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Plumbing the depths of Africa

Published Sep 20, 2012

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Ben Okri is a celebrated author and poet who has won numerous literary awards, including a Booker Prize for Fiction for his 1991 novel, “The Famished Road”. But until last week, the Nigerian writer had never set foot in South Africa, despite numerous invitations.

On Wednesday, he described his visit as “almost a spiritual pleasure”.

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He was speaking at a press conference ahead of his Steve Biko Lecture at UCT.

The lecture was started by the Biko Foundation in 2000 as an opportunity to explore the link between the individual and society, our triumphs over inequality and to speak of the challenges and opportunities facing people of African descent.

Okri said he had always wanted to visit the country.

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“I have received many invitations… but I believe the way in which one enters the country, the land, is very important.

“The Steve Biko invitation is almost magical,” he said, adding that it was part of why he had accepted and because he had a “personal sensitivity” to South Africa’s “rich and troubled history”.

Having left Nigeria for London as a toddler, Okri returned to Lagos years later, where his exposure to civil war and the country’s culture – in which people see spirits – heavily influenced his writing, especially his fiction.

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Okri says one cannot separate African writing from the spirituality of its people because “we are more than just facts… and DNA… we’re more mysterious than that. Science can only explain one side of us, there is a big side of the moon of us that science cannot account for. That is why there will always be friction between the Western mind and African literature.”

His first novel, “ Flowers and Shadows”, was published when he was 21 and “ The Famished Road”, the first in a three-part series, secured him a place as one of the leading African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions.

“The Famished Road”, along with “ Songs of Enchantment” and “Infinite Riches”, chronicle the life of Azaro, an abiku or a spirit-child, as he navigates political and social life in an African country reminiscent of Okri’s recollections of war-torn Nigeria.

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Some of his poetry, essays and short stories include “ Incidents at the Shrine”, a collection of short stories published in 1986, “ A Mental Fight” published in 1999 and, more recently, “ A Time for New Dreams”, published last year, and a collection of poetry titled Wild, which was published this year.

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price, in introducing Okri before the lecture, compared him to authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.

Okri is not the first author to have been invited to give the Steve Biko Memorial lecture. Others have included Zakes Mda, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Alice Walker.

Nkosinathi Biko, the CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation, said it liked inviting writers because “writers are able to engage us on an issue without being part of the issues”.

In his lecture, titled “Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa”, Okri touched on Biko’s influence on the world and said he had asked fundamental questions “which will be relevant in 100 years’ time”.

Okri said had Biko been alive, he might have expressed concern about police reaction to the striking miners of Marikana, which resonated with the way the anti-apartheid activist died in police custody 35 years ago.

“We need Biko’s spirit now more than ever,” he said.

Of South Africa’s history, he said: “Your history has been the background music of our lives… in a sense your struggle highlighted to us all over the continent the meaning of justice… Sometimes you think the awful things in history happen to compel us to achieve the impossible, to challenge our idea of humanity…

“Your struggle, mirrored around the world, is one of the biggest struggles of our time… it poses and continues to pose the biggest questions facing humanity.”

Okri said no one would hand Africans the destiny they wanted and “freedom may turn out to be a very small part of a people.

The real story is what they do with it.”

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