LITERATURE, LIFE, and ‘African Magic’
Most of us here will find it quite unremarkable to find ‘life’ in tandem with ‘literature’. Imagination may thereafter begin to wander uncontrolled at the intrusion of ‘African Magic’ into the trilogy. For one thing, it nibbles at edges of thoughts of resurrection, sets up a potential arena for theological competition. In other words, it offers a reading that, among other potencies of African magic, there is the power to ensure that life continues after death etc. etc. That line of optimism would be encouraged, I concede, by the existence and content of a round-the-clock and year round television channel that produces such marvels of the supernatural derring-dos. These videos are beamed round the world from a South African station. For the rare member of this gathering who has remained immune to this viewing menu, we are speaking of mysterious deaths and resurrections, emanatons through walls, through trees and other solids, witches, ghosts, zombies, ritual sacrifice, levitation, voodoo, hypnotism, lechery, incest, vaporization etc etc.
But, let us pause a while. Are those episodes really improbable? Or are we confronted with a creative reflection on reality? And what role does literature play – or has played – in the promotion and career of such real-life expressions of the improbable? Was it perhaps the sheer bombardment of the unreal, the improbable on real life that gave birth to African Magic in the first place, a series that is now daily fodder for the average African viewer, with a growing audience of external watchers, all nourished by a seemingly inexhaustible supply line of videos to which one nation, a pioneer in many lines of dubious productivity, has given its name?
Well then, what was it that lit up even such productivity in the first place? Could it have been real life after all? One picks up a newspaper any day and – you think you have seen it all but – hey presto, ten, twelve billion US dollars from petroleum revenue – experts argue that the real figure is twenty plus – has vaporized in thin air, a climatic act to an endless string of vanishing acts of public funds! Not a scrap of paper trail to indicate where it was last registered. This is not all. The very next day, improbabilities on improbabilities, nearly all the national media crow over claims that the Nigerian economy has overtaken South Africa’s to become the largest black economy in the world! And guess what? Not on account of petroleum and its products. Not on account of commercial agriculture but – yes - on account of that same South African export, only named for its originating nation – Nollywood!
You may have observed – or maybe not - that I had to take a deep breath before I uttered that word – No-lly-wood! That I did get it out however, and without a fit of coughing, affirms the conditioning power of economics over aesthetics. It is not quite a year since I addressed African film makers in Ouagadougou. On that occasion, I still stuttered and tried all sorts of verbal dodges before I finally let out the expletive, then underwent therapeutic counseling afterwards. Mind you, I always take the trouble to explain whence came my aversion to the word. I have delivered more than one lecture based on euphony and socio-historic relevance in child-naming ceremonies, drawing on my culture – the Yoruba – to show why such dumb choices, soon aped by Ghallywood – Ghana’s entry calling card - should sound a strident alarm on the epidemic of banality in the naming ceremonies of putative ventures, especially in the entertainment industry. Regarding the early products of that genre, it must be stressed that there have been some qualitative advances since its horrifying beginnings. Even at those early stages however, I am glad to be able to claim that I did not reject the product outright, only critically, and this was thanks to a simple educational encounter I had quite early in the career of the video industry. That encounter also explains why, today, I do not find it too difficult to believe that touted miracle of the Nigerian economy, and its attribution to video. Here comes the story.
It took place on a flight from Turin to Rome on my way home to Nigeria. On that flight, I met a young man with two bulging suitcases who was clearly well known to the airline staff, the customs and immigration – even the police of that nation’s airports. Somehow, I into guarded conversation with him, and he proceeded to induct me into the economy of those rough-and ready Nollywood videos. He revealed that he made the trip to Italy every week with suitcases filled with the latest video titles, which he delivered to his Turin-based distributor. He collected his cash on the spot, then stopped over in Rome to visit a flea market where he had left orders on his last visit, based on whatever was the latest consumerist craving – and even advance orders - at home. It was so organized that he hardly ever had to stay a night in Rome or indeed, Turin – in-out, in-out! Sometimes he made two trips a week if there happened to be a production frenzy that produced more than the accustomed quota of new titles.
For someone who had always been impressed by the capacity of my compatriots to survive what would be crushing economic conditions elsewhere – I recall the Ghana days of Acheampong thievery - this induction into the direct enterprising operations of Nigerians compatriots certainly placed a crimp on my condescending attitude towards, and even scathing aessessments of, those lurid products of pedestrian imagination. No, I did not thereby become enamoured of the products, their repetitive variations on humdrum and ghoulish themes, but at least I did develop a healthy respect for the industry. I even began to conduct random quality checks on them to see if some aesthetic virtues had begun to seep in. As I encountered new faces within the industry, clearly drawn from across the national spectrum, I could not help wondering how many of the participating actors, set builders, costumers, singers and so on were being rescued from criminal options - armed robbery, drug pushers, internet scam artists – known in Nigeria as 419ers - smugglers, book piracy syndicates and other problematic leeches on the industry of others.
I’m afraid Art goes beyond Art, towards which - at least until recent times – this video factory line had no aspirations and made absolutely no pretensions. It presented itself frontally to its patrons as a simple escapist device, to the sociologists as a laboratory of some kind, and a productive booster that has now resulted in the earlier mentioned statistical claims of Nigerian economic development. It catered unceasingly for the sensational, the bizarre, the perverse or perverted etc, solely for the lowest common gratification index, but not entirely without some sprinkling of social consciousness, expressed in moralistic platitudes, a carry-over from traditional social musical lyrics – juju, sakara etc – all generalized.
Somewhere, somehow however, when no one was paying close attention, as earlier hinted at, art – such as it was - was being overhauled by real life – and on a daily basis. Also globally. This explains why even my cynical self was ultimately won over and began to concede that Nollywood might even be more than an economic booster. My earlier concern with economics, which had triumphed over aesthetics, had ultimately given way to realism, unqualified by any other related notion except, maybe, universalism. Nigeria – or indeed the African continent – does not live in isolation. Or, to place it in a theological frame, the Christian scriptures enable us to tell others: mind the beam in thine own eye before something something the mote in mine etc. et.. I suspect that the only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, is that some are masters of excess, while others are meagerly by nature, and/or simply lack confidence. Modern communication may have been invented by others, but we know how best to turn in into an instrument of torture. If you doubt that, ask who invented the internet scam – known as 419 or Advance Fee Fraud – then took it to such egregious heights that a number of nations have resorted to Special Crimes Profile Summaries. The description of the average 419 practitioner in such dossiers reads: “likely to be male, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, and Nigerian” etc. etc. How do I know? Simple: I have been invited by some state police to assist them with advice on the scourge, same as on Nigerians seeking political asylum, most especially during the years of the Sani Abacha’s own domination of the Nigerian stage.
“African Magic” – it seems only fair to note – is part and parcel of realities from other parts of the world, all of which receive global publicity. This means that they are realities that are certain to find matching lurid space in the Nigerian tabloid, sometimes even replacing local sensations in the media, rapidly becoming story-lines for Nigerian video cooption in one form or another, no matter how thinly disguised. Nigeria, it has been noted, are avid readers – and not merely of soccer results. I know we decry illiteracy and campaign to keep books alive in highly publicized events, but we also see crowds around newspaper and magazine kiosks – reading for free as the hapless vendor looks on. However, all that merely begs the question – what is being read, what is being absorbed, and what is impressed on the mind of the avid reader who also has a yen for creative outlets, albeit limited. What goes on in other parts of the world. And then, there is television. Many Nigerians know the name O.J. Simpson. As sports lovers, they are probably keeping watch also on the ongoing trial of the South African blade runner – Pistorius. I have run into passionate arguments by street and bar pundits on the ‘Did he do it or did he not?”
Let us move into one or two thematic staples. Shall we begin with cannibalism, a sometime Nollywood favourite, though I observe that it is going out of fashion. Not among the Japanese however, or in the United States. You may recall the Japanese individual who killed, dismembered and consumed his lover. I forget the full details – he could have been a French citizen of Japanese origin. What matters is that he was arrested, and served a prison sentence in Japan. Then – and here comes the variation that has the supposed primitive African sensibility gasping – after serving his sentence in Japan by bi-lateral arrangement, he coolly returned to the scene of his crimes, France, where he was treated like a media celebrity, gave interviews, including comments on the taste of human flesh as opposed to – shall we say, smoked turkey.
Franco-Japanese cannibalism appears to differ from the American only in denouement, but remains a shared taste in the media diet of both Europe and America – could be that judeo-christian, bible generated fascination with eating of the forbidden fruit, even if it is no fruit at all but flesh and bone. Can any African imagination conceive of advertisements on internet by any individual seeking a volunteer for cannibalistic rites – where he would be the menu? Now that beats Nollywood! This volunteer menu traveled to the kitchen, having signed a grisly pact of mutual consent. I’m afraid the law took a rather dismal view of the proceedings and insisted that consent is no plea under its aegis. The American cannibal, Jeffery Dhamer – met his own end in prison at the hands of a fellow prisoner. To the best of my knowledge, even Nollywood has never dabbled in such culinary tastes – except of course when it comes to sucking out the brain of an enemy in a spiritual battle and turning him into a zombie.
One favourite Euro-American reality that I have never known Nollywood dabble in is - kidnapping. In real life, of course yes, but that is a different matter, and usually for monetary ransom – Nigerians are practical people. By contrast, do recall the case of a man and wife collaboration by a married couple who lured and sealed up their victim in a specially constructed underground bunker to serve as both domestic and sex slave. Or the Belgian paedophiliac ring that was busted some five or so years ago. Middle-aged men patronized the innocent looking residence in that middle class suburbia to indulge themselves among the captives. Let me round up this excursion into ‘African Magic’ models from the outside world where I began - in the United States. Nothing quite beats the remarkable career of ‘Son of Sam’ who apparently received his orders to kill from a neighbour’s dog. He did his best – he pleaded - to break free from the power of the dog but one bark from the dog was sufficient to set him looking for the Victim of the Month. He carried on with his career for over a year, with a score card of close to a score before he was finally nabbed. These are minor themes however. We admit them only to whet our appetite, and to indicate that the indebtedness of African magic to foreign psycho-pathology is not snobbish, is eclectic, is not afraid of competition from African real life at the highest social levels. Human perversions are the stuff of real life, and African cineastes seek their material in the same field – real life.
