Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

Centre for African Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT

Tel: 0113 343 5069
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LUCAS Schools Project coordinator

Richard Borowski

Warriors of a Failed Utopia? – Femi Osofisan

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 61 (1996), pp. 11-36]


by Femi Osofisan

The Second Annual African Studies Lecture given at the University of Leeds on the 24th April 1996


Please.       Stop the dirge.         I want to dream

– Kofi Anyidoho

It is Spring again, after the cold, enshrouding months of Winter. And in Spring – every song in the air celebrates it – there is rejuvenation. But there is, also, the lingering memory of death. In this parable of mingled astonishment, this lecture today advisedly frames itself.

For of course, as some of you will know already or at least suspect, my presence here today is haunted by grief. By grief, and by pain, because given the present unfortunate circumstances of my country, and the general predicament of the geographical area we have mapped as West Africa, I am constrained to speak to you, with anguish as my primary drumstick. Especially, I speak with the wounds of loss. Saro Wiwa as you know, has gone, the small man with his pipe. So also have Zulu Sofola, the playwright some of us loved to quarrel with; Efua Sutherland, that pioneering genius of anansegoro, whom we fondly referred to as Auntie; and others: Ayo Mamudu and Sesan Ajayi, young poets prematurely wasted by the ravages of SAP, our Structural Adjustment Programme; and most painful of all, Sony Labou Tansi, poet-novelist-playwright and theatre director of immense talent, with whom for a couple of months I once shared the sea and the aromatic gardens of the neighbourhood of La Napoule on the Mediterranean coast. All of them are gone, along with several others. In different guises and varied circumstances, Death came and claimed his debt. For all these ghosts, who will always remain among us because of the books they left behind, I beg your indulgence to sing this dirge from one of my plays:

Igi nsubu – o nsubu o

Sugbon ojo a tun de e – ojo ro,

Igi a ruwe yeye:

Odo ngbe – o ngbe o

Sugbon ojo a tun ro – ojo ro,

Odo a si ma son lo:

Odo a kun pada ni!


Sugbon omo oraye

Emi ekan ma nii

Ko si ni paro:

Iku aremapada o!

Iku aremapada o!

[Trees fall

But then it rains

And trees regain their leaves

Rivers go dry

But then it rains

And the rivers are laughing again

But the human being

Has only this life alone,

With no replacement:

Death’s a journey of no return…]

Osofisan, 1995: 65-6

To all of them then, I say. Orun re o! May their souls rest in peace.

But if you remember, my dear friends, I began with the image of Spring, and of its manifold paradoxes. In Africa, we do not believe that there is anything in Nature which is without its contradiction. Darkness exists, only because there is a daylight to dissolve it; the season of rain yields to harmattan; Ogun’s iron serves the rituals of initiation and harvest, but also those of carnage and death. And even death itself is not a terminus, but rather, the prologue to transition, to metamorphosis.

In this regard therefore, it is important for us to recognise that, even in the presence of grief, there will always be found the seeds of laughter. In the savannah, there are anthills [Achebe, 1987]. True, our continent is bedevilled by all kinds of problems, some of horrendous proportions; true, there is much brutality and violence on our streets; true, there is widespread misery and squalor in many homes; and true, the relationship between several of our governments and the people they claim to serve is that of naked terror and abuse. But even with all these, as that trope of Spring suggests, there is also in Africa incommensurable delight. Beyond the savageries, beyond the wanton cruelties, are acres and acres of generosity, of the purest compassion. Indeed, – and this is really the point I will be discussing today – there is continuous, unrelenting resistance going on all the time against the negative forces in our society. And because of this resistance, the flame of hope will continue to burn for us, and our future can never be either completely bleak, or void.

Yes, we need to remind ourselves constantly of this important fact that, against the scorching blisters of what the novelist Ahmadou Kourouma has described as our “suns of independence” [Kourouma: 1968], and against the current rampage of the vultures whom musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti appropriately named our “opposite people”, there is among our people a heroic resilience, a resilience which fuels, and is in turn fuelled by, a remarkable, humanising faith.

And so, in spite of the spectre of grief so conspicuously settled on my shoulders, it is this story of resistance, this emblem of hope, that I have come to unfurl before you this afternoon. I want to point out, using the platform of literature, that while all these negative anecdotes are indeed a true feature of our socio-political landscape, it is no less true that there are individuals, along with social groups, refractory movements, and so on, who are actively engaged in confronting the ills of our societies. That in spite of the tremendous odds against them, and often at grave risks to their own lives, a number of people and forces still exist in Africa who have refused to succumb to evil, and instead have committed themselves to the struggle for a better society.

I have remarked, on my journeys outside the continent, that spontaneously, wherever the subject of Africa is mentioned, a wail of lament and commiseration fills the air. Whether I am talking with other Africans or with foreign friends who are concerned about the fate of our continent, the subject of our conversation is always invariably an exchange of information about the latest atrocities back home. And of course the data we have to share is copious, whether about the most recent instance of the kleptomania of our governments, or the insane or burlesque excesses of our parasitic ruling elites, or less frequently, because of our own specific class locations no doubt, of the unending agonies of the common people and their unheeded cries for deliverance. Always we regale ourselves with these re-circulated catalogues of woe, as if we were condemned to reconfirm to ourselves again and again, that indeed, as the Malian novelist Yambo Ouologuem reveals, our continent were truly and eternally “bound to violence” [Ouologuem: 1968].

I myself, of course have been just as guilty of this automaton conduct. Just as readily as others, and with the same perverse relish, I have found myself chattering greedily about our shortcomings like weaverbirds. To do otherwise in fact is almost impossible, for the evidence which accumulates daily about the tragedies of our continent is always so frightening, so absurdly grotesque, and our sense of humiliation and betrayal by our leaders so overwhelming, that we find ourselves trapped unwittingly in this rote role of self-flagellation.

I want to suggest, in this lecture, a different scenario from all this, a scenario which I believe might inspire us with a different response to the fate of our continent. I want to see, if in this opening season of Spring, we can begin to fight against our pervasive propensity for sadness, if we can begin to look at our continent a bit more truthfully, and therefore a little more hopefully.


Our laughter these several seasons is the simper-

Ing sadness of the ox which adores the yoke,

The toothless guffaw of empty thunders

In epochs of unnatural drought

The season calls for the lyric of other laughters…

Niyi Osundare

I am beginning to suspect that, by concentrating as we do, on the redolent antics of the “destroyers” among us – I am using Ayi Kwei Armah’s term – without at the same time making an equivalent acknowledgement of the role of those who fiercely oppose them, we may be merely celebrating, without knowing it, our meek acceptance of the status quo, our willingness to let things continue as they are, and by inference, our refusal or unwillingness to participate in any concrete efforts to alter the situation. If this is the truth, then our show of defeatism, this voyeuristic glee we display at the failures of our countries, may be nothing more in the end than the open face of an insidious surrender to evil; or worse, the code of our implicit collaboration with it.

