Of Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa

First published January 5, 2010

Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide. To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity… even the most brilliant photography cannot capture the landscape of genocide.

 -       Simon Norfolk

The writers Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove are two of Africa’s finest thinker-writers. They are awesome wordsmiths, word cannon balls boom fiercely out of their fecund minds pulverizing their targets with uncanny accuracy. They write with an uncommon sensitivity to the issues that Africa faces. This they do with respect and compassion and one is taken by the honesty and industry that they bring to their craft. They have just co-edited a slim volume of essays, Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd. It is a largely academic but highly accessible treasure trove of reflections on war by an army of mostly African writers who have been affected by Africa’s myriad wars and genocides. In about 200 pages and sixteen chapters (including the introduction), the reader comes face to face with the anxieties, nightmares and dreams of sixteen diverse and eclectic artists. These are issues covering past and present wars all over Africa; Biafra, Zimbabwe, the hell delta of Nigeria, Darfur, the Congo, South Africa, etc. Kudos to Ndibe and Hove for ensuring that these writers are a judicious mix of the known and unknown. The resulting essays are refreshing and filled with uncommon candor. The references alone are invaluable. I wrote down passages in the book that spoke to me and then I walked among the words, talking to them. I was shaken to my soul’s roots. Even the cover is evocative in what it does not say. It is an image of beautiful children born into wars they did not ask for. There are all these children mugging for the camera with Africa and decay as a surreal backdrop.

As an aside, this compilation of essays came out of a workshop attended by the departed poet-warrior Dennis Brutus. In the book, Ndibe and Hove recall his spirit with eerie nostalgia: “Dennis Brutus, the South African poet whose back bears the scar of an apartheid bullet, lent a measure of revolutionary gravitas and hard-earned moral capital to the workshop. When Brutus spoke or read his poems, his voice, though slightly enfeebled by age, still rang out with stunning range and power.” (p11)

This book is several conversations burning at once. The writer Yvonne A. Owuor starts the conversations rolling in a piece she admits is a rant. It is a rant pregnant with profound gems. She questions why the West glorifies its own wars with stories of valor and views Africa’s wars as savage and barbaric, pointing out that there have been equally gory examples to draw from in the West Again, Chinua Achebe, in his seminal volume of essays Home and Exile, reminds us of the proverb: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” I agree. Africans must tell their own stories or risk the total annihilation of their humanity by the other. We should write about our own humanity, for war is about the sorting of individuals into bins of identity and differences and the hunting down of those anxieties that lurk behind ancestral masks.

This book is a defiant ode to the power of the word and Hove captures it neatly: “Those years of war… gave me scars and smiles. Scars because real bullets pierced and tore apart the bodies of real women, children and men. Smiles, for, in the midst of death and pain, I saw children, women and men who proudly showed human resilience even in the face of death as they fought for the restoration of their dignity.” (p38)

The last chapter, Reflections on Inyenzi is an evocative essay bearing a conversation between the writers Karin Samuel and Andrew Brown. Brown wrote the book Inyenzi: A Story of Love and Genocide based on the Rwandan genocide. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It brings to great closure several issues engaged by the other writers in the book. In simple, almost clinical prose that flogs the reader’s conscience wide awake, the writers weave fascinating images of war and one is reminded of the starkness of images of apartheid’s war housed in South Africa’s Hector Pieterson museum.

This is a slim book bearing weighty reflections on conventional wars in Africa. Wars still rage on in Africa, most of them wreaking havoc below the radar of our uncritical eyes. Every day alien religions wake Africa up and rape her with impunity and send her to bed sobbing inconsolably. Capitalism marches through Africa unchallenged reducing her millions of victims to needy supplicants to the God of more and more. We should reflect on why Africa is in this condition. The book does not. It is not a criticism; a book can only do so much. Africa is enduring many wars and while this book focuses on conventional wars, I propose that today’s most devastating wars are the unconventional. If we don’t focus on those we may be writing our way to irrelevance. Why is the world indifferent to the travails of Africa?

In the book, Lauryn Arnott’s drawings are harrowing in their detail and they nicely complement the writing. But it is not enough. In the age of the Internet, the book is dying a long slow death and it is no longer a robust medium for expressing the horrors of war or the joys of triumph over adversity. I dream of creating a virtual museum dedicated to Africa’s suffering – a total convergence of all media and all voices singing with one earth-shaking voice of the horrors that we have seen and heard. And the griots Ndibe and Hove would be the leaders of that mother of all projects.

Let’s accept some responsibility. Owuor makes this profound observation: “This war, this violence is ours. Ours is the hateful thing – a roaming stain that prowls through the society and sows seeds of chaos – that thing that appalls our within-ness. And horrifies us with the blood it wastes.” (p21) However the book is virtually silent on the crucial question: Why are things the way they are in Africa? There are many questions folded into that question. What is it with Africa and conflict? Why are we constantly forced to question and justify our humanity? What is the role of the writer in shaping events in today’s Africa? Why do some of our writers turn Goebbels on the people? What is the best medium for forcing the people to focus brightly on the fires that burn so fiercely all around Africa? Is this generation of African writers self-absorbed and narcissistic and why?  Has the African writer deserted the role of the writer as the land’s conscience, priest and town-crier? We must seek answers to the why even though it might frighten us.

The Internet, that new world that holds the promise of liberation from hell on earth, is right now busily retrieving Africa’s brightest and best minds from Africa and dumping them in Europe and America.  Virtually all of Africa’s best thinkers are writing about Africa from the outside looking in. Thanks to technology, sadly, this exodus includes those writers who physically live in Africa.

Hope Eghagha in his essay evokes the spirit of the poet-seer Christopher Okigbo using lines from Okigbo’s Hurrah for Thunder:

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon
The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;
And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,
A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters –
An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.

This poem was written four decades ago; one could argue that it seems prophetic today only because the situation in Nigeria is heading South fast and the future is certainly frightening. But then the question is why this constancy of turmoil. Okigbo would not know; he was murdered by Nigerian troops on Biafran soil in a war he did not ask for. This book is one more compelling proof that the sacrifices of Okigbo and other African thinkers hunted down and slaughtered for owning words have not been in vain. I salute Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove.