Friday, September 26, 2014

Hotuba ya Prof. Wole Soyinka katika kikao cha Storymoja Festival, mwaka wa 2014



Prof. Wole Soyinka's Lecture at Storymoja Festival 2014

PARABLES FROM WANGARI MAATHAI’S TREES.

Nairobi, Kenya

Trees bring out the whimsical in a variety of human sensibilities. Also the lyrical, the rapturous, or the simply reassuring, as in family belonging. Lately however, that is, in the past decade or two, trees have attained apocalyptic dimensions – sitting in judgment over humanity – will the proceeding end in a reprieve, or a death sentence on the planet itself? No wonder I have also been lately struck by the fact that, even without their newly conferred powers, trees have played an intimate, even dynamic role in the evolution of human culture – and history – especially on this continent. To go all the way back to beginnings, it would not be out of place to speculate that it was under one such an accommodating canopy of boughs that our great forebears  underwent the earliest formulation of community. That seems quite plausible, even inevitable, since trees offer not only land bearings, but shelter against the sun. This primordial subconscious, I propose, is why we are hardly ever content to let a tree be - a tree - just a tree in itself and for itself, a replete presence in its own right. Apart from obvious utilitarian ends that the tree offers  - shade, protection, food, material convertibility etc etc., we even impose on it the burden of reference points, metaphors, ethical abstractions and injunctions in forms of proverbs, analogies, celebrate the tree in reams and reams of poetry, entrenching it in social consciousness through the painterly arts and numerous other forms of cooption to the ends of aesthetics and iconography.   Following on the heels of painters, trees remain irresistible to possessors of the latest, state-of-the-art gadgetry – everyone seems to possess one these days, even if it is no more than an i-phone - those ubiquitous objects that make every individual an instant photographer, with or without a sense of arrangement, texture, light or occasion, conferring only the right to intrude. Unlike humans however, trees do not appear to mind – you can click away a thousand times on your i-camera and they won’t complain. The more discerning wielders of those gadgets however, are so struck by such a singular, often dominating phenomenon known as a tree that they seek out the dramatic angles, search out the best position for capturing and preserving, not just the physical attributes of a tree, but its elusive, ephemeral disposition – some indefinable essence that quarries into hidden depths of the human psyche. Permit me to indulge in the unique facets of the tree for a few more moments.

One would concede that mountains and other picturesque vistas – gorges, waterfalls, rivers, sunsets etc – exercise equal, and even often more spectacular powers of seduction, but among the special claims of a tree is that it seems more companionable, more snugly fitted into the human sense of proportion and dimensions. That is a subjective claim of course but I think it is sustainable.  Of the myriad Nature self-expressions, the tree possesses, in my estimation, just the appropriate size, so that one can actually think of physically embracing, or reproducing trees. And we do. It is within human scope. You feel you can put your arms around it, around any tree, however huge. I cannot imagine anyone who would think of embracing the Kilimanjaro mountain, or attempting to recreate one from Ground Zero.  Or transplanting Victoria Falls to Abeokuta where I live. By contrast you can actually reproduce an Australian fir tree in Nairobi - well, at least provoke Nature into collaborating with you in the effort. The art of the bonsai, for instance, cannot be transferred to any other feature of Nature – just try reproducing the Jos plateau or the famous Lebanese grottos in your garden or in a pot on your window sill – the absurdity of it hits you right away. A tree on the other hand – simply Google for the nearest a Japanese bonsai artiste.

Film directors cannot resist them – and not just in westerns where they come useful when the battling cowboys need to duck behind a cover and re-load their six-shooters.  The insatiable cineaste will milk trees endlessly for effects – recall how many shots of leave-taking at sunset you have seen as the camera turns boughs - leafy or dessicated - into refraction devices for one last, lingering wistful statement on all that has gone before. The camera is never satisfied simply to daub the screen in seductive tonalities, no, it will point its lens at an intermediary tree through whose branches the sunset is filtered, squeezing out the last emotional drop until not a dry eye is left in the theatre. And so on and on.

There is of course the reverse side – several, in fact. For instance, I sometimes wonder whether trees should not be held responsible for capital punishment – if they were not around, perhaps no one would have conceived of hanging as a way to place human beings permanently out of circulation.  No, on second thoughts, I am certain we would still have found other ways of desecrating Nature  – thrown our problematic members over cliffs perhaps, or tied stones around their necks and drowned them etc. etc. – except of course if they happen to be women – then we would simply bury them up to their necks in earth, and stone them to death, for the earth shaking crime of begetting a child out of wedlock. Or even for more heinous crimes – such as showing an inch of flesh in public.

