By Femi Osofisan
Per week in the past, on the 13th July, 2020, it was the 86th birthday of Nigeria’s solely Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. And the day earlier than, in a gesture akin to a birthday shock current, the Federal authorities, via its Minister of Communication and Tradition, Mr Lai Mohammed, handed over the Nationwide Theatre and its in depth environment to a consortium of Bankers to develop and subsequently handle.
It was a powerful ceremony, meant to conclude the 20 years at the least of disputatious wrangling on how greatest to reactivate the moribund edifice and finish its story of decay. Triumphant, the minister beamed with seen glee earlier than the cameras; the bankers danced in ecstasy as they promised humongous monetary income and the creation of jobs. There was numerous back-slapping and bombast on the approaching of mouth-watering returns. And amidst all of it, if somebody remembered to say the topic of tradition, it should have been in inaudible whispers. That was when my thoughts went again to the Samarkand Tree.
Not many, I concern, would keep in mind our Samarkand Tree. However for individuals who do, the continued celebration of Wole Soyinka’s birthday should evoke a tinge of nostalgic ache. For it was throughout the same celebration, some fifteen years in the past, that the Tree acquired its identify.
On the time, I used to be at this similar Nationwide Theatre in Lagos, working it as its Common Supervisor and Chief Govt Officer. To mark the Nobel Laureate’s 70th birthday, I had organized, along with a few of his mates and admirers, every week of cultural occasions. Soyinka himself had been reluctant at first to take part with us, owing to the prevailing political tensions within the nation, personally preferring to make it a non-public and noiseless affair. However how may that be, for such a character whose identify is Noise itself? We had been definitely not ready to oblige him on this level and, in the long run, he had graciously yielded to our attraction.
Nicely, on this specific day, the scheduled occasion was a public studying by Kongi himself from his works, and particularly his newest assortment of poems which had simply been revealed that very month by the Crucible Publishers in Lagos. This studying occasion was a form of gamble after all, given the widely detached perspective of most Nigerians to print literature. However, with a title like Samarkand And Different Markets I Have Identified, the e-book, we hoped, would appeal to a sizeable viewers. To not point out the extra boon to individuals of assembly the well-known laureate in particular person, listening to him reside, and fascinating him in dialogue afterwards.
We weren’t fallacious. It was a very good night, with a sultry climate, and plenty of certainly confirmed up. Issues took off splendidly, and Kongi himself gave the impression to be having fun with the session together with his viewers—when Mr Baseje stepped in! The almighty NEPA struck, and the whole constructing was plunged into darkness!
Now, such a disaster shouldn’t be unusual in actual fact within the nation. Throughout, NEPA has at all times been our fixed grief, and the ‘resolution’ everybody prepares in opposition to it’s to have a generator on stand-by.
However on this specific day, as chances are you’ll nicely guess, not considered one of our turbines occurred to be functioning. There I used to be, the supervisor of the Theatre, at an occasion which I personally organized, with a nationwide icon and world-renowned creator in our midst, and fairly mysteriously, none of my employees had remembered the standard precautions in opposition to NEPA’s ordinary caprice!
I personally, dazed by the euphoria of the historic event, had let myself overlook probably the most major problem that had repeatedly pissed off our efforts to revive the theatre and make it a worthwhile enterprise—this subject of electrical energy provide. Working on ailing ‘daku-daji’ turbines, negotiating with corrupt NEPA employees (who, with the collusion of a few of our personal employees, at all times held us to ransom on essential events), this had been one main working agony of my tenure on the place. So how may I, of all folks, have been caught unaware?
I needed to assume quick. It was a paradoxical scenario. For one, I used to be glad that Kongi and our necessary friends had been witnessing at first-hand the dilemma about which we complained incessantly however fruitlessly; and however, because the official answerable for the place, I used to be crammed with embarrassment at this seeming proof of incompetence.
Nothing extra essential nevertheless at that second than to shake myself awake, and be sure that the present didn’t finish in fiasco. Within the circumstances, just one resolution supplied itself—which was to maneuver the occasion exterior, onto the lawns of the theatre, out into the broad daylight. An outburst of derisive laughter greeted the announcement till, with out fuss, Kongi himself consented to it! So, with everybody carrying their chair, we moved shortly out of the constructing and put in ourselves in a circle below one of many bushes, and the session resumed.
Extremely, serendipitously, it labored! Certainly, the casual association appeared so as to add some further spark, some surprising tone of exhilaration and conviviality to the overall temper, that Soyinka himself turned extra relaxed, extra accessible and fewer inhibiting than I had ever witnessed.
And due to that pretty efficiency, the night turned out to be a wonderful success, far richer than any of us had anticipated. The efficiency, I say, greater than the fare he supplied, as a result of the poems of Samarkand aren’t a straightforward meal to swallow or digest. Though a lot much less cryptic than his earlier works, this assortment is a tough providing as a result of virtually all of the poems are songs of lamentation and indictment, reminding us of the atrocities that proceed to retard our continent and blight our happiness.
Piece after piece—significantly the poem devoted to his fellow author, the late Chinua Achebe—sing bitterly of our collective rot, our repeatedly aborted aspirations, and the rise of corruption, bigotry and spiritual fanaticism, and myriad different venalities.
The majority of Samarkand is a chronic elegy from a wounded loyal patriot a couple of Sisyphean lifetime of wrestle that appears perennially shackled to tragic defeat.
However Kongi is an activist poet; so we all know that his objective can’t be to enervate. Quite the opposite: these agonizing traces, written principally in exile throughout the Abacha years, are supposed to shock us out of pusillanimous acceptance and somnolence to aggressive revolt. So what you finally get from his works is the sense of artwork, of literature, as freight and locus of humanity’s refusal of chains and frontiers. That’s the reason his works so typically include strategically prophetic alerts, however which, alas, we fail to acknowledge.
Essentially the most fascinating poem of the night time then, I consider, was the eponymous piece, “Samarkand and Different Markets I’ve Identified,” devoted to his fellow Egyptian laureate, Naguib Mahfouz.
You’ll surprise after all, if you’re uneducated, what Samarkand, far-off in Asia, may have of curiosity to us in Africa? However the reply is in a poem titled, “The Golden Journey to Samarkand”, written in 1884 by an English poet and playwright known as James Elroy Flecker.
Samarkand, an historic metropolis which is now the capital of Uzbekistan, grew to be an important metropolis market alongside the well-known Silk Route between the West and China. In time, it got here to be celebrated by poets because the image of what we now know as “Orientalism”, that’s, a sure unique picture of the Orient as a spot of surprise and magic and glamour, a picture that continues to grip the Western creativeness, even to this present day.
Flecker’s poem about some possessed travellers heading there—particularly with its haunting chorus of, “We take the golden highway to Samarkand”—is presumably now probably the most memorable work celebrating this fascination with the Orient. Learn it, say the critics, and you can not escape the irresistible pull to go to the town and expertise the magic your self.
Not surprisingly, Soyinka has been considered one of these vacationers. Besides that for him nevertheless, the attraction of Samarkand comes not simply from this fabled orientalist flavour, however from a extra expansive attribute which he associates with all historic markets—whether or not in Abeokuta, Cairo, Paris, Rome, London, and so forth.—the grand concept that such locations are a “variety haven for the wandering soul,” the place every stall is “shrine and temple, (a) magic cave of memorabilia.”
As a ordinary cut price hunter in these markets, ‘Samarkand’ for Kongi represents not only a place for promoting and shopping for, however extra importantly additionally, a complete cosmos of each bodily and metaphysical presences, an enormous heterogenous emporium for range, tolerance and lodging, comparable to conceived as an illustration within the conventional Yoruba Weltanschaung. With their multifarious wares and mysterious warrens, they stand for a metaphoric Utopia, the place all humanity is welcome to wander and ponder and (professional)create.
It’s in expectation of this wondrous ambiance of freedom and abandon that Kongi visits Samarkand—and suffers a impolite shock. The market he meets is now not the one celebrated in Flecker’s poem. It has been taken over—presumably by Russian apparatchik (though not so explicitly said)—and “modernized” right into a state-run vacationer enterprise.
As a substitute of a thriving market subsequently, effervescent with vivacious voices, what he finds now are impoverished robots, civil servants kind of, diminished to mechanically churning out the standard tawdry and soul-destroying ersatz for the vacationer market. Exclaims the poet: “A market! And no human sounds?”
Samarkand, as a consequence of presidency intervention, has skilled not rejuvenation however sclerosis, the attrition of instinct and inventive creativity. (“Pleasure had fled the faces of the everlasting girls.// They lined the market outskirts, silently, // Winter twigs, darkish shadows framed in rags…!”) The destruction of a once-flourishing enterprise is the end result of the imposition of the protocols of state forms.
Nonetheless, it was a nice night. As Kongi learn, a tasty goat barbecue, aided by a beneficiant circulation of palm wine, serenaded the gathering. And so, fairly inadvertently, started a brand new custom on the Nationwide Theatre. Artistes now started to congregate on the venue, below that tree, for his or her occasions. Then, with the place getting so well-liked, it known as for its personal separate identification. Recommendations had been requested, and the selection got here with no shock: one afternoon subsequently, I gave directions that the chosen identify be nailed prominently on one of many branches. Thus the “Samarkand Tree” was born, to commemorate one pleasant outing of the folks with considered one of their idols.
Alas! A couple of months after I left the theatre I sneaked again there—and I exploit the phrase ‘sneak’ advisedly right here—and our Samarkand Tree was gone! The signal had been torn down or stolen the theatre itself had grown much more dilapidated; the federal government’s neglect was at its most conspicuous and scandalous show.
However at the moment, a brand new minister has come, decided to finish that unhappy period of neglect, and has assembled bankers to assist him. It’s a season when the nation wants to noticeably fear about its tradition, when intense programmes are urgently wanted to advertise an moral rebirth, in opposition to the upsurge of violence, crude and callous materialism, brazen corruption and thieving in all places. However the minister’s gaze appears to be targeted on the dazzle of economic revenue. The constructing and its lands will he recuperated to start to earn money eventually. However what in regards to the tradition’s main objective of therapeutic the sores within the nation’s soul?
It was a glittering ceremony that day in Lagos, reminding us amongst different issues of the convenience with which historical past repeats itself. However after all it’s unfair to anticipate a minister together with his busy schedule to have learn a e-book like Soyinka’s Samarkand.