Passionate Spaces : African Literature & the Hugh Webb
African Literature & the
The crown of thunder
If the "drumming of empty stomachs" can be seen as the archetypal image of these texts, the mood that is articulated is that of the woeful ululations of African mothers over a dead child. The child is the bright African future. The death is the destruction of a fine human desire for a better life. So many of these texts function as literary lamentations over a body that never really had a chance to grow.
Not that the lamentations are only for the young. An old man called Ngotho is the central figure in Leonard Kibera's short story "The Spider's Web".1 Formerly a house-servant for a white couple, he is seen now (after Uhuru) serving a black Kenyan master and the new African memsahib. The narrative makes it clear that very little has changed for Ngotho. He is slapped across the face and generally treated like dirt. Earlier, Ngotho was happy because he sensed the potential for building a new society in which the African would be respectable in his own country, where there "would be no more revenge, and no more exploitation." At first he had been "willing to serve, to keep up the fire that had eventually smoked out the whiteman" (p.141). While being shown as something of an idealist, Ngotho is realistic enough to note that "there would always be masters and servants." Nevertheless, he laments the loss of the earlier, collective sense of direction. "He could not help but feel that the warriors had lain down their arrows and had parted different ways to fend for themselves" (p.142). Ngotho's sorrow is grounded in a doubly tragic situation: not only has his position not changed in any way, but now there is no longer a unity of purpose that could be directed towards building a better life for all. Instead, he finds a community where everything has "become crooked, subtle, and he had to watch his step" (p.143). Confused and totally disappointed, Ngotho is seen (as the story concludes) stabbing his new master with a kitchen knife. Kibera, in his portrayal of the old man, shows the essential dignity of his servant figure. The story is concerned to show the utter waste of that dignity when it confronts the inhumanity of the new black ruling-group.
As if in response to the Fanonist image ("the blare of the trumpets ... a flag waving"), Lenrie Peters, in another of his poems, asks:
Where are the banners now
Which once we carried high
When we led the people
To the shrine of freedom... .
As the text presents it, those banners that were waved so bravely in the beginning have been stained for all time with blood "from the lacerated womb" of African Independence. The magnificient slogans that were thrown about like fireworks are imagined to have landed in the crowded squares, rebounding on those who created them, with the result that "The children are cut in pieces/And their cries will still be heard tomorrow."2 The slogans of Uhuru have been less than useful, less than productive. Now they work, paradoxically, towards the total destruction of future generations. It has all become an exercise in self-defeat. Notions of death and defeat are the concern of Cyprian Ekwensi in Iska. This novel shows the death of one young man, Dan Kaybi, and asks (implicitly) - who is to blame? Ekwensi's narrator lays the blame for the death at the door of "the generation of today; a generation that was in a hurry to live, to make progress, to accumulate wealth, to bed girls, to eat, drink, be promoted to fill fat-salaried posts, to be in power only to line one's pockets." This new generation is described as a "generation of greed, never satisfied, never leisurely. In less than the time it takes the wind to blow past your face, everything has happened" (p.68). It is a generation that is projected as moving speedily towards its own destruction. Is this the generation that carries the banners of the new Africa? Ekwensi, for one, would appear to have his doubts. So too does his fellow-Nigerian Chinua Achebe. In a poem concerned with man's chronic proneness to self-defeat, Achebe enlarges the perspective from the more narrow 'generation' criticism to what amounts to a national, collective (even racial) criticism. "1966" is a poem that considers what has gone wrong in Nigeria. The thrust of the critique includes the poet himself. He sees his countrymen sitting
our thoughtless days
sat at dire controls
and played indolently.
While those thoughtless days rolled on, Achebe imagines the beginnings of an insidious state of chaos as
drill-point crept closer
to residual chaos to
rare artesian hatred.3
As the oil-fields of Eastern Nigeria were thought to be a trump-card during the subsequent civil war (while playing a large part in the prosperity of the nation), the poet's use of the "diamond-tipped drillpoint" is particularly apt. Significantly, however, in Achebe's poem the drilling leads to chaos and a rare hatred. The result is not a victory but ultimate existential defeat.
