Monday, August 26, 2013

Of Africa
By Wole Soyinka
Yale University Press

Wole Soyinka is a Nobel Prize winning playwright and writer from Nigeria (the first writer of African descent to win the Prize for literature), who has spent  many years in the U.S. and England, often in political exile.  But he has not detached himself from Africa, returning there to teach and be involved when political conditions permitted.  He is well qualified both in knowledge and the ability to communicate to a western audience, still mystified by an entire continent.

This ignorance is mostly self-imposed, arising in part from the resistance to learning the deep history of cultures different enough to question western assumptions, as well as resistance to accepting the later history that implicates the west in exploitation and oppression.  Perhaps most of all, resistance to the consequences of that history.

My first impression of this book was its refreshing eloquence.  Soyinka uses the English language with increasingly rare precision and imagination.  He begins by musing on Africa as a literary concept, in actual literature as well as in common belief and actual practice--for instance, the creation of countries and boundaries that have nothing to do with Africa itself or the differences among its people.  "Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity."

Ignorance of the effects of history--of in some ways the lingering continuity--hampers western efforts to understand contemporary Africa.  Soyinka is especially illuminating on specific patterns of the slave trade that continue to shape events, incorrectly understood without this insight.  "It is short-changing the power of history to pretend that the events in the Sudan are not based on a perception that dates back to a relationship rooted in the history of slavery..."

Establishing these perspectives, Soyinka narrates some recent history that takes on different meaning.  Later he discusses the "spirituality of a continent" in illuminating terms, with relevance to existing conflicts.  This section of this book seems highly valuable if not indispensable to understanding the worst conflicts and problems in Africa today.

It is unusual--maybe even disconcerting at times--to read such informed and cogent analysis on important aspects of the real world, couched in glittering prose that sometimes stops the reader in admiration.  He somewhat playfully suggests that suppressing complex truths through political correctness is as distorting as denying them through ideology or dictatorship, capping the discussion with a phrase of brilliant music as well as meaning:   "Shall we appropriate the coy scissors of censorship?"

In words and number of pages this is a relatively brief book.  Yet it is dense with meaning, requiring careful attention from those with little knowledge of Africa--that is, most of us.  It is also a painful subject, and cowardice as well as denial are additional reasons for our willed ignorance.  But for those who appreciate fine writing--who in fact miss it--this book may contain difficult truths that are hard to assimilate, while the reading itself is revelatory.

The Obamas visiting cells for slaves on their recent trip to Africa

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