Friday, June 12, 2020


Understanding Revolutionary Literature

n his internationally acclaimed and multi-award winning "Zaire and the African Revolution," Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu contends that African revolution did not end with the attainment of political independence from Europe. This revolution has a "continuous nature" since "The colonial system was imposed and maintained by various instruments involving violent, economic, political, religious and cultural dimensions, and all of which must be dismantled. The process of dismantling them goes on far beyond the formal achievement of political independence."

Frans Fanon who witnessed African independence classifies the literature of colonized people into three categories in "The Wretched of the Earth." The first is the assimilationist narrative where the native writer's literature "corresponds point by point with those of his opposite number in the mother country. His inspiration is European and we can easily link up these works with definite trends in the literature of the mother country. This is the period of unqualified assimilation."

The second is what he calls literature just-before-the-battle. The native writer's work is "dominated by humour and allegory; but often too it is symptomatic of a period of distress and difficulty where dead is experienced, and disgust too." The third category is the fighting literature, "…instead of according the people's lethargy an honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature."

The Fanonian revolutionary literature aims at dismantling the instruments of subjugation that Ekpebu talks about. Secondly, it exposes the corruption of the local ruling class. Finally, it tends to favour a second liberation war by the lumpen whom political independence did not translate to a commensurate socio-economic victory. Black writers who subscribe to this literary form can be defined as revolutionary, or militant, writers whether they are in Africa or not. For them there is nothing like art for art sake as literature must address the social condition of the environment it originates from.

Fanon, Steve Biko and James Cone did much in shaping the contents of revolutionary literature in the 1960s. The canonical writers of African literature, namely, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa' Thiongo and Wole Soyinka, explored the violence that came with political independence in "There was a Country," "Petals of Blood" and "The Man Died." Ayi Kwei Armah, Ben Okri, Okot P' Bitek, etc, were unsparing in their condemnation of political perfidy.

Okejoto Gochua's collection of poems, "Choruses from the Water Front," captures the angst and tragedy of the Nigerian state. Unlike certain Niger Delta writers, he is pan-Nigerian weighing in on "Indices of our poverty/Echo from Akasa to Kongolam," (Our Dying sun). His themes include poverty, violence, exile, black culture and identity. Gochua belongs to the 21st Century black revolutionary writers whose works are a case study in alienation. His overwhelming argument is that the modern African state is inherently violent for higher aspirations calling for some form of response.

Gochua and Defensive Violence

Nigeria reduces its inhabitants to denizens having robbed them of their humanity, "Suffering self-respect/In a world we didn't make," (Awake). The poet mocks those who passively resign to fate, "Float, float, and sail home/Into the prison prepared for you," (A Horizon within). He reminds them that the fault is not in those who dehumanize them but in the victims themselves, "Prisoners of our own making," (A Horizon within). The day the victims say enough is enough, that day would their liberation come because life is what you make out of it, "Life's what I have chosen/There's no more/Death for me," (Strife).

Institutional violence calls for vigorous response and the poet asks, "What can we do to break a vicious circle?" (A Chorus from the waterfront). The only feasible solution, if the down-trodden must rise again, is defensive violence, "Let our splintered cries/Send those who kill our will/To thunder-land,/…Kill those who kill the soul," (A Chorus from the waterfront). Gochua is not the first writer to advocate defensive violence in political liberation. Fanon favoured similar means: In the vicious struggle between the powerful oppressor and the powerless oppressed, the latter can only win through searing bullets and blood-stained knives.

According to Ekpebu, Malcom X also favoured defensive violence. Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were both fighting for black liberation and protection from white racism and sponsored black-on-black violence. Whereas Malcolm X favoured active resistance, Dr King was for passive resistance that followed the Biblical injunction of turning the other cheek. But peace was their common denominator as they were two sides of the same coin.

Malcom X was saying that the black man was entitled to full protection from America, to which he now belonged considering that his ancestors built it with their blood, sweat and tears. But if America for any reason was unwilling, or unable, to protect him from internal violence, then the black man had to find a way to defend himself by means no less violent. That is defensive violence.

