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The presentation of Kongi and his henchmen is a biting satire of the modern dictators

in Africa as well as elsewhere.  The composite picture is almost that of a madman.

For after all, all dictatorships border on madness. The dictator,  Kongi maintains

total control over all the instruments of coercion that are in fact the lifeblood

and modus operandum of all modern dictatorships.

 

 

Books by Wole Soyinka

Death and the King's Horseman  /  You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir  / Ake: The Years of Childhood  

Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World  /  The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis

The Lion and the Jewel  / Ibadan  / Myth, Literature, and the African World  /  Interpreters  / Conversations with Wole Soyinka

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Kongi's Harvest of Intrigue and Hate  

By Arthur Edgar E. Smith    

 

The clash between the modern and the traditional forces in an emergent modern African society is a very familiar concern in all genres of African literature. Wole Soyinka is therefore not out of place in his preoccupation with it in  Kongi's Harvest.

This clash is enacted between the Oba [the traditional head] and the President, Kongi [the modernist and constitutional head] Though a constitutional head Kongi is essentially a dictator. In essence his modern dictatorship strives to absorb within itself the traditional system so as to destroy it as a contending power as well as capture its legitimacy, dignity, appeal, and power. This clash manifests itself from the very start in the Hemlock section. There the roll of drums and the anthem suggest the struggle of two opposing camps for supremacy. The traditional forces are being stifled out of life by the propaganda and the paraphernalia accompanying Kongi’s dictatorship. They have been rejected as rotten waste, for:

Ism to ism for ism is ism

Of isms and isms on absolute ism

To demonstrate the tree of life

Is sprung from broken peat

And we the rotted bark, spurned

When the tree swells its pot

The mucus that is snorted out

When Kongi’s new race blows

Kongi’s forces have thus scored one against the Oba’s.  They have confined the forces of tradition, the Oba and his retinue to waste the rest of their years in prison. Though the clash continues, the struggle is at a lower plane. Since they cannot meet Kongi and his force head-on they are relegated to battling with a junior representative, the superintendent of prison. This eclipsing of the forces of tradition is what is being mourned for by the opening dirge in ‘Hemlock’. The king’s umbrella can no longer shade them and this is seen as signaling the end, for as the Ogbo Aweri laments:

This is the last

That we shall dance together             

This is the last the hairs

Will lift on our skin

And draw together

When the gbedu rouses

The dead in Oshugbo

For though the end of the traditional ruler’s public role has been effected, it is by no means the end of the struggle. He still has mystical powers, dignity, and symbolic values all of which Kongi and his henchmen could give anything to get. Their complaints about the royal canopy taking too much silk and that the first of ‘the new yams melted / Melted first in an Oba’s mouth’ is symptomatic of the greed if not envy leading leaders on to capturing all the titles and prestigious roles and have them bestowed upon themselves. This is what Kongi is poised to do.  He wants to be the spirit of harvest and to get a public show of the Oba’s capitulation of power to him. But Oba Danlola maintains an uncompromising position and thus refuses to perform the ritual handing over of the first yam to him. As a result we are promised a protracted struggle between the two as is suggested in these string of proverbs:

The pot that will eat fat

The bottom must be scorched

The squirrel that will long crack nuts

Its footpad must be sore

The sweetest wine has flowed down

The tapper’s shattered show

Kongi’s wrong-headed conviction of the superiority of western civilization leads him to senselessly replacing traditional institutions by the former.  His transformation of traditional institutions to absurd modern versions is lunatic, for no thought is given to the superficiality that will possibly result.

Kongi demonstrates a paranoiac distrust of almost everyone around him.  Through coercion, he buys over all authority and traditional legitimacy all of which he then ungrudgingly bestows on himself.  He thus develops himself to the central repository of all powers.  The traditional ruler, Danlola, is therefore compelled to present him personally with the New Yam.  This will publicly acknowledge his supremacy and enable him to stamp his image on every mind as a charismatic and legitimate ruler.  Even his opponents are thus constrained to beg for forgiveness.  A dictatorship is thus exposed as a fragile, hollow, fake and weak institution that lacks belief in itself. 

It therefore has to lean on the legitimacy of the traditional power it seeks to destroy  But since they are afraid of its strength and efficacy they have to muzzle  it and absorb all its strength to survive.  As a result, the traditional is being strangulated by the propaganda and paraphernalia of Kongi’s dictatorship. A flurry of ‘Isms’ suffocate the air in demonstrating that Kongi’s ‘tree of life ’ is sprung from broken peat; and that Danlola and his forces of tradition are only its waste products [p61].  Amidst the strident trumpeting of propaganda, the people become as useless as putrid waste matter.  Words are bandied in total defiance of them.  For in the words of Danlola and his retinue’s song:

…there’s a harvest of words

In a penny newspaper.

They say it all on silent skulls

But who cares?  Who but a lunatic

Will bandy words with boxes

With government rediffusion sets

Which talk and talk and never

Take a lone word in reply.   [p 61]

The presentation of Kongi and his henchmen is a biting satire of the modern dictators in Africa as well as elsewhere.  The composite picture is almost that of a madman. For after all, all dictatorships border on madness. The dictator, Kongi maintains total control over all the instruments of coercion that are in fact the lifeblood and modus operandum of all modern dictatorships. These instruments of coercion are well established  and manifested  in the mallet-swinging Carpenters Brigade and in the Superintendent who tyrannizes over the Oba. Their repressiveness  is a constant source of concern for the Oba as is evident in his speech here:

Their yam is pounded, not with the pestles

But with  stamp and a pad of violet ink

And their arms make omelet of

Stubborn heads, via police truncheons. [p109]

And this is confirmed in the words of their anthem:

We spread the creed of Kongism

To every son and daughter

And heads too slow to learn it

Will feel our mallets’ weight

On stage they are supposed to be dehumanized  beings with stiff mallet-wielding arms pistoning up in the Nazi-salute. They are in this way presented as the coercive instruments of a totalitarian regime such as Kongi’s that perpetuates its rule mainly through the use of sheer force. Its repressiveness has become so entrenched in the society that when on his return from prison, Oba Danlola finds the outside world worse than even the prison   Frequent incidences of bomb-throwing thus  become the normal fare.. And as is characteristic of all dictatorships, the culprits or suspects are quickly apprehended  in readiness to be hanged.                                

The reformed Aweri are the instruments of intellectual as well as spiritual repression , thus fulfilling the role of a propaganda machinery geared towards imprisoning the minds  of the citizens into seeing things the administration’s way.  The one address of the information system had already been hinted at in the ‘Hemlock’ section:

Who but a lunatic

Will bandy words with boxes

With government rediffusion sets

Which talk and talk and never

Take a lone word in reply    

Such a propaganda machinery is as indispensable to the dictatorship’s survival as are the instruments of coercion. Though the propaganda in  its final form gets channeled through newspapers and the radio, they originate from a close arm of the dictatorial system, the Reformed Aweri fraternity. A closer glimpse at their emptiness is in the first part of the play. We hear them expressing their commitment to manufacturing an image to dress up and cover the regime’s ugly face. But indeed their effort looks most ludicrous.  For they appear as a pack of jokers throwing jibes at modern parliaments.  All they are preoccupied with is in selling out platitudes that are pleasant to the ears of those in power. This in effect exposes the big gulf between the image African dictatorships present of themselves from what they are in real fact. When not lying or deceiving the public they are engaged in inanities and superficialities. It is thus amusing to see an Aweri regretting that the four and a half  hour speech he had written had been surpassed by a neighbouring President’s seven hour speech.

Kongi parodies modern megalomaniacs who having been addicted to the irresistible taste of power and its accompanying stature and prestige start monopolizing all its symbols and roles. This attains such heights bordering on deification  At a reformed Aweri session,  members propose that they be recognized as the Magi as that would lead automatically to Kongi’s apotheosis.  Then likening himself to Christ, Kongi  wants his name along with the forthcoming harvest festival to mark the beginning of a new calendar with everything else dating from it.  His quest for monopolizing everything in the state leads him to equating himself to God.  For he wants his name to mark the start of a new calendar, in the same way Christ’s does the Christian calendar.  State bodies therefore work hard towards elevating their leader to a godhead.  The Reformed Aweri therefore propose as a first step their recognition as the Magi.  And the praise song of the Carpenter’s brigade compares Kongi to Christ by calling him a saviour whom they will sweat endlessly for:

For Kongi is our father

And Kongi is our man

Kongi is our mother

Kongi is our man

    And Kongi is our Saviour

Redeemer, prince of power

For Isms and for Kongi

We’re proud to live or die! [p116]

So much does it become that Danlola cries out in disgust:

 

Will there not be six times

At the least when we must up and bow

To Kongi? .        [p107]            

Kongi’s image boosting is directed at impressing the outside world.   He thus creates an attractive coat to hide his monstrous form inside.  In it he poses in a wide range of postures for the foreign correspondents to  paint a glowing portrait of him abroad.  Such captivating captions all add up into the desired effect:

 

A Leaders Temptation…Agony on the

Mountains…The Loneliness of the Pure…The

Uneasy Head …A saint at Twilight…

The Spirit of the Harvest…The face of

Benevolence…The Giver of Life…[p 93]

An image of a pensive and devoted leader is thus sold out.  But no one at home is fooled.  Even in granting reprieve he resorts to propaganda. For this much emphasis is on the timing and pacing.

…we must make it a last-minute reprieve.  It will look better that way Don’t you think?  [p 117]

Kongi’s act of clemency remains a confidential decision until a quarter of an hour before hanging. 

The propaganda machine works as efficiently and consistently as the network of coercion to keep everyone in line. They execute their job with reckless abandon.  The Carpenter’s Brigade thus spits fire on all opponents.  For they have sworn to die in spreading ‘the creed of Kongism’.  For those too slow to accept Kongi and his government have their heads crushed with their heavy mallets as we saw from Mugade recently.

Even those enforcing Kongi’s hold on power are not exempt from his wrath or suspicion. The Organizing Secretary fearing falling foul of him takes scrupulous care in organizing the Harvest ceremony – with twelve long months spent on going continuously through every single step.  For he is haunted that ‘if anything goes wrong / He’ll have my head’ [p117]  When Daodu, Segi and their followers surge in, in protest, foreseeing the brute justice awaiting him, he exclaims:  ‘I’m done for, I know it.  I’m heading for the border while there is time.  Oh there is going to be such a clamp down after this…' [p129].  No one is then free from fear.  Under such a situation, it only takes a little slip for one to lose one’s life, one’s freedom or a visible part of one’s body.  Danlola therefore warns the little boy Dende to be wary of talking openly, for just a hint is serious enough to land oneself in detention.

There’s also Kongi’s pervasive spy network which Danlola often sees sneaking  in through the broken wall of his backyard many times in just one day.

The Big Ear of the man himself

Has knocked twice on my palace gates –

Twice in one morning – and his spies

Have sneaked in through the broken wall

Of my backyard, where women throw their piss

As many times today.  [p 102]

Imprisonment and death are also available to repress those who fail to understand and behave themselves.  New offences are continually being created.  Charges such as treason and communism are easily framed up against whosoever they desire to bring them up against. Those present at Segi’s and Daodu’s protest are therefore easily liable to being charged with treason for  ‘To be there at all at that disgraceful / Exhibition is to be guilty of treasonable / Conspiracy et cetera, et cetera’ [p133].  The jail is thus only one step towards the grave.  For an ignoble death is the ultimate fate of every detainee.  One’s struggle to hold on to life, by escaping through the prison walls, leads therefore to a life pension being offered to the one who brings him back dead or alive:

And the radio has put out a prize

Upon his head.  A life pension

For his body, dead or alive.  That

Dear child, is a new way to grant

Reprieve.  Alive, the radio blared,

If possible; and if not, DEAD!  [P113]

The Secretary and the Fifth Aweri further substantiates the regime’s denial of life:

Secretary:  You don’t know how he hates those

                   men.  He wants them dead – you’ve

                   no idea how desperately.

Fifth Aweri:  I do.  But tell him he can kill them later in detention.

Kongi perpetuates his glorious image of a leader totally committed and engaged in the country’s development thus justifying his clamping down on his detractors:

The spirit of Harvest  has smitten the enemies of Kongi

The justice of earth has prevailed over traitors and conspirators.

There is divine blessing on the second five-year Development Plan

Clearly formulated and articulated programmes are then in short supply.  Much more attention is given to make-belief and bandying absurd and ludicrous ideas as we find in the session of the Aweris  where a motif – the youthful elders of the state – is used as an image of their regime.  Such mindless fascination for superficialities makes them lose sight of the underlying meanings of words. Meaningless phrases thus dominate their pronouncements and deliberations.  The content and quality of his speech is therefore of far less concern to Kongi than its length – lasting four and a half hour.  But then the sooner he hears of the seven hour speech of a neighbouring president, he wastes no time in discarding his Corruption, another feature of contemporary society is portrayed.

The Organizing Secretary displays much ease and skill in operating in the code of the corrupt.  Though at first he appears as quite a  dutiful and upright executive, one of the Aweris later reports  his abuses of the privileges of his office.  In exchange for money, he gives detainees under his charge all comforts.  He receives as well huge bribes from visitors to the President, and much financial gain through his organization of the harvest.  This is all part of a syndicate to which the Aweris themselves are a party as seen in the First Aweri’s eagerness to have his own share:  ‘Has anyone been accepting money on my behalf/All I ask is my cut’ [p25].   

Kongi could be seen as representing the modern paranoid dictator. Instead of being a procreative force he engenders and spreads destruction, decapitating his opponents and showing no genuine interest in the fertility rites of the soil and of the flesh. Thus in Hemlock he is regarded as a monster which should have been scorched before it achieved its full destructive proportions. Kongi thus clearly demonstrates his repugnance towards creating a better future for his people.  He rather creates an illusion of personal as well as national well-being to the outside world and the gullible fools within. Through biting satire Soyinka registers his distaste for such ugly aspects of modern societies in Africa.

The ending of the play leaves no hope in us for the purging of such societies.  The struggle by Daodu and others to overcome Kongi’s destruction is doomed. This futility of action is first hinted in the proverbs from ‘Hemlock’ earlier quoted.  Even Daodu and Segi who are the only ones courageous enough to openly condemn Kongi’s rule, are in the end victims of the predicted general clampdown indicated by the iron grating that clamps on the ground at the end of the play. They had not been able to mobilize the necessary support to counter Kongi’s regimented and well-established instruments of power. This acquiescence and inaction are pictured in the timid withdrawal and uncommitted apathy of the various inmates of the night-club when the Organizing Secretary enters. 

Sources

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writings of Wole Soyina. Heinemann    1983                                    

Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka. Holmes and Meier Pub., 1971.

Soyinka, Wole. Kongi's Harvest in Collected Plays 2. Oxford University Press, 1983.

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"An individual has to take a decision . . . take stock of himself and act—"The writer is first and foremost a citizen and the writer's responsibility is not different from that of a citizen. . . . People sometimes take a snobbish attitude, saying we cannot engage on this level because it's not pure enough for us. . . . On all levels humanity is involved. And wherever humanity is involved, that's my constituency.”—Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel literature prize winner—the first black writer to receive the award. Soyinka: Writers are citizens first

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Arthur Smith a Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and editor Sierra Leone PEN is available for public lectures as well as speaking tours. He also writes extensively. Visit him at his website at: www.arthuredgaresmith.net

Arthur Smith: Why We Should All Love America?

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Arthur Edgar E. Smith was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He attended  Holy Trinity Boys Primary  and proceeded to the Prince of Wales Secondary School. He did his sixth form at Albert Academy and  went up further the hill to Fourah Bay College. He has taught English since 1977  at Prince of Wales, Milton Margai College of Education  and now at Fourah Bay College again he has risen to the rank of Senior Lecturer of English. Mr Smith is widely published both locally as well as internationally.  

He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in  a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department from June to August 2006.

 His thoughts and reflections of this trip which took him to various sights  in Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.can be read at lisnews.org. His other publications include:  Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and 'The Struggle of the Book in Sierra Leone'. He holds a Masters in African Literature from Fourah Bay College.  A recent story of his could be read at mabaylareview.org .

Profile of Wole Soyinka

By Adeyinka Makinde

 

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

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I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”

We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

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Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell's And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly

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Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

By Jeffrey B. Perry

This first full-length biography of Harrison offers a portrait of a man ahead of his time in synthesizing race and class struggles in the U.S. and a leading influence on better known activists from Marcus Garvey to A. Philip Randolph. Harrison emigrated from St. Croix in 1883 and went on to become a foremost organizer for the Socialist Party in New York, the editor of the Negro World, and founder and leader of the World War I–era New Negro movement. Harrison’s enormous political and intellectual appetites were channeled into his work as an orator, writer, political activist, and critic. He was an avid bibliophile, reportedly the first regular black book reviewer, who helped to develop the public library in Harlem into an international center for research on black culture. But Harrison was a freelancer so candid in his criticism of the establishment—black and white—that he had few allies or people interested in protecting his legacy. 

Historian Perry’s detailed research brings to life a transformative figure who has been little recognized for his contribution to progressive race and class politics.Vanessa Bush

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Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey (2008)

Thurgood Marshall became a living icon of civil rights when he argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Six years later, he was at a crossroads. A rising generation of activists were making sit-ins and demonstrations rather than lawsuits the hallmark of the civil rights movement. What role, he wondered, could he now play?

When in 1960 Kenyan independence leaders asked him to help write their constitution, Marshall threw himself into their cause. Here was a new arena in which law might serve as the tool with which to forge a just society. In Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey (2008) Mary Dudziak recounts with poignancy and power the untold story of Marshall's journey to Africa

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Aké: The Years of Childhood

By Wole Soyinka

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The Prophet of Zongo Street

Stories by Mohammed Naseehu Ali

Vivid images of African life and familiar snippets of expatriate life infuse this debut collection by a Ghana-born writer and musician. On the fictional Zongo Street in Accra, young children gather around their grandmother to hear a creation story from "the time of our ancestors' ancestors' ancestors" in "The Story of Day and Night." In "Mallam Sille," a weak, 46-year-old virgin tea seller finds soulful strength in marriage to a dominant village woman. Other stories take place in and around New York City, depicting immigrants struggling with American culture and values. A Ghanaian caregiver vows not to "grow old in this country" in "Live-In," while in "The True Aryan," an African musician and an Armenian cabbie competitively compare tragic cultural histories on the ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, achieving humanist understanding as they reach Park Slope:

"I looked into his eyes, and with a sudden deep respect said to the man, 'I'll take your pain, too.' " Several stories close in a similarly magical, almost folkloric epiphany, as when sleep becomes an attempt "to bring calm to the pulsing heart of Man" in "The Manhood Test." Ali speaks melodiously but not always provocatively in these tales of transition and emigration.Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)

 

 

posted 28 April 2007

 

 

 

Home    Transitional Writings on Africa   Mau Mau Aesthetics  The African World   Inside the Caribbean  Nuba-Darfur-South Sudan Table

Related files:  Female Characters in Camara Laye  John Pepper Clark's Raft Running Adrift   Wole Soyinka Kongi's Harvest  Black Consciousness Poet--Claude McKay  

The Life and Times of Black Poet Claude McKay   Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe on Dafur   Wole Soyinka and Cults on Universities   Profile of Wole Soyinka