They say men can’t multitask but Uzodinma Iweala is a writer, entrepreneur, medical doctor, publisher and art curator of sorts – a quintessential polymath.
Although many saw and know the film of the same name, not so many people know him in Nigeria as you might assume. He is famous internationally in the literary community and although he has done many interviews overseas since BNN was published, he pretty much leaves the Nigerian stage to that of his more famous relative, his mother Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Finance Minister.
See experts from the interview below:
Iweala always looks very preppy in his photos online. A sort of ageless college kid, smartly dressed down, comfortably awkward and confidently retiring. Although he achieved fame as a young man just out of his teens, there are no photos of him in lurid T-shirts, baggy jeans or self-conscious labels, so this fluffy, rising a couple of inches around his head and a little unkempt look is new and interesting. But no, it’s not a midlife crisis, his inner rock star coming out or step five of his natural hair journey.
Uzo explains: “I have this thing when I’m writing or editing to not cut my hair until I’m finished.” He is talking about the first draft of his new novel.
“It’s the whole Samson thing,” he says with a rueful laugh recalling the biblical warrior renowned for the prodigious strength that he derived from his uncut hair. “All writers or creative people have their games or traditions. I don’t really cut my hair that often. When I’m working on something, all the excess stuff, I cut it away. No-one’s looking at you when you’re spending all your time in a cave. You’re trying to focus on the work. Samson had long hair and that’s the source of his strength.”
And the cave is where?
“New York,” he says laughing again knowing another explanation is in order. The city that never sleeps sounds scarcely like the kind of place you would go to get away from it all. But then we are in Lagos, one of the densest and noisiest cities in the world, where you’re never far from the chug of a generator, beeping is life and the cacophony of daily frustrations rise like the smog in Harmattan. Almost any city feels restful after this place.
The business of storytelling
Iweala has just arrived back in Lagos after a family break in America where he pretty much grew up. He is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Ventures Africa, an online and print magazine focusing on business and entrepreneurship.
It seems like a world away from his American life of literary fame (BNN won many awards), famous friends (Caribbean-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid and Chimamanda Adichie are like family) and Hollywood film deals (BNN starred Idris Elba) but for him it fits in perfectly.
“You have to make a living,” he says. But not like the rest of us, I assume when one is from an aristocratic family, releases a bestselling, award-winning novel, gets a Hollywood film deal and then a groundbreaking Netflix deal. And actually, it turns out Ventures which he runs with his uncle, a financial consultant Chi Chi Okonjo, is about more than just a living, it’s finding another way to express himself.
“It’s an idea, maybe an SME or innovative startup, a cultural experiment, a painting, something created to change how we think and operate. A lot of it is business and innovation but in reality, it’s about telling stories.”
Iweala says his uncle is more about finance and growth while he is more about the narrative. Together they have positioned Ventures as a popular and well-respected magazine rivaling Forbes Africa with its eye-catching headlines and drawing attention to African business in a positive way.
Iweala splits his time between the US and Nigeria. Given the subject matter of his recent nove,l it sounds like choosing between the US and Nigeria is like choosing between a rock and a hard place.
Where does he lay his hat?
“I grew up in the US,” he says by way of explanation. “If you grow up between two places the gap is a blessing and also an inner torment. You want so badly to be of a place but that’s not your lot. When people talk about Nigeria being a difficult place we all complain about it. Listening to the sound of generator, stuck in traffic, suffering inconveniences doesn’t make you feel good. If something happens to me will I get the medical help I need? Every Nigerian is acutely aware of that but other things make it wonderful to live here. You’re around your family. There’s extended family and a sense of community. You’re in a place where you see people hustling and pushing. That gives you energy.
Credit: Guardian Mag