We shall return to that theme in a moment. For now, let’s steer away from negative distractions and place our accents on the productive. I hinted earlier at that positive, indeed creative tendency of humanity towards drawing out ethical pointers or exhortations from Nature, and here is one, tailor-made for what became Wangari’s life mission:  “A tree does not make a forest.” Depending on whoever is speaking, to whom, and the occasion, that could mean a dismissive, put-down commentary, such as - don’t think one solitary achievement makes you anything special. Or, let us say a cabinet minister comes to declare open a village clinic and goes on and one about it, you might indeed shut him up with - Mr. Minister, one tree does not make a forest, meaning of course one clinic does not amount to a national health service. Such an admonition from Wangari Maathai would of course be a distinct call to action, to be taken literally:  get on your hands and knees and - plant some more trees! We need reforestation.

I had to get that message in somewhere before getting carried away by my incursion into histories and even lessons from both the obvious and not so apparent lives of trees, since I must confess to being an unrepentant, even mildly obsessed tree advocate from childhood. And let me state that my affair with trees began long before I encountered the devotional verses of Joyce Kilmer, rendered in that unique subterranean rumble of a voice by Paul Robeson – I think that I shall never see/A Poem lovely as a tree.  Somewhat sentimental, even treacly admittedly – I have come across some irresistible parodies of that poem - but I doubt if there exists a child who hasn’t been drawn to, and drawn a tree. Trees define the earth in the mind of most children all the way from infancy. It is only afterwards that the tree loses its innocence, diversifies, becomes so many things to many people. At the beginning, it simply spells, unambiguously  – Nature.          

Land speculators – even when disguised as government - are of course a breed apart.  When they see a tree, they see an obstacle – to be eliminated by the most efficient agency – the bulldozer. On the other side of the divide are the fanatics who  have to be restrained  as they watch the bulldozer ripping through a green belt without a thought for the void that is brutally opened up in a landscape that has become an integral part of what we are – or, if you prefer – a landscape of which we have become an integral part, through which we sense ourselves as breathing objects and thus, a meaningful part of a humbling network of Nature actualities. This claim is made without prejudice to negative evocations for others with painful histories, histories that some of us also share vicariously. The plantation slave, for instance, is part of the total canvas of American history – we cannot escape these gloomy recalls, which is just as well, since they have not completely vanished from our midst, even in our so-called era of renewed enlightenment. For the slave descendant in the so-called New World for instance, the tree, any tree, was a brooding, menacing presence. In the head of a black descendant, even today, Paul Robeson’s song of praise would ring in antithetical cadences to Billie Holliday’s  eerie blues - “Strange Fruit”.

 Even in this post-slavery era, a visitor to the United States, with an average capacity for empathy, on encountering the overpowering fragrance from a tree for the first time, and learning that the source is none other than a magnolia tree, may actually undergo an involuntary shudder, since the ‘strange fruit’ of Billie Holliday’s dirge refers to the putrifying body of a lynched slave – sometimes several.  It does not require much exercise of the imagination to project the interior lives of the African slaves themselves, unable to escape that symbol of arbitrary terror and dehumanization. The luxury of internalizing and celebrating relationships with trees is therefore not quite as universal as one would wish, even among poets, artists and mythologists.  History and memory remain primary tributaries of art and its symbols – again painfully demonstrated in Toni Morsion’s Beloved, where the weals on the back of her protagonist have taken on a life of their own and formed a pattern permanently embossed on her back in the form of a tree. I am carrying a tree on my back says the main character, Sethe. That is, I carry a permanent reminder of my status as a being born without a voice, without volition. It is a disfigurement, not merely of the body but of the spirit, one that reminds us of what it is like to be born into that sole destiny – no different from a tree, open to being scarred, abused, amputated and cut down at will, just one among other owned utilities. 

Toni Morrison, and Wangari, both of the female gender, are products of far more enlightened times. They could order and re-order their lives. They could and did enrich the lives of others. Both transcended their antecedents – colonialism and slavery being siblings of the same human disorder, not forgetting that additional gender disdain that still does not quite know itself as part of the family of misbegotten human relationsips. Even those who considered Wangari’s commitment as eccentric at best, or  obstructionist and subversive at worst, acknowledge the utilitarian value of the very cause against which they ranged their priorities – they simply would have preferred that she went and planted her trees elsewhere. Those who, even today, still fail to appreciate the larger context of her work must be totally immune to the world of anxieties, having unbelievably missed out on expressions of concern such as climate change, ecological degradation, holes in ozone layers, global warming, melting of the ice cap etc. etc. - all now household expressions. But does one even need such incantations to remain mindful of the communal role of the tree in mundane existence? We take it for granted.  The virtues of that sturdy unit of Life extend in multiple, infinite directions, deeply and extensively, so that when some of us conceive Nature, we apprehend her effortlessly, as a rich, ordered medley of growth that reaches into infinity, a medley into which we immerse ourselves for sustenance, and for healing, as a canopy of serenity that restores us after the depredations of modernity on our frenetic existence. The tree still stands as a primordial presence, but now it has also become an eloquent critique of ill-conceived and often, ill-fated social engineering experiments that involve human uprooting, are based on the text-books of ideologues who fail to relate social theories to the precipitates of accumulated history, human psychology, a reality so simply but profoundly captured in Jeremy Cronym’s lines to which I often make recourse, even to the point of seeming addiction:

                      To live close to every tree you had ever planted
                        Our century has been the great destructor of that,
                        The small and continuous community, lived in solidarity
                        With seasons, its life eked out around
                        Your fore-mothers’ and -fathers’ burial-ground
           
            ‘Our century’? Jeremy Croynm wrote those lines in the last, so he was referring to that century, not the present.  If he and similar poetic alarmists scattered round the globe had been heeded, Wangari may have been spared to expend her energies on other concerns. She would not have needed to abandon classroom and begin re-planting trees that should not have been cut down in the first place.  Not that she minded – that is, minded such ‘lowly’ chores. On the contrary, Wangari declared:

Although I was a highly educated woman, it did not seem odd to me to work with my hands, often with my knees on the ground, alongside rural woman. Some politicians and others in the 1980s and 1990s ridiculed me for doing so. But I had no problem with it, and the rural women both accepted and appreciated that I was working with them to improve their lives and the environment. After all, I was a child of the same soil. Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from land, but instill in them even more, respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and we should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don't need a diploma to plant a tree

Perhaps the most easily apprehended distillation of the affinities we bear to trees – as poet, teacher, activist and so on, or just plain citizen -  is that, even when ignored, taken for granted, even neglected, trees transform the environment, just like humanity. They metamorphose. Like humanity, they pass through transformative stages – from seed where they may be tended in a nursery – the very expression we apply to infants - to the young shoot, to shrub and eventually to the majestic entity that creates its own aura – alone or with others. Both can enhance, degrade or dominate the environment. Trees carry their own diseases and can infect other trees, just as – as we have reminded ourselves from history - they can enhance or degrade both environment and humanity. We could claim that both are socialized phenomena, not inert, not passive. On the contrary, both are productive and dynamic. Humans have even appropriated the very image of a tree to encapsulate their family line – known as the family tree – a narrative of the surviving, the missing and the deceased.  And finally, most poignantly when a death is considered untimely – through diseases, violence or accident - untimely that is, in human expectations, we then resort to the same common expression – felled. Yes indeed, both organisms age, both submit to stronger forces from nature – storms, floods and subsidence – but, at other times they are  simply – felled. Like Kofi Awoonor.  A poem lovely as a tree, intoned Paul Robeson. And that was indeed what was most often voiced   about Kofi both individually, and by those who gathered to mourn his demise:
                   
     “A mighty tree has fallen”

A great tree has been felled. A great and lovely tree that yielded a constant harvest of poems to engage the minds of the world. That is, the world of the mind, of freedom of the  imagination. Poems which, however, cannot be felled, that continue to echo in the vaults of the mind.

And so we should not remain too long within the chamber of loss since, in celebrating the tree, we celebrate the man, and in the way a Community reads in its favourite tree the scroll of a collective self-affirmation that reaches beyond the physical, a repository of the Community’s vital essence, embodying and reflecting its fortunes, its soul and history. You need only see how a town or village responds when a revered tree is felled – here, if only to interject a milder tone, is one episode from my part of the world, straight out of the colonial narrative, in the year just after I left secondary school.

With that habitual insouciance that comes with a contract to build a fly-over, a bridge or a factory, this British construction firm moved into an alien environment and began to level everything within sight. Alas – in this instance, the company failed to reckon with one nondescript tree with gnarled roots and branches, an overgrown head in dire need of the services of a cosmic hairdresser.  Never mind that, to all appearances, the tree appeared to exist solely for its generous shade and a permissive base that served as a makeshift market, the Britishers soon learnt that even if, where they came from, a rose is a rose is a rose by any other name, in some parts of their possessions, a tree is a tree is a spirit is ancestor is guardian is a deity is shrine etc. etc. Touch a hair of its head and  - well, why don’t I simply read you an extract from the archives on that incident – the felling of the tree of Emotan:

In 1951, the British colonial administration officials injected the tree with poisonous chemicals and uprooted it. This action almost led to a violent mass reaction. After which the {37th} Oba Akenzua II  (of Benin) -1933-1978 - vehemently protested the destruction of the Emotan shrine. This  tree had been there since the 15th century. Consequently, the colonialists acceded to the request for a replacement. A life-size statue was cast by Mr. J.A.Danfor in London from a clay marquette modeled by Enomayo, professional brass caster from the Igun-Eronmwon.
The new Emotan statue was unveiled amidst pomp and pageantry by the Oba Benin, Akenzua ll on March 20, 1954.

