Before We Set Sail by Chika Ezeanya: A Book Review By Biko Agozino
Historical novels come with spoilers because the readers already know how the stories are going to end and yet the genre is popular enough to be read and reviewed like the classic movies and comedy shows that are watched compulsively on television reruns. Such novels are even more compelling than television because they are not simply entertaining but also instructive and interactive even when the subject matter is so painful that the story is one not to be told for fun. In the hands of the gifted story-teller, Dr. Chika Ezeanya, a nightmarish tragedy turns into a finger-licking un-put-down-able treat that leaves readers wishing that there were more pages to turn at the end of the historical narrative given that history never ends.
The Interesting Narratives of Olaudah Equiano is one such captivating story of captivity and sorrow that was an instant best seller when he published it in 1792 but he largely skipped over the culture and life of his people before he was kidnapped with his sister and shipped away into enslavement in the new world. After all these years, Chika has filled this lacuna in our collective memory with a prequel tale of immense beauty clothed with suspense and narrated from the point of view of the young Olaudah.
Chika displays evidence of thorough historical research on what Cheikh Anta Diop theorized as pre-colonial black Africa. The only distinction here to her credit is that Diop painted a Negritude picture of an improbable civilization that appeared so perfect that there were no villains while Ezeanya shocks the reader into accepting the obvious reality that there is no such thing as a perfect civilization in a history characterized by widespread violence and terrorism. Readers who expect to find an un-spoilt innocence in pre-colonial Africa will be disillusioned to find that there were already unscrupulous people driven by greed to seek to profit from the sorrows of their fellows. Similarly, those seeking the heart of darkness in the pre-colonial epoch would be shamed into finding a thriving civilization in the hinterland.
What Ezeanya presented in this novel is closer to the valid historiography of Walter Rodney in The History of the Upper Guinea Coast according to which it is false propaganda to assert that Africans sold their own children into slavery like commodities. On the contrary, Africans fought bravely against the raiding kidnappers while the slave-trading chiefs of the coastal kingdoms and the fraudulent priests of the hinterland made it clear that they were not enslaving their own people because they preyed on the lower classes of peasants especially in the village democracies that colonial anthropologists dubbed ‘headless societies’ which lacked standing armies that could have more effectively protected their people from the raids by hordes armed with rum and gunpowder from evil European merchants.
The suspicion that one father sold his child was rightly frowned upon in the novel because it was not the norm in a civilization characterized by parental love and affection. This is understandable today in the sense that news of the abuse of children by priests, parents and guardians always come across as unbelievable and shocking but is never accepted as the rule for the society despite the unprecedented levels of greed and immorality in capitalist societies of today. Moreover, those who insist that there was slavery in Africa before the trans Atlantic slavery will discover that what passed for slavery in Africa at that time was partly due to the demand by European merchants and that it was clearly different in contents and context compared to chattel slavery because the enslaved were integrated into the households of the coastal chiefs whom they called their father, Etenyin, and whose wives they called mother, Eka, in the Efik language. The wives worked in the fields with their enslaved ‘children’ and gossiped openly about who was having an affair with whom. The enslaved constantly plotted their escape back to their beloved homeland to the extent that the name of the main merchant port, Calabar, has meaning in neither Efik nor English but translates literally to ‘Let us Go Home’ in the Igbo language of the majority of the enslaved.
In the narrative, Ezeanya abundantly displays one of her scholarly passions – research and advocacy for indigenous technology. For instance, the highly developed science of iron smelting and blacksmithing that the plantations of the New World coveted aggressively is carefully represented in the story against a background of courtship of young maidens who played hard to get but still yearned to be touched by the much admired apprentice blacksmith – apprenticeship being the traditional business school system that is still the mainstay of Igbo commercial competitiveness. The story also indirectly reveals the environmental un-sustainability of the blacksmithing technology that relied on the charcoaling of whole trees without a program of reforestation for future uses or the invention of gas-fired furnaces for the blacksmiths who continue to burn charcoals today.
Another indigenous knowledge system highlighted in the story is that of mental health care. Unlike the oppressive dehumanization of the mentally ill that Freud, Goffman, Fanon, Foucault and others critiqued, the mental patient in pre-colonial black Africa remained a full member of the community whose humanity was never in doubt even while undergoing treatment at the home of the healer-priest and without any obsession about the cost of treatment quite unlike the alienating asylum powered by the profit motive that Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow rejected outright. The husband was allowed to procreate with his wife while she was being treated for a nervous breakdown whereas America recorded the hysterical fascist sterilization of tens of thousands of the poor who were deemed to be burdens on society under the ideology of eugenics. When a man claimed to hear voices and see things that other people did not hear or see, he was not locked up and when he refused to come down from a tree, his family took food and drinks to the tree from which he accurately prophesied the coming holocaust that was slavery. No one would say with Rene Descartes, ‘I think therefore I am’, as if those who did not think exactly like him were not human enough. Those that Soyinka dismissed as Neo-Tarzanists who still believe that Africans lived on tree-tops could see that only a crazy African would try that even in the past while Europeans are the ones more likely to build tree-top houses today to try and save trees from being cut down by capitalist developers.
Similarly, contrary to the white-supremacist ideology propagated by Hume, Hegel, Levis-Strauss and many others that what makes Europeans more civilized than the rest of the supposedly Barbarian cultures of the world was that Europeans had literacy while the rest had oral traditions; Ezeanya correctly demonstrates, as Derrida did in Of Grammatology, that indeed writing in general was invented by Africans and is found in all cultures today. The problem could be that the colonial anthropologist was not literate in the scripts of the other and not that the native was completely illiterate. This is a direct warning against white-supremacy in the sense that any attempt to wipe away the memory of others by wiping away their scripts usually ends with attempts to wipe out their lives as the genocide against American Indian Natives and the holocaust of trans Atlantic slavery against Africans attempted long before the Nazi holocaust followed the same script. The enslaved child who accidentally revealed that he could read the secret sacred texts of Nsibiri was instantly elevated into the elite ranks of the ruling secret societies whereas the plantation owners in the new world deliberately outlawed the learning of reading and writing among the enslaved for obvious reasons.
This Achebesque narrative of Chika Ezeanya is recommended as a treat to all lovers of fascinating tales told by an entrancing artist capable of turning a painful tragedy into a memorable adventure that is guaranteed to intrude into the normal bed times of readers and insist that the pages keep turning compulsively. It is predictable that this novel will join the ranks of modern classics as permanent features on the required reading lists for students at all levels because the language is accessible enough to appeal to the general public. Readers who reach the end with a tantalizing feeling because they want to have more pages to turn and keep reading should be consoled by the fact that the young author of this novel is certainly going to deliver more from where this one came. I can’t wait.
Professor Agozino is the Director of Africana Studies Program at Virginia Tech University, Virginia.
Before We Set Sail is published by The History Society of Africa and is available in both kindle and paperback at www.amazon.com and other leading book stores.
Find out more and read excerpts at www.beforewesetsail.com