Passionate Spaces : African Literature & the Hugh Webb
African Literature & the
Voices in the dark
"If you will not be melancholy, be angry" says a character in one of the gloomiest of the English Jacobean plays.1 Many modern African writers appear to have taken that advice. Their works signify a recognition of betrayal. Easily recognised are the distinctive notes of outrage. In terms of artistic control, markers of anger frequently blaze out from what has been (in general) a seemingly restrained narrative or poetic design. They can be identified by particular linguistic and syntactical patterns. And, of course, by the presence of distinctive thematic emphases (often chosen, it would seem, for their potential as anger-generating debate). This is the often apocalyptic literature of betrayal.
A striking textual instance of this mood of resentment and indignation is found in Leonard Kibera's novel Voices in the Dark2. Gerald Timundu and his girl-friend Wilna are shown discussing, as they often do, "those groups which thrived throughout the land." The passage that follows represents a long, running catalogue of 'betrayers' that both identifies targets for scorn and, by their juxtaposition, condemns them all as destroyers of the ideals of Uhuru. To gain an accurate impression of the accumulative nature of the catalogue, I will discuss the passage at some length. It begins:
Little ethnic groups with big minds and big ethnic groups with small minds professing, individually, to hang together for security so that they might not swim separately when the rains at last fell. Little institutions with big clauses and big institutions with little constitutions all of which contributed vigorously to charity ... .(p.87)
The bravura word-play that carried forward Kibera's attack does not disguise the seriousness of the socio-political indictment. The targets, here, are those of self-seeking tribalism and racialism. The passage is carefully patterned to enforce a rhetorical impact, with the repetition of 'little - little - little' working to diminish the importance of these groups while (at the same time) wittily satirising their pretensions to importance. The scope of the attack is widened to include:
Little groups of white women with uncertain histories who still walked their masculine puppies on Public Street and gave freely to the poor. Little groups of white men who played golf with Oxonian black men on Sunday afternoons and little groups of black toffs who played cricket with white men on Sunday mornings ... .
Various behavior patterns, rather odd relics of the colonial period, are added to a list of what are shown to be abnormal responses to Uhuru within Kenyan society. Subsequently, one finds satiric shafts aimed at the shallowness of the private search for advancement ("Little groups of everybody who was nobody and big sister groups of nobodies who were everybody's important nobody son all sticking out their necks for promotion and stone houses") and at the essential hypocrisy that underlies the neo-colonialist position ("Little groups of advisers who sought big advice on how to give little advice so that the ultimate advice output, to speak business, was no more or less than the initial advice input, only contradictory"). Here is wit in the service of anger.
The catalogue rolls on, as Kibera piles up targets for condemnation. Cheats, hypocrites and religious bigots are under attack:
Big people who fooled nobody and little people who fooled everybody. Everybody who hated Catholics. Protestants who contradicted Catholics. Catholics who contradicted both Protestants and Methodists alike but all of whom vigorously misunderstood Moslems who in their turn hated Buddhists ... .(p.88)
At this stage, one can see how Kibera is using his considerable rhetorical powers to extend the range of indictment of the hypocrites and betrayers of Uhuru. These subjects of scorn - the tribalists, the elite, the bigots, the social parasites, the egotists, the neo-colonialists and so on - collectively contribute to something approaching a general social critique that is far more complex and wide-ranging than an attack on the politicians alone. The comprehensive nature of Kibera's attack becomes evident as the catalogue builds towards a climax with short, spat-out phrases leading up to the final three-fold curse:
Makers of history. Small hats and big hats. Sub-editors who edited and editors who subtracted ... Local Boers. Critics. Ambassadors and other flatterdors ... Liberals. People who thought life was a joke. Cynics. Rums who thought it wasn't. Paid-up members and other clans. Them enemies. Them enemies. Them enemies. (pp.88-89)
These then, at least for Kibera, are the enemies of Uhuru. Collectively, they provide both a reason for resentment and a target for the expression of anger.
