Ben Okri: A Rousing Bard

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"Out of The Box" - Ben Okri
©Rohit Chawla; permission granted.

Those who have lived with nature, those who have suffered the erosion of unexplored paths of history, cannot afford to be silent, to be cowardly, and to think only of themselves.

Ben Okri, “Among the Silent Stones”

In his acclaimed book, The Soccer War, in the chapter titled Lumumba, Ryszard Kapuściński, the famed Polish journalist, writes this about Africa:

[…] The awakened Africa [he is here referring to the continent in the late 1950s / early 60s, the time many of its countries achieved “independence”] needs great names. As symbols, as cements, as compensations. For centuries the history of the continent has been anonymous. In the course of 300 years traders shipped millions of slaves out of here. Who can name even one of the victims? For centuries they fought the white invasions. Who can name one of the warriors? Whose names recall the suffering of the black generations, whose names speak of the bravery of exterminated tribes? Asia had Confucius and Buddha, Europe Shakespeare and Napoleon. No name that the world would know emerges from the African past. More: no name that Africa itself would know. (First Vintage International Edition, New York, P. 49)

It is impossible for any thoughtful one of us to read the above passage and not squirm in discomfort. For if asked to name world-historical personages from the African past, the majority of us would scratch their heads, stroke their beards, their moustaches; run their palms over their braids, tug at their locks, their ponytails; avert their eyes, stare into space. (Myself included, of course, except I would be biting the tip of my middlefinger, a habit which betrays any one or all of these: I am musing on a question or an idea; I am lamenting my ignorance of an issue I ought to have known about; or I am steadying my quivering lips and chattering teeth in order to stifle the spurt of emotion then welling up in my heart, moistening my eyes with tears so eager to wiggle down my cheekbones, snake down my cheeks and onto my lips, the salty water stinging my wounded emotion, heightening my sense of grief, making me lose the battle, and thus defeated, release my middlefinger from the sharp clutches of my incisors and begin to sob shamelessly, as I once did at The Film Forum, in New York City, while watching Ousmane Sembene’s poignant film, “Ceddo.”)

How could we name world-historical personages from the African past? (I suspect except for hastily mentioning Shaka Zulu, say, thanks to the famous biographical movie about his life and times, the majority of us would indeed be unable to name any world-historical personages from Africa’s past.) Our ancestors were customarily oral. And our spiritual-others (gods), pantheons and cultural artifacts with which we would have been able to readily reconstruct our glorious past were plundered. And cunningly exploiting the social malady that is war among peoples, they plotted and nurtured the trade in flesh, shipped their human purchases, their investment, to the inferno of plantations across the seas. And it did not stop there, for to totally kill a tree (society / culture), you uproot it. Accordingly, this became the fate of those of us who were not purchased, left on the continent to suffer the spiritual and bodily agonies of colonialism:

Our indigenous shrines were forcibly replaced by mosques and churches; our indigenous judicial systems were forcibly replaced by the court of Sharia law, the court of modern “rational law.”

Our indigenous way of life undermined, defeated, we became demoralized; everything fell apart! And our brothers and sisters shipped across the sea, in the Diaspora, were diligently bred and bled to commerce’s content, to the bank: the investor must reap the profit of his strong, resourceful, human-machine.

Those who altered our (Africa’s) destiny – re-wrote our history, stole millions of our people and shipped them to strange lands across the Atlantic where they bled them for material gain, the development of their society; colonized the rest of our people left on the continent; exploited and continue to exploit) our mineral, natural and human resources for the development of their society; lied to the modern world our people had nothing worthy of praise in our history, lied we were merely “barbarians,” and thus denied the world the knowledge of Africa’s ancient civilization, thereby causing and sustaining ignorance and bigotry now plaguing the world, undermining cross-cultural understanding and tolerance … those who did these things took meticulous, demonic measures to ensure we do not recall the names of our ancestors, our ancient warriors, our ancient heroes and heroines. So, it is not shocking we are today unable to readily identify an African Confucius, Buddha or Shakespeare. We need not include Napoleon: we know he was a white Shaka, as Miriam Makeba ingeniously pointed out in the song, “U Shaka”, responding to the notion that Shaka was an African Napoleon.

Our ignorance of our African past, of our unsung world-historical personages, ancient warriors, ancient heroes and heroines, artists, thinkers, historians, astronomers, healers, engineers … because of historical forces beyond our control is forgivable. What cannot be forgiven – for it undermines our knowledge of ourselves, our history and heritage, failures and triumphs, our happiness – is our ignorance of them today.

