FACE ME, I BOOK YOU- WRITING AFRICA’S AGENCY IN THE AGE OF THE NETIZEN | Digital & Social Media | Social Media

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  At home one morning, my palm wine tapper, perched at the top of the tree where he harvested palm wine, called me on my mobile phone to inform me about his progress in getiing me my regular supply of plam wine. Palm wine tapper...mobile phone? Calling on his blackberry as he is perched on the tree tapping palm wine ? That incident described by Pius Adesanmi shocks him into reflecting on the cultural distance travelled by the palm wine tapper, his palm wine, the African continent where the wine is being tapped and himself as a scholar at the confluence of cultures, drinking palm wine and trying to understand its significance.
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  Face Me, I Book You: Writing Africa’s Agency in the Age of the NetizenPius Adesanmi (Keynote lecture delivered at the African Literature Association Dallas, April 2012. Sponsored by the Graduate Students’ Caucus of the ALA)I owe the title of this lecture partly to the Nigerian poet, Amatoritsero Ede, who recently“booked” a fellow Nigerian writer for “facing” him in a Facebook spat and, partly, to my favorite palm wine tapper in Isanlu, my hometown in Nigeria. Although Ede coined the brilliantexpression, “Face Me, I Book You”, I think the greater debt is owed to my tapper. I call him mytapper extremely cautiously because he also tapped wine for my father for decades, becomingmy tapper only after Dad passed on in 2007.My palm wine tapper needs no introduction to you. You know him. He is an eponymous subject,still very much part of whatever is left of the bucolic Africa “of proud warriors in ancestralsavannahs” which fired the imagination of David Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and others in the Négritude camp but irritated Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mpahlele, and other opponents of  Négritude’s “poupées noires” version of Africa to no end. You know him.You know him because his craft is ageless and has defied the frenzied and chaotic wind of  postmodernity blowing over Africa. Baba Elemu – that’s what we call a palm wine tapper inYoruba - is still alive and kicking in towns and villages all over West Africa. Firoze Manji of Pambazuka once busted my West African monopolist bubble by telling me that they also knowthe palm wine tapper in East Africa. You know him.You know him because the fruit of his labour episodically irrigates your tongue whenever summer research takes you to those parts of Africa where he still plies his trade. His black andrusty Raleigh bicycle, the ageless gourds and tired plastic containers attached to the rear end of the bicycle (carrier in Nigeria), all bubbling and foaming in the mouth, and the dark brown beltof reeds that has gathered mileage by taking his ilk up and down the trunk of palm trees sinceObatala got drunk in the mythic process of creation, are all iconicities of a certain version of Africa that will just not go away. You know him.In addition to this generic portrait, my own palmwine tapper is always a vital source of reconnection with my roots during summer vacations in my hometown. Connoisseurs of thematter at hand know only too well that nothing beats the early morning harvest, especially if itcomes undiluted with water. That is why the palmwine tapper has to beat even the most auroralfarmer to the belly of the bush. The palm tree knows how to reward the tapper who sets forth atdawn.  Whenever I’m home, the pact between my palmwine tapper and me ensures that he wakes me uparound 6 am on his way back from the bush with my own reserved portion of “the usual”. Isuspect that one of his kegs was named for me or I was named for it as Achebe was named for Victoria, Queen of England. He filled it faithfully every morning and his “akowe, mo ti gbe deo” (Book man, I’ve brought your wine) was my muezzin’s call to prayer. My mum wouldgrumble that I now wake up to the call of palm wine. Whatever happened to the Pius she raisedto wake up to the Angelus and morning mass?I did not hear my tapper’s call to prayer on this particular day in the summer of 2008. The jarringclang of TuFace Idibia’s “African Queen” – I’m sure you all know that song – was what wokeme up. One of my nieces in the village had been kind enough to set the said song as my ringtone.Ladies and gentlemen, please sing with me: “You are my African queen/the girl of mydreams/you take me where I’ve never been”. That was Idibia crooning in my cell phone. Whocould be calling that early in the morning? I concluded that it must be some silly friend back inCanada or the US who’d forgotten the time difference between Nigeria and North America. Ihissed and fumbled for my phone in the greyish darkness of the early morning and the voice thatcame from the other end made me jump up in bed.“Akowe!”“Akowe!”That was my palmwine tapper phoning me – wait for this – from the bush! As I later found outwhen he returned from that morning’s sortie, he was calling me from the neck of one of his trees.He wanted to let me know that delivery would be delayed that morning and I may not get myregular quantity of “the usual”. Funny things had happened to his gourds. I understood. In thevillage, strange spirits disguised as villagers sometimes climbed trees to help themselves to thefruit of another man’s labour. It was all part of the territory. I told him not to worry. I wouldaccept whatever he was able to supply.Then it hit me like a thunderbolt! The familiar and the strange. The uncanny. Try to imagine anelderly palm wine tapper atop a palm tree in the village, reaching for his pocket to fish out his blackberry in order to discuss the laws of supply and demand with a customer whose father hehad also served decades earlier under a totally different economy of meanings and you willunderstand why that event, in the summer of 2008, marked a turning point in my attempts tofashion new ways of listening to so many new things Africa seems to be saying about her historical quest for agency – a quest that has lasted the better part of the last five centuries .I also began to think seriously about how the new economies of agency emanating from Africa pose serious challenges to the work of the imagination in the postmodern age of social media andimmediate communication. In thinking along these lines, I haven’t been too far away from theepistemological challenges which confronted another thinker, another place, another time. I amtalking of Walter