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Books & arts

A retort to white racists

Review of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Of Africa’

Biko Agozino

2012-11-15, Issue 606

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/books/85445

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Soyinka presents ‘Of Africa’ as a long overdue retort to a white supremacist who had challenged him in Germany to admit that Africans are inferior, otherwise Europeans and Arabs could not have enslaved and colonised them for centuries.

As a teenage high school student, I was enchanted by The Man Died, the prison memoirs of Wole Soyinka in which he took his fellow intellectuals to task for letting the man die in all by keeping silent in the face of the tyranny of Nigeria’s genocidal war against Biafra, including the murder of a radical trade unionist in detention to which the title referred and about which Nigerian left-wing intellectuals kept mum apparently because he was Igbo. I was puzzled by the title – why is it The Man Died and why did it derive from the strange quotation that ‘the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny’? Is that grammatically correct? My sigh school grammar teacher would have suggested that ‘the men die in all’ and not the man dies in all; by the way, how about women? In any case, did the man simply die or was the man murdered? That is a sophomoric way to read a serious work when mature readers should focus on the grave subject-matter rather than chase grammatical rats to see if the ‘t’ in their tails are meticulously crossed while the African mansion burns. No time for such childish reading of Soyinka’s tantalizing Of Africa. What of Africa? I am tempted to ask.

Back in high school, and even now, I could not understand every word of Soyinka (I still do not need to understand every word) but I really enjoy(ed) the poetic diction and even tried to mimic him by writing with a deliberate determination not to be understood or to be read at many different levels of possible interpretations, all possibly legitimate while what Stuart Hall called the hegemonic interpretation remained to be contested and decoded from the encoding. It was my cousin, now a professor of theatre arts, who cured me of that apparent delusion after we organised a symposium to get the students of the high school where we both taught just after graduating from high school ourselves to take drama seriously and start a drama club. The students cheered me on with shouts of ‘vocab, vocab!’ They later nicknamed me Symposium behind my back!

After my speech, a fellow teacher stood up and asked the first question: He asked if I could please explain what I was saying in plain English because he had no clue what I had just finished saying, maybe because he was a science teacher, he pleaded. The vice principal, an English teacher, felt embarrassed for him and volunteered to translate my bombastic Onitsha Market Literature performance of the Bomber Billy variety. As we left the symposium, I was so proud of myself that I boasted to my cousin that I did so well that no one could understand me, not even our fellow teacher! He turned to me and calmly told me that if that was so, then I had failed in my mission, which was to communicate a message. He was absolutely right because the aim of the symposium was to get the students to set up a drama club and I could have achieved it in two or three straight-forward sentences instead of indulging in a post-modern performance that left everyone baffled but produced none of the result that I intended: a drama club!

So that was it then. I resolved to leave Soyinka with his mesmerising style and develop mine by keeping closer to Achebe’s proverbial clarity but I never stopped admiring Soyinka, as my Oriki or Ode to him on the occasion of his 76th birthday testifies, to the annoyance of some on the internet who carry on as if they are exclusive share-holders in Soyinka and Sons Ltd. As an undergraduate student, I wrote radio plays and a teacher in my town whose name I used in one of my plays started calling me ‘our own Wole Soyinka’ but I recoiled from that without knowing why. I guess that I wanted to be my own man and not ‘our own WS’ but it may have had to do with that misadventure with the bombastic symposium, for my plays were more Achebesque, peppered with proverbs and plotted around themes of culture conflict than the dictionary-thumping prose of Soyinka.

Nevertheless, I still cannot read enough of Soyinka and will always seek out his new releases which I enjoy reading without reference to any dictionary. I just use the context of the words to make meaning out of his dense compositions that remain music to my ears long after the reading, perhaps because he is always witty and profoundly humorous. It is a bit like reading Jacques Derrida. I may not understand everything he is banging on about but I sure do enjoy his play with words. It is also a bit like listening to Fela Kuti’s music. I do not have to understand every new word he coins with ease in order to sway to the beat or even get up and dance. It is more like a telephone conversation (title of one of Soyinka’s clearer poems about racial discrimination); if you ask the caller to repeat what was said and then ask them to stay on the line while you check the meaning of a strange word in the dictionary, the phony magic crumbles.

Only a high school student reads Soyinka with a mandatory dictionary in hand. Follow his rich metaphoric Yoruba riddles and you will still have fun even if you do not understand every word. Of course saying that you do not understand what he is trying to say is simply dodgy because he makes sure that the enormity of his political interventions is grasped by all who read him, whether they hide behind the masks of ignorance about this phrase or that word. No one who has commented on Soyinka’s Of Africa has claimed that the meaning of the work is obscured by the choice of difficult words or that a few printer’s devils should compel us to ignore the urgency of his clarion call while genocidal violence rages across Africa.

