Fellow Africans, please forgive my lamentations today. I have more than enough reasons to behave like the Biblical Jeremiah at this moment. These troubled times have compelled me to retreat into my spiritual past to seek probable reasons and possible answers to the current despair that has forebodingly engulfed us all. The world seems to be in turmoil. Even if we are yet to witness a Third World War, the world seems to be at war with itself. There’s hardly any continent totally immune from tragedies of monumental proportions. Unnecessary and preventable deaths are rife. There is nothing like taking the old and sparing the young. There are natural disasters. Famine and flooding are raging and reigning side by side. It has become too tempting to imagine and believe the world is about to come to an end, sooner rather than later.
It would be foolhardy of anyone to imagine that any part of the world is safe. There are strange things happening. Even the face of news has changed. Nothing is too vulgar to be discussed or published. Nations are getting engaged in matters that should not concern them. I used to think sexual preference was a totally personal and voluntary act. Not anymore. Heterosexuals and homosexuals are at daggers drawn. The latter have been invigorated by world leaders helping to fight for their freedom of association. I would have simply expected the matters to be handled by the courts and allow it to end there. But world leaders are now divided over satanic discussions. While the obscene debate continues, serious problems of State are inexorably ignored.
Even in Nigeria, we are spending more time arguing over child marriage and homosexuality as if we don’t have enough headaches already. Our students haven’t been to school in ages while graduates are roaming the streets in search of jobs that don’t appear to exist. In total submission to the spirit of survival, the disgruntled and disillusioned folks have turned around to become Masters of crime in a country without punishment. Nigeria has just been named the hub of scams and fraudsters in Africa. Whether we disagree or not, such is the perception of the world against us. There seems to be no light at the end of our tunnel. We have become a strange place inhabited by stranger people. I even saw an advert on television about a forthcoming “One Year of Transformation Prayers”, or something like that. My conclusion was simply that when a nation gets to this stage, the end must be close. The nature it would take is what we don’t know.
If you come from my kind of background, you’re likely to reason along with me invariably. I was privileged to have been born in the Church of the Lord, an Aladura denomination, in Obalufon, Ile-Ife, to a family of prayer warriors. My parents would later migrate to another Aladura Church, The Holy Church of Christ which was headed by the very spiritual Apostle of Christ, Baba Ayoola Akeju. My childhood days were thus steeped in some esoteric celestial fortification. We read the Bible and could recite its verses the way Muslims memorised and regurgitated the Koran. Knowing the Bible in toto was a matter of competition in the Sunday school and it came with a much coveted prize at that.
Life was different in those days. We prayed and worshipped at the slightest opportunity. We supplicated when we woke up, when we set forth in search of daily bread, before we ate, after we finished quaffing the meal (as gratitude for the provision), at the school assembly, during break time, at close of school, at dinner and before retiring to bed or mats, whichever was applicable or available. In most homes, it was impossible not to know God. There were criminals, no doubt, but they were few and far between. And we knew them within the community. Most of them were just rebellious and rascally. Civil servants and politicians lacked the audacity to pilfer wilfully or steal without limit.
Slowly but steadily, life changed, gradually and progressively. Missions became ambitions. The falcon stopped listening to the falconer. What used to be a game for the minority has since become the pastime of the majority. It has become a crime to be poor under our climate. It is a sin punishable by banishment and abandonment from family and friends. If you couldn’t beat them, you were left with no option than to join them. But something was bound to give ultimately. When the time came, we lost the essence of our beings. Our souls disappeared into rarefied air.
The journey has been long. And we’ve had to meander through the labyrinth of formal and informal education. As kids, we got enmeshed in all manner of contradictions. First was a clash of tradition against modernity. Both had a common enemy in Religion. The former was based on supposedly crude doctrines while the other was anchored on the fear of hellfire. The traditional religion united the community. The New Religions, Christianity and Islam were polarising. The conflict was amplified because of the syncretic disposition of Africans. Our people were no risk-takers and preferred to try all religions and combined whatever concoctions accompanied them. Their reason was simple, even if selfish. No African was sure of which religion would lead him to heaven or any such places. He had to play safe by joining this and that. After all, many roads always lead to the market place.
The confusion came in school as we read more books and literature in particular. A taste of Philosophy and Logic would complete my slide into sporadic cynicism and eventual obfuscation. I was a greedy and voracious reader. I had read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations. And I was fastidious about my Faith. I went to a Catholic school, St. John’s Grammar School, in Oke-Atan Ile-Ife, where the fear of our Principal, Reverend Father F. Cloutier, a French Canadian, was the beginning of wisdom. His word was Law, and no soul was allowed to flout the school rules. I enjoyed the school Mass and all those songs interspersed with Latinisms. I still hum Ave Maria till this day. I was green with envy each time Catholic students and teachers received the Communion, which we were persuaded to believe to be the body and blood of Jesus. I often wondered why the privilege could not be extended to all of us, after all the owner of the body and blood never discriminated against anyone. That was the height of my wild phantasmagoria.