But it is time to shift to a different order of external thematic contributions to African Magic, using the transition to address another, and perhaps predominant theme that probably earned such industry the label of magic – or necromancy. Here is a case that I recall only from the side of detection, since the termination of the deadly career of the serial killer could not be credited to any forensic skills of NYPD or Hawaii-5-O but to – sheer necromancy – of sorts. When all else had failed in this spectacular case, the police eventually contacted Eric Geller – you do recall him, I hope – the man who confounded physical science by bending forks and spoons with what was clearly no stronger than a loving caress on their handles. It cannot be by accident that Geller eventually visited Nigeria – on invitation by a state governor - some years ago, where he gave a demonstration lecture or two. One of those lectures took place in the big hall of the nation’s so-called National Theatre, in reality a vast palais des Sports that was lifted from Bulgaria by a former Minister for Culture under a military regime.
That pride of taste is widely believed to be of original design because it is shaped like a general’s hat. Nothing of the sort. The then Minister of Culture visited Bulgaria, fell in love with its shape and said to those backward natives – We’ll take a replica of that but – increase the size, plus all its innards one and a half times. We are Nigerians. We have oil and don’t even know what to do with it. That building has been falling apart ever since and is sinking into the marshland that was selected as the perfect site, one inch per year as last measured. We must not become distracted however. Back to the rival case of Son of Sam that was solved by oyinbo Magic, not through forensic skills.
I could not attend the lecture, but was invited to join Eric Geller for dinner in his honour at the Lagos residence of his host. I had long been intrigued by his performances on British and American TV etc. at the height of his career, and especially by the account of a Los Angeles police acquaintance who brought the case to my attention. Eric Geller was invited to apply his clairvoyance to the intractable case. He agreed, and asked to be taken up in a helicopter. He spread a map of the zone of serial murders before him and began tracing a wide circle on the map. He then shrank the circle progressively with his finger until it zeroed in on one house. He thereupon stabbed the paper with his finger, and the location was radioed to the posse waiting below. Sure enough, when the police got there, they found, and got their man.
Well, at that dinner in Lagos, Eric Geller affirmed the story. What was more startling was that, as the evening wore on, he proceeded to do some cutlery bending at the table. If there was a trick to it, I was left just as wise as I was when I watched him perform on Television with an array of scientists who had constructed an antiseptic glass cubicle, festooned with high-powered infra-red cameras, criss-crossing laser beams and other ghost catcher equipment. They also failed to detect a trick, nor could they offer any explanations. Well, that night, just before leaving, Geller peeked round the door leading to the kitchen to say Thank you to the staff – they had prepared his special diet and he was a very appreciative man. I don’t know how next it happened – perhaps he simply flipped at the sight of all the shining cutlery, but he began bending forks and spoons as souvenirs for everyone, came back into the dining room and continued his depredations on the host’s stainless steel. Now thoroughly alarmed, the poor man leapt up, snatched the next victim from his hands and reminded him that his transport was waiting outside and that Lagos streets were unsafe at that time of the night.
How did he do it? All I can affirm is that I have a teaspoon as a souvenir of that evening. Now, here comes the extract from the Geller visitation: while I admit that I could not swear to the authenticity of his powers, the fact is that I was left unimpressed – and the reason is this – I had seen it all before, and on a dimension of which the great Eric Geller could not remotely approach.
What people do not know is that when they see our own medicine men, sometimes known as juju men – and women also, by the way - drawing circles in the air and muttering incantations, it is only our traditional version of Eric Geller tracing circle on a geographical map. The cultural difference, and a crucial one is this. I admit that this is part speculation - Eric Geller perhaps goes clockwise in his motions, while ours go anti-clockwise. It explains why Geller makes what is hidden from human eye manifest itself, while ours make palpable material – such as raw petroleum revenue - evaporate. And if you think that we are only speaking of inert material, you could not be more mistaken. This is expectedly largely an African audience, or else Africa related, so I must assume that you are familiar with – at the very least – the potency of African traditional medicine men. If not, do recollect the mud that was flung in the face of Scotland Yard over a high-profile tenant of Pentonville.
Yes indeed, the British police learnt that the hard way. When one of our Nigerian state governors was arrested by the police at Heathrow airport on charges of money laundering and massive robbery from state coffers – at the request of the Nigerian government - he was first refused bail, then granted one with a number of conditions. These included his remaining in his own opulent London apartment, guarded by spy cameras and two seasoned police from Scotland Yard – just as in the case of Eric Geller which took place under the keen eyes of scientists. No entry or exit was left unguarded by human or technological eyes. Lo and behold, their prisoner miraculously vanished from this close confinement. His magical re-appearance was in his home village in the Delta creeks, where he proceeded to address a political rally, blasted his enemies and gloat over his miraculous salvation.
Asked how he managed to defy time, distance and gravity, he replied, in all seriousness, indeed with heart-rending humility – “I want you to listen to this most carefully” – he said: “I myself do not know. Yesterday I was a prisoner in London, today, here I am, and on my own native soil, among my own people. I don’t understand it myself, it’s all the work of God.” And he proceeded straight to the house of that god for one of those traditional Thanksgiving services that end up as sumptuous feasts. His supporters went wild with joy, while his arch-enemy, the nation’s President who had engineered his entire travail to keep him out of circulation for political and civic eternity, was left to lick his wounds and plot his revenge. It was clear that such a man of supernatural powers could not be left loose. The battle had shifted from the lax British respect for law and legal processes to jungle justice, pure and simple.
That president went in for the kill. He adopted the only weapon at hand - state thuggery, but ostensibly on the side of public morality and probity. That this governor had also become a political thorn in his flesh, was merely incidental. Using his full control of the national security apparatus, that president simply damned legality, constitutionality – the lot. He arranged for the kidnapping of the majority of the members of that state’s legislative assembly, under pretext of a criminal investigation, placed them under duress in distant Lagos and kept them there until they allegedly impeached the ex-fugitive governor who lost his immunity as conferred by the constitution.
