We’ve lost Africa’s oral narrative voice, the moral force behind it to our own ruin, says Ajeluorou

by anote
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First reading, conversation onLibations for Africa at Lagos Fringe Festival 2022

There should be a rural-urban cross-cultural immersion, engagements’

By Godwin Okondo

WHILE modernisation and globalisation seem to be swaying Africa’s children away from their rich ancestral roots and traditions, it was wonderful to see that there are still a lot of people who are working tirelessly and putting in so much efforts to make a difference for the continent to still retain her unique identity. These cultural revivalists are doing so much to deepen Africa’s cultural roots, traditions and morals through the agency of the creative arts. One such person leading this Afro-centric charge is Nigerian culture journalist, writer, and Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of online art and culture news platform, AnoteArtHub (www.anotearthub.com), Mr. Anote Ajeluorou. He held the first reading and conversation for his first poetry collection titled Libations for Africa (Mosuro Publishers, Ibadan; 2022) on Saturday, November 26, during the week-long Lagos Fringe Festival (LFF) 2022 at Freedom Park, Lagos.

Libations for Africa is a collection of poetic eulogies to Africa’s past, as well as its glorious and inglorious aspects, from which nothing much seems to have been learnt, with the past sadly slipping away through the conspiratorial agencies of modernity, alien civilization, globalization, and her snobbish sons and daughters,” is how the collection’s ‘Poetic Thrust’ explains the poet’s mission, while also hoping that the collection “will help recapture a passing spiritual phase of a people, who once had a proud tradition now battered beyond recognition.”

Anote Ajeluorou signing a copy of Libations for Africa as moderator, Samuel Osaze looks on (Photo courtesy: Taiwo O. Johnson)

Joining the poet in the alternating reading and lively conversation was fellow poet and culture advocate, Mr. Samuel Osaze, who engaged him on the different thematic issues the collection addresses, such as Africa’s ancestry, effects of British colonialism, slave trade, Africa’s bad leadership cadre, looted artefacts, deity worship and the dying art of African folk narratives. Appropriately, the event was held at ‘The Village Square,’ a recreation of a typical village-type ambience tucked within Freedom Park’s leafy ground; the theme setting saw the poet and his audience sitting under trees (a sort of mini-forest) with their leafy boughs providing a canopy of shade overhead and a carpet of artificial green grass beneath their feet. It was the perfect ambience for moonlight storytelling format that the session turned out to be.

While introducing the poems to his audience, Ajeluorou said the collection is about Africa’s glorious and not-so-glorious past, its spirituality, traditions and ways of life, adding the quaint setting where the event was being held recreates his childhood village background that partly inspired the poetic offering: “The poems in Libations for Africa are a sort of ‘village poems’, because of the kind of subjects written about. Growing up as children in the village, we would gather together, sometimes under a tree in this sort of natural environment, and we would listen to stories being told by the elders, but that doesn’t happen anymore, sadly. We no longer have adults who tell these stories to children. Parents return home late from work and are too tired to tell their children stories, and they probably just ask the children to watch cartoons on television while they have their rest. Even in villages, the storytelling art has long died.”

The moderator, Mr. Osaze said he was enchanted by the subject of the poems, as they dwell on Africa’s fascinating past, like the stealing of the continent’s ancient artefacts that were forcibly taken from shrines with the gods not acting in anyway to stop their invasion and desecration by strangers. He sought to know what the poet thought about Africa’s gods that didn’t fight these invaders but chose to remain mute, since it wasn’t just their shrines that were violated but those who worshipped them were carted away into slavery through the high seas where the legendary water goddess Olokun or Edho-ame (as she is called in some Nigerian worshippers) who preside over the seas and Oceans did nothing to stop Africa’s human haemorrhage for 400 years.

But before he responded, Ajeluorou read from the second poem in the collection titled ‘Our Gods in Show Glasses,’ a poem that puts a question mark on the powers of Africa’s gods whose totems or masks still form the circus curios found in foreign museums, and wonders: ‘…If gods become captives in foreign lands/ wrestled from ancient shrines – / mute and un-fighting/ what happens to the acolytes?…’

“Perhaps, that’s the biggest paradox of Africa’s spirituality and why our gods and goddesses have kept suffering loss of adherents and acolytes,” the poet said. “Olokun, for instance, is reputed to be a very powerful goddess of the seas and Oceans, but under her very watch millions of her worshippers were carted off into slavery. Millions more were thrown overboard these slave ships to die in her bed or backyard. Why didn’t she use her powers to save her children from these humiliations that lasted centuries by having these slave ships capsized, for instance? It’s a question that will continue to agitate minds. I don’t have answer either.

