Elegy for a nation

For Chinua Achebe
By WOLE SOYINKA

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe


Ah, Chinua, are you grapevine wired?

It sings: our nation is not dead, not clinically

Yet. Now this may come as a surprise to you,

It was to me. I thought the form I spied

Beneath the frosted glass of a fifty-carat catafalque

Was the face of our own dear land — ‘own’, ‘dear’,

Voluntary patriotese, you’ll note — we try to please.

An anthem’s sentiment upholds the myth.

Doctors IMF, World Bank and UNO refuse, it seems,

To issue a certificate of death – if debtors die

May creditors collect? We shall turn Parsees yet,

Lay this hulk in state upon the Tower of Silence,

Let vultures prove what we have seen, but fear to say –

For if Leviathan is dead, we are the maggots

Probing still her monstrous womb – one certainty

That mimics life after death. Is the world fooled?

Is this the price of hubris – to have dared

Sound Renaissance bugles for a continent?

Time was, our gazes roamed the land, godlike,

Pronounced it good, from Lagos to Lake Chad.

The hosts of interlopers would be exorcised,

Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,

Enthroning ours as ours, bearing names

Lodged in marrow of the dead, attesting lineage.

Consecrated brooms would sweep our earth

Clean of usurpers’ footprints. We marched

To drums of ancient skins, homoeopathic

Beat against the boom of pale-knuckled guns.

We vied with the regal rectitude of Overamwen –

No stranger breath – he swore – shall desecrate

This hour of communion with our gods! We

Died with the women of Aba, they who held

A bridgehead against white levy, armed with pestle,

Sash and spindle, and a potent nudity – eloquent

Abomination in the timeless rites of wrongs.

Grim cycle of embattled years. Again we died

With miners of Iva valley who undermined

More than mere seams of anthracite. All too soon,

Ma, we would augment, in mimic claims,

In our own right, the register of martyrs. Oh,

How we’ve exercised the right of righteous folly

In defence of alien rhetoric . . . what God has joined, etcetera.

For God, read white, read slaver surrogates.

We scaled the ranges of Obudu, prospected

Jos Plateau, pilgrims on rock-hills of Idanre.

Floated on pontoons from Bussa to silt beds

Of eternal Niger, reclaimed the mangrove swamps,

Startling mudskipper, manatee, and mermaids.

Did others claim the mantle of discoverers?

Let them lay patents on ancestral lands, lay claim

To paternity of night and day – ours

Were hands that always were, hands that pleat

The warp of sunbeam and the weft of dew,

Ours to create the seamless out of paradox.

In the mind’s compost, meagre scrub yielded

Silos of grain. Walled cities to the north were

Sheaths of gold turbans, tuneflul as minarets.

The dust of Durbars, pyrotechnic horsemen

And sparkling lances, all one with the ring of anvils

From Ogun’s land to Ikenga’s. Rainbow beads, jigida

From Bida’s furnaces vied across the sky with

Iyun glow and Ife bronzes, luscent on ivory arches

Of Benin. Legend lured Queen Amina to Moremi,

Old scars of strife redeemed in tapestries

Of myth, recreating birthpang, and rebirth. And, yes –

We would steal secrets from the gods. Let Sango’s axe

Spark thunderstones on rooftops, we would swing

In hawser hammocks on electric pylons, pulse through cities

In radiant energies, surge from battery racks to bathe

Town and hamlet in alchemical light. Orisa-oko

Would heal with herbs and scalpel. Ogun’s drill

Was poised to plumb the earth anew, spraying aloft

Reams of rare alloys. Futurists, were we not

Annunciators of the Millennium long before its advent?

In our now autumn days, behold our leaden feet

Fast welded to the starting block.

Vain griots! Still, we sang the hennaed lips and fingers

Of our gazelle womenfolk, fecund Muses tuned

To Senghorian cadences. We grew filament eyes

As heads of millet, as flakes of cotton responsive

To brittle breezes, wraith-like in the haze of Harmattan.

Green of the cornfields of Oyo, ochre of groundnut pyramids

Of Kano, indigo in the ancient dye-pots of Abeokuta

Bronzed in earth’s tonalities as children of one deity –

We were the cattle nomads, silent threads through

Forestries and cities, coastland and savannah,

Wafting Maiduguri to the sea, ocean mist to sand dunes.

