Assessing Africa, Perspectives on Soyinka’s new Volume of Reflections

Adam Hochschild


Adam Hochschild is a writer and journalist, latest book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.”



Soyinka's commitment to freedom has been absolute. He staunchly opposed Soviet repression in Eastern Europe. His 1986 Nobel Prize lecture chided President Reagan for sending troops to Nicaragua. He has nothing but scorn for the claim that African and Asian countries should be judged differently on human rights issues because their cultures are different. He joined an investigative mission to Darfur that was denied access by the government of Sudan. Just weeks ago, he and two fellow African Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and Desmond Tutu, wrote an open letter criticizing the Commonwealth of Nations for proposing a new democracy and rule-of-law charter that lacked provisions for implementation and redress.

With the venerable Soyinka now 78, I wish I could report that his new volume of sweeping reflections, Of Africa, is of the same stature as his best work, but sadly it is not. The book is vague, ponderous and awkward. Soyinka never says “house” when he can say “habitation,” “native” when he can say “autochthon,” “dominant” when he can say “hegemonic.” Phrases in quotation marks, float free of any source. When he makes broad generalizations and criticisms he sometimes expects the reader to mentally provide specific examples. (Do you remember exactly what President Obama said in Cairo in 2009? I had to look it up.) The book abounds in passages full of 10-dollar words that have to be read two or three times to figure out what they mean. About contentions in Christian theology, for example, he says:

“These all-consuming debates and formal encyclicals are constructed on what we may term a proliferating autogeny within a hermetic realm — what is at the core of arguments need not be true; it is sufficient that the layers upon layers of dialectical constructs fit snugly on top of one another.”

When a fine writer and a good man writes of “proliferating autogeny,” it is probably not just because he is having a bad day. The strained language in “Of Africa” may reflect a struggle inside Soyinka himself. The book has its origin, he tells us, in contemptuous remarks about Africans he has heard over the years: “You must admit that there is something of a problem about your peoples — look what’s just happened in . . . / look at the scale of corruption in . . . / with just a fraction of Africa’s natural resources, compare . . . ,” culminating in a comment someone made to him in Germany that Africans “are inherently inferior. You must be, or other races would not have enslaved you for centuries.” Soyinka felt deeply stung by this, as anyone would, and tired of being labeled as someone “exceptional . . . from a zone of dread and avoidance.”

In response, part of him understandably wants to defend Africa to the world. Yet at the same time his clear sighted integrity, what Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts,” makes him acutely aware that Africa certainly does have more than its share of homicidal warlords, child soldiers, larcenous dictators, outbursts of genocide and more. And in few places have things been worse than his native Nigeria.

This, I think, is the clash of feelings that agonizes Soyinka. Great scars in African history, for example, have been left by the experience of being plundered, first by slave traders and then by European colonizers. But Soyinka is so honest that he cannot deal with the first without also talking about the role of African slave dealers in the trade. And he equates an unctuous cardinal’s 1939 glorification of “France’s colonizing mission on the black continent” with the imperiousness of present-day despots who violently assume for themselves, or their ethnic groups, the divine right to govern. He calls the Janjaweed, the murderous militia backed by the Sudanese government, “the Ku Klux Klan of Darfur.”

How, then, does Soyinka defend Africa against its condescending critics? The main thing he offers up is “Africa’s spirituality.” In contrast to aggressively proselytizing Christianity and Islam, with their Crusades and Inquisitions, jihads and fatwas, African religions are “accommodative,” non-evangelizing and aware, in their incorporation of traditional herbal healing, of the connection between body and soul. Priests are not a superior caste. There is no excommunication or ferocity toward infidels. African spirituality has been attractive and hardy enough, Soyinka points out, that it has thrived in the Western Hemisphere (here again the reader has to fill in examples, because he does not give them): Voodoo in Haiti, Candomblé in Brazil and Santería in Cuba.

Well, maybe. These tolerant faiths certainly sound better than Crusades and jihads. But for those of us who know little of African religion to begin with, it is hard to understand more when we run into passages like this: “The understanding of the nature of existence is thus one of complementarily, an osmotic relationship in which states of consciousness, transformed or influenced by progressive knowledge, flow into one another, taking from and giving back, replenishing the universal store of vitality from which consciousness takes form and motion. . . . In such a conceptual universe, how can the gods themselves fail to remain earthed, evolving even as transcending?”

If I’m right about the inner conflict reflected in Soyinka’s contorted prose, one thing I wish I could say to him is that perhaps he takes Africa’s woes too much to heart. Yes, Africa has too many corrupt strongmen, but such figures blight countries everywhere, from Afghanistan to Belarus. Yes, many African societies are deeply scarred by that heritage of masters and slaves, but so is Russia: some 150 years ago, most people there were serfs. And from reading “Of Africa,” one would never guess that for all the continent’s troubles, democratic elections are today far more common there than in the states of former Soviet Central Asia or the Arabian Peninsula. Or that Africa’s rate of economic growth has, for more than a decade and a half, been far higher than Europe’s. Of course vast injustices remain, but the continent is lucky to have fearless men and women of conscience, like Soyinka, who are so acutely aware of them.

Excerpted from New York Times