Alas, the last laugh belonged to the governor. The drama was moving towards conclusion in his favour. Yes indeed, now stripped of impunity, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to a judicial slap on the wrist but, even that sentence duly served – in the comfort of a hospital bed – it took only a short spell of absence from public eye before his formal rehabilitation. He received a full pardon from that president’s successor - the very one currently on our throne of power – 2014. He was thus freed to seek public office once again, without a stain on his character. Indeed, our man has since become a highly visible companion of the current President – I last saw him climbing into his benefactor’s presidential jet, beaming broadly across that worthy’s shoulder. Oh, I may have forgotten to mention an incidental datum. Please take a deep breath and do your best to follow carefully.
When the great Houdini - Alamieyeseigha, also Alams’ for short – was governor of the location of that drama of invisibility, Bayelsa state - (May 99 to December 05) - his deputy was none other than the current Nigerian president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. During that same period, the nation’s president was one ex-general Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo was succeeded in his turn by Umaru Yar’Adua. Perhaps some of you here followed the macabre drama that preceded Jonathan’s magical ascension to power as President. It took only two short, easy steps. He, Jonathan, was Deputy Governor to Alams in Bayelsa state. Thus, he automatically stepped into the governorship position after the disgrace of his boss, Mr. Alams. Jonathan’s stint as governor was soon curtailed however – such was his meteoric rise. Elections were round the corner, and Jonathan was nominated as running mate to the presidential candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua. As flag-bearers for the ruling party, it was No Contest. They won. Talk of good luck!
Oluasegun Obasanjo had been compelled to quit office at the Centre in less than graceful circumstances in 2007, and his anointed successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, was a sick man. Very sick. Umaru barely survived half of his constitutional term of office – and that is the best that anyone can swear to in a court of law. Till today, only a tiny inner circle, led by Yar’Adua’s widow, can swear to the moment – the day - of his death. That ill-used president was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment for his condition where he remained for months and months, incommunicado. After a while, all medical bulletins stopped. Even his own deputy, Jonathan, was not permitted to see him. The Senate president was not permitted to see him. Even the secretary to the government could not visit him. Only members of a cabal of five or six had access to the nation’s president for several months. The president had become invisible, running an invisible government. Then, as pressure grew and the situation became impossible to sustain, these conspirators flew him back into the nation’s capital, Abuja, in total secrecy, at dusk. Even the airport lights were switched off, so that he was transferred from air to ground ambulance in complete darkness. Was he dead? Alive? Till today, no one outside the cabal can tell. In fact, was it he? Or a stand-in? Again, who knows? Back in his villa, even his Vice-president was still not permitted to peek in to say, “Oga, welcome back. How body?” The patient had brought – no, perhaps we should simply say – had been accompanied into Nigeria by his own team of doctors from Saudi. His isolation from Nigeria, on Nigerian soil, was near total. Questions rose, unchecked. Who had been governing Nigeria for nearly six months? Whose signature was on the national budget? Whose signatures validated the presidential cheques? Not even Eric Geller can tell.
Being a moslem, that victim of gross spousal abuse was of course buried immediately. Till today, no one can swear that the real Umaru Yar’Adua had not been buried in Saudi Arabia while a charade was played out in Nigeria. Now, tell me, does that beat or not beat Piere Corneille’s El Cid? And forget JP Clark or Wole Soyinka. Only Nollywood can be trusted to handle such material in its full grotesque deserving.
We must not permit ourselves to allow this riveting drama to overwhelm the footnote to end the saga of our prototype Invisible Man, Alams, who is now not only visible, but pre-eminent in the presidential circle. Before you waste your sympathy on his august adversary, supposedly on his incorruptible white charger, now chafing in retirement raising chickens and periodically ‘speaking up as a patriot’, be informed that this ex-president, the righteous tormentor of Mr. Alams, had himself set a precedent. On ascending to power as a post military president in year 2,000, virtually his first use of the same presidential prerogative was to issue a full pardon to a convicted Speaker of the House of Assembly who, it turned out, had forged papers that enabled him to contest election in the first place. That Speaker had been impeached – under proper procedure - stripped of his immunity and duly sentenced. At least Alameisiegha did go through some kind of token purgatory before rehabilitation. His predecessor in criminality, the Speaker, was sanitized before justice had even taken its ounce of flesh. He had yet to step through the portals even of a prison hospital.
Now tell me, if Chinua Achebe had written a second part to A MAN OF THE PEOPLE, who on earth would have believed such a classic formulation of a double, triple, quadruple, indeed infinite peripeteia – the Greeks’ tragic sense of a reversal of fortunes? This is where Nollywood, or Africa Magic comes to the rescue. One can at least see in a Nollywood treatment some element of wish fulfillment – this is all that is left for us as substitute for those to whom the incredible has become the staple of life. It is no wonder that, today, the Nigerian literary banner appears to read: Literature is dead. - Long live Nollywood!