Many of us today, perhaps, know of some of our noteworthy modern personages and of their works. But how many of us know of Ben Okri, that child of Africa rightly recognized as one of the greatest writers alive today? How many of us are familiar with his literary universe, that wondrous world of Thought luminous with dazzling intellect, energized with passion for the freedom and wellbeing of our peoples, of all peoples; a wondrous world of Thought where Wisdom – manifest in printed words; manifest in visual and animate prose – gazes, smiles at the reader?

We too often are ignorant of and, therefore, do not appreciate our flagbearers, our warriors who today are resolutely – sometimes at the expense of their wellbeing – bearing our historical and racial cross, struggling for our freedom. I am often reminded of this bitter truth; this ignorance of the majority of us, each time I ask one of us if she or he is familiar with the name Okri, reads his work. The body language and verbal response are always the same: a narrowing of the eyes, and, eventually, a “No … I don’t know him.” Someone once responded: “Isn’t he a musician?” “No,” I said, disappointed. “He is a writer, one of the most luminous stars in the universe of literature today. You know, it is a shame that we too often do not know our cultural warriors,” impassioned, I said. “You have a way with words. You really are a writer,” he said, smiling. The conversation ended in a joke of some sort, whereupon, red wine breathing in our goblets, we jabber: “So, what’s going on?” “Nothing much. Working, writing.” “Me too, my brother. Gotta pay those darn monthly bills.”

For lack of vision my people perish, says the adage. Inspired, Sadé Adú tells us on her “Slave Song”:


Teach my beloved children

who have been enslaved

to reach for the light continually

Wisdom is the flame

Wisdom is the brave warrior

who will carry us into the sun


The relationship between wisdom and vision: the former is indispensable to the latter; the latter is truly what frees a person or people from existential bondage, makes it possible to dream an idea (latent reality) and realize it (transform it into an overt, empirical, reality). I think of the trajectory like this: social consciousness → knowledge → wisdom → vision. How to rouse social consciousness? One way is to read Literature, voraciously. (Note I said Literature and not books: there is a huge difference between both. Literature profoundly explores existence; books are expressly concerned with (usually written for) social engineering, for entertainment, for “Self Help.” Whereas Literature might do these, it does so intrinsically; they are not its express purpose. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, say, and Ben Okri’s A Way of Being Free are literature. Examples of books abound, the reader will recall some of them.)

Okri is one of those extant writers who aim to and do rouse social consciousness, impart knowledge; one of those writers whose work is of cosmic proportion. He is famous in Europe, especially in Great Britain, but less known here in the United States. And I suspect we do not constitute the majority of those who read his work here.

In a poignant moment of reflection (or was it a revelation?), Omovo, the main character in Okri’s novel, Dangerous Love, says:

[…] - and I am here on these shores, in this strange town, weighted down by soul-clog of useless knowledge, of other people’s opinions, the creative dangers of thinking in an imposed language – betrayed by language – erased from history – deceived – as children, we read how the whites discovered us – didn’t we exist till they discovered us? - weighted down by manipulated history, rigged history books, rigged maps of the continent – weighted down by lies – and then believing those lies – swallowing them – force-feeding ourselves with them – gorging ourselves –

[…] transfiguration – transfigure the deception multiplied by education – all education is bad until you educate yourself – from scratch – start from the beginning, from the simplest things – assume nothing – question everything – begin again the journey from the legends of creation – look again at everything – keep looking – be vigilant – understand things slowly – digest thoroughly – act swiftly – re-dream the world – restructure self – all the building blocks are there in the chaos – USE EVERYTHING – USE EVERYTHING WISELY – EVERYTHING HAS SIGNIFICANCE – ” (Hardcover Edition, p. 294-295)

Surely, Omovo’s thoughts speak to us: we and he are one; we and he are inhabitants of the same psychic universe, our life bound by the same agonizing social reality, a reality born of our plague of a historical experience, Africa’s contact with the world outside of her. Okri, through Omovo, aims to rouse our social consciousness.

To read Okri’s work is to take flight into a wondrous realm of Thought: a realm where the reader is sure to meet Wisdom, and, consequently, begins to realize the human world is one of endless possibilities, realize the capacity for endless possibilities is the one and only true human nature; a realm where the reader begins to realize Universal Love (Freedom) is and must be the ultimate goal of human existence; a realm where one will hear the insistent echo of the divine, visceral cry that cross cultural understanding must be truly realized in this world. Any wonder this was written: ‘Okri’s writing is hailed for its intelligence, tenderness, poeticism and luminosity … Okri is an important writer because of the startling clarity and determination of his humanism’ (Financial Times).

