Su’ur Su’eddie Vershima AGEMA
SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative,
Kyuka Lilymjok’s portrayal of politics in fiction is evident in such works as Bivan’s House and Sieged. His writings traverse politics, economic and social issues, cultural and environmental issues. Though politics takes the centre stage in Sieged, environmental values which to some extent help better understanding of of the novel are tangentially dwelled on. This paper looks at how the environment symbolized by the forest is captured briefly in Sieged. In doing so, the soothing nature of the forest and man’s unfortunate decimation of it are shown.
African writers, regardless of generational differences, are largely socially-committed writers who deploy their works as weapons to fight anomalies in society. More than anything else, politics has featured prominently in the fiction of writers of old – from Chinua Achebe to Wole Soyinka, Abubakar Imam and Tar Ahura, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nadine Gordimer to Maria Ajima – and has continued to be a major theme in contemporary writings.
The environment has for a long time been an integral part of fiction, for its aesthetics and role of supplying the background for the setting of actions. However, literary appreciation has gradually evolved from merely perceiving the environment as an object of imagery to taking it up as a subject of enquiry in fiction. This is the crux of ecocriticism which is gaining grounds, not only in the field of literature but in social science as in natural science. This might not be unrelated to the added need to understand our environment in the light of destructive human activities.
Though Lilymjok’s Sieged is largely political, the environment plays a role in the text. Prominently in two chapters of the novel, Chapters Nine and Eleven, the author through the use of the symbol of the forest, shows the impact of the environment on man and vice versa. This paper sets out to examine the effect of the forest/environment as shown therein with its implications in following Asoo’s precept that:
The ecocritical evaluator must watch out for those aspects of the novel which while paying attention to man, tend to view man only as an appendage to the environment that supports and maintains him; gives him a culture and above all makes life meaningful to him. (57)
This paper shall also look at how in certain instances, man has been shown to be an appendage to the environment that proves to be bigger than him despite his exaggerated sense of self.
Ecocriticism is the theory chosen for the exploration of this discourse. Ecocriticism is a crosscutting literary theory which bestrides many fields including natural science, social science and arts. Cheryll Glotfelty defines ecocriticism as the “study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (xviii). Buell, on his part, views ecocriticism as a “study of the relationship between literature and the environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis” (430). Glotfelty further explains that:
Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class distinctions and its readings of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies. (xviii)
Essentially, ecocriticism looks at the active presence or absence of the environment with its attendant effects in a particular work of literature. Indeed, it can be said to be a subgenre of environmental activism, a field whose African version, in recent years “has been brought to the world’s attention through the martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa and […] the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai (Caminero-Santangelo 698).
Speaking on the importance of this theory, Estok notes that:
ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, firstly by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections. (220)
There are many issues of ecocriticism, which certain African critics and writers tend to regard as a Western theory (Slaymaker 684). Some Anglo-American schools of thought embrace the view that ‘anthropocentricism’ should be done away with by rejecting the nature-culture dualism which objectifies nature… (Caminero-Santangelo, 699). Other controversies exist too, but shall not be the focus of this paper. The need for more ecocritical studies, especially from African scholars, has been emphasised with the hope that it would bring about concern for the environment particularly in Northern Nigeria, where there is a need for more related research (Abdullahi, n.p).
An Overview of Sieged
Sieged is a 192 paged political thriller made up of twenty-one short chapters. It is set in the fictional West African country of Bivan’s House. It can be said to be a sequel of sorts to Lilymjok’s Bivan House. The major titans in the political thriller are Merima, the front runner of the ruling UAC party and Jamimi, a labour union leader dissatisfied with the quality of leadership in the country. The two lead men are in the race for the seat of the Primehead (President) of Bivan’s House. There is a lot of corruption, foul practice and other disturbing occurrences in the electoral drama that follows.
The ruling political party, the UAC, has almost run down the country, and the people are now in need of a new government. Jamimi’s PLM seems to be the answer. As campaigns go on, there is increased unrest and soon the land becomes sieged by agitations of change. There are plots and sub-plots by the incumbent prime-head, Boyama to abort the popular will of the people for change. Foul means and the machinery of state are used to frustrate the opposition ending in the rigging of the election by the government in power.
