Running From Reality

Of Africa by Wole Soyinka

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, known as Wole, born in 1934, is a Nigerian writer, playwright and poet. Recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, he has fought for years for human rights and was imprisoned by his government during the civil war in Nigeria and Biafra for almost two years in the late 1960s. He is currently professor in residence at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes with insight, blindness, humanism and anger in this wonderful and disturbing essay Of Africa. In less than 200 pages, in small-book format, he writes with passion and elegance about his beloved and bedeviling Africa—the good, the bad and the ugly.

In the first chapter, “Dark Continent? Or Beholder’s Cataract?,” he begins by examining how others have pictured Africa, “fictioning” it. He speaks of the “children of Herodotus,” the Greek historian, archetype of outsiders projecting onto Africa various fictions for countless conscious and unconscious reasons. But then, Soyinka asks, “Could it be that Africa yet awaits discovery?”

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He also examines the internal fictioning by the first generation of African leaders after independence and sees the same dynamics at work: a politics of exclusion, the demonizing of ethnic groups and lust for power. Liberation slogans have cloaked conduct consolidated by colonial fictioning, with the same mentality of domination and exploitation, and political one-party rulers have divided one ethnic group from another. “The first-comers in the stakes of power after colonialism have made this the consistent policy of governance: Actualize power, then fictionalize the people.” One sees the simple lust for power directed toward a politics of exclusion, cloaked in a language of liberation and development. Examples could be multiplied as in Kenya, where leaders have been playing off the tribes of the Luo and Gikuyu against each another for years for political gain.

History is a key theme, along with the need to face reality. The millennium-old Arab slave trade of black Africans with its racism must be faced, for the past lives in the present. A sanitized history of Arab slave owners in north and east Africa lives in Arab attitudes today in the Sudan toward the Africans in Darfur. The resulting genocidal onslaught on Darfur by the Janjaweed Arab raiders is partly motivated by racism. This cannot be ignored. Political correctness kills.

Fictioning has another deadly consequence, territorial borders:

The concerted fictioning of Africa by imperial powers, known by the more familiar name—partitioning—is simply a continuation of the superimposition of speculation, interest, or willed reality over history and fact by direct means.... Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity. Every so-called nation on that continent is a mere fiction perpetrated in the cause of external interests by imperial powers, a fiction that both colonial rule and post-independence exertions have struggled and failed—in the main—to turn into an enduring, cohering reality.

Soyinka challenges African leaders to face up to the task of re-examining existing borders. He knows this runs up against the leaders’ will to power and control, as well as the self-interest of many in the international community; but until the fiction of these borders is faced and dealt with, Africa will continue to be convulsed by interborder ethnic conflicts.

But he also sees hope: “Africa is much grander than the sum of her politics.” This change in perspective from large geopolitics to rich humanism is immensely appealing. He praises Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet-statesman, for his generous humanist vision, celebrating a universal synthesis of shared values deeper and more binding than the politics of exclusion. This is what Soyinka fervently believes in; this is what Africa has to give to the world. It “pulsates as the potential leaven in the exhausted leaven of the world.” In answering the question, “What is Africa?” he claims one thing it is not: hegemonic. The aggressive hegemonic impulse, the imperative to dominate, is lacking in African culture. Tolerance is a hallmark of African culture, he claims, and also of African religions.

Humanism, not religion: this is the message of the second part of the book. But the author approaches this through “the near invisible religion of Orisa” (that is, nearly invisible to adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism and the secular segments of the West). It is one of numerous traditional African religions and is found in Soyinka’s own Yoruba culture, geographically located in southern West Africa, specifically in west Nigeria, the Republic of Benin and in Togo. In this religion there are many orisa, that is, deities or spirits, manifestations of the one Olodumare, or God, each governing various parts of the physical world and human life. It has many adherents around the world, the most well-known to Westerners being its South American and Caribbean offshoots such as Santería and Candomblé.

Soyinka believes that Orisa is representative of many non-hegemonic humanist African traditional religions, and that it can act as an arbiter in a world torn apart by exclusivist, power-driven religions. Here he castigates Christianity and Islam (Judaism, strangely, hardly makes an appearance). Soyinka has been hurt and is angered by both the Christianity of his youth and the Islam of the present.

But with regard to the deities or spirits of Orisa, he no more believes in their actual existence than in the man in the moon. They furnish a better mythology than the warring gods of Christianity and Islam. The possibility that a God of love may actually have made a revelation in human history is not on this radar screen. To a Western academic like myself, all this is quite familiar, and in fact the attempt to reduce religion to a human projection is not African, but comes from the colonizing West.

I noticed a telling change of optic in this section. Soyinka writes of his own childhood experience of traditional healers, incantations, herbs and potions with real tenderness, linked to family associations and with a beautiful depth of humanity for this (vanishing) world, under threat today as much by pop culture, modernization and science as anything else. Soyinka’s humanism sings and is splendid.

But the optic changes when he writes of Christians and Muslims, mere players on a large impersonal, violent geopolitical stage. It was disturbing to detect in this paean to tolerance no hint of appreciation for the lived daily experience of Christians and Muslims, the struggles and hopes of ordinary people bound up in their religious faith. I felt my own childhood experiences of first communion, incense in church and singing denigrated. Yes, Africa and its treasures are yet to be discovered by the West, but Christianity and Islam and their treasures are yet to be discovered by Soyinka. Rage also blinds.

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