The National University of Lesotho
The political urgency in the themes of pioneering negritude poets obscured other dimensions of the negritude movement such as the advocacy of cultural hybridity, and the concern for ecological issues. It is not readily perceptible that while the message of negritude poetry was essentially political, racial, and economic its metaphors were largely environmental. This necessitates the analysis of the relationship between language, text and words on the one hand and landscape, scenario, terrain and woods on the other. This feature makes negritude literature a wide source of material for ecocriticism.
This article studies a selection of poems from some pioneering negritude poets - Césaire, Senghor, Birago Diop, Guy Tirolien, and Dadié. It demonstrates that the predominance of ecological metaphors is indicative of concerns that go far beyond the simple representation of the rural surroundings of the poets. It denotes a direct comment on environmental preservation. Our methodology is first to establish the centrality of the land in the literary discourse of negritude. To negritude, land is both an object of physical sustenance and the abode of departed spirits who are believed to be in these elements of nature such as trees of the forest, rivers, some wildlife, and mountains. These are usually accorded the respect due the departed. In a second dimension we illustrate that the incorporation of the land and it's various (invisible and visible) elements implies that there exists in negritude a holistic and interdisciplinary outlook to literature. Since such a concern implies commitment to explicit values as regards the regulation of human interaction with and use of the environment, one would logically infer that ecology forms part of the ideological and social action of negritude poetry. In a third dimension we demonstrate, with illustrative examples that there exist aspects of negritude literature, which explicitly express ecological concerns beyond the simple use of eco-metaphors.
The interdisciplinary nature of Literary Criticism makes it impossible to detach it from concerns of the Environment which Rosalind has defined as follows: "The environment then becomes that combination of material and social things which conditions the well-being of people"
Ecocriticism concentrates on environmental concerns. This however does not mean that its tenets dispute Plato's claim that "Man is the measure of all things". The eco-critical perception of African literature widens the scope of the social concerns of literature by dealing directly with the basic element on which all aspects of life's activities, be they social, economic, political, or aesthetic depend - the earth.
Berry has rightly asserted that: "To assume that the context of literature is 'the literary world' is, I believe, simply wrong." A careful analysis of the diction and imagery used to express the major themes of negritude reveals an environmental concern. Flora and fauna predominate in the metaphors these poets employed. The reasons for this are not far-fetched. Firstly negritude is neither pro-urban nor uncritically traditional. Some scholars have observed the dual nature of traditional African poetry in these terms:
The above statement is made to counter some of the claims of colonial discourse which had interpreted the abundance of flora and fauna in traditional pre-colonial African poetry to simply mean that life in those societies was precarious, laborious, miserable and inferior. Without getting into that debate we would like to underline the fact that whatever position one takes, one is confronted with the fact that oral African literature possessed environmental, "functional", agrarian concerns. Contrary to Okpewho's claim that: "Modern African environmental poetry owes very little to the oral tradition," we wish to stipulate that the functional nature of oral literature provided the effective environmental metaphors through which anti-colonial poetry, such as negritude, was expressed. More importantly we equally demonstrate that really environmental concerns (which have nothing to do with primitive claims of colonial anthropology) underlie the aesthetics of these metaphors. Supporting evidence for our observations is offered by the poems of Césaire, Senghor, Tirolien, Diop, and Dadié.
The nature and magnitude of the metaphors employed seem to suggest that pioneering negritude poets expressed the idea that human catastrophes are caused first and foremost by the loss or dispossession of land. It is therefore not surprising that the colonial occupation and domination of Africa are metaphorically expressed as a loss of livelihood.
Negritude is aesthetically attached to the rural, pre-colonial African society and its values. An illustration is found in the poem of the Guadeloupian, Guy Tirolien, entitled "Je ne veux plus aller à leur école." The persona in the poem celebrates the pristine innocence and tranquility of the African rural environment and expresses his/her preference for it over what he deems to be the noisy and miserable life of the urban setting and its dwellers. The condemnation of colonial intrusion is, thus, presented in environmental metaphors in these words:
Je veux suivre mon père dans les ravines fraîches
Quand la nuit flotte encore dans le mystère des bois
Où glissent les esprits que l'aube vient chasser.
Je veux aller pieds nus par les rouges sentiers
Que cuisent les flammes de midi, __
Je veux dormir ma sieste au pied des lourds manguiers...
Je préfère vers l'heure où la lune amoureuse
Parle bas à l'oreille des cocotiers penchés
Ecouter ce que dit dans la nuit
La voix cassée d'un vieux qui raconte en fumant
Les histoires de Zamba et de compère Lapin
Et bien d'autres choses encore
Qui ne sont pas dans les livres.....
Here the poet does not make flora and fauna images or symbols of misfortune and oppression. On the contrary, fresh ravines, mysterious woods, red earth paths, shady mango trees, swaying coconut trees, as well as fables about Zamba, and Brer Rabbit are here used as metaphors of freedom from colonial domination. Their use evokes relief and hope in the minds of the reader. This creates an attitude that these elements of nature are worthy of preservation. The ecosystem thus becomes a banner of freedom.
