Imbolo Mbue Photo: @imbolombue/Facebook
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African literature, cultures and music’s ecological interventions

African literature and music have helped the continent face up to the othering gaze of the anthropologist, the missionary, the settler, and now, the winner-take-all multinationals. Cultural revivalists, climate advocates and hardboiled romanticists of the book industry continue to profile African communities who profit least from environmentally unsustainable extractive capitalism while suffering most from the food insecurity, health emergencies and natural disasters that it generates.

Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue’s 2021 novel, How Beautiful We Were, prominently tabled climate justice with the story of a small African village existentially poisoned by an American oil company. Mbue’s engrossing narrative taps an ecological canon that continues to inspire generations of African writers, from Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s tragic fight with Shell-BP and the Sani Abacha administration to the totemic cosmologies of Nigerian poet, Christopher Okgibo and Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou.

In African cosmology, people, the natural environment and the ancestors form one sacred knot. The “umbilical cord” mingled with the earth is Zimbabwean poet Godfrey Dzvairo’s claim to “birthright” and stewardship, referring to the unity between the land which buries the birthright, the human and perhaps the spirit of the ancestors buried in the land. Renowned Zimbabwean novelist Charles Mungoshi’s living and dead mutually generate through rituals that keep the soil a sacred and enchanted field. Christopher Okigbo’s labyrinths bind the sacred village stream and totems, the oil bean, the tortoise and the python, to the human supplicant, while Ugandan poet, Okot p’Bitek guards “the pumpkin in the old homestead” from wanton violence. In p’Bitek’s epic poem Song of Lawino, Lawino is rather asking Ocol not to destroy things for the sake of destroying them.

Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, marked by relentless iconoclasm across the hills and the forests, suggests with characteristic tragedy that his revivalist generation has arrived too late to recapture old ways of being.

Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, marked by relentless iconoclasm across the hills and the forests, suggests with characteristic tragedy that his revivalist generation has arrived too late to recapture old ways of being. However, current problems prove the concerns of his generation to have been more existential than romantic. Having dismissed indigenous knowledge systems as superstitious and primordial, Western hegemonies are one step from extractive crusades that pay no attention to ecological harmony. Zimbabwe’s sacred Domboshava Hills have been at the centre of controversy in recent years with indigenous spiritual guardians on one side and Chinese granite miners on the other side. Headlines achingly reconstruct scenes of sacred mountains levelled down, rivers silted and indigenous people, as in the case of Chilonga villagers in the Lowveld, displaced by a government directive in their thousands from their ancestral homes to make way for corporates. 

Climate justice — a constant feature in Zimbabwean literature

In Zimbabwe, the book sector has taken economic knocks but its climate and environmentally aware writers constitute a resilient “still, small voice.” In Tinashe Muchuri’s experimental Shona novel, Chibarabada, climate justice is not just a feature of north-south scenarios but also of human-wildlife-nature interactions. The mythic draw on folktales and totems, taboos may seem outdated at first glance, but the fact that animals and nature are humanised in these texts makes them even better candidates for climate justice. In Muchuri’s first chapter, we are told about the lion, the river and the woman. The woman pollutes the river and endangers the lion but nature fights back with floods.  

Dr Clement Chipenda, an environmental science researcher with The University of South Africa (UNISA) notes the age-old function of folklore as a guarantor of ecological harmony. “Folktales, texts and artworks emphasised ecological sustainability and adaptability,” Chipenda says. “Folktales were mediums for teaching about life and also about the environment. Folktales in which animals were given human characteristics, for example were used to communicate on how the natural environment should be conserved, cared for and exploited,” he explained in an interview with This Is Africa.

