We Will Tell Our Stories: The Power of Disenchantment and Alternative Futures for Africa
Words cannot fully express how deeply grateful I am for being here; I almost couldn’t make it. If any of you live on the continent of Africa, or at least have come from afar to these magical terrains, then you know it takes more than a visa and jumping three planes to get here. It takes much more: it takes grit, an unwavering sense of direction, patience, and good friends who won’t let well enough alone. It also takes a skillful mastery of your bladder.
Being a child of a distant African moment, and having had the privilege of speaking in many compelling contexts, I have come to understand that just before I start speaking the politically correct thing to do is to say ‘I bring greetings from Africa’. The problem with saying this at this time lies in the question: ‘Which Africa do we speak of?’, for there are many Africas.
There is the romanticized Africa of Hollywood fame – the one with feverish dances, painted faces, exotic tribes and stories that have the nerve to insist that the gods must be crazy. Then there is the Africa of steel and asphalt and landscapes darkened by cascading towers of smoke; the one cordoned off by Wall Street, animated by glittery shopping malls, and legitimized by the ‘golden arches’.
In these Africas, we send our children to little boxes we call schools, and use thinly compressed pieces of fibre to create value; we sit round an enchanted glow-box that brings no heat, but tells us stories about how we are never enough; and during Christmas, more out of the compulsion to do so than any sense of hope, we sing “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” And when we get angry with our governments, we listen to indigenous tunes from home-grown bands like ‘The Beatles’ encouraging us to ‘let it be’.
These are the storied places of identity I contend with as a ‘son of the continent’, the Africas I live in, but not necessarily where I come from.
You know these lands I speak of – for they are like your own. But there is a difference. For instance, unlike your streets, ours are often broken and left in a state of brokenness; in the lands specifically defined by the nation-state called Nigeria, electricity supply is so epileptic that we scream in the pain of heightened suspense when our bulbs come to life. Our streets are littered with the promises of the normal in the siren songs of political candidates who do not know us; our farmers are slaves to totalitarian systems that promise ‘food for all’ as a pretext for cheap publicity and the perpetuation of the golden profit imperative.
Year after year, our governments and conventional religious institutions tell us things will get better, to keep calm and be positive; so we hold ourselves, calloused hand in calloused hand, awaiting something better…feeding our hope. But our unflattering landscapes moan under the weight of our hope. They whisper to us a shocking tune: they tell us that this is the time to lose hope.
So I am here to speak about hope, and – more specifically – losing it.
Sometime early this year I sat with strange looking men, who live and practice their art on the edges of social acceptability, in the borderlands of despair. As a clinical psychologist, I had quickly grown disenchanted with my practice, which seemed to me a commoditized, tongue-in-cheek, legitimization of modern civilization and its discontents – a way of entrenching the status quo by patronisingly pathologizing the exception…a way of taming possibility. Bursting with a restless quest for alternatives, I sought out these Yoruba traditional healers – to learn their stories, to understand what we have collectively forgotten, and perhaps to recognize faint tunes about my own journeys which I had not yet danced to.
In their strange abodes, I saw bottles, countless bottles with sticks and strange smells, dusty amulets hanging on cobwebbed threads, the horns of cows, and calabashes half-filled with viscous red palm oil and floating cowrie shells. They had all been trained informally, under the strict and sacred supervision of their fathers. They were shamans – conjurers of other worlds, scribes of songs only plants could sing. In one of my sessions, I asked the question that I had been struggling to articulate for some time: “What do you know”, I muttered through my interpreter, ashamed I could not speak my own language “that we in the West-inspired world seem to have forgotten? How can we live healthier lives?”
Here, in essence, is what he said to me: “You have forgotten that everything is alive, and you have rested in your faith that your pills will solve all your problems. Your modern projects have chased away the spirits – so we have to go deep into the forests to find them again. But you will find them again, you will find new ways of living when you find the courage to embrace the dark and lose your way.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the Africa I come from, the one I poetically and ironically identify with, is the Dark Continent – but this darkness is not the darkness of inadequacy and incompetence; it is the darkness of a mother’s womb, wherein the swoosh of blood and shadow conspire to create a new dance of life.
We do not recognize it, but our disenchantments are our greatest treasures, our most faithful allies.
By our disenchantments, I refer to our collective pain that is often borne by apparently negative, all-too-familiar feelings of despair, of disgust, anger, boredom, failure, irritation, rank cynicism, and depression. Most of the time, we are taught through our cultural conditioning that we must treat these feelings as militant viruses that must be spotted quickly and disarmed. We are told that there is something wrong with us if we become ‘too negative’, if we forget our place, if we cannot see that people are working hard to give us the ‘good life’, and we are offered easy ways we can deal with these feelings through pills, through the adoption of labels, through feeding off the glamour of celebrity culture, and, most of all, through the spectacle of hope.
But other traditions – such as those of the shamans I met – suggest to us that the universe is fragile, indeterminate, playful, arbitrary and connected; our pains are creative aspects of being, invitations to transform our experiences and emerge from the reality grids we are currently trapped in.
Across the world, there is an awakening to, and general yearning today for, these indigenous stories. Thanks to shamanic arts and local voices from the fringes, trans-local communities are seeing a revitalization of the feminine, a rejuvenation of our multidimensionality and a penetration of the politics of the normal.