Mind you, opportunism is never fully absent in such matters. Indeed, such outrages have proved powerful tools for political re-positioning  - in this case, holding the colonial powers to ransom and extracting some concessions from them.  Why not? Wangari Maathai would have cheered, identified fully with what we might call – the Spirit of Emotan.  She was one of that breed who transcend the sturdiest of trees because they gave birth to them, and thereby to a movement, and far beyond mere sentiment or totemic impulses.  Maathai planted trees, yes, but trees were not simply environmental ornaments or historic bookmarks for her, or a defence of eco-diversity as a faddish undertaking.  The tree meant – livelihood. Sustainable and self-renewing source for the reproduction of human existence – most especially for women, a tool in their empowerment.  In short, economic asset of a hard-nosed, quantifiable kind, one that could be measured in material returns. For her, there was no self-indulgent separation between ethics and aesthetics.

Let us not de-emphasize this – indeed, for a being of such a combative temperament it would be a crime to fail to admit that the tree also served her as a political tool, one that drove, and was driven by, her dedication to humanity, to equality of man and woman and the uplifting of the downtrodden – all were inextricably interwoven. Her humanity was wrapped up in the dignity of the humanized environment – a preoccupation that was holistic – no one should have been surprised that her career and political trajectory ran parallel with that quest for a humanized existence that was not alienated from its living space. Harrassed, hounded, subjected to sexist abuses even from high places – President Arap Moi personally had some choice, unpresidential expressions for her -  she chose to plant her trees at the feet of the very  thugs who had been sent to intimidate her, enduring humiliation and physical injury in the process. However, Wangari was not one weak sapling that could be wilted by all the poisonous chemicals of sectarian politics or indeed the storms of crude power that uprooted others. She was one sturdy tree that spread her seedlings far and wide, transforming, revitalizing –  and not from the detached rostrum of her classrooms and international podia but, right among the people, on her knees,  with her hands deep in earth and dirt.  Until, like an Emotan matriarch, Queen mother of the kingdom of trees, she succumbed – but to an internal frailty. 

Unlike trees however, the felling of the human is only a trick of absence that leaves no void. Tree or poem, the product of mind and will remains.  That is a message we have to pass on to the gloating psychopaths bestriding our earth, yes – This Earth, my Brother  – in Kofi’s salute to earth - no matter what axe they think they have to grind with the world before wielding the literal axe – or its even more deadlier modern versions - with reckless abandon, indiscriminately, and with fanatical zeal. Those killers are the bulldozers of our earlier identified land speculators. They bulldoze humanity in the name of an illusory land development – clearing the ground for a vaporous Paradise. What they are however, is no more than tawdry, material speculators in the stakes of salvation, their heads and minds swollen with the promise of sensual pleasures in the afterlife, for which the present is disposable. And that should raise the question: what becomes our duty whenever one or more of us are unjustly felled, since we, as community, also undergo a felling by attrition, through an arrogant exacerbation of those palpable and psychological blows that we daily endure, blows which then reach into the very basis of our collective being, a depletion of the aspirations that constitute one’s self, one’s own self-cognizing, one’s relevance to community, environment and humanity? What becomes our duty?

Let us mull over that question as we shift geography and, at the same time, restore the balance between the palpable and the symbolic – not that the two are trapped in a dichotomy - but first, come with me on a visit to yet another tree of history, a contemporary one, at once a symbol and a life-preserver. Permit me to turn your gaze backward a decade and a half to that iconic tree – for the African continent at least – an image provider that rounded up the twentieth century, was beamed round the world from a continent trapped in the yet unrelenting vice of brutalizing conflicts. Invited by a Dutch journal at the turn of the last century to nominate what, for me, would be the prime candidate for the defining image of the twentieth century, I unhesitatingly opted for that intensely narrative symbol of hope that was however a product of Nature’s malevolence. Perhaps you can already recall – once you focus on the fact that that it was indeed a tree!  For believers, it was the kind of image that would be designated a Divine Sign. Still, believers or not, we all converge on one destination – humanity. That image – let me relieve you of further uncertainty – that image was pressed upon the landscape when the banks of the Limpopo River burst in the year 2000, flooding vast areas of the African eastern seaboard. Mozambique took the brunt. Its capital, Maputo, was flooded, as were hundreds of hectares inland. Major road arteries were cut off, making relief inaccessible to many. Over a thousand human lives were lost, with thousands of heads of cattle and other livestock.  Schools were washed away, hospitals inundated, over a hundred thousand households wiped off the land. Those are no mean statistics! It was a flood of epic, biblical proportions, reputed to be the worst flooding ever experienced in Mozambique for over fifty years – of which over three decades had been spent on warfare!