As we have seen, the selection of a passage from the work of another writer points to a particularly over-determined instance of authorial direction regarding the subsequent text. One important function enabled by this strategy is the creation of an interpretative 'mood' within which the text becomes meaningful. For a novel that is concerned with the opposition between idealism and pragmatism, a work centred on the experience of a group of young Africans - revolutionaries one moment, Ministers the next - Peter Abrahams selects this passage from Walt Whitman:
Did we think victory great?
So it is - But now it seems to me, when it
cannot be helped, that defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.4
Such a choice, focusing on a realisation that death and dismay (despite the early victories of the anti-colonial struggle) are not only possible but distinct probabilities in future years, points to the predominant tone of many post-Uhuru texts. Death becomes the thematic core of these works, with a strong sense of dismay as the concomitant authorial attitude. In Joe de Graft's poem "The Rock Behind the Fort", thoughts of 'death and dismay' produce such lines as this plaintive question: "O God, how could love of fellow-men undo so many?". The poet sees three black prison vans arrive at the gates of the old fort (once an infamous prison for slaves and now used as a convenient centre for the detention and elimination of African opponents of the government). He sees the men huddled within the van and he knows, unmistakably, that they are doomed. For these are the new African 'slaves' who dared to dissent.5 The poem is filled with the tones of sadness. It would seem that death and dismay are indeed great.
In any overview of modern African literature one idea tends to recur again and again (in a variety of forms) as a dominant thematic concern. It is the notion that, in the face of repressive acts by Africans against Africans, there no longer exists the happy, carefree, honest approach to fellow human beings that is seen to have existed before the betrayal of Uhuru ideals. Some examples will clarify the nature of this idea and the manner in which it is presented. In one of the chapters from Prostitute, pointedly headed "deeper and deeper graves," Okello Oculi considers human beings in terms of cars and modern mechanisation. Cars do not stop to 'talk' to each other "except when in bitter collisions of mutual destruction." Neither, notes Oculi, do the people of contemporary Africa: "We too walk past one another with cold muteness like charcoal stumps, as if we shall meet again under trees in the next world." Honesty and a healthy interest in other people are seen to have been replaced by a situation full of inter-personal tension and aggression. Oculi's text focuses attention on the eyes. "Our eyes stare out like their headlamps do and when a man takes courage to look a girl in the body, he rapes her through and through." The lament is that no one "has cool rolling eyes any more."6 A similar thought is found in a poem by Mbella Sonne Dipoko, where he writes that
We are the moderns in time
Groping after tomorrow
We become like all mankind
Scaling the years on the backs of others.7
Now we are modern, decent without but indecent within. It is the element of self-infliction that carries the cruellest sting. As Taban lo Liyong has succinctly put it: "once we were barred/Now we ourselves bar."8
Kole Omotoso, born in 1943, is one of the younger generation of Nigerian novelists whose work is wholly concerned with the post-colonial experience. In his first novel, The Edifice, he writes of a young Nigerian intellectual (Dele) who turns to politics on his return from studies abroad.9 Daisy, Dele's English wife, laments the change in her husband from a vibrant, idealistic and loving young man to an unscrupulous political opportunist who neglects his wife in favour of his personal ambitions for sex and power. Dele is only one of many such figures - young, educated Africans who are shown as having wandered from the 'straight way' - within the pages of these texts. Some of the figures who come readily to mind are Serumaga's Joe Musizi,10 Aluko's Benjamin Benjamin,11 Lawino's errant husband,12 and (as a special case) young Odili and his temptation in Achebe's novel A Man of the People.13 If one examines the placing and movement of these figures within the varying narrative structures that serve to delineate their characterisation, one is struck by the presence of a recurring thematic concern: the loss of early ideals. To a certain extent, these figures can be seen as representative 'types'. Some are shown struggling to break out of a vicious circle of corruption. Others wallow in it. Ambition before integrity, money before principles, self before group-interest: these are the features exhibited by characters of the latter type. They are also the features that are under overt ideological attack within the texts. In a situation where there is seen to be a great loss of potential for good (at a time when Africa desperately needs to realise that potential), it is not surprising that a sense of grief pervades the works that are centred on the actions of these figures.