On the continent of Africa, however, this ‘awakening’ has been slow; we still haven’t learned the wisdoms of our own traditions. We still ache for more universities, more foreign investment, and prouder stretches of paved roads divided by cute white lines, and boundaried by yellow ones. We have learned to pacify the revolutionary exception by speaking about poverty eradication, democratic education, and infinite growth.
For me, trying to eradicate poverty is like trying to get rid of a fever. In both cases, the real culprit often escapes detection. Poverty is a parenthetical remark in a sentence that is hidden between the lines – a singular story that has come to define how we see – and this is the modern idea that we are alone. It is this narrative that has spurned our anxious constructions of prosperity, of property, of health, of dominance over the earth, of superiority, of salvation, of virtue, and of the good life. At the moment, I think we might as well be grateful for poverty (and fevers!) – for without it, we would have thought all was well.
And, yes, where many Nigerians would see our dangerous roads as death-traps riddled with potholes, I and a few others prefer to see the potholes as life-portals riddled with roads, our unspoken resistance of the tyranny of asphalt.
Our disenchantments and failures are truly the portals to new unprecedented worlds; the only way we can power alternative futures is through the energy of disenchantment. We must pierce through the membranes of the familiar, of the approved – only by losing our coordinates and getting generously lost. Our hope for new landscapes will not lie in the centre of the circle to which everyone has turned, but beyond its circumference – in the wilds beyond our fences.
Koru: the trans-local network.
And so my life-nectar (who, though invited, could not make it with me for reasons I shall share with you later), Ej, myself, and friends from across the world came together with a dream of building a trans-local network of re-enchantment through disenchantment.
We called it Koru. Koru, derived the Maori of New Zealand, says ‘life is playful, reality is multiple, there are no facts…only stories – come to a field of magic!’ We ‘conceived’ Koru as a celebration of failure, as a way of tapping into our disenchantment with the industrial-academic-consumerist complex. Recognizing that the paradigmatic shift we need today are small changes in how we relate with each other, the co-creators of Koru are right now concretizing a beautiful experiment of localization.
Koru is an awakening from a cultural crisis – a call for cultural renewal, a call to transcend the linearity of conventional leadership and disciplinarity – a way of addressing the crises of hunger and schooling, the crises of people losing their jobs, the crises of poverty, the crises of GMOs, mental wellbeing and economic stability.
Koru hopes to connect what we call ‘transition tribes’ or small collectives together into the tapestry of a politics of disorientation. Using social networking platforms and other creative initiatives, we hope to spur the spontaneous evolution of decolonisation zones and help nurture a trans-local movement that undercuts the rationality of today’s systems. In Koru groups, a revolutionary forgetfulness is induced; we come together on the paths of our disenchantment, and celebrate those narratives as evocations of powerful possibilities lurking on the edges of our collective consciousness.
The next few months will prove critical in this attempt to paint new landscapes. I suspect that the global community is on the bleeding threshold of a painfully dramatic shift – spurred by earth changes and hotspot socio-political events. We may not have the luxury of conferences such as these in the foreseeable future.
Disenchantment spurs courage.
I suppose all this talk about wounds and disenchantments and future upheavals is very likely to leave a sour taste in your mouths. I am sorry. I am not particularly a stellar example of an absolute optimist; I am not here to tell you things will get ‘better’ – I actually hope they don’t. Neither am I here to tell you that things will get worse. But I do hope things get ‘different’. And that is the hope I have and share with my wife, with a growing number of friends, and with pockets of cultural resistance emerging around the world.
So let us hope…and despair…freely – knowing that the end of hope is not a hellish bottomless pit from whence evil proceeds, but a new field once stained by our fear, awaiting our courage. This is the story of Koru, this is the story of Africa, and this is the story of many of you – that through our scars we tell our own stories; we can paint a radical cultural renewal, and re-story our lands out of the effulgence and magnanimity of being.
I promised I would tell why Ej, my forever partner, was unable to join us. Some months after we received invitation to Byron Bay, we learned that we will soon be blessed with our first child. We were understandably thrilled about this news, and Ej had to commence ante-natal visits to the hospital. We hope the coming months will bring us a girl that hopefully bears little resemblance to me! I have however – in moments of reflection – worried about the kind of world we would be bringing her in to. I have also had epiphanic moments of clarity when it seemed I was able to sidestep the frozenness of the present and touch the future. In closing, I would like to gift you with words from those moments of subversive hope:
When my children alight upon terra firma, I will gather them close and teach them a conspiracy; I will whisper to them a subversive tale under the nodding approval of many moons: I will stare into their starry eyes, and tell them that the world is intensely abundant – so utterly full of everything we need, that we do not need to compete with each other to thrive.
I will tell them that there is more than enough for everyone – and that the idea that we need a money system based on scarcity is a ‘lie’. I will jump up and down – wildly – to get them to see that they are already ‘relevant’, that they do not need to be ‘pretty’, and that they do not need to be great or important or successful or famous to be accepted and embraced.
I will tell them that it is good to learn, but that learning could never be graded or certificated – and that in my time, we were forced to sit on chairs for hours to memorize what was approved for us to know – in the approved ways of knowing it. When they laugh at my misfortune, I will draw them close and tell them that everything is alive – and that we once used to treat the earth as a ‘resource’ and humans as nails on a wheel.
When they start to fall asleep, I will stroke their curly mulatto hair-locks, and sing to them about the bravery of the ant, the haughtiness of a rock, and the beauty of their mother. As I tuck them into bed, I will smile – and leave the fairies that attend them smiling in my wake.
Thank you very much for listening.