- Kòbòlò Poetics: Urban Transcripts and their Reading Publics in Africa
The character of Wole Soyinka’s Professor presents us with a peculiar reading practice that is nonetheless emblematic of a social process in urban Africa. This is how we first encounter him in The Road, Soyinka’s 1965 play set in an unnamed Nigerian town:
Professor is a tall figure in Victorian outfit—tails, top-hat, etc., all thread-bare and shiny at the lapels from much ironing. He carries four enormous bundles of newspaper and a fifth of paper odds and ends impaled on a metal rod stuck in a wooden rest. A chair-stick hangs from one elbow, and the other arm clutches a road sign bearing a squiggle and the one word, ‘BEND.’
PROF: [he enters in a high state of excitement, muttering to himself]: Almost a miracle. . . dawn provides the greatest miracles but this. . . in this dawn has exceeded its promise. In the strangest of places. . . God God God but there is a mystery in everything. A new discovery every hour—I am used to that, but that I should be led to where this was hidden, sprouted in secret for heaven knows how long . . . for there was no doubt about it, this word was growing, it was growing from earth until I plucked it.1
Professor’s extravagant motley Victorian outfit is a marker of his previous middle-class affiliations from which, by the start of the play, he has obviously dissociated himself. The whiff of anachronism suggested by his peculiar sartorial sense is not entirely misplaced, since his domineering character is also meant to recall a cross between a lord of the under-world and Fagin, the familiar villain of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Professor is in a vigorous quest for what he calls the Word, the spirit of which he tries to arrive at by assembling a range of quotidian scripts (the bundles of newspapers; paper odds and ends) and road signs, alongside the deployment of a hybrid interpretative mechanism that combines Yoruba semiotics with a quasi-Christian sensibility. He claims to have a pact with risks, dangers, and death, and the social periphery in which he undertakes his quest is populated by jobless lorry-park touts and other characters that make their living from petty document forgery, the provision of “protection” for politicians, and epic daydreaming. [End Page 413]
The hermeneutical delirium expressed by Professor and the other characters in Soyinka’s play foregrounds a number of important dimensions of the relation between urban scripts and reading publics in contemporary Africa. The primary one is that in Africa literacy occupies an ambiguous place within a world still largely dominated by orality. Second, there is often a mixed indigenous and Christian semiotic repertoire through which urban dwellers attempt to extract meaning from the everyday urban scripts by which they are surrounded. Even though religion will not be a central concern in this paper, it is worth noting that the Bible and the Quran, with their evocative symbols, language, and rhetorical devices, have become fully integrated into a matrix of orality, and thus also provide a rich payout of sentiments and views that get expressed in the apparently quotidian urban scripts that proliferate on the continent.2 These hybrid repertoires (orality/literacy/Christianity/Islam/orality) represent a confluence between tradition and modernity in a way that does not give priority to either but rather complicates the process by which urban texts are produced and read. (The dual reference to orality in the category set just described is meant to indicate the degree to which orality parenthesizes all discourses and puts in play a processual dialectical relationship among the discursive elements, having to be reiterated as the inescapable term in any conceptual pairing). The third point to be taken from the hermeneutical delirium of Soyinka’s play is the degree to which reading in urban Africa eludes the book, rather being deployed for the interpretation of a variety of textual surfaces that are part of the urban fabric itself. It is not insignificant also that the entire action of The Road unfolds against the background of a wooden tailboard...