When a brother announced that he got an advance copy of Soyinka’s book for review (how I envied him, I wish I could get such gigs myself) but that he did not like it and may not review it for such trivial reasons that there is no index and no references to the abundant sources, I suspected that the brother was reacting ideologically and knew that I would have to get a copy as soon as possible. Thanks to Amazon.com’s clever marketing of ‘those who bought those also bought that’, I did when I bought Achebe’s There Was A Country and I loved Of Africa because of the importance of the argument and because of the beauty of the Soyinkarism as always.

Those who read my review of Achebe’s There Was A Country will know that I read Achebe’s book inter-textually with Soyinka’s and concluded that both texts complement each other very well. Where Achebe was lucid with a narrower focus on the troubles facing Nigeria, Soyinka was performative with a broader focus on the African predicament. They both argue that if Africa has nothing else to teach the world, the African example of religious tolerance is of immense importance to the modern world and should be studied more carefully for the purpose of resolving peacefully the troubles that plague us today and since our encounter with Europeans and Arabs. Achebe used the metaphor of Mbari among the Igbo as an example for Nigeria and Soyinka used the symbol of Orisa among the Yoruba as a model for Africa to make the same point of tolerance and accommodation as virtues.

Soyinka presents Of Africa as a long overdue retort to a white supremacist who had challenged him in Germany to admit that Africans are inferior otherwise Europeans and Arabs could not have enslaved them and colonized them for centuries. Soyinka could have responded immediately to such gangster philosophy which presumes that those ripped off by the mafia are the fall guys while the mafia are the wise guys by telling the German that it is obvious that he felt superior to Soyinka; but he admits that such would not do because he was always seen as an exception to the rule of African inferiority. So he scratched his head to find a suitable response to all such challenges from white supremacists, ancient and modern – science is out of the question today because it is clearly dominated by Eurocentric methods; health is obviously not an area for African pride despite some miraculous cures by herbalists and African doctors; the economy too is dominated by Eurocentric models, ditto for modern education; music could be cited as an area of African mastery in the global popular culture but it is only a matter of taste with white supremacists still swearing by their Beethoven. But when it comes to religious tolerance, there is no doubt that the African model is a shinning example to the whole world, he argued.

However, I do not share Soyinka’s elevation of Orisa above all other African religions as the model for African spirituality – but not for the same reason that Eurocentrists attack him. They will always say that Africa is a continent as if they are kindergarten geography teachers and as if Europe is a village that allows them to talk about European religion, or about Asian spirituality, or even about Muslim or Christian or Jewish spirituality as if these are singular monolithic blocks of faith without the diversity of communities of interpretation that is more profound in Africa due to the absence of exclusions, boundary enforcements, proselytization, forced conversions, conquest, colonisation and enslavement as tools of evangelisation in African religions. Soyinka rightly condemned the fraudulent racket of anointing Orisa adherents in the Diaspora for fees as high as $5,000 in return for useless diplomas when true Orisa priests frown at using their gifts to enrich themselves; but he could have extended such critique to certain Christian missions that fleece their flock.

I disagree with Soyinka on Orisacentrism of African spirituality because such a stance contradicts one of his cardinal principles of Orisa faith: Thou shall not proselytise. Thus, Soyinka erred by calling on the world to go to Orisa priests for enlightenment rather than invite them to adopt the democratic tolerance of African spirituality whatever their religious affiliations. Such an error is evident when Soyinka makes the leap from the Orisa, Sango, in Yoruba religion to the priest, Sangoma, in South Africa. He also erred by saying that when Muslim community leaders told him that they had no hand in the cancelation of an opera that featured the severed heads of prophets because they did not protest it and it was eventually rescheduled and went on without an incident, Soyinka called them true adherents of Orisa worldviews. Instead of wishing for the head of an African (read Yoruba) God to be included among the severed heads for the opera, I would have expected Soyinka to radicalise the opera production by replacing the severed heads of prophets with the severed heads of certain notorious heads of state in the international community, if for nothing, to indicate that politics is the new religious orthodoxy around the world.

The danger of ethnocentrism in Soyinka’s Of Africa is also clearly evident when he compares the Yoruba favourably against the Igbo by pointing out that readers of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will notice allusions to the killing of twins among the Igbo until the missionaries exploited that as an opportunity to recruit their earliest converts (yeah, right, how many twins made up the early converts?). The Yoruba, Soyinka gloats, have always venerated twins but he said nothing about the alleged enduring superstitious belief in Awure or the sexual abuse of children by some Yoruba parents under the abominable belief that such would bring them good fortune. For instance, a man from a prominent Yoruba family recently reportedly filed a divorce affidavit stating that his father was sleeping with his wife and there was little or no public outrage, suggesting that incest and ‘money medicine’ might be more common under the influence of authoritarian spiritualism.