Although his poems emerge from the context of South African apartheid (essentially a colonial structure), the Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene often captures the common African mood. In a powerful elegy by Kunene, there is this striking stanza:
We are late in our birth
Accumulating violent voices
You whose love comes from the stars
Give us the crown of thunder
That our grief may overhang the earth.14
The cry for the "crown of thunder", a symbolic representation of a continent's grief, is at the core of all these manifestations of the African lament. The idea that such grief could "overhang the earth" is no literary hyperbole. It strikes one as being an entirely appropriate expression of the level and range of lamentation that is found in this portion of African literature. Kunene concludes his poem with the lines "O we are naked at the great streams/Wanderers greet us no more... ." In company with a people "late in our birth", the poet feels himself to be naked and lonely. Here, again, is that sense of loneliness and isolation in the face of overpowering adversity. Combined with a feeling of puzzlement, it occurs again in Wole Soyinka's poem headed "Civilian and Soldier".15 Within a text that is centred on a confrontation between a civilian (the poetic "I") and a soldier who hesitates to shoot, Soyinka imagines a reversal of this confrontation:
... No hesitation then
But I shall shoot you clean and fair
With meat and bread, a gourd of wine
A bunch of breasts from either arm... .
Yet this poetic 'shooting' is not enough for the poet. He would also fire something far more pointed. It would be a "Lone question - do you friend, even now, know/What it is all about?". Another poem ending with a question that allows for no immediate answer. Contemporary Africa - what is it all about? Soyinka's lone question, to the extent that it articulates the common dilemma, could well stand as a motto for much of modern African literature in English.
Given a socio-political situation that is seen as being predominantly harsh and oppressive, the lamenting tones of the funeral dirge represent an apparently harmonious response. A poem by Kwesi Brew entitled simply "The Dirge" - operating as both an individual and collective lament - uses the images of nature to evoke an intensely-felt mood of sorrow.16 The poet knows that there will be "decades of nights" because
The sun has fallen
On the leaves
Behind the forest
And the stars are coming down
In dust and ashes.
From the perspective of these texts, even the light of the stars is extinguished over the African human landscape. In this situation one senses the close presence of absolute despair.
1. "The Spider's Web," in Leonard Kibera and Samuel Kahiga, Potent Ash, pp.134-46.
2. Lenrie Peters, from poem No.50, "Where are the banners now," in Satellites.
3. Chinua Achebe, "1966", in Beware, Soul Brother: Poems.
4. Peter Abrahams, A Wreath for Udomo, frontispiece quote.
5. de Graft, "The Rock Behind the Fort," in Beneath the Jazz and Brass.
6. Oculi, Prostitute, p.80.
7. Dipoko, "Our Destiny," in Black and White in Love: Poems.
8. Liyong, from "Student's Lament," in Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs: With Poems More and More (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).
9. Kole Omotoso, The Edifice (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).
10. In Robert Serumaga, Return to the Shadows (1969; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970).
11. In T.M. Aluko, One Man, One Matchet (l964; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1965).
12. In Okot p'Bitek, Song of Lawino (1966; rpt. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973).
13. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People (1966; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973). Odili is a special case for he is shown to be wandering back to the 'straight way' after early temptation.
14. Mazisi Kunene, "Elegy", in Modern Poetry from Africa, p.209.
15. Wole Soyinka, "Civilian and Soldier", in Idanre and Other Poems (London: Methuen, 1967).
16. Kwesi Brew, "The Dirge", in Messages: Poems from Ghana, ed. Kofi Awoonor and G. Adali-Mortty (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971), p.95.