The question to ask is this – why is it that we hardly make those positive fighters, those rebels against our Establishments, the subjects of our conversations? Why are our dialogues hardly ever about their struggles, or about what we too can do, from our safe havens abroad, to aid and strengthen them? Why do we always talk only about our sufferings and not about our struggles? Why only about those who inflict horror on our people, and rarely about those who are resisting them and are constructing new dreams for our people? These questions are important, because to me, the contributions that both the African exiles and our foreign Africanist friends can make to the liberation of our homeland is so immeasurable, that it cannot and should not be discounted. Just as in the example of South Africa, where such contributions from the diaspora became so critical to the liberation movement, so it could be to us in West Africa and elsewhere, where soldiers nowadays continuously scuttle the democratic process.

But I am suggesting that it is the failure to identify with, and lend support to, the centres of struggle and active revolt in our homeland that has so far tended to prejudice our view of the future, and of our own roles in it. And in particular, since our subject today is literature, I want to suggest that one of the reasons for our undiluted pessimism, for this rampant and persistent failure of vision, is the refusal of our people in the diaspora to read the works produced by our authors at home, or if they do read them, to positively interpret them.

Newspapers of course we read regularly, or nowadays, the Internet. But not our poets. We read of these events that move us to shame or despair; but not of the poet’s reflections on them, these seeds of wisdom which the writer helps to extract from such events, the conclusions which would help us better to understand, and hence master our destiny. We read the journalist’s reports, but the writer’s musings which go beyond those photographic recollections to teach and empower us, pass unheard. And so we miss a crucial aspect of our reality, that aspect which deals with the other side of our sad condition, with the stories of those heroes who are fighting against the injustices of our societies, and who, in the works of our creative writers, are inspiring legends. I am saying that, in a way that the reports of journalism cannot do, or often fail to do, literature, if only we will read it, can offer us a comprehensive picture of our countries and our peoples, which is capable of arming us against despondency, and our feeling of helplessness.

As an example, the work produced in West Africa since the late ’70s, is a collective record not only of the vicissitudes of our people’s march in history, but also of their struggles and courage, of their epic resistance to oppression and exploitation. It is a literature which not only describes our conflicts, but also informs us about the actors involved, about their strategies, their set-backs as well as their triumphs. It is a literature, finally, whichteaches us and assuredly, of the eventuality of victory. Read properly – and I am using this word deliberately here, to mean reading from a perspective which assumes that literature possesses, and seeks to share, a set of values; the kind of reading which, unfortunately, postmodernism seeks to discredit – the literature will inspire us against this despair that I notice everywhere. We will not be blind to the failures of our societies of course; quite the contrary! But while knowing, we will not be defeated by them. Even as we tremble beneath the long and awesome shadow of emperors, we will learn, through the rich resources of fable and metaphor, of how to resist them, and bring back the light.


“A map of the world which does not include utopia is not even worth glancing at.”

Oscar Wilde

“Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its destiny, and either fulfil it, or betray it. “

Frantz Fanon

It was in the mid-’70s that the literature I am referring to began to appear [1]. At that time, if you recall, a number of young men and women, who had received their initial education at home, but had then gone off to pursue graduate studies abroad, began to return to their countries.

That brief sojourn in foreign countries, at a very impressionable period of their lives, left decisive imprints on their personalities. It opened their eyes to modernity and the wonders of a modern, industrial and technological economy. It weaned them of any inferiority complex vis-a-vis the white people, with whom they had shared the classrooms. [In fact, many of them returned with white spouses! ]. The result of this was that they returned with considerable self-assurance and optimism, with eloquent plans about the future of their societies and how they were going to accomplish them.

They had many things in common: first, most of them had been born in the years of the Second World War, had come to adolescence in the so-called years of Independence, and while still at school, witnessed the gradual collapse of the first post-independence civilian governments. But unlike their elders, they were saddened, but not daunted, by these abortive beginnings. They had had the benefit of a much wider education, and were more aware of the play of the exigencies of geopolitical forces.

For the budding writers among them therefore, these factors led to significant shifts in both their literary preferences and their ideological orientations. For instance, whereas their elders had participated side by side with the politicians in the fight for independence, and so were expectedly more disheartened by the latter’s betrayal once they came into office, the young writers had not experienced any such collaboration or deception. Thus they could be simultaneously critical of the foibles of the politicians in office, and at the same time less pessimistic about the possibility of finding people of greater integrity and competence to replace them. Where their elders were disillusioned, and cynical, they were excitingly, perhaps naively, enthusiastic and idealistic. Add to this the fact that, in the western intellectual circles where they had had their education, the reigning ideal of the time was the theology of Marxism. Through activists and scholars like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, Frantz Fanon and others, the young writers who began to take up positions in the higher institutions at Legon, Dakar, Abidjan, Ibadan, and so on, had come to learn that Marxism could rapidly transform their societies for the better, help project them with amazing speed into the technological world of the twentieth century, without the cruel, intermediary processes of capitalism, just like it had done in the Soviet Union. All these would be possible, moreover, through communism, a system which was evidently closer to the traditional communalism of our African societies. And this allure of the Left was further reinforced by the fact that it was the Russian, and other leftist governments, which had consented to lend legitimacy, and give concrete assistance, to the African liberation movements.

For many of us – since it is my generation we are talking about – for many of us, who had ourselves risen from lowly peasant or urban working backgrounds, Marxism was without dispute the tool by which the vicious gap then already developing between the rich and the poor in our nascent nations would be halted and erased. It was also the formula by which our ideal of an egalitarian society would be achieved, out of the chaos of our underdevelopment. Therefore, we believed, if our leaders were incompetent, and our societies ailing, it was not primarily because of anybody’s villainy or of some fatal flaw in our makeup, as some racists preached – not even because of the deleterious after-effects of colonialism – but simply because of our failure to embrace the Marxist route to modernisation. In summary therefore, Marxism was there, as the open sesame to the door of Utopia. And all we had to do then was bring the majority of our people to this triumphant reading of history, and do battle with our ruling classes. But we were ready for such a confrontation, or else, what was all our training about? To despair in such circumstances, was only to escape into cowardice.

This understanding of history, and of our prospective role in it, led naturally to specific artistic choices and strategies. Even without a formal manifesto [2], we began to write from an implicit assumption of a communality of ideas. We were no longer interested, for instance, in the nostalgic voyages back to the past, on which Negritude drew its intimidating anthems. Instead, our focus was on the present state of our society, on unmasking the class forces at play within it, revealing the material sources of exploitation and injustice, demonstrating how the masses could liberate themselves. The individual heroes of the liberalist-humanist novels and plays before us went out of fashion: of greater pertinence now was the collective struggle, fought by the hero with a thousand faces, a thousand hands. The genre of tragedy became suspect, jettisoned because of its tendency to induce catharsis, to us a dreaded spiritual and psychological poison which we fearedcould lead our audience to acceptance, compromise, or fatalism. To be truly in tune with history, we insisted, one must show the victims winning over their oppressors, not being crushed by them, however metaphysically profound that sounded. For our agenda was to breed optimism and the joy of struggle, not the consolation for defeat. Our idol was Cabral, not Oedipus.

