The don of Pérignon

Moet%20chandon A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, “apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party.”

I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.

Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.

Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”

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by Tolu Ogunlesi

Africa-map; courtesy www.geology

To the outside world, we are all “Africans”.

‘Africa’, that continent of “colourful emergencies” (a term coined by novelist Helen Oyeyemi in a 2005 essay); ‘African’, that oversized brush dripping a paint handy for tarring every living thing found within a thousand-mile radius of the Sahara desert.

As Africans – and by extension African writers – we’re supposed to be united by geography, culture and experience (mostly of the negative sort), and thus a herd of interchangeable entities. There is after all such a thing as African literature, written by African writers, dealing with African issues – poverty, wars, AIDS, Aid, military dictatorships, coup d’états, corruption, civilian dictatorships, and very lately, dubious power sharings.

Never mind that Nigeria and Uganda are no more similar (in my opinion) than America and Russia. Or that Nigeria’s religious dichotomy (and the resulting tensions) confers on it a greater similarity with India than with South Africa. Or that Nigeria and fellow English-speaking Ghana are separated by two impregnable walls of language known as Benin and Togo. Or that a conference proclaimed as a “Festival of Contemporary African Writing” will very likely be no more than a Festival of Anglophone African Writing.

Chimamanda Adichie’s short story, Jumping Monkey Hill (first published in Granta 95, and which appears in her story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck) – which William Skidelsky, writing in the Guardian (UK) calls “the most obviously autobiographical (and funniest) of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck” – tells the story of an “African Writers’ Workshop” for which the British Council has selected participants.

The workshop is overseen by Edward Campbell, “an old man in a summer hat who smiled to show two front teeth the colour of mildew.” Campbell is British, with a “posh” accent, “the kind some rich Nigerians tried to mimic and ended up sounding unintentionally funny.” He is also the final authority – using what one might call his “Africanometer” – on the quality and plausibility of the stories produced during the workshop.

At the workshop are a Ugandan, a white South African, a black South African, a Tanzanian, a Zimbabwean, a Kenyan, a Senegalese and Ujunwa, a Nigerian. East, West and Southern Africa are represented, the North is not, as is often the case in real life reporting about the continent where the term ‘Africa’ is used to refer to “sub-Saharan Africa” and North Africa is somewhat set apart like some entity off the coast of the real Africa. And, needless to say, the workshop is conducted in English, not French or Swahili.

One of the more interesting scenes in Adichie’s story is when all the writers (except for the Ugandan) gather to drink wine and make fun of one another, and make comments such as: “You Kenyans are too submissive! You Nigerians are too aggressive! You Tanzanians have no fashion sense! You Senegalese are too brainwashed by the French!

This scene took me right back to Crater Lake, venue of the 2006 Caine Prize workshop, in which I participated. NM, a young South African novelist and I were roommates at the Crater Lake resort where the workshop took place. As ‘African writers’, we should have instinctively known everything about each other’s countries. We should have been able to complete one another’s sentences.

But not exactly. We were different people, with little experience of each other’s daily realities.

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