The political nature of the book is never in doubt as there are lots of scenes where detailed political rallies are described, strategies and the like are discussed exhaustively. It is almost as if the author sets out to exhaustively expose the intricacies that go on in the electoral process in most developing countries particularly in West Africa as exemplified in his fictitious Bivan’s House. Several readers, especially from Nigeria, and those conversant with the country’s politics would easily recognise the antics of some of the actors.
The major flaw of the book might be the near-fairy tale conclusion where the major characters opposing the ‘righteous’ Jamimi (like Merima and Boyama) fall into one misfortune or the other, with disastrous ends. In a normal nation, these developments sound like fairy tales. But in a nation politics originated from a society of headhunters and is practiced by people of the street, the happenings don’t sound that fairy. A game practiced by street people may well be aborted by street people. A game of thugs may as well be ended by thugs.
While Sieged is largely a political novel that sets out to show a post-colonial West African nation with its intrigues and political intricacies, there are several other aspects to the novel that makes it stand out. First, there is the use of several symbols notably that of the fictional nation of Bivan’s House and the portfolios of its government officials. A reading of the text closely shows a leaning towards Nigeria with little twists. There are certain explanations that make us realise that the author is making a conscious effort to differentiate the world of his narrative from the one in reality. We are told the leader of this society that would be called President or Prime Minister in other countries is known as Primehead in Bivan’s house. We are further informed that:
…what was called national assembly or parliament in other countries was called the house of archery in Bivan’s house. A governor was the big feast, ministers were ceremonial feasts, ambassadors were close banquets, commissioners were ceremonial pots, local government chairmen were common calabashes and councillors were hunting bags. From its headhunting ancestry, politics in Bivan’s house was to later graduate into a game played by people of the streets. (3)
From this perspective, one gets a view of the world that one is being led into: a world that symbolically differs from the one in reality while retaining close ties to it. In essence, the author seems to be reminding readers that while they are stepping into a world of fiction with different names, they – the readers – should draw notes and comparisons between what is being said in the book and reality. Hence, one can see that the book is largely symbolic and representative of many things in society.
Due to the largely political, symbolic, realist and post-colonial representations that run through the book, amongst others, there’s a view of environmental concerns that might be overlooked. It should be noted that while the author does not particularly make the environment overtly obvious as is the case with certain literature of the Niger-Delta, he takes time at different points to bring it into focus. As stated earlier, most of the pages have narratives of political happenings. When however, the narrative turns to the environment, there is a keen dedication to it that makes one forget that the novel could have been about anything else. In this paper, we shall look at this as particularly seen through the symbol of the forest which is one of the major representations of nature. Two chapters stand out in the depiction of the forest in Sieged: Chapters Nine and Eleven which present contrasting views of the perception of nature.
The Beauty of the Environment and a Wet View of the Forest
Chapter Nine of Sieged stands out as a chapter dedicated to the environment in its entirety showing the soothing aspect of nature, the beauty of the atmosphere and environment, simple understanding of natural phenomena as the rain with attendant effects, and why nature should be adored above everything else especially politics.
One who is familiar with politics knows that there are moments of depression from pressure or when things go wrong as seen in Sieged. In such a situation, there is always a need for recourse to something that would help bring one’s humour back. The easiest resort for some is turning to the environment. Kyuka Lilymjok by his portrayal of politics and nature in this novel (Sieged) seems to be saying if politics is the sickness, nature is the cure. Sicken by politics in town, Merima goes through the physiotherapy of nature in the forest to regain not only his health but also his humor.
The soothing effect of the environment on individuals is undeniable. For some, it is the beauty of the moon or just taking a walk in a natural environment. The resort explored in the fictional world of Sieged is that of the forest. The forest with its trees and wildness is a place many go to for peace and ease. In Sieged, we are told that:
Whenever things got too depressing in politics, Merima resorted to hunting to recover his humour. The freshness of the air in the forest and the quietness of nature around him were so soothing and pleasing to him that he always felt like a child in the lullaby of his mother whenever he was in the forest. Sometimes he felt like remaining in the forest and never returning home again. (76)
Thus, one sees the beauty of nature and its charm on humans. Many times to reconnect or find one’s self, one has to leave the human environment for the natural environment. When Merima does so, he sometimes does not want to return to the human environment again. In exploring the beauty of the environment further, especially as the effect shows on Merima, the narrative continues that:
The forests he hunted in were way out of town. In his Range Rover, it normally took him over an hour to get to any of the forests he hunted in. He hunted with only his two dogs as companions and sometimes without them…Going to the forest with someone would deny him the solitude he went there to seek he always told her… In the forest, even if a human being with him did not speak, his mere presence was prone to be resentful to him. It was the shadows of trees he wanted to hug him in the forest, not those of men. (76) (My emphasis)
At this point, one begins to wonder if Merima does not stand for the author himself, in this instance at least. Perhaps, like Merima, the author gets tired and depressed about writing about politics through and through and decides to find some respite in the lush green of the forests where he hopes to find some diversion and beauty to raise his spirits. He then decides to let the narrative not be concerned with anything else but the solitude and freshness of the trees, with the spirit of the shadow of the trees hugging his imagination, away from the presence of men and their vexations.
