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Author: Philip Graham
Title: Our own house of Mbari
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Our own house of Mbari
Philip Graham

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 5-6, 1991
Author Biography: Philip Graham, a writer, teaches in the Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A Parallel World, a non-fiction memoir of Africa written with Alma Gottlieb, is to appear in 1992.

Our Own House of Mbari [1]


For ten days in March 1990 I was the American guest at the Abidjan Writers' Workshop, the first writers' conference in Côte d'Ivoire's history, and by chance my visit coincided with another—and tumultuous—first: widespread, organized demonstrations and strikes against that West African country's thirty years of one-party rule. When I arrived, signs of recent violent protests were everywhere: as I was driven along the main road leading from the airport to downtown Abidjan, I saw blocks of boarded-up businesses, their smashed windows victims of demonstrators' rocks, and clusters of soldiers parked at every main thoroughfare, silently daring any new trouble.

This was a different Côte d'Ivoire than the one I had known when I'd lived here in a small rural village in 1979-80, and again in 1985, accompanying my wife as she conducted her anthropological research. I'd been struck by the patience of the people in the face of a growing corruption that affected even the pettiest official. But in recent years the government's mismanagement had become difficult to ignore: the already inadequate health care system had deteriorated further, foreign debt payments had been suspended, and the price paid for farmers' cash crops had collapsed. When it was disclosed that President Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who had ordered the construction of the world's largest cathedral in his hometown, was bankrolling the project with $180 million of his "private" funds, the country's suppressed resentments and outrage overflowed into what became known as "La Crise"—the Crisis.

The atmosphere in the country affected the writers' conference, of course. Some of the Ivoirian writers—Jean-Marie Adiaffi, Jérôme Carlos—were well known for their critical views of the government, and there was an exciting sense of borders being tested. The first sessions took place at an ocean resort in the nearby town of Grand-Bassam. There, among the long, swaying leaves of palm trees and the pervasive crash of surf on the beach, our conference might have seemed far from the country's troubles—except for the occasional appearance of pairs of gendarmes, patrolling suspiciously along the beach, which only briefly silenced the angry words the Ivorians couldn't contain.

Jérôme Carlos, delivering one of the opening papers, electrified the audience with a critique of West African society in general that everyone knew was also a critique of Ivoirian society in specific: the crisis of poor schools and lack of democracy, corruption and the excessive influence of the military. "All these injustices prevent the flourishing of a West African literary culture," he declared, "and we writers must confront them through our writing."

Bernard Dadié, the father of Ivoirian literature and a former Minister of Culture, was a quiet, diplomatic presence at the conference—he was greatly respected for quietly quitting his Minister's post when, it was whispered, he could not longer distance himself from the corruption of the regime. When he said, during a session titled The Joys and Pains of Creativity, "The writer is a free man; without liberty there is no writer—he must know how to take risks," his seemingly innocent words were politically charged.

Yet an invisible line was crossed during the taping of a radio interview that first day. Jérôme Carlos and Tiburce Koffi answered an unpromising question about the role of literature with impassioned speeches as Jean-Marie Adiaffi looked on approvingly. Railing against the current state of the country, and the need for writers to challenge those conditions, the two men grew more enraged as they spoke, and I worried what might happen to them for such candor. But the interviewer had stopped listening—he knew none of this could possibly be broadcast.

Finally he turned to me, hoping to salvage his assignment. "Is literature necessarily political?" he asked.

"Of course," I replied, grateful for the opportunity to support Carlos and Tiburce, "every writer has to follow a vision, even if it contradicts the current dogma of the day, whatever that dogma might be—religious, scientific, social, political."

The interviewer sighed, thanked us, and packed up his equipment with a technician. As expected, my words and most of the rest of the interview were censored, with only the most innocuous sliver being broadcast the next morning. This was nothing new for my friends as the conference, but it was a first for me, and I felt almost exhilarated by this muzzling—until I remembered my outrage at the censorship guidelines then being imposed on the National Endowment for the Arts by right-wing cynics in my own country.

Many of the Ivoirian journalists who covered the conference were also vocal in their opposition to the one-party system, though they mainly expressed their opinions privately. Earlier that month, some of them had watched their offices as an angry crowd threatened to burn down the building of the newspaper where they worked. Now, weeks later, they still seemed shaken by the ironies of agreeing with a mob that had threatened their lives. But as employees of the state-run media, they were unable to write honestly about the political situation. "La Crise" had to be filtered through the government's eyes: one night the head of the banking employee's union appeared on the television news, her face stiff with fear as she urged all striking union members to return to work the next morning; another night, twenty minutes were devoted to the staged pro-government rally of a few Ivoirian civil servants stationed in Paris.

