Mojuba: the African Autobiography as Ancestral Reverence
Originally written for a client April 2014 (Copyright (c) Gloria C. Steele)
“Mojuba: the African Autobiography as Ancestral Reverence”
Africans place paramount importance upon children and ancestors. It is a common belief in many African communities, regardless of language or cultural nuances, that ancestors are reincarnated through our children. In African mentality, the idea of living honorably and living a dignified legacy is just as much to make one’s ancestors proud as to also leave a Proud example for one’s own children to follow. When ancestors are proud of their descendants, they may reincarnate as a child in the same family bloodline, sometimes reincarnating again and again as young children, such as abiku, heavily mentioned in by Soyinka in Ake (Soyinka, p 16-17). Many African spiritual groups have elaborate ceremonies or small devotional rituals giving respect and remembrance to the Dearly Departed, as evidenced in Soyinka’s stories, in which he mentions egungun again and again, literally translated as “bones of my bones”.
It is in acts of ancestral reverence that Africans and other indigenous cultures (such as Japanese Shinto and Norse Asatru traditions) feel perhaps more palpably a sense of humanity: humbled while reciting the names and pouring libation for those that came before, and feeling a part of a long thread of Collective [Un/Sub]Conscious, one who actively remembers and invokes the ancestors realizes a single human being is never actually alone. Likewise, it is in having and raising children that one’s Divinity and Immortality is ultimately realized and, perhaps fleetingly, however abstractly or figuratively, attained. A child is a reflection of the parent’s story, a testament and affirmation of one’s own survival, which brings reassurance that, by looking into the faces of children, a man or woman can see and know the evidence of the long line of ancestors who begat them. The very act of birth and its dependency on and interrelation with the act of death confirms the parents’ story will live on because science has even proven memory is passed down through DNA.
African American Civil Rights leader and revolutionary Stokley Carmichael wrote about the Afrocentric community concept and the importance of celebrating children as ancestors returned, in order to celebrate the identity not only of the child, but the entire community, ethnic group, nation, the African continent, and the African Diaspora in the Americas and Caribbean:
Among many West African peoples from among whom our ancestors were seized, whenever a child is born, a birth poem or praise song is composed in its honor. Among the Yoruba [the Nigerian ethnic group which Wole Soyinka himself is apart of] this birth poem is called oriki. Some days later at the naming ceremony by which the infant is ushered formally into its place in human society, the child’s oriki is recited publicly, first into the ear of the child and then to the assembled community of family and neighbors. The first language a child will be required to commit to memory, the oriki imprints the child with its complex historical, spiritual, and social identities….[Oriki] is at once prayer, thanksgiving, celebration, and prophecy. It is a meditation on the meaning and significance of the new human’s name. It is an evocation of the strong deeds, character, and praise names of the infant’s ancestors, and, perhaps most important, it is an optimistic attempt to project (and define) in desirable ways the child’s future personality and life prospects. By evoking lineage, the oriki is ultimately about spiritual inheritance: that eternal life force that has many names (Ase among the Yoruba), which we receive from our ancestors. A vital force of which we, in each generation, are only the contemporary incarnations. And which in turn we pass on to our children and they do theirs, so that the lineage never dies….Oriki, while memory and history, is also character, at once both individual and collective. Individual because each human being has his or her own particular and unique oriki. Collective because being anchored in lineage, it is fundamentally about group identity. We Africans know that each individual one of us is ultimately the sum of that long line of ancestors—spiritual forces and moral arbiters—who have gone before to produce us. The psychic forces out of which we all come. In this sense oriki is a salute to family. It is also an inheritance one acquires at birth. (Carmichael, pp 11-12)
In J. Nozipo Maraire’s Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter, the narrator Amai Zenzele reveals her inverted reflection in her daughter, and her duty and desire to pass down as an inheritance the secrets of her life (which, in themselves, contain the secrets of her ancestors, her community, her African continent, the continent itself a Mother):
We have the same eyes, you and I. But yours are still vulnerable. They are candid and honest; like a scrupulous documentary, they take note of all of the details of life. And all of the world is reflected there—the beautiful and the wretched alike. My eyes are resigned to observe, detached, from some distance. They want no part; they do not take in. They keep out. In your company, I often feel blind, groping for firm objects, hesitant lest I collide with some obstacle I cannot characterize, let alone surmount. Ah, but your fingers are truly mine, long, dark, and graceful. And those clumsy lips, they are mine, too. They fall and tense and bend into every shape. They are never still, never without expression….I have learned something in my awkward journey through womanhood. The lessons are few, but enduring. So I hope that you will pardon this curious distillation of traditional African teaching, social commentary, and maternal concern. These are the stories that have made me what I am today. It is just that you are my very own, and it is an old woman’s privilege to impart her wisdom. It is all I have to give to you, Zenzele. (Maraire, pp 4-5)
Africans place emphasis on respectability in the sense of setting good examples for children and leading an honorable life that does not shame one’s family name or heritage. So it is indeed especially shameful to the parents for the new generation children to eschew such rich traditions in favor of disobedience characteristic of the “rebellious American [or otherwise Western] spirit”.
