Traveler, you must set out
At dawn. And wipe your feet upon
The dog-nose wetness of the earth.
The right foot for joy, the left, dread.
And the mother prayed: Child,
May you never walk
Where the road waits, famished.
These lines indicate some of the difficulties of reading Wole Soyinka, probably the best Yoruba poet writing in English. He now lies in jail, in the region named “Nigeria” by Europeans, on the ground that he has offered comfort to a rival tribe, the Ibo of Biafra, against the will of the establishment of his own tribe and their masterful Hausa allies. It has been rumored that Soyinka has been tortured and driven mad; but, for several reasons, I would be surprised if these rumors came true. He is, however, sick with eye trouble and not receiving proper treatment.
The Yoruba people spread throughout West Africa, well beyond “Nigeria,” some using French, some English for a second language. They speak Spanish in Cuba, Portuguese in Brazil. Eartha Kitt has recorded a hymn to the Yoruba god, Shango, who is an important figure in the voodoo religion of Haiti, alongside Ogun and other Yoruba gods. The longest poem in Soyinka’s selection relates to Ogun, god of iron and steel. He is a kind of mixture of Mars and Vulcan, and also god of justice. Criminals used to be executed in the grove of Ogun; but after even the fairest trial, dissident Yoruba might quote the old proverb: “In the grove of Ogun there are many skulls; most of them are innocent.” Nowadays, Nigerians treat Ogun as a kind of St. Christopher, who governs the white man’s road and the bourgeois motor car. Here is part of a modern chant, collected by S.A. Babalola:
Ogun owns the sword and its hilt.
He is the master of the white man who cut the motor-road and surfaced it with tar.
Ogun shall prevent your travelling by a motor
That is fated to crash into a tree.
If someone is involved in a motor accident
And is merely kicked out, like a football,
Let him give thanks.
It sometimes plucks out the eyes from a youngster’s head.
But this is a bare literal translation. Soyinka writes about the white man’s road in English of his own, like a native—of two cultures. His distinguished teacher, George Wilson Knight, acknowledges Soyinka’s influence on his own important book about British drama, The Golden Labyrinth.
In Soyinka’s play, The Road, you may note (to illustrate my first quote) his treatment of the Yoruba fear of the motorway, ready to eat people—a fear which the urban West has learned to live with. In much the same way, the Yoruba have learned to live with the fact that ten percent of their children will die in infancy, from natural causes. By tradition they have kept up a magical belief which helps explain Soyinka’s poem, “Abiku.” When a woman has lost several children in infancy, she ascribes her misfortune to demons of the bush, called “abiku,” babies born to die. They enter the world through a human womb but aim to return to their companions in the bush, before reaching maturity. The magic trick is to make them stay alive.
A woman will give her child a special name, like Banjoko—“Stay with me”; or “Let me have a bit of respect”; or “Wait and see how you will be petted.” This superstition is touching; but there is another abiku name, Igbekoyi, which means: “Even the bush won’t have this.” Some mothers will dress the child badly, so that the bush-demons won’t want him back. (In much the same way, I suppose, the old Irish would dress their boy-children as girls, so that the fairies would not steal them.) Yoruba women in desperation would even brand the child, the suspected abiku, with an ugly mark, perhaps to make him undesirable to the bush-demons, perhaps to make him recognizable if he comes back to her womb again. This grim tradition explains Soyinka’s verse:
So when the snail is burnt in its shell,
Whet the heated fragment, brand me
Deeply on the breast. You must know him
When Abiku calls again.
Soyinka clearly needs a full glossary for his verse. Even that word “dognose” has a particular resonance, since the worshippers of Ogun sacrifice dogs: blacksmiths and mechanics cut their throats; lorry-drivers may run them down, for luck. Soyinka has never offered enough footnotes: this selection is better supplied than usual, but I want notes of Byronic length.
After all, he knows about Endymion and St. Martin, Pasiphae and the Blessed Virgin. His tribe’s mythology is as valuable as ours, if used correctly. Consider the god, Obatala, whose worshippers wear white, forswear wine, protect hunchbacks, dwarfs, blind men, albinoes, and white people. True, we would not care much about all this if Soyinka were not so good a writer. He has written, against “negritude,” that the duiker antelope “is not known for his duikertude but for his elegant leap.”
