A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Ben Okri: A Griot Whose Resonating Voice Rouses Consciousness
By Segun Oguntola
I suspect that except for hastily mentioning Shaka Zulu, the majority of us would be unable to name any world-historical personages from Africa's past.

How could we name world-historical personages from the African past? Our ancestors were customarily oral. And our spiritual-others (gods), pantheons and cultural artifacts--- that repertoire of our existence, which embodies our cosmogony-cosmology, tells our history, testifies to our glorious civilization, and with which we would have been able to readily reconstruct our glorious past--- were plundered, hoarded and shipped off to Europe.

Many of them would later show up in museums in Europe and North America. Those who altered our (Africa's) destiny--- re-wrote our history, stole millions of our people and shipped them to strange lands across the Atlantic where they were bled for material gain and ultimately the development of their society; colonized the rest of our people left on the continent, exploited (and continue to exploit) our mineral, natural and human resources; lied to the modern world that our people had nothing worthy of praise, that we were merely "barbarians", and thus denied the world (the human family) the knowledge of Africa's authentic pre-colonial history--- an important phase of human history, falsified it, and thereby ultimately causing and sustaining ignorance and bigotry that is plaguing the human family today, undermining cross-cultural understanding and tolerance . . . those who did these took meticulous, demonic measures to ensure that we do not recall the names of our ancestors, our ancient warriors, our ancient heroes and heroines. So, it is not shocking that we are today unable to readily identify an African Confucius, Buddha or Shakespeare.

No need to include Napoleon: we know he is a white Shaka!

Our ignorance of our African past, of our world-historical personages, ancient warriors, ancient heroes and heroines, artist, thinkers, historians, astronomer, healers, engineers, . . . because of historical forces beyond our control, is forgivable. What cannot be forgiven, for it undermines our knowledge of ourselves--- our history, heritage, failures, triumphs, and, ultimately, undermining our self-content, our happiness--- is our ignorance of them today!

Perhaps the majority of us today are familiar with the names, work, and thoughts of these, you might say, usual suspects: Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Alex Hailey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Randall Robinson, Amos Tutuola, Cheik Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Christopher Okigbo, Naguib Mahfouz, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Bessie Head, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Nadine Gordimer Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Thomas Mapfumo, Remmy Ongala, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln . . .

But how many of us are familiar with the name, Ben Okri--- that child of Africa who has, rightly, been called and recognized as one of the greatest writers alive today? How many of us are familiar with his literary universe--- that wondrous world of Thought luminous with dazzling intellect, energized with passion for the freedom and well-being of our peoples, and of all peoples. A wondrous world of Thought where Wisdom--- manifest in printed words; in visual and animate prose--- stares; smiles at the reader?

We too often are not conscious of and therefore do not appreciate our flag-bearers, our warriors who today are devotedly and fearlessly, even when their well-being is jeopardized, resolutely bearing the Cross of our historical and racial burden, struggling for our freedom in particular; Universal Freedom in general.

Ben Okri is one of those writers alive today who aim to, and do rouse consciousness; impart knowledge. He is one of those writers whose work is of cosmic proportion. He is famous in Europe--- especially in Great Britain, but less-known here in the United States; and I suspect that we (Africans) do not constitute the majority of those who are familiar with and read his work here.

To read his work is to take flight into a wondrous realm of Thought: a realm where the reader is sure to meet Wisdom and consequently begin to realize that the human world is one of endless possibilities, that the capacity for endless possibilities is the one and only true human nature; a realm where the reader begin to realize that Universal Love (Freedom) is and must be the ultimate goal of human existence; a realm where one will hear the insistent echo of the divine, visceral cry that cross-cultural understanding must be truly realized. Any wonder it was thought (written) that: 'Okri's writing is hailed for its intelligence, tenderness, poeticism and luminosity Okri is an important writer because of the startling clarity and determination of his humanism' (Financial Times).

Ben Okri is a writer we should read, and diligently so. He is one of the modern griots Africa sent to the world to hauntingly wail her story and that of her denied children who are today scattered all over the world; to wail and keep wailing for Africa's true liberation both from within and from without; to wail and keep wailing until we heed his central message that Universal Love is the destiny of the human family.Although the uplifting of Africa--- mind, body and soul--- is the focus and primary concern of Ben's creative energy, his work transcends African issues. In its totality, the uplifting of the mind, body and soul of the entire human family is his ultimate goal. Consequently, his work is thoughtfully universal: the cerebral emancipation, through the potent, transforming power of thought, of humanity from the jungle existence it is in today; the realization of the ultimate goal: Universal Love in the human world, for the human family is One, with intertwined destiny (ies), (co) habiting one home--- planet earth. Essentially meaning that: we have no choice but to truly love and care for one another, regardless of race, or creed. I concur that this is the destiny of the human family! We can only delay, but cannot negate it!

