by Wole Soyinka
A member of the unique generation of African writers and intellectuals who came of age in the last days of colonialism, Wole Soyinka has witnessed the promise of independence and lived through postcolonial failure. He deeply comprehends the pressing problems of Africa, and, an irrepressible essayist and a staunch critic of the oppressive boot, he unhesitatingly speaks out.
In this magnificent new work, Soyinka offers a wide-ranging inquiry into Africa’s culture, religion, history, imagination, and identity. He seeks to understand how the continent’s history is entwined with the histories of others, while exploring Africa’s truest assets: “its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment—both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual).”
Fully grasping the extent of Africa’s most challenging issues, Soyinka nevertheless refuses defeatism. With eloquence he analyzes problems ranging from the meaning of the past to the threat of theocracy. He asks hard questions about racial attitudes, inter-ethnic and religious violence, the viability of nations whose boundaries were laid out by outsiders, African identity on the continent and among displaced Africans, and more. Soyinka’s exploration of Africa relocates the continent in the reader’s imagination and maps a course toward an African future of peace and affirmation.
Wole Soyinka, the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a Nigerian writer, poet, and playwright. He is the author of more than twenty plays and ten volumes of poetry. For his implacable resistance to political tyranny he has been imprisoned, threatened with assassination, and at times forced to live in exile.
In addition to its inert possessions such as mineral resources, touristic landscapes and cheap labour, Africa has dynamic possessions, ways of perceiving, responding, adapting or simply doing, including structures of human relationships, according to Wole Soyinka in this book. These lesser-known dynamic attributes could help resolve some of the social problems experienced by communities in other parts of the world.
The first half of the book discusses how Africa’s past has affected its present; the second half discusses African spirituality and what it has to offer the world. After reviewing the perceptions of Africa recorded by European writers over the centuries, the author discusses the legacy of slavery and the slave trade – including the crimes committed by Africans against fellow Africans – and the legacies of colonialism.
The actions of the past, in which Africans were treated as disposable commodities, are compared with modern crimes against humanity such as the situation in Darfur, where Africans are still treated as disposable commodities. African dictators have inherited the mantles of the slave traders and the colonialists. Colonialism gets lingering blame for arbitrary country borders leading to inter-ethnic conflicts, although it seems that inter-ethnic conflicts must have more causes than colonial borders.
Islam and Christianity are both rejected by the author as religions which seek hegemony; instead, the author advocates indigenous African religions and in particular the Orisa religion of his own Yoruba tribe. Whereas Islam and Christianity bring conflict and intolerance, Orisa, and by implication other indigenous religions, bring peaceful co-existence. The author advocates traditional healing methods and incantations as “untapped resources”.
While there is undoubtedly much that the rest of the world can learn from the cultures of the various African peoples, it seems to me unlikely that indigenous African religions will provide the answers that people are looking for. People adopt religions because they believe them to be true, not because they believe them to be convenient or useful. Although I disagree with much of what the author says, the book is written in a lyrical and cultivated style, clearly reflecting why the author has won a Nobel Prize for literature.