Alas for lost idylls. Like Levi jeans on youth and age,

The dreams are faded, potholed at joints and even

Milder points of stress. Ghosts are sole inheritors.

Silos fake rotundity – these are kwashi-okor blights

Upon the landscape, depleted at source. Even

The harvest seeds were long devoured. Empty hands Scrape the millennial soil at planting.

But Chinua, are you grapevine wired? Do you

Tune in, listen? There is old music in the air.

The word is out again, out from the closet.

Renaissance beats are thumbed in government lairs, In lobbies, caucuses, on promotion posters,

In parliaments. Academe’s close behind. Renaissance

Haunts beer and suya bar, street and rostrum,

Inhaled as tobacco smoke, chewed as kola,

Clerics beatify the word, lawyers invoke it.

Never word more protean, poised to incarnate

In theses, conferences, investments. A historic lure

Romances the Diaspora. Gang-raped, the continent

Turns pregnant with the word – it’s sworn, we shall be Born again, though we die in the attempt.

But then, our offsprings, Chinua, have they leisure

To play at love? To commune with Source, shaded

By coarse-grain village walls at noon? Crush wild mint

Between their fingers, let the agbayun coat

Their tongues, at war with the bitterness of kola?

Raid the hoards of gods and ancients,

Recite their lineage praise-names, clan histories?

Or have the rigours of survival bred a race

Of naked predators? Is sharing out of fashion?

Community a dirty word, service an obscenity?

Are ours the emerging children of Molucca

Born to burn at six, slaughter at seven,

Rinse their hand in the throat’s death gurgle,

Secure in the arch-priest’s absolution? Attuned

At noon to dissolution of the bond of dawn, deaf

To neighbour cries? Easy reddened are the wafers

Of communion – have we been here before?

Still, here you sit before the travelled world, gathered

To pay homage. Survived the kwashi-okor days.

You’ve fed on roots, barks and leaves

Your world contracted, ringed with iron

Fenced with the wringing hands of the world

As unctuous in neutrality as Pontius Pilate.

But you made flesh what is so often said –

Sweet are the uses of adversity – as even now

Your silent eloquence attests. The ancient pot-stills

Turned refineries. Neglected herbs, mystery silica

Powered transistors to accuse the world, screaming

We are not dead, but dying. And iron monsters

Rose furtively from forest bays, hammered

From the forges of Awka. Who can forget the errant

Ogbunikwe that rose skywards, plunged to blast

A fiery tunnel through encircling steel?

Absences surround your presence – he

The great town crier, Okigbo, and other griots

Silenced in infancy. The xylophones of justice

Chime much louder than the flutes of poets,

Their sirens lure the bravest to their doom.

But some survive, and survival breeds, it seems,

Unending debts. Time is our usurer, but earth remains

Sole signatory to life’s covenant – and thus I ask:

Whose feet are these upon the storehouse loft?

Shod in studded boots or jewelled sandals,

Khaki crisp or silk embroidered – who are these?

Did time appoint these bailiffs? Behold

Enforcers out of time, shorn of memory but –

Crowned are the hollow skulls, signets on talons.

Their advent is the hour of locusts – behold

Cheeks in cornucopia from the silos’ depletion

While the eyes of youth sink deeper in despair.

Death bestrides the streets, rage rides the sun

And hope is a sometime word that generations

Never learnt to spell.

Chinua, I think with you I dare

Be indelicate – we scrape our feet upon

The threshold of mortal proof, denying

The ancestors yet awhile our companionship –

May that day learn patience from afar! –

On the stage at Bard, behind the lectern,

Gazing across time to your staunch spirit

Wedded to a contraption we neither make nor mend

My irreverent thoughts were – There sits the nation,

All faculties intact, but wheelchair bound.

Your lesson of the will, alas, a creative valour

Marks the gulf between you and that land

We claim our own.

II

There are wonders in that land, Chinua

Are you wired? Tuned to images of cyber age?

Severed wrists will soon adorn our walls

And Conrad’s Heart of Darkness be fulfilled.

The cairn of stones is building for the first

Butchery in a public square, a female scapegoat

Tethered for primordial rites that men devise

To keep their womenfolk obedient to the laws of man.