Two of the most memorable figures in Voices in the Dark are the crippled beggars, Kimura and Irungu. They are both presented as being ex-forest fighters for Kenyan Independence. Compared to those social elements who appear in the catalogue of enemies, Kimura and Irungu are clearly the recipients of Kibera's authorial applause. Having fought for Uhuru they are now cast out into the back streets of the big city of Independence. Their symbolic significance is also clear: this is the African Everyman and his compatriot, begging for scraps from the 'enemies'. One of the cripples asks the other "What does the Prime Minister do?" The answer is:
Nothing, but I'll make him do something... At sunset I will go to him. I will touch him on the shoulder with great respect and say 'The honeymoon is over and the night of our Independence is upon us: how about some work for a change?'(p.176)
Of course he never gets to ask that question. It is a question that contains more than a hint of sarcasm and is, in itself, representative of Kibera's sardonic treatment of the two beggars. Yet the thrust of the novel, as a whole, leads one to the conclusion that the question directed to the political elite (how about some work for a change?) is an appropriate one that demands an answer. This is a view that is strongly reinforced when one recognises the presence of a militant vein of protest that can be traced (in part) to the influence of Frantz Fanon's writings. Indeed, the ideological direction of Voices in the Dark is set, almost before the novel begins, when the author chooses this quotation for his frontispiece:
But in the street when evening comes, away from the village, in the cafes or by the river, the bitter disappointment of the people, their despair but also their unceasing anger makes itself heard. The Wretched of the Earth - Frantz Fanon.
To a large extent, Voices in the Dark functions as a medium for that "unceasing anger."
An alternative form of presentation of 'the betrayal' is characterised by the recurrent use of language of an abusive, cursing kind. Often, the language of the curse is linked with sexual imagery of an excremental or exaggerated nature. This strategy is adopted in one of the interludes in Kofi Awoonor's novel where lawyer Amamu remembers "the hush hour of birth ... the sirens of joy ... as voices raised a new chorus to the sky" and compares it with what he sees as the reality of an independent Ghana. What he sees now makes an ugly picture:
Bricks cement mortars pounding. A nation is building. Fart-filled respectable people toiling in moth-eaten files to continue where the colonialists and imperialists left off.3
This short passage, concise and hard-hitting, moves from a description of activity generally held to be constructive (the 'pounding' of development, the building of a new nation) to the actuality that sustains that apparent progress (pretentious filing-clerks busy working towards a neo-colonialist state). The process of deflation - from nation-building to fart-filled people toiling in moth-eaten files - functions as a measure of the painful sense of outrage that informs Amamu's reaction to the physical and mental destructiveness of such artificial activity. The sirens of joy that greeted the birth of Ghana have been effectively silenced by the anal noises of the new elite. Instead of contributing to a glorious new endeavour, here we are all (Amamu thinks) "screaming on a dunghill." That striking phrase, the image of a people soiled by their own excrement, epitomises the young lawyer's indignation.
Awoonor's figure of Amamu is no solitary malcontent. Akwasi, the young man who describes the scene at the Ghana Independence Day Rally in The Gab Boys, comes to similar conclusions.4 With the 'benefit' of hindsight, Akwasi is shown as having arrived at certain conclusions regarding the phony nature of the promises articulated on that emotional occasion. To Akwasi, the evidence of betrayal is clear. Looking back on those heady days of infinite hopes, Duodu's 'gab-boy' narrator realises that the people have been duped by lofty rhetoric and false promises. He sees that "it was only the fumes of a well-advertised drink that had inebriated us; we had merely masturbated while staring at pictures of beautiful film actresses" (pp.139-40). Duodu uses metaphors of sexual frustration (indicating a measure of self-abuse, self-delusion) to represent his narrator's growth of understanding. Thinking back to the rally, Akwasi remembers seeing the "real inheritors of Ghana's good" driving past in comfortable cars "even as we were dragging our weary flesh home." Noticeable, again, is the paradigmatic division of the post-Uhuru period between 'them' and 'us':
They would go home and sink into comfortable chairs and drink champagne while nestling into the arms of lovely, soft women. And while they drank, they would suffer the hangover.(p.140)