I have therefore stopped badmouthing African Magic, and wish I had more time to escape into its improbabilities. Come to think of it, apart from the unbridgeable gap in production budgets, resulting in scenic lushness and technological bravura from seasoned directorial hands, I see no difference between Nollywood and Harry Potter films, which only makes one wonder why no one has ever called the Harry Potter series Oyinbo - or British - Magic. Well, magic or not, long queues of afficionados still wind round bookshops and other launch pads at the announcement of a newly completed volume of the series. Children, parents and grandparents compete for the first volumes hot off the Press. Each such publication is an Event, to be topped only by the even more humongous Event of the premiere screening of its cinema adaptation. By contrast, Amos Tutuola – all right, it appears we cannot yet abandon literature all together – Amos Tutuola, author of The Palm Wine Drinkard and Africa’s first magic realist long before our late colleague, Garcia Marquez was crowned king of that genre – that original was dismissed simply as a curio in the forest of exotica. The regard among European critics towards his works – alongside a fair portion of the African literary establishment - was one of condescension towards a neophyte, but an intriguing one, emerging from the pre-literate stage of the narrative enterprise. We owe it to Dylan Thomas for rescuing Amos Tutuola from the publisher’s Reject basket, when that Welsh poet, discerning a familiar spirit of Welsh mythologizing, enthused over The Palm Wine Drinkard, as if he had himself had a calabash of the magic draught:
“Brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching,….nothing is too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story”.
African Magic could not have wished for a more appropriate birth song!
For the true forebears of that genre, African Magic – the video - however, we must go somewhat further back than Amos Tutuola. Tutuola’s landscape remained situated largely within ghostland – despite the cooption of escalators, television and other modern consumerist images – a stylistic conjugation of the natural and supra-natural that earns it categorization as magic realism. Nollywood, by contrast, with its eclectic mish-mash of thematic concerns, is a direct cinematic child of Nigerian pioneer writing known as Onitsha Market Literature, those early gutsy pamphlet publications of rudimentary talent that however caught the urban sociology of colonial existence of the early forties, fifties and immediate post-independence society – the early sixties. This pioneer literature shared the productive verve that characterized the British, French pamphleteering era of the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries (product of the mixed bag known as Europe’s Age of Enlightenment) The pamphlet tradition meant a democratization of public discourse, and it also inducted those so inclined into the world of fiction – including drama.
Onitsha Market literature had little time for magic distraction, yet, stylistically, today’s ‘African Magic’ is very much a product of that very literary pioneering spirit, having merely transferred the social immediacy and improvisational style of Onitsha Market Literature – call it sophistication disinterest or deficiency – to itself, even as it plunges one leg into the escapist territory of an Amos Tutuola, and the other in the grimy world of its contemporary, colonial environment. Tutuola however – let his be noted - also stood on the shoulders of an elder writer, D.O.Fagunwa, the Nigerian novelist who wrote entirely in his own indigenous language, Yoruba. Today’s video phenomenon thus straddles the two worlds – timeless fantasy, and contemporary sociology – the ‘grisly’, and the grimy. It strikes me as a good moment to direct some attention to its study since it is gradually shifting its thematic interests from the Tutuola world (the grisly), to - shall we say? - the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah’s world of the grimy. It marks a notable fork in the road, involving a mild tension – perhaps more uneasy cohabitation – right up to contemporary reality - magic realism on the one hand and, scabrous reality on the other.
Its material reflected firstly the confusions created by multiple identities, often overlaid, of pre-independence African society – the often liminal existence of the urban elite, the airs and pretensions of a ‘colonial aristocracy’, the anxieties of the lower middle-class who were not absolutely certain where they belonged, even the conflicts of values between the rural population and the educated and semi-literate westernized citizens of a new era etc. etc. What literary historians will find of interest perhaps is the fact that this early literary genre attempted to capture the transitional mood of African society far less for its ‘African magic’, than on African realism – especially the politics of decolonization - without the magic. It was earthy, critical and moralistic, somewhat misogynist in temper – titles such as Beware of Women – are not uncommon, not forgetting instructional tracts such as Our Modern Love Letters – And How to Write them. By contrast, it would be near impossible to find one such English language tract with a title such as Traditional Way of Courtship. Instead, championing of the alternative, indigenous courtship mores would be considered uncultured and backward. The following titles provide a sampling of this literature and its concern with basic social phenomena of the fifties and sixties:
Mr Rabbit is Dead – A Drama; Forget Me Not; Mabel the Sweet Honey; The Life and Last Days of Lumumba - The Late Lion of the Congo; The Joy of Life and its Merriments; Saturday Night Disappointment; Rosemary and the Taxi Driver; No Condition is Permanent; Money Hard, but Some Women don’t know; Sailor Boy in Town etc. etc. Hardly ever do we come across titles with hints of non-realism but when we do, it is the full works, leading to a suspicion of a suppression of some deep hankering which is then given full rein in direct stage performances. Thus, one sub-title that reads: “A Heart suspending, enticing and yet interesting story full of Ghosts, Spirits, platonic love’s terrors, horrors, absurdities and adventures of a King” . Each chapter is perfect ‘Nollywood’ menu – such as : DEATH, DEAD BODY FEAST, HELL DEVIL, NIGHT MURDER, FOUR GHOSTS and THE GOLDEN BIRD. Elizabethan ‘Revenge’ Tragedies had better look to their laurels.
