Just a couple of days ago, not thinking, the South African president, Jacob Zuma, told his subjects not to think like Africans. It got South Africans and Africans, angry or amused, talking. Zuma’s comment got me, well, thinking. I was thinking of all the great African thought leaders that have graced the continent, particularly when it began to tremor, shaking off the colonial chains that held it captive for so long.
Years ago, the Nigerian author, Wole Soyinka, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, challenged Descarte‘s assumption that Africans could not think, or did not think for themselves. Today philosophy (which essentially teaches us how to think) has been divided into several disciplines, just like apartheid divided South Africa; Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy and, well, yes, African philosophy.
I wrote this essay on Soyinka’s autobiography on his childhood years, Ake, back in 2008. The version I read is published by Methuen. Today, the colonially divided nation of Nigeria, land of Soyinka’s birth, is about to overtake South Africa as Africa’s economic powerhouse. From a South African perspective, It does not take a degree in economics, or much thought, to wonder why.
One is astounded by the relevancy of Soyinka’s autobiography, written over thirty years ago.
Nevertheless, Soyinka’s biography gives us an essential look at how Africans think and feel, and had been thinking whilst still under colonial rule. The essay that I wrote was well received by the professor, an African professor to boot, with the kind comment that it was “solid and engaging”. She congratulated me on my effort. My current professor reminded us all how it “warms his heart” that students are engaging themselves in independent thought, And so it should be.
I FEEL, THEREFORE I AM
In Wole Soyinka’s autobiography, Ake, The Years of Childhood the adult Soyinka memorably and acutely recalls his youthful experiences with adults, his parents, unusually named Wild Christian and Essay, and the environment in which he grows up.
The Nobel laureate’s encounter is his fond and longing remembrance of his youth. Soyinka foregrounds his biographical character to adulthood in order to to emphasise this encounter. As he recalls his past, he compares the old with the new, referring to distinct smells as he laments;
“Smells are all gone, smells have been overcome”
He notes that “their (smells) conquerers” were not there before as he lapses nostalgically back to his youth, remembering such noises and events as “the measured chimes of the tower-clock” and his epic march with the police band.
While the youthful Soyinka wonders wide-eyed and awe-struck at the sights and sounds that surround him on his return to Ake. He likes everything the way it was.
Soyinka chronicles changes from a rural Ake to an urban Ake. He remarks that there is more orderliness and tranquility in the older, rural surroundings. An early description of the church grounds is focal.
Soyinka’s description of the rural environment is detailed. It begins with;
“The sprawling, undulating terrain is all of Ake”
As conscious as he is of the new noises and the smells of the urban environment, they are just as quickly dispelled and frowned upon;
“Alas, it is only yet another irritation of foreign pop…”
The adult Soyinka misses childhood innocence and the clean, traditional life that goes with it. The young Soyinka admires his father’s boldness and leadership. Like his father, Soyinka prefers old traditions.
The ancient Yoruba traditions of Isara are not understood by the boy, Wole, but the educated adult Soyinka is circumspect in his understanding of the ancient traditions of his culture.
In chapter ten of Ake Soyinka details how the music and food of his home town have changed. Observing “a variety of stores peddling the products of a global waste industry” Soyinka reminds us of a critical global phenomenon.
Soyinka abhors the invasive, modern, western traditions. Comparing the old with the new, he shows his displeasure of the turgid urban food smells which engulf Ake;
“The hawkers’ lyrics of leaf-wrapped moin-moin still resound in parts of Ake and the rest of the town, but along Dayisi’s Walk is also a shop which sells moin-moin from a glass case, lit by sea-green neon lamps. It lies side by side with McDonald’s hamburgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, hot dogs and dehydrated sausage-rolls.”
Soyinka comments on music too, grimacing at the “high-decibel outpouring of rock and funk and punk and other thunk-thunk from lands of instant-culture heroes.”
In the encounter between the adult Soyinka and the young Soyinka, the adult has a better understanding of everything around him and is therefore able to object to the changes that he witnesses in Ake.
The nostalgia of being a boy is acutely recalled in earlier chapters of Ake. As he voices his disapproval of modernity in a changing environment, he reminds us of his epic journey with the police band. Now, everything around him, the noise, music, fast-food smells and traffic, appals him.
Soyinka’s nostalgia and bitterness is elucidated in his bitter narrative of the modern, chaotic environment which dramatically replaces the rural peace and tranquility of his formative years. As we too hear “the raucous clang of hand-bells”, and “the blare of motor-horns”. Soyinka recognises the everyday stress and pressures his people are faced with as he remains true to older traditions, arguing for an abandonment of Western mores. He understands his need for peace and tranquility. You can see that Soyinka misses “the smell of incense” and “the seasonal anthems”, the “akara” and “the tang of roasting coconut slices”, the “moin-moin” and the “robo”.
The adult Soyinka, like his father Essay, is a teacher, old, wise and enlightened. As a boy Soyinka has a yearning for books and learning, professing his love for the bookseller’s wife and at the age of three, insisting that he is ready for school.
While we appreciate his scholarly response to the changes around him in Ake, Soyinka’s bitterness is justified. His first biography is predictably post-colonial as he laments the passing of youth in all its innocence and the primitive beauty that surrounds it. He lambasts its replacement; the destructible, indoctrinating material excess brought to Ake by the town’s English, German and American colonisers.
The tone of Soyinka’s bitterness is more extreme beyond chapter ten as he reminds us all that the West’s destruction of his people’s culture and habits is inherently racist.
As the frightened Wole recalls how his uncle Daodu “survives Hitler’s demon bombers” he hears Beere’s argument against the bombing of Japan;
“Let me tell you Mr District Officer, we are not impressed. We are by no means impressed-no, not surprised either. I knew it was coming and when I heard it on the radio all I could think was, just like them, just like the white race. You had to drop it on Japan, didn’t you? Why didn’t you drop it on Germany?”
Like the Africans, the Japanese are regarded as inferior to the Europeans and Americans, by the Europeans and Americans, no less.
Beere’s outburst occurs during the village women’s epic march to the district officer to demand freedom and equal rights. Ironically, their struggle is not unique to Ake.
And let us not forget the degrading rules of redress and behaviour at the young Wole’s new grammar school!
“They teach you to say “Sir” in those schools. Only slaves say Sir.”
This brings me to the point of Soyinka’s famous counter to Descarte’s Eurocentric claim. Soyinka is always suspicious of the French philosopher’s notion of “I think, therefore I am” and his claim that Africans do not manifest themselves by way of their thought processes. Soyinka’s suspicion runs right through Ake. As he counters Descartes, Wole Soyinka, like his African peers, walks tall and proudly to his mantra;
“I feel, therefore I am.”