Connect with us

Culture

The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World

Humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today.

Published

on

The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World
Download PDFPrint Article

Our human ancestors were using stone tools well before Homo sapiens evolved three hundred thousand or more years ago. Tools have been discovered dating back three million years, no less than ten times older than our species. Considering that some birds and fish use –and even fashion– tools (watch crows making hooks), and that any implements made of wood or other organic material will not show in early fossil records, it would be astonishing if our hominid ancestors weren’t using them well before the earliest stone ones we’ve so far found.

The most important tool of all was fire. Like much in archaeology nowadays, where microscopic analysis is changing earlier guesswork, the first known date for cooking is being pushed ever further into our deepest past. It is hotly debated issue, but some now put it at around a million years ago. Again, that is long before our species evolved – though of course some of those earlier, now extinct, hominid species are our direct ancestors.

In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive.

Many scientists believe that our very evolution could never have happened without cooking. It massively enhanced our calorie and nutrient intake, so enabling our teeth and guts to grow smaller and our brains, which need huge amounts of energy, to grow bigger. Brain size is a tradeoff between enabling women to walk upright (a wider pelvis needed to have even bigger-headed babies would make that impossible),and the inordinately large number of years we have to care for our helpless young, longer than any other species. That both engendered and depended on our enormous capacity for social cohesion, empathy and self-sacrifice. In brief, we made fire and cooked our food and that turned us into people, generally more virtuous than vicious –in spite of our striking inhumanities, and the religious dogmatists and “evolutionary psychologists” preaching otherwise.

In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive. It sounds about right.

When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank.

This all started happening hundreds of thousands of years ago. Fire, manipulated by our ancestors, changed the world, and cooking was just one part: Regular undergrowth burning had the other big impact. It’s enormously beneficial: It prevents scorching wildfire conflagrations (look at California or Australia today), and also massively increases biodiversity, however counter-intuitive that may sound to urbanites. It enriches the soil, encourages fresh plant growth, enables wind-blown seeds to germinate in the nutrient-rich ash rather than wither in the undergrowth, and so favors some species over others. All this attracts herbivores, which are followed by predators.

When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank. Aboriginal burning was far from destructive as the Europeans thought. It actually enhanced biodiversity and the food supply.

Several key principles have been noted for Aboriginal burning. Neighbors were always forewarned and agricultural lands were fired in rotation at specific times of year when the bush was in the right state and the weather favorable. This limited the fire’s intensity, allowed animals to move out of the way, avoided particular growing seasons, and stimulated particular seeds to germinate under the resulting hot ash.

Needless to say, the British banned the practice in many parts of its empire, teaching that undergrowth firing was a destructive and primitive local custom. Some scientists remain schooled in such colonialist prejudice today. The ban on undergrowth burning is still in force in much of India and continues damaging the environment. The Soliga people in India, for example, say that the recent massive rise in forest fires in Karnataka would not have happened if they had been advising on forest management and allowed to continue their traditional burning.

People deliberately start fires in many environments and have done so for a very long time. For example, there is evidence that it’s gone on in Southeast Asia for at least forty-five thousand years.

Today, the Xavante in Brazil take careful note of wind and rain before setting their ceremonial fires to assist hunting. The fires remain low and not overly hot because they are lit so regularly that undergrowth is not allowed to grow up year after year. Fire-resistant plants can easily regenerate, and animals have plenty of time to move away. Fire can obviously be destructive, but that includes getting rid of species no one wants, such as deadly disease-bearing insects like the tsetse fly in Africa and the Loranthus tree-killing parasite in India. It also brings new plants and animals in its wake.

Regular burning is key in the various “slash-and-burn” methods of farming tropical forests. It is also called “swidden,” but journalists unfortunately favor the more dramatic name, which has become pejorative. Whatever one calls it, the practice is still widely denigrated and even criminalized by some conservationists, who could not be more wrong. Other scientists, sticking to the evidence, now see it as, “an integral part of many, if not most, tropical forest landscapes that are crucial to biodiversity conservation in all the remaining large tropical forests: Amazonia, Borneo, Central Africa.” The Hanunoo people in the Philippines grow over 280 types of food with swidden, and an even greater variety can be found elsewhere.

If undergrowth burning led to cooking, which seems logical, then it dates back over a million years. Considering that some birds not only make tools, but also actually manipulate bushfires by dropping burning twigs to help their hunting – something Australian Aboriginal people have long known – then it’s likely that our ancestors were changing the world with fire more than a million years ago. Science is unlikely ever to be precise about the timing, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the ancient world has long been shaped by women and men.

Human-made clearings, whether opened up with fire, axe, or both, modified the local fauna by changing animals’ food and distribution. There’s evidence from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple reserve in India that tiger numbers increase in areas where tribal people still live –if, that is, they’re not threatened with eviction and so retain an incentive to maintain their environment. When the people move their fields to leave some dormant, they also abandon the ponds they made for drinking water. The clearings, remnant crops and water attract boar, deer, and other creatures. The big cats then thrive on the easy hunting found in the open spaces. When tribes are evicted “for tiger conservation” the authorities know they have to keep similar clearings open. As a Baiga man told Survival International, “If you remove us, the tiger will disappear as well.”

An increase in tiger numbers clearly impacts the cats’ prey. Deer are less plentiful, but they are healthier than they would be were they never hunted: Sick animals soon become tigers’ lunch. The smaller deer population in turn brings more tree growth which encourages different insect and bird life, and so on and on. It is all a shifting, interconnected balance that has included human beings as a key environmental shaper for many thousands of years.

