Novelist Chris Abani is a deceptive and funny man. He tells us that he’s been at TED for three days, “watching slideshows, listening to scientists… feeling a bit like a gansta rapper at a bar mitzvah.” Much of the conference, he observes, have been about narrative in Africa. “But we’re really talking about news narratives. 40% of Americans can’t afford health insurance, they’ve got a president who doesn’t listen to his people and keeps prosecuting a senseless war – if we go by the news, the US is as bad as Zimbabwe, which isn’t true, right?”
Authors and artists are the agents of imagination who tell us who we are. “If you want to know about Africa, read our literature. And not just ‘Things Fall Apart’- that’s like reading ‘Gone With the Wind’ and thinking you know all about America.” Language makes the world in which we live. “What if these ancient Sumerian tablets aren’t business records. Maybe they’re poetry: ‘My love is like 6 Ethiopian goats'”.
Abani tells us a meloncholy joke about three men who commit suicide, one for a funny and silly reason. “This sad joke about Harry is actually a joke about ethnic hatred” which he grew up with oriented towards his own Ibo people. His father, educated in Cork, Ireland, used to tell him not to eat in a Yoruba house because they would poison you. “It makes sense in retrospect because if you knew my father, you’d want to poison him too.”
Growing up during the Biafrian war, his teachers were prohibited from teaching about ethnic hatred in Nigeria. His Pakistani Muslim teacher wanted to teach about the country’s tension, so he taught Jewish holocaust history to young Ibo children. This, Abani tells us, might explain why his first novel, written at age 16, was about neo-Nazis trying to take over Nigeria. The book was a success, and Abani was declared Africa’s Francis Forsythe – “a dubious honor, to be sure.”
The honor became more dubious when the government connected his novel to a coup attempt and put him into prison. He was released after six months with no explanation. “Those of you who see me know it’s because it was costing them too much to feed me.”
As a young Nigerian who’d been in prison, he felt compelled to struggle against the government. It wasn’t until he found himself in prison again, facing torture, when he realized “how easily your humanity can be taken away.”
Abani ends by reading Yusuf Kumanyaaka’s “Ode to the Drum”.
Gazelle, I killed you
for your skin’s exquisite
touch, for how easy it is
to be nailed to a board
weathered raw as white
butcher paper. Last night
I heard my daughter praying
for the meat here at my feet.
You know it wasn’t anger
that made me stop my heart
till the hammer fell. Weeks
ago, I broke you as a woman
once shattered me into a song
beneath her weight, before
you slouched into that
grassy hush. But now
I’m tightening lashes,
shaping hide as if around
a ribcage, stretched
like five bowstrings.
Ghosts cannot slip back
inside the body’s drum.
You’ve been seasoned
by wind, dusk & sunlight.
Pressure can make everything
whole again, brass nails
tacked into the ebony wood
your face has been carved
five times. I have to drive
trouble from the valley.
Trouble in the hills.
Trouble on the river
too. There’s no kola nut,
palm wine, fish, salt,
or calabash. Kadoom.
Kadoom. Kadoom. Ka-
doooom. Kadoom. Now
I have beaten a song back into you,
rise & walk away like a panther.
It is, as Chris Anderson puts it, “a TED moment”.
Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the remarkable, “How to Write About Africa”, is one of the few people who might be up to the task of following Chris Abani. Wainaina is a remarkable storyteller, with a sharp eye and a sharper tongue.
His talk is a rolicking narrative that starts with the Bible, moves through preparing for TED, to some of the darkest moments in recent Kenyan politics. He tells us that many of the stories from the continent are Bible stories, a book translated into 600 African languages. “The Bible works because it’s stories –
maybe we haven’t gone far in challenging the stories of the bible with our literature.”
Wainaina tells us of stories people tell in the villages of Kenya about robot dogs, possibly sent by the Nyerere government from Tanzania. People in villages would say, “We used to go out at night, but no we don’t go out much at night.” Why are these rumors spread? Possibly so the police can do what they like, acting at will in the night?
In a corner of Nairobi, we hear, a guy is doing math formulas on the sidewalk with chalk. “The bible comes into it. I’m tempted to say he’s mad, but there’s math in it so I don’t know.”
In another part of town, people are suddenly eating vegetables and health food and are obsessed with cleanliness. “Suddenly people aren’t eating chips with lunch, they’re eating fruit salad.”
Where is this all coming from? It’s a response to “the billions of dollars that are gone because we are trying to export gold.” (Kenya has no gold. This is the Goldenberg Scandal, a complex political scandal that cost Kenya as much as 10% of its GDP.) “Even when you have the transcripts – the President said this to this person on this day – it still doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make much sense to the President either.”
When your country is being called the second worst with AIDS, when people speak about going into civil war like Rwanda, you find people obsessed with cleanliness and organic food. When parents are worried about protecting their children, you hear stories about Tanzanian robot dogs.
Wainaina reads three long excerpts to us from “Search Sweet Country” by Ghanaian author B. Kojo Laing. The author, he tells us, wanted to create a literary map of Accra – “Read it and you will have all the city in your head.”
He closes by telling us that “30, 40 years down the line, if it is easier for an African writer to go to a reading in London than to cross the border to Uganda, it’s a problem.” We need to tell these stories: “it’s how our societies open their hearts to each other – it’s in those stories.”
Vusi Mahlasela – an activist and singer justifiably known as “The Voice” – blesses us with three songs about townships – “it’s a ship that’s going to town but never gets there” – about celebrations of life, and about forgiveness. He dedicates the third song to his Grandmother, who helped protect him when he was a young anti-apartheid activist:
The police came to the house, and my grandmother turned off all the lights and opened the kitchen door. She said, “I’m sick of you coming here and harrassing us while your children are at home sleeping. Vusi is here. But I’ve got a pot of boiling water, and the first one of you through the door is going to get it.” And they went away.
His songs – swinging between the sad, the joyful and the rock solid powerful – are a beautiful end to a powerful day, our virtual campfire in a darkened hall in Arusha.