Benjamin’s attempt to grapple with the rise of the image – film and   photography – and its impact on the work of art in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in theAge of Mechanical Reproduction”.The Age of Mechanical Reproduction? That’s so dinosaur now! Perhaps you will agree with methat until a blackberry joined the arsenal of tools and implements that my palm wine tapper took atop his trees every morning in Isanlu, he belonged in a habitus of tradition governed by thosemytho-ritualisms of existence which has led to tensions in the arena of historical discourses andcounter-discourses about Africa’s agency. My palm wine tapper   sans his blackberry comes fromthe world we have come to associate with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart  - especially theworld as the people of Umuofia knew it before Obierika’s famous metaphor of the rope and theknife - or Birago Diop’s  Breath – where we must “listen to things more often than beings” inorder to hear the voice of fire, water, wind, and bush.This is the world of cosmic equilibrium to which the poet persona in Abioseh Nicol’s poem,“The Meaning of Africa”, returns after ironically escaping the world of the cold northern sunwhich gave my palm wine tapper his blackberry. You will recall that after loving thesophistication of Dakar, Accra, Cotonou, Lagos, Bathurst, Bissau, Freetown, and Libreville,Abioseh Nicol’s poet persona was advised to :  Go up-country, so they said,To see the real Africa.For whomsoever you may be,That is where you come from,Go for bush, inside the bush,You will find your hidden heart,Your mute ancestral spirit.The story of agency as it relates historically to Africa is easy to narrate from this point. Europeencountered this Africa of “mute ancestral spirits” and “hidden hearts”, called her horribleConradianly dark names, and proceeded to deny her agency through a series of historicalviolations and epistemic violence, which bear no rehashing here. As disparate and contested asthey have been, Africa’s and her diaspora’s epistemological responses to these violations have been fundamentally about the recovery of agency.We named these responses Négritude, pan-Africanism, cultural nationalism, decolonization, justto mention those. In the process of articulating these robust responses, Wole Soyinka and EskiaMpahlele may have gone after Senghor; Ali Mazrui and the Bolekaja troika may have gone after Wole Soyinka who, in turn, went after some of them as neo-Tarzanists; Mongo Beti may havegone after Camara Laye for publication of work not sufficiently anti-colonialist; and Obi Walimay have gone after English-language dead-enders, opening the door for Ngugi wa Thiong’o’sdecades-long crusade against Europhonists, I don’t think that anybody would quarrel with mysubmission that these tensions and disagreements are more or less what the Yoruba would call  the multiple roads leading to the same market. That market is the recovery of the self, recoveryof agency.In the stretch of essays and books from “Dimensions of African Discourse” to The African Imagination and, lately, The Négritude Moment  , Abiola Irele has done remarkable work mappingthe evolution of and the tensions inherent in Africa’s counterdiscourses of self-recovery. Writingfrom a different philosophical perspective in the essay, “African Modes of Self Writing”, AchilleMbembe takes a somewhat dismissive tack absent from Irele’s work but nonetheless identifiesthree historical events – slavery, colonization, apartheid – as fundamental to the two currents of discourses and processes of self-recovery that he identifies as central to the question of agency:Afro-radicalism and nativism.What is interesting for me – and I believe for numerous readers, critics, and followers of Mbembe – are the weaknesses he ascribes to both traditions of discourse in his attempts to problematize them. To Afro-radicalism, he ascribes a “baggage of instrumentalism and politicalopportunism” and to nativism he ascribes a “burden of the metaphysics of difference”. I wonder what my brother, Adeleke Adeeko, thinks of that particular critique nativism but I digress . My reading of Mbembe’s essay has shifted over the years from a fundamental disagreement withhis characterization and insufficient contextualization of Afro-radicalism and nativism to what Iam beginning to think are gaps and silences in his critique of the African imagination. Thesegaps and silences pertain to the very nature of Africa’s agency even within the ideological politics and the economies of self-recovery in the African text. For we must ask: what sort of agency does Africa really acquire in Négritude and cultural nationalism? I am talking about theversion of Africa which Chinua Achebe, Senghor, Birago Diop, Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono,and Abioseh Nicol rescued from Europe’s post-Enlightenment philosophers and colonialistwriters. Which agency does Africa acquire in the texts of these  shons of the shoil  ?Which agency does my palm wine tapper acquire as he moved from Conrad to Achebe? I think his transition is a move from being silent and unspeaking in one textual world to being rescued but spoken for in another textual world. One world gives him to us in body parts, capable only of dialects or incomprehensive babble, tapping a horrible alcoholic brew consumed by lazy nativesin irrational quantities, an activity he gets to perform only if he escapes poisonous snakes, lions,and hyenas. Another textual approach restores the cosmic harmony of his world, the ancestraldignity of his work, and treats his product, palm wine, as worthy of the elevated cultural registersand aesthetic apprehension that Africa’s violators would normally reserve for merlot, cabernetsauvignon, or pinot noir.The flora, fauna, and seasons of his world, especially the palm tree, also become subjects of elevated aesthetic treatment. If, as Adam Gopnik, the Canadian essayist for  The New Yorker  ,assures us in his Massey lectures, the Romantic imagination elevated winter and ice to art andaesthetics, Achebe and his contemporaries would do much more for the world of the palm winetapper in their attempt to fully restore his agency. Don’t forget that harmattan and even the whitefroth and foam of palm wine became worthy elements of metaphorical constructions.But the tapper is still spoken for in and by these texts. In at least one instance, he is upbraided for killing trees in his youthful exuberance. I am thinking here of a different version of the
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