Soyinka could have explained that the abandoning of twins and the practice of infanticide were widespread practices in the ancient world, even in Europe, and continues today in many parts of the world long after such practices have ceased among the Igbo. Instead of indulging in a boastful swagger of ‘my ethnic religion is better than yours’, Soyinka could have highlighted the more relevant lesson in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: That when the priestess of Agbala told Okonkwo that the spirit of his poor but artistic father, Unoka, was angry with him because he had not sacrificed a goat to his spirit, Okonkwo blasphemously asked the priestess to ask the spirit of the father if he left him a chicken to inherit. How come he was demanding a goat from him? Compare that with the Yoruba veneration of Ogun, a king that they deified and continued to worship even after he led them into war and in a drunken blindness slaughtered both adherents and enemies. Soyinka said that the remorse of Ogun afterwards illustrates the fact that even the Gods are expected to be repentant in Africa but such a sentiment is not exclusively Yoruba given that Moses, the Egyptian, told God to repent of his anger against his people.

Soyinka is right that the African oppositionality to the dictates of oracles is rare in other religions but it is more common among the Igbo than among the monarchical Yoruba and this is entirely understandable in the democratic radical republicanism of the Igbo which Soyinka praised in his Julius Nyerere memorial lecture and which I suggested in my Oriki to Soyinka is a central thread in Soyinka’s opposition to monarchism, tyranny and inequality in all his writings. Also in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna in obedience to the dictate of the Oracle, the priest of the earth Goddess, Ezulu, rebuked Okonkwo by asking how he could kill a child that called him father. By comparison, read the Wikipedia article on how common infanticide is throughout history (with the exception of ancient Egypt) and it remains common even in many industrialised parts of the world today.

When Soyinka inferred that he does not know what Yoruba people will do today if some migrants from other parts of Nigeria start casting their twins to their death from the top of sacred rocks in Ogun state, he was wrongly suggesting that such a practice is still common in some (Igbo) parts of Nigeria, as the white supremacist colonial anthropologist, G.T. Basden (the teacher of Achebe’s father) wrongly suggested at the turn of the 20th century. What Soyinka got right is the condemnation of the Osu caste system among the Igbo but he failed to indicate that even this legacy of the slave raids has all but died out the way he observed that India has made progress by electing untouchables to parliament. The legitimate question that Soyinka raises for the Igbo today is whether the Osu would be welcome to the inclusive Mbari of Achebe that accommodates Europeans and that is a question that the Igbo have answered affirmatively, by and large, long after Nnamdi Azikiwe outlawed the practice of Osu caste.

Finally, while I agree with Soyinka’s vague suggestion that the spiritual unity of Africans in tolerance should be given more respect globally; he could have made his point more clearly by addressing political and economic unity across Africa given that what he analysed as religious conflicts were really conflicts of empires that used religion as weapons for the conquest of others, the exact point that Karl Marx made when he said that religion is the opiate of the people but on which Soyinka says that Marx was wrong.

In calling for the resolution of the crisis of exclusion introduced by colonialists in Africa, Soyinka should have gone beyond his musings that the colonial boundaries could be overcome in the direction of greater unity and not only in the direction of increased micro nationalism, and offered support for the United States of Africa; he should have gone beyond the suggestion that reparations are possible even when the victimised could be said to have been far from blameless and called for reparations for slavery, colonialism and genocide, if only to support Soyinka’s defiant memorial about the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’ around which captive Africans were forced to march by unscrupulous African collaborators of the Trans Atlantic Slavery before they were shipped to the New World, still fighting.

Soyinka should have directly called for reparations for the genocide against the Igbo in Biafra. Rather, he methodically avoided mentioning Biafra in the book and only did so after a Mexican journalist asked him if there was genocide in Biafra (quite unlike Achebe in There Was A Country) even when it is clear that Soyinka’s critique of what Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe calls the ‘genocidal state in Africa’ would be incomplete without Biafra, for which Soyinka suffered years of solitary confinement and during which (I hypothesize) he developed his cryptic style of writing perhaps to escape detection from the goons of genocidism. Having written testimonies to the Igbo genocide in other key texts (The Man Died, A Shuttle in the Crypt, and Season of Anomy) Soyinka has earned the right not to mention it in every publication.

However, that foundational genocide of modern African history deserves more attention than the divisive issue of religious school uniforms that an education minister in Nigeria tried to impose long before French authorities decided to forcibly unveil Muslim school children. The importance of addressing the religious oppression of women and the honour killing of women is commendable in Of Africa especially because the representation of women in the works of Soyinka has been called to question in the past.

Perhaps the answer that Soyinka was seeking in Of Africa can be found in secularism rather than through the elevation of ‘Thus Spoke Oranmiyan’ as the Nietzschean Oberman with Orisa wisdom for all. Certainly the US model of the separation of religion and the state, largely influenced by the peculiar conditions and the endless brave struggles by people of African descent to advance human dignity without regard to colour, gender, religion, physical ability, wealth, origin or sexuality, would be a better model for a United States of Africa. Soyinka’s rallying cry: ‘Come to Orisa’ is bound to be as divisive as any religious evangelism, conversion and imperialism. What we need is a secular democracy that is political, economic and social.

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* Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech. He blogs at http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/


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