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Author: Kofi Anyidoho
Title: Words of power & power of words: authority, dissent and the verbal code
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Words of power & power of words: authority, dissent and the verbal code
Kofi Anyidoho

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 1, 1991
Author Biography: Kofi Anyidoho, a poet and literary critic, is a member of the Department of English, University of Ghana-Legon, and serves on the Management Committee of The W. E. B. DuBois Memorial Center for Pan African Culture, Accra.

WORDS OF POWER & POWER OF WORDS: Authority, Dissent and the Verbal Code


A. An African country with strict censorship laws sends several "dissidents"/writers to prison. The manuscript of a collection of poems is passed by the Censorship Board and is put out by a local publisher. Readers familiar with the prevailing climate of political repression quickly observe that the work in fact contains poems with possibly "subversive" readings, in spite of the poet's own direction that his work be read and interpreted as purely creative responses to nothing more than folk mythology and its explanations of a natural disaster that had occurred some three decades earlier.

B. Donatus Nwoga demonstrates that at least one type of satire in Igbo folk poetry does not operate evasively, far away from the corridors of power, as is [often] typical of written tradition:

It would appear that political satire in Igbo songs is not designed as a reflective lamenting exercise but a direct instrument of dialogue ... The songs are used when it is expected that the audience contains those who are involved in the activity of politics. The folk poet tells it like it is to the person who is concerned. [1]

The Abigbo performers are so forthright in their poetic attacks that they often preface their public performances by announcing to their audience that those who are not sure of their recent conduct may do well to leave before their performance begins. [2]

C. "The banning of politically suggestive songs from radio and public performances did not mean that the artists themselves were in political trouble. Neither did it mean that artistic creativity had been stifled out of existence. It only meant that the artist, when composing a work, had to be aware of the multiple meanings the spoken word had acquired in the circumstances. The very power of the spoken word had deepened the mystery surrounding Nkrumah's rhetorical wit, thereby strengthening and embellishing his charisma. However, in Nkrumah's case, the folk poetry which had helped create the image of a powerful leader, became a mechanism for weakening the image, destroying the myth. Kwame Nkrumah had requested folk poetry to reinforce mysticism and invincibility, but he had been unaware of the multiple significance of the traditional weapon he wielded." [3]

D. "Probably the most powerful weapon employed by the oral poet is the use of metaphor and proverbial language. The poet-seer who foretells of Sundiata's birth and greatness [4] understands the danger of 'plain talk,' so he weaves the truth into a web of codes, leaving everyone to decode it and thereby share in the responsibility of its public meaning." [5]

E. In a certain African country, "an academic don" from the local University runs regular columns in national/government-owned newspapers, and by adopting a satirical form and style based on the framework and verbal strategies of traditional storytelling and gossip, he has gotten away with statements, "insinuations", and implications that would have put any conventional journalist out of work, if not behind bars. In fact, the columns become so popular that, for fear of public reaction, governments find it safer to let them run than try to suppress their publication.

F. In the Faculty Club of an African university, a group of younger scholars engage in heated debate over a question tossed up by an apparently drunken colleague: "Can you believe these retarded editors calling themselves senior scholars? They have rejected my paper. And I worked so hard on the damned stuff. They claim it is not scholarly enough because I failed to demonstrate knowledge of previous scholarship in the field. In the meantime all the previous scholarship I know of is written by outsiders who obviously know little about the hell that's going down here. They don't seem to be aware of what the Igbo elders say, that knowledge is like a goat skin bag; every man carries his own. Now, you tell me, who is the real scholar, one whose work is nothing but quotations from Plato to Marx and Engels, or one who argues a valid point with reference to African proverbial thought and wisdom?"

G. Kobena Eyi Acquah recalls for us the episode of a Gold Coast man who was arrested during World War II by the British colonial administration and charged with heresy for daring to suggest publicly that Hitler was going to win the war. In his defence before the court the man declared: "Ah, if I talk say Hikla go win the war, na ma mauf be gun?" The court was compelled to set him free. [6]

All these situations/observations raise several issues worth exploring in some detail. There is the general question of how certain individuals/groups may claim, maintain, and defend their right to freedom of thought and expression even in a potentially hostile political or religious climate.

How does the artist, for instance, navigate sensitive and dissenting opinion around the menace of political and religious repression? In particular, what verbal and other strategies may the artist use to guarantee or safeguard "poetic license"?

To what extent can the verbal code be tied to intended and/or anticipated meanings by the author/public?

What are the relative roles, if any, of author, circumstance, and public opinion, in assigning "meanings"/"readings" to a text, especially in a situation of conflicts of interest or changes in social context? And to what extent may public readings of "subversive" meanings into a verbal code endanger the rights and perhaps life of the author, especially in situations of author vulnerability to political or religious persecution?

In what ways does censorship serve to augment the power of dissenting opinion? To what extent can we say that not only dissent, but also sycophancy may contribute to the undermining of an oppressive rule? What is the role, if any, of silence in shaping the meaning of reaction to a regime repressive to freedom of thought and expression? How do we rate the relative status of political, social, economic, or religious authority as opposed to the special power endowed by the gift of words? To what extent may these different and often conflicting authorities be seen as interdependent, defining and being defined by each other? Can we still speak of a sacred/mystical power of verbal art in Africa? What is the nature of authority in the scholarly tradition in Africa? What are the relative merits and shortcomings of deference to established scholarly (often foreign) opinion, and reliance on "native" or "traditional/popular" African wisdom such as is encoded in proverbs, song texts, and other forms of verbal lore?

1. Donatus I. Nwoga, "Political Satire in Igbo Folk Poetry," paper presented at the 2nd Ibadan Annual African Literature Conference, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

2. Kofi Anyidoho, "Mythmaker and Mythbreaker: The Oral Poet as Earwitness," in Eileen Julien et al., eds., African Literature in its Social and Political Dimensions (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1986), 5-14.

3. Kwesi Yankah, "The Making and Breaking of Kwame Nkrumah: The Role of Oral Poetry," in Eileen Julien, et al., eds., African Literature in its Social and Political Dimensions (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1986), 15-21.

4. D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, 5.

5. Anyidoho, 8.

6. Kobena Eyi Acquah, "Na My Mouth Be Gun?" West Africa, May 12, 1986.

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