Seeking solace in the environment which leads Merima to hunting, he finds joy in rain. Rain, perhaps more than the forest, is known for its soothing nature as it counters the heat doled out by the sun. Merima sets out for the forest while rain is falling perhaps to be soothed by the falling rain on his way to the forest:
He set out for the forest while rain that started an hour earlier was still falling. There was no sun. The sun was behind the rain and mist pelting and soaking the earth. Nothing enlivens him like rain. Whenever rain was falling he felt like a child again. Like a child, he always wanted to be out of doors whenever it was raining. (77)
One taste rarely missing in Lilymjok’s literary brew is personifaction. In his novels, the grasses, trees and the wind talk. If not characters, these dews of nature are always voices in his novels. It is therefore not surprising that in his cerebral novel The Mad Professor of Zwigwi, Prof. Philjez the major character in the novel speaks to animals and trees as if they are human beings. In Sieged, the author deploys personification to sublime effect:
He began moving deeper and deeper into the forest, now more as a hunter on the prowl than the forest freak he was moments ago. He came by a whiff of grasses strewn on the ground like fodder a horse missed out. ‘The wind must have rested here,’ he murmured. It was his belief that whenever the wind was blowing, it used to pause and rest at some place before moving on. In the forest, he easily recognized places the wind rested in its movement. Usually those places were scrubby and pale. The wind usually fed on them before moving on. In the place he was now, the wind not only fed on the grasses, it left its teeth behind as evidence of its sojourn. It also left behind a ghostly atmosphere that was pressing heavily upon him. (p.81)
Personification of the wind in the above passage is so exciting as to be healing, if it is also a bit creepy and shocking. It takes one away from the smear of politics into the womb of nature to deliver him a healthy creature of humor.
More than just using the environment and atmosphere to show their soothing effect on Merima, Lilymjok uses the environment to reflect the African cultural worldview. For instance, we have a strong sense of Africanity in an explanation of why the sun is shining when the rain is falling:
In the outskirts of the town, the rain began to fall less. Along the highway, the sun burst out on the rain. ‘The devil is beating his wife,’ he murmured. His father once told him that whenever it is raining and the sun is shining, it means the devil is beating his wife. (77)
One notes the common African folkloric explanation that has been employed in the just shown quotation. The beauty of the lines with the imagery of the sun bursting out on the rain paints a picture of the golden fire of the skies appearing in between lines of rain. While the scientificexplanation would be different, the author takes a detour to bring in a mythic/folkloric explanation that shows a variation to a seemingly common phenomenon. Merima’s exploration into the forest continues. We are told that:
Halfway to the forest, the rain petered into drizzles. The sky was spitting like a pregnant woman or as if it were suffering a heartburn. With the driver’s glass lowered, he occasionally stuck his left hand out of the window to feel the cool breeze that came with the rain and the spits of the sky. He imagined the sky belching before spitting on him whenever a raindrop fell on his hand. (78-9)
The simile of the sky as a pregnant woman whose spit is rain is vivid. The sky no doubt is pregnant with rain and has not completely finish delivering the baby it is pregnant with. If the sky is the devil’s wife, why should the devil be beating his wife that is delivering his baby? The belching, which one will take as thunder, if also coming from the devil makes one also wonder why the devil should be thundering at his wife in labour. And why should the sun be shining while the devil is beating his wife? Is it to spotlight the evil act of the devil to shame him? Perhaps so because the sun shines less when he decreases the beating of his wife. ‘The devil was still beating his wife; but he seemed to be beating her less now’’ (p. 79). But from the various evil acts always ascribed to the devil, does the devil have shame the sun can provoke? While one thinks of the endless interpretations there might be to these things, the simplistic view again hits us in Merima’s next comment:
‘Heaven has really pissed down today like it has not in a long while,’ he said to himself. ‘Today the sky must have eaten something very sour to go on spitting like this long after the rain,’ he murmured and breathed in as if to inhale the smell of what the sky ate. ‘The quiet even before I get to the forest is so refreshing and calming. What am I looking for in this mess called politics?’
