Wole Soyinka, the First African Writer to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Faith, Medicine, and the Healing of the Human Spirit
What a continent’s “rich tapestry of intuitive forces” can teach us about healing, of body and of soul.
By Maria Popova
Even though the term “placebo effect” was coined in 1920 and the phenomenon itself has been studied since the 18th century, only recently have scientists begun to understand the full extent to which our minds affect our bodies. Of course, long before Western medicine was able to define and demonstrate it empirically, the world’s ancient practitioners of traditional medicine have been reaping the benefits of this integrative mind-body approach to healing for centuries, if not millennia — under the dismissive, even scornful eye of the Western medical establishment. But in addition to betraying the very basic tenet of science as a discipline propelled not by the arrogance of what we know but by the humility of what we don’t — by the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that transmutes curiosity into knowledge — such attitudes are mired in more complex sociocultural forces and power dynamics, especially in societies torn between two worlds by the soul-splitting aftermath of colonialism.
That’s precisely what Wole Soyinka — the first African writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — explores in his altogether excellent collection Of Africa (public library).
Soyinka writes in the introduction:
What does the continent known as Africa possess that the rest — or a greater part — of the globe does not have already in superabundance? These, obviously, cannot be limited to material or inert possessions — such as mineral resources, touristic landscapes, strategic locations— not forgetting the continent’s centuries — old designation as human hatcheries for the supply of cheap labor to other societies, East and West. There also exist dynamic possessions — ways of perceiving, responding, adapting, or simply doing that vary from people to people, including structures of human relationships. These all constitute potential commodities of exchange— not as negotiable as timber, petroleum, or uranium perhaps, but nonetheless recognizable as defining the human worth of any people—and could actually contribute to the resolution of the existential dilemma of distant communities, or indeed to global survival, if only they were known about or permitted their proper valuation.
It is its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment— both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual) — that remain the primary, incontestable assets to which any society can lay claim or offer as unique contributions to the attainments of the world.
In an essay titled “Not a ‘Way of Life,’ But a Guide to Existence” — particularly poignant in the wake of the world’s frantic response to the Ebola crisis — Soyinka examines the larger secular structures and functions surrounding traditional religion, focusing on those aspects of society that reside not “within the mysteries of the religion itself, but in those areas of mundane activities in which religion is implicated, however marginally, making our selection among the more pacific and unavoidable human occupation.” He considers the disorienting intersection between traditional African spiritual traditions — traditions that have shaped “social conduct, human relations, and survival strategies” — and their ambivalent disavowal by post-colonial society:
My mother was what we call a petty trader. Next to her shop was a traditional healer, a babalawo, whose clinic was the verandah of his mud house, under a lean-to, thus making it quite visible from the frontage of our own shop, where I often sat. My father was a schoolteacher, and it struck me that his, and the babalawo’s, operations appeared to share the activity of instruction, so I began to take an illicit interest in his methods. Illicit because, to a well-brought-up child from a Christian home, such activities were clearly the work of the devil. Beyond a neighborly good morning, there was hardly any social intercourse between the healer and our own corner of the block.
And yet despite this coolly detached public courtesy was only one half of the great ambivalence with which the community regarded the babalawo; the other half was enacted privately, in secret:
The babalawo’s clinic was the place for a more fascinating array of herbal concoctions dispensed for various illnesses—potions from barks and roots, bitter and astringent, oily and/or gritty, not too dissimilar from those that were dispensed by the bottle and spoon in western hospitals. I was also able to observe that the babalawo’s consulting shack was patronized by practicing Christians and Moslems — a number of them sneaking in after dusk or in the early morning on their way to white-collar duties… My superimposing eyes also remarked that, in our own home, apart from the pills and potions dispensed from the government hospitals, there were also jars, clay pots, and gourds whose contents were suspiciously like the ones I saw being provided by the babalawo.