When scientists asked them about beluga whale loss in the Arctic, the Inuit explained that warmer temperatures had brought an increase in the beaver population. The beavers took more of the fish, which the whales depended on, and so whale numbers had diminished. It simply hadn’t occurred to the whale experts to include beavers in their research, but the Inuit had observed and interpreted these connections as and when they were developing.

Western science has only begun to describe the depth and complexity of such associations over recent centuries, but other “non-scientific” ways of looking at our surroundings have been articulating it for a very long time.

Among the best known is the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime in which every geographical feature, every river, rock, plant, animal, even celestial bodies, and of course all the different tribes of humans, are descended from ancestors who emerged from the earth, and travelled around it in a series of adventures which are remembered and reenacted – and actively “re-created” through such reenactment– today. They capture an essential view of the world and our place in it which science seems to have largely bypassed in making its own invaluable discoveries.

Everything really is connected but, needless to say, the Dreamtime version was derided as primitive superstition by the European invaders who brought very different priorities from the British Isles. As well as massacring the native people, they infamously imported rabbits to shoot for sport. The creature immediately spread faster than any other mammal monitored anywhere and is now thought to have caused more species and habitat loss than anything else throughout the continent.

In brief, humans have been an integral part of the jigsaw of the planet’s ecosystem for thousands, even millions, of years. It is true we did eliminate some species, including the huge and dangerous auroch, bred by our ancestors into docile domestic cattle. However, prior to industrialization, it seems to be the case that we enhanced biodiversity rather than reduced it, at least in many places. Moreover, humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today. Whether it fits in with one’s beliefs or not, humans have always been changing the environment, for better or for worse.

The worse part is obvious, and is not confined to rabbits destroying Australian biodiversity. Massive urbanization and industrialization have made life easier for some over recent centuries, but have also created rampant environmental degradation, with escalating –in some cases permanent – damage to the health of significant flora and fauna, including humans. There is no shortage of warnings, studies, and prophets sounding that alarm. We can only pray it starts being properly heeded.

But what of the other side, how have people since antiquity made the world “better?” I’ve described the increased biodiversity, and that tigers seem to prefer it when they are around tribal people; it turns out that forest elephants do too. Baka “Pygmies” in the Congo Basin, for example, are characterized as “hunter-gatherers” but they also spread food plants around the forest, which attract animals. That is not just good for elephants: abandoned camps, fertilized with ash and waste, make good habitat for primates. In the Salonga National Park researchers think there may be up to five times more bonobo where the Iyaelima tribe live than where they don’t. The people were unusually allowed to remain inside the park because they too were classified as “wildlife”!

Reverence for elephants is widespread in Africa. The Baka, for example, think they have an intimate spiritual connection with the animals – which includes sustainably hunting them for food and ritual. This can seem anathema to those urban Europeans and North Americans for whom wild animals (big ones at least), are anthropomorphized and considered nicer than us, untrammeled by our supposedly unique sin and guilt.

If anyone doubts the level of misanthropy to which such “Disneyfication” of nature can sink, they might read the comments accompanying internet stories about poaching. Extremist animal rights advocates repeatedly put animal life far above that of their fellow humans, particularly when the victims are African or Asian.

Unfortunately, this often goes unchallenged by those moderates who also value people. Extrajudicial killing, so-called “shoot on sight” is routinely applauded, even if some of the wounded and dead “poachers” include children, and were never criminals but simply poor people looking for food or even firewood or medicinal plants on what was once their land. Those accepting this as mere “collateral damage” in a righteous war against poaching are rejecting human rights, often gleefully.

Avatar
By

Stephen Corry (b. 1951, Malaya) was projects director of Survival International, the global movement supporting indigenous and tribal peoples, from 1972, and has been its director since 1984.

Culture

A National Reckoning: The Unfinished Business of Tom Mboya

Mboya’s ghost is that of a repressed collective identity submerged into the nation’s unconsciousness. The repression shields the country from confronting its problems of marginalization of minorities, ethnic domination by a few, and state capture by powerful economic interests.

Published

on

A National Reckoning: The Unfinished Business of Tom Mboya
Download PDFPrint Article

I

Reading Tom Mboya’s memoir “Freedom and After” (1963) is both depressing and irritating. Mboya was one of Kenya’s nationalists, who through his active role in the trade unions in the 1950s, called for an end to British colonial rule. The depressing nature of his memoir is not just about the lofty ideals he so eloquently talked about that never grew wings in post-independent Kenya, but because he became a principal architect in discarding some of those very same ideals. Maybe some of the ideals have been realized in other forms. One could mention a vibrant and freer media (despite accusations of being too cosy to the state) and a robust democracy where citizens now enjoy various rights and liberties. Unfortunately, citizens are still attracted to the idea of ethnic consciousness that often reaches a crescendo, especially during general elections.

One sunny Saturday afternoon on July 5, 1969, Mboya walked out of a pharmacy on Government Road, now Moi Avenue, probably with the lotion he had gone to buy stuffed in his coat pockets, only to be stopped by two bullets fired at close range sending him slumping on the pavement. By chance, a health ministry official – Dr Mohamed Rafique Chaudhri – happened to be passing by and heard the commotion, and, recognizing Mboya’s car, rushed to the scene.

Images that would later horrify the nation are those of a wounded government minister being wheeled to a waiting ambulance, his left hand slightly hanging on the side, his white shirt spattered with blood and eyes dimmed as Dr Chaudhri raced against time. Outside the Nairobi Hospital casualty department, African police officers in shorts and wielding batons pushed a surging crowd heaving in grief, tears flowing freely. Then a man appeared with a large framed portrait of Mboya clad in a suit and skull cap. Time had stopped.