It is the destruction of this ecological ambiance, which the persona deplores, in a second poem, "Redécouvert", where he symbolizes the abuses of colonial domination in terms of environmental degradation. He writes:
Salut terre matée, terre dématée!
Ce n'est pas le limon que l'on cultive ici,
Ni les fécondes alluvions.
C'est un sol sec, que mon sang même
N'a pas pu attendrir,
Et qui geint sous le soc comme femme éventrée....
Here, the persona implicitly advocates the need to preserve the beauty and purity of the environmental setting of the island, and notes that its destruction will result in a decadence which will not only be fatal but also irreversible, rendering the very source of their survival and existence unsustainable: ".... Un sol sec, que mon sang même/n'a pas pu attendrir,/et qui geint sous le soc comme femme éventrée" These metaphors are essentially environmental or ecological images intended to be vehicles of a deeper message of anti-colonialism. Their very selection or their literal perceptions, is, nonetheless indicative of the ecological consciousness of the poet who chose such images to convey the message to a mainly rural and agrarian audience which is linked to its intellectual leadership in a manner Césaire expresses as follows in his collection of poems: "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal"
He equates the colonial exploitation of his native island to the abuse to which man subjects the environment. It must be noted that the freedom being evoked here is that of the persona's ancestors who lived in Africa and not in pre-Colombian Amerindian societies which they never knew.
These ecological concerns of negritude assume ideological dimensions in a work such as Aimé Césaire's "Discours sur le colonialisme". One of his direct comments on the environmental and socioeconomic impact of colonialism is put in these polemical terms:
Césaire is talking about Martinique, yet the African situation is similar:the exploitation of African raw materials was done in a manner that disregarded the need for strategies of ecological sustainability of the environment of the colonized people. He calls it a raid-"rafle". He further blames this raid for what he sees as the disorganization or the dismantling of a pre-colonial Martinique economy, which was natural and in harmony with the maintenance of the ecosystem. Here again, a parallel can be made with the pre-colonial African economy. The neglect of the environment is presented as the prime cause of the destruction of food crop cultivation with its concomitant institutionalization of hunger. Césaire is therefore, evoking environmental or ecological arguments to contest the claims of colonialism. He sees the underlying cause of the economic ruin produced by colonialism as a dislocation of an environmentally sustainable development. The human predicament of the colonial era is thus being explained in terms of a basic ecological catastrophe. Such an argument reinforces the point that negritude poetry generally has an ideologically based value that encourages ecological conservation.
A careful analysis of some of the works of Birago Diop will equally indicate that he gives the destruction of the physical environment a kind of sacrilegious connotation. This is because to him the physical environment, the ecosystem, is the very habitation of the departed, "the dead," who he says "are not dead." This poetic expression highlights the moral and spiritual dimensions to environmental action. In his poem "Souffle" (translated "Breath") he evokes the defense of ancestral beliefs in a manner which can be interpreted to mean that environmental conservation was primary to the mythological concerns of traditional African society. Indeed, religion, and ecology are revealed as interdependent in the following lines:
Thus, elements of the environment such as fire, herbage, rocks, and trees of the forest, on which the ecological balance depend, are perceived as the habitation of the ancestors. They are therefore revered by inference, and accorded the reverence due the ancestors. Their desecration will thus constitute disrespect to the powerful dead who, it was believed, exercised a lot of influence over the life of the living either for bliss or for doom.
Diop's evocation is reminiscent of the countless stories of African literature, which aim at controlling the ecosystem. In such oral art-forms, riddles, songs, proverbs, fables - even an obvious scientific phenomenon - are shrouded in mysteries which literally personify or even deify the elements of nature in order to exact the acquiescence or communal compliance to everyday standards of hygienic regulations. The river, for instance, became a god whose wrath falls mercilessly on whoever spits or puts excrement in it, or goes fishing in it at prohibited times and in a manner such as to make extinct its children - the fish. Several villages did not only impose time-tables for fishing, hunting, and even everyday farming activities, but also stipulated the number of fish or game a person or a family could take at a time if the 'gods' were not to be provoked. It was the central role of oral literature to create, nurture, and nourish the taboos that protect the environment from human abuse, and avert any reckless acts of abuse that could compromise environmental sustainability and occasion any disaster and human catastrophe.
It is therefore not surprising that several literary genres owe their origin or at least their development, to traditional environmental concerns. These include hunters' songs, and dirges recited at the funeral of animals like the elephant, the buffalo and the lion. Among the Asante (Ashanti or Achanti English and French orthography respectively)of Ghana, for instance, a hunter who killed an animal believed to be of a strong spirit (Sasaboa) was obliged to undergo an elaborate purification rite intended to prevent him from being haunted by the spirit of the animal. Again, he organized a complete funeral ceremony at which guns were fired amidst drumming, dancing and singing. This painful and costly ceremony, which in a way protected wildlife, was called "Abofosie."
Senghor's poem, "Snow on Paris", carries the interdependence between the African and his environment a step further by making it a subject of identification. The persona merges man and forest in a bid to criticize the destruction not only of the African's ecosystem but also his person.