Soon, Merima gets into the forest and becomes one with nature:
He was getting so fused with the forest that he shared its rhythm and heartbeat… He was the forest man carrying the forest and all the games in it inside him and so could not see them, though he might feel them… Two grasscutters raced past him, but he did not see them. It was like they or the forest had cast a spell on him to chain the hunter in him. His eyes fixed and unblinking was cast over the forest which was rushing into him. It was when the gun fell from his hand that he came back to where he was standing. He shook his head and a new look of satisfaction and pleasure overran his face. ‘This is it,’ he murmured. ‘It is almost like coupling with the forest. Ah… man; your wife should not hear this. Else she will set this forest ablaze. But forest-man this is really something. Each time always seems better than the last. The forest has cleaned up the vomit of politics inside me.’ (80)
In humor one may say while a union of clouds has produced rain in which the devil’s wife goes into labor (the outcome of another union), what will the union between Merima and the forest produce? In futher humor, one may say it has produced cheer and peace for Merima, but one may not be able to say what it has produced for the forest.
One notes that there is a showing of local belief in the systems of the environment in the various excerpts quoted above. As seen in the preceding explanations of Merima’s view of the rain and the sun, we also get to note later that he holds other beliefs about nature. For instance, he believes that “whenever the wind was blowing, it used to pause and rest at some place before moving on. In the forest, he easily recognised places the wind rested in its movement. Usually those places were scrubby and pale. The wind usually fed on them before moving on” (81).
In the forest, we get to view more of other faces of nature. Merima comes across a little stream with an alligator that moves leisurely towards him. He hides behind a tree to watch it. He sees a big bird high up a tree chirping. The chirping of the bird for a while distracts him. When he looks down, the alligator has disappeared. He is scared and looks around. Finally, the alligator makes some movement and Merima takes a blind shot that kills the animal.
At this point, Merima compares hunting with politics and even wonders if the alligator he has killed was a politician. In the circumstances of Bivan’s house where politics originated from a society of headhunters this comparison hits home. If the alligator was a politician, it has been killed by its clansman, and this is not strange or a thing unfamiliar.
Merima covers the alligator with leaves and then moves further into the forest. After roaming about the forest for a while, he later leaves for home.
The next time we encounter the environment in the forest is not a romantic exploration as in the hunting expedition of Merima. This time, it is carnage, death and tears that rule the scene as seen in the next section.
The Thorns of the Environment and a View of a Forest Furnace
In Chapter Eleven we see the PLM campaign train travelling at sixty kilometres per hour. We are told that:
The PLM campaign train was travelling at sixty kilometres per hour when it went off the track while negotiating a bend. The train plunged into the forest like an angry bull charging after the source of its annoyance. From a distance, the train ripping through the forest was a very frightening and amazing spectacle. The train sailed through the forest like a grass snake for about fifty metres before it collided with a huge tree and its different coaches twisted out of its long trunk in a grotesque tableau. (95).