The publications themselves are quite instructive. Cover images and some inside illustrations were culled from poster pictures and postcards of early Hollywood stars and cinema advertisements - a clear giveaway of the romantic visions of some of the writers, and their scope of aspirations. They are representative of the class of new arrivistes - newly arrived and often semi-literate cinema goers of urban communities. It is no surprise that the pioneer film-makers of what has become known as Nollywood (or African Magic) emerged from the homeland of Onitsha Market Literature. And sometimes - let us take good note of this – real-life characters on the African stage – stage, this time, as in “all the world’s a stage” - be it presidential palaces or the United Nations assembly, when the world’s cameras are turned on such leaders - real-life leaders appear to have emerged straight from Nollywood. If that appears to fragment the normal order of reality and its representation, consider once again, the character, activities and archetypal ambitions of some of the most colourful and/or sinister leaders who provoke the reaction – déjà vu - when we turn on Nollywood randomly on the screen
Life hardly ever take leave of Art, complementing and competing, and of course the former normally gallops far ahead – Catch up with me whenever, it seems to say, I cannot wait for snail mail. Thus, when the foundation of reality reminds us of its permanent subterranean presence by erupting into lethal consciousness, we resort to expressions such as ‘Stranger than fiction’, or ‘I wouldn’t have believed it if I read it in a book’. Others who happen – myself included – to be writers, find themselves compelled to preface some observations by ‘If I had written that, people would say, oh yes, there goes that wild imagination at work again.’ The truth however is that the content of the crudes videos is often beggared by reality, and perhaps we should simply drop the name ‘Africa’ altogether and re-name our slab of earth The Black Magic Continent.
Well now, where does one begin? Let’s be honest here – how many of you in this audience, on switching on to a news channel when this or that African leader’s image flashed across the screen, have not paused in stride, in the mistaken notion that your favourite Nollywood actor was about to star in a new melodrama? Or, if indeed you happened to have rumbled the truth within seconds, how often have you felt like exclaiming – What Nollywood video has he been watching?” One of the two, definitely.” Sometimes you feel like screaming: if you must lie, at least go to an acting school and learn how to lie with a straight face so the crookedness is not so blatant.” I can offer you at least half a dozen leaders who guarantee such a reaction, even before they’ve opened their mouths, but let me stick to my favourite, one who, next perhaps to Omar Bashir, the Butcher of Darfur, qualifies for the first Racso award whenever inaugurated. I hope that’s an easy one – Racso is simply Oscar spelt backwards, which is how this particular leadership species spells its sense of history and national development. One Racso trail-blazer whom I dearly miss is the late Life Emperor Bokassa, but acting is for the living, so we shall pass him by.
That clears the field for my all-time living favourite is none other than Jahmeh Yahaya of Gambia, whose exploits the world appears to have decided to ignore, or has forgotten in recent times, but whose citizens are in no danger of forgetting any given day. Mr. Yahya Jahmeh is, among other achievements, an authority on that Nollywood staple - Witchcaraft – no different, I suppose, from a past president of the tiny Caribbean island of Granada – Eric Gairy. Gairy’s field of expertise was UFOs – Unidentified Flying Objects. Kerekou of the Republic of Benin, in his early days, also had great predilection with witches. Screaming ‘Witches, they’re they are again’, he once ordered his soldiers to fire at them during a public rally - sinister beings, self-transformed into the shape of familiar palm-size birds which love to perch on transmission wires, and had done so, close to the field of rhetoric. I believe that Kerekou lter gave up on witches – being newly bewitched by Marxism – not that he understood what that was about beyond the fact that it enabled him to pose in Maoist uniforms on billboards in the company of Lenin, Mao and Fidel Castro, and blame any economic failure on the people’s failure to follow Marxist precepts. He also threatened to arrest and execute rain-makers whose unfriendly act of withdrawing rainfall or inundating Benin with its excess - I forget which now - was responsible for poor or washed away harvest. Preoccupation with witches - also UFOs in their own way, come to think of it - entitle such rulers to consider themselves visionaries. After all, being designated a visionary implies the capacity to see what is yet to materialize. However, the latter – UFO spotting, including exchanges with space travelers - at least appeared to be future inclined, while Jammeh saw in his broomstick levitators only local dissidents sworn to undermine his regime. All the foregoing serves to remind us that Jahmeh was not alone. He has been chosen as representative of the species only because the subject is - Nollywood.
Myself just as guilty as the rest, I think that the world gives my nation, Nigeria, far too much credit – it should be obvious to anyone by now that Nigeria did not invent Nollywood after all, especially that genre that has earned African films a round-the-clock television slot under the general rubric: African Magic. Yahaya Jammeh holds the patent, and one would wish that he would simply retire into lead roles in those video-film improbabilities. A head of state who sends his witch-hunting squads into towns and villages and adopts the testing method of forcing toxic concoctions – confirmed hallucinogenic - down the throats of those accused – largely by him and his cohorts - of witchcraft – no Nollywood script writer or director from our Nigeria could possibly improve on that! The suspects are taken to his private farm for such witchcraft tests, in addition to all forms of humiliation, including being stripped naked and whipped unconscious. This proceeding, backed by police and army units, plus this president’s own personal guards, known as the ‘Green Boys’, a state glorification of the cult of the irrational from the past and a gratification of homicidal tendencies masquerading as social cleansing – these are the gruesome realities that beggar the world of Nollywood.