“Climate justice is about developing ideas for a just community and a more protected environment” Emily Miki says: Photo supplied/ Emily Miki

“This is closely related to taboos, which strictly forbade some practices considered to be detrimental to the natural environment, some that come to mind include forbidding of harvesting unripe wild fruits, defecating in wells, killing pangolins and so on”. These taboos were meant to discourage people from harming the environment and protect wildlife. The environment (rhythms of nature), biodiversity and ecosystems were thus protected through African cultural values, art, music and texts from pollution, the indiscriminate killing of animals, deforestation and the overuse of resources. 

Contemporary literature ignores Western othering of African customs as savage superstition and acts as a bridge between present times and the folk canon. In Tipindewo Mudariro,  a 2020 collection of Shona poems by various writers, a poem about “VaDambe’s well” discusses sacredness of the well and instructs humans on harmonious interaction with nature to protect iconic species and landscapes. Another poem about “Ganyairo’s well” narrates sacred places that humans must not interfere with, while “Chiziviso cheZvinokosha”  “Notice of important issues” discourages people from cutting down trees, polluting wetlands and stream bank cultivation and encourages tree planting to avert natural disasters.

A recurring feature of indigenous spirituality is the treatment of the soil as a living agency rather than a passive object. “African spirituality personifies land as our ancestors. If you fail to accomplish something we say ivhu raramba (the land has refused),” explained Chibarabada author Tinashe Muchuri. The reference to “refused” rather than “failed” highlights this agency. “In one Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ) journal, Old Gororo tells his son that land is everything: “it doesn’t just sustain us physically, economically, socially and politically but it is our very spirituality,” added Muchuri.

Spreading conservation through song 

Particular immersion in sacred places also runs the thread of traditional music, which shares the same roots in orature with Shona literature. Mbira dzeNharira’s song “Shanyai” is a travel guide that also orients tourists about sacred places while “Sara Mugomo” is a checklist of sacred shrines, mountains and pools. Oliver Mtukudzi’s anti-colonial “Nyika Yedu yeZimbabwe” references the enemy not only as the one who occupies by force but also as the one who tramples on the sacred. Nature suffered collateral damage as Rhodesia’s war on African religion and indigenous knowledge systems suffocated the emancipatory ontology that indigenous religious leaders such as Nehanda and Kaguvi had channeled against colonial occupation. 

Mbira dzeNharira Photo: Mbira DzeNharira Band/Facebook

“African culture actually was aware that nature and the physical terrain would be depleted,” Tudikidiki writer Memory Chirere said in an interview with This Is Africa. “You get it through proverbs: aive madziva ave mazambuko (yesterday’s pools have become hamlets),  kashiri kasingapambare hakanune (the bird that does not hunt about does not fatten). They also knew that nature was treacherous: kutsvuka kwaro guyu mukati mune makonye (the fig may be beautiful outside but it is filled with maggots). Usayedza rwizi negumbo (don’t test the depth of the river with your foot,” explained Chirere.

In Gangaidzwa, a multi-authored short fiction anthology, Muchuri’s story called “Pabindu raDhuke” (At Dhuke’s Garden) details misfortunes acquired from the abuse of nature. “Chibaranyanga,” a discursive piece from the Chitubu CheNduri poetry collection, goes from totem pride to how boys used to swim in a pool where a snake resided but the pool has since been destroyed by Cyclone Eline. Muchuri considers culturally insensitive activity to be environmentally unhelpful. In Chibarabada the river near the chiefs’ shrine reeks of human and industrial waste. Muchuri has poor urban planning settlement in mind with the Hararean example of building on wetlands.

Totems — a resilient African ecological intervention

African societies, imagined as primordial and savage in the Western canon, have held on to practices such as the observance of totems. “Totems were considered important for uniting clans and lineages but they also served another important functions, that of preserving the natural environment,” Dr Chipenda explained. “The clan was obligated to protect its totem, not to harm but preserve it. This was not only in Zimbabwe but in the former Buganda (now Uganda) and DRC people had multiple totems.” It is believed that chiefdoms preponderated by a particular totem class, Vahera’s Chikomba and Buhera in Zimbabwe, would have a greater population of the totem animal, the eland in this case.