Naturally, the question of style and form had to be settled. Here, the crucial factor was the audience, since it is axiomatic that, for any communication to have an impact on its intended audience, it must first be made accessible to that audience. So we made a choice. Unlike our predecessors, we were no longer going to write primarily for the foreign audience, to persuade them either about our Negritude or Tigritude. Instead we were going to write for our own people in our own cities and villages. We would not seek foreign publishers even, since they would inevitably want to divert our writing towards their own commercial interests. But what about the problem of language?

Now the majority of our populations whom we were seeking to reach did not speak the European languages which our politicians, out of pragmatic expediency, had adopted as our lingua franca. But at the same time, we lived in a context where ethnic divisions were prolific, and easily served as alibi for thieving politicians. It was strategic therefore for us, that in the crusade to cleanse our countries, we should not instead further deepen the divisions among our people, that we as writers be not perceived as ethnic champions. So in the end, we had no option but to follow the example of our predecessors, only resolving nevertheless to travel further than they had done, first by fashioning an even more indigenous, more pliable version of the colonially imposed European language; and secondly, by proceeding in search of traditional, popular narrative and dramatic forms for our works. Now we were ready: the battle for Utopia could begin.


My blood is no longer mine, it is boiling

with the anger and hunger of the land…

Daemons of resistance are pacing about my head

Tanure Ojaide

…. look!   I cup lakes in my palms.

I fling oceans around me like a shawl

and am transformed

into a waterfall.

Abena Busia

It must be pointed out that, in fulfilling these goals we set for ourselves, the circumstances seemed especially auspicious. Conditions varied of course from one country to another, but generally speaking, the climate of those years certainly was receptive to the doctrine of commitment in art, perhaps because artists and audience were equally impassioned by the desperate search for quick panaceas to our socio-political problems. The period also witnessed a rapid expansion in the number of educational institutions, from the primary to the tertiary, as the new states fought gallantly for the eradication of illiteracy. This helpedto expand the audience for books and for literary and theatrical activities, as did also the creation of more media houses. And finally, the period saw the establishment of a number of indigenous publishing houses, all generally avid to promote the new writing.

It is so much the pity that, in a lecture like this, which seeks ambitiously to cover writing in the three main literary genres from so many countries over the period of so many years, I am constrained to speak only about the general tendencies and the most important authors. Also my canvass shall extend from River Senegal to the Congo, and for obvious reasons, shall exclude both the lusophone authors as well as our writers in the indigenous languages. Even with these restrictions, several of the authors, some of whom have been prominent in their countries for upwards of a decade now, will still have to be omitted, so prodigious has been the output. And for many I will not even be able to discuss their works, and you will just have to be content with a list of their names

In fiction for instance, the following are among the writers of this generation that I personally consider the most significant, with all the inevitable subjectivity this choice implies:

Emmanuel Dongala, Massa Makan Diabate, Ahmadou Kone, Abasse Ndione, Asse Gueye, Henri Lopes, Catherine Ndiaye, Ken Bugul, Naffi Diallo, Veronique Tadjo, Moussa Konate, Ibrahim Ly, Awa Keita, Ibrahim Tahir, Ifeoma Okoye, Zaynab Alkali, Alioune Fantoure, William Sassine, and so on.

For poetry, please include: Odia Qfeimun, Femi Oyebode, Afam Akeh, Femi Fatoba, Olu Oguibe, Harry Garuba, Catherine Acholonu, Tidjani-Serpos, Paul Dakeyo, etc.

And finally, for the theatre, we have names like Bode Sowande, Zadi Zaourou, Souleymane Koly, Prosper Kampaore, Olu Obafemi, Jean-Pierre Guingane, Bole Butake, Hansel Eyoh, Esiaba Irobi, Gaoussou Diawarra, Kossi Efoui, Moussa Konate, etc.

Perhaps we should deal with poetry first. Here the first major poet to break away decisively from the style and conventions of the first generation was Atukwei Okai. As I have mentioned elsewhere, in my essay entitled ‘The Nostalgic Dmm”[Osofisan, 1988], Okai was the first to try to take African poetry back to one of its primal origins, in percussion, by deliberately violating the syntax and lexicon of English, creating his own rhythms through startling phonetic innovations. Right from his first collection, entitled Flowerfall, 1969, Okai showed that he was not just aiming at speech, but at music and dance, – performance in fact, – through an innovative play of words sometimes employing a weird cocktail of lexical and phonic items assembled from disparate languages. It was an exciting adventure, as this fairly disciplined sample from “Dodowa Sonata” illustrates:

…If you listen hard enough, you

Will hear the

Smoke deserting this hearth

And this earth,

Fleeing through the thatched roof

Of grandmother’s hut,


They are selling silence

And teasing toads,

They are burning boats

And chewing stones,

They are burning boats

And fingering lions,

They are burying names

And laundering lakes,

They are sunning suns

And slaughtering songs…

And Okomfo Okomfo

You simply do not know

What fishes are flying

What monkeys are jumping

What snakes are standing

Within the Dodawa woods..

Kokotako Kokotako

Go and ask your mother—

Kokotako Kokotako

Go and ask your mother Hindu…

[Okai, in Sergeant: 84-5]

The dangers of this style – such as its excessive love of alliteration for instance – is already evident. Okai’s other faults included his sometimes uncontrollable eccentricity and exhibitionism, faults which sometimes made the exercise seem nonsensical [Anyidoho, 1979]. But at his best moments, in such poems as “Elavanyo Concerto”, celebrating Galileo, or most dramatically in his love poems, he could be truly arresting, as for example in “Dreamdom Communique to Valerieville”:

gigantic and gentle in our homing joy

we journey


the centre

of our


and the prairie fires in my skin all hail thee

and the honey hunters

in my lips

all hail thee

and the night antelopes

in my noon-cells

all hail thee

and the village milk-maids

in my marrow

all hail thee

and the leap-year dancers

in my hair

all hail thee

and the hoi poloi in my loins all crave thee

holy holy earthy glory;


[Okai, 1974:126-7]

Not surprising then, Okai’s declamatory style – a practice which he had originally learnt from Russia of the 1960s, where public performance of poetry was popular, and which he had then fused with traditional Ghanaian practices – this style soon caught on, and poets began to turn away from what Chinweizu and his friends described as “the Hopkins’ disease” [Chinweizu et al., 1985: 174], that is, from clumsy imitations of the European modernists, towards our indigenous oral traditions to find their own models. It is the result of this kind of experimentation that has produced possibly the three most successful poets of this generation, namely Tanure Ojaide, Kofi Anyidoho, and Niyi Osundare.