For good measure, Jammeh also embarked on a legislation to enable him to “cut off the head of any homosexual”, and give teeth, prominently, to his resolve to rid his nation of all witches. He had been equally concerned – we must not forget to note – with the fact that “graves were and are being desecrated and human beings called mummies have been stolen from Africa”. Until then, one had imagined that the flight of mummies – if any - was a problem for the Egyptian, Nubian and allied Nilotic cultures, but there may be a linkage there that most of us have missed. Mummies. Witches. Zombies. Yes, it all fits. A Professor-cum- Dr. must possess knowledge that the rest of us mere mortals do not have. Among our deficiencies – apart from ignorance of such mystic sciences – is knowledge of any HIV/AIDS cure. There, we are obliged to look up to our presidential genius who, at one stage claimed to have perfected such a cure, guaranteed - at least during his early pronouncements – to make his patients HIV negative within three days. Those claims were backed by his Health Minister at the time – appointed by His Very Excellency. He announced results that were even light-years ahead of the claims of another Health Minister – South Africa’s – that unsung pioneer who became an advocate of the garlic and beetroot curative for HIV-Aids. Fortunately for South Africa, a genuine, as opposed to a pretend-democracy, that Health Minister, later followed by his Presidential backer, were soon shown the door. However, Sheik Jammeh has ensured that his own exit door is rigorously sealed, marked NO EXIT. Saddest of all, still on the choice of Jahmeh’s stage dialogue or – more appropriately – monologues, is the unconscious but revealing evocation of the horrors of Rwanda - a leader who depicts his own people as “witches” and “rodents”. This was how it all started in Rwanda – the Tutsis were “cockroaches” that must be stamped upon by all well-meaning Hutus, similarly designated vermin by Gambian leadership in full control of the means of information and mind-bending, not even as partial control as was Radio Milles Collines – at least at the beginning of mobilization for the fastest mass elimination of humanity known to us on our continent in contemporary times.
We have been there before – Idi Amin, Macias Nguema, Mobutu Sese Seko, Sanni Abacha, interehamwe, janjaweed and all, and of course it is not merely leadership, as in leadership of an existing political state, defined, with boundaries, and with membership of world organizations, but the putative state, the mimic state as instrument of terror, those whose weapon of audience domination is none other than the now ubiquitous video-camera – an ironic western invention by the way - that can be acquired by any cheap performer. They strut before the lens, decked out in flea market costumes, framed by the mandatory cliche stage props – those Onitsha Market supply kalashnikovs and AK 47s. The latest entrant for this Racso line is the self proclaimed leader of a murder squad grandiloquently named “The Congregation of the people for Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad” which, in reality, translates as “Enemies of Humanity”, and known throughout the world today as - Boko Haram. Shekau and his fellow video performers are the lead actors of the continent of African Magic playing out an unintelligible but lethal script. Their videos are perfect Racso nominees, trademarked by acting of the snarl-and-scowl school of drug enhanced ecstasy, perhaps fresh from slitting a dozen throats or more. That act, they truly believe, entitles them to prominence among the stars even before their deaths. They boast of killing. Of maiming. Of abduction. Of torture. Of enslavement. Of all and more of the same. Brainwashed into believing that there is a reward awaiting them in the after-life, a divine munificence in direct proportion to the tortured cries and body count and the cruelties they inflict on market traders, factory floors and other human productive gatherings, they pile anguish on anguish. Now, magic or reality, what exactly is African about that? Nothing. We’ve encountered clone movements throughout the world of which Boko Haram is a mere foundling, but one that is resolved to outdo its parents. The common, empowering conception remains the same: The Chosen against the Herd. Power against Freedom. Submission or Death.
How benign Ayi Kwei Armah's novel of the late sixties - THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN – must seem to us today. Material corruption can be tackled through social will and tamed by law. By contrast, spiritual corruption, being the dictate of Revelation, is beyond human ministration. It denies its own existence in the material world, yet requires the material world upon which to manifest itself, thus defying dialogue and thus, instruction. If a legislator – true Nigerian story this! – when a law-giver violates under-age girl children, engages in cross-border sex trafficking and claims that all this is permitted under his scriptural laws, or else that the sanctified path to paradise is through the slit arteries of a ‘unbeliever’, all argument is foreclosed and impunity wears the garb of piety.
Is it all bleak however? Is the stage constantly cluttered, like the Elizabethan revenge melodramas we mentioned earlier, with corpses? Or are there tentative notices of Restoration Theatre? Let us look, for the remaining time, at the slivers of hope in a leaden sky. Perhaps a clue, no more than a symbolic lesson, will be found in Africa’s radio drama of thematic contrast, and location. Radio Milles Collines, whose vitriolic harangues served as prelude to the scene of the most rapid human extermination that the world has known in modern times, at human hands, was indeed inaugurated by a stream of the blood-curdling harangues that lasted days and weeks, priming one section of a people to rise and slaughter the other.
The prologue to the recovery of the West African region from its own long-running theatre of war may be said to have been pronounced through the conversion of that same blood-stained medium to democratic ends. Five heads of states of the expanded Mano River Basin Union – Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Gambia, Ivory Coast - joined hands, after prolonged civil wars that ravaged much of West African region, to launch an independent voice for Democracy, completely insulated from the control of governments. They named it the West Africa Democracy Radio. From the megaphone of genocide to a harbinger for Humanity - thus are the seeds of recovery sown, and a people’s fortunes begin its laborious clamber back from the very lips of the abyss. Even if all that this Democracy radio does is give voice to the voiceless, consecrated in the act of surrendering personal power to the alternative of citizin empowerment, it would have been sufficient.
