US of America – Day 1: Lagos – Atlanta – Orlando

It’s almost midnight here in Orlando, Florida, so this will be a brief post (I’m sitting typing at the now-deserted CrackBerry stand, tired – hence the inability to think up a better title for this post)


Barely three weeks ago I boasted (while moderating the launch of Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel, AMERICANAH) that I’d never been to America.

[Read my 2007 essay, GOING TO AMERICA: A Primer, here. In it I imagine my first trip to the US of A]

Now I’ll be spending the week at BlackBerry Live 2013, at the Marriott World Center, reporting and interviewing and blogging. 

My never-been-to-America boasting has now been rendered null and void. Meaning I can now only boast about having never been to South America and Asia (Australia doesn’t count – for you to boast about not having visited someplace there has to be a possibility that you could actually visit).

I came into the US via a Delta flight from Lagos. 13 hours across the Atlantic. I lost five hours in the process, a first for me (before now none of my trips – mostly to Europe – had exceeded the 2-hour-timezone mark.

I was tempted to tell C, the young Dept of Homeland Security officer whose duty it was to admit me, to check me out on Twitter. (He asked all those questions – why are you here, how long are you here for, etc.) It was a bit underwhelming – no barbed wire fences in sight, no sight of potential immigrants crying and screaming and tearing their hair in pleas to be admitted to God’s Own Country. Just crowds of well-behaved persons and well-behaved officials.

There was no ‘Beware of PickPockets’ sign to welcome me (many thanks to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport for the heads-up). 

My connecting flight from Atlanta to Orlando pleasantly surprised me, with its offer of free inflight wifi. For the first time in my life I tweeted from an airborne plane, thousands of feet above the ground (It was actually faster than most of what Nigeria offers on the ground).

I didn’t quite manage to stay awake on the entire ride from Orlando Airport to the hotel. But while awake, and as we rolled into the sprawling (we passed Disney World on the way) Marriott World Center a sense of deja vu struck me. 

Orlando. I’d seen this before. In an instant Orlando struck me as the place where the source-code for Dubai comes from. The over-confident concrete blur of criss-crossing Highways, huge Hotels and Holiday-AddOns; everything designed for The Visitor. (A quick online search tells me that there are about 2m residents in the Orlando Metropolitan Area (Orlando the City itself has less than a quarter of a million), compared to more than 50m visitors annually. It is apparently “the most visited destination in the United States.” Great. 


This evening there was a welcome reception for BlackBerry Live 2013! Delegates (More on that later).

Later tonight it’s Alicia Keys in concert

Goodnight. (Good morning to folks in Nigeria!)


[poetry] Pilgrim’s Progress – for Barack Obama

My poem, Pilgrim’s Progress, written in the weeks after Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential elections.

It appeared in Wasafiri’s 25th Anniversary Issue (Issue 59: Autumn 2009 | Everything to Declare)

It’s also quoted from, by Isabel Hofmeyr, to open her chapter in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan’, edited by Anne Dunan-Page.


Pilgrim’s Progress 

By Tolu Ogunlesi


On one side, an army of voluble Blackberrys, 

Translating King into textese; on the other 

A Klan of epithet dealers, sitting tauntingly 


On electric mules. Stretched out around them, 

A United Nations of graves and grave histories, watchful. 

Above, frames floating, studded with names 


Of members of an all-white dream team, possessors 

Of star-spangled genes. A mist, a burst 

Of bleak breath, rises, to dispossess a people 


Of their dreams. Into this carnival will walk 

A newborn, newly stranded 

On the shores of this wreck-laden river. 


Into this mist that roughly massages memory. 

He will not be one of them. Nor one of us. 

He will simply be the sepia-toned pilgrim who sailed 


In, by dawn’s early light, aboard a paper boat 

With a smudged name. His companions a straw hat, dust-flecked 

Overalls, and a bale of cotton, wounded with tears. 


None of these will belong to him. The only things he will own 

Will be a funny name, tattooed onto a skinny frame; 

The dust on his feet, passport of a pilgrim’s progress; 


And a Blackberry. He will be naked, to be clothed 

By all who see or hear of him. 

In his open mouth, we shall catch a glimpse of all 


The tomorrows that hold their seeds but no longer 

Their yellowed deeds; all the coming days 

That hold their breath, but no longer their weary debt. 


(c) 2009


by Tolu Ogunlesi

(first published in NEXT in January 2009] 

Forget all evidence and gossip to the contrary; this present Government loves Nuhu Ribadu! And contrary to reports that they want to “finish” him, I am pleased to let you know that they will do no such thing!

All that the Yar’Adua administration was interested in (and which they have succeeded in doing) was redeploying Mallam Ribadu from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (and by extension, the Nigeria Police Force) to the newly-created National Distraction Commission (NDC), where they have since found him immensely useful as a ‘Brand Ambassador.’

