One of the major points Chinua Achebe harped on at the beginning of his now famous memoir There Was A Country, common as well to most of his major literary interventions, is the importance of oral literature and the primacy of traditional forms of cultural transmission that predated the European conquests. In response to arguments supporting cultural homogeneity at the expense of diversity, he stated his mission as a “storytelling (that) has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, ‘Now we’ve heard it all.’” He continues:
“I worry when somebody from one particular tradition stands up and says, “The novel is dead, the story is dead.” I find this to be unfair, to put it mildly. You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.”
Beyond the central treatise of the whole book (which is a documentation of the pride, problems, and faultlines of the Nigerian experimentation from the pre-colonial times to the current days, through the life and times of one of the country’s famous citizen), there is a recurring theme also common to Achebe’s life: the primacy of ethnic and individual literature; a crucial complimenting component of the larger world story. Here’s one more example of this direction of thought from the same work:
”In fact, I heard someone say that they think some of these cultures should be put down, that there are just too many. We did not make the world, so there is no reason we should be quarreling with the number of cultures there are. If any group decides on its own that its culture is not worth talking about, it can stop talking about it. But I don’t think anybody can suggest to another person, Please drop your culture; let’s use mine. That’s the height of arrogance and the boast of imperialism. I think cultures know how to fight their battles; cultures know how to struggle. It is up to the owners of any particular culture to ensure it survives, or if they don’t want it to survive, they should act accordingly, but I am not going to recommend that.”
A few years ago, as a small child growing up in Akobo, Ibadan, one of the faces that came across the landscape of my childhood was that of Ogundare Foyanmu (Fọyánmu kérù ó bẹkọ. Pàgbínjẹ kérù ó bòòsà). Whether the real life image of him was completely made up from the photos of him on the record sleeves of his albums, or whether there were actual instances in which my father – who produced him – took me along in one of the many adult discussions around the house and recording studios, is now beyond the grasp of my memory, lost to time. What I remember most vividly however, was the presence of his voice all around the radio of the South West Nigeria. A special man with a special talent, Foyanmu practised a kind of Yoruba poetry called Ijala Are Ode (hunter/war odes). And over the course of his career spanning many decades, he recorded dozens of distinctly mellifluous, seminal works of enormous creative depth, eventually to the point of completely dominating and personifying the genre. Along with the likes of Batili Alake, Odolaye Aremu, Lakin Ladebo, Ayinla Omowura, Alabi Ogundepo, and many more, Foyanmu blazed the trail of a brand of indigenous oral art of the Yoruba that both instructed and elevated the listener. Hunting/war chants as an art form common to great griots from his side of the country in Ogbomosho had – before him – remained only in the realm of the real-time, live performance. With the presence of vinyl and other recording equipments, Foyanmu and his producers brought the ancient art from an otherwise remote part of the large country into the marketplace and all over the airwaves. Foyanmu died last week, at 80.
A few years ago, in a collection of essays titled Home and Exile, Chinua Achebe said the following: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. In writing back his ethnic and human perspective to the Nigerian Civil War, he is adding another thread towards a bond meant to defeat amnesia and the mischief of revisionist history. In furtherance of that goal is a bigger, overbearing need for even more perspectives from that time. No, not just stories about the severity of the conflict, but also of the enormity and significance of the loss.
Yesterday, in front of the crackling fire of the suya seller, somewhere in Lagos, an idea occurred to me. In the stoic glare of the maisuya is nothing but a common youthful abandon. The suya stand in front of the road at that time of the evening usually represented nothing but a part of the natural environment, to be ignored as necessary, or paid attention to when necessary. Yet, behind the stoic remove of the Hausa seller, thousands of kilometres from his home town is a story not yet told. Sometime between 1993 and 1994, during the agitation to restore the mandate of Chief M.K.O. Abiola as Nigeria’s rightfully elected president, dozens (or scores, or hundreds, depending on who’s telling) of suya sellers in the South-Western Nigeria were killed or maimed in retaliation for the policies of the military government headed by a Hausa man. Representing many of those faceless suya hawkers around the country is that man staring blankly into the night. His full experience of the concept of Nigeria, the pain, the aspiration, and hope, and the disappointments, have not yet been written. Not by any Hausa writers I know. Not at least by a quarter of the required effort needed to tell the full story of such a diverse place as this.
And yet Hausa literature thrives. An old post on Jeremy Weate’s blog explores the disconnect between the idea of a thriving market selling up to “hundreds of thousands of copies” and a country that lives with a consensus that the Hausa don’t have a living literary establishment. Where are the top Hausa writers. How much of the content of their literature makes it into translation and out as a truly accessible text by other non-Hausa speakers? Where is the wall separating those work from the larger body of consumers all around Nigeria? What are the benefits and implications of this insularity that keeps a story locked only within a language medium, away from every other? And what is the value of such literature if it serves only a localized audience. What happened to universality? We won’t know any of this without active involvement of translators, and other conscious literary practitioners bringing us to the stories, and the stories to us. Like Achebe said, “my position…is that we must hear all the stories. That would be the first thing.”
This new issue of the LitMag features the work of Peter Akinlabi. It is a tribute to Chief Ogundare Foyanmu, his uncle: hunter, poet, chanter, artist, and Ogbomosho chieftain; and that of Benson Eluma, titled Pollen.