“A university classmate of mine also raised this issue recently when I posted this event’s flyer on our WhatsApp platform; he was seeking the rational of continuing to accord the gods and goddesses any form of reverence or worship after what he termed ‘the great betrayal by Africa’s gods and goddesses,’ and I tend to agree with him. But the only thing I can say is that faith or belief in any being is a very slippery human domain and perspectives will continue to shift from time to time. If you go to the villages and ask our elders what they think, you’d surprised what their response will be. They won’t accord the gods and goddesses any form of failure in their duty towards their believers who died needless deaths in that ignoble Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They probably have no recollection of it. They still believe their gods and goddesses do no wrong or were never at fault.

Libations for Africa collection author, Anote Ajeluorou (Photo courtesy: Terh Agbedeh)

“So let’s be clear, my work (Libations for Africa) does not attempt to offer any answers; instead, it asks questions. Answers tend to provide finality to an issue and leaves no room for further interrogation and improvements. We need more questions than answers, really. So we will continue to ask questions about our past and ways of life, but that does not mean that there are no good points we need to take with us from our Africa’s past to confront the new world we find ourselves.”

Osaze was insistent and prodded the poet further on why Africans should still keep faith with Africa’s ways of life in the light of Africa’s under-performance in virtually all aspects, especially with so much barbarism associated with some its ancient spiritual aspects. To counter that perspective, Ajeluorou said although there are still some bad aspects of African spirituality, that should never be enough reason to reject that which is our ancestral heritage. He pointed out that there are still noble, wholesome and uplifting aspects to African culture and ways of life that have no rivals anywhere else in the world. He listed Africa’s indigenous cultural textiles as can be found in different parts of Nigeria: ogbu in Edo, adire and aso oke in Yorubaland, akwete in Igboland, a’nger among the Tiv and apa or edema among the Idoma in Benue, and ukara among the Efik. Ajeluorou also listed Africa’s cuisines as another way of life that is enriching and exciting which young Africans should still hold onto in spite of how modern they may claim to be.

Also, he called attention to certain aspects of Europe’s past that was as dehumanising as what Africa also had in the past. He recalled barbaric scenes from epic films about Europe’s past like those found in Game of Thrones where humans were sacrificed to gain power just as it happened in ancient Africa. He advised that wholesome aspects of Africa’s ways of life needed to be infused with modern ones, adding that there was no justification for discarding what belongs to you in preference of someone else’s own. Osaze then pointed out that what the poet said is in tune with what is currently being projected as Afro-futurism, a concept of cultural aesthetic and philosophy of science and history that explores the intersection of African diaspora culture with science and technology.

The poet also pointed at the vast artefacts scattered abroad that came out of ancient Africa, artefacts that have continued to be subjects of curiosity and awe the world over, artefacts Africa’s ingenious ancestors made,. He wondered if any African in the last two centuries have ever produced anything close to them, or if indeed in public conduct (governance) and social virtues and graces we could count ourselves worthy of being called children of such illustrious African ancestors who had depths of artistic excellence that leave us gasping for breath. Would our ancestors not disown us as being unworthy were they to be alive today? He therefore called on Africans to be proud of their ancestry in that regard, and not look at their noble heritage with disdain.

But Ajeluorou also came down hard on some ancestors, who he said fell short of glory, noting that not all ancestors were good, as captured in the title poem. He singled out Emperor Mansa Musa of Mali Empire who went on a profligate pilgrimage to Mecca, and frittered away vast gold wealth meant for the citizens’ welfare. Ajeluorou further said Emperor Mansa Musa uarguably set a trend of national wastefulness for modern African leaders who, rather than develop their countries, would steal the wealth and take it outside to enrich Western countries. Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Mobuto Sese Seko Congo DR, Eyadema Gnassingbe of Togo, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, etc, fall under this ignoble category, he said.

