Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Novellist with Ofo in His Hand

Obododimma Oha

Not many Nigerian creative writers are traditional rulers or are willing to accept the invitation to become traditional rulers. Perhaps this is because of what seems to be the poor image that traditional rulership in Nigeria has acquired, beginning from the colonial era to the present. Although many traditional rulers in Nigeria resisted the colonization of their domains and were either exiled or jailed, the traditional rulers that succeeded them -- especially the warrant chiefs -- turned out to be tyrants who principally served the interests of the British colonial government that installed them. In recent times too, traditional rulership seems to have slid into infamy as many traditional rulers are known to have colluded with military dictators and corrupt politicians to abort justice in Nigerian political life and to victimize social critics, including radical literary artists.

Moreover, the selection process and installation of the traditional ruler in Nigeria seem to be characterized by some unhealthy forms of politicking and corruption which generally tend to undermine the integrity of the traditional institution. The very fact the roles of the traditional ruler are not clearly defined in the contemporary democratic system in Nigeria also makes the traditional ruler somewhat redundant and lead to traditional rulers being merely seen as instruments used by the political elite and nouveau riche in the society.

Thus Nigerian literati seem to have become highly suspicious of traditional rulership and try to keep distance from it. But not all Nigerian literary artists believe that the traditional institution is obsolete, criminal, and/or unsuitable for the image of the creative writer. While some writers turn down chieftaincy nominations and prefer to remain just writers, some believe that there is something in traditional rulership that must not be allowed to perish in the changing Nigerian society, particularly in the present matrimony of political systems in Nigeria.

Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, author of many highly recommended novels and textbooks, is one of those who are convinced that the image of traditional leadership in Africa can be cleaned up and invested with meaning once more if the enlightened individual like the creative artist accepts the challenge of mounting the throne. Chukwuemeka Ike accepted the invitation from his community to become their traditional ruler. He is currently the Eze Ikelionwu of Ndikelionwu in Anambra State of Nigeria.

His Majesty, Eze Chukwuemeka Ike, speaking at the Authors' Forum

The Ezeship of Chukwuemeka Ike was one source of lively and friendly exchange of jokes yesterday at the Kakanfo Inn, Ibadan, as Ike met with other elderly Nigerian creative writers, scholars, and publishers at the Authors’ Forum convened by University Press Plc, Ibadan, as part of its 60th Anniversary celebrations. J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, who chaired the occasion, teased His Majesty, Chukwuemeka Ike, on the discomforts he (Clark-Bekederemo) felt in addressing him in his new status, also pointing out the superfluity in referring to the traditional ruler as “His Royal Majesty” instead of simply “His Majesty”. Ike, noble-spirited as ever, received these jokes about his chieftaincy warmly, without jeopardizing the dignity normally associated with his position as a traditional ruler.

Poet J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, speaking as Chair at the Authors' Forum

With highly respected writers like Professor Chukwuemeka Ike now involved in traditional governance, one could hope for the recovery of the indigenous political system and a creative approach to African values. Ike’s emergence as a traditional ruler has introduced a change into the posture of the contemporary African writer on African politics, shifting attention from the usual cynical orientation to direct involvement and practical commitment. As a traditional ruler and novelist, Ike is now not just a teller of stories about his society, but also the story itself.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Wrestling with Amalinze