White America responded by accusing Malcolm X of inciting violence while saying nothing about the security challenges he was alluding to. Ekpebu believed it was the "wrong interpretation" of Malcom X that made the establishment support Dr King. This indirectly accelerated black liberation as whites feared the rising popularity of Malcom X over Dr King. In the end, both were claimed by the same internal violence they fought against (Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu's "Amotekun: Security Begins with You." Business Day Sunday, 16th February 2020, p. 33).

Cultural Emancipation

Black militant writers see themselves as having the historic duty of correcting Western misconceptions about African history and culture. Theirs is the direct opposite of The White Man's Burden, which claims that God laid on the white man the moral burden of civilizing the primitive African. In "The Novelist as a Teacher," Achebe states, "I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past-with all its imperfections-was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them."

To understand Gochua's cultural project we must appreciate the times he writes in. Cultural diversity, the wake-up call of the globalized 21st Century, has worked mainly in reverse. Fastly eroding are the mores of Africans. A monologue of consumerism, championed by the satellite television, internet and cell phone, is the order of the day. Vocal social minorities, like homosexuals and monied NGOs, stole the show from voiceless ethnic minorities. It was only a question of time before those on the margin begin their protest. Gochua's poetry is a case in point. We shall look at his quest for authentic black origin and return to the religion of his ancestors.

Black Origin

As long as black origin is concerned, the poet disclaims Biblical monogenesis for the traditional creation story, "We came from the seas/Upon the land many years ago/…After the waters it is the rainbow/And the fire speaks with thunderbolt/Thunder that roars like the fear of death/Death that cometh out of fire…/… Far from the waters of the beginnings" (Before the Chorus).

Bearing in mind that Charles Darwin's Evolution Theory also points to the sea as the cradle of all life forms, it makes sense to interrogate what the poet means by "We came from the seas/Upon the land many years ago/…waters of the beginnings." Darwin's teaching, though a negation of the Biblical creation story, was popular with the Colonialist and missionary alike. The colonialist justified his violence against the African whom Darwin claimed was closest to the beast at the very bottom of the evolutionary ladder. For the missionary, Darwinism was an open invitation to The White Man's Burden.

Gochua appears not impressed by Darwinism. His Urhobo ontology clearly states that the world was created and so the three lines could only mean that created man voyaged from some unknown realm to the present Niger Delta. The poet never identifies the force behind man's creation. But from the Urhobo traditional religion this force could be no other than Oghene, the Supreme Being. Finally, note the universality of this traditional creation story with creation stories elsewhere. The natural elements of water, land, years, rainbow, fire, thunder and death were brought together, or united, in a sequential order to create man.

Ancestral Worship

Cone and Biko see the futility in the oppressed black man seeing his God through the lens of white theologians who were partners in the colonization project. Biko rejects the eschatological interpretation of the Bible in favour of Black Theology that "…seeks to relate the present-day black man to God within the given context of the black man's suffering and his attempt to get out of it. It shifts the emphasis of man's moral obligations from avoiding wronging false authorities… to being committed to eradicating all cause for suffering…." (Steve Biko, "The Church as Seen by a Young Layman," in "I Write What I like." Picador Africa. Page 64).

Gochua, unlike Black Theologians who accept the Bible but reject its Western interpretation, is total in his rejection of Christianity, "In the valley of the gods/Beyond Byzantine secrets;/Beyond whitened sepulchre/With sucked in breath, I reject you" (Ogbuma). He is unease with this alien religion from "Across the heavy seas/Over and above the/Groves of mushrooms" (Ogbuma). "Grove of mushrooms" is the abode of evil in popular mythology.

He favours ancestral worship as evident in his adoration of the Ogbuma goddess, "Mystery of a naked goddess, Ogbuma/At night my bride, by day my mother," (Ogbuma). As his "bride" and "mother," Ogbuma is the metaphor for self-redemption. If White theologians attain spiritual Salvation through the intervention of Saints Thomas of Aquinas, Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc, the poet attains same through the Ogbuma goddess.