Francis BNyamnjoh is Professor of Social Anthropology, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd. How Amos Tutuola Can Change Our Minds

Francis B. Nyamnjoh on 28 March 2017 delivered the Archie Mafeje lecture for University of South Africa (UNISA) entitled Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd: How Amos Tutuola Can Change Our Minds. The lecture is based on his book of the same name.  

It is more than a honour for me to be standing here, in Pretoria, where Archie Mafeje made his transit on Wednesday 28 March 2007, to continue his journey into the world of Africa’s ancestors of the intellect. 

Some ten years prior, in June 1997, Amos Tutuola, the Nigeria writer, had preceded him to the Dead’s Town. Armed with a versatile and extraordinary mind, Mafeje taught us the virtues of supple-mindedness in our intellectual endeavours. Partly due to apartheid and but largely because of his pan-Africanist sensitivities and sensibilities, Mafeje has left many of us with a taste for the virtues of cosmopolitanism, shared with artists such as Manu Dibango of Cameroon, who was one of the very first intellectuals I know, to endorse and celebrate what today passes for afro-politanism. 

As my CODESRIA colleague Adebayo Olukoshi and I wrote in an editorial of a special issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin in 2008, in his honour, Mafeje:

“discourses transcended disciplinary boundaries and were characterised by a spirit of combative engagement underpinned by a commitment to social transformation. As an academic sojourner conscious of the history of Africa over the last six centuries, he rallied his colleagues to resist the intellectual servitude on which all forms of foreign domination thrive. He was intransigent in his call for the liberation of our collective imaginations as the foundation stone for continental liberation. In all of this, he also distinguished himself by his insistence on scientific rigour and originality. It was his trade mark to be uncompromisingly severe with fellow scientists who were mediocre in their analyses. The power of his pen and the passion of his interventions always went hand-in-hand with a uniquely polemical style hardly meant for those who were not sure-footed in their scholarship. This, then, was the Mafeje who left us on 28 March 2007, to join the other departed heroes and heroines of the African social research community. A great pan-African, an outstanding scientist, a first rate debater, a frontline partisan in the struggle for social justice, and a gentleman of great humanitarian principles, Archie was laid to rest on Saturday 7 April 2007 in Umtata, South Africa.”

A staunch critic of intellectual colonialism:

Not in doubt was Archie Mafeje’s deep intellectual and political commitment to the total emancipation of Africa as a symbol of the pan-African ideals he shared and fought for in his scholarship, activities and pronouncements. Through his sustained critique of African anthropology as a handmaiden of colonialism and call for social history to replace it as a discipline, surfaces Archie Mafeje’s total discomfort with the epistemology of alterity and exogenously generated and contextually irrelevant knowledge produced with ambitions of dominance, especially when such knowledge is passively internalised and reproduced by the very people whose ontology and experiences have been carefully scripted out (sometimes even as fellow scholars – see the Archie Mafeje versus Sally Falk Moore debate) of this knowledge by misrepresentations informed by hierarchies of humanity structured, inter alia, on race, place, class, gender and age. As John Sharp observes: What he objected to therefore, “was an anthropology in which particular epistemological assumptions … were allowed to overwhelm whatever it was that people on the ground had to say about the conditions in which they found themselves.”

Fred Hendricks notes that Mafeje was committed “to combating the distorted images produced and reproduced about Africa from the outside”, and sometimes uncritically internalised and reproduced by Africans trained to mimic but not to question (Issa Shivji). Mafeje spent the best part of his life and scholarship contesting the racialised epistemological underpinnings of a system of social knowledge production into which Africans have been co-opted and schooled as passive consumers without voice even on matters pertaining to their very own realities and existence.

To measure the fullness of Mafeje’s Africanity and pan-Africanism, it is appropriate to go beyond scholarly declarations and appreciate the social relationships he forged and entertained in his life in and away from a place called home, motherland or fatherland. According to Kwesi Prah, Archie Mafeje exuded an “effortless worldliness” that gave him a rare “vibrant and sublime cosmopolitanism”; and as a veritable cosmopolitan African, he was used to describing himself as “South African by birth, Dutch by citizenship and Egyptian by domicile”. Kwesi Prah writes of Mafeje’s impressive familiarity with Western literature, Dutch art, “sophisticated and totally uncommon knowledge of European wines”, and culinary skills and accomplishments. Just as “his often placid exterior belied a stridently combative spirit and expression” in debates, Archie Mafeje’s committed pronouncement and writings on pan-Africanism and the importance of decolonising the social sciences, often took attention away from the cosmopolitan that he was – leading to misrepresentations even by fellow African intellectuals. Far from being essentialist, Mafeje was a person to whom belonging was always work in progress to be constantly enriched with new encounters and new relationships, and never to be confined by geography or boundaries, political or disciplinary.

As Adesina reminds us, the meaning of Archie Mafeje for three generations of African scholars and social scientists is about encounters and the relationships that resulted from those encounters.

In this lecture, I use Amos Tutuola’s unusual writing style, firmly rooted in African storytelling, to refute the common misconception that there is only one type of scholarship and one type of experiences worth writing about. At the expense of local relevance and in search of international recognition, some African intellectuals feel pressure to abandon their African identities and recycle and reiterate dominant colonialist scopes of knowledge. This phenomenon is especially worth investigating in light of the wave of protests at universities all over South Africa where students demanded the “fall” of Eurocentric education standards, calling for a more Afrocentric curriculum, more grounded in African traditions and experiences, and thus more relatable to African students in the ivory towers of Africa.

The idea of the West as the centre of knowledge and civilisation is challenged by pointing out that this number one status was achieved only by borrowing bits and pieces from all over. Rather than just a simple dismissal of Western ideals, an alternative to Eurocentric dualisms is offered: an acquiescence of incompleteness as a way of being. A number of stories from Tutuola’s works are used to illustrate the importance of incompleteness and of conviviality. We are urged to accept that one’s independence will always be thwarted by one’s dependency on others and to see debt and indebtedness as a normal way of being human through relationships with others.

How Tutuola Can Change Our Minds

African intellectual history has been a struggle. A struggle of how to reconcile international recognition with local relevance ever since the publication of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952. African intellectuals’ quest for distinctively African ways of interpreting African life and thought has taken many forms and provoked lively cross-disciplinary debate and literature. The results are, however, mixed. Students still decry curricula that do not satisfactorily reflect, if at all, their African context and lived realities. Their professors complain about a geopolitics of knowledge production and consumption skewed in favour of the West or the global north. While students and professors of African universities are having a raw deal at the global marketplaces of the production and circulation of ideas, ordinary Africans outside of the academy, a high proportion of whom have pursued little or no formal education, are equally complaining and challenging their universities to prove their relevance to the wider society. To many, universities are indeed ivory towers (sometimes perched on hilltops or hillsides like deities, spirits or gods), notorious for talking academic gibberish and for talking without listening, even when claiming that no social knowledge is of much import if not immersed in and distilled from the lived realities of those it purports to be knowledge about.