Nyipir in Yvonne Owuor’s novel “Dust” (2013) reminds his daughter, Ajany, that 1969 was a very hard year. Mboya’s assassination from now onwards is transformed into permanent mourning – something like melancholia among his Luo people. It poisons political relations and some even observe, the economic fortunes of his kinsfolk. His death becomes an allegory of national trauma that had started with the ominous signs of authoritarianism, the shift from multiparty to a one-party state, the micro-management of national affairs by a small tribal gang and the cold-blood elimination of political opponents.

The trauma represses what remains of the desires and aspirations of the nation and a new mode of expression is birthed: silence. The 1970s is a decade which nearly everyone burrows their heads below the resounding din of Kenyatta succession politics above. Not that the people condone the climate of fear. There are a number of brave Kenyans who speak out. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, through his theatrical productions, begins to ask difficult questions concerning the state of the decaying nationhood and the dwindling hopes of achieving some of the post-independence dreams. Others such as Meja Mwangi, like a sly hare, manoeuvres his way and slips through the political dragnet that ensnares Ngugi.

Mwangi’s novels: “Kill Me Quick” (1974), “Going Down River Road” (1977), and “The Cockroach Dance” although on the surface pulpy crime fiction, all point to much deeper critiques: the escalating socio-political and economic decay, the marginalization of the poor to the ‘back streets’ of society. The three fictional accounts through their witty titles become stark symbols of the growing disillusionment, cynicism, and dehumanisation seeping into the national psyche. The after-effects of freedom that Mboya had hoped would propel Kenya to the heights of respected nations have turned into a nightmare of chronic unemployment, stiff bureaucracy, cronyism, tribalism, and nepotism. Maina and Meja, the main characters in “Kill Me Quick” cannot secure jobs because nobody knows them. Attempts at freeing themselves from their precarious condition are vigorously thwarted by don’t-care civil servants, and ordinary people survive through trickery and sheer wit. Noticeboards proclaim everywhere: Hakuna kazi!

Mboya’s memoir is a journey of survival and triumph against the colonial enterprise that forced Africans into beasts of burden, a model that the post-independent leaders inherited, and fashioned creatively in the subsequent decades to benefit them. His father is promoted to an overseer (nyapara) after working for fifteen years as a labourer for a white man in a sisal plantation. It is from that crucible of colonial repression mixed with a determined spirit that he decides to “go to a school where I might learn to read and write.” There is palpable excitement in the way he recounts those formative years. For Mboya’s generation, education is not just a ticket to becoming literate, but a means of emancipating oneself and breaking the chains of oppression and bondage.

Early exposure to education in Central Kenya, a land far removed from his family’s ancestral origins in Rusinga Island, affords Mboya the advantage of a multi-ethnic outlook in life. He becomes a polyglot with the ability to speak Kamba and Gikuyu fluently besides Dholuo, English, and Kiswahili. In the conventional sense, from a tender age, he becomes a ‘Kenyan’; that elusive and controversial term that elicits fierce debate. On the one hand, opponents of the idea of ‘Kenyanness’ ask: Why should they identify as Kenyans? Who defines that identity and who benefits (politically and economically) in such an arrangement? Is it the entire nation or just a few communities closer to the centre of power? On the other hand, the proponents counter that ‘Kenyanness’ helps us to rise above ethnic chauvinism. Not that identification with ethnicity is wrong. In fact, Mboya calls it ‘positive tribalism’ – a form of tribalism critical to the formation of national consciousness and is also reflective of African sensibilities and history. He rightly argues that it can be attained through tapping into our respective ethnic cultures and customs, particularly the concept of communality that, despite the onslaught of modernity, and now globalisation, still remains firm among most Kenyan communities.

Throughout Owuor’s novel, Mboya’s death is an omnipresent event that constantly directs us to a traumatic period that has not been mourned. His ghost is that of a repressed collective identity submerged into the nation’s unconsciousness. The repression shields the country from confronting its problems of marginalization of minorities, ethnic domination by a few, and state capture by powerful economic interests who continue to build empires on the haggard backs of a majority poor. In death, Mboya magnifies the lost agency for a Kenyan identity as the primitive accumulation of wealth by the political class continues to wreak havoc. The ethos of ujamaa has virtually disappeared in a politics of the belly devoid of ideology and vision that Frantz Fanon so prophetically warned about in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961). Fanon cautioned that unless post-independence leaders remained steadfast against the temptations of narcissism and mediocrity, nothing substantive in form of development and national unity would come out of such nations.

Later at Ruskin College, Oxford, Mboya experiences an awakening. He writes: “It was my first opportunity to taste something of the atmosphere of an academic institution, to meet intellectuals and to read books.” Knowledge is like food. He finds it delicious and immerses himself into intellectual activity, sharpening his thoughts and ideas. He fosters self-confidence and the ability to articulate his arguments with growing clarity and depth. He even flirts with the polemical when the occasion demands. He is only twenty-six years old and soon will start organising funding for the airlifts of Kenyan students to America with the financial assistance of the future American president John F. Kennedy. He rejects Richard Nixon’s offer from the US State Department to keep “the airlift a private programme, rather than turn it into one sponsored by government.”

In the next few years he addresses a Civil Rights rally in Washington, DC alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And in a future televised interview at the University of California, Berkeley, Malcolm X will shower him with glowing tributes in the same sentence with Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Nnamdi Azikiwe. The stage of resistance like a pendulum will swing from local to international back to local as a number of African countries sprint to independence in the early 1960s, that blood-drenched decade of wanton murder and backstabbing of black visionaries.

