Postcolonialism as Hope

Andy Greenwald

The most questionable aspect of the term "postcolonial" is the prefix of the word, "post." In order for there to be a postcolonial period, colonialism must have experienced a finite end within the colony. Despite the official recognition of national independence in their countries of origin, the books we have read suggest a more pervasive, continuing colonialism, a more prolonged interaction between British and African societies. As Chinua Achebe reflected, "we lived at the crossroads of cultures" (Achebe, Postcolonial Reader: 190). Yet this vision, for him, is a hugely positive way of looking at things, for though "the crossroads does have a certain dangerous potency; dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits . . . he [also] might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision" (191). For Achebe the confluence of cultures creates a transcendent, new culture, somehow advanced beyond the sum of its parts, a prophecy. The worst aspect of hybridization, according to his quoted words, then, would merely be confusion. This would be a point fiercely argued by writers such as Emecheta, whose text stings with the ravages of colonial influence and oppression upon her people's culture. Yet Emecheta herself is a Western-educated author writing novels from England, a reality that complicates any one-sided reading of her work. One must not, however, mistake a harmonious reconciliation of cultures for any kind of solution or ideal compromise. Rather, what most postcolonial writers attempt through their work is to treat the term postcolonial as a verb, as if to push the former colonies into a new phase of their existence through writing. The postcolonial text is, necessarily, a complicated one in which idealized visions of the past and future wrestle with the inevitable (though primarily unwelcome) changes wrought by colonial rule. Achebe's passage is far from perfect, even he has revisited aspects of it in later writings, but the prevalence of a new cultural hybrid, whether an ideal one or not, is clearly valid and attempts to approach and interact with it are visible throughout the various texts.

The most straightforward account of a culturally hybridized childhood encountered thus far is Wole Soyinka's gentle autobiography, Aké. To the young Wole, Aké is a lush landscape of stories-- all stories. The Cana lily is explained as having red marks for Christ's blood, the white spots are unexplained so Wole explains them himself. The pomegranate holds secrets and stories to the children, it must have been the apple in the garden of Eden, yet to Wole it was even more. The pomegranate was also,

the Queen of Sheba, rebellions and wars, the passion of Salome, the siege of Troy, the Praise of beauty in the Song of Solomon . . . [it] unlocked the cellars of Ali Baba, extracted the genie from Aladdin's lamp, plucked the strings of the harp that restored David to sanity, parted the waters of the Nile and filled our parsonage with incense from the dim temple of Jerusalem (3).

Though Nigeria was still under British rule during the period in which the narrative is set, Wole is clearly a postcolonial child. His days and nights are filled the "multi-headed spirits" of Achebe's essay, but amidst the safety of Aké parsonage, they do not threaten, only suggest and create.

Various questions, though, allow the reader to approach the unapologetically positive tone presented by the text with a healthy degree of skepticism. Soyinka's childhood is clearly a privileged one -- both his father (the headmaster) and his mother (a prominent shopkeeper) hold important, respected positions in the town. His desire for an education is encouraged by his family and not discouraged by any fundamental human need (hunger, poverty, etc.). It must also be taken into account that the book was crafted many years removed from the childhood that it describes. No matter how Soyinka adheres to his own premise (that is, the uncommented upon memories of a young child), the reader is still aware of his actual position in the text, sometimes reminded of it in the midst of narrative-- "an evil thing has happened to Aké parsonage" (3). Because of his privileged youth, Soyinka was able to absorb aspects of both cultures in a positive manner. It is the conceit of the book that he is able to insert passages that seem negative or at least suspicious to the reader and leave them uncommented upon. From an advanced position, Soyinka is able to credit the achievements of his life to having had, quite literally, the best of both worlds.

The two Zimbabwean novels read, Vera's Nehanda and Hove's Bones, seem on the surface to be most concerned with cataloging the evils inflected by colonial rule, and neither appears to be heavily concerned with hope for the future, dealing more with a militant resistance to the white man's infiltration. Through their poetic stylings and frequent involved references to ritual and spirituality, they at times suggest Fanon's discussion of the culture-nationalist phase, a need to glorify the lost precolonial culture. Yet these texts, which, like Aké, were written about the past, are vibrant because they deal with the active encounter of colonizer and colonized. It is of great importance that Nehanda focuses on this culture clash: its heroine, much like the narrators of Bones, refers frequently to fallen ancestors and rituals, but mainly in reference to their return, their rebirth. Their intent is clear: the precolonial culture cannot be eradicated, it must persist if the people are to survive. Nehanda warns of the acceptance new traditions, yet Vera complicates her text beyond this by having her protagonist grapple with that change by giving guns to her people (Vera: 81).

Hove insists that the bones of the ancestors will "rise with such power the graves will be too small to contain them" (Hove: 50), once the children stop "join[ing] the strangers in singing songs of their own doom" (46). Yet his image of bones is a curious one. Bones suggest strength, reliability, something to lean against and take inspiration from. Yet they are dead, useless things when alone. To me, this motif suggests a more flexible reading of Hove's text. Both he and Vera are militant in their reverence of ancestry, yet the problems within their writing suggest the need for something more. These books look to the past as a necessary source of power for the future. Neither text denies the changes caused by the culture clash, they each through themselves directly into points of contact and appear to raise more questions than answers in the process.

