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Literature and the supernatural



I will give a quick example of three books of fiction to show the use of the supernatural in African literature. These books in question concern themselves with forces of the supernatural because some characters in these stories cause injury to happen to other people without necessarily using physical and visible instruments. This is done in pursuit of revenge and evenness. In Cyprian Ekwensi’s great novel, Burning Grass, there is a delicious and delicate use of the supernatural called the sokugo or the wandering charm. The story revolves around a series of adventures involving the Fulani in the Sunsaye family, particularly Mai Sunsaye, head of the household and chief of Dokan Toro. Mai Sunsaye rescues a slave-girl, Fatimeh, from the servant of a rough man known as Shehu. The appearance of Fatimeh in the family leads to a series of unfortunate incidents which precipitate the adventures in the rest of the novel, leading Shaitu, Mai Sunsaye’s wife, to view her as bad luck. First, Rikku, Mai Sunsaye’s youngest son falls in love with Fatimeh who is much older than he is. Hodio, Rikku’s brother and Mai Sunsaye’s second son, however, runs away with Fatimeh, leaving Rikku love-sick. Mai Sunsaye vows to do everything in his power to make Rikku feel better. Around the same time, Mai Sunsaye’s rival to the throne of Dokan Toro, Ardo, casts a spell on Mai Sunsaye, by the aid of a talisman bound to the leg of a “grey-breasted” and “red-toed” dove. Mai Sunsaye sees the dove and starts to follow it; first by wanting to see the object on the dove’s foot, then as he gets closer, the dove flies to other trees and he follows it. Mai Sunsaye pursues the dove forever and gradually loses his mind in the process. It turns out that this is a trick on the part of Ardo who, while Mai is absent, attacks the family. The spell, known as the “sokugo” or the “wandering sickness” is a magic charm that “turned studious men into wanderers, that led husbands to desert their wives, Chiefs their people, and sane men their reason.” Under the sway of this wanderlust-inspiring spell, Mai Sunsaye crosses paths with Jalla, his oldest son, and other characters, including Baba, an enigmatic old man that he meets in the deserted village of Old Chanka (evacuated by British colonial authorities, with inhabitants relocated to New Chanka, due to an outbreak of the tse-tse fly, the vector of the sleeping sickness.) Sunsaye also meets a legendary and mysterious herds-woman known as Ligu, known also as “the champion cattle-herder.” At the close of the novel, most of the family is reunited once more in Dokan Toro, and Mai Sunsaye finally dies from the strenuous tolls of his adventures. As Sunsaye went under this spell, he is not aware of the spell. Following the bird’s movement, he is deserting his sense of reason, his wife, his children and his people. When asked about his wandering, Sunsaye may actually tell anyone that he is in search of Fatimeh, the Kanuri slave girl whom he saved from her masters. When Mai Sunsaye finds Fatimeh, it is she who realises that Mai Sunsaye has the sokugo. She gives him some magic portion to cure him from the disease. Cyprian Ekwensi grew up in the northern part of Nigeria and as a result of his contact with the Fulani, he was able to appreciate their culture which he portrays through his first novel titled The Burning Grass. The Burning Grass is one of his best novels. It was published in1962 in the African writer’s Series Collection. In Wonder Guchu’s My Children, My Home (2007), there are individual desires to preserve and perpetuate life’s glory not through public everyday means but through extra realist actions. The supernatural lurks in the Zimbabwean countryside. Although in My Children, My Home, Guchu even uses a simpler English language, he casts a brooding darkness over his stories and characters because he puts them under the influence of the unseen and the indefinable. In the short story called ‘Hold It till Dawn,’ a very old and sickly man is failing to die besides being very sick. Every time he ‘dies,’ his people prepare him for burial but he wakes up immediately to ask for water or to be accompanied to the toilet! As the story begins, he has died and woken up a record three times and the mourners wait for him ‘to die forever.’ Later, it is discovered that in his life, he had ‘trapped death’ by setting an animal trap in a cave up the hills as a way of prolonging his life. The narrator, who is the Old man’s nephew and others search for the trap and offset it and the old man immediately dies indeed and forever. This story refers to the improbable; man having power to extend life beyond the permission of God! He has even overdone it because he has ‘layers of old skin that had old and new skins’ and his back is peeling. He has also become a curse to his family because he is refusing to join the ancestors. In the other story called ‘To settle a Dispute,’ a rural community gather to celebrate the new school they have built. A man wants the school to be named after his family because the school is apparently built on his family land. The meeting rejects the proposal, insisting that the new secondary school should take the name of the adjacent primary school. The losing man becomes angry and immediately a storm, out of season, rises and snatches away roofs from the school buildings in full view of everybody. The school never takes off because the destruction is fundamental and final. It is apparent that the man’s anger transforms into the destructive storm even when the aggrieved man does not claim to have caused the storm. It is a common thing in the African society that when some people are angered or aggrieved, they have the ability to cause storms or lightning or car accidents against their rivals through supernatural forces. In ‘Garikayi’ the founding headmaster of a ‘far away’ rural school is so connected to his school that he does not accept directions and orders from the regional educational offices. The school is dilapidated and teachers do not want to spend their precious lives in such a ‘backward’ place. The new teacher Aaron Mpandi is deployed to the school but the old headmaster will not have it. The new teacher must go back to the authorities and he keeps a snake called Garikayi up the roof trusses. He says if he dies, Garikayi will take care of the school. The new teacher eventually runs back to town so that he is deployed to a totally different school. It is important to note that right from the moment the new teacher arrives in this school, he feels that there is something very odd about it. The School is ‘deep in the jungle’, it has ‘haggard buildings fading in the sun’, the yard ‘is strewn with cow dung and donkey droppings’ and the headmaster is ‘an old man who was walking with a limp.’ From these horrid images, one can see that the stage is actually set for strange happenings. The headmaster does not depend on the rules and regulations of the schools authorities in the country but on the protection and bidding of the snake, Garikayi, up the roof. The headmaster must be having unstated grievances against the schools authorities which he is so disabled to discuss with them or to deal with. In most cases, these people resort to spiritual methods and witchcraft when other avenues of dealing with these misunderstandings are sealed. There are usually underlying tensions and conflicts within such communities coming from misunderstanding over the distribution of family wealth or some other dispute. That the headmaster keeps a whole snake is interesting. It is known that witches operate with and sometimes disguise themselves with animals like owls, snakes, baboons and others and these are called ‘familiars.’ Familiars are said to be reared like pets and in some homesteads, they are kept in places like granaries. Shamans believe that all things and beings, particularly animals, were possessed of a spirit or soul, and that one could attract parts of their soul (and thus their spirit and powers) by mimicry. As witchcraft evolved, it is not surprising, then, that witches should have adopted certain animals as their own link to nature, spirits and deities. Many modern witches are said to be still using animals when working with magic, utilising their primordial instincts and psychic abilities to attune with nature and deities. In the short story called ‘On the Road to Damuscus,’ from a book by Monica Cheru called Chivi Sunsets: Not for Scientists(2009), a new teacher, a Mr. Muti is very keen on corporal punishment, hitting his pupils for every mistake they make in a Zimbabwean school. The rural community is very annoyed but the proud Mr. Muti continues to brutalise his pupils. One day, as the incorrigible teacher cycles to his school from the nearby shops, where he is apparently in love with one of the shopkeepers, a whole baboon appears onto his carrier. The cycles on, heavily terrified. The baboon asks him: “Mr. Muti, why do you beat the children so?” and he does not reply because he is shell shocked. The baboon continues: “To make them pass? Should they fail, what concern is it of yours, as the children do not belong to you? Anyway, since you started your floggings, how many of them have passed? Ponder on it my wise fellow.” Having delivered his message, the baboon nimbly jumps off the bike and saunters into the tall grass on the roadside. Eventually Mr. Muti flees the school and in his next school he never raises his hand to beat up any school child. He has been changed indeed by this ‘Road to Damascus’ event. Just like in Guchu’s ‘Garikayi’, this story uses a familiar in the form of a baboon. Equally, where there is a conflict and circumstances do not allow it for people to meet and converse, such things happen. The community considers Mr. Muti way above admonishing because he is far more educated and ‘sophisticated. In fact, before the baboon incident, other familiars like the bat and the owl had been sent to him but he did not heed. In yet another story by Monica Cheru called ‘Judgement,’ another teacher, ‘Madam Rachael, was more hoity-toity than all her peers put together. She had no time for the villagers who offended her delicate senses with the smell of their sweat.’ Just like Mr. Muti, she assaults her pupils viciously and the community watches helplessly until one day she nearly flogs an orphaned girl to death for a crime she has not apparently committed. The girl reports to her grandmother who visits the young teacher to find out more about the case. The old lady is holding the poor girl in one hand and a lit paraffin lamp in the noon day sun! On getting to Madam Rachel, the old lady is told: “If you don’t want your child beaten then keep her at home. Here we will discipline her…” The old woman gives the educated young lady a warning: “Very well, I will go. In future, remember that I gave you a chance to apologize and you spat in my face.” The old lady humbly leaves with her granddaughter in tow. Lo and behold, the next day the teacher discovers that: her skull was completely hairless and was just one massive burn scar! She gives a shrill scream and grabs the shrivelled mess. Then she actually smells the strong odour of burnt hair! The story itself ends with: If you see a female teacher wearing a wig and looking glum, ask if her name is Rachael…. In this story the old woman lights a lamp in broad daylight, maybe symbolising the light that she wants to transmit to the young lady teachers’ beautiful hair. First, the teacher is not prepared to listen to an old woman from the village because she is modern and knows it all. From the point of view of the old woman, the teacher needs light to see even in broad daylight. She is too hidden in the darkness of her book education to see the reality that she should not abuse other people’s children. In these three books, which belong to the supernatural genre, there is representation that combines fantasy and horror. It all deals with the social and psychological anxieties surrounding the unknowns of its time. While the natural world can appear to some extent knowable, the supernatural world remains unknowable and cannot be apprehended. This is common in many African communities.  

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