14 February 2013

Kenya: Literary Postcard - Why Pride Goes Before a Fall

JP Clark-Bekederemo is one of the most formidable writers to have emerged from the age of Afro-Patrimony Radiation (my coinage) - the period when the first group of Western-educated Africans began to write back, in response to a body of literature, and Eurocentric portraitures, that had long degraded and depicted Africans as barbaric and uncivilised.

The aim was to reclaim the dignity of the black race. The plot involved celebrating black aesthetic, and broadcasting the centuries-old African polity that had eluded European notice. Although Clark-Bekederemo is best known as Nigerian poet, his first play, Song of a Goat, brought him to the critical attention of his contemporaries as a principal playwright of his day.

There is a declamatory cultural assertion in Song of a Goat, in the inherent civil rituals, and the vitality of language radiated in distinctive African proverb and phraseology, but which tend to be less obvious, because the playwright avoids the immediate juxtaposing of Africa and Europe.

The action of the play takes place in an entirely African setting, more like in Chinua Achebe's timeless novel Things Fall Apart, before the protagonist Okonkwo's seven-year banishment from his village. The play centres on the domestic tragedy of the individual and the demands of society.

The drama revolves around the tragic life of Zifa whose inability to beget children brings him in direct conflict with society. At the psychological level, Zifa's infertility is a depressing personal matter that threatens his marriage.

But his troubled condition is shared by society, for in procreation, the clan is assured of its survival. The tension in the drama is therefore a dialectic inquiry pitting personal pride against the overcast inhibition society places on man; or the individual versus the supremacy of authentic culture.

Zifa's refusal to sanction a manly visit by his brother to his matrimonial bed to beget children for him as dictated by the oracle is seen as his impudence toward that institution: "Next everybody would be saying, there goes the cock with the flaming red crest. But touch the thing and you'll find it colder than a dog's nose," Zifa says stubbornly.

However, the oracle who has been created as a cripple, it seems, to alienate him from frolicking and the profane, and preserve his purity, so that the symbolism of his being is in tandem with the ethos of the mystical cabbalist, says sanguinely, "Even I, that am cripple in more ways than one, live and hope to some purpose for my people."

The oracle speaks for the needs of society, and his wish is fulfilled when Zifa's distraught and frustrated wife instigates and entraps her brother-in-law in a love affair: "Now hold me, do hold on and fight, for it is a thing not forbidden," she says, knowing that the oracle's imprimatur is the wish of society which expects her to bear children.

Her action brings death to the husband and brother-in-law leaving her full with baby, whom we shall encounter in the sequel, The Masquerade. Significant though in Song of a Goat is the primacy of society over individual, for Zifa's headstrongness leads to his brother's death, and he drowns himself in the sea of clouding tragedy.

In Things Fall Apart, the proud and legendary warrior Okonkwo is chosen by village elders to carry a message of war and peace, to avenge the death of a wife from his village in the hands of an outsider.

In atonement, Okonkwo is given a virgin to take to the widower, and a lad called Ikemefuna, to avert death and destruction. The two are given away in order to preserve the survival of their community.

When time comes for Ikemefuna to be sacrificed, a wise old man tells Okonkwo: "That boy calls you father, do not bear a hand in his death." But as fate would have it, as the poor boy is led to the forest, Okonkwo inadvertently kills him, and he is banished from the village of Omuofia, for the country is big than a man's social status! Well, "whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight," says Chinua Achebe, "then know that something is after its life."

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