“I don’t know what to do, Amai Zenzele. Somewhere we did something wrong….when independence came, we celebrated with tears in our eyes! The country was ours! We would continue the struggle to ensure that our children received every opportunity of Western privilege. The whites had hoarded the pleasures and advantages of our nation for too long. My God, there were horse-riding and French lessons, video games, and trips to London and New York. There was nothing that our children asked for that we denied them. We who had grown up knowing only deprivation, austerity, and hard labor. We wanted only the best for them. We even sent them to the best private schools with plenty of whites.” ….She waved her arms around the sitting room, helplessly. The room was like a museum of African assimilation. On the far wall were shelves of video games, movies, and a computer…..the room, with its rich golden carpeting and matching velvet sofas, was the Zimbabwean’s version of Western sophistication….”But it was all in vain. They have neither respect nor gratitude”…When I left…I understood [Amai Stephen]’s predicament as well. All of the peri-independent generation shared a common vision of a better life. Unfortunately, too many of us had translated this into a material definition of success. We developed all the symptoms of the postcolonial syndrome, endemic to Africa: acquisition, imitation, and a paucity of imagination. We simply rushed to secure what the colonialists had…we denied our own culture, relieved to leave our primitive origins far away, in some forgotten village…we created an invisible white line or ultimate aspiration: to achieve what the Europeans had…we ceased to dream, to have our own vision of happiness and success. We were able to carry on this face with aplomb, but our children were getting caught in some gray zone that was neither black culture nor truly white either. (Maraire, pp 12-13, 17-18)
In the face of this schism, this cultural rebellion and betrayal, African parents, no longer able to solidify their traditions in their children simply by passing them through their loins, resort now to picking up the pen to solidify the once oral and mystical traditional wisdom into the European’s Written Word. “If you want to hide something from a Black man, put it in a book,” the old saying goes, yet the African parents writing autobiographies to pass to their children, often in the form of letters such as Maraire’s and Magona’s works, are doing the opposite: putting it in books they immortalize their culture and assert autonomy over their stories (rewriting, literally, blindly accepted Eurocentric HIS-story), revealing to a wider world what was once whispered around campfires and sung in cryptic lullabies. In a review of Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children and Mother to Mother, Meg Samuelson writes:
Sindiwe Magona’s autobiography, To My Children’s Children (1990), and her fictionalized account of the Amy Biehl killing, Mother to Mother (1998), provide a rich comparative framework in which to consider the construction of the narrating voice and the addressee….. To My Children’s Children opens by locating the speaking act (recourse is made to the oral, not written, tradition) in the culturally specific role of a Xhosa grandmother. Although there are (repressed) schisms within this voice, it sets itself up as one that emerges from a stable identity. The proclaimed aim of this autobiographical act (telling “my” story) is to conserve, record, and transmit the culture and traditions of “my people”–the amaXhosa — to her grandchildren (1). Here we see Magona justifying the “private” act of autobiography (writing the self) by turning it into a communal act, locating it within a culturally ordained, “authentic” sphere: orally transmitted cultural values. Thus the constructed voice and its placing of the addressee deflect the individualism implied in the act of writing. That the narrator’s voice slips out of its ostensible function as a communal voice (and reveals this to be a rhetorical strategy) becomes apparent when Magona drops the address to the “child of the child of my child” after the fourth chapter, only to hastily recover it in the closing sentence. The maternal identity, I will therefore argue, should not be taken purely at face value but should be read far more ambivalently as a voice torn by competing pressures. On the one hand, Magona is invoking textual strategies in order to write her story within the conventional politics of the time. On the other, we cannot but help see this device of constituting herself as a mother in/of the community as being, at times, a screen behind which Magona attempts the more private act of recuperating a stable individual self. What the voice she constructs claims to conserve is the locus of community. (Samuelson, pp 1-2)