Inspired by Amos Tutuola, the late Nigerian writer, and his novels and short stories, the book is a contribution to the unfinished business of the transformation of colonial and apartheid ideologies on being human and being African that continue to shape how research is conceptualised, taught and practiced in universities across Africa. The book also examines how such resilient colonial and apartheid ideologies continue to shape the attitudes and behaviour of African intellectuals towards ordinary Africans and vis-à-vis popular understandings of reality. The book discusses Amos Tutuola and his works and argues the following main points.

First, it is argued that popular ideas of what constitutes reality in Africa are rich with ontologies of incompleteness. Such conceptions of incompleteness could enrich the practice of social science and the humanities in Africa and globally. The book suggests that incompleteness as a social reality and form of knowing generative of and dependent on interconnections, relatedness, open-endedness and multiplicities is both exciting and inspiring, at personal, group and collective, political and scholarly levels. Incompleteness harbours emancipatory potentials and inspires unbounded creativity and hopefully a reclamation of more inclusionary understandings of being human and being in general. Incompleteness is not a unidirectional concept. Every social organisational category – be it race or ethnicity, place or geography, class or status, gender or sex, generation or age, religion or beliefs, etc. – is incomplete without the rest of what it takes to be human through relationships with other humans, as well as with non-humans or other beings – in the natural and supernatural worlds. Africa is incomplete without the rest of the world, and the world is incomplete without Africa; and both are incomplete without the natural and supernatural worlds.

Social sciences and humanities steeped in the dualisms of colonial ways of knowing and producing knowledge in Africa are ill-prepared to midwife the renaissance of African ways of knowing and knowledge production that have been victims of unequal encounters with Western colonialism and its zero-sum games of completeness and winner takes all.

To achieve such an epistemological turn, African social scientists (practicing and aspirant) and practitioners of the humanities would have to turn to and seek to be cultivated afresh by ordinary Africans immersed in popular traditions of meaning making. As Tutuola’s experiences as a writer illustrate, these people in rural areas and urban villages are the very same Africans to whom the modern intellectual elite in their ivory towers tries to deny the right to think and represent their realities in accordance with the civilisations and universes they know best. Many scholars schooled in Western modernity push away or even run from these worldviews and conceptions of reality. Instead of creating space for the fruit of “the African mind” as a tradition of knowledge, they are all too eager, under the gawking eyes of their Western counterparts, to label and dismiss (however hypocritically) as traditional or superstitious the creative imagination of their fellow Africans.

The full valorisation of African potentialities in future social scientific endeavours depends on the extent to which scholars in the social sciences and humanities in or of Africa are able to (re)familiarise themselves with and encourage these popular modes of knowing and knowledge-making in the production of relevant, inclusive, negotiated, nuanced and complex social knowledge. There is a clear need to decentre social sciences and the humanities from their preponderantly parochial or provincial, not to mention patriarchal, Eurocentric origins and biases and from illusions of completeness (Amin 2009[1988]), and for African researchers and scholars to (re)immerse themselves and be grounded in endogenous African universes and the interconnecting global and local hierarchies that shape and are shaped by these universes.

Second, the book argues that Africans who are able to successfully negotiate change and continuity and bring into conversation various dichotomies and binaries qualify as frontier Africans. Their frontierness comes from their continual straddling of myriad identity margins and bridging of various divides. This encourages them to recognise and provide for the interconnections, nuances and complexities in their lives made possible or exacerbated by technologically inspired and enhanced mobilities and encounters. In this regard, there is an interesting conversation to be had between forms of mobility and the capacity to tame time and space, inspired by jujus or spells and charms in Tutuola’s universe, and the forms of mobility and presence made possible by new information and communication technologies such as the television, internet, cell and smart phones.

Popular ideas of reality and the reality of frontier Africans suggest an approach to social action in which interconnections, interrelationships, interdependencies, collaboration, coproduction and compassion are emphasised, celebrated and rewarded. Within this framework of conviviality, intricate entanglements and manglements, if hierarchies of social actors and actions exist, it is reassuring to know that nothing is permanent or singular about the nature, order and form of such hierarchies. Agency is available and affordable to humans as singular, plural and composite beings – whole or dis(re)membered – and in human or non-human forms, apparent or virtual, tangible and intangible alike. 

Third, the book argues that commitment to crossroads conversations across divides makes frontier Africans express discomfort with suggestions or ambitions of absolute autonomy in action and reject ideas that humans are superior to any other beings and that a unified and singular self is the only unit of analysis for human action. In the absence of permanence, the freedom to pursue individual or group goals exists within a socially predetermined frame that emphasises collective interests at the same time that it allows for individual creativity and self-activation. Social visibility derives from (or is facilitated by) being interconnected with other humans and the wider world of nature, the supernatural and the imaginary in an open-ended communion of interests. Being social is not limited to familiar circles or to fellow humans, as it is expected that even the passing stranger (human or otherwise, natural or supernatural) from a distant land or from out of this world should benefit from the sociality that one has cultivated on familiar shores. The logic of collective action that underpins the privileging of interconnections and frontier beings is instructive in a situation where nothing but change is permanent, and where life is a currency in perpetual circulation. The tendency towards temporality, transience or impermanence calls for social actors to de-emphasise or domesticate personal success and maximise collective endeavours. It calls for humility and the interment of mentalities and practices of absolutes and conquest.

Fourth, it is argued that scholars interested in rethinking African social sciences and humanities could maximise and capitalise upon the currency of conviviality in popular African ideas of reality and social action. Conviviality is recognition and provision for the fact or reality of being incomplete. If incompleteness is the normal order of things – natural, human and supernatural – conviviality invites us to celebrate and preserve incompleteness and mitigate delusions of grandeur that come with ambitions and claims of perfection.

Conviviality emphasises the repair rather than the rejection of human relationships. It is more about cobbling and less about ruptures. It is fundamental to being human – biologically and socially – and necessary for processes of social renewal, reconstruction and regeneration. Conviviality depicts diversity, tolerance, trust, equality, inclusiveness, cohabitation, coexistence, mutual accommodation, interaction, interdependence, getting along, generosity, hospitality, congeniality, festivity, civility and privileging peace over conflict, among other forms of sociality.