Obododimma Oha

Chinua Achebe’s narrative about Okonkwo’s victory over Amalinze the Cat in Things Fall Apart presents an insight into indigenous Igbo philosophy on courage, industry, and leadership. It is indeed significant that Achebe’s novel begins with that narrative and links Okonkwo’s victory over Amalinze to his steady rise to prominence and growth as a leader. And just after presenting Okonkwo and how he rose to fame in his community, Achebe immediately presents the contrast that Unoka, who was a great failure, signifies. Unlike Okonkwo, Unoka was slothful and “incapable of thinking about tomorrow”. He lived to eat without working, and “always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime”. A great debtor, Unoka loved to play his flute when his fellow folk artists like Okoye worked hard on their farms and built up their wealth from which the flutist came to borrow, recorded his debts in perpendicular lines of chalk on the wall, and never paid back. I have had to reflect on this failure of Unoka elsewhere, in which I tried to link his problem to an inability to understand that being just an artist, a flutist, was not just enough to create a successful future in a community that saw art as merely part of the several skills that a human being needed to possess in order to say “yes” without his or her chi saying “no.” The present discourse briefly reflects on Achebean “wrestling” as a figuration of a courageous acceptance of challenges in one’s personal affairs as well as in one’s involvement in community life.
It is significant that Achebe, in presenting Okonkwo’s victory over Amalinze the Cat relates the fight to an earlier one in which “the founder of (the) town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights”. Thus Achebe gives his readers a hint about how the founding of Umuofia was based on “wrestling” at the highest level – that of wrestling with a spirit and succeeding. If the fight had ended in the spirit’s favour, there would have been no Umuofia, implicitly. Obviously this is a suggestion about how individuals in the indigenous context had to make heroic sacrifices in the interest of their communities, or how personal heroism and success support the well-being of the entire society. One wrestles for oneself, one’s family, one’s community, one’s nation, where “wrestling” is not merely the physical struggle to throw an opponent in an arena, but dealing with the challenges of life, as we find in Okonkwo’s case.
Readiness to wrestle with the challenges of life is expected of every individual in the type of Umuofia community where Unoka lived and loved to play his flute. The Igbo say that one should not challenge one’s chi to a wrestling bout. But we also find that one’s chi often challenges one to rise and wrestle with the spirit as a way of testing one to find out whether one is worthy of being invested with wealth and honour. One’s chi does not just say “yes” if one is not ready to say “yes” in practical and pragmatic terms. One’s chi would not want to lavish kindness on one who is not ready to work hard or to work one’s way up as if a spirit-helper never existed. Wrestling with one’s chi is thus approved of if it is an affirmation of the courage to be, to succeed, to give honour to one’s chi in the long run. One who refuses to work hard, as in the case of Unoka, ends up being a disgrace to self and to one’s chi, for indeed the self and the chi are inseparably one.
There is always an Amalinze the Cat on one’s road to success and on one’s road to removing shame from one’s family and community. There is always an Amalinze between one and one’s effort at bestowing honour on one’s chi. Amalinze is the test. And through that test the indigenous Igbo community identified its prospective leaders, trained them, and encouraged them.
What avenues of training were provided? Diverse: family life, mmonwu cult initiation and membership, title-taking, participation in warfare, meetings of the kinsfolk and discourses at the ilo, et cetera. One should be able to cater for one’s family. In the case of a man, he should be the dibia ulo (literally, “physician of the home”), competently catering for the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of his family. As a member of the mmonwu cult, he learns the sacred secrets and interfaces of artistic performance, spirituality, social engineering, and governance. In title-taking, he learns the ethics and values of being mmadu onu ruru n’okwu (One whose utterances matter in community). In participating in warfare, he learns the honour of patriotism and sacrifice for one’s community. During public meetings at the ilo, he learns the art of “doing things with words with people,” as Willis Edmondson would put it in his Spoken Discourse, and recognizes the rights of other kinsfolk to speak and be listened to. He learns. He does. He learns to learn. He learns to do.
And the community watches as one navigates one’s way through these contexts of training and how one wrestles with a slippery-bodied Amalinze in every sphere of social presencing of self. As witnesses to how one wrestles with Amalinze in one’s personal and community affairs, the kinsfolk may decide to invite one to come and perform a role in governance. So, one comes to governance with the skills one has learned from diverse engagements with Amalinze in soldiery, teaching, law enforcement, engineering, etc and then begins the higher form of wrestling with Amalinze, through one’s handling of policy, public affairs, budget, social welfare, etc. Of course, one learns even more, especially the fact that one as a leader has not got all the answers, by wrestling with Amalinze in the sphere of public governance.
It is wrong to think that governance is solely for people who were created and endowed with the skills to govern! Born-to-rule, is it? Rulers who are made-in-heaven? Where does one find such gods or angels? Anyone of any profession can govern the society, provided the person has had some preparation, including readiness to wrestle with the Amalinze in every sphere of governance, and the willingness to keep learning.
Wrestling with the human Amalinze is a corollary of wrestling with life's problems, however frightening or insurmountable they might seem; it also symbolizes wrestling with problems in one's family and community -- a sort of existential wrestling a human being should be ready to engage in and not excuse self from, as Unoka tried to do! Also, every leader, as we find in Okonkwo’s case, has personal flaws, which constitute a very serious type of Amalinze in one’s personal life and relationship with society. Okonkwo defeated the human Amalinze, but failed to defeat this other Amalinze in himself. He failed to defeat the Amalinze in himself that, from a narrow male-centered framework of knowledge, derogatorily referred to other men whose views were contrary to his as “women”. He failed to defeat the Amalinze in him that acted out of the fear of failure; that wrestled in anger and not rational thinking and rational talking. That was the tragedy of his life, and it could be the tragedy of anyone and any leader anywhere.