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(Keynote Lecture, University Press Plc Authors Forum, Kakanfo Inn,

Wed. June 22, 2011)

Niyi Osundare

The Grand Recall

Eleven short days to the end of year 2010, Nigeria performed a strange but highly significant ritual: we celebrated the absence of an important entity by wishing for its restoration and presence. We will never know how long it took to sell that idea to the then fledgling President Goodluck Jonathan as a media sport and attention-grabber, but whoever did so did the country a salutary turn by highlighting one of Nigeria’s staple national characteristics: the elaborate celebration of contradictions. Tagged BRING BACK THE BOOK, this is a slogan that has a lot more to offer than its seductively alliterative wording.

And this offer is predicated on a number of intriguing assumptions. The first is that the book once lived – and probably thrived – in Nigeria. Second, the book left, perhaps without a forwarding address, but we are never told the manner and condition of its departure: whether it was sacked, banished, excommunicated, tarred, feathered and set ablaze; or whether the poor thing just walked away on its own, having found the Nigerian environment implacably hostile, even life-threatening, especially in those dark and dreary days of military dictatorship. Are we to assume further that, having felt the impact of the book since its departure, Nigeria is now ready, even eager, for its restoration and re-entry, complete with all citizen rights and obligations thereof and granted full liberty in pursuance of its duties as a vital national commodity? Are we to assume that, rendered contrite by the ravages of self-inflicted booklessness, the country is now ready to purge itself of its contempt (to borrow another legalistic phrase frequently used in the Nigerian court circle) and accord the book its due regard and respect, hoping that once back it will be here to stay? Do we really know where to find the book, and what propitiations we need to make for its rite of return? I can hear the book saying in justifiable anger: who drove me away in the first place? And why all this high-powered fuss about my return at this time, of all times?

Let us take a closer look at the modal implications and locutionary possibilities of the BRING BACK THE BOOK slogan. Is it a command? If it is, is it a gentle exhortation or peremptory fiat? Is it a simple-minded wish-fulfillment or the sounding-off of a feeble intent? Whichever it is, who is the target of this command, that is, who is being commanded? Can it be the Nigerian people who at no time took a collective decision to send away the book; or Nigeria’s ruling class, military and civilian, whose policies and/or lack of them have led to the endangerment of the book, the spread of illiteracy, and the supremacy of ignorance? Can rulers who traditionally profit by illiteracy and ignorance really call for the return of the book and expect the populace to break into a dance of adoration and gratitude? How credible is such a statement expected to be when it is founded neither on any solid policy initiative nor realizable practical action? There is, without doubt, a clear operational difference between the grand gesture and the purposive act; between a sound bite packaged for prime-time television and a policy statement that soon becomes a motto for positive development. Fact is, the book hardly ever responds to the kind half-hearted, media-drenched fare that issued out of the stage-managed soap opera that was the BRING BACK THE BOOK event. For unknown to many of us, the book has a mind of its own. Itself a repository of knowledge, it knows us more than we know it; for you can never hide knowledge from the source of knowledge itself. So the book knows our timid genuflections in the temple of ignorance while we are fervently pretending to be saying our prayers for its return. And what’s more, it keeps wondering: why did they allow me to go in the first instance?


‘Pretious life-blood’


   With the Book wast thou enthralled

     With the Book shalt thou be restored

(Forgive my neo-Shakespearean versifying: it’s just that its

register captures the tenor of my present deliberation. . . .)