The trans-African, universal dimension of Ben's work is most evident in his brilliant, sagacious non-fiction volume of essay, A Way of Being Free. (Please read this work! Not once, but twice--- the most rewarding way to read literature.)

The universality of his work explains why his work--- the story of Azaro, the spirit-child, and his earthly world, which has thus far been narrated in a trio of novels: The Famished Road, The Songs of Enchantment, Infinite Riches--- has been called: "world-vision or world-book" (Scotsman---Scotland's National Newspaper). This well-deserved accolade is not surprising, for Ben is brilliantly leading the way, luminously lightning the path to Knowledge and Universal Love so that all who care to follow, and persevere, shall have everlasting life in cross-cultural understanding! His work explores, among many others, the crucial themes: What really is that phenomenon (enigma) called human being? How does a society comes into being and sustains itself? What is the role of a people's cosmogony-cosmology--- the story a People tells Itself on existence--- in the development or underdevelopment of its society? (Perhaps) there is (are) a Reality that is beyond the comprehension of human senses?

No wonder The Economic Forum honored him by presenting him the Crystal Award for outstanding contribution to the Arts and to cross-cultural understanding. And the University of Westminster awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Literature. He won the 1991 Booker Prize--- Great Britain's most prestigious literary award--- for The Famished Road, and has won several other literary awards: the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize and the Premio Grinzane Cavour Prize.

One anticipates the future announcement that is sure to come from Stockholm! And, of course, one wonders why thus far the Africana Program at New York University has not invited Ben to a residency at New York University, as it did Wole Soyinka and Salif Keita, and eagerly anticipates its doing so. What a divine opportunity that would be for New York's literary community to partake of the brilliance of this genius of our time!

What a Gem You are, Ben Okri! We celebrate you for being yet another African pioneer; we celebrate you for, as Cassandra Wilson says on Run The VooDoo Down, walking all the way from Minna, high john in your pocket and mud on your shoes, to London just to spread the news, tell the story, so that the world might come to know. I agree with Sade Adu that

Wisdom is the flame
Wisdom is the brave warrior
Who will carry us into the sun?

Without an ever-alert consciousness, there is no knowledge; without knowledge, there is no wisdom; without wisdom, there is no vision; without vision, there is no true emancipation and progress. For lack of vision my people perish, goes the saying. May my people not perish!

The last line in Ben Okri's poem, An African Elegy, in his volume of poems of the same name, reads: "Destiny is our friend." I agree!

I need not say more!


Many acquaintances and friends to whom I had mentioned Ben's name and given one of his work, The Famished Road, often says to me that it is hard to read. I empathize with that sentiment! I, too, initially had a difficult time reading it. The key to unlocking the (seemingly) enigmatic nature of Ben's work is this: his cosmology--- the cosmogony-cosmology which informs and influences his profound perception of the world and consequently, his thoughts on existence as manifested in his work both in form (narrative voice/ prose-style) and content (theme(s)).
The reader who perseveres is sure to be rewarded! . . . I suggest that the reader begins her/his exploration of Ben's luminous, enchanting literary universe by first visiting his non-fiction realm, A Way of Being Free, and proceed to the fiction, Dangerous Love--- his lighter novel, and on to his collection of short stories--- Stars of the New Curfew, Incidents at the Shrine.
Gems, both of them! Think of the brilliance of and what Notes from the Underground is to Dostoevsky's larger novels. . . . The reader can then proceed on to Ben's more challenging fictional realm where the reader will be told the ongoing story of Azaro--- the spirit-child--- in, as I mentioned before, these titles: The Famished Road; Songs of Enchantment; Infinite Riches. . . .
And there is his wonderful realm of poems: An African Elegy, Mental Fight--- the latter of which I am yet to visit. . . .

Some of Ben Okri's literature is available at most Barnes & Nobles Bookstores, Strands Bookstore, St. Marks Bookstore, East Village Bookstore (all three in New York City), Cody's Bookstore (Berkeley, California), and at many fine (literary) bookstores. Most are available directly from the publisher of most of his work: Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books Ltd., Great Britain. A convenient order-form addressed to the following, is usually printed at the end of his literature:

Littlehampton Book Services
Cash Sales Department L.
14 Eldon Way, Lineside Industrial Estate
West Sussex BN17 7HE
telephone 01903 721596; facsimile 01903 730914

Notes on Contributor:Segun Oguntola is a writer resident in Harlem, New York and author of In Celebration of All that Bothers Us.

Click here to read a review of The Famished Road

This article originally ran in the July 2001 issue of The AFRican