Our long story of transformation

2015-04-13 15:00

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Celebrated Nigerian-born novelist and poet Ben Okri was in town to deliver a public address for Africa Month this week. Mondli Makhanya sat down with him.

It is a week after the horrific massacre at Kenya’s Garissa University College. And it is two weeks after Nigeria marked its first smooth democratic handover of political power. It is the morning after Ben Okri delivered a searing lecture, titled Summoning the African Renaissance, at Unisa. It is the morning after the great fall of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue.

UK-based Okri, who, from his familiarity with the subject, seems to have been watching the statues debate quite closely, has now had a chance to feel and touch the issue. And he has a lot to say about it.

He reflects on the fact that, 55 years after independence, many statues of colonial oppressors in Nigeria, his home country, remain untouched.

“They are covered in dust and no one even notices them. Nobody cares who they are. They mean nothing to us. Maybe a time will come when an artist, writer or someone will give them back their import and we will become annoyed,” he says.

But he is quick to point that the difference is the South African statues represent a greater sense of hurt than the colonial statues in Nigeria.

“Those statues are a constant reminder of your humiliation and dehumanisation. In Nigeria, we did not go through the depth of pain you went through,” he says.

But he is more fascinated by the deeper meaning of the statue revolt, which he ascribes to people’s “displaced rage” at their realities, which leads them to take out their frustration on symbols. He thinks an analysis needs to be done on why people attack symbols.

“Statues are inanimate objects. They’re made of bronze. They don’t talk. They don’t make your laws. They do not come into your classroom...”

“The rage about the statues is displaced rage. People rage at symbols because they want to rage against their realities, but they are not ready to do it in a direct way. They rage at statues because they are dissatisfied with their reality. They are dissatisfied with the direction their country is going,” says Okri.

He adds the “rage against the statues” should not be perceived as just anger at past injustice.

“You hit at symbols when you are trying to hit at something that you have not articulated. It is not just about apartheid. It is also about the contemporary moment. It is just that there are no symbols of the contemporary moment,” says the Booker Prize-winning novelist, who is hailed for his magical realist take on African life.

This message, he believes, is not getting through.

“I think it is being perceived as the rage against the past.”

He has a grim warning for politicians: “The political class should read the statues moment with alarm?...?Today it will be the statues. Tomorrow it will be something much more direct. You and I know where the rage will be directed?...?That is why I think we should be taking the statues issue very seriously.”


Turning to his home country, Okri is visibly distressed about the destruction the Boko Haram terrorist group is wreaking in Nigeria and the whole of the west African region.

“Islamic fundamentalism is one of the big problems in Africa. Boko Haram – if it is not contained in Nigeria – could spread across west Africa and be the beginning of the disintegration of many of the nations,” he avers.

He describes Boko Haram as “cancerous” and says it cannot be negotiated with peacefully.

“It has to be dealt with using overwhelming force, and it will take a military man to do that,” he says in no uncertain terms.

Is new president Muhammad Buhari – a former soldier – up to the task?

“He has a period of about three to six months before judgment will be passed on him. That is the level of expectation.”

He says the Bokom Haram menace is a “judgment” hanging over the heads of all Nigerians because you cannot have “a small group of people holding a whole nation to ransom”.


It is problems such as these, says Okri, that are obstacles in Africa’s path towards a renaissance. While many have been speaking exuberantly about an African renaissance for the past 15 years, Okri believes the continent has not reached that moment yet.

“We are in a constant see-saw. Our situation is a quivering one between hope and despair and between doubt and possibility, between leaping out of a difficult circumstance and not quite leaping to where we want to get. We are on the long story to our transformation.”

He adds: “Our journey is constantly chequered. We are like a convalescent. We get better, we get worse – all at the same time.”

But he is optimistic.

“The important thing is that there is more than marginal progress. The key thing is to get through these long, difficult days.”

So when will we know when the renaissance is upon us?

We will know it, he says, but right now we are just “on the upturn ...?in a forerunner moment. I would like our renaissance moment to be a damn sight more glorious than this. I would like our shantytowns to be beautiful villages. I’d like our worst needs to be pretty good. So when you take people to the worst part of our cities, for it not to be bad at all. That’s when you begin to talk about a modern renaissance moment. Our architecture needs to be ours. Our renaissance will be unmistakable for the sheer quality and quantity of creative manifestation. You will feel it in the great buzz in the interchange of ideas?...?If this is our renaissance moment, then it is a very poor one.”

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