How to write a Nigerian story

The first thing you need is to give your story some context, a bigger picture, a grand struggle. To achieve this, it is a good idea to mention “the regime.” Here you have some options, if your book is set in the 60s or 70s, you can talk about the Biafran war. In the 80s and 90s, the Babangida or Abacha military dictatorships. If it is set any time after that, you can just refer to a nameless kleptocracy suppressing the people and use the terms “siphoning government funds” or “looting the government.” If you don’t do this, how will we know it is set in Nigeria and why will we care about your pain if you’re not part of the struggle?

Your characters must always talk about NEPA and not having light. When Nigerians meet, their small talk is not about hobbies, or interests, or anything people in the rest of the world would understand. Make your characters wail about the lack of electricity and the heat as if they haven’t lived with them their whole lives.

Establish your character’s social standing early by referring to their homes. This is the rule of thumb: All poor people live in a face-me I-face-you and all rich people must have a doctor in the family. Like the scene in The Matrix where Neo wakes up in a pod in the real world, our entire country is a farm of face-me I-face-yous populated with drivers and househelps who work for doctors living in mansions. Once you mention the face-me I-face-you, we will know, “Ah the character is poor,” then we will take the next step and ask, what about the evil landlord? (Hint: There are no good landlords.)

Your characters must have mismatched love. Perhaps you are thinking of writing about a happy couple that met in university, fell in love, and get along well with each other’s families. Don’t make me laugh.
Go back and change it.
Make the girl an ogbanje or abiku. Make the boy a pauper. Let her have a rich family that looks down on him. If he is in university, make her the girl who sells food at the canteen. These are the only valid reasons for relationship problems in Nigeria.
Make them come from warring tribes but they only find out after they have fallen in love each other. Never mind that you can figure out what tribe most Nigerians come from their names, this is something your characters cannot do. For extra spice, add a pastor or alfa who gives an ominous reason why they should or shouldn’t be together.

If your book is not already set in the village, at some point in it you must make the characters go to the village to visit some elderly relative.
Do not make the mistake of having anybody above the age of 60 living in the city. This will not be believable.
You should pace your novel so all the mystic things happen in the village. If your story has an older person giving mysteriously specific advice without foreknowledge of the situation, this is where to add it.
Also, if you have some major plotholes in your book, this is where to hide them. When readers question you about them later, just cock your head and say, “You understand this could happen because they are in the village, right?”

On the flip side, if you have characters going from the village to the city, they must be in awe of the city. There are no bikes, no buses, no paved roads, no cement block houses in the village. Villages are completely different from cities.
And where is this city, you ask. It doesn’t matter. In your story, the city (or the “big city”) only exists in contrast to the place you call the village. Any place can be the city, as long as it is different from the underdeveloped magical place you have set aside to be the village.

Maintain that sharp line of old and illiterate people in the village and young hustlers and educated people in the city. If the characters in the city complain about electricity, the village characters think electricity is a gift from the gods. At night they gather around a tree (preferably an iroko or mahogany) in the village square and gaze at the lone flickering light bulb hung from it.

And speaking of trees, your character must know the name of every tree or plant they encounter. This is innate cultural knowledge and nothing to do with a degree in Botany which no Nigerian character could possibly have. They must clearly refer to the trees by name: “We walked holding hands lovingly towards the sweet scent of the frangipani tree.”

Finally, give your character clean hands. Even though corruption works because everyone is in on it and there are no whistle-blowers because there is no one to whistle blow to. Your character is the exception. Everyone either skims off the top, sees someone else skim off the top, or gets settled from the skimming. Everyone except your character. Your character is the only honest hardworking person in the country. Never given or taken a bribe. A beacon of hope in a lawless land.

BONUS TIPS
Never mention the internet (unless as a means of communication in a romantic story with one of the lovers outside the country.) Nigeria, for all fiction intents and purposes, is a country that is cut off from the rest of the world. Our news is fed to us through the thin straw of government controlled television.

Never talk about foreign movies, TV shows or cartoons.
It is important that the Americans do not know how many of their shows we get before they do. They might start asking for royalties or try something equally impossible like cracking down on piracy.
We should also hide the fact that during the military terror era, many of the current crop of Nigerian readers were home oblivious, watching Voltron.

Absolutely no one needs to know that.

************
UPDATE:
The fairly wacky @JadenTM wrote a story using the template above here:
http://www.carriesbrastrap.com/2012/07/how-to-write-nigerian-story.html
It is bizarre how well done it is.

And one by @TTXIII:
http://thinktankt.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/how-to-write-a-nigerian-story-case-study/
Best. Twist Ending. Ever. + major village shenanigans.

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22 thoughts on “How to write a Nigerian story

  1. “Perhaps you are thinking of writing about a happy couple that met in university, fell in love, and get along well with each other’s families. Don’t make me laugh.
    Go back and change it.”
    LMAO! Love it!

  2. Hiiilarious! so on point! However, you must not forget to add characters like the fresh-faced village good girl gone bad.The one that gets influenced by world-wise friends or roomates and becomes a prostitute(lay the moral thickly, never let it be missed). You forgot the last character,the scholarship guy! his father had 3 wives.He happened to be the golden son(aced all his Waec papers without luxuries like coaching classes),what makes it extra wonderful was that he read with a candle(not even a lantern)!CANDLE! Nepa must feel the scorn in your story,ofcourse his step brothers were playing football while he was burning the. midnightcandle.lol!.that was how he won the scholarship.

  3. Hahahahahahahahahahahaahahahahahaahahahaahahahaahahahahahaaha

    *chokes and dies*

    Oh Lord

    Stereotypes are us!

    I won’t even lie! I think to some extent I’m guilty of buying into some of these stereotypes. Needless to say, I died at Frangipani and my transcended spirit managed to reach the end of the story.

  4. And I only just started reading Nigerian stories, so I have no stereotypes that you might have missed 😦 *Starts to cry under the experimental Scarlet Hibiscus blossoms*

  5. rotfl, this just brought the film “Yemi, my lover” to mind. Looking forward to using this one way or another and seeing what other cliches I can add to the mix, some family drama, the rich father sending thugs to beat the daring pauper, a visit to a native doctor and so on.

  6. You just finished Nollywood scriptwriters in one post! Chai! I have to add this: Make the poor people speak pidgin English because your readers can’t handle a poor person who can actually construct good sentences. In English.

  7. Absolutely hilarious!!! I love it when I see sarcasm used so aptly in writing. Lol, I just realised I am a “voltron generation” child.

  8. hmnn, but come o! aren’t we all tired of watching these types of films? It is the common thread in most nollyhood movies and it has gotten old and stale. There is a new crop of readers who want more from Nigerian writers – action, mystery, crime thrillers nko? Abi we no wan grow for this country? We cannot keep recycling these same old same old.

    But your article made me laugh. I’m a writer, and I want to do things different. Sorry.

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