Accolades of this sort ought to make us proud of Okri. For he is one of the modern bards Africa sent to the world to hauntingly wail her story, and that of her denied children, many of whom are today scattered all over the world looking for the Sun; to hauntingly wail of her struggle, since her house was felled, for adequate food, clothing and shelter; to hauntingly wail of her struggle to dance again, smile again, laugh again; to hauntingly wail and keep wailing for her true liberation, both from within and from without; to keep wailing until his central message is heeded: Universal Love is the destiny of the human family and must be realized in this world.

Although the wellbeing of Africa, of all her children is a great concern of Okri, it would be a grave mistake to assume his work is (or deem it) limited to exploring African issues. In its totality his work concerns the wellbeing of the entire human family. Consequently, his work is thoughtfully universal: the cerebral emancipation – through the potent, transforming power of Thought – of humanity from the jungle existence it is in today; the realization of Universal Love in the human world, for the human family is One, its members sharing one home, planet Earth, their destinies intertwined. This essentially means we have no choice but to truly love and care for one another, regardless of race or creed.

The trans-African, universal dimension of Okri’s work is most evident in his reflective volume of essays, A Way of Being Free. (If one reads only one work by Okri, this volume, I think, ought to be it. And one ought to read it at least twice, the most rewarding way to read.) And also his story of Azaro – the spirit-child experiencing an earthly existence – narrated in a trio of novels: The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches. The universality of Azaro’s story explains why those novels have been called “world-vision or world-book” (Scotsman). About The Famished Road, Robert Yates of Time Out wrote: ‘This is a book to generate apostles. People will be moved and, stars in their eyes, will pass on the word.’ Linda Grant of Independent on Sunday wrote: ‘Reading Okri felt to me like talking to someone who has a secret.’ Harry Eyres of The Times thought the book: ‘One of the truly great post-war novels.’ About his discerning, knowledge-imparting novel, Astonishing the Gods, these responses have been written: ‘In this powerful, sensuous and philosophical book, I saw universal aspects of the human condition like loneliness, joy, survival, despair, courage, oblivion, pain, terror, optimism and knowledge … Okri’s use of language is beautifully, thrillingly and vibrantly poetic. Smiles can be heard; silences have melodies; sounds have colours and tenderness has a fragrance … You will probably be as enchanted, intellectually challenged and moved (almost to tears) as I was.’ (European) ‘Ben Okri is a writer for whom to be grateful. He embodies a questing spirit and a questioning disposition … such a writer is rare, an endangered species.’ (Scotland on Sunday) ‘Astonishing the Gods is properly worked and exact, and fulfils Calvino’s prescription for lightness – being like a bird, rather than a feather … This novel is like a forbiddingly high-sided mountainous pass … Reaching it is a rare achievement … This is an impressive, brave and often beautiful book.’ (New Statesman & Society) And, about Okri’s impassioned epic verse for the wellbeing of humankind in the twenty-first century, Mental Fight (“An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century”), this has been written: ‘An angry, hopeful, weary, wary, epic reveille to the human spirit.’ (The Times)

This rare recognition of Okri, the honors thus far bestowed on him and the esteemed literary prizes his work has won are well deserved. For Okri is brilliantly illuminating the path to Knowledge. All who care to follow and persevere will meet Knowledge, have everlasting life in cross-cultural understanding.

Ben Okri, our gem. Well deserving of our knowledge and recognition. We ought to celebrate him, write him into (our) history for being yet another African pioneer who triumphed against daunting hardship to tell our story, the human story, so the world might come to know, truly.

“Wisdom is the flame / Wisdom is the brave warrior / who will carry us into the sun.” Ignorance and apathy undermines knowledge, begets and fosters cerebral and spiritual poverty. Without knowledge, there is no wisdom; without wisdom, there is no vision; without vision, there is no true emancipation and progress. For lack of vision my people perish. Let us continually seek and support our vision bearer. And take to heart the message implicit in this first stanza of Okri’s poem, “An African Elegy”:

We are the miracles that God made

To taste the bitter fruit of Time.

We are precious.

And one day our suffering

Will turn into the wonders of the earth.

The last line of the poem reads: “Destiny is our friend.”

© 2001 Ségun Ògúntólá

© 2006 Ségun Ògúntólá