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s “Coming to Birth” (1987) encapsulates that season of bloodletting as characterized by whispers, whispers, whispers. One of her protagonists called Martin Were, slightly younger than Mboya, struggles to have a child with his wife Paulina. However, the desire for an offspring is consistently disrupted by miscarriages. Their life is a trail of one tragedy after another. Like Mboya’s nationalist and pan-Africanist vision that is now clouded in semi-darkness, Macgoye’s fiction could be said to symbolize a nation increasingly finding itself marooned, held captive, and strangulated of its life. Martin finally goes berserk when he learns that Mboya has been slain in broad daylight.

II

Music is a journey into the recovery of lost memories. Listening to music is to be transported into realms of darkness and light. Music is freedom. In the succeeding decades after Mboya’s assassination, his memory started to find its way into popular culture. Benga music which dates back to the 1950s began churning out dirges praising his famed charisma, his political acumen, his naivety, and his subsequent violent obliteration from national memory. Gabriel Omollo’s song “Tom Mboya” while mining the culturally rich Luo folklore and its animal characters, belted out evocative lamentations asking: “what wrong did we the wretched Luo do to deserve the murder of Mboya?”

Like other earlier benga songs that anchor their themes on hero-worship and death, D.O. Misiani’s “Robert Ouko I &II” also followed the same musical trajectory with his sentimental tone also crying: why us? Emma Jalamo’s song titled “Raila”, a masterful fusion of ohangla and rumba, another creative lament with an air of blues, on the other hand, mourns Mboya, not as a national figure, but a martyr of the Luo community. Death assigns Mboya a new identity. An exclusive ethnic identity so that from now onwards, he becomes ours, not yours. Luo music dedicated to him could equally be said to follow a metaphysical bent detached from the material world of political successions and deal-cutting and of modern-day tenderpreneurs with connections to the state. The music struggles with the darkness of forgetting while constantly rallying the community to remember. Benga music reinvents Mboya’s memory giving us the freedom to remember and celebrate him in numerous ways. Music not only surmounts the silence and the amnesia long associated with his mourning at the national level, but it also reminds us to ask for the umpteenth time:

Who is this big man who ordered the hit?

Mboya’s memoir concludes on a hopeful tone, with his emphatic belief that Kenya will ultimately show up for a dance at the world stage and demonstrate to others what Africans can achieve and accomplish. Underlying the optimism and enthusiasm, he does not reveal the simmering undercurrents of succession politics and his hand in manipulating it to his advantage, a machine that would later immolate him. He neither reflects at length on his political naivete, his unbridled ambition to elbow so many others out of the centre, the digging of the grave. But who has the temerity to admit such personal flaws at the age of thirty-three?

Continue Reading

Culture

Black Bodies and Black Flesh: A Story in Four Parts

What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”

Published

on

Black Bodies and Black Flesh: A Story in Four Parts
Download PDFPrint Article

Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Equal Justice Initiative
Multimedia: Montgomery, Alabama

Written on the body
Stage play: Andia Kisia

Heavy
Non-fiction, memoir: Kiese Laymon

Lusala
Film: Silas Miami, Wanjeri Gakuru, Oprah Oyugi. Story mentor: Mbithi Masya

The film Lusala (directed by Mugambi Nthiga) begins with a child being woken up by his drunk father, who forces him to dance as the father sings circumcision songs. The child, Lusala, dances grimly as his father sings and berates him for not knowing the song, and strikes the table menacingly with his bakora to keep the beat. The child cannot know the songs that are sung to make boys into men; he is still a boy. But the father sings his surly song and strikes the table again and again; the scene ends the way we know it will – with that bakora being used to strike the child’s body, a painful end to a painful song.

***

A few months ago, I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a beautiful spring day in March. The sun was shining and warm, the air was still. The sky seemed impossibly blue and perfect.

The museum and memorial are two separate but related sites – the former is an indoor museum located in a former warehouse that was used to hold enslaved people; it chronicles the harrowing story of black people in America from slavery, to racial terror, segregation and mass incarceration. The memorial, on an outdoor, six-acre site atop a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, memorializes more than 4,400 black men, women and children that were shot, hung, burned alive, drowned by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.

We — me, and the friend I was with – began by walking through the museum. He is black, American, and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, about 300km north of Montgomery. We looked at the notices for slave auctions and newspaper advertisements for the sale of human beings. We read the numerous humiliating laws that made blackness a stain on public spaces, and regulated the most mundane things in the Jim Crow Era, from beaches to billiard tables. We saw the soil that had been collected from sites where people had been lynched, displayed in jars on a shelf – red, brown, and black soil, Abel crying out for justice from the ground.

We got to the memorial, where a statue installation of a black family in chains designed by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is the first thing that confronts you. It had begun to rust, rivulets of bloody-looking ferric oxide running off the statue. We walked through the 800 steel columns hanging from the roof, each representing a county where a lynching had taken place, the names of the lynched engraved on the columns. They were intended to simulate black bodies swinging in the southern breeze – as Billie Holiday would have put it – and by this time I was thankful that this was outdoors or I might not have been able to breathe. The sky was now like a blanket, bright and blue and suffocating. But I knew I had to hold myself back from tears or breaking down, for I was there with a black American from Alabama. If I was shattering inside, how much more painful would it be for him, looking at places and histories he knew much more intimately.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice - Montgomery Alabama

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice – Montgomery Alabama. Photo – Flickr/shawncalhoun

At the end of the day, after a dinner of shrimp and grits at a restaurant across the road from the museum, I went to bed at 7.30pm. I was exhausted, a different kind of fatigue, one that both comes from the bones and settles on them, and sleep is a small comfort for 400 years of historical and ongoing terror that has taken hold of the body.

