An Africa-centred critique of Songs from the Temple: Part Two


EVEN as we mourn our hero, Cde Alexander Kanengoni, we need to be conscious of the fact that he has not left us forever.
Those who understand metaphysics will remember that death, as commonly understood, does not exist.
Cde Kanengoni is far from extinct.
Those who know him, not his corporeal body, will remember that as his body decomposes into other states of matter which are part of the earth, his real being (his soul) is with us in spirit and in truth.
We shall forever remember him for his physical and intellectual fight.
And this continuation of the analysis of Ngara’s anthology of poetry, Songs from the Temple, is equally in partial memory of Cde Kanengoni’s creative instinct, more so because it embraces his aesthetic and authorial nationalism.
To begin with, Ngara’s poems were inspired by the Zimbabwean war of national liberation which reached its peak in the years 1977-1979.
Naturally that critical moment in Zimbabwean history inspired artists to recreate the unfolding drama partly as the artists’ way of responding positively to the great events of the day and participating in the making of history and partly out of a desire to record for posterity one of the most important and memorable experiences of the people of Zimbabwe.
This is the war of liberation in which Cde Gora (Kanengoni) participated and on this score the poems in this anthology also pay homage to the sacrifice Cde Kanengoni and his fellow guerillas paid towards the total liberation of Zimbabwe.
Notice how Ngara, the artist, is rendering not only ideological, but also intellectual support to the struggle.
As Ngugi confirms: “A nation without a history has no claim to equality with other nations and the history of humankind has shown that no nation can rise to greatness without developing a rich literary tradition.”
In part one of this instalment, I made it clear that the temple Ngara refers to is the Great Zimbabwe Monuments, the citadel of the Zimbabwean history, culture and identity.
The amazing stone monument of Great Zimbabwe becomes a symbol which connects the consciousness of the people of Zimbabwe with the consciousness and cultural heritage of the rest of the continent, linking the distant past, the near past and the present as well as overcoming the barriers of time and space.
Consequently, in some of these poems, there is an attempt to link an Africa-centred consciousness with a cosmic consciousness and to recall the wisdom of the saying that blackness is not all.
Amilcar Cabral’s contention in Return to the Source that ‘national liberation is necessarily an act of culture’ and further that ‘the armed liberation struggle is not only a product of culture but also a determinant of culture’ is re-invoked in Ngara’s poems.
This collection of poetry celebrates the birth of a child of the armed liberation struggle; yet another product of creative culture.
The poet’s central aim seems to be the need to communicate urgently with his ancestors in search of lost paths.
This is demonstrated more in the ‘Prologue’, a poem that introduces the poet as a bundle of awareness and apprehensions.
That the persona is clear of the urgent need to talk to the shrine is quite apparent just as his apprehension is also registered.
The opening stanza betrays this mixed tone: “I have travelled far in search of the shrine/ I have seen many moons and many suns/On the wearisome journey/ Enduring all, my joints aching and my limbs wobbling/Till now when I stand without relief at the holy entrance/Afraid to knock on the gate of the sacred shrine.”
The persona demonstrates the artistic role that a poet can play recreating his/her people’s awareness of their long bestialised history and personality and of the urgent need to return to the source in search of the way.
Here the poet raises the question of the linkage between the distant past, the near past and the present which is a very important concern as far as the African experience goes, as it indeed is with reference to all other peoples and races who have been victims of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.
The predators and destroyers Ayi Kwei Armah correctly identifies, ensure that they capture the invaded world at two simultaneous levels: the economic and the cultural.
The ultimate target for the invaders is the economic base of the invaded.
Remember cultural zombies can neither create, nor defend their birthright.
Ngara underlines the need on the part of the poet to reclaim Africa’s violated past, to delink the chain of enslavement and then relink the chain of historical connections that positively bind African people in this poem symbolised by Great Zimbabwe and Ancient Egypt.
One way of ‘returning to the source’ is to restore African orature’s ethics and aesthetics to their rightful place as the yardsticks of our artistic creativity.
Among the orature devices commonly employed by Ngara are the following; proverbial figurative language, conversational discourse, paradox, balance, antithesis, rhetorical questions and purposeful repetition.
They all help to reclaim what was destroyed by four and a half centuries of slavery, a century of direct occupation (colonialism) and a new wave of neo-colonialism.
In ‘The Prologue’ the persona dances in commemoration of the achievements of Great Zimbabwe as embodied in the Monuments which are an echo of earlier civilisation in Ancient Egypt.
The persona is aware of the cumulative damage inflicted by the five and a half centuries of foreign domination resulting in the loss of the drum.
The persona’s apprehension comes from a sense of loss of that which gives him identity, the drum: “What if they ask where’s your drum?/ What if they ask where’s your flute?/What if they want to test my hand on the mbira?”
In African culture, the drum occupies a canonical position as a central symbol which holds a whole perspective.
One cannot easily separate it from the people.
It carries the weight of their ideological position.
Hence the voice of the persona announcing his entry and expressing his doubts about who to approach, what message to deliver and what method best serves the purpose all indicate mixed tone of loss and sense of resurgence.
It is clear that the artist is not one big united consciousness, but a combination of the various fragments of history.
He has been student to too many tutors, including of course foreign parenting as well as being the student of the drum, the African drum.
You can sympathise with the bruised persona of double heritage groping to find his true self.
We gather strength and hope in the realisation that the artist gathers courage and declares his entry to offer his message to the shrine all the same.


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