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Wole Soyinka’s "Of Africa"

Always, For the Sake of Religion

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Africa’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Wole Soyinka, has published his latest book: Of Africa, in many ways a summing up of his earlier pronouncements about the continent vis-à-vis its relationship to the West.  The Nigerian writer has written so many books (plays, poems, essays, autobiography, novels, political commentary) that his publishers no longer list the works opposite the title page.  By my rough calculation, these works total around fifty titles, and I’ve read almost all of them.  That is how important Soyinka is to African letters. Hard to imagine what the shape of African literature, let alone Nigerian politics, would be without Soyinka’s strong moral voice.

Is there anything new that Soyinka can say?  The answer is an emphatic yes.  In his preface Soyinka explains, “Ultimately…it is humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment—both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual)—that remain the primary, incontestable assets to which any society can lay claim or offer as unique contributions to the attainments of the world.  This interrogation constitutes our primary goal in its limited excursion into Africa’s past and present.”

Acknowledging that Africa is a “continent of extremes,” at the same time Soyinka states that Africa is “an intimate part of the history of others” (think European colonialism, slavery in North and South America).  Yet, “History has erred.  All claims that Africa has been explored are as premature as news of her imminent demise.” These quotations are from the preface, laying out the territory explored in the rest of the book.

In the opening chapters, Soyinka boldly asserts that during the early stages of colonialism, both sides were deceitful with the other.  The Europeans concealed their plans for economic exploitation, but the Africans also withheld from the invaders much of importance about their culture, their worldview.  Europeans, especially, had little true understanding of African societies and their underpinnings.  And the consequences?  “Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity.” Notice that the verb is in the present tense.  Soyinka continues, “Every so-called nation on [the] 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….  Africa has paid, and continues to pay, a heavy price for the upkeep of a European fiction.”

Both Islam and Christianity wrecked havoc on the continent and continue to do so.  Even slavery, Soyinka reasserts, “constantly reinvents itself.” Its legacies manifest themselves in acts of tribalism, of genocide in Rwanda, Sudan, even the author’s own Nigeria.  Soyinka mentions Barack Obama’s election in the United States.  “In Kenya, one of the most popular of the songs composed to salute the ascent of Obama to power goes: ‘It is easier for a Luo to become president of the United States than to be president of Uganda.’” The Luo are a minority tribe in Uganda.  Tribalism again, ugly realities of colonial-drawn boundaries for nations; tightly-woven legacies of the colonial past, as well as the equally restrictive consequences of “Political Islam and its hegemonic aggression,”—“destabilizing factors that continue to plague the African continent.”

Soyinka turns to his own ethnicity (Yoruba) when he shifts his focus to spirituality.  Though raised in a Christian household, he has always incorporated Yoruba/Orisa archetypes into his writings, especially his creative works.  The core of traditional African spirituality, animism, unlike religions in other part of the world, “has always been a process of relating to phenomena that surround man—including unseen forces—primarily in a personal way, but collectively also in rites of notation, celebration, and consolidation of the community.” Soyinka expostulates that the “preeminent issue” of the twenty-first century will be “the crisis of religion,” most likely manifested in the clash of religious values: “…the promulgation of a killing religious transcendentalism on a global scale—that is, religion as a killing device, grantor of impunity and homicidal inspiration, is a recent phenomenon, and one that seems determined to sweep us all into the next world without notice, ostensibly to rescue us from eternal perdition.”

This is a chilling scenario for our collective futures, which includes “a sturdy impulsion to expel foreign elements from society” and a growing intolerance of the other. By contrast with almost all other religions, “The language of apostasy is anathema in the land of the Orisa.  There is neither paradise nor hell.  There is no purgatory.  You can neither seduce nor intimidate a true Orisa faithful with projects of a punitive or rewarding afterlife.”  How refreshing.  “Tolerance…is at the heart of [Orisa], a virtue worth cultivating as a foundational principal of humanistic faith….” “The essence of Orisa is the antithesis of tyranny, bigotry, and dictatorship—what greater gift than this respect, the spirit of accommodation, can humanity demand from the world of the spirit?”

Soyinka historicizes Yoruba/Orisa influence, especially in South America, but it is pertinent to ask what chance this spirituality has of shaping much of the rest of the world? I’d say zero.  It’s too late.  Mankind’s religious prejudices are so ingrained, so entrenched in most areas of the globe that I doubt very seriously that Orisa—or any African religion—will gain a much wider influence.  Nor has Orisa made a significant inroad on the African continent outside of Yoruba geography. In one sense, that doesn’t matter.  What is important is that there is a model for what might have happened had the world’s two dominant religions (Islam and Christianity) not hijacked so much of mankind and imposed their rigid intolerance.

What I find much more impressive than Soyinka’s proclamation of the potential for Orisa is the author’s secular argument for child protection, that “Society is…obliged to protect the adult in formation.” Young girls are circumcised, and/or forced to wear the veil; young boys are trained to be suicide bombers—all because of their religion and its “power and its exertion over others….” Yet, religions and societies are always in flux, whether they acknowledge this fact or not.  “Cultural relativism or respect is therefore not the talismanic mantra for the resolution of the human predicament—indeed, it is only the beginning of a complex, ethically rigorous exercise, not its terminus.” Thus, the child must be protected.  And affronts to one’s religion must take that protection under consideration.

As Soyinka concludes, “Who really killed God? [Is God killed by cartoons of the Prophet in European Newspapers or vile movies made in Hollywood?]  Who kills him, her daily?  Indeed, who is it that is ready to kill over the question of whether or not the invisible deity is a he or she and whether he or she is dressed in blouse and trousers, in a burqua, or in a Scottish kilt and sporran?  Is it those who desecrate childhood, who conscript children as soldiers, offer them communion, tie a cross or a tesuba around their necks and send them into battle, co-opting the name and image of God for the elimination of his creation?”

Some weeks ago, I reviewed Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, the writer’s account of his life during the Biafran war.  I concluded that review by calling Achebe “the soul of Africa.”  Wole Soyinka, his countryman, without a doubt in every way compliments Achebe’s vision of Africa with his own moral version.  Ultimately, they both write about power and how that power (whether external or internal) has shaped the African continent: Achebe, the continent’s heart; Soyinka, the continent’s mind.

Of Africa is the most significant book about the Africa—especially as an antidote to the ills of the rest of the world—that I have read in years.  Reading Soyinka’s dense prose is often a challenge, but the message is long overdue.

Wole Soyinka: Of Africa 

Yale, 199 pp., $24

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  He can be reached at: clarson@american.edu.