Emecheta's The Slave Girl and Saro-Wiwa's A Forest of Flowers, though set in different times, each use more straight-forward narrative in their explorations of specific moments of clash and the traces of hybridity left in their wake. Ojebeta, Emecheta's protagonist, is portrayed as having power and advantage, despite her enslavement, because she, unlike the other girls in Ma Palagada's employ, is still aware of her people of where she came from. The slave trade that she is sold into is historically contextualized within the text as a remnant of Portuguese influence and she is sold by her own brother because of his desire for English pound notes, so from the start The Slave Girl appears to be rife with anti-colonialist condemnation. Yet this easy answer is undercut by Emecheta in the text,

. . . she had to cover her mouth to prevent herself from shouting out with joy. They were really going to look like real [European] ladies! As for Ojebeta . . . it was at times like this that she felt grateful for having been bought by [Ma Palagada] . . .

Of course she still longed constantly to go home, for Ibuza was like something permanently in your bloodstream . . . but at times like these, it was as if she hardly even cared whether she ever went back or not (Emecheta: 107).

Ojebeta's overall quality of life is improved by slavery because of the Western ideas about dress and Christianity that Ma Palagada enforced. And even Ojebeta's strength, derived from the knowledge of her Ibuza heritage, is undercut by the gradual worsening of her life and new subjugation upon returning home: "so as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped the slavery which she had helped to spread in all her black colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty-five, was changing masters" (179). So while there is definite criticism levied towards colonialist modes of oppression within The Slave Girl, Emecheta's text goes beyond this by commenting harshly on preexisting traditions of oppression and sexism within the Ibuza culture. In Emecheta's darkly pessimistic prose, neither culture seems perfect or idealized in any way,

The stories that populate Ken Saro-Wiwa's A Forest of Flowers are filled with ironic images of the results of colonialism on native culture within Nigeria, suggesting an incompetent, illegitimate hybrid of the two. In "The Inspector Calls" a Sanitation Officer's visit is viewed as a direct threat to traditional life in the village of Dukana. In the following passage, Saro-Wiwa highlights the use of old and new methods of influence and corruption in the quest to, above anything else, maintain the status-quo:

The spirits took over his motorcycle and led him to the house of Chief, where Birabee . . . fed him with the good things of life and gave him a good, fat envelope containing you know what, and made sure he drank alcohol to his heart's delight; and then they led him out again, on the same path by which he had come . . .

And once again, Dukana returned to its accustomed peace, somnolence, tranquility, dirt and happiness (Saro-Wiwa: 17-18).

There are numerous other visions of this relentless inability to move forward: the Western-educated people in "Night Ride" that are too caught up in their own personal problems and frustration with the bureaucracy to offer any meaningful aid to the villages like Dukana and in "Home, Sweet Home" the broken down bus -- a great source of pride -- that is, of course, named "Progres."

Yet Saro-Wiwa is not entirely pessimistic about what culture collision has wrought, there are hints that this hybridized culture can indeed advance itself. In "The Stars Below", an educated office-worker called Ezi experiences, after a day filled with air-conditioned frustration, an epiphany of hope for the future. After realizing that, "the elders were steeped in the old ways of venality and ineffiency. Youth having no confidence in itself, in its abilities, had turned to a blind trust in materialism . . . And time was leaving them behind" (104), Ezi smashes the clock and seeks freedom in the night air. Once there, he sees a great crowd, and "he knew then that he was only one of the crowd pressing forward with one aim, and that it was necessary to ensure that they all -- the beggars, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the weak and the strong alike -- arrived there safely" (106). The problem suggested by Saro-Wiwa, as evidenced by this hope for a solution, is the continual lack of any real dialogue between the two cultures. After decades of hierarchical coexistence, only recently are the two cultures expected to live equally and harmoniously. "Robert and the Dog" is a particularly harsh and eye-opening exercise in basic, cultural misunderstanding. Saro-Wiwa's vision of hybridization is frustrated. In his mind, it would seem, the postcolonial era cannot truly begin without an open dialogue or, at least, a recognition that the interactions brought by colonialism are still very much at play.

After the considered readings of a number of other African, postcolonial texts, Soyinka's Aké becomes less simplistic in its vision of harmony than it might, at first, seem. Young Wole is happier, quite often, with his own version of things (the pomegranate as apple, Jonah, etc.) rather than the official, European definitions. He is also, despite the familiar tones of a Western childhood, a member of Yoruba culture, something Wole is forcibly reminded of by his grandfather, who painfully scarifies his ankles and wrists. His reading, like of his scars, marks Wole -- he bears the sign of two cultures, quite literally, branded by both worlds. He is not wholly comfortable in either, so, we can imply from the text, he must make his own way.

This idea of a fresh start is reminiscent, in ways, of Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah. In that novel, Chris Oriko, at the beginning of the story, is above his fellow countrymen because of his Western-education and government position. But the message of the book is clear -- he must fall, rejoin his people and eventually die a low death, defending someone personally instead of through words. At the end of the novel, once the "last green bottle" (Achebe: 214) has inevitably fallen, something new is able to take its place. The book ends with a bold vision of hope. Perhaps, with the inclusion of women, with the necessary adaptation of culture in order to let it survive, what is created will be greater then the sum of its parts. Not all of the books end on quite so positive a note, but the inherent definition of postcolonial as a recognzed need for progress seems clear. The question of whether it has been achieved or not is not answered, but all of the books strive for some level of dialogue between the hybridized cultures. Cultural change is inevitable. But to these writers, cultural growth is the true hope of a postcolonial future ahead.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last Modified: 21 March, 2002