Soyinka’s novel, The Interpreters, contains some guidance about the Yoruba gods, but will be best remembered for its Joycean scatology and dashing language: the first sentence—“Metal on concrete jars my drinklobes”—stands in my head alongside “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan.” Easier to follow than these poems, the novel will be of special interest to black Americans. Easier still, best of all are Soyinka’s plays. I doubt if there is a better dramatic poet in English. There is another quite good one, though, also from Nigeria—John Pepper Clark, whose play, Song of a Goat, is included in Plays from Black Africa. This is as local and tribal as Soyinka’s plays, but do not suppose Clark to be a naïve country boy. He knows New York City as a “promiscuous chic client of neon-lit night clubs”:
A dumpling by day
At night a fairy
In a dance of stars.
Of Washington, D.C., he has written:
Whose keepers play at kings.
Like Soyinka, he is a tribesman who can criticize the great cities.
To return to Soyinka’s willful obscurity. He has written a mock-learned essay, “Salutation to the Gut,” in which he argues that the god Obatala’s name is a corruption of “Opapala” (hunger, I think). Anyway, he claims that “Hunger, not Sex, is the First Principle”: he solemnly quotes absurd remarks in praise of food, by Dr. Johnson and John Gay. He discusses cannibalism—giving examples only from European history—while the noble and mock-heroic passages are all from Yoruba verse, some of it left untranslated. This is the taunting aspect of his tribalism. I saw him once on television, persuading a British interviewer that Nigerian babalawos, “native herbalists,” can deal with mental illness at least as skillfully as European psychiatrists. The perturbed interviewer asked Soyinka if he would consider consulting a babalawo for his own mental health. He replied that he would not trust the quacks of Lagos, but might consider a good babalawo in his grandmother’s village—but he seemed amused, as if the likelihood of his going mad was too remote to be considered. He did not know then that he would be shut in a North Nigerian jail-house. A prison poem of his, smuggled out and published in London recently, contains the lines:
By twenty-three. They hold
Siege against humanity
Employing time to drill through to his sanity.
He had been in trouble before. Under the old European-style regime of corrupt businessmen, in the early 1960s, he wrote Byronic satires in the newspapers—one of them a lampoon on the pious administrator of Western Nigeria, to be sung to the tune of the National Anthem:
May yogi spikes ne’er pierce thy seat,
Nor boots cramp two left feet.
One day a masked man with a gun held up the headquarters of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, removed the recorded speech of the prime minister, and broadcast a speech of his own. Soyinka was charged with this offense, but acquitted. That was in the more easygoing days, before the military takeover.
So this modern poet seems to belong to another century, to a world like that of Marlowe and Jonson, with great lords and private armies, high deeds and monstrous treacheries, gods, witches, and old wives’ tales—poets in prison. This is the country where people are concerned, still, to make a good death. There are stories of the killing of the three prime ministers, after that disastrous military takeover in 1966. One, it is said, died like a coward, another like a humble, religious man, the third like a great lord, his senior wife running to join him in death. This is Soyinka’s background. If anyone can write The Tragedy of Patrice Lumumba in English, it is Wole Soyinka, if he manages to survive.
In 1960-62, the first years of independence for both countries, Nigerians were very conscious of the Congo. The Nigerian police went out confidently to help “restore order,” under the trusted United Nations, and to restrain the Katanga pseudo-rebellion sponsored by international capital. One of them told me, on his return, that the Congolese were “a social and sociable people: they will be ahead of Nigeria in five years time.” The Nigerians were generally admired in their police duties: they had shown that tribalism does not necessarily preclude consideration for other tribes. In the Yoruba country town where I then lived, the Hausa-speaking minority was treated with respect—like, say, Frenchmen in Scotland.
But ordinary conversation betrayed a deep prejudice against the Ibo, with frequent reminders of the allegations that the Ibo used to be cannibals, used to kill twin children: it was like the talk of a town where Jews are called “Christ-killers.” Because of this kind of tribalism, Nigeria which once seemed so stable an ex-colony has now fallen into the same pit as the Congo—to the benefit only of those white businessmen known as the Great Powers, exchanging armaments for minerals. Soyinka is the kind of tribesman who can stand against destructive tribalism: that is why he is in jail. His poetic gesture reflects the political achievement of Patrice Lumumba, who almost united the tribes of the Congo.
A Yoruba girl in the country school where I taught showed me a spirited poem she had written on the betrayal and murder of Lumumba: she had concentrated not on the half-naked victim, trussed up and hurled into the white man’s airplane, but on his princely qualities—which she saw expressed in his command of white men’s advantages, even his spectacles and bow tie. I bought a sixpenny tragedy in the marketplace, a locally printed drama about Lumumba, closely based on Julius Caesar (a play much admired in anglophobe Africa; Julius Nyerere has translated it into Swahili). Lumumba’s life and death caught at the minds and hearts of millions of Africans, at all levels of society. As Conor Cruise O’Brien says, “The thousands of ‘Café Lumumba’ and ‘Lumumba Chop Bar’ signs scattered through countless bush villages in tropical Africa are a more impressive tribute to his memory than the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow.”