Fifth, the book argues that granted the intricacies of popular conceptions of reality, and in view of the frontier reality of many an ordinary African caught betwixt and between exclusionary and prescriptive regimes of being and belonging, nothing short of convivial scholarship would do justice to the legitimate quest for an epistemological reconfiguration of African universities and the disciplines, a reconfiguration informed by popular agency and epistemologies. A truly convivial scholarship is one which does not seek a priori to define and confine Africans into particular territories or geographies, particular racial and ethnic categories, particular classes, genders, generations, religions or whatever other identity marker is ideologically en vogue. Convivial scholarship confronts and humbles the challenge of over-prescription, over-standardisation, over-routinisation, and over-prediction. It is critical and evidence-based; it challenges problematic labels, especially those that seek to unduly oversimplify the social realities of the people, places and spaces it seeks to understand and explain.

Convivial scholarship recognises the deep power of collective imagination and the importance of interconnections and nuanced complexities. It is a scholarship that questions assumptions of a priori locations and bounded ideas of power and all other forms of relationships that shape and are shaped by the sociocultural, political and economic circumstances of social actors. It is a scholarship that sees the local in the global and the global in the local by bringing them into informed conversations, conscious of the hierarchies and power relations at play at both the micro and macro levels of being and becoming. Convivial scholarship is scholarship that neither dismisses contested and contrary perspectives a priori nor throws the baby out with the bathwater. It is critical scholarship of recognition and reconciliation, scholarship that has no permanent friends, enemies or alliances beyond the rigorous and committed quest for truth in its complexity and nuance, and using the results of aspirations for a common humanity that is in communion with the natural and supernatural environments that make a balanced existence possible.

Convivial scholarship does not impose what it means to be human, just as it does not prescribe a single version of the good life in a world peopled by infinite possibilities, tastes and value systems. Rather, it encourages localised conversations of a truly global nature on competing and complementary processes of social cultivation through practice, performance and experience, without pre-empting or foreclosing particular units of analysis in a world in which the messiness of encounters and relationships frowns on binaries, dichotomies and dualisms. Indeed, like Tutuola’s universe, convivial scholarship challenges us, however grounded we may be in our disciplines and their logics of practice, to cultivate the disposition to be present everywhere at the same time. It is a scholarship that cautions disciplines, their borders and gatekeepers to open up and embrace the crossroads culture of presence in simultaneous multiplicity and concomitant epistemologies of interconnections. With convivial scholarship, there are no final answers, only permanent questions and ever exciting new angles of questioning.

What does Tutuola have to offer to social science and the humanities?

What exactly does Tutuola – renowned for his highly creative effervescent imagination and for writing in acrobatic brushstrokes – have to offer ongoing epistemological debates on the study of Africa, especially in the social sciences and humanities? This is the central question addressed in this book. As evidenced in the pages that follow, Tutuola’s writings and the universe he depicts are a proliferation of ethnographic accounts of popular understandings of reality in Africa. Reality that is fluid and flexible, and that is as amenable to reason, logic and sensory perceptions as it eludes them. In his writings we see the frontierness of ordinary Africans in how they collapse dichotomies and build bridges of conviviality between nature and culture, the visible and invisible, tradition and modernity, Africa and Europe, gods, spirits, ghosts, animals and kindred creatures of the bushes, and humans. 

This book is also an account of how the heated debates provoked by Tutuola’s writings offer a compelling case for convivial scholarship on the continent and beyond. The book explores how instructive to anthropologists Tutuola’s rich ethnographic insights and manière de faire are in making a case for so-called “native” non-professional, university trained ethnographers in mitigation of the resilient prevalent tendency towards white-male dominated lone-rangerism. 

This book thus explores what Tutuola offers ongoing epistemological debates on the study of Africa more broadly, especially in social science disciplines and the humanities. It highlights and discusses elements from Tutuola’s novels that emphasise the logic of inclusion over the logic of exclusion and the violence of conquest often uncritically internalised and reproduced by practicing social scientists and humanities scholars in Africa fixated with text without context, micro categorisations, abstractions, appearances and metanarratives of permanence and superiority. The book argues that Tutuola’s novels offer comprehensive depictions of endogenous universes in Africa wherein reality is more than meets the eye and the world an experience of life beyond sensory perceptions. These are universes where existence or being and becoming materialises through the consciousness that gives it meaning. Tutuola’s contribution to understanding epistemologies endogenous to Africa is in his elusive quest to be a “complete gentleman” of letters and of the world – through publication of his stories inspired by his native Yoruba universe in its dynamism and mobility – and to be recognised by and relevant to Yoruba, Nigerian and African readers as well as to the rest of the world (Lindfors 1970, 1999a; Larson 2001: 1-25) of diasporic Africans and beyond

Who was Amos Tutuola?

Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920. He benefitted from only “six years of frequently interrupted” formal education, and died on 7 June 1997 desperately seeking completeness in a world of binary oppositions and obsession with winning (Larson 2001: 2). Within the framework of colonial education and its hierarchies of credibility, Tutuola was seen by some as an accidental writer (Lindfors 1970; Larson 2001: 1-25) or “the unlettered man of letters” (Lindfors 1999a: 109), as if others are born with a mission to write and a pen in hand. Never wholly endorsed as a writer at any given time away or at home, Tutuola’s literary career went from “foreign enchantment and local embarrassment” to “universal but qualified acceptance” through “foreign disenchantment and local reappraisal” between 1952 and 1975 alone (Lindfors 1975: xiii). 