He notes in his poem "Snow upon Paris" (from the collection Chant d'Ombre) thus:
The worth the persona attaches to the African forest is suggested by the idea that it should not be destroyed to save any civilization since it is in itself a fully-fledged civilization - in fact the very object of sustenance of the people. The suffering people are here presented in metaphorical terms as a forest without which life itself ceases. These images are reminiscent of the proverbial languages of pre-industrial societies rich in the imagery of flora and fauna, landscape, and weather, astral, and alimentary metaphors.
It must also be mentioned that environmental considerations were equally crucial in determining which language to choose for protest. The protest to reclaim the physical means of human survival - the land (with its scenario, air, water, and all it contains), was an urgent matter. It required immediate and direct attention and was thus addressed to the colonizer in a (foreign) language comprehensible to him. The issue of land, rather than politics, was thus the primary determinant of what language to choose for protest literature. No wonder, therefore, that the language of protest literature thus became European in origin but the metaphors remained environmentally African, tropical Caribbean and agrarian as these works of Tirolien, Césaire, Diop and Senghor illustrate. One of the features of this language is that one needed to be well-acquainted with the behaviour and nature of the various environmental objects and animals it evokes in order to appreciate the meaning and significance of its metaphors. This fact makes one seek to know the extent to which the European audience, for whom the message of resistance was intended, perceived the full import of these flora and fauna metaphors of anti-colonial resistance. It is equally important to analyze whether this metaphorical presentation was a deliberate attempt by pioneering negritude poets to camouflage their message, and shroud the incipient rebellion in a language of ecological ambiguity.
It must also be mentioned that the concern for land possession and hence preservation (for who would be interested in an exhausted or unproductive land?) and survival superceded considerations of sovereignty and governance. The latter (sovereignty and governance) served as a pretext for the former (land and survival).
The practical exigencies of Africa's development, especially in the on-going process of globalization, are likely to enhance its focus on the environment. The pedagogy of this campaign of awareness will need an extensive use of the poetics at all levels of education. Worster has argued that: "Historians, along with literary scholars, anthropologists, and philosophers, cannot do the reforming, of course, but they can help with the understanding." A Green poetic movement may even lead the way in this environmental awakening just as negritude streamlined and articulated the claim for African anti-colonial freedom. Here the quest for development rather than the scare of environmental degradation will be the driving force. This is evident from Africa's changing environmental situation, which needs a new approach. Some scholars have presented this as follows:
We will round off this evaluation of the ecological concerns of negritude poetry by noting that there exist ample resources in this poetry to endorse the idea that nature writing is a fully-fledged literary genre, and enough basis for critical theory. These deductions are from the fact that these works cited in this discussion depict nature in a manner that is consistent with ecological wisdom. These poems equally embody a pedagogy of ecological awareness. Again, the impression created by the metaphors of negritude poetry creates a positive influence on the way readers are expected to treat the environment. The interdependence between the science of ecology on one hand and literary studies on the other is evident in the analysis of the negritude poems cited in this article.
. Malcom Rosalind. A Guidebook to Environmental Law. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1994, p.1.
. Ascribed by Plato in Theaetetus to Protagoras (430 B.C.).
. WendelBerry. "Writer and Region". In What are People For?. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p.84.
. Isidore Okpewho (ed). The Heritage of African Poetry. Essex: Longman, 1985, p.98.
. In Negritude; the geographical and historical distinction between the Caribbean and Africa is bridged not only by the common African descent of the poets but also by their concerted consent to achieve what Senghor calls "...la découverte de valeurs noires et la prise de conscience pour le Nègre de sa situation." Pre-colonial Caribbean had no (free) Black men. The evocation of the nostalgia of pre-colonial society made by Césaire and Tirolien is with reference to pre-colonial Africa, whose economy, cultural values, and peace, they argue, have been subjected to destruction.
. Guy Tirolien. Balles d'Or. Edition Présence Africaine. Quoted in Lylian Kesteloot. Anthologie Négro-Africaine: La Littérature de 1918 à 1981. Paris: Marabout, 1981, pp.137-8.
. Ibid., p. 135-6
. Aimé Césaire. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Paris: Bordas, 1947.
. Aimé Césaire. Discours sur le Colonialisme. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1995. Birago Diop.
. Birago Diop. Leurres et lueurs. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1963.
. J.H. Nketia. Ab_fodwom. Accra-Tema: Ghana Publishing Corporation, 1973.
. L. S. Senghor. Selected Poems. Trans. John Reed and Clive Wake. London: Oxford University Press, 1964, p.7.
. Donald Worster. The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p.27.
. Stephen Karenzi & Gordon A. Mackenzi. Energy Options for Africa: Environmentally Sustainable Alternative. London: Zed Books, 1993, p.1.
Asante-Darko Kwaku is a lecturer in Literature at the National University of Lesotho. Most recent publications include articles in MotsPluriels. No. 6, May 1998, and No. 8, October 1998. Arobase Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1998.Nordic Journal of African Studies. Vol 8 No. 1, 1999. And Lesotho Journal of Law and Development. Vol. 10, 1999.