In three collections which appeared within a year of one another – Anyidoho’s Earthchild, ’85; Ojaide’s Labyrinths of the Delta, and Osundare’s The Eye of the Earth, both in ’86 -these poets triumphantly announced the coming of age of their generation. They had learnt from the late Christopher Okigbo, from Okai as well as from other contemporary oral performers, and their poetry became a euphonious blend of sense and sound, message and melody; free verses in which meaning inheres as much in the spoken words as in the pure arrangement of phonemes, and where the syllables structure themselves in a dialectical relationship with percussive signals, in such a manner as to be constantly suggestive of drama and ritual.

The Eye of the Earth, which won the Commonwealth Prize is, to my mind, the collection that best exemplifies the work of this generation. It contains all the attributes: the search for a style which re-enacts the auditory and gestural mannerisms of the oral tradition; a register of English that is not too complex or obscure; the free incorporation of pidgin as well as indigenous words and phrases whenever the poem demands it; the frequent borrowing of songs and refrains from the repertory of folklore to alternate with the spoken or chanted words; the constant call for musical accompaniment by traditional instruments; the use of cultivated assonances, neologisms, deliberate pastiche and oxymorons, and other figurative devices – all assembled in the service of a theme of social and political commitment that is of communal concern, passionate without being overtly didactic.

Osundare, who has always insisted that poetry is “not the esoteric whisper/ of an excluding tongue”, but rather “man/ meaning/ to/ man”[Osundare, 1983: 4], here takes up the problem of environmental pollution. His strategy here is first to recall the idyllic scenes of his youth in Ikere, a small town in western Nigeria, where he was born, and then to compare those memories to the realities of the present, where the land has been seized and subjected to systematic exploitation by various commercial interests. Thus the first movement of the three-part collection is a series of paeans to Nature, to the forests, streams, and rock hills of the town and to their mythical deities. From this the poet then proceeds, in the second movement, to sing the rain, which he describes as “arbiter between plenty and famine, life and death.” Then the book concludes on a third movement where the poet investigates the political causes of the environmental decline, and Ms rage falls on the agents of pollution and of our alienation from nature.

Musicality and simplicity; a subject of personal and collective interest; a lively experimentation with form, through an eclectic approach to versification, including the use of graphological signals; stresses and rhythms based on the conventions of Yoruba poetry rather than on the established codes of standard English grammar, – these and other devices comprise the strength and sensuous appeal of Osundare’s poetry. But the most important element, above all these, is the unwavering message of hope. In all his work, when Osundare has described the cruelties and the numerous errors of our political life, or the deep sufferings which these engender especially among the common folk, the poet never lets his works end on the note of despair. Always he makes it clear that his denunciations come from a platform of struggle, from the belief that humanity will triumph in the end over the forces of evil, that our earth will survive:

…Our earth will not die

Our earth will see again

Eyes washed by a new rain

The westering sun will rise again

resplendent like a new coin.

The wind, unwound, will play its tune

trees twittering, grasses dancing;

hillsides will rock with blooming harvests

the plains batting their eyes of grass and grace.

The sea will drink it’s heart’s content

when a jubilant thunder flings open the skygate

and a new rain tumbles down in drums of joy.

Our earth will see again

this earth, OUR EARTH.” [p 51]

If we read Osundare, we cannot be so despondent about our country, or just accept to fold our arms in acceptance of the whims of our ruling classes[3].

When we turn to fiction, several candidates also spring up. Works like Okpewho’s The Last Duty, with its dramatic plot; Saro Wiwa’s powerful Sozaboy, written in what he calls “rotten English”; Yambo Ouloguem’s iconoclastic, deconstructive Les Devoirs de Violence; Henri Lopes’ Le pleurer-rire, or Kourouma’s innovative Le soleil des independences, these are among the boldest and most accomplished, both in terms of their eloquent manipulations of the medium and their passionate and compelling themes. But I believe that the novel which best exemplifies the period is Festus Iyayi’s Heroes.

This book is an account of a crucial period during the Nigerian civil war, when Ojukwu’s Biafran forces invaded the then midwestern state of Nigeria, and had to be driven back by the federal forces. Iyayi, looking through the eyes of Osime Iyere, a journalist reporting the events, is able to capture the story for us from the perspective of the ordinary rank-and -file soldiers who, the writer finally shows us, are the real heroes, and not the irresponsible, callous generals. Thus the writer subverts the official historiography, as well as the egocentric accounts of the officers which were already in circulation, and in which each of them obviously won the war single-handedly.

Iyayi’s style and language, quite apart from his ideological mission, give a unique identity to this novel. The simple syntax and vocabulary show clearly that the novel is designed to be read by the ordinary people. But Iyayi also deliberately inserts into the writing, passages usually in italics, in which a sober analysis of the events being narrated is carried out. At every point the reader is led to question and examine, not just accept or hurriedly gloss over, the story he is being told. This technique, which would otherwise be tedious, is sustained by Iyayi’s constant sense of the dramatic, his ability to make the actions live even on the pages of the book. And the supreme moment of this of course is that spectacular climactic scene on Asaba bridge, when the Federal forces are ordered to carry out a more-or-less suicidal crossing and are tragically routed by the secessionist forces on the opposite bank.

In this novel therefore, as in Osundare’s poetry, we find the same identification by the novelist with the cause of the lower classes, along with the overt desire to raise their consciousness, demystify the terrifying image of their oppressors, and empower the ordinary people themselves for a more active role in the determination of their destiny. Writing then, it is obvious, is a weapon in the agenda of ideological indoctrination, in the movement towards Utopia.

Drama is perhaps without surprise, the area where these goals are most explicit, and perhaps best achieved. For, in the area of incorporating traditional oral forms, of building a direct bridge to the audience, by addressing their immediate concerns, the theatre is of course advantaged, since it deals with performance. This is the area therefore in which most of us have preferred to work. The works to be cited here include Senouvo Zinsou’s On Joue la comedie, Ola Rotimi’s Hopes of the Living Dead [4] Bode Sowande’s Tornadoes full of Dreams, Tess Onwueme’s Go Tell it to the Women, Zadi Zaourou’s L ‘Oeil, Bole Butake’s Lake God, etc.. But, since this is the area in which I myself have been most active, and have been judged successful, permit me the indulgence of picking on one of my own plays for illustration of the work in this area. After all, at the risk of sounding immodest, I have the authority of critics like Chris Dunton, to claim that Morountodun and Once Upon Four Robbers are exemplary.

Robbers [1980, but first produced two years earlier] is an attempt to renovate, for the modern stage, the traditional folktale narrative process, normally performed by one actor for the audience on moonlit nights. This frame of the folktale allows me to achieve three principal things – first, to seduce the audience into a close and intimate collaboration, into a game in which they would suddenly have to confront themselves like accusing judges; secondly, it allowed me, using the mask of entertainment, to broach a subject – that of the public execution of armed robbers – which at the time was a painful topic of controversy; and thirdly, in terms of theatrical development, to explore a novel synthesis of indigenous African and European dramaturgic traditions. Subtly therefore through this intercultural experiment, the play is able to bring the robbers themselves physically on stage to confront their victims, and by revealing the perfidy of the victims themselves, to unpack the social contradictions through which robbers and other deviants are produced. Song, dance and music; incantation and masking; spectacles in space (principally in the market scenes) humour and satire; all combine with skilful dialogue to provide an entertaining theatre that at the same time confronts the burning issues of the day. But still the most stunning innovation – for that time – was the play’s ending, when the scene of execution is brought abruptly by the narrator to a freeze, and the audience is asked to debate and decide the appropriate conclusion to the play.