Tutuola’s parents – Charles Tutuola and Esther Aina Tutuola – were cocoa farmers and also Christians – a significant mention, as Christianity, its symbols, morality and beliefs feature prominently in Tutuola’s books, where not even the bush of ghosts is able to escape its ubiquitous grip, and are a clear illustration that Tutuola is far from stuck in a frozen African past filled with fear and terror, as some of his critics have suggested. In his works, Tutuola seeks to reassure his readers that it is possible to be what Charles Taylor terms “open and porous and vulnerable” to a world of spirits, powers and cosmic forces, and still be “disenchanted” enough to have the confidence of Taylor’s “buffered self,” exploring one’s own “powers of moral ordering” (Taylor 2007: 27). Equally noteworthy is the fact that Tutuola did not allow his embrace of Christianity to serve as an ideological whip to flog him and his Yoruba cultural beliefs into compliance with the one-dimensionalism of colonial Christianity and the dualistic prescriptiveness of European missionaries, vis-à-vis their African converts. His Christianity simply afforded him an opportunity to add another layer of complexity to his toolkit of personal identification (adopting the name “Amos” for example, without giving up “Tutuola”) and to his Yorubaness of being. In this connection, the following observation by Judith Tabron is worth keeping in mind, as we read and seek to understand the nuanced complexities of Tutuola the writer:

Amos Tutuola was born Olatubusun, son of Tutuola, son of the Odafin Odegbami of the town of Abeokuta in Nigeria. His name is an example of the way in which his life was to straddle the transition from traditional Africa to colonized Africa to independent Africa, a complete index of the twentieth century of Africa's history His grandfather was a spiritual leader and administrator of a large section of the town, and Olatubusun grew up watching the ceremonies of the orishas in his town, listening to the orature of Yoruba religion in his compound, and seeing the art celebrating this belief in his grandfather’s house. 

When the family Europeanized their name, after years of work on the part of Christian missionaries in Akeobuta and the death of the Odafin and his son, the rest of the family took the surname Odegbami, for the leader of their clan; Olatubusun took his father’s name, Tutuola, the gentle one, as his surname, and chose or was given the name Amos, his Christian name in every respect, for he had converted by this time, as had his parents (though his grandfather never had) (Tabron 2003: 43-44).

As a Christian named Amos, Tutuola, “the gentle one,” was resolute in turning down an invitation to break with his past and to disown the gods, beliefs and traditions of his land, even as these were reduced to screaming silence, often with the complicity of purportedly enlightened Africans. He was at odds with the hypocrisy of some Africans who harkened to Christianity by day and succumbed by night to endogenous African religions disparaged as superstition yet would not own up in broad daylight to being more than just Christians. Studies in contemporary African religions and religiosities attest to the tensions and frustrations felt by many an African with a Christianity unyielding in its preference for conversion over conversation and determined asphyxiation of endogenous religions and belief systems in Africa.

Tutuola served as a servant for a certain Mr F. O. Monu, an Igbo man, from the age of seven. Mr Monu sent him to the Salvation Army school of Abeokuta in 1934. He also attended the Anglican Central School in Abeokuta. Following the death of his father in 1939, Tutuola left school to train as a blacksmith, a trade he practised from 1942 to 1945 for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria. Again, the significance of Tutuola’s employment by the Royal Air Force is worth bearing in mind, as some critics have tended to express surprise at how Tutuola is able to make reference to aeroplanes, bombs and other technological gadgets usually assumed European. As if Europe, in exporting itself and its technologies of power had, by some strange logic, hoped that these would somehow not ignite the imagination and sense of appropriation of those it sought to conquer, humble and, à la Frederick Lugard, pacify, through the creation of native authorities and a system of indirect rule, or what Mahmood Mamdani has termed “decentralised despotism” (Mamdani 1996). As we read Tutuola, it is worth bearing in mind that not only has there never been or can there ever be a “completely un-British Nigeria,” given the territory’s colonial origins and continuities, but also that Tutuola’s work “reflects the coexistence of English and Yoruba influences in both his cultural past and present” (Tabron 2003: 37). Indeed, his work in Yorubanised English, contributes to the building blocks of the materialisation of the imagined community known as “Nigeria.” As a lingua franca, English (domesticated and otherwise) provided Tutuola and continues to provide other “Nigerian” writers a chance of bridging ethnic divides communicatively and exploring the possibilities and challenges of nationhood, and seeking recognition and relevance in an interconnected and dynamic world (Tabron 2003: 73; Adebanwi 2014a).

Tutuola tried his hand at several other vocations, including selling bread, as a metal-worker and as a photographer (which again features in his books, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (Tutuola 1952: 65), for example), as well as serving as a messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labour, which he joined in 1948. From 1956 until retirement, he worked as a storekeeper for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Ibadan while continuing to write. He married Victoria Alake in 1947 and had eight children with her, four sons and four daughters. In 1967 he published Ajaiyi and his Inherited Poverty, with a dedication that read: “In memory of my Mother Mrs. Esther Aina Tutuola who died on 25th November 1964” (Tutuola 1967) (see also Arthur Calder-Marshall, reprinted in Lindfors 1975: 9; West Africa, May 1, 1954, reproduced in Lindfors 1975: 35-38; Owomoyela 1997: 865-866).

Tutuola’s unhinged imagination

Tutuola’s first published novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (Tutuola 1952), through the controversy it generated, exposed both the possibilities and limitations of colonial education and the civilisation it represented and sought to enshrine through racialized, evolutionary ideas of humanity, culture and cultivation. In his review of the book in the Observer newspaper on 6 July 1952, Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet to whom “Tutuola may owe much of his early notoriety” (Lindfors 1975: 1), talks of “a brief, thronged, grisly, and bewitching story” and nothing was “too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story” (Dylan Thomas, reprinted in Lindfors 1975: 7-8; Soyinka 1963: 391; Lindfors 1970: 311; Larson 2001: 4). Dylan Thomas’s review turned out as the precursor of initially “extremely favourable” reactions in Europe and North America to Tutuola’s first two published novels (Lindfors 1975: xiii), where “the first reviewers greeted Tutuola’s unusual tale with wide-eyed enthusiasm, hailing the author as a primitive genius endowed with amazing originality and charming naiveté” (Lindfors 1975: 1).

While many non-African readers (English and Americans in the main) were ambivalent but fascinated by Tutuola’s young English and “unhinged imagination,” Nigerians who had drunk profoundly from the wells of colonial education were angered by the book. “They had learned that dexterity in handling language was a necessity for a literary career, and they found Tutuola’s critical reception befuddling” (Owomoyela 1997: 868). They considered it a spanner in the works of their ambitions for and dedicated pursuit of colonial modernity. To Yemi Ogunbiyi, for example, Tutuola was “the one-time store-keeper-turned writer whose rather limited knowledge of the grammar and rather tedious syntax of the English language became something of an advantage in his attempt to tell his many stories” (Ogunbiyi, quoted in Larson 2001: 20). Lindfors captures this contrast as follows: “To native speakers of English Tutuola’s splintered style was an amusing novelty; to educated Nigerians who had spent years honing and polishing their English it was a schoolboy’s abomination” (Lindfors 1970: 331). To the colonially educated Nigerians, for Tutuola’s European readers to display such open fascination with his exotic subject matter and his atrocious English grammar was nothing short of suspect (Lindfors 1975: xiii).

