Inua Ellams: Basketball and the Gods of Old – Hay Festival


[Spoilers for The Half-God of Rainfall, by Inua Ellams.]


SEGOVIA – Last weekend IE University was host to Inua Ellams, a Nigerian poet and play write, at the Aula Magna as part of the grander Hay Festival taking place across the city (and a few locations around the province).

 Before the Hay festival I had never heard of an Inua Ellams. I was briefly introduced to the author one morning when I read that he was coming to Segovia for the Festival. At the time I didn’t really think much of it, and he was forgotten until last Saturday morning when I had approached the bookstand near the entrance of the university. The staff were still setting everything up, but I was told by one of the salesman that he didn’t mind selling me a book even if they were not open yet. I looked around for a minute, and I was drawn by the vibrant cover of Inua Ellams’ long poem The Half-God of Rainfall. I had no idea what to expect from this eighty-something page poem, but it promised an epic that spanned the earth and the Galaxy. Also, Inua Ellams was also a name I had recently become familiar with, albeit nominally. With this in mind, I rashly bought the poem and set out to the event.

 At the event, Mr. Ellams talked about his childhood and his craft. He was born in Nigeria in 1984. He said that he loved living here with his sisters and his parents. However, his family was eventually forced to leave Nigeria due to extremist threats and a deteriorating safety in the country. He said that it was difficult to move as he was introduced to the idea of racism for the first time. He was also forced to deal with the expectations of his peers who thought he was accustomed to the culture of African Americans. His time growing up made him a standoffish type as he expected to always have to be on the defensive; Poetry was one of the methods he used to vent. He later recalled “the more in touch I was with my emotions, the more I would get paid [for my poetry]”. With this, he admittedly became timid and more open than his young adult years as he immersed himself in his writing.

These troubles with integration into the United Kingdom and later Ireland profoundly affected Mr. Ellams. He lamented that many people in the British Commonwealth felt a cultural connection with the UK that was never there (“it was a culture forced upon them”). As such, people expected to fit right into the UK society. For Mr. Ellams, this is simply not the case. He attributes this cultural mismanagement to the colonial era, which left a scar on Inua’s home country which he wishes to reveal to his countrymen and to the world.

 After the event and over the weekend I read The Half-God of Rainfall. I was genuinely surprised by the story of the long poem. The book follows the growth of a Nigerian basketball player, Demi, who is the half-son of Zeus. This unlikely demigod came to existence through sorry circumstance as his mother, Modupe, was raped by Zeus as per a godly agreement where she was offered up as a trophy for Zeus’s victory in a Race against another Nigerian deity. Throughout the poem, Demi becomes a professional basketball player using the ancient tactics of The Art of War, which was taught to him by his coach. His fame and his praise make Zeus angry as he desires the praise for himself. Speeding through the plot, Demi finds himself at Mount Olympus to confront his father, but he is quickly killed in a case of parricide. His mother, the Greek goddess Hera, and a score of other mistreated female deities and figures arrive to do battle with Zeus, which results in Modupe killing him and the effective destruction of Mount Olympus.

 Quite obviously, this book has the intention of being a feminist revenge story, but I believe it goes a few steps more. Any reader of Homer of Ovid knows that classical mythology is littered with the stories of divine cruelty. The poem recognizes these faults as well in Europa, Ganymede, and Leda, all of whom  were forced upon by the mighty Zeus. In other works it is more evident. The Metamorphosis, by Ovid, retells several tales of divine punishment for seemingly mundane reasons. Hera turned a man into a stag to be eaten alive by his own dogs for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Echo was cursed to always repeat the words of others for protecting the secret affairs of Zeus, who in turn threatened to end her if she spoke out against him. Essentially, if you dealt with the gods, your destiny was cruelty.

 Cruelty and violence is an archaic mentality reserved only for the irrational. Using coercion to achieve your own ends never creates trust or mutual benefit, but it requires instead that one party be ravished. One party is raped. As a society, we have generally done away with this martial thinking. The death of Zeus at the end of the poem made me think of this development over time. After the collapse of mount Olympus, the other gods and goddesses come together to form a new order in the power vacuum, “a cross-pantheon regime, built on trust”. The death of Zeus is the death of barbarity, and trust is the new law of the world. But, as Ellams describes, the scars are still present, and pain received from the past should be used to guide us into the future.

 As I interpreted it, this message does not only exist for the former colonies around the world. Neither is it one solely for women coming from abuse. All civilizations have been maimed by cruelty in the past. In Africa, the easy example is the relationship between the locals and the British Empire, who “forced” itself and its culture on the African nations. Like Modupe, the continent still has its share of scars. This theme of violence is one that has always been tied into the human experience until recently, where violence has not disappeared but it has subsided. This story of the death of Zeus at the hands of those who were so trampled by him is the story of overcoming the traditional vice of humanity. The feminist message it spreads is one and the same with this overarching interpretation. All people are avowed a right to life, and to live that life free from the unwanted interference of others. In the same way Ellams portrays basketball as a military operation like those in The Art of War, the current feminist struggle mimics the struggle against overt aggression in the previous decades. 

 The gods of old are dead, and instead we can praise basketball stars as people once praised despot deities. As I’m sure Inua Ellams would agree; long live the age of the basketball players.

 I’ve come away from this book and my brief experience with Inua Ellams reminded of the importance of being rational, i.e. being peaceful and trustworthy. Ellams himself has seen what aggression has done, and could do, both to himself and to his country. But he does not wish vengeance on the “Greeks” for the action of their god (he still lives in the UK, after all). He is glad to see the old ways die a violent death, and with its death a new world can be built. With the scars from our past and from history, we can learn to never fool ourselves into praising the tyrannical gods ever again. Writing such a simply complex poem earns Ellams a special place in my heart as an excellent storyteller and a thoughtful and reasonable human who is generally concerned for the welfare of society, in his timid sort of way. I cannot wait to read more from him, and I hope others will follow suit.

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