Natures of Africa
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Natures of Africa

Ecocriticism And Animal Studies In Contemporary Cultural Forms

F. Fiona Moolla, Byron Caminero-Santangelo, Sule Emmanuel Egya, Jonathan Bishop Highfield, Jacob Mapara, Syned Mthatiwa, Mickias Musiyiwa, Ogaga Okuyade, Mathilda Slabbert, Anthony Vital, Reinier J.M. Vriend, James Maina Wachira, Wendy Woodward, Chengyi Coral Wu, F. Fiona Moolla, F. Fiona Moolla

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eBook - ePub

Natures of Africa

Ecocriticism And Animal Studies In Contemporary Cultural Forms

F. Fiona Moolla, Byron Caminero-Santangelo, Sule Emmanuel Egya, Jonathan Bishop Highfield, Jacob Mapara, Syned Mthatiwa, Mickias Musiyiwa, Ogaga Okuyade, Mathilda Slabbert, Anthony Vital, Reinier J.M. Vriend, James Maina Wachira, Wendy Woodward, Chengyi Coral Wu, F. Fiona Moolla, F. Fiona Moolla

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Environmental and animal studies are rapidly growing areas of interest across a number of disciplines. Natures of Africa is one of the first edited volumes which encompasses transdisciplinary approaches to a number of cultural forms, including fiction, non-fiction, oral expression and digital media. The volume features new research from East Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as the ecocritical and eco-activist 'powerhouses' of Nigeria and South Africa. The chapters engage one another conceptually and epistemologically without an enforced consensus of approach. In their conversation with dominant ideas about nature and animals, they reveal unexpected insights into forms of cultural expression of local communities in Africa. The analyses explore different apprehensions of the connections between humans, animals and the environment, and suggest alternative ways of addressing the challenges facing the continent. These include the problems of global warming, desertification, floods, animal extinctions and environmental destruction attendant upon fossil fuel extraction. There are few books that show how nature in Africa is represented, celebrated, mourned or commoditised. Natures of Africa weaves together studies of narratives – from folklore, travel writing, novels and popular songs – with the insights of poetry and contemporary reflections of Africa on the worldwide web. The chapters test disciplinary and conceptual boundaries, highlighting the ways in which the environmental concerns of African communities cannot be disentangled from social, cultural and political questions. This volume draws on and will appeal to scholars and teachers of oral tradition and indigenous cultures, literature, religion, sociology and anthropology, environmental and animal studies, as well as media and digital cultures in an African context.

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Chapter 1


Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes that food is a ‘linkage in the chain of being: the substance of the eco-systems which human beings strive to dominate. Our most intimate contact with the natural environment occurs when we eat it’ (Fernández-Armesto 2001: xiii).
Food and foodways are the bridge between human culture and the natural environment. As Fernández-Armesto (2001: 5) puts it: ‘Culture began when the raw got cooked.’ The combination of the local ecosystem with the ways plants and animals were selectively bred, and the methods by which they were cooked create regional differences that become part of how people in those regions understand their culture. This chapter looks at the intersection of foodways studies and ecocriticism through one of the major oral epics of West Africa, Sunjata. Paying attention to food in African narratives – considering what is eaten and how it is grown or procured, and by whom – influences one’s understanding of what is happening in the story. African storytellers, writers and film-makers use food and foodways as markers of independence, as symbols of cultural colonisation, and as signs of continued deprivations. Through foodways, one can glimpse famines, invasions and historical access to trade networks, and food can even serve as a vehicle for communication. Since the stories are not constructed in a vacuum, they can also reveal something about what food means in specific historical moments, in specific places and for specific populations.
In some respects, the diet of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa is remarkably similar across the region, despite the enormous differences in its bioregions. Much of this similarity emerged from colonisation, when European colonists attempted to turn most of the continent into vast plantations. To peel back the layers of colonial influence on the foods of the African continent, however, is difficult. Seamus Deane calls colonialism ‘a process of radical dispossession’ (Deane 1990: 10). Precolonial bioregionalism in agriculture was a victim of that dispossession. As Deane points out, a primary impulse after independence has been the attempt to repossess the history, cultures and languages stripped during the colonial era, because even if such attempts are futile, they are necessary steps out of the legacies of colonialism (Deane 1990: 11).
But how does such repossession happen with the foodways of Africa when over 2000 species of indigenous grains, fruits, vegetables and roots were displaced by imported crops in the colonial era, and continue to be neglected in agricultural initiatives on the continent (Lost Crops of Africa 1, 1996–2008: xv)? Traces of precolonial foods remain in the oral epics and folk tales that pre-date the colonial era. In Sunjata, the oral epic of the Mande peoples, it is a tree that provides a glimpse into the relationship between humans and the natural environment, between foodways and culture, in a West Africa before the advent of the Atlantic slave trade and European domination of the region.
The baobab tree is one of the iconic images of Africa. The thick-trunked tree with bare limbs, which look like tree roots, is a common sight across much of the continent, with its territory bordered by the Sahara Desert to the north and the Kalahari Desert to the south (Watson 2007: 28). Laurens van der Post (1978: 13) writes that the baobab ‘proclaim[s] the oneness of the Africa to which I belong’. The baobab is central in mythologies across Africa, and it receives near-universal protection (Lost Crops of Africa 2, 1996–2008: 75). Besides its mythological status, the baobab provides welcome shade in the savannah and alerts farmers that the planting season is near because its leaves bud just before the arrival of the rains (Lost Crops of Africa 3, 1996–2008: 48).