Finally, of the large and growing body of literature by our women, I need to mention in particular Mariama Ba’s Une si longue lettre, Eno Obong’s Garden House, Buchi Emecheta’s novels, especially The Joys of Motherhood. Ba’s work is obviously the most significant achievement, and it is so well known now that we do not have to go into a long discussion of it. Personally of course I am averse to separating our women’s writing into a special category, as if all they write about is women’s matters and on nothing else. Sow Fall for instance is more concerned with the large issues of social engineering, as is Tess Onwueme. But Ba’s book is memorable, not only in its subject, which is the anguish-laden life of educated women in a patriarchal muslim society, itself in the process of a painful transition to modernity, but also because of its gripping style: the refreshing rebirth of the epistolary form, the simple, limpid language and vivid metaphors, reminiscent of classical French literature, and its manipulation of dramatic irony and suspense.

I will stop here, with these few examples, because of the limitation of time. I think my purpose has been clear: I am inviting you to turn your attention to our literature, in order to gain a total – “dialogic” is the current jargon – view of the situation of our countries, away from the partial, and always sensational accounts of the news media. This is not however because the writers hide away the diseased spots of our body politic, but because they do more than just exhibit them for titillation. They show us the positive sides, the parts of us that are capable of laughter and joy, of honesty and courage, of love. Furthermore, they demonstrate how the evil that is at present footloose in our society is not without opposition, without brave men and women mounting a heroic, and dangerous, struggle every day against it. From these, you will learn that there is hope too on our continent, not just bleak despair. And knowing that, you will probably be motivated toplay your part, and offer much-needed solidarity to these unsung forces committed to making our society strong and free.

I am aware of course, in making these statements, particularly on a European platform, that I am articulating a view of literature which, from all appearances, has become obsolete. With the advent of post-structuralism and post-modernism, this privileging of meaning – especially of a moral episteme – in the literary project has become suspect, “imperialistic”, and the text is supposed nowadays to be totally autonomous of any values. This “revolutionary” view of literature, which divorces it from its context, and in the name of liberty paradoxically unshackles it from any humanising burden, has been challenged again and again by scholars from the Third World. But of course, as in other areas of international activity, the voice of the Third World is largely unheard. But however, as a practitioner of literature, from a corner of the world still bedevilled by all kinds of socio-economic problems, which are patently not post-anything, I do not find myself obliged to follow the post-modernist prescription [5]. All the writers that I know are deeply concerned with the meaning of their work, and with its ultimate value to society.

In different works and on different platforms, the writers that have appeared on the scene in the past twenty years have been working to show that our societies are not fated, as pessimists say, for doom. They have sought in various ways to unmask the hidden mechanisms behind the failures of our societies, and to build for us a picture of the ideal world that we should all aspire towards. Against the tragic universe once painted with such eloquence by their predecessors, they have sought to erect a glittering Utopia, and by that process brought even their predecessors to share in the vision. This is the magical, inimitable force of art, its capacity to heal and empower us, and ultimately, humanise us. This is the dream that my generation has sought, and continues to seek, to construct into a reality.


“Unhappy lands prefer Utopian stories. “

Ben Okri

“Je crois sincerement que le desespoir c ‘estpour les c…” [“Despair, in my honest opinion, is for the s.o.b.s”]

Sony Labou Tansi

Nevertheless I cannot conclude, without admitting that, of recent, this literature seems to have entered a phase of palpable crisis. A large number of our writers, of those I have called the prophets of hope, have been obliged within the last five years especially, to join the exile train. Driven by persecution or by economic necessity, many of them have fled, mostly to the academies of Europe and America. At home, the publishing of creative works has almost virtually ceased [Maja-Pearce, 1996]. In the wake of SAP, the markets for the publishing and selling of literature in our part of the world have collapsed. The few magazines which provided an outlet for budding talents have disappeared from the bookshelves, gone extinct. Our literature, that is the literature written by those who were West Africans by birth, but who probably carry other passports by now, has moved abroad, to the foreign presses. And the result has been the development of a new kind of writing which is astonishingly different from the kind I have been talking about. Hailed enthusiastically in some quarters as a healthy renaissance, and denounced in others as a transient and febrile aestheticism, the new writing by West African authors announces itself in a violent rupture with the goals of literature as understood and interpreted by my generation. Does this phenomenon then signal a new and refreshing beginning, or the failure of Utopia?

No longer are the authors interested in a linear plot and limpid prose, whose ideological intentions are unambiguously articulated; in fact the operating principle nowadays would appear to be the opposite – that is, an open distrust of lucidity. In place of the normative fictions common to our generation, and woven invariably around centralising codes and tropes, what we have nowadays are meta-narratives without authors, without plot – stories without a story – in which the protagonist’s identity (or, more correctly, identities) has become unstable, and inconstant, splintered into plural, heteroglossic, and sometimes even conflictual phantoms. It is like Tutuola in delirium: an aberrant literary strain, hitherto accorded grudging status in critical discourse, has climbed spectacularly to the centre-stage.

Tracing its origins is of course, like such exercises in literary historiography, a fugitive task. Let us just agree that M. Ngal’s Giambattista Vico (’75) and Tierno Monenembo’s Les Crapauds-brousse (’79), were the first of the genre to catch attention. Then came Bobacar Boris Diop’s Le temps de Tamango and Sony Labou Tansi’s L’Etat honteux in 1981. Others soon followed, such as: Werewere Liking’s Elle sera dejaspe et de cor ail, (’83), which she herself describes as a “chant-poem”[6]; Severin Abega’s La latrine, (’88); Yodi Karone, Le bal des caimans, (’80); Laurent Owondo’s An bout du silence, (’85); and Mudimbe’s Le bel immonde, (’76). But it was the prolific Sony Labou Tansi who, apart from his plays and poems, has brought out five other novels in quick succession, who has been regarded as the leader of this genre.

The anglophones, who do not appear to have been as enthusiastic in joining this game as their francophone counterparts, entered the game in 1986, with Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country, to be followed by two more of his titles, Women of the Aeroplanes, and Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars, in ’88 and ’91 respectively.  1991 saw the publication of Syl Cheney-Coker’s The Last Harmattan ofAlusine Dunbar [7], to be followed the next year by two titles, The Man Who Came from the Back of Beyond, and The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams, from the young, precocious talent, Biyi Bandele-Thomas. But the writer who has drawn the most acclaim is of course Ben Okri, whose novel, The Famished Road, won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1991.