With an eye toward the broader social and cultural implications of the community’s response to African traditional medicine, Soyinka writes:
One deduction emerged effortlessly from those childhood experiences: a distinction between the passive and the active (participatory) curative methods… The “return to source” with the full collaboration of western-trained doctors, is, however, making strides, perhaps propelled more by commercial stakes than conviction, but that return is on, and with full vengeance.
But perhaps the babalawo’s greatest appeal — to young Soyinka, as well as to us today — was his role as a living reminder that, per Carl Sagan’s memorable admonition, the closer we inch to the assumption that we know everything there is to know and have answered all the questions worth answering, the further we drift from our essential humanity. Soyinka writes:
The babalawo’s clinic intrigued me far more than the starched, white-overall western clinics, where a most impressive looking doctor hung a stethoscope around his neck, listened to heartbeats, took pulses, and wrote down prescriptions in indecipherable script. He looked intimidatingly omniscient, and he clearly was in touch with all the dialects of the human body. The babalawo also exuded knowledge and mystery, but somehow he appeared closer to his patients. For a start, he sat cross-legged on a floormat and appeared to consult his patient as much as they consulted him.
After recounting the babalawo’s process and his various divinations for patients, Soyinka considers the larger value of this practice — one remarkably similar to what Western medicine is only just beginning to discover about the role faith plays in the patient’s physical healing. He writes of the babalawo’s work with one woman from the community:
The therapeutic value of this was to ally the suppliant, psychically, to forces within the entirety of her healing culture — including the history of her own people.
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful reflection on the poetics of reverie, Soyinka considers the healing power of poetic form itself — the common thread between the chants of the babalawo’s healing rituals and the liturgies of the world’s organized religions — independent from any religious message it may transmit:
Poetry in liturgy is common to most religions, perhaps the most powerful element, far more powerful than any alleged intrinsic truths of the religions themselves. Poetry, or, sometimes, sheer lyricism and mesmerizing rhetoric, these are tools that are natural to or cultivated by charismatic leaders in any culture, irrespective of the purpose to which such attributes are turned, secular or religious.
In essence, what Soyinka describes is a kind of invaluable social work, and yet its fate in the hands of colonial oppressors has been a dismal one, denying its vitalizing social function and reducing it to useless superstition to be replaced by more convenient but no less damaging dogmas:
This then is the binding network of mortals, deities, and nature that Christians and Moslems pronounced “pagan,” “infidel,” “demonic,” etc., and moved to proscribe and destroy on the African continent, substituting, often through violence, their own faiths, which are based no less on structures of superstition though are perhaps more elegant, architecturally imposing, or seductively packaged. At the heart of it all, however, is nothing more than an article of faith sustained by dogmatism.
Considering such dogmatic “world religions” and their practitioners who “press wafers to the lips of their followers to ingest the body of their sainted god,” Soyinka reflects on Africa’s enduring humanistic values and what it stands to teach all of humanity:
[There are] those who, centuries after the Age of Reason and its underlying spirit of enquiry, still deem a continent backward and satanic, that had proved itself capable of weaving and sustaining such a rich tapestry of intuitive forces. But then, did they know of, or seriously penetrate, such systems of belief? No, their sources remained missionary missives. Despite them all, however, Africa survives to teach the world — even without proselytizing.
Soyinka is careful to acknowledge — “without equivocation” — “the progress that has been made in medicine through scientific research” as he points to the broader cultural and creative importance of making visible the value of traditional African healing traditions:
Our interest here is simply to relate the science of healing to the holism of faiths, of which a most potent aspect is the Word, the lyricism and poetry of healing which acts both therapeutically and homeopathically.
It is from within such resources that not only the religion but the full richness of Africa’s literary wealth — oral, ancient and contemporary, of the continent and the Diaspora, written and rhetorical — can best be appreciated.
Insufficiently celebrated remains the fate of this continuity between such traditional resources and contemporary creative minds.
Of Africa is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Beneath the Rainbow — a collection of ancient stories and poems from Kenya, illustrated by contemporary African artists.
Published December 23, 2014