Akwasi goes on to describe the life of these real inheritors of Ghana's good. He sees their houses getting bigger and bigger as the women give "rein to their vain imaginings." He sees marble being imported from Italy "to make floors, but asses who didn't know the true use of marble would ... relegate it to a monstrous undergrowth, covering it with deep, squelching carpets ... ." He imagines that there would be golden beds in these houses and that they would be equipped with helicopter landing strips "to make whoring both quick and safe." He sees the Chevrolets, Packards and Rovers (now dubbed 'small-boy's' cars) replaced by Rolls Royces, Cadillacs and the ubiquitous Mercedez Automatics.5 The catalogue of iniquities builds towards an angrier note as one after another of these grotesque actions contribute to Akwasi's massive condemnation of what amounts to prostitution on a national scale. What Akwasi sees, in essence, is a system built on exploitation; a system where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. With the loss of his earlier innocent dreams, he has come to realise that "they would tax the shit out of our arse-holes in order to pay for their pomposity; assuming that our stomachs, starved of meat, fish, sugar, milk and bread, would remain capable of producing shit." All this, thinks Akwasi, to keep in luxury what he calls the "football-bellied idiots who needed an injection before they could make love to women" (p.141). Akwasi's impassioned outburst is organised, by Duodu, as an accumulating critical blast at the standards of the African elite in Ghana (and, by extension, elsewhere). As such, it is a striking instance of what Wole Soyinka has succinctly defined as "the 'cursifying' or letting-out-rage genre, of whose efficacy let no man stand in doubt."6
From these literary texts one gains the strong impression that a common reaction of political figures to the various problems of the post-Uhuru period was to launch constant rhetorical appeals, to the 'common' people, for greater effort in the struggles to consolidate the new national states. Samson Moira, the central figure in Mangua's A Tail in the Mouth (who has been shown to have had some doubts about future advancement), angrily reacts to these appeals. Mangua shows Moira's early suspicions as having been well-founded. Moira's attitude towards the rhetorical appeals for nation-building are succinctly expressed when he blurts out:
To hell with nation building and your big talk. When I haven't got clothes, food, house, land, employment, etcetera and my starting place is worse than where I left off, then I don't want to hear any high and mighty talk about brotherhood and nation building. I have to build my house before I can build a nation.7
The young man thus rejects the high and mighty talk of Uhuru brotherhood. What he asks for, first, is some tangible evidence of meaningful progress in terms of better housing, more food, land distribution and so on. Without a house of his own, how can he be concerned with the 'house' of Uhuru? Samson Moira's friend, Kagwe, is shown as representing a rather different viewpoint. He disagrees with Moira and tells him that he should be proud of the fact that he has fought for Kenya's freedom in the forests. "You have done something in life or at least you tried," says Kagwe. But Moira is not so easily consoled. He still wants answers to the questions that have, by now, become quite familiar: "Where do we go from here?".8 As with Lenrie Peters' questioning citizen, Samson Moira receives no reasoned answers. Because a response to the questions would include an admission of socio-political betrayal, they remain unanswered.
Ezekiel Mphahlele's novel The Wanderers, written by a South African, is of interest here because of the clearly pan-Africanist nature of authorial concerns.9 Indeed, the fact that Mphahlele's wandering African hero (Timi Tabane) is an outsider, a traveller through West and East Africa searching for a sense of belonging, gives the narrative thrust an extra dimension of relevance in terms of the post-Uhuru debate. For Tabane's various comments (on the new African states that he visits) act as supplementary reference to 'inside' commentary on socio-political trends. The central target for his wrath is the observable presence of neo-colonialism - a system that allows the former colonial groups, in a cynical partnership with the new black elite, to retain positions of power despite nominal African Independence. In one segment of the novel, Mphahlele presents Timi Tabane lashing out at Cecil Rowe, a white publisher's representative in East Africa. "'You know you need never change your race attitudes'," says Tabane, "'you can continue having your sundowners on the veranda, as long as you don't get mad at your servant and call him names in the hearing of someone else'." Tabane realises that the position of Rowe, and others like him, is under no real threat. As he points out to Rowe:
'You know the British advisers in the civil service will hold the fort for you. They'll steer the boat the way you want it, as long as the black man's still excited about his country's independence and isn't smart enough to know Britain's got them by the balls.' (p.266)
Elsewhere in the novel, an angry Timi Tabane is presented talking to his new-found friend Joe (an African university teacher). Both men have been invited to a Mayor's Annual Party in Lao-Kiku,10 held in the glittering cocktail lounge of the City Hall. Joe tells Tabane that, at such gatherings, the blacks (including Indians) are always outnumbered by not less than six to one. The following dialogue, presented at some length to capture the differing responses to such a situation, takes place at the party:
[Joe] 'I wonder why I come to these blasted white get-togethers'...