Mabanckou’s Congolese novels have a totem or a double for each terrain, the worm (underground), the shark (sea), the porcupine (forest), the sheep and the cockerel, suggesting that the habitats would as well have people reverently looking out for them. “The myth of the double exists not only in my own village; a lot of African readers have told told me that in their country people also believe in having an animal as a double,” he explained in an interview with the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana. Mabanckou’s The Lights of Pointe Noir, Memoirs of a Porcupine and Tomorrow I Will Be Twenty, go into detail about prohibitions which may well have come about with ecological considerations in mind though they were not expressly observed as such. 

Writer Binyavanga Wainaina at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival. Photo: Wiki/CC BY 3.0

Chipenda laments the loss of these conservation strategies along culture’s evolutionary arc. “Totems, for example, are considered as demonic and people have tended to disassociate themselves from them,” he said. In some Pentecostal churches, which constitute the main religious affiliation in many African cities, it is taught that the natural bloodline is plagued by familiar spirits, spiritual bonds and vulnerability to witchcraft. The totem, and even the surname, is considered a witching password so that some believers trade their identity for English and Hebrew last names.

“Capitalist trajectories have also seen the framework being disturbed as the pursuit of profit has been detrimental to the environment,” continued Chipenda. “This is the reason why some communities have been uprooted; sacred places have been desecrated all in the pursuit of profit. Some production practices inspired by indigenous knowledge are no longer feasible in light of the emphasis on commercialisation and this has also influenced the framework negatively,” he said.

Mabanckou’s enchanted and mythical Congo, quiet without the dystopian urgency of climate novels and the confessional fervour of revivalist literature, is a feast of laughter and nostalgia. Nostalgia maps the coordinates of what is still possible. Where the hegemonic order presents itself as the only possible world, Mabanckou’s hardboiled romanticism unburies a different world, an Africa whose previously repressed cosmology has potential lessons for the present.

University of Zimbabwe (UZ) African Languages faculty head Prof. Francis Matambirofa thinks the focus should not be so much on restoring African communities to their original harmony but much more modest steps which can still make a big difference. “We need to grow deliberate volumes of indigenous fruit trees like matamba, mazhanje and muchakata.” The population of these trees is generally left to “God” while farmers almost exclusively work on exotic species. “We have indigenous species that have become so diminished in number. I am thinking here of tsvoritsvoto, nhengeni, maroro, tsambasi and so on. We need to ensure that these species are not lost, even by growing them at commercial levels. Mikarati, mipani, mitsviru, mihwetu, misusu [medicinal plants and trees] and so on are used for making farming implements and other purposes but there is no deliberate project for growing these species,” Matambirofa noted.

Cultural and educational reorientation is required to guide the patient work of restoring harmony between humans and nature, Chipenda said. “The disruptions have been significant over the past few years that to reverse it education needs to be the starting point in nurturing a generation that appreciates and is knowledgeable of the importance of culture and indigenous knowledge in ensuring harmony with nature.”

For Chipenda, ecological harmony and climate justice requires nothing less than the decolonisation of the mind and respect for indigenous ways of being. Whatever else is already out of place, African literature stays on track.

This article is written as part of a storytelling series called: Symbiocene – Finding Coexistence: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and Us, a collection commissioned in partnership with African Crossroads. The contents of the series are the sole responsibility of This Is Africa Trust, and cannot be regarded as reflecting the official position of Hivos Foundation.

The hybrid event took place on the 14th and 15th October 2021 and featured live and recorded presentations on ECOEXISTENCE – a call for writing A COLLECTIVE MANIFESTO on how to restore a symbiotic relationship between humans and other-than-human entities (natural elements, animals, data-generated avatars and others). The programme was broadcasted online in the form of interviews, concerts, storytelling, panel discussions and digital experiences.

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