Still, these journalists managed to side-step the news blackout on the opposition. Every night the television news gave detailed coverage of the upheaval in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union—the Latvian declaration of independence, the East German elections—seemingly so far away from Côte d'Ivoire, and yet all of them protests against single-party rule. Under these circumstances, it was easy for me to understand why the events in Europe consumed the imaginations of the conference participants. Though I'd arrived in Africa little more than two weeks after the release of Nelson Mandela, no one once mentioned him, not even Jérôme Carlos, author of the novel Les Enfants de Mandela. Instead, he read a poem at one session about the African as a statue whose limbs need to come alive, just as similar statues had animated themselves in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

Between sessions I roamed the streets of Abidjan, through the marchés, past the downtown skyscrapers to a few of the outlying neighborhoods. I travelled past banks with their windows smashed, saw small children playing their games in dirt alleys and shouting that the president was a thief. I had dinner with friends who received a phone call warning: gendarmes were setting up roadblocks and checking cars for samisdat protest literature. I attended with Jean-Marie Adiaffi a dramatic performance of his poetry—Affaire de Sang d'Antigone! Yako!—an Africanized version of Antigone. Each of the six actors played three or four characters as the night progressed, a shifting of identities that neatly fit the secret intent of the play, because the unhappy citizens on stage were not ancient Greeks, and it was not the injustices of Creon that were being criticized.

After many days of presenting papers and conducting conversations in my imperfect French, I grew hungry for my own language. At a newsstand in my hotel I picked up a couple of English language, West African news magazines. There was dissent everywhere, I read—in Gabon, Niger, Zambia. In Kenya, angry clerics were using the pulpit to denounce their country's corrupt one-party system and were being answered by threats of physical violence by members of Parliament. In neighboring Ghana, a popular soccer player was suspended after refusing to shake hands with the president, Jerry Rawlings, during a team line-up.

Among all these accounts of uncommon turmoil was an abridged version of a lecture that the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe had recently presented in Great Britain. In it Achebe described a ritual celebration performed by his ethnic group, the Igbo. From time to time the earth goddess, Ana, would announce to diviners that an Mbari house needed to be constructed. She would instruct the diviners which villagers would built that house and then the chosen artisans would fill it up with sculptures and murals to depict, in Achebe's words, "the entire kingdom of human experience and imagination."

The entire kingdom—not a partial view of it. Within the Mbari house, every sort of art is sanctioned, from scenes of daily life to evocations of the abnormal, the fantastic. What a contrast to the cynical attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts, the peculiar arguments that there are certain religious or sexual subjects that must not be broached, that there are "acceptable" perimeters within which art must remain, or, in Côte d'Ivoire, that art should not challenge the political status quo. I looked out the window of my hotel, at the broad expanse of the Abidjan skyline. I knew that at that very moment samisdat literature was being passed surreptitiously from hand to hand in homes, on the streets, even at soccer matches.

As the conference continued, Ivoirian writers and I discovered how much we had in common besides the varying threats of the censors in both our countries: a dearth of serious readers, inefficient book distribution, and a growing commercialization of publishing houses that amounted to economic censorship. The poet Tanella Boni-Koné movingly lamented the difficulties a woman writer faces, constrained by both profession and family. Yet all writers, she continued, face the limits of time and an indifferent world: "Each day that passes, another writer is assassinated."

Listening to all our common troubles, I was struck further by the wisdom of the Igbo's Mbari house and its essential metaphor of art: a house that contains within it every possibility. But what if the view through a certain window is denied, a room declared off-limits? The artist best serves his or her society when that society allows the artist a vision without limitations.

Yet is the threat only from without? In the months since my last visit to Africa, facing the possibility of government-sanctioned artistic censorship here in America, I've often thought of the Mbari house, thought of how its equivalent cannot be built in any culture unless artists can recognize their own particular interiors. We all have inside us our own house of Mbari—the beautiful, dangerous and strangely surprising twistings of our secret selves: the dictator and the dissident, the indifferent lover, the devious child, the victim and victimizer, the wakeful dreamer. And yet ... every day a writer is assassinated. We can assassinate ourselves, too, by the accumulating, inner betrayals of vision, the deflected eye. Isn't self-censorship a hand over which the glove of oppression fits all too nicely? A society's fears echo the fears of the individual, and vice verse, and that is why the responsibility of the artist is to explore, even if those explorations can sometimes be shocking. Art is the private, inner adventure that must become public knowledge.

1. First appeared in Mid-American Review, 11, 2 (1991), 33-37, and is reproduced here with permission from the author, who holds the copyright.

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