It was within that flood – most of you will recall - that a woman was marooned up a tree, surrounded by nothing but water. She gave birth in that tree. That iridescent image was flashed around the world and overcame the viciousness of the cyclone and the destruction it wreaked. It also overwhelmed a destructive past.  I found it an image that asserted, in the very circumstances of its emergence, an unassailable right of being and compassion ranged against all other images of denial that compete for place on the continent. It administered, it struck me at the time, a transcendental rebuke on that infant’s adult progenitors who, like others after independence, had chosen to inaugurate an even more intense, more brutal civil war for sixteen years, following ten years of armed struggle for the liberation of that now inundated land. That second war had ended barely two years before, and thus the Nature affliction found a united people, enabling them to cope, in a manner that would have been considered hitherto unimaginable, with a catastrophe of such proportions. That deluge may not have produced a Noah's Ark, but it did materialize a helicopter out of the skies, a helicopter from a historic adversary, apartheid South Africa – but this time, it was not on a bombing raid.

Yes, an inundation from horizon to horizon. A solitary tree.  A woman and her new-born infant. A deus ex machina - but unmistakably of human counsel and ingenuity - rappelling down from whirring blades to the rescue of the hapless pair.  Yes, that was inevitably my chosen image of the twentieth century, and  as yet unsuperceded, a symbolic harbinger of the yet elusive people’s resurgence, the much awaited restoration of an African Humanism.

Now come with me to Northern Nigeria, to the land of Boko Haram. Not the most comforting of exercises but, have we any choice? I invite us to picture the Lake Chad overflowing and inundating Borno State, or a sector of the River Benue overflowing its banks and cutting a destructive swathe through the states of Taraba or Adamawa. I want us to picture a woman stranded in the branches of a baobab tree, that champion for longevity in the arboreal kingdom. The Chad waters rise, and swirl around Borno, moving towards Maiduguri. Now picture a band of the new would-be liberators and purifiers of the African soul passing by, and encountering  this despised object – a female - clinging to life, and a baby clinging to her in her near nudity. Well then, what do you imagine would take place?

First of all, you should be aware that she has been guilty of haram  - the forbidden – her exceptional circumstances notwithstanding, her religious affirmation irrelevant. Not merely unveiled in public domain, but rendered virtually naked into the bargain. She has transgressed the commandment of Allah – as transmitted by the prelates of Boko Haram - that is the sum and interpretation of an image of which, for the rest of us, would constitute Allah’s gift of compassion, a transfiguration. Now, let us conjecture the nature of their response, for which we can only go by the examples and pronouncements provided us by these self appointed spokesmen of God. So, how would they react?
            
No doubt whatsoever in my mind, but that a roving band would instantly riddle her with bullets for polluting the sight of God. Or perhaps they would gleefully settle down to some entertainment, some stoning exercise to see whose missile would bring down the rotten fruit. If a choice was made to rescue her, it would only be to conscript her into service as a sex object, or else turn her into a walking bomb to purify her sin-saturated existence in a Maiduguri market, taking with her fellow sinners whose sole crime is to eke out a bare living from the products of their hands. Nothing strange about this in the history of soldiery, but others do not cite their scriptures as divine authority for such secular depravity.

For those who consider my projected scenario an exaggeration, a writer’s resort to poetic licence, I invite you to browse through the abundance of narratives from Algeria’s own history of trauma, one from which that nation is yet to fully emerge.  The account of this – among a hundred allied episodes – is amply detailed in one of the most recent of the courageous narratives of those years - it bears the unambiguously defiant title: Your Fatwa does not Apply here, its author - Karima Benoune, a woman professor now teaching in the United States. This specific event took place in – of course - a girls’ school,  overseen by the Virtue Vigilantes – or equivalent – who kept watch outside the school gates.  Now, the pupils would not dare leave their homes for that barely conceded learning institution without their hijab. Once within the school confines however, they could take them off, which they routinely did. On this day, the school caught fire, which spread rapidly. With smoke billowing everywhere, the girls made the instinctive rush for the exit, hijabs forgotten.  Not by the Virtue Vigilantes however.             They pushed the girls back into the building and, as the pressure increased from the inside, latched that sole exit against them.  Several perished in the inferno. These, and like records, are in the public domain. Well then, what do you think would have happened to that naked woman so sinfully isolated in the tree against the skyline of Maiduguri?