It was not a summons to West Africa alone. Indeed the most dramatic process of recovery did not take place in the West African religion but further south, through the same airwaves that the agency of communication, the radio, had been abused on a scale that had not been witnessed anywhere in the world since World War II. This time, however, the leadership of nations, whose peoples had been battered and traumatized on a comparable scale to the prolonged agony of Rwanda, chose to seize upon that same vehicle to propel the return of society to its true mission, repositioning their nations for re-admittance into the world of humanity. Rwanda however boasts the most spectacular recovery.
Yes indeed, what many had thought was impossible, given the scale and depth, the hideousness of carnage that overwhelmed the Rwandan nation, had finally triumphed over the direst predictions of Rwanda watchers. No one dares claim that all aspects of recovery and reconstruction have been perfect. Nonetheless, we need only consider how other nations have handled their human crises of far lesser magnitude, or how they would, even today, were they confronted with such a devastating negation of the most elementary virtue of humanistic bonding that we, especially on our continent, like to claim as a unique virtue, especially when compared to Western societies. Without abandoning the imperatives of justice and restitution, Rwanda overcame this horrendous negativity in a spirit of reconciliation rarely encountered in the histories of most societies. How did she do it?
By stepping backwards, it seems. More often than not, the formula works – stepping back in consonance with that French saying – reculer pour mieux sauter – in this case, recovering, adopting and adapting certain traditional values – always selectively – in order to move forward. These values are never dead, they are all around us, near uniformly accessible. When, for instance, I read of strategies of Rwanda’s adopted principles of recovery, captured in expressions like Ishema, Umurawa, Kwiyubaha, what resounded in my head instantly were Yoruba expressions such as Asowopo, E-ewo, Omoluwabi etc, etc., or even their encapsulations and extensions in sayings such as Ero ko le wa l’oja k’ori omo wo – A child’s head is never askew on a mother’s back where there are people in the market. Or, among the moralities couched as strictures – Sigaho, and its Yoruba equivalent – Eewo which means – Never done! Either could also translate as ‘Taboo’ – but not quite. Taboo is basically a quasi-supernatural mode of control, but E-ewo captures the basic principles of social conduct embedded in communal ethos. Both refer to certain forms of personal conduct, avoidance of which is the foundation for an omoluwabi – a product of deeply engrained ethical consciousness. Nothing to do with the concept of Taboo through inculcation of the fear of repercussions from unknown forces. E-ewo rests on individual volition and community censure, a call to self-discipline and inculcation of awareness of others as part of a functioning whole.
Perhaps Gataca best captures the most animating principle of Rwanda’s processes of recovery - re-building, justice and reconciliation - but my purpose here is not to narrate that process, one that is far more competently handled by the actual participants in, and/or first-hand witnesses to this phenomenal undertaking and achievements. I shall content myself with narrating the most forceful instance of the application of this principle through the policy that was formulated in order to deal with that fundamental cause of much of man’s most implacable belligerence – land, and its resources. The equitable apportionment of land, especially after conflict.
Here is what happened. Millions were displaced – both through the terror of the Hutu killers, and of course, as a consequence of the return match – the routing of the interahamwe and sympathizers. The tables were turned. The former victims returned, in some cases years after the original displacement. Illegal occupation of abandoned land and homes was rife - first by the Hutus who had killed or driven out the original owners, then by the returning owners who had been chased out. Next came the turn of liberation fighters who were the last to return, and whose homes, in some cases ancient family property had simply been taken over during the unsettled condition. Each set demanded either the right to have their lands returned, or the right to legitimize ownership of their newly occupied territory. The situation required the wisdom of a Solomon. Remember this, a mammoth trial had taken place in the meantime. Some had been found guilty, served their terms and now awaited rehabilitation. Others however were merely citizens of misfortune, displaced through no fault of theirs. The situation seemed intractable. Several layers of ownership, each clamouring for restitution.
What the government did was to draw on the principle of Gataca – not as dictation from the top, but in the spirit of participation, reminding Rwandans during organized community meetings, backed by radio discussions, that the proposed legislation was a derivative from their own past, their sustaining culture - the reconciliation of justice in rigid application with the collective interest. They were made to understand that progress was impossible unless the past was cauterized. A law was passed limiting possession to one parcel of land only, per family. You could return to your ancestral home but, if in the meantime, it had been occupied, the state offered you the choice of another piece of land, somewhere else. To ensure that this law evenly applied, with no exception, the President himself set the example. While he was at the war front, his own family land from which they had been driven by the Hutu killers, had been reallocated to some of those who were even suspected sympathizers of the interamhamwe. It had been family property over generations, one with a very sentimental history attached to it. The situation however called for a balance between the strict demands of justice and the enasbling of society to move forward. He surrendered it to the occupiers and applied, like everyone else, for a piece of land somewhere else.
A thin sliver of light, into whose opening a steel wedge of transformation can be inserted. For such leaders, there is no magic: on the contrary, it is the humdrum search for solutions to intractable problems, digging into the accumulation of a people’s collective wisdom and traditional experience. Converting Radio Milles Collines to Radio des Millions Citoyens. Placing Humanity before human possessions. It is a small lesson, but there are several such, dotted all over the continent. In any case, no lesson in hope could ever be considered small, or insignificant, any more than a seed should be cast aside for not manifesting its future right now, in the present. That is the difference between the Bashirs, the Bokasssas, Nguemas, Abachas and Jahmehs of Africa’s political Nollywood, and - the self-effacing script writers of a new era for a continent, and its oft proclaimed quest for a – Renaissance.