Between Truths and Indulgences

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka on Africa's role in the slave trade and its consequences.

Prominent in interventions over ethnic cleansing in Darfur, civil wars from West Africa to the Congo, through references to internal race wars in Mauritania and Sudan and the yet unfinished business of internal slavery across the continent, that self-censored history of the African past has nonetheless obtruded itself as a recurring reference point, inescapable as Africa’s humanity struggles to understand why notions such as “independence,” “self-governance,” “liberation,” etc., have failed to alter attitudes between one ruling class and the ruled, between one “master race” and the subservient, be all such designated by class or race, as products of external origination or local in-breeding or self-perpetuation.

In a UNESCO address to mark the 200th year of the abolition of the slave trade in the Haiti, I returned to this theme, evoking the corruption of sacred African ritualism by slave suppliers and middlemen for the purpose of obliterating the memory of their own people as they were herded toward the various Points of No Return–from Badagry in Nigeria to the coast of Mauritania. This is what I wrote:

” … we know those who would be first-in-line (today) to stock the slave ships on the African coast. They are the spiritual descendants of those ancestors, inhuman yet superstitious, who not only waged wars to keep up the supply of their own kind across the Atlantic, but devised internal rituals to wipe of their memory, fearful that, if they died overseas, their ghosts would return and haunt them. They are scattered all over the continent and known by different names such as Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Macias Nguema, etc., etc. They are the unrepentant perpetuators of a dismal history that is again turning Africa into one vast slave encampment.”

Some progress has been made with “coming to terms” with historic truth. The season of strident denial appears to be fading, but a frame of mind still exists that resents truth’s imperatives. Yes, indeed, we can pursue truth for its own sake, bloodless, detached, ahistoric, divorced from current actualities, or we can seek truth as a key to understanding the present, and identifying the pointers it holds for the future. Thus, it sometimes appears that the main bone of contention is: To what end is truth evoked?