No country intent on genuine development has ever allowed the book to depart only to launch into a tepid campaign for its return in a later era. The book and human ingenuity have never been far apart. From the caveman’s primal scrawls, to the intricate body decorations that served as the telluric library of tribal lore; from the mystical inscriptions on the walls and altars of ancient temples to the uncanny savvy of the ancient hunter who read the animal’s movement habit from the calligraphy of its footprints, from the prescient face reader who divined human interiority from the mask we all carry in front of the head, humanity came to know the representational potency of signs, the protean polysemy of symbols. And when ancient Egyptians inscribed disparate images on lumps of grass gathered from the banks of the Nile, pulped, dried, and flattened into a mat-like material called papyrus, the eternal itch of the pen for the paper was set in motion. The hieroglyphs became the primordial hero of the lettered lore. Pharaonic decrees descended ritualistically with a weighty scriptural coda: SO IT IS WRITTEN, AND SO IT SHALL BE DONE. Not to be overlooked is the chronological sequence of the verbs ‘written’ and ‘done’ in that saying, and the passive functionality which underscores the grammar of its magisterial gravitas and universalistic imperative. Facilitated by the papyrus, the inscribed scroll pythoned into book; the book became an artifact and sacred object.

And talking about sacred objects, where would today’s so-called world religions be without the help of the book? As the erudite scholar Ali Mazrui has observed, the religions with the largest following in the world today are ‘Religions of the Book’. The Bible, the Quoran, the Torah have all become so sacred that we sometimes forget that, no matter what may be their imagined or mythical provenance, they are basically letters and images organized and secreted between inscribed covers. On the other hand, one of the greatest disadvantages suffered by African traditional religions is their lack of scripted, coded texts. This, no doubt, is the reason why it was so easy for foreign religions with physical, powerful books to overwhelm and displace their indigenous African hosts and overawe their adherents. Can you imagine what would have happened if, upon their advent in Yorubaland, both the Quoran and the Bible had met a book of Odu Ifa and other written texts on the philosophy and practice of Yoruba religion written and coded in the language of the founders of Ifa, widely spread, massively read and diligently interpreted. Had that happened, would the invading faiths have found it so easy to denigrate and displace Ifa, that vital core of Yoruba cosmology, literature, and science of being? This is no idle speculation or hypothetical back-dreaming, for I strongly believe that indigenous scriptures would have given the foreign invaders a strong fight, and that our spiritual health and world outlook today would have been different because of this.    

Since its invention as helpmate of human civilization, the book has literally taken over as the repository, centre, organizing force, and indispensable facilitator of that civilization. So fundamental, so pervasive, has become its power that we have now come to believe that if it is not written, then it does not exist. It is now common knowledge that the major reason Africa was written out of the march of human history was the continent’s lack of written records. The book, coupled with its enabling literacy, became the supreme measure not just of human history but also the human being’s claim to it. In brief, it became a measure of our degree of humanity. When Hegel the German philosopher ruled out Africa from the spirit and march of human history (a prejudice later echoed and amplified by Trevor Roper, a Regius Professor of History at Oxford); when some thinkers and writers of the European Enlightenment relentlessly typified the African as brother of the ape with little mental capacity and even less contribution to human progress, the major root of their prejudices was Africa’s lack of written culture. When, at the beginning of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad located Africa as The Heart of Darkness, thus creating a fiction of primal, languageless beings completely lacking in cultural, discursive, and intellectual competence, he was unarguably tapping into the conventional store of the European mind that saw little or no difference between his fiction and their own fact about Africa.

Of course, these misconceptions and misrepresentations have not gone without the African response. Now well known is the effort of the Ibadan School of History which set African historiography on the right path by challenging the Eurocentric fixation on the written text, while validating well researched oral accounts as authentic and legitimate sources of history. In the field of literature, a similar effort was made to gather, study, and categorize Africa’s rich oral literatures and highlight the formal and contentual features which underscore their legitimacy as a genuine and worthy area of literary engagement. Of crucial significance here are the achievements of scholars and writers such as J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, Daniel and Masizi Kunene, Ruth Finnegan, Isidore Okpewho, Adebayo Faleti, Akinwumi Isola, and others who have got the literary world to recognise that ‘literature’ does not begin and end with writing, especially in foreign languages. The battle is still far from won. Even in this era of post-modernist, post-structuralist, post-colonial, post-, post- post- theorising the written piece is still at the centre of ‘discursive practices’. The written word is still more concrete, more tenable, more answerable than the spoken. The pen still trumps the tongue...

To be continued