Swallowing the magic fruit: Baobab and Sunjata

The baobab holds a significant place in Sunjata, which tells the story of the founding of the great empire of Mali.1 Since it is entirely orally transmitted, there is not a definitive version of the epic, and Stephen P. D. Bulman has compiled a list of 64 published versions of Sunjata between 1889 and 1992 (Bulman 1997: 71–94). Although there are differences among these versions, the same plot drives the narrative: two brothers, who are hunters, travel to the land of Dô, which is being terrorised by a buffalo. On their way, they meet an old woman, and because they share their meal with her, she reveals that she is the buffalo and gives them magic to defeat her when she is in her animal form. She also tells them that the king of Dô will offer them a maiden as a reward, and when he does so they must choose a hunchback because she will give birth to a mighty king. Everything goes as the buffalo woman said it would, but after receiving Sogolon, the hunchbacked maiden, from the king, the brothers find they cannot have sex with her because her magic is too strong. They gift her to the king of Niani, Maghan Kon Fatta, and she becomes his second wife. After a war of wills and magic, he impregnates her. When Sogolon Djata, or Sunjata, the promised son, is born, however, he is unable to use his legs and, when the king dies, his scheming first wife, Sassouma, persuades the council of elders to place her son, Dankaran Touman, on the throne instead of Sunjata. After Sassouma insults Sogolon, Sunjata dramatically takes his first step, uproots a baobab tree, and reveals that the prophecies of his greatness are true. Sogolon, concerned that Sassouma will kill Sunjata, leads her son into exile. They are accompanied by Sunjata’s two sisters and Manding Bory, his half-brother. Sunjata’s griot, Balla Fasséké, does not come with them because Dankaran Touman has sent him to negotiate with the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kante. While in exile, Sunjata makes many allies, and on the eve of his mother’s death, he hears from envoys from Niani that Soumaoro Kante has defeated Dankaran Touman. Sunjata creates an army from the allies he has cultivated, is reunited with his griot, rides south and confronts Soumaoro, defeating him in the Battle of Krina. Afterwards, Sunjata founds the empire of Mali, rewarding his allies with kingdoms of their own.
Narrated in this way, the story seems straightforward and predictable enough. A performance of the epic by a griot, however, is more elaborate and concerned with genealogy, with cementing Sunjata’s legacy within a history of Islam in West Africa, and with following the stories of Sunjata’s allies. The scholar Jan Jansen, for example, recounts that one particular performance that took place in Kangaba, Mali, ‘lasted from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. and – after a break for dinner – from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning”’ (Jansen 2001: 30), which hints at the density and narrative possibilities of the story. Among many other things, the Sunjata epic reveals the ways in which food defined identity and circulated across West Africa in the 12th century CE and afterwards. The baobab tree, and its fruit and leaves play a crucial role in the Sunjata story.
However, before I explore the role of the baobab in the narrative of the cripple who becomes king, I should put the Sunjata story into context. At its height, in the early 14th century CE, the empire of Mali covered a huge swathe of West Africa, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean, near what is now the border between Senegal and Mauritania, to the north-west border of present-day Nigeria, and from the edge of the Sahara in the north to the present-day border of Burkina Faso and Ghana in the south.2 Its influence was greater than the extent of its territory, however, especially as the kings of Mali regularly made the 5000-kilometre pilgrimage to Mecca (Davidson 1998: 37–42). Though the kingdom of Mali probably existed for 200 years before Sunjata came to the throne, the oral epic that bears his name tells the story of the ascension of Mali over another kingdom, Takrur, both of which were attempting to expand as the empire of Ghana collapsed (Davidson 1998: 34).
David Conrad points out that the various forms and versions of the Sunjata story are performed in many different ways:
The Sunjata epic comprises a series of episodes, some of which form the core of the narrative and are the most frequently performed. These are more or less familiar to most people of traditional Manding societies, and the basic storyline and characters have become known to the outside world through both popular and scholarly publications. Other, less familiar episodes of the epic are known to relatively few of even the most knowledgeable jeliw [a Mandinka term for griots], and these are rarely performed publicly. In any case, depending on the type of occasion, the time available and the make-up of the audience, most performances mention only a few of the episodes. At one end of the spectrum, in the course of a brief street performance, for example, a female jeli (jelimuso) might simply evoke the name of Sunjata, Fakoli, or another of the epic heroes in one of her songs. At the other extreme, jeliw have been known to narrate one episode after another for five hours or more without stopping, and to continue at that rate for several days. (Conrad 2006: 81)
Many things influence the performance of the Sunjata narrative. If it is performed to an audience with descendants from one of the characters in the story, the version recited will stress the importance of that ancestor in the epic. Because there is not a definitive written version, the jeliw wield enormous influence over the construction of the epic.
In Griots and Griottes, Thomas Hale (2007: 10) lists over 15 terms that are used for ‘griot’ in West Africa. Because of the different nomenclatures used in the various languages of West Africa and the numerous subcategories within each language, Hale uses the generic term ‘griot’ instead of choosing a word from any specific language group. Hale devotes an entire chapter to the various roles of the griot in society, which he summarises as
recounting history, providing advice, serving as spokesperson, representing a ruler as a diplomat, mediating conflicts, interpreting the words of others into different languages, playing music, composing songs and tunes, teaching students, exhorting participants in wars and sports, reporting news, overseeing, witnessing or contributing to important life ceremonies, and praise-singing. (Hale 2007: 19)
The role of griots altered during the colonial era and their influence continued to wane after independence came to West Africa. Nevertheless, narrating the Sunjata story still has the power to have an impact on politics and societal relations today. As Manthia Diawara points out in a paper on how the Sunjata epic continues to resonate today, griots cite direct genealogical connections between contemporary politicians and the heroes (and villains) of the epic:
The influence of a pre-colonial narrative like The Epic of Soundiata is evident not only in the novels of the colonial and post-colonial epochs, but also in contemporary politics and popular culture of countries like Mali, Guinea, Gambia, and Ivory Coast. In Mali, for example, the griots praised Modibo Keita, the country’s first president, as the direct descendant of Soundiata Keita, Emperor of Mali. After the coup d’etat in 1969, however, the same griots hailed the new president, Moussa Traore, as the savior of the country, a parallel to Tira Maghan Traore, one of Soundiata’s chief generals who conquered Gambia. (Diawara 1992: 157)
On the day of the coup by Traoré, the sign-on music on Radio Mali changed from the ‘Sunjata fasa,’ or praise song of Sunjata, to the ‘Tiramagan fasa,’ or praise song of the Traoré (Hale 2007: 24).
One can hear both the ‘Sunjata fasa’ and ‘Tiramagan fasa’ performed on the griot recording An bè kelen (We are one). These recordings offer an aural insight into the performance of the Sunjata cycle, as they feature vocal performances by three renowned jeliw from the village of Kela – Kumatigi (Master of the Word) Lansine Diabate, El Hadji Bala Diabate and El Hadji Yamuda Diabate – accompanied by singer Bintan Kouyaté and musicians on the ngoni, djembe, tjumba and guitar. The opening track on the disc is ‘Sunjata fasa,’ the praise song for Sunjata, also known as ‘Hymn to the bow’. As Jansen points out in the liner notes accompanying the recording, ‘Sunjata fasa’ is the central melody in the griots’ repertoire, and ‘the...

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