This scene introduces readers to nature’s disturbance by man, though by accident. The description of the train as a grass snake is not lost on readers. A grass snake is green. Green, the grass snake here unites with nature in color before wrecking the mischief of all snakes when it hits the tree. There is an immediate contrast that we note in this scene especially in comparison to Merima’s previous hunting scene. While Merima comes to hunt in the rain, the PLM train bursts into flames when it collides with the tree. While we have a wet forest in the first scene, we have a blazing forest in the second scene. While we find life and birds chirping in the first, we find screams and squeals in the second. The trees become ready tinder that is lit by the combusting train wreckage. Description of what happened when the train fell on its side and burst into flames is chilling:
People on top of the train either jumped down – some to their death – or were thrown clear or under the train when it fell on its side. Moments after hitting the tree and falling on its side, the train burst into flames […] The forest full of dry grass was kindling that fuelled the fire into a big inferno. Later it was found there were ditches in the forest into which petrol was poured. It was the petrol in the dug ditches that ignited the derailed train. The fire ripped through the coaches as if they were not of metal but of tinder. People lucky to be near windows or doors that were up in the air jumped out of the raging inferno – some of them on fire. (95)
After this, what strikes the mind in the incident of the forest furnace is the seeming simple action of herdsmen who are more concerned with their cattle than humans. The narrative informs us thus:
Two cattle herdsmen who happened to be nearby when the train went off the track were so concerned with the safety of their cattle to be of any help. Before the train burst into flames, they had hung around in shock and bewilderment hoping to be of help. But when it burst into flames, they began driving their cattle quickly away from the wildfire […](96)
This may strike the average person as odd, especially those who see humans as the centre of the universe. For someone who knows the importance herdsmen attach to their livestock and who thinks more of the ecosystem and animals as being important too, the action of the herdsmen would appear normal. Thus, we see here people who would rather save their eco-brethren first before going for humanity.
As the fire burns, we see insects – an often neglected part of our ecology, affected. We are told that “Grasshoppers leaping after insects suddenly found fire leaping after them, not with the inert limbs of frogs leaping out of water, but with the nimbleness of swooping hawks” (96). In trying to play the ecological card to a greater extent, the narrative compares the fire to hawks that are swift. The contrast with grasshoppers and frogs, shows the interconnectedness of living beings and also creates a picturesque scene. If one thinks the metaphoric comparison might have been in error, the next lines clarify issues: “Tears and splinters of fire leapt out of the train like birds with broken wings, flared for a while in midair before falling to the ground when they could no longer hang in the air” (96). This is in addition to the earlier explanation one gets of the fire that: “First, the wind puffed a little flame which flared unsteadily for a while like a drunken man loping home before sinking its teeth into the grass like a shark into a sea seal” (95).
A lot of people died in the accident before any help could come. Coincidentally, Merima hunting at another part of the forest on seeing fire goes to find what caused it. On finding what happened, he is shocked and sad. Being a member of the ruling party while victims of the crashed train are members of the opposing party, suspicion of him by the opposition ensues.
The accident that should ordinarily attract sympathy over the death of many people involved in the accident and also the degradation of the environment becomes a tool in the political duel of Bivan’s House. While Merima tries helping victims at the scene of the crash, he is later shown alongside the incumbent Primehead, Boyama, lashing at Jamimi for “not dying with his supporters” (115). It will not be far from the truth to say Merima’s first response to the accident was his human response while his later response is his political response.
Boyama talking on the accident with Merima beside him says, “certain people who were supposed to be in the crashed train had been found to have fortunately not been on it” (115). This shows the inhumanity of this character who should rather be grateful that another human escaped death – for whatever reason.
The above situation reflects the grim situation in our society: the politicking of every situation. Politicians without conscience exploit unfortunate happenings to score cheap political points! A governor who cannot pay the salary of civil servants in his state despite being given bailout money by the federal government to do so, on a clash between Fulani herdsmen and the governor’s tribesmen which led to the death of some of the governor’s tribesmen, the governor declared he was ready to die for his people – the very people he was not paying their salary. To this, one of his so-called people said, they did not want him to die for them; he should just pay their salaries.
Another question from the narrative of the forest fire is: what was done in the aftermath of the whole incident concerning the environment particularly the forest? The narrative suggests nothing. Thus, the environment which helps us in many ways is hardly seen as a victim and so is left to deteriorate without any intervention after big accidents as the inferno that resulted from the train crash in Chapter Thirteen of the text.
The environment plays an important part in human existence, and has increasingly been projected in fiction, sometimes overtly and at other times, covertly. In Sieged, the environment is given some prominence as particularly noticed in the negative and positive activities which happen in the forest.
This paper has largely explored the forest as a symbol of the environment. In the first instance, we saw how the forest – the environment, can act as a soothing balm for a human soul in turmoil bringing about healing as exemplified in Merima who often finds relief from distress in the forest.
Everyone has a duty to protect the environment given its priceless values. With climate change and other serious environmental problems threatening life on earth, there is need for renewed effort to take better care of the environment. Unless this is done, fires will scour the earth not only from tinders of forest furnaces but from the sun itself.
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