My dear colleagues, friends, fellow earth inhabitants, it is time we stopped beating around the bush, or debase language into a mere palliative, least of all by those of us who live without direct daily contact with the effects of this human aberation, what I have tried to bring starkly to your consciousness in its total, inhuman and dehumanizing horror – that episode in Algeria - summarizes the moral delirium in which Boko Haram exists, not merely declared in barely translatable rant, but fleshed out in the act, daily, hourly at the cost of thousands of lives,  and not only for Nigeria but as the agenda for the vastness of this African continent. This is the meaning of Chibok, and the Sambisa forest where over two hundred school girls are still held prisoners and slaves. It is the meaning of al Shabbab and its godfathers like al Queda. It is the meaning of the death of Kofi Awoonor far from his home in the distant mall of Nairobi. It is the meaning of cold deaths in London underground, the meaning of the shredding of human bodies in the Central Railway station of Madrid – same as for the Nyanya motor park in Abuja, Nigeria, in which same city the conferred immunity of the United Nations Headquarters was violated. It is the recurrent language of human putrefaction that is being forced down the throat of humanity by something that calls itself ISIS or ISIL. It is the language of the fate of the minority Yazidi, an ancient people of Iraq, and of the people of Bama in the land of Boko Haram, their men methodically slaughtered, virtually to a man, their women preserved only to bury the dead, serve as drawers of water and sex chattels.

Let us not be complacent, and let us not be foolish. Let writers and all who still boast a function of the mind understand that the occasional would-be shoe bomber is not an aberration that is soon contained, nor imagine that the most sophisticated policing and detection gadgetry emplaced by their governments will be effective substitute for that internal purge and massive re-orientation – on a universal level - that is now mandatory for the enthronement of free beings in the free world. One pin-prick alone, then another, then another soon expands into a quilt-work of mental occupation by alien forces through methodical indoctrination and/or forceful conversion, building up to the  massive subjugation of the human will through the agency of terror.  Fear destabilizes society and debilitates its collective will. It is time that the words complacency and  rationalization should be expunged from the dictionaries of all languages.

Do I address governments here? Regional alliances? The framers and executors of national and international policies?  Am I addressing our familiar enemies, unrepentant inheritors and would-be perpetuators of the imperial mandate, east or west of the vanishing ideological divide? No, not at all. We know them. The people of this continent have fought them internally and externally. We have liberated ourselves from them – incompletely obviously, but in a process that is irreversible, otherwise the greater shame on us. Since the so-called independence of African nations, we have continued to fight their internal surrogates, the petty dictators and butchers of their own kind, and if they think to profit by a situation of global apprehension and shotgun alliances for self-preservation, then we must also do battle with their treachery.

I am however addressing none of these, at least not primarily. Today I address my fellow crafters of images by which we render the world of reality tolerable, even dignifying, as well as allied members of my creative tribe, and today, very specifically, I call on the moslem writers among us – I speak to the of the testifying breed – heirs to the legacy of Tayeb Salih, Ousmane Sembene,  Amina Sall, Tahar Djaout, Naguib Mafouz, Mariama Ba and others : you cannot afford to tire, or fail to raise your voices unambiguously,  in commitment to the purification of what is being mangled and distorted in your Scriptures, restoring it to a healing, from a killing book. I address my colleagues of the intelligentsia some of whom, for decades now, often responded to our raised warning voices with emotive religious demagoguery. On behalf of the creative mission which is life, we must continue to assail the attempted impositions of retrogressive world-views that impinge upon, and seek to curtail even the choices of outsiders to that faith. “You cannot condemn this or that act since you are not one of our faith. You cannot even comment. You cannot fault our position in this or that, otherwise it means that you disrespect, or even insult our religion.” That era of religious blackmail is over, of exclusionist tactics in order to lay claim to immunity.  It never existed. It was always a delusion. Just when did one cease to be a member of the human community? And a writer at that.  Some, even where we invoke history, our history as recorded and as verifiable within living memory, have accused us of conspiring to re-enslave our own people in the interest of an East-West contest for the recovery of old grounds. So easy it is to wallow in historic elision, where one wears an eternal eye-patch and refuses to see what is not immediately in the line of vision. This has been largely the regard of African immediate post-colonial history where colonization has been presented for viewing only as a uni-directional phenomenon. That is a fallacy, and the chickens of that elision have come home to roost.

