Friday, February 29, 2008

The Pale Light of Reality in Yerima's Hard Ground

The Pale Light of Reality in Yerima’s Hard Ground
Isaac Attah Ogezi

No country baffles the international community to a state of inertia like the contraption called Nigeria . As the most populous black nation in the world, she is endowed with both natural and human resources yet toddles behind other nations of the world like the man-child in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are not yet Born. She is in the forefront of Third World countries caught in the quagmire of cyclic movement reminiscent of the revolution of the earth around its orbit. There seem to be no marked changes or growth in the polity or the economy except the usual bumper harvest of corruption, ethnic militias, political assassinations, plane crashes and several indices of underdevelopment. Indeed, the current happenings in our body-politic is like the replay of the events that took place during the First Republic , as superbly captured in Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People. The question now is: what is the role of the writer in this season of anomie? Is he a self-seeking entertainer aloof to the socio-political climate of his time? Can he still regurgitate half-digested theories such as art for art’s sake in the face of an impending doom that threatens his very existence? Or is his art so sacred and pure that he must remain an apolitical animal until the end of his life?

During the pre-colonial African society, the role of the griots, which the modern-day writer occupies, was that of a prophet, a priest, a seer and a marabout. The society looked up to him for direction. If there is a consensus that literature is the soul of every nation, then what is the role of a writer if not a man of action, the voice of the voiceless? Achebe and Ngugi are two classic examples of why the writers must not shy away from politics of his times. A few months after the publication of his A Man of the People in 1966, the military struck. The ending of the novel was so prophetic that some politicians suspected that Achebe must have had a hand in the coup that overthrew the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa government. In an interview in 1970, Achebe had this to say as regards the role of the contemporary writer:

“Right now my interest is in politics or rather my interest in the novel is
politics. A Man of the People wasn’t a flash in the pan. This is the begin-
ning of a phase for me in which I intend to take a hard look at what we
in Africa are making of independence – but using Nigeria which I know
best … It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid
the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up
being completely irrelevant – like that absurd man in the proverb who
leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames … What
is the place of the writer in this movement? I suggest that his place is
right in the thick of it – if possible, at the head of it”.

When asked further if he considered himself a protest writer, Achebe retorted thus: “Well, according to my own opinion of protest, I am a protest writer. Restraint – well, that’s my style, you see”. After A Man of the People, Achebe followed it up with an equally politically charged, Booker Award-shortlisted Anthills of the Savannah in 1986. Similarly, before the environmentalist-cum-writer, Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged by the military junta in 1995, he delivered what could well pass for the raison de’tre of his mission as a writer. He said:

“Literature in a critical situation such as Nigeria ’s cannot be divorced from
politics. Indeed, literature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by
intervention, and writers must not merely write to amuse or to take a bemused,
critical look at society. They must play an interventionist role … The writer
must be l’homme engage: the intellectual man of action”.

It must be conceded from the outset that literature cannot shoot a gun nor depose a corrupt, totalitarian government like ours, yet there is no gainsaying the fact that it is the most potent weapon above all other forms of art. When Sharia was introduced in some parts of the North in 1999, there was a lot of vitriolic attacks from the press all to no avail. The press cannot take the place of literature as it obviously lacks the necessary wherewithal of capturing human experience that is inherent in the latter. In his book, The Revolution of Hope (New York: Harper Row, 1969), Erich Fromm posited and rightly too that:

“Poetry, music and other forms of art are by far the best-suited media for
describing human experience because they are precise and avoid the
abstraction and vagueness of worn-out coins which are taken for
adequate representations of human experience”.

Since the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in the mid-seventies, and the subsequent environmental degradation in the name of oil-prospecting and exploitation, the Niger Delta is a hotbed of crises. As it seethes in the endless cauldron of violence, the youths are restive, hostages are taken, the press is a toothless bull-dog and not to mention the politicians whose ceaseless holding talks aggravate rather than ameliorate the situation. It is a question that is very relevant to our politics today and may, to a large extent, determine our existence as a corporate entity in post-2007 Nigeria . The poser is: beyond the political overtones that characterize the Niger Delta question, what is the human face behind it? It is in this regard that we have to turn to literature for a solution, for it is the only avenue where the human emotion is well captured. The theatre is the house of emotions and as Shakespeare puts it into the mouth of his character, Hamlet, “The play’s the thing /Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”. Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground is a timely play that addresses the Niger Delta question. It takes us into the center-stage of the activities of militant youth movement – the intrigues, betrayals, espionage and counter-espionage, violence and blackmail inherent in all imperfect human organizations. The play opens on a family of Baba. The atmosphere is tense as the whole family gathers around 18-year-old Nimi to tell them what happened at the camp. Nimi is a member of a guerrilla youth movement like Niger Peoples’ Volunteer Force (NDPVF), Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Martyrs Brigade and a host of many others who believe that their people are oppressed in the Nigerian federation and “the best way for Nigeria is a federation of ethnic nationalities” (p. 36). Their grievances against the Nigerian State are genuine even though the means of going about their rights is a subject of controversies of our times. The Niger Delta is a sorry sight of environmental pollution as a result of oil exploitation. Farming and fishing activities have been crippled by oil spillage, drinking water polluted and a dearth of infrastructures. Unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and hardship are the lot of the people of the Niger Delta despite the fact that their oil is the mainstay of Nigeria ’s economy. The reader or audience learns from Nimi’s story of the gruesome activities of the militant youth movements in the Niger Delta. They vandalize oil pipes, terrorize innocent citizens, kill, maim, and kidnap in the most dastardly manner to press home their demands. On pages 45 and 46, Nimi describes how the militant youths revel in killing their victims:

“The boys caught him, and hacked him to death, removing his head from
behind as he sped. In the wildness, my boys ran into the shrine, pulled
out the second man … A stick was pushed through his anus until it came
out in his bowels. We then dragged them back into the shrine, and burnt

These killings are not meant for their perceived enemies alone, no, but also for themselves when misunderstandings ensue among them. Yerima’s thematic preoccupation is the traumatic effect this could have on the youths in the Niger Delta. What kind of youths is the Niger Delta producing when their childhood is already raped like child-soldiers? Nimi is eighteen years old without any academic achievement to show for it but a school dropout, jobless, and in his stark ignorance, boastful of having put a woman in the family way! Indeed, Yerima evokes our pathos for sick youths like Nimi who are misguided in their bid to change the world. The playwright goes beyond the ephemeral Niger Delta question to universalize his play by dwelling on the timeless theme of appearance versus reality as in all Shakespeare’s plays. Man, according to him, is a despicable, hypocritical creature that cannot be trusted. In a world of so much deception and fakery, the light of reality quivers in the face of appearances. Kinsley’s answer to Nimi’s question as to whether he is a priest reinforces this theme. “Am I? Sometimes the light you see flickers, but you never pay enough care to see”. (p. 52) In a world where everybody is a fake, a phantom, a fraud, to whom must one trust much less innocent children like Nimi? It is in this dilemma that Nimi makes a universal statement when he cries:

“Where is God? Why is nobody listening? Why? And worse still, you whom
we thought was our vehicle of salvation, the symbol of our belief in God …
is supremely … fake. Why? [Pause] Nothing is real any more. Nothing.
Father … I don’t even know what to call you now. I have changed my mind.
I am going back to the jungle, where we write the laws and live them, each
day as we feel”. (p. 53)

Alas, it is really a sad, cruel world. We are all surrounded by fakes like Nimi and don’t know whom to trust. His pregnant love, Pikibo, is a police spy in the camp, his mother, Mama, worships God as a Christian in public but turns a traditionalist behind closed doors (p. 57), his father, Baba, is a coward to everybody yet turns out surprisingly to be the Don, the most dreaded man who spearheads the guerilla movement (pages 59 and 60) Like Achebe’s Odili in A Man of the People, Yerima shows us that even Nimi is not a saint but also a fake like all the characters in the play. He is delighted when he is informed that the “Vulture”, the traitor in the camp is eventually found. “Good. Now our ancestors have delivered us” (p. 50). But his hypocrisy or double standards come to the fore when he denies most vehemently that the “Vulture” cannot be his love, Pikibo! He cries her innocence thus:

“Noo! Not Pikibo! No! Not my son! He did not offend a soul! Not my
woman. The Don should have spared their lives for my sake. I must
find the Don and kill him too!” (p. 50)

The success of the play lies not only on the topicality of the raging Niger-Delta question, but on the ability of the playwright to turn what would have been a propaganda play into a good work of art that transcends geographical location. However, the play falls short of being rated a great play due to some lapses in the dramaturgy employed by the playwright such as little scenic and character descriptions, inadequate action or movement (too static for a stage play and more suitable as a radio play), unrealistic dénouement and feeble dramatic dialogue. Yerima, like his elder literary statesman, Femi Osofisan, has a penchant for unrealistic surprises in most of his plays. At times one wonders whether this failing would not have stood him in a better stead if he had tried his hand in popular fiction such as the James Hadley Chase series or the Nick Carters. The surprise naively sprung on the reader at the end of the play by the playwright when he unravels Baba as the dreaded Don is too amateurish that even a pupil in a kindergarten will have to swallow with tons of salt! The same thing can be said of his Anton Chekhov-
influenced play, The Three Sisters, where the maid turns out to be one of the sisters, albeit of a different mother! Most importantly, the playwright’s rather obsequious efforts to make all his characters speak in Standard English if anything proved abortive as all the characters speak in the playwright’s tone of voice without any unique speech patterns for each character. Is it not improbable that in real life everybody will use the exclamation “Huum!?” In Yerima’s play, almost all the characters say “Huum!”, to wit: Mama (pages 10, 11, 14), Nimi (pages 9, 29, 31, 38, 46, 47, 48), Tingolongo (page 48), Kingsley (page 53), Baba (pages 9, 43). Also, character Kingsley who parades himself as a Reverend Father is not properly endowed with priestly language by the playwright as compared to characters like Brother Jero and Jeru in Soyinka’s The Jero Plays and Opera Wonsoyi respectively nor like the Manns in Rotimi’s Kurunmi. Unfortunately, the work is not error-free. There are a few typographical and technical grammatical errors such as: “ I should have been allowed to be shot and die for “ (p. 9), “there are younger boys and girls than me” (p. 12), “Papa clears his throat” (p. 14) instead of “Baba”, “ and nothings was “ (p. 22), and “MAMA countenance” (p. 39).

In conclusion, Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground is a great contribution to the repertoire of plays on the Niger Delta question and marks the coming of age of a playwright