An Analysis of Niyi Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’

Born in 1947 in Western Nigeria, Niyi Osundare is a renowned academic and an award-winning poet who was educated at the University of Ibadan, the University of Leeds and at York University, Toronto. ‘Not My Business’ was published in 1990 in a collection entitled Songs of the Season.

Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’ is a narrative poem whose background lies in the tendency by people to keep silent when things go wrong simply because they are not the ones being wronged. Hence, the poem is directed at the Nigerian and African followership and is meant to change the prevailing attitude of not caring about what happens to others just because we are safe for the moment.

The subject matter of Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’ is citizenship apathy and its consequences. The poem demonstrates the idea that if we keep silent in the face of tyranny or dictatorship simply because the tragedies meted out on others do not affect us, the very next time might be our turn. The moral lesson drawn from the narrative poem is that what affects one should be considered as affecting everyone in society. It is one humanity.

Structurally, ‘Not My Business’ is organised in four stanzas. The first three stanzas have seven lines while the last stanza has five lines. The entire poem has 26 lines. It is written in free verse, meaning that it has neither meter nor rhyme. It is equally written in run-on lines or enjambment. This means that an idea in one line tends to flow into another. This is reflected in the scanty end punctuation marks in the poem. The structure of the poem for the first three stanzas is such that the first four lines tell a story while the last three lines serve as a refrain or a chorus like a song.

The persona of the poem is a victim of citizenship apathy and he tells the story mostly out of regret for his inaction and how it has cost him his freedom when it is too late. The whole poem is a narration of how the persona refused to speak up when his neighbours were suffering under a dictatorial rule until he himself was consumed by the same monstrosity.

The first stanza of the poem reads in parts: ‘They picked Akanni up one morning/Beat him soft like clay/And stuffed him down the belly/Of a waiting jeep’.

The scenario created in this stanza is typical of life under a dictatorship which was rife in the Nigeria of the 1980s which could have given impetus to the writing of the poem. In fact, it is reported that in 1987, Niyi Osundare was beaten up by thugs in Ibadan in a manner described in the second line of the first stanza of the poem. He was left unconscious and only recovered later in the hospital. It should be recalled that 1987 was the era of Ibrahim Babangida as the military Head of State in Nigeria. At about this time, Osundare also has reported that some students came to his classes wired and he was followed around the major cities in the world by a shadowy figure. Hence, one of the major themes raised in this poem is life under dictatorship.

One should pay attention to the dramatic opening of the poem, its narrative shape which quickly captures the attention/interest of the reader and the tropes deployed in the opening stanza. The stanza talks about the sudden and, apparently, an unlawful arrest of a man by name Akanni ‘one morning’ and how he is beaten ‘soft like clay’ – a fitting simile – before being put into a jeep. The stanza at once raises the theme of the oppression of the weak by the powerful, as Akanni represents the common man or a member of the masses. ‘They’ in the poem refers to the powers that be or their agents, likely the army or the state police in a dictatorship. The expression ‘picked up’ in the first line is a euphemism for arrest or kidnap. The jeep mentioned in the poem is a symbol of wealth and power and is often associated with elite politicians. The fact that the unfortunate Akanni is ‘stuffed’ into the jeep speaks to the fact that he is not being taken for a tea party, even as he has already been beaten to a pulp. He is now a mere human cargo whose survival is uncertain at this point as his life is now in the hands of his torturers and tormentors.

Among the poetic devices found in this stanza are simile, metaphor, symbolism and imagery. Simile is found in the expression ‘soft like clay’ which evokes dark humour given the overall context of the poem. Metaphor is seen in the expression ‘down the belly/Of a waiting jeep’; an implied metaphor since the jeep is made to look like a dangerous fish like the one that swallowed Jonah in the Bible. The symbolism in the first stanza is seen in ‘they’ representing the dictatorial forces in society, ‘Akanni’ representing the helpless masses or the oppressed members of society, while the ‘jeep’ stands for the oppressive power of the dictatorial leaders. The major imagery deployed in this stanza is kinetic imagery seen in words like ‘picked’, ‘beat’ and ‘stuffed’. The word ‘soft’ is an instance of tactile imagery while the words ‘clay’ and ‘jeep’ constitute visual imagery. These tropes are deployed to dramatise the cruel power of dictatorship on the masses.

The remaining part of the first stanza is a refrain and reads: ‘What business of mine is it/So long they don’t take the yam/From my savouring mouth?’

These lines constitute a rhetorical question, as well as a refrain in the poem and captures the apathetic attitude of the persona who represents those sections of the masses who fail to speak up against bad leadership in their milieu simply because they are not affected by the actions of the unconscionable leaders. The persona is speaking in direct response to what has befallen Akanni, his neighbour, in the previous lines of the stanza. According to him, the arrest or kidnap of Akanni is none of his business as long as it does not stop him from enjoying his delicious meals, ‘yam’. And being that Akanni is his neighbour, this is the height of insensitivity on the part of the persona and lack of human sympathy or good neighbourliness. The pronoun ‘they’ helps connect the discourse in the refrain to the one in the main lines as ‘they’ refers to the military government or its agents. It also marks Otherness in the poem. The yam mentioned in the poem is a metaphor for tasty meals especially when combined with the word ‘savouring’ which evokes gustatory imagery. The word ‘savouring mouth’ also constitutes synecdoche as it represents the celestial state of the persona.

