You must never write someone’s name in red ink (unless they are already dead) because it means that they will die, and then it will be your fault.
You must not whistle inside the house because it will invite spirits.
If you drop your Bible on the floor, you will get a headache.
I needed to know what to believe in so that everything would be alright. And that was the problem with everything that was happening – with the attempted silencing of key creative minds such as Wole Soyinka (and who knows how many others?), Nigeria seemed, in one fell swoop, to have become a place in which it was impossible to dream. And if your own country is inhospitable to your dreams, then so is the rest of the world.
Though it seems a strange thing to say when the problems faced are so concrete and physical, progress can only occur when ideas are reclaimed. Not the fevered, almost blinded embracing of Athenian democratic values by the French Revolution crew, or in reloading British and American values with ‘an African spin’, but in balancing the old stories on our palms again. India and China, two other countries excluded from the ‘Western’ pantheon, have their ancient literature, tales and heroes. In Hind Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi appealed to his countrymen for an India unified under its independence from Western Civilisation. He wanted Indian politics to be uniquely Indian, a modification of what had gone before. In doing this, he dared to propose that a nation could organise itself along the lines of its dreams. It isn’t difficult to see that playing at being European in a land that has markedly different ideological undercurrents seems irresponsible somehow, and though the ancient texts of the revered Koranic University at Timbuktu during the Mandingo-Askia dynasty are lost, we are rich in a literary culture too. We don’t have a Genji, or a Rama and a Sita, but Eshu, the Yoruba trickster god who watches the crossroads of life and acts as a hero on our landscape.
The story that comes easiest to mind about him is his best-known tale: Eshu was walking down the road one day, wearing a hat that was red on one side and blue on the other. No-one recognised him, and he passed through a village with his hat set on his head at a jaunty angle. The villagers asked each other what he thought was so funny, but they couldn’t find out. Soon after he departed, the villagers who had been on the right side of the road and seen the blue half of Eshu’s hat commented on ‘that laughing stranger in the blue hat.’ Some people who had been on the other side of the road, where they could only see the red side of Eshu’s hat, started laughing. ‘Are you mad?’ they said. ‘The hat was red.’ They eventually came to blows over the argument, each side feeling its intelligence had been insulted, until Eshu came back and cleared the mystery, teaching the villagers how fragile reality is, that it can be affected by imperfect perception. Eshu exists to expose us and make us think again, not unlike Loki of Norse mythology. But this is our particular humour, and this is our particular cunning, and stories like this, with or without Eshu as hero, abound across Africa.
The ideas channelled in stories must not be underestimated. For the stories a country tells about itself can act as a veneer, a special blanket of glamour that protects a nation, the quivering sackful of dreaming individuals, from the cutting gaze of others. African folktales in particular, say ‘this is who we were’, in the most exuberant, vibrant way, unveiling the minds of a people so aptly that reading them makes a person shy, as if gazing at a beautiful, naked black woman who locks eyes with you, knowing that you want to know more, or if you have previously encountered her, that you already know the satiny veneer of her skin. The words in myths wrap their arms around us and make us an extension of the godlike people that live in the raw, elemental world of our tales. But Africa is having difficulties in presenting its scattered children with an idea of what it is. Where printed words and the staccato narrative of tele-journalism desensitise even the most attentive to the emergencies of Africa, a story works for me, one told by Nega Mezlekia, about a King in Shewa, Ethiopia, who thought that he had heard all the original stories in the world, and offered a principality to whoever could make him cry out for an end to storytelling. Princes and landowners came to tell stories, but the King listened to their tales in silence. Then a farmer came along, causing the King to smile at his presumptuousness, at the very idea that he could succeed where other, famous storytellers had failed, and win land and a title. The farmer sat down and began talking about a peasant, saying: ‘This peasant sowed wheat, then mowed it, threshed it and stored it in a granary when it had ripened. It was the best harvest he’d ever had.
But there was a hole in the granary, a tiny hole, just big enough for an ant to get in through. And while the peasant was sleeping in his bed, an ant got in and carried away a piece of grain to eat.’
The King was interested in the story, as it was not one that he’d heard before, and he urged the farmer to continue.
‘The following night, another ant came along, and seized another piece of grain, and took it back for supper.’
‘Alright! Carry on!’ The King pressed.
‘The day after that, another ant came along and took another grain…’
‘And the next day, yet another ant came and took a piece of grain…’
‘Yes, I see what you’re saying,’ the King interrupted the farmer. ‘But what happened after all that?’
The farmer insisted that the grain-by-grain break down of the peasant’s harvest was integral to the meaning of the story and continued describing the painstakingly slow plunder of the granary until the frustrated King cried out for an end to storytelling and was forced to give the farmer land and a title.
The future lies in reclaiming stories. How is this practical? How can a real, progressive effect be found behind strings of words? Well, Africa needs to become the subject of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It needs to be shown a reflection that it can aspire to. There is little chance that Africa’s children can learn to love and believe in their country’s capacity for freedom if they aren’t spoken to in a language that they can understand. Like the farmer, imperturbably charting the movement of each piece of grain, we need to rebuild our history and our myth until the afflictions that exist, both present and lingering past, have no choice but to let us go.