O’Brien also notes Aimé Césaire’s play, Une Saison au Congo, in which Hammarskjold’s activities are treated too generously, O’Brien believes, and Lumumba is made “too pretty.” Then John Arden has written a poetic drama about the Congo, based on O’Brien’s book, To Katanga and Back; but he has set it in fifteenth-century Scotland, and called it Armstrong’s Last Goodnight. This was a good transposition, as O’Brien remarks. Probably only an African could feel that he understood Lumumba well enough to express him as a dramatic character, exploring the roots of his situation and behavior.
Lumumba’s career is very remarkable. A post-office clerk, with European and Roman Catholic sympathies, living in a huge, wrecked and exploited region of Africa, he managed to win the trust of many diverse, divided, unlettered, poor, and unemancipated peoples—split from their kinsfolk by colonialists’ boundaries—to beat the formidable competition of graduates, chiefs, and businessmen, and represent a new nation against the hostility of international capitalism. The Congo was almost Homeric in Lumumba’s time: even his opponents, like Moise Tshombe (who now, like Soyinka, lies in jail with his eyesight failing—but with his white and black admirers fallen away),1 were like the frivolous, quarreling gods of the Iliad, who hinder and distort the efforts of brave mortals. European and American business rivalries, anti-Communist obsessions, or Roman Catholic sympathies (very active now in the support of Biafra against Nigeria), these are some aspects of the tribalism of the gods.
I half-expected O’Brien’s play, Murderous Angels, to present the international authorities in this light, with Lumumba as their victim; but his “angels” are not physical forces but ideas—Freedom and Peace, contradictory ideals each of which may provoke and result in unjust suffering and death. In this play, Lumumba stands for Freedom and Hammarskjold for Peace. The epigraph is from an Irish verse:
Better beast and know your end, and die
Than Man with murderous angels in his head.
We are all conscious, too conscious, of the dangers of Freedom, the dangers of revolution, chaos, anarchy. O’Brien has no need to add to the general Western fear of men like Lumumba. He concentrates on the less notorious dangers, of peace-keeping, the results of Hammarskjold’s work. It may seem odd to question a notion like “Peace”—until we remember our Western world’s emphasis on the “security” of “stable regimes,” all the repressive police states from Spain, Portugal, and Greece to Arabia, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
So O’Brien concentrates on Hammarskjold, in a generous but critical spirit, making use of his religious meditations, Markings. The author is experienced in discussing the Christian aspirations of writers—like Claudel, Greene, Mauriac—and he has no difficulty in interpreting Hammarskjold’s behavior as that of a man consciously arranging his own martyrdom, according to the Scriptures, like the Jewish Christ. Lumumba, we may assume, had no such purpose: he risked his neck because he was determined to go to his daughter’s funeral, without the faintest desire to be captured, betrayed to his enemies, and “martyred.” He wanted to win; whereas Hammarskjold clearly liked at least the idea of sacrificing his own life, for Peace.
Another background text for the play is Catherine Hoskyns’s excellent book, The Congo Since Independence: January 1960-1961. O’Brien quotes her in his preface, notes, and appendix, as supporting evidence for his main theme—that the United Nations Organization, seen objectively, was working for the benefit of international capitalism and against the interests of Congolese independence, as represented by men like Lumumba.
Lumumba can fit into a heroic context, Hammarskjold into a quiet, post-Ibsen tragedy. But how can the playwright deal with so dull a subject as international capitalism, the force which dominated their recalcitrant lives? O’Brien admits to faking here: he has invented for one of his villains an improbable businessman, Baron d’Auge, whose aristocratic sense of superiority enables him to announce the motivations of capitalists with unashamed honesty. Charged with racism, he replies that he has never despised black men more than white men. The Baron has something of the cold lucidity of Shaw’s Undershaft: his stodgy colleagues, two lifelike British noblemen, are too boring to share his spotlight.
American counter-revolutionaries, employed by the UN and the US government, are presented with Expressionist technique, blandly admitting their misdeeds to the audience. In the broadly realistic section, surrounding Hammarskjold’s official duties, the villain is true to life and interesting, a corrupt British scholar, subservient to business corporations. Then there are Tshombe and Kasavubu, shown briefly, as pathetic puppets. Finally there are two demon figures—Colonel Alcibiade Zbyre, an amalgam of the most evil kinds of French mercenary, and his real-life partner, Tshombe’s Minister of the Interior, Godefroid Munongo. (O’Brien clearly feels in some awe of this terrifying man, recording the story that his father, a powerful chief, ate a child to restore his potency, and then fathered Godefroid.)