Writing under the African sounding pseudonym of “Akanji,” Ulli Beier, a German refugee who had trained in linguistics in London and worked at University College, Ibadan (Currey 2008: 41), was one of those critical of the decision by Faber and Faber to allow even spelling mistakes to go uncorrected. Akanji remarked disapprovingly:

Tutuola’s language will lose none of its poetry, his style will not lose character if he is told that “gourd” is not “guord.” It is mere sensationalism on the part of the publisher not to correct a mistake like the following: “I thank you all for the worm affection you have on me.” The publishers are in this case no longer interested to preserve Tutuola’s originality, they are inviting the readers to have a good laugh at his expense. I wonder whether the publishers realise how much harm they do to Tutuola’s reputation in West Africa through this kind of thing? There has been a great deal of opposition to Tutuola on the part of young West Africans. They suspect that his success in Europe is not based on literary merits but on his curiosity value. They feel that Europeans merely laugh at the “funny” language and the “semi-literate” style of Tutuola. The publisher’s attitude confirms their suspicions in the eyes of the younger generation and helps to blind them to Tutuola’s genuine literary merits (Akanji, reprinted in Lindfors 1975[1958]: 84-85).

The merit of this criticism must not be dismissed in a hurry, especially when seen in light of other well known experiences of how Europeans have in the past imported and paraded Africans as freak shows. Examples of such displays of Africans for the entertainment of and ridicule by European audiences include Sara Baartman “the Hottentot Venus,” who was paraded as a freak show or as a caged tigress (Crais and Pamela 2009), and El Negro – whose body was stolen by two French taxidermists from a grave beyond the Cape Colony frontier in 1830-31 (Parsons 2002). Africans critical of the uncritical endorsement of Tutuola in Europe were thus not without worrying precedence.

Further support to the complaining West Africans came from other colonial or former colonial subjects in Britain. One of them was Trinidadian Indian writer, V. S. Naipaul, who, in a brief review in April 1958 in the New Statesman of Tutuola’s fourth novel The Brave African Huntress, criticised Tutuola’s persistent schoolboy imperfections thus:

Tutuola’s English is that of the West African schoolboy, an imperfectly acquired second language. In what other age could bad grammar have been a literary asset? And how has it preserved its wonderful badness? These queries are unavoidable when one reads The Brave African Huntress. It is Tutuola’s fourth, the most straightforward and the thinnest. …. Were it not for the difficult language, the book could be given to children (V. S. Naipaul, reprinted in Lindfors 1975[1958]: 87).

V. S. Naipaul’s critical opinion of the persistence of Tutuola’s schoolboy English demonstrates a frustration with Tutuola’s subsequent books, after the sensational enthusiasm that greeted his first two publications in Europe and North America. As an unattributed review published in The Times Literary Supplement in May 1962 remarked, those initially dazzled and intoxicated by the combination of “the strangeness of the African subject matter, the primary colours, the mixture of sophistication, superstition, and primitivism and above all the incantatory juggling with the English language” of his first two novels were disappointed in Tutuola’s subsequent writings, which came across as flat and repetitive. Quoting Gerald Moore, Paul Neumarkt describes the later Tutuola as a writer whose magic had leaked away, and who could no longer use “the lures of the bush” to which he so easily “succumbed” to dazzle his European readers and embarrass his fellow Africans who were desperately seeking escape from the fear and terror of the very same African bush which Tutuola celebrated (Neumarkt 1975[1971]: 188-189]. 

As a winner takes all project, colonialism and colonial education encouraged the adoption of the colonial language in its purest authentication – English, in the case of Yorubaland and the rest of colonial Nigeria – which was generally perceived to be superior to the languages (often referred to condescendingly as vernaculars and dialects) of the colonised. As we gather from anthropologist and writer Okot p’Bitek’s epic poem Song of Lawino (p’Bitek 1989[1966]), which I bring into conversation with Tutuola’s works here and there in the book (given that the colonially illiterate narrator Lawino has much in common with the barely colonially literate Tutuola and is treated in the same condescending manner by the “fully” or marginally better educated African in colonial terms), the tendency was for schools to punish grammatically incorrect English such as Tutuola’s. As Pido attests, it was a punishable offense in the 1950s when Okot p’Bitek was in school to speak the Acholi language in the school compound (Pido 1997: 674). This was meant to discourage teaching and learning in indigenous African languages, and to stunt the sort of creative use of language which passes for award-winning genius. Notwithstanding, in certain cases, some overly enthusiastic converts adopted the colonial language in their families to the exclusion and detriment of their own mother tongues. 

Such trends persist. Rigid expectations of linguistic purity and regimes and rituals of language purification are rife in present day Africa, where one would expect a measure of confidence and pride in legitimate recognition of and representation for popular creative appropriation and domestication of colonial languages. 

Making room for popular traditions of knowledge

The book makes a case for space to be created for sidestepped traditions of knowledge such as those depicted in Tutuola’s books and shared as anthropological and sociological realities across a culturally dynamic Africa. It draws attention to Africa’s possibilities, prospects and emergent capacities for being and becoming in tune with its creativity and imagination.

It speaks to the nimble-footed flexible-minded frontier African at the crossroads and junctions of myriad encounters, facilitating creative conversations and challenging regressive logics of exclusionary claims and articulation of identities and achievements. This book makes the case, to quote a Tutuola reviewer, Desmond MacNamara, for “a tolerant coexistence between fearful monsters and oil refineries” in modern day Africa (Desmond MacNamara, reprinted in Lindfors 1975[1967]: 97). It argues that an African literature shy of and embarrassed by its mythical and folkloric past, even if this past were indeed barbaric and primitive, impoverishes itself through such an uncritical and elitist embrace of the one-dimensionalism of colonial education and its palatability regimes. 

African literature has much catching up to do with African filmmakers and musicians in this regard. Makers of African movies have already navigated this path, and the popularity of their films suggests that indeed there is no longer shame in telling the stories of their past and present, no matter how “backward” these may seem (Barlet 2000[1996]; Gugler 2003; Okwori 2003; Tcheuyap 2005, 2011; Şaul, and Austen 2010; Krings and Okome 2013; Meyer 2015). Many African musicians have for years been comfortable going to their home villages to film videos in houses that would shame the majority of their Eurocentric elite. If anything, Tutuola confidently teaches by example, that Nigerians and Africans by extension “must not be ashamed of their old way of life, if they are to produce a literature worthy of their own aspirations” (Harold R. Collins, reprinted in Lindfors 1975a[1961]: 66-68). This book uses Tutuola’s stories to question dualistic assumptions about reality and scholarship all too present in the absolutistic colonising epistemologies of European origins and ancestry, and to call for conviviality, interconnections and interdependence between competing knowledge traditions in Africa and globally. 