[Timi] 'You've the right to be here, hell!... This is your country.'
[Joe] 'Just look at us - the blacks. We look like monkeys on show here, so few we are. And you think they care about complaints in the papers?'
[Timi] 'Who handles the invitations?'
[Joe] 'Some white woman who still uses the list that was used by the colonial mayor. Wouldn't be surprised if some dead whites are still on the list and continue to be sent invitations and the cards are returned marked unknown. That's emergent Africa for you, Timi. And then people wonder why the second revolution or the real one must come.'
The sheer naivety of Timi's statement ("This is your country") is set up to contrast with what is presented as being Joe's more accurate, and sarcastic, reading of the neo-colonialist situation. Joe wonders why he has come, why he has (implicitly) lent some substance of meaning to such an obviously perverted gathering of "emergent Africa." He speaks, rather desperately, of the need for a "real" revolution to overturn the phony political contract that the party represents. The text makes it clear that, for Timi, the episode has connotations of an even more desperate defeat. Just as Joe shows an understanding that Lao-Kiku is not (in any useful sense of the word) his country, so Timi realises that he has again failed to find a meaningful resting-place. Added to that failure is the recognition that he cannot return to his native South Africa. He has become, like Joe, a stranger in Lao-Kiku. More than that, he has been rejected both by the white-dominated South and the supposedly black-dominated nation in East Africa. Mphahlele's implied question amounts to this: how can Timi (an outsider, though an African) achieve a sense of belonging, a sense of freed identity, when the Kenyans, Nigerians11 and others feel themselves to be alienated from any real possibility of self-rule, even within their 'own' countries? Mphahlele's cognisance of that situation clearly determines the range and direction of his authorial concerns. It determines, too, the resulting sense of outrage that informs the narrative of Timi Tabane, an African exile in Africa.
Where are the fruits of freedom? The mood of anger - the wrath of a people seen to be betrayed - finds its fierce expression in these 'cursifying' texts. In a poetic lament on the death of Christopher Okigbo, Kofi Awoonor has this line: "He burned and blazed for an ending."12 These expressions of outrage can be seen as working in that way. An ending to selfishness, an ending to oppression, an ending to betrayal - they burn and blaze for an ending.
Chapter 5. Voices In The Dark
1. Flamineo, in John Webster's The White Devil (1612), III.iii.
2. Leonard Kibera, Voices in the Dark (Nairobi: East African PublishinHouse, 1970).
3. Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother ..., p.28.
5. The Mercedes Benz, as symbol of elitist extravagance, is a common focus for satirical comment in African literature. See, particularly, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, "A Mercedes Funeral", in Secret Lives and other stories and Nkem Nwankwo, My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975). The car is referred to as "Mercedez" in The Gab Boys.
6. Wole Soyinka, A Shuttle in the Crypt (London: Rex Collings and Eyre Methuen, 1972), p.59.
7. Mangua, A Tail in the Mouth, p.219.
8. Ibid, p.220.
9. Ezekiel Mphahlele, The Wanderers (1972; rpt. London: Fontana Books, 1973).
10. Lao-Kiku is clearly designated to represent Kenya; thus 'Kiku' as in 'Kikuyu'.
11. Timi Tabane also visits Iboyoru, a model for Nigeria; thus Ibo andYoruba - from the names of two regional groupings in modern Nigeria.
12. Kofi Awoonor, from "Lament of the Silent Sister," in Night of my Blood (New York: Doubleday, 1971), p.77. The poem carries the dedication "For Chris Okigbo, the well-known poet, killed in 1967 in the Nigerian civil war."