Whether this ingenious mixture of the Expressionist, the didactic, the documentary, and that kind of honest but (to me) unsatisfactory “realism” which I associate with Arthur Miller will work in a theater I can’t easily tell, since the play has not been staged in London, where there is always a difficulty in presenting dramas about important people. The recent production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play about Winston Churchill, Soldiers, has made matters even more difficult. A press hullabaloo was raised on the grounds that the author accused Churchill of complicity in an assassination. Instead of allowing it to be staged and freely criticized, the National Theatre’s chairman, Lord Chandos, refused the actors permission. A former colleague of Churchill, this nobleman is supposed to possess political acumen: his responsibility for the present condition of the “federations” of Malaysia and Nigeria does not support this reputation.
Men of the postwar generation, anxious to release Churchill’s image from its status as a right-wing fetish, obstinately staged Soldiers in a private-enterprise theater—where it was sensibly condemned by Socialist and Communist reviewers, and savaged mindlessly by right-wingers. Lord Chandos, having failed to censor, turned critic, sneered at Soldiers in the Spectator, and was fawned upon by John Gielgud’s reactionary brother…. Well, nobody wants to go through all that again.
The staging of Hammarskjold and Lumumba—whether they are applauded or disparaged—is not so exciting to influential people in London as the staging of Churchill. But the liberals will find it hard to prove any political point from O’Brien’s play, so they won’t be keen to fight for it; the right-wingers will think it embarrassing, offensive, dangerous—that is libelous, likely to offend foreigners—like the Americans or the Swedes. To hint that Hammarskjold might have been labeled as homosexual might cause a diplomatic incident. O’Brien deals strongly with this matter in his preface: he does not regard his suggestion as an “accusation” from which the dead man must be “defended.” Whether true or not, incidentally, it makes good fiction. In the play, the dead Lumumba’s white girl friend, his “junior widow,” snaps at Hammarskjold’s black aide:
“Are you his black boy friend that they talk about?”
“That’s what they say.”
“Listen, I was Lumumba’s girl friend and I didn’t find out that I was by reading the newspaper. It was kind of more a personal matter.”
The suggested difference between Lumumba and Hammarskjold is an interesting part of the subtext. With luck, this minor element might stimulate one of the sex-freedom enthusiasts among our impresarios to stage the play.
But I’m not very hopeful. The emphasis in modern theater is on showing, not telling, and it may well be supposed that there is too much talk in Murderous Angels, that it is too Shavian. All the same, the elements seem well mixed, when reading and imagining it. Necessary information is usually handed to the audience directly, without pseudo-realism, some scenes are conventionally lifelike, others are mimed in the style of a didactic parable. It ought to work on stage. If only he had filled it with African song and dance, wordless cries and magic, it would do for the off-off-Broadway avant-gardists and their London imitators; but the author emphasizes inexorably that this attractive stuff is the very thing which leads well-meaning men like Hammarskjold into irrationality. He shows the subtle capitalists deliberately laying on the drum-music in order to instill in the visionary Swede a feeling for “African magic,” a romantic idea of Katanga’s nationhood. Just so certain international capitalists are currently stressing the national “identity” of Federal Nigeria (or indeed Biafra, in some cases), according to their wishes and interests.
O’Brien himself is mentioned in the play (“The British say he’s a Communist, but they just mean he’s Irish”) and he is solemnly presented as a tool of Hammarskjold’s purpose—just as Hammarskjold is a tool of the United States. The capitalist, Baron d’Auge, says:
Hammarskjold’s relation to America is rather like that of Man to God; he has free will, but only under and within the omnipotence of the higher power, and it is in these conditions that he must work out his salvation.
O’Brien has written mostly about what he knows best—the problems of men in authority, their “agonizing burden of responsibility,” the complex feelings of a Pontius Pilate. This bias is what often irritates us with a play like Soldiers (where the bombing of Germany was not really shown, only the sadness of the bombers, their faces working) or in plays about Vietnam, which concentrate on the guilty consciences of the West rather than the single-minded courage of the adversary. But O’Brien’s Hammarskjold is different from the usual conscience-torn judge. After all, he too died (or was killed) to capital’s benefit. He says:
I am the Vicar of Christ. I look like Pontius Pilate. But I represent Christ.
It would be hard to imagine a more interesting and attractive stage version of Hammarskjold—a fine part for Alec Guinness or John Gielgud. But this play is not the last word on Lumumba. After this tour of the corridors of power, this display of the white masters of Africa on their flying visits, there is still room for a dramatic study of Patrice Lumumba on the earth, where the action is, defying the gods.
July 31, 1969