The next morning, we went to visit his family in Huntsville, he joked that this little country town was surely nothing like Nairobi city, and I half-agreed – in my eyes it was far too sprawling and sparsely populated to be a city. We played Cornhole, a kind of beanbag tossing game, with his family – his mother, brother and grandparents – in their backyard as the sun went down, and my embarrassing lack of hand-eye coordination threatened to make my team lose badly.

***

Oppression is written on the body. Just like those three hours in Montgomery made me feel like I had run a marathon, every act of political exclusion, judicial injustice, and intentional impoverishment leaves its mark on the body. Some marks are visible, like Lusala’s as a child at the hands of his violent father. Some are invisible, like later in Lusala’s life when physical scars have healed, but the fear has found a permanent place to live in his mind, until he eventually has a mental breakdown. Even so, the line between his mental state and his body are not clear-cut: Lusala’s terrors live in his body, manifested in frequent bed-wetting. By the end of the film, one realizes that his experiences cannot simply be described as “hallucinations” – they are real, at least as real as the violence and trauma he has suffered in his life. And Brian Ogola, who plays Lusala as an adult, inhabits these tragedies with devastating clarity – even the most fleeting look on his face speaks to so much that cannot bear to be spoken aloud.

Andia Kisia’s stage play Written On The Body, a collection of vignettes uncovering Kenya’s national traumas from the colonial moment to the present day, then turns our attention to the way these terrors can live in a body politic, the brutalization of an entire nation. In this way, Lusala and Written On The Body are in conversation – and coincidentally (or not), both directed by Mugambi Nthiga – speaking to each other and both exploring, in their own particular ways, Francis Imbuga’s famous quote, “When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”

It is not enough to say that Lusala is mentally ill, that he has anxiety or paranoia or psychosis. He is, instead, the solitary mind that the madness of this entire nation has taken residence. Lusala is all of us – all our pain, trauma, and catastrophe – which Written On The Body forces us to look at ourselves, and trace the outlines of this collective brokenness.

Written On The Body tells us that Kenya is an on-going war zone, with bodies, minds and spirits of its people the daily casualties. Still, in Kisia’s subtle rendering, Kenyan-ness is something tart rather than bitter, a junction where bleak nihilism sometimes takes a turn into dark humour. In one memorable scene, Kisia places a pair of pathologists – they might be medical examiners or mortuary attendants – at City Mortuary in the days and nights following the attempted coup in 1982. Bodies are coming in faster than the two (exceptionally played by Elsaphan Njora and Charity Nyambura) can process them, and they devise a way to quickly figure out some identifying characteristics for these anonymous cadavers.

It goes exactly where you think it’s going, for we are a country where tribal stereotypes are an instant shorthand for reading bodies – this one is too dark to be a Kamba, and this one is too well-dressed to be a Kisii – but by the time the scene ends in a phallic joke, circumcision making its grim return, the audience’s laughter had turned into embarrassment, even shame – is this what we have become?

***

Like Written On The Body, Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy traces these same threads, of what happens to bodies when violence becomes the air we breathe. It is set in the Deep South, the place of strange fruit swinging in the southern breeze, whose painful story is ground zero for the memorial atop that hill in Montgomery.

Laymon, today a professor of creative writing at the University of Mississippi, tells the story of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi at the hands of a loving and complicated family, where love hurts and also heals, and it is difficult to see where one scar ends and the other begins.

But Laymon’s book goes further than I’ve seen a memoir go, especially one that inhabits and explores black masculinity. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak—a hard man.”

Laymon is not a hard man. His vulnerability, his fear and weakness are real in Heavy, they are literally written on his body – the scars on his body from childhood beatings, in the stress eating, in the 300lbs (135kg) he carries on his body while still a teenager, in the starvation he forces himself to undergo until he faints from lack of food, in the obsessive running that shatters his joints. The body is the site, the agent and the victim.

Still, what we may call vices, addictions or traumas – sexual violence, gambling, alcohol and drug addictions, eating disorders, broken relationships – are, in Laymon’s telling, scenes of tenderness. And by this I mean that he renders the story of black existence tenderly, with sensitivity and kindness, and that the stories themselves are tender – they are raw, inflamed, bruised, still bleeding.

Ultimately, the story in Heavy is that life is complicated, that it is a combination of multiple entanglements “that are so interwoven that it is easier to discard the entire box of tangled threads than to spend the time untangling them,” as C. Leigh McInnis, author and instructor of English at Jackson State University, described Heavy in this review. “[Laymon] provides a process of healing by showing that the first thing that people must do is realize just how multifactorial their hellish lives are and, then, realize that those multifactorial elements can be separated and analyzed even if the process is laborious.”

And so, Laymon gives us a scalpel to do this necessary, heavy work, which, although is inevitably painful, it can at the very least be precise.

***

What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”

These are the questions that Lusala, Written on the Body, Heavy and the Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice are asking us to confront, in their own particular yet related ways. Together, they present blackness, black corporeality, black existence – both in Africa and in the African Diaspora – as a site of great struggle, with some victories, but the struggle is ubiquitous, it is continuous, it is cosmic, it is seemingly eternal.

Over the three months that I watched, read and experienced the four works cited in this essay, I also listened to theologian and writer J. Kameron Carter present blackness as something else – a site of true spirituality. In a podcast recorded at Fuller Theological Seminary, Carter presents blackness as a kind of spiritual practice, the forms of life together created at the bottom of slave ships where black bodies are forced to be in contact, in the fields where a “violent arithmetic” reduces them to items on a balance sheet. Yet it is these spaces that are the possibility for alternative practices of the sacred.

In Carter’s reading, blackness as practiced in community always open, always accommodating, there’s always room for one more at the table, and this is how black communities survive – before Dylan Roof shot and killed nine worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, they welcomed him to join them for bible study, and later he said that the warm welcome he received almost made him not go through with the shooting.