All that soon gave way to a new experience. We got introduced to African Writers’ Series, published in those good old days by Heinemann Books. Ile-Ife at that period paraded some of the best bookshops in Western Nigeria and this fed our appetite for literary gluttony. It should not be surprising that the ancient city produced some Deles of journalism, Dele Giwa, Dele Olojede, Dele Agekameh and yours truly.
I was endlessly fascinated that the African man was able to write better English than the original owners of the language. Most people used to think English literature was personified by William Shakespeare, Chaucer, William Butler Yeats, John Keats, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, and others. But Olaudah Equiano, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Elechi Amadi, Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, Mabel Segun, Flora Nwapa, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Zulu Sofola, T. M Aluko, Chukwuemeka Ike, Amos Tutuola, Buchi Emecheta, John Munonye, Kole Omotoso, Niyi, Abubakar Gimba, Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Zaynab Alkali, and many others changed that assumption.
Then we crossed the boundaries of Nigeria to other climes and encountered George Awoonor-Williams (who later changed his name to Kofi-Awoonor), Ayi Kwei Armah (author of the stupendously famous The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born), James Ngugi (who also changed his name and is now called Ngugi wa Thiong’o), Nawal El Saadawi (the Egyptian feminist writer), Mariama Ba (Senegalese author and feminist), Nuruddin Farah (the Somali novelist), David Diop and Birago Diop (both Senegalese poets), Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize winner in literature from Egypt), Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono, and Mbella Sonne Dipoko (all three from Cameroon), Okot p’Bitek (the great Ugandan poet and my former teacher at the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University), David Rubadiri (the charming Malawian poet who was also my teacher at Ife), Akinwunmi Isola (my teacher, mentor and supervisor at Ife), Alex La Guma (South African novelist; I enjoyed A Walk in the Night), Leopold Sedar Senghor (1st President of Senegal, a poet of distinction and leading member of the Negritude movement) and many other great African writers. They provided great reads and perpetual inspiration.
A few writers affected and influenced me so much. In Philosophy, my all-time idol was Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician, logician, historian, social critic and literary giant who despite being a scientist was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature, in celebration of his multi-dimensional writings. His highly controversial work on religion, Why I am Not A Christian, combined with Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason nearly conspired to turn me into an atheist. As if that was not enough, the works of Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi and Awoonor convinced me Africa had its own variant of civilisation before the coming of the Whiteman. Ngugi and Awoonor were not just talkers, they were doers. Both went ahead to reject foreign names and embraced the Gikuyu and Ewe names respectively.
Ngugi even went a step further. He stopped writing in English and opted to write only in the Gikuyu language of Kenya, leaving the choice to whosoever desired to translate his writings into world languages. It was a decision that rocked and shocked the literary world. Many of his global fans were livid and seething with voluble anger. Kofi Awoonor, on the other side of West Africa, faced his own ordeal in Ghana. He was labelled an Ewe irredentist who saw nothing good in other tribes. His predicament was further compounded by his foray into politics. He was even imprisoned for possibly aiding and abetting a military officer. He was a Jerry Rawlings supporter and represented Ghana as a Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Not very long ago, he was Chairman, Ghana’s Council of State, but carried on with his academic life.
Let me now come to the climax of my sermon. I’m astonished that Kofi Awoonor, an icon of African literature, travelled last week to Ngugi’s Kenya to participate in a literary festival but he never returned to his country alive. He was hacked down in a haze of bullets by terrorists who stormed the Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, while he was visiting with his last son, Afetsi, who managed to escape with bullet wounds.
At 78, Professor Awoonor was full of life. The last time I saw him two years ago, he was very handsome, agile and spritely. He was happy to meet a Presidential candidate who was a great lover of literature. I had read his most celebrated work, This Earth, My Brother, several times over. Little did I realise his mission on earth would end so abruptly.
In the next few days, he would be cremated, at his request, and have the ashes sprinkled, perhaps over his Eweland. As if waiting for death, he had meticulously prepared his own funeral to the minute details.
An elephant has fallen and all Africa can do is to mourn. The King has gone on a journey into eternity. Even the oracle must die and leave behind his bags of divination. That is the fate of Kofi Awoonor.
Life is indeed an irony and a jigsaw.