An encampment is on the move, biped

Amorphous tents, a sorcerer invasion choreographed

In castration shrouds, visors no less secretive

Than face-masks, twin to ancestral masquerades

Proclaimed infidel. They slink through streets

And markets – yes, it is our women on the move

Our mothers, wives and sisters, comrades-in-arms

Bereft of limbs and faces, haute couture decreed

By encyclicals of eunuch priests. Features

Mummified by laws of terror. Oh my compatriots,

Shaved bare-skull at initiation, convertites

Dipped body and soul in the waters of salvation

Are yours these zombies of the age, are these

The paracletes of the new millennium?

They’ll murder heritage in its timeless crib,

Decree our, heroes, heroines out of memory

Obliterate the narratives of clans, names

That bind to roots, reach to heavens, our

Links to ancestral presences. The Born-Agains

Are on rampage, born against all that spells

Life and mystery, legend and innovation.

Imprecations rend the air, song is taboo,

The stride of sun-toned limbs racing wind a sin,

Flesh is vile, wine, the gift of earth, execrated.

These tyrants have usurped the will of God.

How did we fail to learn, that guns and boots

Are not essential to a coup d ‘état?

Shall Ala die? Ahiajoku be anathematised? Does

Oya defile her streams, Ifa obstruct the paths

Of learning and councils of the wise? Praise the Lord And launch the bulldozer – they’ve razed

The statues of mbari to the ground, these

Christian Talibans. Their brothers in Offa

Murder Moremi in her shrine, shrieking Allah akbar.

Rivals else, behold their bonded zeal that sanctifies

Alien rape of our quiescent Muses, extolling theirs.

We who neither curse their gods nor desecrate

Their texts, their prayer mats or altars –

What shall we do, Chinua, with these hate clerics?

While we sleep, their fingers spread as brambles,

Deface our Book of Life. How teach them:

Some are born pagan, wedded to life’s seamlessness

Tuned to the breath of things, magma and animus.

The waters of the Holy Gospel bounced against

This splinter of Olumo Rock, retreated

In despair, seeking more porous earth. How reveal

The sublimity of godhead that abhors

The murdering tyranny of Creed? Has gore

Proved godlove on Kaduna streets – ten thousand

Mutilations and three thousand dead of faith?

But the sun rose still the following dawn, indifferent.

Let all creeds be recast. If the gates of Paradise

Are locked behind the Pope’s demise,

We wish him blessed occupancy of yonder realms

With all the Heavenly Host. Has the last Imam

Been here and gone? Then, Bon Voyage

Seek me out among the questers, creed-divorced,

In covenant only to that solvent that is earth.

How shall they be taught, Chinua, that Ajapa

Lives, but no longer borrows feathers from the birds

To survey earth? Myths are our wise cohabitants. Icarus .1.

Transcended wax, new trajectories lace the spheres.

The galaxy is boundless host to a new race

Of voyagers, seeking the once forbidden. Cinders

From Promethean dares, shards of Ajapa’s shell,

Are constellations by which ships of space are steered.

The jealous gods are no more. Age by age

We inched towards the sun, then raced beyond

To drink the heady draught of space, returned to earth

Emboldened. The voices of new prophets are not voided

In the wilderness but fulfilled. Applause

Is the new music of the spheres – it’s heard

In other lands, I am told. I have not heard it here.

But we survived, Chinua. And though survival reads

Unending debt – for time, alas decrees us

Witnesses, thus debtors – earth alone remains

Our creditor. Yet I fear the communion pots

Lie broken at the crossroads, kola nuts and cowries

Scattered by scavengers. Couriers turn coat,

Turned by profit, priest, predator and politician.

The masquerade’s falsetto may reveal, not

Artifice but loss of voice, its gutturals camouflage

Death throes, not echoes of our spirit realms.

The strongest eagle, wing-span clipped, talons

Manicured in gilded thumbscrews may not hold

Nor bear the weight of sacrifice. Our caryatids

Are weary of cycles of endless debts. Incense

Of burnt offering, heavy with abominations

Hangs dose to altar, dissipates between Earth

And Sky. Shorn of new alibis, our intercessors

Falter at the door of judgement. What shall we say

To the years that drift past, accusing?

What shall we chant to their dew-bright notes –

Our new tuned buglers of the Renaissance?

Wole Soyinka

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One thought on “Elegy for a nation

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