Cheney-Coker, Labou Tansi and Bandele-Thomas are poets and dramatists also. Naturally therefore they have carried their explosions of form and language into these fields, although Cheney-Coker has been the most active in poetry, while the other two are among the most successful of our contemporary playwrights. Labou Tansi however had the added advantage of having founded a theatre troupe, the now world-famous Ricado Zulu Theatre, through which most of his plays have been produced. These include La rue des mouches, ’85, Antoine m ‘a vendu son destin, ’86, Moi, veuve de 1’Empire, and Qui a mange Madame d’Avoine Bergotha?, both in 1991. Important also, as far as this movement is concerned, is the energetic female dramatist, Werewere-Liking, who was born in Cameroun, but has lived and built her career in exile in Abidjan since 1977.

But whether in fiction, or poetry, or on the stage, the new writers are not interested in the conveyance of message; only in what a critic has described as “un chaos visuel, sonore, et olfactoire” (“a visual, sonorous and olfactory chaos”), [Gamier: 890] in which communication is sacrificed for rhetorical and lyrical exploration; a “textual whirlwind” (“un tourbillon textuel”) [Gamier: 893] – in which words are severed from their usual semantic foundations. Listen for instance to this passage from Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country:

”But Pol knew they could not take the future away from him, for the innocence that lay beside him on the bed could either be picked up and carried around in the morning, as usual; or be put safely in the trunk to mature, then used, Used, USED at the best time…for, if he were not careful, the rainbow would continue to dress him up again and again, to give his skin beauty, only while the colours were there, only while they lasted so sad…. For after all, if you placed a thousand pairs of trousers empty and upright in ascending angles as blue as the sky, all through the city up to the Freedom Arch, random legs, with their kenkey perfume, would eventually force their flesh into the thousand pairs -hanging like angels or witches – and then swagger in their easy symbols, as if something at last had been achieved. And what was that something? After all, the purveyors of the Arch were typical and waakyful, had betrayed all time before and after it, were worth just one tutu-ni…, tomorrow was Okay Pol snoring through his own ideas, chachaby national chacha…”

Laing: 1986: 249

Mythopoeisy, fabulation, polyphony – or, according to some, cacophony – these are the narrative goals, and grammar, realism the sacrificial elements. The ancestors of these writers are clearly Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, Alfred Jarry, Amos Tutuola, Aime Cesaire and, in particular, Ionesco. In fact one of the terms that have been used to describe the new movement is African Absurdism. High preference is given to syntactic and semantic idiosyncrasies, such as the use of sudden phrasal inversions, verbal inflation, ideophones, eccentric punctuations and neologisms. A page may be semiotically riddled with absurd notations and references, with stage notes like in a film script, with burlesque effects. The notion of time itself becomes arbitrary, and selective, freed of its recognisable moorings in calendar reality. In the drama of Werewere-Liking, and to a lesser extent, Bandele-Thomas, the stage is given over to esoteric ritual, ecstatic music and dancing, trance and possession, elaborate masking and costuming, whose overall meaning is rarely obvious [Conteh-Morgan: 219-220].

Clearly the new writers have turned away from our own burning concern to mobilise the society for political goals. What they seem to be aiming at, instead, is fabulation for its own sake, the endless (re)creation of myth by weaning out of resistant language its allusive acoustic and suggestive powers. As Gamier explained with reference to Sony Labou Tansi, what the new writers appear to be after is no longer “commitment”, but “possession” [Gamier: 894], comparable in a sense to the current spread of religious fundamentalism in the social realm.

Naturally the major problem with this kind of writing is the question of its readability. As the writers torture the syntax, complains Hamidou Dia, so do they torture the reader [Dia: 119]. The techniques of these “counter-novels” which I have enumerated above – oblique references, “absent” or dissolving narrators, restlessly shifting locations and points of view, linguistic acrobatics, etc. – cannot but leave even the most fanatic reader breathless and confused.

The complaint that is usually made of the poetry of Cheney-Coker, as well as of the drama of Werewere-Liking, and of Labou Tansi is: just what is the author saying? “On ne voit pas cependant ce qu’il veut dire, qu’il a quelque chose a dire” [“One cannot see however what he wants to say, or that he has anything to say”], writes Hamidou Dia. This “illisibilite radicale” [“radical unreadability”], he goes on angrily to assert, “[n’est pas] la solution effective au probleme du sens, de la langue, de Fecriture, de la creation pour un negrc-africain” [“is not the effective solution to the problem of meaning, language or narrative for the black African”] [Dia: 121].

So – to go back to our original question – is what we are witnessing then the death of Utopia? Are these works the metaphoric mirror of the frustration of our dreams for a better society, of our authors’ covert proclamation of defeat in our frustrated ambition to bring our countries to freedom and justice and economic progress?

The arguments in favour of this position are powerful enough. The late 80s, it is pointed out, were disillusioning times. The fundamental premise that underwrote the concept of our ideal state – Marxism – was violently undermined by the collapse of Russia and of communism in the wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika. In addition to this, our economies, ever so fragile, completely collapsed, bringing in the monster of SAP, with its tyranny of market forces, the gross devaluation of our national economies, the loss of national pride and initiative to IMF and the World Bank, and the further pauperisation of our people. Furthermore, in West Africa at least, the fight for democracy suffered serious setbacks, particularly in giant Nigeria. Militarism, chronic ethnicism, abject misery following themismanagement of the economy, all these have led to civil wars in places like Liberia and Sierra Leone and Sudan, with the consequent flood of refugees, and to an endless round of coup d’etats and unstable governments. Most damaging of all, the situation has also resulted in this massive exodus of intellectuals and the educated elite away from home to western countries. For writers, these setbacks have also meant additional sorrows: such as those of dwindling readership in a situation of rising illiteracy and collapsing incomes, of shrinking outlets for creative writing as inflation drives up the costs of publishing and of book prices, and of censorship and persecution [Maja-Pearce, 1996; Gugler: 11].

It is no surprise then that first, almost all the authors of the new movement are living in exile, either outside the continent, or in some other country than that of their birth; and secondly, that all of them are published abroad, on the list of publishing houses located in the capitalist centres of Europe and America. That first point, about their enforced exile, immediately positions them as disillusioned fugitives; and the second, their place of publication dictates that their audience will be largely foreign. These two factors therefore determine their chosen style – a disjointed, post-modern prose, dissonant and delirious, in conformity with the current respectable literary fashion in the west [confirmed by their ability to win these glittering prizes]; and an ahistorical, unideological vocation, in celebration of their escape from, and abandonment of, the African predicament. The critic Jacques Chevrier explains it as follows:

”Impuissants, dans l’immediat, a changer les conditions objectives d’un pouvoir pervers, les romanciers tentent la reappropriation, par Fecriture, d’un espace et d’une histoire provisoirement detournes et confisques par des imposteurs. C’est le temps, pourrait-on dire, du crier-ecrire du pleurer-rire.” [12] [“Powerless, at the moment, to alter the objective conditions of a perverted power, the novelists are trying to re-appropriate, through their writing, a space and a history which has been provisionally diverted and usurped by impostors. It is the age, one might say, of the noisy words of joyful tears”[8] – My translation.]

