Stories by Anote Ajeluorou
THE Africa continent has the longest history of disrupted civilization from the west. First, the disruption was for slave trade purposes; it depleted the continent’s virile and intellectual population and halted blooming civilizations that the west was to later steal and copy and incorporate into their own and reshipped and sold back to Africa in different forms. This dark era was replaced with colonialism in which the west again got meddlesome in the internal affairs of the continent through directly ruling and plundering its vast human and material wealth.
In order for them to justify their brigandage, the west also began a conscious process of historical revision. As a conquering race, they began a narrative that fitted their own perception of the world and displaced what was on ground. They had the written word to their advantage and deployed it aggressively to rewrite the African story to favour their civilizing mission, but it became a tale that negated the African sensibility and denied her a place in the sun. However, storytelling has been in the gene of the African, but the facility of orality was becoming out-dated and inferior to the written word. How could Africans transit from the oral tradition to the written one and be able to master the new one and challenge European narratives about her?
This is the dilemma of Obele and the Storyteller and other storytellers preceding him. How can they find a balance between the written and oral forms of the African story? How can the effect of the dominant, negative narrative of the westerner be countered for the true African story to emerge in its purity to ennoble the African heritage? How to tell the continent’s story to mask the lie and untruth of the European narrative? Who will bell the cat?
This is the dilemma Obele and his succeeding lines of storytellers faced before the turn of the century. At the same time, it is the story of the book in Africa, as narrated by Obele and the Storyteller at the closing ceremony of UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014 in the Rivers State capital two Saturdays ago. It was a production of Bkiya Graham-Douglas-led Betta Universal Arts Foundation, written by Oladipo Agboluaje and directed by Israel Eboh.
One wrong turn and Obele’s story grows wings in a completely different direction that negates the virtues of the clan and upturns common lore. In a sleight of hand and the post-haste manner that Africans seek commercial gains at the expense of commonsense and morality and why they sold their own kith and kin into slavery centuries back, Obele’s story finds a ready hand that documents it in a book, but the logic has been corrupted. Rather than uphold the values that the oral tale spells out, a corrupted version is woven to make Obele a liar. Armed with this twisted tale that is at variance with Obele’s, the white man arrives just after the Berlin Conference of 1884 where the European powers shared out the continent among themselves, and begins to draw arbitrary boundaries that separate a people that once lived as one.
When they protest, the white man holds up Obele’s book, as fact and oracle for his self-appointed mandate of adjudicating for the people and the land and carving them up into convenient portions for his selfish use. Even Obele’s protest to the contrary falls on deaf ears; her own people feel betrayed and blame her for their woes. They drive her out of town for betraying her heritage and selling out. And so Obele embarks on the journey of recovering her story so it could be written in the light in which she told it originally. But this proves an arduous task, as she wanders from one civilization to another, from one country to another to find the man who upturned her tale for a wrong one to emerge.
When she finds him at last close to a university town, things take a different dimension. The fraudster of historical patrimony had grown rich on his subversion of the African story. How to retrieve Obele’s tale and restore it to its original form? This becomes a hard task; the fraudster would not oblige her. But her encounter with a student who is determined to write a counter-narrative to the ones the likes of Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Joyce Carry (Mr. Johnson) had written about Africans revives her spirit; she sees a chance to restore her tale and dignity. Conrad and Carry had written these tales to suite and sustain European bias against the continent still unable to write about herself.
But things soon change with the education the colonial government introduces that educates the first young crop of Africans who soon catch up with the lies and false narratives of the west against Africa. They also begin conscious revisionist efforts to rewrite accurately both the historical and fictional accounts of their beloved continent that had been so maligned and marginalized by dominant western narratives.
This is the crux of Obele and the Storyteller, the conscious, accurate retelling of the African story by her sons and daughters. And the story is told from back to front from the past unto modern times, especially the fictional tales, which are, in a sense, the old oral tales retold with modern, European tongues of the written texts, for a wider audience and education of the entire world.
Obele and the Storyteller is a fascinating performance that reenacts a continent’s battered tale and retelling aright by her own children, who use the modern, written tool of the white man. It’s a dance drama also, which greatly endeared it to its audience, with its energetic dances and moving songs and use of folk narrative elements like animals that communicate with humans and all. It was fitting that Obele and the Storyteller should be performed at the UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital opening and closing ceremonies. Obele is Africa’s story of encounter with the west and the emergence book and how Africans storytellers have since appropriated the book to tell the continent’s tales to a world audience the correct way.
However, the narrator was less than sterling in her performance that evening. She didn’t seem to have the charisma and carriage; moreso, she didn’t also seem to assert herself in the tale. She seemed to live on the margin of her tale. While the story was moving and more dramatically exciting at the start during the encounter with the colonial powers and the community’s dismemberment along disparate lines, the latter narration became commonplace. It seemed the playwright had run out of steam and merely rehashed of what was already common knowledge to the audience. A little tightening could have helped this part to retain the dramatic verve the tale start with.
As Beeta Universal Arts Foundation plans a fuller performance sometime later in the year, it is hoped that the end part would be reworked tightly for the pleasure of a Lagos critical audience.