The need for this book on Amos Tutuola has become more urgent with recent and surging student protests across universities in Africa seeking decolonisation and transformation of higher education. In South Africa, for example, intensifying student protests for the transformation of an alienating, often racialized, higher education system currently across universities – symbolised by the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement initiated by students of the University of Cape Town, as well as the “Fees Must Fall” and related movements – is an indication that even so-called privileged African students in first-rate African universities feel just as unfulfilled and alienated by an overly Eurocentric index of knowledge and knowledge production in Africa and globally.

There is almost total discontinuity between the idea of knowledge in African universities and what constitutes knowledge outside universities and in African art and literature.

The student-driven ferment seeks recognition and integration in teaching and research on popular and endogenous forms of knowledge and ways of knowing informed by African experiences and predicaments (Gibson 2016; Nyamnjoh 2016), and especially by the continent’s frontier realities. As a frontier author of frontier stories with little interest in zero-sum games of dominance and conquest, Tutuola is best placed to point us in the direction of more truly inclusive, solidly Africanised systems of higher education on the continent.

Once despised, exoticised, primitivised and ridiculed as a relic of a dying and forgotten past of a dark continent awakening and harkening to the call of the floodlights of a colonising European civilisation, Tutuola is increasingly influencing younger generations of storytellers and filmmakers, especially following his death in 1997. His brushstrokes are gaining in popularity. New editions of his works are surfacing, and if the talks I have given at universities and research institutions across the continent on Amos Tutuola are anything to go by, scholars of different disciplinary backgrounds, students and intellectuals of other walks of life who hear of him are keen to locate and read his books. As Wole Soyinka has suggested in an introduction to the latest edition of Tutuola’s first published novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola appears to be enjoying a “quiet but steady revival” both “within his immediate cultural environment, and across America and Europe” (Soyinka 2014: viii). In this most recent book of mine, I explore what might account for such growing interest in someone who was for a long time summarily dismissed by elite African intellectuals as an embarrassment and an expensive distraction.

A closer look at the universe depicted by Tutuola suggests it has far more to offer Africa and the rest of the world than was initially provided for by the one-dimensional logic of conquest and completeness championed by European imperialism and colonialism. Tutuola’s universe is one in which economies of intimacy go hand in hand with a market economy, and where pleasure and work are expected to be carefully balanced, just as balance is expected between affluence and poverty, nature, culture and supernature. Tutuola draws on popular philosophies of life, personhood and agency in Africa, where the principle of inclusive humanity is celebrated as a matter of course, and the supremacy of reason and logic are not to be taken at face value. Collective success is emphasised, and individuals may not begin to consider themselves to have succeeded unless they can demonstrate the extent to which they have actively included intimate and even distant others: family members and friends, fellow villagers and even fellow nationals and perfect strangers, depending on one’s stature and networks – in the success in question (Nyamnjoh 2015b, 2015c, 2016). 

The book argues that despite his unconventional English domesticated by his Yoruba syntax, modest and less than intellectual education in elite African terms, Tutuola has contributed significantly to the resilience of ways of life and worldviews that could easily have disappeared under the weight of extractive colonialism, globalisation and the market economy. His are stories of an accommodating resilience against a tendency towards metanarratives of superiority and conquest championed by the aggressive zero-sum games of the powerful. Tutuola’s stories emphasise conviviality and interdependence, including between market and gift economies.

Bushes, activation and consciousness at the heart of Tutuola’s stories

At the heart of many of Tutuola’s stories are bushes, both tamed and wild, into which humans venture for sustenance and sometimes get lost and are subjected to gruelling encounters with strangers, and often larger or smaller than life creatures. Hunting and hunters are significant, in this relationship between the town and the bush, and are often instrumental in the sort of conversations that develop between the two. There are always new bushes to be imagined, invented and found by Tutuola’s quest-heroes. It is imagination gone wild that produces new bushes open to exploration by the questers of his universe. His bushes are not as confined to a spatial reality, as they are zones of possibilities and activation. 

This theme of bushes is explored by drawing on similarities from Cameroon, where it is common for villagers and youth to consider urban and transnational migration as a hunting expedition. This discussion offers an opportunity to ponder interconnections and interdependencies in a sweet- and nimble-footed world of flexible mobilities and encounters of various types and intentionalities. Such mobilities and encounters provide added meaning to an African saying that until the lions [often perceived as prey] produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. No one has the monopoly of defining what constitutes a hunting ground and of who may or may not hunt. As amply illustrated in Tutuola’s bush of ghosts, the story of the hunt is open to the hunter and the hunted, and hunting is not confined to professional hunters. Tutuola suggests ways for vulnerable Africans to challenge victimhood. In his stories, very ordinary Africans are quite simply extraordinary in their capacity to challenge victimisation and the brutal and brutish games of power and conquest. His stories challenge the illusion of the autonomous, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent individual by inviting the reader to embrace and celebrate incompleteness as the normal order of being and of things. They suggest an epistemology of conviviality in which interdependence is privileged and delusions of grandeur and completeness discouraged. Rich and poor are co-implicated and mutually entangled in Tutuola’s universe of the elusiveness of completeness.

To achieve greater efficacy in actions and interactions, Tutuola’s creatures seek creative ways and technological enhancements to activate themselves to commensurate levels of potency. This is achieved through relationships of interdependence with incomplete others, as well as through technologies of self-extension, juju (spells and charms) and magic, which can be acquired and lost with circumstances. Tutuola himself epitomises the universe he depicts, not only through his own cunning and trickery, prankishness and elusive quest for completeness in a world of zero-sum games of civilisations founded on exclusionary violence, but also by pointing a critical finger at the modern African intellectual elite who have unquestioningly yielded to a narrow Eurocentric index of civilisation and humanity. 