Seductive as these arguments may be however, there may be grounds for disagreeing with them. For instance, we may well ask, is it not erroneous to ascribe such a preponderant agency to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to its presumed impact on the West African intelligentsia? The ideals of Utopia were inspired by Marxism and the Russian example, all right, but they were never dogmatically bonded to them. After all, we must not forget, there had always been this constant emphasis by our thinkers and political leaders, on our finding our own interpretations, our own local variants to the leftist ideology, what scholars described as “Afro-marxisms” [see Keller E.J. & Rothchild, D.,1987; Decalo, S., 1985:123-44]. Thus, the really seductive versions of Marxism were the ones generated by the liberation movements, by guerrilla leaders like Amilcar Cabral, whose emphasis was more on the logistics of national liberation and indigenous culture than on some nebulous internationalism. It would be somewhat naive therefore, it seems to me, to assume that just because of the tragic failure of the Russian republic, African intellectuals would automatically renounce their struggles to rid their societies of injustice and exploitation, corruption and incompetence, and build an egalitarian system.

Secondly, although the writers have been compelled by circumstances to speak nowadays from exile, and to publish abroad, it is not evident from their own statements that they have consequently renounced their feelings of obligation to their homeland. Indeed, if we take a different perspective, we may well find that what they are doing is seeking new ways to express their own version of commitment, or what Deandra calls “social renewal” [Deandra: 16S, 175; cf. Ngate: 132 & Dabla: 237]. Okri for instance, who has been accused of being the most voluble in arrogantly aligning himself with a cosmopolitan rather than a “merely” African kinship, has nevertheless declared as follows to an interviewer:

”The best fiction can become dreams which can influence reality …the facts of history alone are not enough to give an account of our consciousness and what we need to do with our age… This book [The Famished Road] is my modest effort to do that, just to alter the way in which we perceive what is valid and what is valuable, different measures and different values… it has to lead to infinity, to endless possibilities within our limitations. I’m offering this to Africa and to the world…”

[Wilkinson, 87]

These do not sound to me like the words of someone who has completely turned his back on his roots, or escaped into a formal aestheticism. And Labou Tansi also, refuting the charge of pessimism in his books, insists that, on the contrary, what he is searching for is a “rire vital” [“a vital laughter”]. And he goes on to affirm: “II est injurieux de parler de desespoir a l’humanite… Lus au premier degre, mes livres sont pessimistes. Le conseil que je donne a ce moment-la, c’est de relire. Relire jusqu’au moment ou le pessimisme se dissipe et s’en va.” [“It is insulting to speak of despair to humankind… Read superficially, my books are pessimistic. The advice I give then is to reread them. Reread until the pessimism dissipates and disappears.”] [Cited and translated by Ngate: 133]. In fact, more explicitly, in the dedication of the book to his predecessors, he writes: “Nous nous battrons pour que/ la liberte ne soit plus/ un mot beurre a la sardine.” [“We will fight to insure (sic) that/ liberty will no longer be/ a word buttered with sardines.”] [Ibid: 132]

The argument has also been made, that the surrealistic, convoluted styles of these writers, as strange to realistic fiction as they may seem, are in fact, like in Aime Cesaire for example, “translations” of African traditions, the result of a conspicuous yearning for an orality of tone [or, as I have called it, for “the nostalgic drum”]. The diffusion of temporal and spatial relationships; the abundant use of allusions and cross-references; the use of burlesque and parody; the reach for musicality through the manipulation of lexical and syntactic inventions, of a plethora of alliterations and onomatopoeia, and ideophones and so on; the idiosyncratic amalgam of words and images from eclectic sources; the extreme adventurousness of plot – that all these, as some sympathetic critics claim, are courageous attempts to break through the foreign-ness of the alien language, indigenise it, pound and remould it completely so as to make it fitting and malleable for their African tongues. The writers are simply more daring, more willing to plunge beyond our own timid limitations, pushing their desire to the farthest frontiers of irrationality possible. Labou Tansi in the preface to Les Yenx du Volcan, insists for instance that his writing is no morethan a faithful reproduction of the way ordinary people speak [Labou Tansi, 1988: 143], just as the language of Monenembo, according to Gamier, is a “poetics of the [street] rumour” [Gamier: 891].

Far from being a site of Apocalypse therefore, these new works, we are told, should be seen indeed as humanising texts. It is an opinion worthy of deep consideration. The books are aimed at ridding us of the constraining bonds of habit and dead routines, of our entrapment in the cliches of a too literal, too material relationship with the environment and hence, with cognosis. They are, to cite Labou Tansi again, designed to save us from what he calls “le denuement materiel et la devirginisation de notre conscience”[the material denudation and the devirginisation of our consciousness”]:

”La misere spirituelle est la plus bete de toutes les miseres. C’est pour lutter contre elle que nous nous evertuons a inventer rinflation des langages. Nous avons reussi des echappatoires fulgurantes au tribunal des mots. Nous sommes le seul peuple au monde a avoir obtenu un non-lieu devant la dictature du verbe. Que diable! Nous sommes plus malins que les mots.” [1988:143].

[”The poverty of the spirit is the most idiotic of all deprivations. It’s out of resistance to this that we strive so hard to invent the inflation of language. We have accomplished the most spectacular escape from the tribunal of words. And we are the only people in the whole world to have obtained a discharge before the tyranny of the Word. Damn it! We are much smarter than words.” * My trans. ]

And Okri, in a similar manner, pleads for a sensibility that is less rigidified, less controlled, less textualised, because the world, he argues, is not “coherent and therefore readable as a text…It’s more than a text. It’s more akin to music… That’s why I probably lean more towards dreams.[Wilkinson, 85]


The place for brave men is the wilderness

Yao Egblewogbe


Take your dream to the end of the street.

Then, stretch the street:

Take it to the end of your dream.

Okinba Launko

It seems to me that, rather than condemn these texts outrightly, as being irrelevant to our needs, or as signalling the end of Utopia, it is we the readers who must renew ourselves and our relationship with texts and the world. We must become adventurous, like the new writers, and cast our nets for wider waters. As Gugler points out, the best way of approaching these texts may well be for us to take them as “the literary equivalent(s) of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica”, about which he himself quotes the following pertinent passage:

”The reasons for which Picasso was compelled to resort to signs and allegories [were]: his utter political helplessness in the face of a historical situation which he set out to record; his titanic effort to confront a particular historical event with an allegedly eternal truth; his desire to give hope and comfort and to provide a happy ending, to compensate for the terror, the destruction, and inhumanity of the event.” [Gugler: 13]

The time has obviously come for us to redefine our notion of literature – and hence of freedom – in less narrow and less deterministic terms. It is only that way we will be able to help our new visionaries to find a proper anchorage for their present voyages of discovery. For while it cannot be denied that they seem to be floundering now, or that a somewhat wanton and gluttonous dissonance seems to be the major characteristic of their work, we ourselves need to be alert to the fact that, now more than at any time in history, the young are in need of new solutions and new visions. And the horizons they set themselves toward will not necessarily be ours, even if our motives are analogous in the search for happiness. Okri and others are already embarked: we must hasten to catch up. And in the end, in response to our enthusiasm perhaps, they will learn to tame their extravagant passions, and all of us can then meet in that entrancing dreamland which is what poetry is when it “means/ to/ man.”