Poetry discourse at the Village Square: the poet and his audience at Freedom Park’s Village Square ambience (Photo: Taiwo O. Johnson)

Osaze also sought to know why Africa’s oral narratives should still hold any sort of fascination for our youngsters and what mode of transmission should be adopted in a digitised world to project them.

“These days, people really don’t understand the value of Africa’s folk stories,” Ajeluorou explained. “Today, what we see as poor leadership and crimes like Yahoo-yahoo, ritual killings, kidnapping, armed robbery, banditry, etc, ravaging our communities happen because we have lost Africa’s oral narrative voice and the moral force behind it to our own ruin. Those oral stories have embedded in them strong moral agency that taught children the path of truth and upright behaviour. They were our ‘nursery-courts’ as one of the poems (‘And the Night Fell Silent’) says, our informal education and classrooms where we were taught the ways of our fathers, how to live better lives and be compassionate, humane and show respect to one another. At the end of each folk narrative, there’s usually a lesson to be learnt, as the narrator will say, ‘that is why so-so and so happens or does not happen!’ The ‘so-so and so’ being the good or bad, just or unjust behaviour of the central character. They were not just stories told for their own sakes; they contained seeds of wisdom and moral compass on how people should navigate the world in truth and honour and dignity. Telling folk stories is one way we can groom our children on morals, so they are able to decide right from wrong and do the right thing at all times, whether we are there or not.

“And as to how to present them for this generation that has lost that folk narrative culture, I’d say the best way is to continue to tell the folk tales at home, if possible, tell them on television, as NTA is doing, write them in storybooks like I did in my children’s book, Igho Goes to Farm and a new collection I recently put on Amazon titled Mermaid Encounter and Other Exotic Tales. Unfortunately, Nollywood is yet to develop a successful animation film culture; these stories can be animated instead of feeding our children with Tom and Jerry or such foreign cartoons. If we had a cartoon culture, they should be invested with African themes to entertain our children. All forms of media should be deployed to transmit our folktales to our children, so they are not only entertained but learn wholesome lessons embedded in them.”

AJELUOROU also spoke about other ways to further sustain Africa’s storytelling tradition and make it readily available to a wider audience: “The ways we can keep the culture of storytelling going is to have book reading events like this, as well as many more book and culture festivals all over the country. There should also be a rural-urban cross-cultural immersion and engagements, because you find that people are making a lot of cultural offerings in the rural areas, but they haven’t been recognized or no one even knows about them or what they are doing. We tend to believe that only in cities do cultural offerings happen, because that’s where sponsorship or money is; no. There are people who are making films in their mother tongues in rural areas that we don’t see or even hear about. That’s why some of us including legendary filmmakers like Zeb and Peter Ejiro are planning to organise Isoko International Film Festival in Ozoro in Isoko in Delta state next year to recognise films made in indigenous languages. We discovered that there’s a lot happening in that direction and we need to encourage and harness it, if only to help preserve our endangered indigenous languages.

“Recognised festival organisers my boss here, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), organisers of Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), like Kenneth Uphopho’s Lagos Fringe, like Lola Shoneyin’s Ake Art and Book Festival, Paul Efe Azino’s Lagos International Poetry Festival, and others should consciously go out there to rural areas to scout for culture talents and bring them in or even occasionally take these offerings or sub-division of them to our local communities. They will be blown away what they will see and experience out there.”

Some in the audience made interesting interventions regarding the issues Ajeluorou’s poems address. Freedom Park’s resident DJ, Mr. Raymond Bola Browne, found it curious that while Catholic worshippers in Brazil have been able to syncretise biblical and indigenous African traditions into the church’s worship traditions, the situation is different in Africa where a wide gap exists between these two worship traditions. Bronwe wondered why African Christians are far behind in catching up and would rather tag such practice heresy or heathen practice. Of course, Ajeluorou said he had no answers for such disparity, insisting that faith and belief are slippery human domains that answer to each person’s spiritual needs.

A literary aficionado and curator of Africa Literature Borders on Facebook, Lady Olatuon Williams applauded the poet for his work, and affirmed her belief in his abilities as a writer since the publication of his children’s book, Igho Goes to Farm in 2019. She said there was a need to deepen the reach of culture productions for a wider audience and canvassed expanding cultural activities to unconventional spaces away from confined ones that seem to restrict access and exclude a large segment of society. Williams noted that inclusivity was still lacking in cultural productions, adding that it has tended to limit the scope of those who would ordinarily enjoy cultural productions with culture’s inherent value addition to social consciousness.