The African voice of the community is often attributed to the elders, such as those keepers of wisdom Amai Zenzele in Maraire’s work refers to: “even the ‘ancients’ as you call them, with their interminable, glorious epic tales of battles waged and won and village life before the white man came—they are our living history…our library (Maraire, p 7).” The elders are perceived as the keepers of the village’s moral standards and spiritual convictions, they are also the shapers of socialization: the foundation upon which the example is based for how the citizens of the village should carry themselves with respect.
Looking back now, I can clearly see how iintsomi are an essential and integral part of the socialization of the child among the amaXhosa. The lazy youngster who would not bother to learn from his or her elders was punished; usually he or she ended up without a spouse because no one would marry such a sluggard. Always, good behavior was rewarded and bad punished. (Magona, p5)
Wole Soyinka’s luminal masterpiece Ake shapes Soyinka himself as a sort of trickster god, almost unreliable narrator, the child speaking through the adult’s mouth, writing through the adult’s pen precisely as the adult self sees his child self. Like the Esu-Elegbara crossroads deity the Yoruba tribe worship—the social-spiritual culture that Soyinka himself was born into—Soyinka straddles the fence between innocence and age, ignorance and perception, a child’s place and an elder’s authority, a child’s hope and an old man’s careful certainty and mortgaged regret. Soyinka’s middle existence between youth and adulthood signifies modernity or Eurocentrism as a sort of “growing up,” as if the magic of the traditional spiritual practices are acceptable as a child, but as an adult he engages in the more existential, philosophical intellectual activities of analyzing Christian doctrine rather than engaging ritually in the lively and living ceremonies of his people. Sindiwe Magona expresses a similar sentiment in To My Children’s Children revealing:
This straddling of two worlds, the world of school and of “civilization” and the world of ancestor worship, witchdoctors, and traditional rites, often created disagreements in our home. “What do the teachers know?” [My mother’s] stock phrase meant “case closed!” Even when resourceful Jongi would resort to: “But we are safe. We have been fortified remember? Remember the witchdoctor?” it was to no avail. “He didn’t fortify you against suicide,” mother would retort, adding, “and I didn’t send you to school to find out you have a mouth!” Who could argue with such wisdom? …After the weekend celebrations I would go to school as usual. I had to come to accept the existence of two far from compatible worlds, the one my world of traditions, rites, and ancestor worship, and the other, the world of “civilization” that included school. (Magona, p54, 65)
Between Yoruba traditional religion (Ifa) and Christianity, Soyinka grows to seamlessly syncretise the two with as much adeptness as Yoruba descendants of the Slave Trade did when creating new Creole-Caribbean versions of the Ifa faith naming them “Santeria” in Cuba, “Voodoo” in Haiti and New Orleans, and “Geechee” in South Carolina and Savannah, GA. This syncretism is evident in his identification with and possessiveness over a rock outside of Sunday School meeting. The possessiveness over the rock, although seemingly absurd to the western interpreters, is indicative of a connection to Eshu Elegbara, or Eleggua as He is known in Cuba, Exu as he is known in Brazil. This Yoruba deity is the African equivalent of the Norse Odin/Wotan, The Greco-Roman Hermes/Mercury, and the Hindu Genesha. This deity is often personified, consecrated, and/or embodied in idols or icons made out of rocks, particularly the sacred Laterite stone. Another example of such syncretism is hinted at in an early chapter of Ake in which, the young Wole asks if St. Peter is an egungun. An egungun in Yoruba language and belief means literally “bones of my bones”—in other words, egungun are the ancestors or our Collective Dearly Departed. Egungun ceremonies such as the ones Soyinka describes with such vivid detail and obvious joy are powerful and awe-inspiring, allowing for an ancestral spirit to “mount” or temporarily reside within an entranced performer’s body while in the sacred colorful multi-layered egungun cloth robes. However, the elaborate ceremonies and costumes aside, egungun are still, for all intents and understood purposes, literally regarded as the Holy Dead, a collective of ancestral spirits from one’s immediate bloodline and ancient lineages, sometimes even including past lives. Therefore, although belittled and casually dismissed by the uninformed reader literally lost in translation, the child Soyinka who so adamantly regards St. Peter as an egungun is in fact correct, as St. Peter too is an Elevated or Deified Ancestor, or once living human being, just as all the other human beings. Of note as well is the documented fact that many slaves—and to this very day, their descendents– syncretised and identified St. Peter as Eshu-Elegbara or Haitian Papa Legba or Cuban Eleggua (Akinkunle B: 2-3). This Eshu-like liminality the Wise Child Wole Soyinka displays is alluded to in an intriguing article comparing the exploration of abiku in Ake as follows:
In Wole Soyinka’s autobiography Ake, the middle-aged Soyinka resurrects the child Wole. This exceptional child breaks down the boundaries between Yoruba and English, the wild and the Christian, the town and the parsonage, Yoruba and Western-style schooling, Ake quarters and the rest of Yorubaland. Gender and generational barriers crumble when he becomes pivotal, as errand boy, in the women’s rebellion against taxation in Ake. These daughters, including his mother, Wild Christian, break patriarchal law and unseat the Alake from his throne for his intransigence and his apparent support for colonialism. Wole never forgets this history-in-the-making. However, the autobiography is a safari of the self, as Soyinka conjures the ghost of a past self and, as abiku, thrives in many spheres. In keeping with the genre, he cannot help but sell his self. He tacitly acknowledges that he inherits his rebellious spirit from his courageous, revolutionary, “wild” mothers. Shifting from the matrifocal, he also recognizes the gift of courage and acuity from his grandfather, and he mentions his debt to his intellectual father. Nonetheless, his mother, named Wild Christian, (16) presumably by Wole at the ripe, old age of three, embodies the unbridled and puritan spirits that are part of Soyinka, the writer. Wole names his father Essay by fusing the father’s fragmented initials-S.A.–into a word to conjure the cerebral, writing world. Wole and Soyinka reverse the parent-child power base when Wole renames his mother and father and Sayinka reproduces them textually. If his parents named him in Yoruba, Wole–‘step in (and stay),’ to borrow Clark’s abiku phrasing–names them in English. Through word power, Soyinka transplants them from a Yoruba milieu into an Anglicized domain by writing in English. Wole’s parents are not really Soyinka’s parents but traces of them in a mimetic space (Uncredited/Free Library, p 1-3)
In Country of My Skull, what we have essentially is a strange hybrid of confessional, transcription, and autobiography. We have an amalgam of pseudo-fiction, embellished facts that become “truer than true” and even instances where the accounts of several real persons are combined into one invented character’s slightly questionable, yet cohesive and moving, narrative. Controversy rides this formidable volume offered by the white Afrikaner Antjie Krog on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s native black witnesses and their recounts of truly gruesome racial violence inflicted upon them at the hands of whites during the recent—and still stinging—oppressive hegemony of 1990s apartheid…. Krog acts as a witness of the witnessing: reporting and transcribing the events, she is not only court recorder and is not covering the Commission hearings with velvet gloved journalistic objectivity, but instead finds herself engaged in and engaging with the channeling of these vivid memories, an unsettling, though some say cathartic, experience…. Indeed, Krog has made a lasting testament out of a guided testimony (Akinkunle, 1-2). Country of My Skull is a strange inclusion