My friend and colleague, Jack Mapanje who, just fresh out of Banda’s jails, inaugurated these lectures last year, reaffirmed our undying belief, in the capacity of art to stimulate our people, and indeed all humanity, towards Utopia, towards a dreamland of fulfilment and felicity. And he also suggested that the artist’s ultimate triumph, against these seemingly awesome monsters who continue to hold our people to ransom, and would smash us with their decrees and prison cells, is the artist’s ability to survive them. In solidarity with these views, I want to end here then, by reading a poem from the collection I just spoke about, Dreamseeker on a Divining Chain. It is the poem entitled “The Streets Are Dancing”.

But first, permit me to express my profound thanks to the African Studies Unit for the invitation to deliver this lecture, and to you all for your patience in listening to me.

Also my gratitude goes to the University’s School of English, and particularly to Professor Martin Banham, for the invitation to come to the university this term. It has been a fruitful experience indeed. Particularly the challenges I encountered last March, during the production of my play, Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels, with the students of the Workshop Theatre, have further enriched my understanding of the profession, and kindled my courage.

To you all then, I give this poem,

‘The Streets Are Dancing”:

That day, the poet

threw his poems into the air

as a celebrant throws balloons

but there was no response

because the radio was busy,

and the TV sets were cackling

with the excited lores of a raging

football match and the suspense

of goals always about to be scored.

So I left the next

morning, with all my selves,

for the house on the hill,

and asked the polished, sugary

Voice I met there

to step down for a moment from her chair

and from her regular, dull menu

of punctual gazettes from the State House.

Then, as soon as I touched

the waiting microphone with my song,

there came this sudden hush in the markets-

truck pushers, pickpockets, fish sellers,

ambulant tailors with their machines

on their shoulders, young girls

with calabashes on their heads — and some,

in their bellies — black-faced women

sitting in the pepper stalls, or crouching

under their straw hats behind

little little mountains of grain and despair-

all the men paused and took off their caps,

all the headties stopped their cunning calculations—

and everyone lifted their face up –

like worshippers at prayer –

and for the first time in the land, since the terrible coming

of soldiers, and their pips and epaulettes,

everybody listened…

Listened!… and then slowly

began to answer back, to join in

with rich laughters, merry hisses,

silly banters: all the noises and gestures long

suppressed by dire decrees-

and then waving hands, friendly hands…

unwinding, for the first time

long-frozen tongues, letting free voices

tinkle and run across the once-rotting land;

making seminal hymns for which everyone

was chorister and choragus

everyone composing new melodies

and sharing them;

new wisdoms

being born into the reverberant moment

and shared, like aso ebi [9];

the land

breathing as one at last, breathing free:

And I smiled

with all my jubilant selves:

now my voice—

the voice of your poet, Iwapele—

is part of the immaculate monuments

of history

and of our resilient streets…

[Okinba Launko: 134]



[1] As far as the theme and tone of political commitment are concerned, there is really not much distinction any-longer between the younger or older writers, in the works produced from the early ’80s onwards. The older writers, once accused of celebrating the past with uncritical nostalgia, while keeping their eyes closed to the present, in fact radically altered their priorities under the pressure of history, and of the criticism, often acerbic, of the younger generation. However, because the work of the older generation is much better known, and have in fact constituted an unofficial canon [which tends to exclude the younger ones], it is the work of the latter that I will be discussing in this paper.

[2] Not totally true: in the early 1970s, the Konfess Artistes, to which I belonged, met to work out a set of guiding principles more or less along the lines enumerated here.

[3] Of course I do recognise that there ore ideological ambiguities in this kind of aesthetic populism, as many previous writers have pointed out. Ambiguities about the quality of the ensuing artistic product and its real, as opposed to imagined, impact; about its conditions of production and of consumption; and so on. These cannot however be discussed here. Perhaps it is in a conscious recognition of this grey area that Osundare’s poetry has moved, in the ’90s, to a different level of sophistication, nowadays exploring a more surrealistic, more quasi-cultic diction without — in my opinion, which some have challenged —forsaking the old concern for socio­political commitment. This also can only be a subject for another place, another time.

[4] Ola Rotimi, born 1938, should properly be classified with the “older” generation. But his works began to appear only in 1971, with The Gods Are Not to Blame. And increasingly, beginning with If, and on to his latest play. Akassa Youmi, he has become more and more politically engaged.

[5] Cf. the following statement by Carlos Fuentes in the NEWSWEEK magazine of May 6, 1996: “Neither the old nor the new Latin American writers believe that this is a post-ideological era. How can it be, in a world of rising xenophobia, racism, tribalism, religious fundamentalism and yet another implacable ideology, the fundamentalism of the marketplace?…. Latin American writers are more committed to the grass-roots issues affecting daily life in our poor, unjust societies. ” [p45] [6] Werewere-Liking explains her mixed style as follows: “Dans les arts de la parole chez moi, il n V a pas a pari ‘le conte’, a part ‘le roman’, a part ‘la chanson’, a part ‘le theatre’. Dans le texte, qu ‘il soit de I ‘epopee comme le Mvet, le N ‘dinga, ou des recits lyriques ou simples, ou des poesies, tout est dans un tout. Quand on parte, on a beaucoup de niveaux de langue: subitement ca peut devenir un dialogue, ca peut devenir un passage lyrique, et puis ca peut devenir completement prosaique et narratif, case melange — c’est ca le texte.” [“In the speech arts of my people, we do not have these separate categories between what is ‘a story’, or ‘a novel’, or ‘a song’, or ‘a drama’. Our texts, such as the Mvet or the N ‘dinga, or the simple or lyrical narratives, or the poems, include everything. Many levels of language are available for the oral artist: from dialogue, he can move directly to a lyrical passage, and as swiftly into a prosaic or narrative passage. Everything is mixed — that’s what the oral text is for us. “] Cited by Hawkins: 3. [My translation].

[7]Cheney-Coker’s novel is somewhat different from the others in this category: however, in that his inspiration seems to derive more from Garcia Marquez than from Borges. Thus the magical realism of this novel is controlled and channelled towards a discernible narrative purpose, and hence less normalively incoherent.

[8]Chevrier is punning on the title of the novel by Henri Lopes, Le pleurer-rire, in a way I find difficult to render satisfactorily in English. See also Ngate: 133.

[9]Aso ebi: Yoruba term for dresses of the same fabric, worn for a festive occasion by a group, to show that they come from the same family, or circle of friends, or clan etc.



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