Also, culture communicator and advocate and Programme Chair of CORA, Mr. Anikulapo said while self-flagellation is in order, due acknowledgement should be given to what is being offered. Such offerings, no matter the size or quality, he said, are contributing to the general development of the arts, and can satisfy local tastes and needs. He said it is culture journalists and critics who need to provide the necessary support and validation for such creative inputs by recording them and giving them exposures.

Anikulapo then made a confession of his active arts journalism days, saying he almost singlehanded wrote what is now known as Nollywood out of existence with his witling criticism of the fledgling filmic art. He recalled one of his lead titles ‘Kill all the Witches, Let the Film Live!’, which he wrote after attending a session of the 1992 Film Policy workshop in Jos. He said he wrote the piece as a critique of the then obsession with witches and sorceries in films of legendary filmmakers like Herbert Ogunde and Ade Love Afolayan (the father of filmmaker Kunle Afolayan) in the 80s through the 90s. Anikulapo said the elderly Afolayan had accosted him next morning at the workshop, and asked him in Yoruba: ‘if you kill all the witches, what shall the filmmakers eat?’

Freedom Park’s Resident DJ, Raymond Bola Browne (left); Purple Shelves’ Amarachukwu Chimeka; the poet, Anote Ajeluorou; Samuel ebelle Meyibe and Lady Olatuon Williams after the reading/conversation session for Libations for Africa

“At that instant, it struck me that whole worlds were involved in what they were doing and how important it was for their own wellbeing and all those who work with them, as a sustaining economic means,” he said. “Since then I desisted and began to see what they were doing in a different light. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves too much. We’re doing enough given the prevailing circumstances. Can we do more? Yes, but that is not to say we’re not doing anything. We’re doing so much.”

Theatre director, Mr. Bimbo Olorunmola, spoke about the identity crisis besetting Africans as a result of jettisoning their inheritance and their wholesale embrace of everything foreign as woke and lacking the ability to merge the old and the new: “I hink a major issue we have is seamlessly merging the old with the new. A lot of our issues stem from the loss of our traditional values and ethos due to globalization, “civilization” etc. This evolution is the hallmark of human existence and it was always going to happen. However, we unlike the Chinese, Indians and Asians generally, have not been able to preserve our values and essence as a people, especially because there appears to be a disconnect between the old and the new. This disconnect has therefore made it difficult to feed our present and future generations the values that we hold dear as a people which make us who we are and upon which our societies are anchored. The advent of new media should have provided a potent vehicle to convey these values in new models to millennials and Gen-Z but this has been largely underutilized.

“It’s akin to the prevalent theme of the plays of Prof. Wole Soyinka, which loosely point out the importance of the past present and future being connected and feeding off each other for the continuation of the species. What we are suffering in Nigeria and maybe Africa is a crisis of identity, we have lost our essence as a people and at the same time haven’t completely assimilated the foreign ways. This has therefore left us unhinged and floundering.”

IN his own submission, a Camerounian tourist, who has been awed by the energetic cultural and festival rounds in Lagos, Mr. Samuel ebelle Miyebe, said, “I brilliantly thank you, the poet, for your contribution to the preservation of our tradition and cultural values through your poems. Further, I emphasize on the necessity for African youth to seek books and research works on our tradition and culture. In Senegal, you have the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, the American university of Cairo in Egypt and many (others with) libraries dedicated to that. A nation can’t grow sustainability without a strong cultural mindset. The case of China. China secluded (herself) for decades from the rest of the world to build a consistent mindset of his population, (and we all know what China came up with for the world).”

Spoken word artist and musician, 2WHITE GbeduPoet attested to Nigeria’s fledgling animation industry, noting that a lot is being done in that sector to position cartoons as an emerging art form that is already taking care of what Mr. Ajeluorou canvassed as alternative formats for telling African folktales in new media for children. He, however, noted that producers of this new art form would need to do more to make their work widely circulated and available to the public, both for patronage and general appreciation.

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