Decolonizing Ignorance and Stereotypes: A Review of Burying The Ghosts of Dead Narratives
By Paul Liam
The concept of decolonization in African literature is rooted in the attempt by pioneer modern African poets and scholars to decolonize the minds of Africans against the background of the barbaric narratives of European exploiters and colonizers who painted the continent as a jungle of apes and barbarians lacking in civilization.
African poets, therefore, sought to reeducate Africans about their histories, cultures, and traditions as a way of helping them to regain their lost self-esteem and humanity. They did this through poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism. This ideological drive was heralded by the African literary philosophy known as Negritude.
The consumption of the negative narratives on Africa by European and western readers ensued in the establishment of a permanent false image of Africa and Africans in their consciousness and sub-consciousness, as a people without civilization and humanity.
Several years after colonialism, the story hasn’t changed much as Africans are still considered second-class humans by Europeans and Westerners despite the fact that their ancestors claimed to have brought civilization to Africa against the historical evidence of Africa’s rich civilization and epistemology, they have perpetually been unable to unlearn the false histories they were nurtured with.
Several decades and centuries after their offsprings continue to interact with Africa within that narrow prism created by those racist and Eurocentric travelogues and narratives.
Well, we cannot deny the legacies of debasement, exploitation, and continuing imperialism by European and western establishments in Africa.
African poets like Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Leopold Sengor,OusmaneSembène,Abioseh Nicol, Kwesi Brew, Frank Parkes, John Pepper Clark, Lenrie Peters, George Awoonor Williams (Kofi Awoonor), Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Michael J.C. Echeruo, and OkogbuliWonodi and several others employed the instrumentality of poetry in conscientising Africans to take pride in their Africanness and liberate themselves from the clog of mental slavery occasioned by colonialism.
Consequently, Soonest Nathaniel has returned to that literary tradition with his collection, Burying the Ghost of Dead Narratives, in an ambitious attempt to decolonize the minds of his readers, but his readers this time around are not Africans or Nigerians, but Europeans and Westerners, many of whose perception of Africa and Africans is shrouded in deep ignorance and stereotypes harvested from a backlog of warp colonial history.
It is paradoxical that this decolonization project is enabled by Britain, through the British Council. Cultural exchange programmes and dialogue are key in the pursuit of intercultural relations and dialogue, especially in a world that has become a ‘global village’.
Soonest Nathaniel’s collection is an exemplifier of the functional use of art and in particular, poetry as an instrument of socio-cultural appropriation and dialogue.
The collection does not hide its intention to educate an external audience about Africa and in many instances, about Nigeria. The exogenous motif of the collection is telling of the underlining ideology behind the poems.
Using a didactic and prosaic style which is synonymous with all literature with an agenda to instruct, he teaches his audience about Africa, sometimes using satire and humor to conceal the gravity of his messages.
Central to the messages in the collection is the notion of the single story that westerners have of Nigeria and Africa in general. In Burying The Ghost of Dead Narratives, we encounter subtle yet lacerating derision of the ignorance of westerners of Nigeria and Africa at different levels in a postmodern world.
Thus, this collection is solid in its objective of debunking the perversion that emanates from stereotypes in a sense akin to what ChimamandaNgoziAdichie regards as the ‘danger of a single story’.
Single stories all over the world are products of limited consciousness enabled by ignorance and sometimes the unwillingness to unlearn prejudices that fuel ignorance and stereotypes.
Understandably, unlearning can be difficult as it humbles and puts the individual in an uncomfortable position of having toadmit either to themselves or to others of their weaknesses. So, how do you teach an unwilling learner about your country and people?
Nathaniel tells us to invoke metaphors whether dead or alive to renegotiate our perception of each other particularly through new narratives that speak to our shared values and humanity.
To bury the ghost of dead narratives implies that we should put aside those stereotypical assumptions that hinder us from fostering genuine friendship and intercultural relations between the continent of Europe and Africa.
Dead narratives have divided us for far too long and to create new narratives of trust and mutual respect, we must tell positive stories about ourselves, our country, and our continent.
This supposition is corroborated by many of the poems in the collection. For example, in the poem, “Africa is Not a Country”(p.15) the poetic persona attempts to debunk the stereotypes about Africa when he says in the first stanza that,
Africa is not a country at the edge of old stories
Lingering between exploitation and aid.
Not a slaughterhouse nor a shrine
Where children’s bones are crushed
Into fine powder to be made into potions
In a bid to sate the protein needs of dying fathers.
The poem, aside from debunking the stereotypes about Africa being a country, and AIDS, and diseases and, goes further to illustrate some historical context about the real Africa and its glorious heritage. The fourth stanza of the poem is instructive as it provides deep posers for reflection,
No! she is not poor.
She provides for them all both high and small.
In her barns are roots, tubers, cereals and nuts.
In her banks are diamonds, platinum, gold,
uranium, bauxite, steel, copper
aluminum and coal,
there’s great wealth in the depths of her soul.
There is no favoured approach to understanding
the bondage from which she has risen,
surely, not through coloured-prism
We cannot undo the hours,
but even in the heart of darkness,
her light has found a place to bloom;
let the forbidden conversation find a tribe.
In the poem, “I am the other Nigeria” (10), the persona performs the same duty as in the poem “Africa is Not a Country.” He debunks the stereotypes about Nigeria in a creative way that seeks to appeal to the reader rather than castigate the offenders being addressed in the poem.
He highlights the global feats accomplished by Nigerians indicating that Nigeria and Nigerians are not defined by the stereotypes ascribed to them by the west. The achievements by Nigerians across fields of endeavour is projected as being the real Nigeria.
The poem could be regarded as a patriotic tribute to a country vilified by negative narratives because of the actions of a few citizens in the face of overwhelming evidence of exceptional brilliance and valor.
The first stanza of the poem summarises the functionality and can-do spirit of the Nigerians,
not the one on page 419 of the history book,
but the one in the next chapter where you’re yet to take a look.
The one for who impossibility is forbidden, the fractured frame
still holding immaculate pictures.
The one who knows water can be cruel
and the earth is not always a grave;
the one who understands that local hands can build global brands
and parallel line may meet and agree.
In the “How to bury the Ghosts of Dead Narratives” (p.29), the persona talks about the need to bury the paste and embrace the new realities staring us in the face. He alludes to the paraphernalia that accompanies physical deaths and burial procession in Nigeria which he opines are not necessary for burying the ghosts of dead narratives.
He instructs on what should be done instead in stanza seven of the poem, he enjoins the mourners not to make light of the trauma in the tales being buried.
There should be poetry and loud music at the wake,
Tell jokes but don’t make light of the trauma
These tales have wreaked.
And in conclusion, in the poem “The New Story”(p.30), the persona in a reflective mood reconciles the past with the present in a bid to find peace and closure, he seeks a new beginning after burying the ghosts of dead narratives. He remarks in the first stanza of the poem thus,
It is not about what your fathers did to us,
nor is it about what our sons did to yours;
it is a chorus chanted
after the rooster regained her voice,
a tale told from the finish line—
where the earth
has annulled her contracts with neglect.
This is a fine collection that speaks to the essential issues of our humanity. We need to talk about them more openly and with the genuine intention to heal and move on. So, let us bury the ghost of dead narratives and weave new narratives of love and humanity.