This openness makes black communities vulnerable to infiltration, sabotage and attack, but also, paradoxically, makes them impossible to eliminate completely, because they are always renewing themselves in community, together, even through the forced intimacies enforced upon black bodies. “It is a kind of sociality that presumes embrace, not protection,” says Carter, “If there’s any self-defence for blackness is that it keeps on loving, which is why it can’t be killed… which is, in some curious way, a kind of self-defence.”

In other words, the vulnerability and finitude of individual bodies (in Greek, soma), is transfigured in and through community into the messy, unbounded, resilience of the flesh (in Greek, sarx). Blackness is more like flesh than it is like body, as Carter sees it, where flesh is a mode of material life where we are composed in relationship to each other, like compost. “Compost is a number of things put together. You can’t say compost is this, and not that – compost is compositional, it is many things put together…Blackness is like flesh in that way, it is always in touch with everything else, it is unbordered and non-exclusionary.”

This, as painful as it is, is true spiritual practice – a possibility of life together that makes something beautiful from the rubble, from the disaster around us. I was thinking about this on that perfect day in March as I laughed and played Cornhole in the embrace of a family I had just met in Alabama, until my wrist, in fact, my body, gave out.

Continue Reading

Culture

Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species

Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol faced numerous rejections from publishers before the collection was eventually published in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success. Yet, over 50 years since Okot’s encounter, poetry still appears at the bottom of the publishers’ priority list.

Published

on

Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species
Download PDFPrint Article

A friend, Evelyne Ongogo, a budding poet who had an anthology of her poems titled, ‘Dichol and Other Poems’ and ‘Breaking the Burdens’ published by non-mainstream publishers a few years back, sent me two of her latest anthologies titled, ‘The eye of the smiling sun’ and ‘Beautiful shards of the maiden pot’. Both these collections are published by what we would call fringe publishers – this could be a euphemism for self-publishing. I read the three collections and was struck by the quality of the writing. However, a nagging thought refused to melt away; the fringe publishing company. I wondered about poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing. I stopped to reflect on the last time a major publishing house operating in Kenya had released an anthology of poetry.

A few weeks later, I attended a function where two poets, Adipo Sidang’ the author of Parliament of Owls an eclectic collection of poems shared the stage with the most amazing Ugandan writer, Mugabi Byenkya, author of Dear Philomena, a novel compiled from a series of social media messages, phone conversations and thoughts. It is as radical as they come. Both these artists read from their works and performed from the corpus of their work. Adipo’s declamatory performance contrasted Mugabi’s sombre reflections, yet both were powerful rendition of poems. This awakened nagging thoughts on poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing.

Speaking to Adipo after the conclusion of the event, he referenced his own experience and let out a tirade about the difficulty of publishing poetry in Kenya.   His frustration was obvious as he described the encounter with the mainstream publishers who flatly refused to even consider his work. Having faced so much rejection, he had virtually given up on the idea of publishing, yet when his work found a sympathetic eye to read even he was surprised that the verdict was that it was extraordinary.   His collection was published through an initiative supported by the Goethe Institute – not a mainstream publisher.   These tribulations reminded me of Okot p’Bitek’s frustrations when he first tried to get Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol published. After many rejections, he eventually published the collection in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success and it has been said that many publishers who rejected the manuscripts regretted their poor judgement. Okot’s encounter with the publishers was over fifty years ago, but it seemed that the script remains. The poetry publishing terrain has not changed? “Poetry and Drama” Adipo Sidang’ declared, “occupy the bottom of the priority pile of the overly commercial minded Kenyan publishers.   Unless a book is likely to end up among the set-books recommended by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development that will result in huge sales , they will not publish it”.

Death of Language

Publishers, have over the years been accused of focusing on profit and sacrificing the artistic and cultural importance of creative expression. Poetry seems to have suffered more than all the other literary genres. In the foreword of Dichol, the late Professor Christopher Lukorito Wanjala, the renown literary critic who taught in Kenyan Universities for over forty years, wrote his reflection on poetry: ‘We wondered whether poetry was still read, enjoyed and appreciated, by secondary school students. We concluded that poetry is too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation.”

Why would the late literature don doubt the position occupied by poetry in the secondary school language and literature syllabus? This is especially intriguing, because he reiterates the essential position poetry occupies among the corpus of literature genres in the learning of language.   Professor Wanjala must have been alluding to a past era when secondary students read and enjoyed poetry as an integral part of learning of English language. Literature, is creative expression of a language, and as such, is a product of mastery and competence in that language. Literature is to language what algebra is to numbers.   Whereas one can speak a language enough to get away with it, consuming, appreciating and enjoying (and creating) the literature created in a language is akin to the numeric ability and competence used in solving algebraic equations. It goes beyond simple addition, subtraction and multiplication.   It follows, that if secondary school students are not reading, enjoying and appreciating literature and poetry, their mastery of the language, any language, is stunted at its most will remain at the rudimentary level.

If there was recognition of the primacy of literature in the teaching of language, and poetry being among the genres of literature, why would it be that the production of material for the learning and enjoyment of poetry be considered a non-commercially viable enterprise? Could it be that the importance attached to linguistic dexterity that the good professor alluded to, is lost on us?

Recently, a letter purportedly written by a University student leader went viral on social media. Though the subject of the memo was tragic, a student at that university had been shot dead by thugs during a robbery, what caused consternation was the poor language and paucity of grammar sense in the memo. Many commentators were left wondering how a university-level student could write such an incomprehensible memo. To be fair to the student, there were some who did not understand what the fuss was all about!!