The second stanza of the poem reads in part: ‘They came one night/Booted the whole house awake/And dragged Danladi out,/Then off to a lengthy absence’.

This stanza dramatises another aspect of dictatorship often experienced in Africa – the sudden disappearance of political enemies or opponents of the government in power. The incident depicted in the poem intertextualises with the sudden arrest, disappearance and death of Ikem Osodi in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. It also reminds one of how political enemies were ‘disappeared’ in Malawi during the reign of the Life President, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. It should be noted that in the first stanza, the military atrocity takes place in the morning, but in the second stanza, the heinous act occurs at night which makes it so ominous and frightening. The implication is that these powerful men operate with impunity, both at night and during the day. This stanza recounts, in the words of the persona, how the junta or its agents storm the house of another neighbour by name Danladi and take him away and he is not seen again for a long time. The imagery evoked in the stanza is mostly kinetic and represented in words like ‘came’, ‘booted’, ‘awake’, ‘dragged’ and ‘off’. The expression ‘booted’ suggests being hit with a boot and is suggestive of a military action as soldiers often wear boots. Hence, ‘booted’ is a metaphor for physical violence often associated with the military. Their action is equally significant because it disrupts the peace, tranquility and rest that people are supposed to have at night. In other words, it is a government of terror that ironically offers insecurity to the citizens it is supposed to protect. The word ‘dragged’ is suggestive of harassment, violence, indignity and inhuman treatment. It is even sadder that it is happening at night when the victim, Danladi, is supposed to be sleeping or resting from a hard day’s work. The expression ‘off to a lengthy silence’ is euphemistic and suggests not only the kidnap of Danladi, but also the possibility of him being murdered, which explains the ‘lengthy absence’. This means that no one hears from him again.

The stanza is completed by the refrain which reads: ‘What business of mine is it/So long they don’t take the yam/From my savouring mouth?’ The refrain reinforces the motif of apathy in the poem.

The third stanza of Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’ reads in part: ‘Chinwe went to work one day/Only to find her job was gone;/No query, no warning, no probe – /Just one neat sack for a stainless record’.

The three names so far mentioned in the poem represent the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria – Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, respectively represented by Akanni, Danladi and Chinwe. Akanni and Danladi are male while Chinwe is female, and this implies that dictatorial rule’s highhandedness spares no tribe and gender; hence, to refuse to speak against poor leadership simply because it does not affect your tribe or gender is a dangerous miscalculation as it may soon be your turn.

Specifically, the third stanza bemoans the fate of Chinwe who is unjustly dismissed from work. The poet’s persona clearly states that her dismissal does not follow due process: ‘No query, no warning, no probe’. This is typical of a dictatorial reign as well as corporate impunity and rascality. It is also revealed in the stanza that the sack action is unwarranted as Chinwe has had a clean service record. This stanza raises the theme of injustice and impunity typical of military regimes where the rule of law is not allowed to operate. Again, the stanza has a preponderance of kinaesthetic imagery seen in words like ‘went’, ‘find’, and ‘gone’. Notice the caesura in the form of commas in the third line and the repetition of the word ‘no’ in quick succession as a way of emphasising the sense of injustice and impunity in the poem. The expression ‘stainless’ is a visual imagery and an adjective which describes the clean service record of Chinwe. There is alliteration in the expression ‘went to work’ exemplified in the repetition of the semi-vowel /w/. Another instance of alliteration is in the last line of the stanza in the words ‘sack’ and stainless’ with the repetition of the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/.

The third stanza is completed with the refrain: ‘What business of mine is it/So long they don’t take the yam/From my savouring mouth?’ Again, this refrain sustains the idea of the persona’s lack of concern regarding the fate of his neighbours and acquaintances in the hands of dictatorial rulers.

Stanza four of Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’ reads: ‘And then one evening/As I sat down to eat my yam/A knock on the door froze my hungry hand./The jeep was waiting on my bewildered lawn/Waiting, waiting in its usual silence.’

This final stanza is so dramatic that it startles even the reader. A knock on the door is a sign of a visitor except that in this context the visitor is unexpected and the knock is ominous in nature. The most interesting and significant thing about the knock is that it occurs just as the persona wants to settle down one evening to one of his tasty meals. There is personification in the third line ‘A knock on the door froze my hungry hand’, where ‘froze’ is a kinetic imagery and ‘hungry hand’ is an instance of synecdoche. The pragmatic effect that I perceive reading this stanza is one of dark humour occasioned by the persona’s fear, which is heightened in the concluding lines. It is obvious that what the persona has refused to speak up against has, at last, visited the persona.

The jeep mentioned in this stanza reminds us of the one we encountered in the first stanza of the poem. It is the same jeep that picked up Akanni. Since the persona did not speak up, the jeep has come for him. The expression ‘bewildered lawn’ constitutes pathetic fallacy. It speaks not only of the persona’s frightened state, but also the mood of his surrounding and the people in it concerning what is about to happen. The word ‘waiting’ is repeated thrice in the stanza and even constitutes an epizeuxis in the final line of the poem. This repetition heightens the suspense in the poem. The jeep is personified especially in its attribute of waiting and silence, which is ominous to say the least.   

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7 thoughts on “An Analysis of Niyi Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’

  1. Good and detailed analysis, that gives insight to how our nation is metaphorize in the poem. Job well done!!!

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