Sidharth Vardhan

Wole Soyinka’s ‘Of Africa’

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Published: 2012

(Review by Sidharth Vardhan
'Of Africa' by Wole Soyinka
First written on October 14, 2015)

The title itself was fascinating to me. Not ‘Of Nigeria’ but ‘Of Africa’. Anybody who talks of thinking beyond political boundaries quickly gets my respect.

Africa's Political map - notice political boundaries are straight lines.

“The rise of extreme nationalism, often developing into outright xenophobia, barely disguised under legislative formalisms that never name their real goal - exclusion – is a symptom of the increase, not decrease, of the we-or-they mentality that appears to be sweeping across the globe."

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

He thinks that national boundaries in Africa are all fiction. Of course, all national boundaries are fictional; but in Africa the situation is made obvious by the fact that it is a fiction created by outsiders:

“Boundaries imply exclusion, and it is undeniable that this tainted seed of guaranteed future conflicts on the continent was sown at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884.”

The thing is made clearer if you were to look at political map of Africa. You would notice many national boundaries to be straight lines, as if drawn by a ruler. That is exactly what Colonial powers did in Berlin conference. There are very few other borders that are straight lines – US-Canada for example and those too are results of similar artificial divisions. However that wouldn’t be the case among civilizations as old as African (Eurasia). There are no straight lines in nature. Even US-Canadian border became more representative of nationalist divisions after American war of independence but:

“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.”

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

This is not to say there is no diversity in Africa, just that political boundaries have nothing to do with it. According to Soyinka, those boundaries are maintained by power-holders (aristocarats) for personal advantages.

“Colonalism have made this the consistent policy of governance; Actualize power, then fictionalize the people."

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

There have been efforts made by some of these ‘nations’ to come together which failed, but the reason behind same were these power-seekers. Soyinka sees no reason why such efforts shouldn’t be continued.

Invisible religions

One very important point he makes is that African religions have still not got their rightful place in world thought (remember, I said thought). Our ignorance on the subject is easily checked, how many African religions can you name? three? Two? One?

Monotheistic religions have gained numbers in Africa in last century - mostly through coercive means.

Honestly I couldn’t name any either before reading this book but now I intend to learn more about them. Soyinka does discuss the African religious thought to some extent. Reading about different cultures frees you from illusions forced by your own culture, doesn’t it?

“The darkness that was so readily attributed to the ‘Dark Continent’ may yet prove to be nothing but willful; cataract in the eyes of the beholder."

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

His account of how African slaves living all over the world saved their gods and religion despite the hostility at hands of their masters and, at times even after convertation, is also interesting.

As to what is to be learnt from African religions, his arguments: they guide rather than dictate, they are tolerant, they stay limited to human relation with divine without telling you how to dress or marry etc. There are no world religions from Africa and, well, that shows how good they are. Most of world religions have spread only by use of political power. Much of political tension in Africa is child of expansionist tendencies of Islam and Christianity - two foreign religions.

“In what forms did that continent express its spirituality before the advent of Islam and Christianity? The answer is easiest grasped in the negative—and that answer is: not in any violent or conscriptive form.”

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

He distinguishes, for example, between ‘Islam’ and ‘political Islam’; and has a problem only with later. African religions have nothing to do with politics. Of course you can call them primitive, which religion isn’t?

Soyinka doesn’t seem to be much of a believer. In fact, he himself criticizes many African tradations.

He talks somewhere about a European drama, where founders of many religions (Christianity, Budhism, Islam etc) were to be shown in a manner that was found objectionable by some. His complaint: there were no African gods or symbols criticized. He thinks Africans would have been okay if their gods were insulted in this manner - it is their invisibility which annoys him.

History, not yet

Unlike German Holocaust and American Nuclear bombings; there were no apologies for slave trade. It was nice to find a Nobel laureate who can criticize west for her colonizing attitudes. Some westerner power-heads though did come close to doing what may look like apology (if you don’t look at it carefully) but the other buyers, who had dealt in slave trade centuries before west started and continued long after, did nothing of sort. Yes, we are talking of Arab world, who still seem almost proud of their past.

Not to say Africa itself was innocent for its misfortunes. In fact, outsiders almost always depended on African natives to make and sell slaves to them. Soyinka points out that two of most powerful African families of present times are successors of slave traders. Not only that, they have build museums to make a display of their role in slave trade.

Some quotes on still existing places where slaves were kept Africa.

“Eating arrangements, incredibly, provide us a glimpse into their degrading condition. To ensure that they were reduced, virtually, to the status of beasts, they were denied any semblance of plates and bowls. Instead, the captives were made to chisel hollows in the rock surface, using stones. Four to five slaves gathered round each scooped-out plate to eat the regulated amount, just sufficient to keep them alive, not enough to enable them become so strong as to attempt escape or rebellion.” (Hollows are still there to be seen.)

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

“That baobab tree marks the disposal grounds of what I have termed “expired” slaves. In this particular market town of Salaga, the slaves were not buried, they were simply dumped on the land. Thus the river that flows by that tract of land became known as Rafi angalu—the river of vultures.”

Wole Soyinka (Of Africa)

Invisible People

One criticism of history is that it is a thing of past. It has no effect on present. Of course it makes conscience easy. The word ‘Holocaust’ always takes you back to Nazi Germany, right? There is an emphasis on uniqueness of Nazi genocide (Because it makes USA look like hero?) refusing to use the same word for (to take an example) similar Soviet tendencies (‘Red Holocaust’).

UN kept refusing to call 1994 Rwandian killings ‘genocide’ (leave alone Holocaust). I can give everything to know Orwell’s reaction to such clever use of words.

And so, we now will move to a third word – ‘Ethnic Cleanings’ which is the word that can be safely used for the ‘war in Darfur’ where non-Arab are being killed since 2003.

Soyinka points out how these killings are not considered newsworthy for West and are rarely reported. Why? I don’t know; the only guess I have comes from Heath Ldeger playing as joker –it is a part of plan. As far as westerners are concerned, a few killings in Africa are to be expected. Of course, they are willing to report ‘North-East’ but only because West is directly invested there.
Soyinka illustrates this indifference by comparing it to mass media reactions generated by Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. Which is greater (he asks) ‘one act of insensitivity and boorishness by a little known editor in arctic wastes’ or actual people being killed in a systematic manner for years now?

And while we are talking about western indifference, even WWII was a political war, not a war of good against evil. Didn’t Hitler offered USA to take the German Jews before he started killing them? Wasn’t UK oonce one of Hitler’s friends?

It is somewhat sad book to read. Will this ever change? 'Never Again' has, ironically, become a ceremonial phrase for UN.

Einstein once said: “we will hope that future historians will explain the morbid symptoms of present-day society as the childhood ailments of an aspiring humanity, due entirely to the excessive speed at which civilization was advancing.” Soyinka too is hoping for a better future.

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