The tragic inability of this student to express himself raised questions surrounding standards of English in our education system. The fact that English is the only language of instruction in our education system elevated this concern to crisis level. Was this student able to understand what was being taught and how would he respond to his examiners. Returning to poetry one could ask, with this kind of limited language could this student actually read, enjoy and appreciate poetry?

The crafting of a memo might not be considered a literary exercise, but it calls for one to utilise language creatively in order to communicate a message. In that process of communication, an individual uses a distinct style and voice, they chose their words carefully to create the desired impact. The tone of the memo, in this case announcing the demise of a fellow student, should have conveyed the solemnity of the message.   The gravity of the student leader’s appeal to the institution’s administration to do something to ensure the security of the student body should have been contained in the choice of words. Stylistics, is the study of distinctive styles found in literary expression and even a memo such as the one referenced here, was roundly criticised because it was subjected to a stylistic analysis. Herein lies the reason for Professor Wanjala’s lament. The skill to read, enjoy and appreciate writing is taught through literature and more so in poetry. Neglect of poetry in particular, and literature in general, is likely to result in the production of a generation that is ‘word deaf’ or those who cannot understand nuance and word-play. They will not ‘get it’ and what happens to one who goes through life totally at sea regarding things around them?

Poetry taught one to understand meaning that is stated and implied, it taught one to be a ‘wordsmith’ to know when irony, satire, hyperbole and sarcasm are in use. Figurative and colourful language, including proverbs are used in poetry and, as Chinua Achebe taught us, proverbs (and indeed other figurative language) are the palm-oil with which words are eaten! Will this generation not suffer from communication indigestion?

The Hollywood movie titled, Green Book bagged several awards at this year’s Oscar awards. The anti-racism storyline carries a powerful message about intrinsic human nature, and the power of friendship. It tells the story of an unemployed working class Italian-American bouncer who, out of desperation, takes up a job as a driver/bodyguard to a brilliant African American classical pianist traversing the American South in the 60s. This is at the height of the American Civil rights campaigns and racial segregation and lynching was rife. The reversed race roles of Black master and White subordinate ignite the initial spark in a movie that is loaded with nuances. The race stereotype-based assumptions in the movie abound, as expected, but the most fascinating interaction between Merhashala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, playing Don Shirley and Tony Lip respectively, happens when Shirley, the African American, coaches the barely literate clueless white driver how to compose a love letter. Tony’s vocabulary bank is totally overdrawn, he being a man accustomed to using his fist. His distressed attempts at communicating his feelings and emotions to his wife are salvaged by Shirley who injects linguistic flair and poetry into the letters. After much coaching, Tony eventually, catches on and is able to express his feelings and emotions to his wife in poetic language. His letters cause a sensation back at home among the womenfolk unused to such elevated highfalutin expression. When Tony returns from his work-trip, he is welcomed by an extremely elated and charmed spouse, totally enamoured by his communication. Without the benefit of a formal poetry lesson, Tony is walked through a stylistic course at the end of which he is able to read, enjoy, appreciate and create poetry and when he does he is the better for it. Tony’s poetry results in a revolution within and without.

Complexity

Poetry has had the reputation of being ‘hard’ and in his allusion to the threat of ‘oversimplification’ Professor Wanjala acknowledges that poetry has by nature to be complex. At the same time, he applauds the late poet Okot p’Bitek for simplifying poetry and making it more accessible. Wanjala, must have been making a distinction between simplification in terms of form, but not the complexity of the thoughts and feelings expressed via poetry. Many who went through poetry lessons were scarred to the bone, especially by the likes of poets like the late Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka who took pride in writing esoteric poetry that was supposedly for the initiated and select few and not the masses. Deciphering their works was like solving algebraic problem. One could argue that complicated language used just for its own sake, does not support the need for communication. However, there are critics like Horace Goddard in a review of Interpreters, considered to be among the most obscure of Soyinka’s work in prose, who assert that the complexity in Soyinka’s language was reflective of the complicated issues bedevilling Nigeria. In order to express these issues, he had to coin a language that could capture the complexity. He also argues that when a non-native speaker is using an adopted language there is the challenge of appropriating a language enough to give it a distinct identity other than the original. In this case Soyinka’s English must be distinct from that of any other native English speaker. Could the ‘difficultness’ of poetry be the reason that it has repelled secondary school readers and hence it’s a case of the enemy within?

Many who studied language and literature in the days that Prof Wanjala nostalgically refers to, will recall that the literary genres were handled separately: prose – usually represented by the novels or short stories, drama and poetry. Poetry stood out and retained a certain alien quality, even though there were African and Kenyan poets writing. Whereas the novel was domesticated early, and publishers embraced African novelists and provided them a publishing platform, the same opportunity was not accorded poetry and drama. Poetry actually fared less favourably among the neglected siblings. A casual look at the published works under the African Writers Series set up by Heinemann Educational Books Limited the leading publishers of literary work by Africans at that time, demonstrates the bias.   For every poetry collection published, there are twenty extended prose works. Drama does not fare any better. Could this bias have originated from the colonial hangover that concluded that the extended prose form was easily identifiable as an African art and literary form more akin to African storytelling – with a higher chance of commercial success – as compared to poetry and drama? Would it be plausible to speculate that this racist notion actually informed the commercial decision that saw publishing opening up for novelist and not poets? Could the bias against poetry that Adipo Sidang’ recounted a few weeks ago actually have begun well in the sixties? When we reflect on the ground-breaking work by Okot p’Bitek this speculation gains some traction.

