighting after he was accused of being too “grand” for one of the most celebrated and unique positions in poetry.
Soyinka, 80, is poised to be the next Oxford University chair of poetry. The Guardian reports that all he is required to do is give only three lectures a year, while being on a stipend of only $10,000 or so.
If part time, its also an exceptionally prestigious position, whose sole qualification is that “candidates be of sufficient distinction to be able to fulfil the duties of the post.”
It should all be a cinch for the prolific Nobel laureate, having secured a near-unassailable 149 nominations from Oxford graduates—essentially current and retired faculty and students who in other times go by the fancier term of a convocation.
His nearest competitor is Simon Armitage, who has so far attracted 54 backers ahead of the vote that starts Friday. One of them is Melvyn Bragg, a well-known British broadcaster and parliamentarian who however sounds just like a case of sour grapes, given he had previously supported Soyinka.
Soyinka, Bragg reportedly said, would not “bother to come to Oxford” if he were picked, suggesting he were too busy, a backhanded compliment if ever there were one.
“Soyinka is grand man….I also query his age.” So Bragg, the chancellor at the University of Leeds, will now vote for Armitage, in all fairness himself a highly respected and award-winning professor of poetry.
Despite being so august, the campaign for the post can often be bad-tempered, but Soyinka is having none of it.
“How curious that anyone would even speculate that I would allow busy and committed people - friends, colleagues and total strangers - to waste their time nominating and campaigning on my behalf for such a prestigious position if I were not serious about contesting,” he said in reaction, sounding a tad annoyed.
The Labour man, Chuka Umunna
The brawl comes less than two weeks after Chuka Umunna, the country’s shadow business secretary, ejected out of the race to reinvigorate a Labour party still licking its wounds, despite having been a plausible frontrunner.
Umunna, the son of a Nigerian father and English mother and who was dubbed the British Obama, said he had pulled out due to the immense “pressure” and “scrutiny” he had been subjected to in the 72 hours he was a candidate.
He was perceived to be the best man to revive Labour after it was unexpectedly battered in the general election a week before.
However predictions that the suave 31-year-old would be Britain’s first black prime minister based on his meteoric rise have had to be hurriedly put on hold.
But in the wake of the storm around his decision to pull out, he was soon being accused of being too debonair for Labour’s pro-working class credentials.
Umunna, British media said, had raked in enough money while still in his 20s to buy a $350,000 flat at a nice address, had attended exclusive private schools, and generally led a privileged life. In other words, he was out of touch with blue-collar Britain.
The dapper Umunna (he wears $2,000 bespoke suits) probably didn’t help his case much by complaining two moons back that London did not have too many “cool” places to hang out, most of them being full of “trash and C-List wannabes.”
But in his defence, Africans, and Nigerians, when they are not being intellectual, love a good party. Okay, Umunna is as British as they come, but on this continent, we are not too picky about our extended family. Ask a certain Togolese football star, who has this past month regaled us with his un-put-downable family version of “Keeping up with the Adebayors”.
And anyway, since when did being exclusive or posh and African hurt anybody?
These really are uncommon times, when Africans are criticised for being too upmarket, both materialistically and intellectually. So give us some time as we figure out what to make of all this.
But Umunna could in the meantime probably learn a thing or two at the feet of Soyinka that would put him in good stead in the Queen’s land—including that a lizard in the village can never be a crocodile in the city.
In other words, an African man must always swing back when he finds himself in a slug-fest, not wilt. That is very un-African.