Monday, December 2, 2013

The Danger of the Single Story in Yerima's Heart of Stone

By Isaac Attah Ogezi In a 2009 seminal TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story”, Adichie berated the Western literary establishment for reducing the African story to one definitive story, a stereotype of mindless violence and debauchery which has come to cling to Africans. In the eyes of the West, Africa is only viewed as a heart of darkness, replete with war, famine and all other indices of a Third world continent, where life is short and brutish like the Stone Age. Where this is not the intent of this review, it shall examine the danger of a writer being fixated on a single story to the point of cloning his own stories. Yerima’s recent play, Heart of Stone, is a stage dramatization of the contemporary social reality that is Nigeria today, the nebula of fear that dogs our lives, total disregard to life, terrorism and religious uprisings. It tells the sad story of an orphan, Musa, who endured the vicissitudes of life as an Almajiri, teacher in a Koranic school, political thug to being a borehole digger before joining an extremist religious sect as a terrorist to unleash violence on innocent victims. The irony of these acts of terrorism is that nobody is spared both kith and kin. They “are not trained to think” (p. 47) but to wreak havoc on a docile world in the name of defending “themselves against the infidels. The non-believers.” (p. 48) Musa’s last operation brings him to a church where a wedding is in progress between his cousin Gladys and Miri with a disastrous effect. The church is bombed to smithereens. Amina , his heartthrob, paints this gory scene with chilling images when she laments: “Everyone in the church was blown to their deaths. Kaka Vero, Gladys and her husband are all gone. Their blood splashed, their bodies strewn in tiny bits and pieces were packed in different bags and brought to our hospital… Headless bodies, Kaka, torn from limbs to limbs. We cannot even tell them apart.” (pp. 50 – 55) Vero, who is later involved in the above inferno that terminates her life, had earlier warned Musa, who upon becoming a teacher in a Koranic school, suddenly saw his non-Muslim relations as dirty pigs, unbelievers fit to be slaughtered. In a plaintive voice, she says: “Let me speak, Son. From the day I saw you as a little boy join a group of Almajiri to force a car driver to stop and with your mouths you drew fuel from his car after beating him up for refusing to recite the Fathia… In a frenzy of madness, you all ran towards our church, poured the petrol under the doors, while the other wild boys broke the church windows and threw in burning rags into it… As the church burnt, and the police and the Fire Brigade siren vehicles screamed and screeched, our eyes met ….” (p. 42) A later victim of these wild boys on rampage, Vero goes further to narrate how her cousin’s house was burnt on page 42: “When my maternal cousin’s house, Bitrus’ house, was burnt in Koghum village in Wang District of Jos, with all five members of his family burnt alive, again it was another trip of madness? Millions have died after.” The alibi of most religious terrorists of Islamic sect especially Boko Haram and Al-Shabab is that they are fighting for Allah. As the author put it into the mouth of Musa, “It was what we were told to do. The Ustaz had said Allah decreed it. We were used.” (p. 42). Fortunately, the playwright shows a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel in the fight against terrorism when Musa is eventually arrested during his last operation and brought to book. In this timely play, like his previous plays such as Hard Ground and Little Drops…, based on the Niger Delta crisis, Yerima displays his talent as a journalist-playwright chronicling every facet of our chequered lives. A social crusader, he refuses to keep mute in the face of the Boko Harm insurgency in our polity even though no mention is explicitly made about them. On the contrary, it is in this obsession with the single story in a rather recycling manner that therein lies his albatross in this play. Musa is a slavish replica of Mimi and Kuru in Yerima’s Hard Ground and Little Drops… respectively and ape their speeches with no serious effort made by the playwright to recreate a different character. For example, all these three characters in these plays have almost the same reason for taking to violence against an unfair world. Nimi posits that the politicians are behind their creation: “They created us. They gave us the reason to find our place… First, we were errand boys, and so we got guns and money. We started asking questions, they had no answers. We all knew what they looked like before they got into power. We dumped them. They gave us no respect, because of the crumbs they give us while they keep the chunk… We fight only for ourselves. Our lives in our pockets.” (p. 39, Hard Ground) Similarly, as if parroting Nimi, Kuru also says: “The amnesty could not sell. There was no consultation with us who were to be granted the amnesty. Just a few men sat in the capital and worked out a one-sided agreement… They think they are smart … But they will see. We shall destroy everything … everything… everything. Total break-up! (pp. 60 and 63, Little Drops…) Also full of angst like these two characters in the earlier plays, Musa, filled with bile and discontentment, makes the trioka when he says: “And politics came. And the new politicians like Danladi your son came. They promised to take us away from our failures, but instead they reminded us that we were failures… Jokers! That was when we proclaimed death to all … They cannot achieve anything by talking with the wrong people.” (pp. 58 and 60, Heart of Stone) This single story of youth restiveness and criminality engendered by circumstances prevalent in their societies, permeates all these three plays and cannot be excused on the ground of the playwright’s use of different locales and cultures. Though a multi-cultural dramatist, Yerima makes no spirited attempt to be a connoisseur of any like the bat in the adage, stranger to the sky and earth. In consequence, he distorts, like most of our Nollywood films, the cultures of many ethnic groups in his plays in the name of multi-culturalism. This is more glaring in the latest of the three plays, Heart of Stone. The old man character, Achief, is a pagan and drinks the locally-brewed beer called burukutu, worships in the traditional way, yet exclaims “By Allah” (p. 10) like other non-Muslim characters in the play and, as if this is not enough, he makes claim to Islamic four-wife polygamy when he says: “I take a new wife to complete the number Allah approved for me as a good Muslim soon.” (p. 15). It is not for the love of being portrayed as a schizophrenic that the author made Achief talk about the gods in the next page: “That we need a megaphone to speak with the gods?” (p. 16). Perhaps, the greatest distortion of cultures and religions in this play is the misuse of Hausa words especially where Yoruba Arabic words are used instead of Hausa’s such as “Aljenah” (p. 34) for “Aljannah”, “Shetani” (p. 38) for “Shaitan”, “Kaffirs” (p. 41) for “Kafiris”, etc. It is obvious that the playwright’s knowledge of Hausa words and their concomitant Arabic expressions is weak. Kaka Patu, a pagan who believes in wetting the throat of her dead daughter “with the burukutu offerings” (p. 13), could not restrain herself when told that Musa is involved in the killing of Vero and exclaims: “Subahanallahi!” (p.53) before fainting! Yerima will not receive any thanks from any Christian for the pastor’s prayer on page 36 as it does not reflect the Christian culture of praying whether Pentecostal or orthodox Christianity. Be that as it may, Yerima is inarguably Africa’s most prolific playwright writing today after his elder countryman, Osofisan. However, the only snag for writers of this ilk is that memorability, the enduring quality of any great work of art, could as well go hand itself, flanked on either side by sublime literary language and originality. Shakespeare is still celebrated today for close to four centuries since he passed on to glory not because of the volumes of his works but for the relentless artistry and self-denial that went into every of his works which are now timeless benchmarks for world dramatic writing. A writer who continues to churn out works without paying attention to the nitty-gritty of what makes great works tick, coupled with a narcissistic disregard to his readers, may suffer the fate of not having his name whispered in the hallowed chambers of the Swedish Academy even if he attains the record feat of a hundred works.

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