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COMING TO TERMS WITH OGUN

Because of the fairly aggressive Christian evangelism of my immediate environment, I could not come to grips with Ogun as a god until I encountered the writings of Wole Soyinka. Soyinka�s assertive animism, especially his unabashed adoption of Ogun as a patron god, was what first fascinated me about his writings. This was where it all came together for me when I encountered those artful lines of his in Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier�s collection of Modern Poetry for Africa


 ï¿½And the mother prayed, Child,
may you never walk,
when the road waits, famished�

This poem had the flavour of a common animist prayer. Beyond its formal meaning, it provided self-representation for  those, like me, who were just getting to hear their mothers� voices  within the ambit of literature in the English language. The translation was from the Yoruba; but it could well have been from the Edo language. Of course, Soyinka�s poetry, especially Idanre and Other Poems was part of a burgeoning complex that included the Abiku themes in his and J.P Clark�s poetry, Cyprian Ekwensi�s novels for adolescents, especially An African Night�s Entertainment, The Leopard�s Claw, and Burning Grass; Chinua Achebe�s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, which were godsends to every Nigerian child in search of self-representation in books. They offered a handle, emotional and philosophical, for an African world view that bolstered the joy of having one�s own within the normal excitements of  the literary. So, admittedly, there was more to my reception of Soyinka�s art than love of literature. The fact that this literature was �our own�, that the world-view expressed  in the poems touched the extant animism of the popular imagination, had a lot to do with it. An immediate personal dimension, an added tension, to my excitement was that Soyinka met my need for engagement with the Ogun theme which had been such a mauling incident in my personal life. Thus it was not just that this was our own literature but that its metaphysics, its myth-making predisposition, spoke to my sense of the traditional culture as a common heritage. It turned my reaching for his work into a philosophical quest in the company of a creative writer in the manner in which, as I would come to agree, the encounter with the German coryphaeus, Friedrich Nietzsche, is an aesthetic quest in the company of a philosopher.

