Negotiating identities as a process of self-affirmation has recently been in vogue, partly as a cultural bonus arising out of the spread of ideologies and technologies of travel that have rendered old boundaries more pervious.
The political initiatives of regional integration apart, it is the technology of travel and new ideologies of belonging that have pushed people towards new ways of seeing and rethinking issues that were considered settled.
One such ideology is Afropolitanism, about which Simon Gikandi writes briefly in Jennifer Wawrzinek and J.K.S. Makokha’s edited Negotiating Afropolitanism: Essays on Borders and Spaces in Contemporary African Literature and Folklore.
Afropolitanism as a term, to Gikandi, ‘can now be read as the description of a new phenomenology of Africanness’, suggesting the duality of a rooted belonging that coexists with a widely circulating being that encounters cultures, languages and states that are different.
The spirit of Afropolitanism ‘reflects a new attitude towards Africa and the wider world in which it is a part.’
This is why, for some, fraternal identities are now reason enough to show interest in areas and literatures that were once upon a time considered foreign, or far.
That may explain why Kenyan poet and scholar, Mohamed Eno, has consistently written poetry and essays on Somalia and Somali literature. In his Corpses on the Menu: Blood, Bullets and Bones, Eno’s poetry shows the absurdity of geographical boundaries when they interfere with cultural ones, instead focusing on the transnational nationhood of the Somali people of the larger eastern Africa and across the globe.
Following the Afropolitan impulse, Eno identifies the historical and political similarities that many Africans on the continent and beyond have encountered, giving voice to groups and narratives that have been overshadowed and muted within the metanarratives of nationhood that propel the wheels of national histories.
The Kigali Case, A Sudanese Sonnet, Sierra Leone: Saved or Sacrificed and Tumult in Tunisia, for instance, show the unfortunate links that bind the Somali experience after the Siad Barre regime with others from the rest of Africa, thereby calling for a broad-based approach to resolving the problems of dysfunctional states on the continent.
Now, does Eno’s preoccupation with the political heart of darkness in Africa pander to the notion of Afro-pessimism that summarised African studies in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
Or is it an honest call for frank debates and decisive action in a continent still having politicians who outlive their welcome, like Blaise Compaore in Bukina Faso and the good old Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?
Sometimes, I think, it is folly rather than bravery that makes one to see the grimness of our African quarrels for anything else, and so Eno’s portrayal of the reality we should be ashamed of does not necessarily amount to Afro-pessimism or any of its variants. In any case, Eno captures the complexity of the Somali and Africa’s problems by focusing within and without, all the way from slavery to colonialism, neocolonialism and post-colonial African leadership as variously and cumulatively responsible for the predicament that the continent suffers from.
This may well be Eno’s way of rehashing Walter Rodney’s earlier argument that the tragedy of slavery and colonialism in Africa was as much the extractionist enterprises that the two institutions ran, but also the way they methodically deprived the continent of bold and able leaders who could have steered the continent away from the usual wars and towards greater progress.
SNAKES UNDER OATH
Eno captures this fact in his poetry by using feline images in Black Cats, serpentine in Snakes Under Oath and crocodilian in Crocodiles of the Bank with reference to African leaders, who are also shown as carrion consumers in Hyenas.
This, indeed, is a mode of characterisation that is common among African writers, some of who, like Ngugi, use the grotesque to portray such leaders, as he does in Devil on the Cross.
Ultimately, Eno is concerned with how Somalia, and Africa for that matter, can begin to tell new stories and deploy new strategies of negotiating for the soul of the state, not necessarily relying on the old templates of religion, race, ethnicity, and clans.
Eno’s tone and vocabulary capture these old templates as cocoons of homogeneity and linearity, which impede a better understanding of our pasts and our attachments to the rest of the world as can be made possible through Afropolitanism.
One way of doing this, according to Eno, is by reaching beyond the more obvious and visible aspects of Somali literatures and cultures, to focus on those which have been either subsumed or overshadowed by the dominant strands. This is why, in The Guilt of Otherness, another collection of poetry, Eno illuminates the plight of the Bantu Jareer, a community mostly unknown to the outside world, but residing in a country whose political turmoil has for long been explained away as due to inter-clan contests for power in Somalia.
By focusing on the Bantu-Jareer in The Stigma of Identity and Guilt of Otherness, for instance, Eno shows the absurdity of cultural boundaries as potentially responsible for the destruction of human sensibilities among the dominant groups as much as in the dominated, or marginalised ones.
Indeed, Eno’s project of debunking the myth of Somali homogeneity started much earlier, if we focus on his The Bantu-Jareer Somalis: Unearthing Apartheid in the Horn of Africa (2008).
In this book, Eno suggests that the challenges that impede the stability of a workable Somali nation-state is the tradition of ignoring and stigmatising populations within the country that are not of Somali extraction, such as the Bantu-Jareer.
The final position that Eno assumes is, therefore, informed by drawing on diverse voices that have sought to beam light on the different dynamics that make Somalia what it is.
Historical and critical texts are all blended with oral interviews with key personalities, pushing forth the horizons of what can be seen of Somali cultures, histories and politics as captured in the literatures from the country.
Indeed, the strength of oral literary sources, which Eno uses extensively, conforms to the old Vansinian argument which positions oral sources at a slightly higher level than written ones, not so much because of the broader ownership of the narratives involved, but because they remain, as Ali Jimale Ahmed argues in Daybreak is Near…: Literature, Clans and the Nation-State in Somalia, beyond the reach of the censor’s gaze.
Hence, Eno demonstrates that it is through the use of oral poetry and oral narratives that the stigmatised and alienated Bantu-Jareer community can voice their sense of grievance, while simultaneously affirming their identities as a people caught in a country whose politics of Somali clan contests have formalised and institutionalised the marginalisation of other linguistic and cultural communities, hence the ‘apartheid’ in the book title.
In doing this, Eno not only disturbs the myth of homogeneity, but also impels his readers to ask questions of who is a Somali and what parameters do measure Somaliness.
Yet, reading Eno’s poetry and critical works, one notices that, despite the labour, he does not always circumvent the pitfalls of commonsensical understanding of complex and longwinded issues.
This is partly due to his status as an ‘outsider’ in Somalia. Navigating the boundaries of language, culture and geography, even in the spirit of Afropolitanism, is fraught with pitfalls that undermine deeper understanding of issues.