Tutuola’s first two published novels are of especial relevance here. In an article published in 1963, just over ten years following its publication, Wole Soyinka describes The Palm-Wine Drinkard as Tutuola’s best and least impeachable novel. “This book,” apart from the work of Chief Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa “who writes in Yoruba, is the earliest instance of the new Nigerian writer gathering multifarious experiences under, if you like, the two cultures [Yoruba and English] and exploiting them in one extravagant, confident whole” (Soyinka 1963: 390, parenthesis inserted by me). According to Arthur Calder-Marshall, who reviewed The Palm-Wine Drinkard in The Listener in November 1952, Tutuola credits “a very old man” on his father’s farm for inspiring him with the initial story of the palm-wine drinkard, after feeding him with palm-wine to a point where “it was intoxicating me as if I was dreaming.” Of this revelation by Tutuola, Calder-Marshall remarks: “How much was due to the very old man, how much to the influence of palm-wine and how much to the poetic imagination of Amos Tutuola, it is impossible to say” (Arthur Calder-Marshall, reprinted in Lindfors 1975: 9; see also Eric Larrabee, reprinted in Lindfors 1975: 13). 

Following Tutuola’s death, Yinka Tutuola, one of his sons, reiterated this in an interview, and provided additional sources of inspiration to his late father. According to Yinka, his father was “never tired of writing and typing” up stories he collected from visits to the village. Tutuola took regular advantage of his annual leave to “travel to his village with an old Pye reel-to-reel tape recorder,” where “he collected stories of all kinds,” some of which he played back for entertainment of city folks, and some of which he transcribed and used for his writing projects. He made the collection of stories a social and convivial process. “At nights in the village, he would buy palm-wine to entertain his guests who would be competing to tell the best stories they could. He would record these stories till very late in the night.” Tutuola “enjoyed being in the village so much,” according to his son, who adds: “I think if he was not working with the government he would rather have preferred to live there among the village people – probably because of their simple ways of life.” Like the professional ethnographer whose life and very existence as a practitioner of anthropology is intimately tied to the field notes and transcriptions of observations, encounters and conversations in the field, Tutuola’s:

…life was just intertwined with stories– collecting, forming, writing or telling them. …. Stories gave him so much joy that he lacked interest in many other things, like going to social parties.... When reel-to-reel tape recorders got out of fashion and were replaced with more compact cassette recorders, there was a problem. He couldn’t transfer all his stories, for they were too many. He lost a great part of his collection. 

As evident from the frontier existence of the “born and die” babies common throughout Tutuola’s writings (see for example, Tutuola 1954: 40-45; Tutuola 1981: 65), and from the often double or multiple consciousness of his beings who assume various natures and forms contingent on the challenges or exigencies at hand, consciousness is something bigger than the physical body a human being or creature of the wild (creepy crawlies included) assumes, and is in continuous interconnection and conversation with the consciousness of relatives and related others – visible and invisible – such as ancestors or the community one may have left behind, such as happens often with the “born and die” babies and with many a Tutuola narrator preoccupied with and tested by questions of origins, nature and destiny of humanity from the vantage point of Yoruba culture, belief systems and agency. The complex truth and reality of the Yoruba world, requires, among others, sociologists, anthropologists and historians in intimate conversations with cultural producers who, like Wole Soyinka in Aké, (1981) and Ìsarà (1990), demonstrate a creativity with history, chronology, story, structure and language that are exemplary of how African writers have gone about making intimate strangers of and negotiating the tensions and attractions between fact and fiction, literature and ethnography, tradition and modernity, competing traditions of religiosity, change and continuity (Peel 2002).

A key contribution of Tutuola’s is in how he brings essence and consciousness into conversation that evidences their complementarity. Consciousness opens a window to the world in its tangible and intangible, visible and invisible multiplicities, by means of which it constantly enriches itself. Tutuola introduces us to the complexity of consciousness not only through the transcendental capacity for presence in simultaneous multiplicities, but also through the reality of intricate interconnections and interdependencies. While the former attribute is abundantly obvious in every one of his works, the latter is especially extensively developed in The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, through the idea of the interconnections and interdependencies between the “First Mind,” the “Second Mind,” the “Memory” and the “Supreme Second” of the brave hunter of the Rocky Town (Tutuola 1981: 270-279). I discuss and illustrate this point later in the book.

In Tutuola’s universe, consciousness works in intricate and often circular ways, compressing time and space in manners that defy the logic of the senses and its fixation with linearity, chronology and unity of form – body, mind and soul. Tutuola’s universe (especially through the “born and die” babies and their experiences) suggests that consciousness is there in an out-of-body sort of way before humans enter the bodies with which they are apparently saddled for most of their lives as human beings on earth, and consciousness remains after humans leave these bodies, as exemplified, yet again, by the death of “born and die” babies – an issue equally discussed further in the course of the book. To anthropologists, Tutuola brings home in compelling ways Todd Sanders epistemological challenge to think beyond bodies when seeking to understand rainmaking and sense making in Tanzania – a reality too easily corrupted by a Eurocentric modernity and its obsession with evolutionary thinking and binary oppositions (Sanders 2003, 2008). Tutuola also provides for fascinating conversations with contemporary efforts to create humanoid robots as virtual receptacles of uploaded consciousness of [deceased] humans.

Indeed, thinking beyond bodies – as Nigerian anthropologist and gender scholar Ifi Amadiume has richly demonstrated in her pacesetter study of gender in Africa and African feminism – unlocks and situates the often misunderstood intricacies and apparent contradictions in African worldviews, beliefs, social systems and privileged relationships of interconnection and interdependence (Amadiume 1987, 1997). Amadiume reiterates not only the social construction of identities, but more importantly, disrupts the dualism that insists on a priori distinctions between male and female as bounded and discrete biological entities, which is implicit even in the most radical Eurocentric articulations of gender and power. Far from all being subordinates to men, as is often erroneously claimed in studies informed by Western-inspired orthodoxies, women in precolonial Africa, Amadiume argues, were structurally allowed to play roles usually monopolised by men, even if that meant becoming classified as “men” in the process. Sex and gender did not necessarily coincide, as the dualistic thinking in dominant Western orthodoxies suggests, where roles tend to be rigidly, narrowly and blindly masculinised or feminised in abstraction. This made precolonial Africa a place where “masculinity” was possible without men – “female masculinity” – as women assumed positions or characteristics usually regarded as the preserve of men. 

Amadiume challenges gender scholars to do more than embrace the multiple and ambiguous dimensions of masculinities and femininities, by contesting a narrow idea of reality characterised by dualisms and the primacy of the mind, the purportedly autonomous individual and a world of sensory perceptions. Amadiume’s understanding of gender is ultimately an invitation to challenge thinking by dichotomies and to problematize a tendency to be wedded to appearances and the implicit or explicit unilinear rationality of the mind even among those who provide for other forms of rationality (Amadiume 1987, 1997). Some prominent gender scholars, evidenced for example by Oyeronke Oyewumi’s African Gender Studies reader (Oyewumi 2005), have built on this thinking, and it would be a missed opportunity not to identify and engage this body of literature in a study of masculinities and femininities, especially in a context yearning for an infusion of epistemologies and perspectives silenced, misrepresented or caricatured by the overwhelming dominance of resilient colonial and colonising epistemologies.