Today, we must understand that there is no covering fire for murder, for humiliation, for deprivation of volition and dignity. If we say, it is degrading to compel a woman to sheathe herself from head to toe, leaving only slits for the eyes, as long as we do not pounce on her and  yank the tent off her body, do not insult our viewpoint and deny our realities by attributing such sentiment to foreign teaching – first obtain a truthful picture of our pre-colonial, pre-christian, pre-existent actualities, especially as reflected in the contemporaneous arts and literatures of that era. If we claim that it is cruel and repugnant to bury our mothers, our sisters, our daughters up to the neck for some infraction and stone them to death, we are merely declaring that we have stayed faithful to the humanity of our traditions, for whom humanity remains indivisible, and that we feel for woman or man, just as we feel for ourselves, for our own bodies, for our own realities and aspirations. And if you insist that, for such articles of faith, we deserve to be blown up and our children have their throats slit, then we, on our part, must come together and take needed measures to defend our own right of belief and right to exist – by whatever means. Before Islam, christianity existed, and before christianity, the spirituality of the orisa  of the Yoruba, and even before the orisa, how many shall we count in the search for the pathway to Ultimate Truth?

There is always an irreducible core of universalism wherever the human organism is placed at the centre of existence – which is where we choose to place it. Similarly, we have come to a pass where we insist that Reality must be founded on what is proven to be the undeniable animator of  humanity, its  existence and continuity, a common, palpable, ageless denominator of the very phenomenon of existence –the creative urge in humanity and its sustenance.  Just as a tree does not make a forest, so does one gender NOT make humanity. And when you compromise, when you pander to fragmentary notions like cultural relativism, you are merely opening wide the gates to your own destruction. You have taken the first step – however long it takes – towards yourselves of becoming relative and thus, expendable. This is when you wake up to discover that you have become first-line designated victims. The world salutes all those who, like Kofi Awoonor, did not betray their calling to accommodate evil under this latest guise of religious permissiveness and the spineless language of Political Correctness. They may be victims, but their spirit in the language of affirmation for humanistic values did not bow to the slavish wind of double-talk and glamorization of surrender.

Let me solemnly affirm that, bitter and lacerating as is that memory, it is not the murder of our colleague, the late Kofi Awoonor that has instigated these remarks. They are reminders – sadly – mere reminders of what has been said often, what has been warned  against  ad nauseum, but appear to vanish rapidly into the slip stream of memory, no sooner uttered. But History is the reality into which we were born, and that History has already fashioned its template, and there is no deviation between its oscillating axis of impulsion – Power at one end, Freedom on the other.  The spores of religious fundamentalism are everywhere, flying invisibly across nation boundaries, taking root silently, watered by past masters of extreme indoctrination, until blossoming time when, towering above complacent spires, steeples, cupolas and ivory towers and lately, even silencing and pulverizing minarets, they belch out their flowers of evil. And the process continues - those spores momentarily vanish into one obscure spot, only to erupt on the other side of the globe in sanguinary fountains – Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, al Queda, ISIS and all, generic mutants of one another, striving to outdo the last in degree of butchery, human degradation and insolence.          

But at least, I believe we can claim some measure of progress, moving towards  abandonment of the language and conduct of  “holier than thou”, the canonization of ego against  ‘the other’ as the fundamental basis of human and communal relationships, dooming that other, or conceding it to the disposal machine of the “holier”, and thus buying oneself a space of immunity. Sooner or later, along will come others of a far more viciously uncompromising tendency who burst upon your routine, your occupation, your domestic and/or professional complacency, who break through your protective carapace that is no carapace at all but a mere fragile, holding device. The newcomers conclude that you have deviated from the strict path of adhesion. They employ a narrower gauge of definition and an enhanced language of separatism that you had once administered to ‘others’ . They declare – “Holier? What is that? Purer, that’s what we are. We are purer than you.” Thereafter, you join the ranks of  theunclean. Of those who blaspheme by their very existence, even by silence. You are herded together and labeled: for arbitrary disposal.

Do not be deceived however, they who preach that their gazes are solely fixated on the hereafter, that this present world holds no attraction for them – they are liars! It is the present that actually holds them in thrall. The domination of that coveted space, that humanity in the here and now – otherwise why do they bother to enslave, to kill, to destroy? Why not the option of detachment, the silent abandonment of the “impure” to their ways till Judgment Day in the hereafter?  As writers, we must debunk these pretentions. We must tell them they lie in their teeth, that the dominion of their quest is not in the thereafter but in the power of domination in this most palpable present.

There is no in-between. The unstated religion that animates all truthful creators – human freedom – is indivisible. And perhaps it is about time that we adopted the language of those very enemies of humanity but, this time on behalf of humanity – fundamentalism. Yes, perhaps it is high time we declare ourselves fundamentalists of human liberty. Not libertinism but simply - liberty. Freedom. Either this is what we fought for on this continent – against foreign invaders, against enslavement, against imperialism – or else we have fooled ourselves. We have fought merely to hand over the millennial keys on our chains to a new set of imperators. In that case, it may be admissible to begin the rounds of history all over again, to accept that the first, second and subsequent cycles of enslavement have yet to run their course.