Quality versus Quantity

Okot’s attempts to get published by the mainstream publishers faced headwinds. It was difficult to convince publishing houses that Song of Lawino fitted the narrow definition a poem, especially because Okot had called it ‘Wer pa Lawino’ and ‘song’ was not considered a literary genre. This was even though there were western ‘songs’ like Odyssey and Iliad by Homer. Wer, was maybe considered too simple in form.   What Wanjala considered its strength, was probably seen as the one feature that excluded it from consideration.   Okot’s poem has been hailed as among the most lucid discourses on the process of deculturalisation of the African by western education and religion. Professor Andrew Gurr, who served as head of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and Okot p’Bitek’s colleague in an inaugural lecture, analysed Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol and explained how they articulated the theme of cultural conflict with deep insight. He went on to compare Okot’s poem to other post-colonial writing and accorded it plaudits as high as other celebrated works. Wanjala recognises Okot for having launched an African poetry tradition in print with his Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. He recognises Evelyne Ongogo, among others, for keeping aflame the song tradition, and he celebrates her for demystifying poetry as an art form and rekindling the interest in African poetry.   Professor Wanjala draws a line between oversimplification and demystification and identifies the former as a threat. He says, ‘We concluded that poetry was too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation’.

My discussion with Adipo Sidang’ explored the role played by social media in the ‘publication’ of poetry. He acknowledged that because publishers had shunned poetry, poets retreated to the blogosphere. This alternative platform is wonderful for poets to share their work, but Sidang’, like Professor Wanjala, acknowledged that this free forum poses a serious challenge of quality. While the great thing is that there is an outlet for free expression, there are many blogs where what passes as poetry would not pass the test of quality. There is a notion that poetry can exist devoid of any standards of quality.   Austin Bukenya, among the foremost poets and teachers avers that, ‘a good poem is made up of a competent fusion of strong feelings and well-structured expression’. The latter part of this definition is most important, ‘well-structured expression’ especially in the face of the proliferation of ‘free verse’ on the social media platforms. Experimentation is fine, but anything done for its own sake defeats the purpose.   Free verse is not formless verse; it endeavours to creatively establish its own patterns that best suits what the poet is trying to communicate. When words are thrown together helter-skelter simply to achieve a rhyming or rhythmical effect it results in the oversimplification that Professor Wanjala lamented. Poems, are not simply about rhyme and rhythm, though these elements are crucial for performance poetry.

Performance and Poetic Roots

Performance poetry has a long tradition in Africa, and indeed Okot’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol actually are, or are crafted on the template of traditional Acoli song performance. The Spoken word has emerged as a unique genre within poetry and its growth has been fuelled by the ‘open mic’ tradition that allowed poets to present their poems to a live audience. In the 80s the universities popularised ‘Poetry Nite’ where any poet was free to present their poems to the student body. This is the period of state paranoia and being found with ‘subversive literature’ was the easiest way of ending up as a state guest. Oral performance of political protest poetry caught on as an unintended consequence. Thankfully, it was before the days of mobile phones with video recording capability with which evidence of subversion’ could have been captured.   Bold original poems were recited, enjoyed and appreciated.

The ‘open mic’ sessions were highly influenced by the African American and Jamaican spoken word artist like Mutaburuka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gill Scott Heron and others. These spoken word traditions were heavily influenced by the musical tradition – mainly reggae, soul, blues and jazz and used word play, intonation and voice inflection to communicate. The soul of performance poetry, and spoken word, lies in the musical and lyrical poetic tradition. In our case it seems like many of the artists performing poetry and spoken word have tried to borrow these ‘foreign’ traditions hence are unable to adequately manipulate them. The result is the free verse that Bukenya describes as a travesty.

The Swahili language ‘Ngonjera’ poetic tradition provides a model upon which Kenyan performance poetry can be authentically modelled. Ngonjera is a call-response poetic performance with two opposing sides of a group, or single performers engaging in a battle of wits and rhyme tackling any emerging issue. One performer poses a question or challenge and the other answers as much wit as possible. However, to date the tradition has not evolved, remaining relatively monotonous, but offers great potential for evolving into a rich form of poetry presentation. A more complicated oral poetic form is the Gichaandi – a traditional Gikuyu oral poetry recitation that uses proverbs and riddles and can be performed by one or by two contesting Gichaandi performers in ‘burn out’ format. The loser among the duo is the one who faces a challenge that they are unable to respond to, or respond in manner that is deemed to be inarticulate. The Gichaandi art form is among those that can be described as dying and so is Khuswala Kumuse performed among the Bukusu.

Khuswala is recited as part of the funeral rites of a great departed individual.   The recitation details the lineage and history of the departed individual and his history with time, the experts in oral history are dying off and the art form is becoming rarer even as western tradition slowly edge out the traditional Bukusu culture.   Among the Luo funeral dirges, sigiiya are among the most resilient. These are usually individual performances unaccompanied by instruments and poetically express the relationship between the mourner and the deceased and also encapsulates the loss experienced by their departure.

This sample of oral poetry traditions is by no means exhaustive. The young generation of poets that Professor Wanjala is afraid might end up oversimplifying poetry could do well to research into these forms and use them as a model. Building a critical mass of consumers of poetry, will convince publishers that a market could be cultivated for poetry. The responsibility of convincing publishers, who are investors like any other and would like to put their investment where there is return, lies with the current crop of poets. The challenge that social media poses is that of ensuring that quality prevails.   There are those who would argue that the market forces will determine high quality because it will rise to the top.   However, the challenge remains, that if literature is not being taught, and especially stylistics, then the consumer will be unable to read, enjoy and appreciate poetry and that way the vicious cycle that has condemned poetry to the bottom of the literary pile will prevail and so will the quality of language.

Continue Reading

Trending