Tutuola is a fascinating precursor to these debates on flexible and fluid categories, social and biological bodies, and of how usefully to bring essence and consciousness into fruitful and innovative conversations. He may not have been to the university, but many in universities today would need to pass through him for intellectual re-imagination. If in Tutuola’s universe biological bodies are mindful vehicles or containers or envelops, and men and women are always subjects in context of the relationships and material possibilities that shape and are shaped by them, then consciousness becomes more important than the particular containers that house them and power as the capacity to activate one’s potency for efficacious action is not as predictable and permanent as often imagined. 

This unstable nature of potency is all the more significant, as Jean-Pierre Warnier argues with reference to the container kings of the Cameroon Grassfields, in contexts where, due to various afflictions, containers as “vital piggy banks” are known to suffer various “leakages” (Warnier 1993a, 1993b, 2013c). Herein lies the danger of instinctively conflating a particular container with a particular consciousness, however practiced we have become in seeing and having containers and contents conterminous in their presence. Within this framework and understanding of reality – a framework that is very popular across Africa – “in-betweenness” or “incompleteness” of masculinities and femininities anywhere, far from being an inadequacy in the Levi-Straussian logic of binary opposition between anthropophagic (inclusive) and anthropoemic (exclusive) societies, is a reflection of the normal order of what it means to be male or female as an open-ended frontier reality (Kopytoff 1987). Instead of seeing “frontier masculinities or femininities” as the absence of fulfilment in belonging, I suggest that it be seen as the normal state of things in a context where every masculinity or femininity (housed by men or women as biological categories), is necessarily “incomplete” or “frontier,” constantly needing to be activated into degrees of potency for efficacious action through relationships with others (equally incomplete).

Tutuola’s universe invites his readers not to seek to confine the richness and possibilities of consciousness through single factor approaches to fathoming reality. He provides us with a basket of possibilities for exploring and entertaining conversations with consciousness, and without seeking to prioritise, a priori, some to the detriment of others. These approaches include, inter alia, perception, experience, memory, sensation, impression, evidence, reason, reflection, intention, intuition, introspection, imagination, doubt, faith, humility, mind, body, self, language, symbolism, values, myth, belief and speculation. As repeatedly demonstrated in Tutuola’s universe, consciousness matters more than the containers that house it. Consciousness can inhabit any container – human and non-human, animate and inanimate, visible and invisible – regardless of the state of completeness or incompleteness of the container in question, and irrespective of the capacity of a juju, a spell or charm to influence and control the physical nature, form, action and activities of the container in accordance with the bidding of an external agent. 

These universes celebrate what it means to be a frontier being, at the crossroads and junctions of multiple influences and possibilities, mixing and blending to forge a vision where certainties are never too rigid and the prospect of innovation a constant source of hope. The disposition of these universes to the reality of crossroads as points of confusion, contradiction, competition and transit, and as meeting points and neutral grounds highlight their potential to welcome, accommodate and enable activation for myriad forms of potency for the efficacy of those – humans and non-humans – who inhabit them, however temporarily. If confusion is a nimble-footed recurrent danger to established sociality in Amos Tutuola’s universe, as Jane Guyer points out, “amenable to momentary containment and expulsion, and recognisable when it returns … as it certainly will” in the person of the Slanderer (Guyer 2015a: 71), then the crossroads, with its infinite capacity to entertain and accommodate contradictions and incommensurability, and to provide for those frustrated by or frustrating to various heartlands of birth, citizenship, certainty and certitude, are the best location for bringing myriad confusions into creative and innovative conversations bearing on frontier cosmopolitanism, inclusive belonging and conviviality.

In its quest for retainers, interpreters and advocates, consciousness and its repertoire of memory are extendable, projectable, downloadable, transportable and outsourceable through embodiment, sensation, action and interaction as material and social realities. Seen in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s self-awareness through habitual practice and creative improvisation – habitus, consciousness is at the origin and also at the end of the rules and regulations which humans and other creatures of habit, as part of a field or fields, internalise, embody and reproduce almost effortlessly (even if creatively and with improvisation), as if these were second nature, or as nature as a continuum into culture. Consciousness as habitus is produced and reproduced through the embodiment and enactment of social action, not simply as a system of rules, but determined as well by the resources, practical dispositions and strategies available to the social agents involved in its daily translation, interpretation and articulation (Bourdieu 1991, 1996). 

Challenging superiority syndromes and zero-sum games of potency and dominance

The book goes on to argue that Tutuola’s novels are not just works of fiction. They are founded on the lived realities of Yoruba society – realities shared with many other communities across the continent – and depict endogenous epistemologies that are very popular in Africa. The stories he recounts are commonplace across the continent. However, despite their popularity with ordinary Africans and with elite Africans when not keeping up appearances with the rationalist expectations of their Western and Westernised counterparts, such epistemologies are largely silent and invisible in scholarly circles because they are often ignored, caricatured or misrepresented in derogatory and ideologically loaded categories of “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” “superstition,” “primitivism,” “savagery” and “animism” inspired by the origins and dominance of homogenising Eurocentric modernity and its traditions of meaning making. Like the narrators in his books, Tutuola is unapologetically and actively part and parcel of the universe that fascinates him. 

Like the storytellers of First Nations peoples of northern Canada who, according to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank use “optimistic stories about the past” to “draw on internal resources to survive and make sense of arbitrary forces that might otherwise seem overwhelming,” subvert administrative ambitions and official orthodoxies, “challenge imperial conceptions of time and space,” “make meaningful connections and provide order and continuity in a rapidly changing world” through interweaving information, moral content and philosophical guidance (Cruikshank 1998: xii-xvii), Tutuola invites his readers to challenge superiority syndromes and zero-sum games of potency and dominance. His stories are contributions to his mission of keeping alive and relevant African ways of knowing and knowledge production, and fending off the one-dimensionalism of resilient colonialism and the ambitions of purity and completeness which it claims and inspires.

This study compares Tutuola’s Yoruba universe and cosmology to Chinua Achebe’s Igbo dancing masquerade, the truth of which is dynamic, constantly on the move and in need of nimble-footedness to appraise and keep track of. Its complexities, ambiguities and ambivalences call for nuanced and multiple angles of appreciation.


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