to the collection of African autobiography summarized here; It is not strictly the biography of the testifiers or of Antjie Krog herself—instead, it is more of an autobiography informing how she reacted to and felt about the confessions she has transcribed from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The autobiography becomes more like a communal biography, wherein Krog realizes through her own intertwined testimony that their story/ies are in fact hers. As a white Afrikaner, Krog is in a strange place of exclusive inclusivity: white, she is a foreign entity in cultural mentality and appearance, even if she were born on African soil; yet, she is also undeniably and inextricably part of the community and the history because without the European invasion the victims’ testimonies she herself recounts from the Commission would never have been told, never heard, because it never would have happened. Although she is not personally to blame, her dual citizenship implies her culpability. Again, just as with the other biographies, ancestry is a large part: Krog’s white ancestors are the spectres haunting the history of the Black Africans’ ancestors and futures of the Black Africans’ children or descendents. Krog’s work, although not passed from parent to child (such as Zenzele or To My Children’s Children), nor presented as reflections from man to his boyhood self (such as Ake’), but it is in a sense an offering to the ancestors. Krog’s re-telling of the Commission transcripts is in a sense her own reparation to the Black victims’ ancestors; it is somewhat an un-silencing on her part of the Black victims silenced and left powerless by her own ancestors. Essentially, by allowing them expression channeled and legitimized through her literary exposure and influence, she on behalf of her white ancestors offers a sort of apology in a way, through her sympathy for and internalization of the Black apartheid victims’ agonizing accounts of racial prejudice on their own continent at the hands of European oppressors.
In conclusion, the African autobiographies featured in this unit can be viewed as in and of themselves an offering, a ritual canonization of one’s own experiences, where the “white man’s” Deified concept of Written Word (more external, its potential reach and influence due to its method of portability) meets the African gnosis of intuitive, unwritten nonlinear storytelling (a more enclosed, cryptic, secret, informal method of communication, and usually limited to family/tribe). In the different authors’ autobiographical writings, African forms of oral and mythological storytelling are inherently present, borne from a systematic Eurocentric, hegemonic oppression of a People who traditionally have been unaware of, or deliberately forbidden or limited access to, the “white man’s” literary history. The true triumph, then, is in a sense “beating the white man at his own game” by taking his assumed literary authority and cleverly circumventing such by writing distinctively “African” without apology or annotation.
Steele, Gloria. Unpublished Article A (Writing Assignment 3, LIT-331-OL009). 2014. Thomas Edison State College
Steele, Gloria. Unpublished Article B (Writing Assignment 5, LIT-33-OL009). 2014. Thomas Edison State College
Carmichael, Stokley (author); Thelwell, Ekwueme Michael (Contributor-compiler), Ready For Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Copyright Scribner 1998, New York
Krog, Antjie. Country of my skull: Guilt, sorrow, and the limits of forgiveness in the new South Africa. Random House LLC, 2007, New York
Magona, Sindiwe. To My Children’s Children. Interlink Books, 2006, Massachusetts
Maraire, J. Nozipo. Zenzele: A Letter For My Daughter. Dell Publishing, 1996, New York
Moss, Laura FE. “” Nice audible crying”: Editions, testimonies, and Country of My Skull.” Research in African Literatures 37.4 (2006): 85-104.
Samuelson, Meg. “Reading the Maternal Voice in Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children and Mother to Mother.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000): 227-245.
Soyinka, Wole. Ake: The years of childhood. Random House, 1981, New York
Uncredited. “An abiku-ogbanje Atlas: a pre-text for rereading Soyinka’s Ake and Morrison’s Beloved” The Free Library 22 December 2002. 21 April 2014 <http://www.thefreelibrary.com/An abiku-ogbanje Atlas: a pre-text for rereading Soyinka’s Ake and…-a097515893>.