This is the reality of widening swathes of the Nigerian environment today. It is the predicted scenario that overtook Northern Mali whose initial insurgents, with genuine internal grievances, first committed a near fatal error: they made common cause with external religious predators and together easily overran the northern part of that nation, threatening the capital Timbuktoo. Those outside forces of religious imperialism, ousted from elsewhere  – Libya, Afghanistan, even Egypt – or simply seeking territorial expansion, responded greedily to the prospect of a prostrate nation ready for occupation and poured in from all corners. And what was their priority?  To turn Mali’s historic centres of culture and learning – and of Timbuktoo especially - into deserts of the mind.  They raced to turn its treasures, largely of islamic genius, into rubble and ashes, and its people into serfs. Yes, that especially, to weigh them down with the brutality of laws that had become their trademark everywhere, laws under which the human personality is degraded and the gift of freedom is nullified. The acts of these invaders often portray them as aliens from outer space, since they do not conform even to the minimal expectations of a humane regard for the autochthones whose land they have invaded. Alas, they are only too real, only they are mutants.  Mutants, yes, but programmed. They have become veterans in the automatism of terror, and they understand that suicidal mental cast of settled communities, that tendency to shrug off the distant flickers of flame with the words: “It can never happen here”. My dear friends, it can, and it has. It will again. The mission of enslavers is never ended.

 In seeking a clarity of direction, let us, whose race has only recently begun to emerge from centuries of disdain inflicted both within the continent and without, ask ourselves some questions, backed helpfully by projected images. Such as: those who gunned down Kofi Awoonor and - are they different from the plantation masters of the Americas? Are their ideologues separate as a breed from the Ku Klux Klan of the United States of America? Are they different from the slave merchants of Aleppo, Cairo, Marakesh, whose pre-european enterprise littered the Sahara with the bones of our ancestors?  Are they different from the torturers, gaolers, murderers of Apartheid South Africa?  That Limpopo tree – attempt its transformation in your mind in a different historic role and geography: a runaway slave ‘treed’, as the expression goes, by bloodhounds, clinging to its top branches for safety. The slave hunters know it is only a matter of  time before exhaustion sends him plummeting down into the slavering jaws of the animals. Their owners love the sport.

When is tyranny? What colour does it wear? What race does it claim? The answer is: None, and All. Is there ever a graceful way of succumbing? When those tree images are faithfully superimposed, the African continent will be left with only the irreducible in the choices that guide her destiny – not as theory, but as pragmatic indications to what our present times demand. Where lies the difference between those ancient slave camps and that camp currently retaining our children in the midst of a sparsely forested enclave called Sambisa, right in the heart of a once thriving state – Borno, in Northern Nigeria?  Are we not also held slaves in that enclave? The rest is superfluous -  images of shredded humanity in teeming motor parks, markets and motor garages in the heart of a nation.  But perhaps we are the kind who are easily lost in numbers, overwhelmed by the daily accumulation of statistics, needing the aid of one immediately recognizable, non-anonymous statistic in the midst of mass carnage, yet representative of a general, but intimate humanity. For all such, there was a poet and citizen known among us whose name is Kofi Awoonor, a tree that was felled in the glass and metal jungle of Nairobi.

It is true, a tree does not make a forest. There is however, one tree that is common to every forest, visible to some, invisible to others, visible in some seasons, shrouded in others, but a presence, a landmark, a beacon always and a destination for all beings of dignity and volition. It is a tree for all seasons, visible or invisible. Rare is that school pupil who never read of it in history classes or never heard it invoked during seasons of political turmoil, always in the context of a famous saying which is just as often misquoted. The beginning however survives all distortions, the part that reads “The tree of Liberty….” That  invocation remains constant, and no wonder - it is the very heart of human history. Regarding the rest, you know what kind of potion – it warns – with which that tree has been watered throughout human existence.

Writers do not preach violence. There is always the exception or two but, writers consider violence the last recourse of failed humanity. Writers however – and again conceding a meager handful of exceptions – writers understand that the Tree of Liberty provides the roof under which we shelter – just like our progenitors - in the forest of creativity. We have a profound call to arrest and neutralize any hand that is raised to cut it down, no matter what label is embossed on the rampaging axe – that of secular ideology, or of religion. We must protect that tree, or we cease to be what we claim to be. We must rally behind its banner – since it is the home of our universal Muse. We must adopt whatever needful means and strategy to protect it, since it is the sturdy growth from the bodies of our own martyrs, our mission, our very reason for existing. We must fashion and re-fashion the weapons of resistance, but also break through the repetitive, sterile cycle of aggression and self-defence.  The Muse of Creativity remains our common deity. It is time we took the battle to the infidels.
 
WOLE SOYINKA