I would not be telling the whole truth if I do not admit that Soyinka�s avowed commitment to his patron god helped to wean me off the inhibitions that my Christian upbringing had made a part of my psychology. By reducing Ogun to the formalities of the gutemberg galaxy, that is, by setting things down, Soyinka removed from sheer dubiousness the particulars of even his own contentious re-descriptions of his patron deity in English. I was lucky, too, that about the time I encountered Soyinka�s poetry, his plays especially A Dance of the Forests, and novel, The Interpreters, I was discovering the works of Rousseau, Shelley, Thomas  Paine, and Bernard Shaw. After reading Arthur Koestler�s Act of Creation and later Bronowski�s Ascent of Man,  I needed to take a second look at the received Christian ecumenicals especially the Christian denigration of the traditional religions.  Within the general necessity to search for meaning in society, I found Soyinka�s rooting for Ogun  less problematic than the Christian insistence on denigrating whatever its adherents did not understand or were unable to fit within the message of the Bible. Take the simple matter of knowledge of herbs which fanatical adherents of Christianity find so fetishistic and reprehensible. Once upon a time in the University of Ibadan, every plant used to carry a plaque bearing the botanical names, in latinates, English and Nigerian indigenous languages. The practice bridged the distance between indigenous knowledge and Western science. That is, until the plaques decayed with the departments that once minded them. If, today, a botanist  were to go round seeking to know the indigenous names for many of the plants, he or she may be able to do so only with the help of herbalists whom Christians would send to hell before the first questions are asked. To my mind, this has always suggested the necessity to separate religion (fetish?) from science, and culture from religion, as a basis for testing reality. And talking about culture, it was from Wole Soyinka that I learnt to test the stories I had heard about the god of iron against the realities of my own autobiography and the history of my society. The idea that Ogun, god of iron, went to war with three gourds, one for palmwine (celebration?) one for sperm (creativity?) and the other for gunpowder(war?) was for me a mythical howler. It stood leg in shoe, however, with the myth that he had killed a leopard or tiger almost with bare hands or that after he defeated the enemies of his people, he turned upon them and decimated their ranks in  blood-drunkenness. The stories, as Soyinka has authenticated and audited them, whether from the standpoint of a creation myth in which Ogun is the path-maker who cleared the way from the gods to humankind, or the entrepreneur who brought the fire of civilization to lift humanity from barbarism, or the war-monger who protects the weak but could also devour them in sheer gore-mongering, was fascinating because of what he added to it.  For Soyinka, Ogun had become a twentieth Century deity, who superintended not only over iron foundries that gave rise to modern civilization but other scientific pursuits, beyond metallurgy, in electricity, electronics and related feats. In his metaphysics, Ogun is represented  as the modal archetype; not a god of either/or but a force capable of good and evil through whose feats civilizations may be explored, established or dissolved . While Ogun stood for the �overthrow of all conditions in which man is debased, enslaved, neglected� and made a contemptible being, he is presented as being also capable of mindless destructiveness of seismic proportions. To know this is to look out for that moment when even creativity and productivity can become pernicious to human life. But Soyinka�s narration, in this regard, was fairly cryptic. It left gaps that called for its core elements to be related to everyday experience within the bounds of verisimilitude. Otherwise, one could not be sure whether Soyinka�s commitment to his patron deity was mere metaphor or a matter of the highly ritualized sense in which my father, the motor mechanic, worshipped Ogun. Whatever his disposition, the truth is that Soyinka had sufficiently untied or extended Ogun from myth to bring a recognizable historical edge to the narrations of the god. Suddenly, if I was asked What is Ogun to you?  I would not immediately immerse myself in either my father�s devotion to the god or my grandfather�s distancing from the deity. I was obliged to imagine a third way that still cried for particularization not just as mythology required it, but as demanded by the scribal principle upon which my acquired education, in relation to Soyinka�s writings, was based. In particular, Soyinka�s reduction of the Ogun myth to a written, scribal, culture, made it possible for me to appreciate and subscribe to the historicity of Ogun, even in the very manner that I began to accept the grandness of the Jesus archetype of the New Testament Bible, whose teachings � especially doing unto others as you would have them do unto you and treating Jew and Gentile as being of one God - fascinated me beyond the hate-theories and ritualistic threats of hell-fire that most Christian preachers lived on. While I could not really identify with Soyinka�s rigorous commitment to Ogun, I found that learning about Ogun had removed the feeling I was beginning to have, that identifying with the local god was reprehensible or that I had to betray my own traditional culture in order to be a Christian. Given Soyinka�s unapologetic and confident assertions, I began to put Ogun in the context of a legitimate struggle by my own people to deal with the vagaries of nature and the circumstances of history. I began to squelch the  ghomids of my childhood. Soyinka�s re-visioning became quite a seductive handle with which to embark on a search for knowledge about the god. I was obliged to be a searcher, pouncing with gratitude, on his poems, plays, essays, and novels as a basis for investigating the links, vague and problematic as they appeared, that he drew between the traditional rituals and modern hermeneutic principles. No other personage, to my knowledge, had his kind of approach. Hence even before I ever met him Soyinka was close to my skin. He was too much part of the confrontation with the ghomids of my childhood to be taken and assessed without confronting  myself. Or better to say that Soyinka�s literary, cultural and political production became part of my lived experience in a manner that goes beyond mere accession to arcane concepts and neologisms. I had to read him against the prescriptions of those who talked about his works in terms of a cult of difficulty. As I too began to write poetry, groping in the throes of difficult questions that I could neither frame properly nor answer well, I found myself in a force-field, a territory that was literally crying to be conquered. In so far as Soyinka was mapping what there was, philosophically, to explore around the personage of Ogun, he was prince of that force-field of awareness. He was unraveling the byways and labyrinths that my mind encountered in the process of  trying to crack the riddle of the god.

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