In the Beginning was the Word…
And the Word, in West Africa one hundred and fifty years ago, was read. It was read by itinerary preachers seeking to spread the Gospel, the Good Tidings, men of the cloth standing at street-corners and marketplaces, much like today’s hawkers of Glo recharge cards.
With a book open in the left palm and the right forefinger held up, pointed like the Cross, the preacher preaches, inveighs, cajoles, rebukes, appeals, condemns, and prays, his the demeanor of a Biblical minor prophet, who will have no honor in his home.
This is the story of the Talking Book, the dramatic transformation of the Bible or any printed matter into a form of speech, something with which to enter into a dialogue or a debate.
This sight of a man holding a square object like a talisman, with words dribbling down his lips, is so compelling that to bystanders he evokes the image of a powerful medicine-man, a new shaman chanting incantations, casting spells. This makes sense because the preacher’s greatest competitor is the babalawo, hitherto the eternal speaker of magical words, intercessor between the known and the unknown.
The preaching evangelist (also known as Onibuuku) and the babalawo battle for the souls of the people. Now and then one of them wins. However, copies of the Bible are equally available to all converts, either wholly or in part, as the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the New Testament. It is not only the preacher who has access to them.
Not so the Speech of the Babalawo. Long periods of training are required to be broken into the Ifa Text which infinitely uses algebra to deliberate on the yearning for happiness. It is not easy to turn what is inexhaustible into discrete volumes. A different debate lurks here.
But the world will not roll back. A new society is born, a society of letters, literacy, and literature. What matters, what Abeokuta or Badagry or Kumase or Lagos needs, is not only the magic of the Bible as fiery spell but also the secular spinoffs: Iwe Irohin, Akede Eko, Lagos Weekly Record, West African Pilot, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale….
Once upon a time in Lagos, an illiterate railway worker is so enamored of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s incendiary speeches and articles he goes to buy a copy of the West African Pilot and reads it aloud, but upside down.
Here is Azikiwe, publisher of the West African Pilot and famous author of Liberia in World Politics, addressing a rally at Alakoro in 1938: “I’m not a very good student of the Hebrew language, but Professor So-and-So of the University of So-and-So in a very scholarly exposition, discourse, treatise, thesis, or dissertation, written in Hebrew (the English translation is not available) said so-and-so…”
Here is the portrait of another anti-colonial agitator, Oba Samuel Akisanya: “He was a crowd-puller and a tub-thumping orator, with a sense of the dramatic. Whenever he was going to address a mass meeting, he would carry tomes and tomes of books in his armpits, and might even hire young persons to help him carry those he was unable to carry himself. The impression he sought to create was that he was going make citations from all these books in the course of his address. More often than not, he never even made a single reference to the books. But on his entry into the hall with all these documentary impediments, he automatically evoked thunderous and prolonged applause, with shouts of ‘Saki!’ ‘General Saki!’”
Once upon a time in Kenya, natives dispossessed of their lands gather in the bush to listen as one of them reads a new pamphlet by Marcus Garvey. Once the contents of the pamphlet are fully digested, some of the listeners with good memories are delegated to spread the word round the bases where other dispossessed are waiting for light out of the colonial tunnel.
Such is the power of the written, printed word, far in excess of the designs of the 19th century street-corner preacher. Much of the information in these little tales may be more hearsay and show than actual communing with books. But the understanding of the book here is of a tool, a weapon that will provide the key to the political kingdom, here on earth.
There is another thing to take away. “General Saki” might not have been much of a reader in action, but we now read about him because someone, Obafemi Awolowo, who fell in love with books, ended up writing his own. This is almost always the case: if you fall in love with books, you end up writing your own. You become one on whom nothing is lost.
Boko ba haram.
- Adesokan is the author of Roots in the Sky (2004) and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics(2011).