This Commission is charged with (according to the bill that created it) “creating, regulating, reinforcing and institutionalizing significant National Distractions with a view to ensuring that citizens and the mass media are kept occupied to such an extent that they are left with no time or energy to ask relevant questions about the future of the country.”

The Government created this Commission in 2008, when it realized that the Obama Season would not last forever.

I know you’re now thinking: What the hell does Obama have to do with a newly-created Nigerian government parastatal? 

Simples. As long as Obama remained a ‘leading contender’ for the most powerful office in the world, the Nigerian Government did not need to unveil a National Distraction Commission. No! All through 2008, as Bro Barack ‘inspired’ his way towards the White House, people the world over forgot their problems. Hunger and AIDS and Global Warming all took the back seat. Nigerians, ever in need of reasons to jollificate, organized Obama-themed parties. They stayed glued to CNN and BBC, mesmerized by Obamagic. In their vicarious identification with America they consigned Yar’Adua to the dustbin of irrelevance. Good riddance, eh? They stopped allowing themselves to be disappointed by him. They unhitched their expectations from a green-and-white babanriga and instead affixed them to a purplish-blue designer tie.

Was Yar’Adua happy? Of course he was. He no longer had to carry the burden of his people’s foolish, unrealistic, unfair, nonsense expectations. He could disappear for three weeks confident that only a few people would miss him, because the bulk of his subjects had relocated to a virtual estate somewhere in suburban Obamaland, free from the terrorism of PHCN and armed robbers.

Yar’Adua could add PLC to Nigeria’s name for all Nigerians, sorry, Naimericans, cared.

But, as they say, whatever goes up must come down. It dawned on the Nigerian Government that all those millions of virtual visas that Obama had issued to Nigerians earlier in the year contained an expiry date.  November 5, 2008.

They realized they would need new ‘Weapons of Mass Distraction’. And in a fit of proactive and creative thinking the (in)famous kitchen cabinet decided that a new parastatal, devoted solely to this all important task, was the answer.

Yar’Adua’s government is one that understands the importance of ‘Distraction’. Which is why it is Number 4 on the 7-point agenda, behind Abdication, Banality and Confusion (in that order).

Ergo the National Distraction Commission. The commission has since been busy. Its first official action was to unveil Nuhu Ribadu as “The Face of Distraction 2009”. The Mallam has since gone on to grace the agency’s many billboards and print and news media advertisements.

And Nigerians are now busy talking. Ribadu this, Ribadu that. Why shouldn’t they talk, when the NDC is flooding the streets with original copies of its bestselling ‘Ribadu’ action movies – “No Induction”, shot in Kuru; “The Dismissal” and “No Going Back” shot in Abuja. And we hear more are currently in production. (“The Handcuff”?)

The months ahead are going to get even more interesting. If past performance is any indicator of the future, our government is cooking exciting surprises.

Don’t say I revealed this to you: I hear that if the NDC had had its way, Prof Dora Akunyili would not have been appointed Minister of Information and Communications. Their reason: “she was not controversial enough”. In other words, her appointment would not generate enough “opinions and counter-opinions necessary for the purposes of grand distraction” across the country.

Their recommendation?

Igwe Dapo Oyebanjo. Also known (by a few people) as D’Banj.

Brilliant stuff! Just imagine how cool it’d have been, to have Government press releases issued as hit singles. To enter Swe Bar and find a band of half-tipsy upwardly mobile young men and women dancing yahoozee to the lyrics of the 2009 budget.

To watch the NTA network news on a Wednesday and see D’Banj emerge from the Executive Council Chambers, harmonica in hand, and declare: “My name is D’Banj. My Jamaican friends call me Ski’banj. The President calls me ‘Minister Banj!’”

No long ting!

[poem] Masks and Madness – for 9/11

Masks and Madness 

for 9/11

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Far out in the world, men learn
The miracle of walking planes on leashes,
Testicles burning with artificial fire,
Striding into gangling towers
Innocent as placard-carrying activists.

Far out in another world, Hitler and Mao
Compare notes, ruing the slow evolution
Of human imagination. “I’d have built airports,
Not Auschwitz; sent Israel to Canaan
On Economy,” Hitler says, in a rare interview.

Mao nods absentmindedly, he spends his days
Building Boeings from the pages of the red
Book. In New York, men settled for suicide,
Hurtled down burning towers, voices willed
To answering machines that reproduce

Every nuance of terror, and leak the smells
Of burning words, burning goodbyes, burning
Skins, burning everything. The journey
Of a thousand stories ends with one step
Into dust, into ash, into the salt from many eyes,

Civilisation toppling at the sound of God’s name.
And as for you who wear masks and madness, and chant
God’s name in vain: Pack all the fear you can, into
The aisles of a million jets, and watch them explode
Prematurely with a heroism that is not yours — and never will be.

(A version of this poem originally appeared in The Vocabula Review and 3 Quarks Daily in 2007)