Ben Okri on the Internet and African spiritualism

Sunday October 9 2011

American poet and Pulitzer winner Yusuf

American poet and Pulitzer winner Yusuf Komunyakaa (left) speaks to the press during the opening of this year's three-day Storymoja Hay Festival held in Nairobi's Railways Sports Grounds on September 15, 2011. Looking on is Book Prize winner Ben Okri, who sees the African consciousness at the very core of the technological revolution. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI  

The invention of the Internet in the past century is the great watershed moment in contemporary history.

Life before the Web now seems like a hazy blur — how did we communicate with random acquaintances, acquire useless bits of information or waste time at the office?

Africa has always seemed to be living on the fringes of technology, playing catch-up to the big boys in Silicon Valley and other hotbeds of technology.

But Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri sees the African consciousness at the very core of the technological revolution.

He makes a startling assertion — that the Internet is an African spiritual thing.

“The Internet is not new to African thinking,” says Okri. “It follows the same linkages as what we know — the idea that you can communicate with someone who is not physically present with you, whether it is the spirits or the ancestors, has always been there.”

Speaking at the Storymoja Hay festival, a literary celebration held recently in Nairobi, Okri says that in the African way of understanding, the universe makes room for the voices of those who may be physically distant — whether we take that to mean those living in the afterlife, or those living in other parts of the world.

“The matrix of understanding that concept is already there.

The way I see it, technology has a spiritual basis in the African mind.”

These assertions could seem like the ranting of a crazy man if they were coming from anyone other than Okri.

Few people can link the Internet — which we know as the definitive invention of the modern era — with the ancient ideas of African cultural beliefs, which we have largely discarded as “juju,” and expertly argue that they stem from the same seed.

But Okri is that kind of person. He says that a writer is “an overly responsive human being, sensitive to all kinds of over-currents and undercurrents, a listener at the oracle of the world.”

Currents

His most famous book, the Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road is full of these “over-currents and undercurrents.” It is the type of book that will either bring the universe into utter clarity, or confuse you completely.

Either way, Okri’s writing has the undeniable effect of making one aware of the invisible realm — that maybe life is not only what we can see.

“The Famished Road is not difficult in itself,” he says. “It is difficult only for those who are afraid of opening up their minds. It is really a book that is designed to dance with your mind and dance with your spirit. So if you are not in a spirit-dancing phase in your life, you will find it difficult.”

Okri’s ideas about the Internet find some resonance in the writings of Malcolm Gladwell who counters the notion that the Internet is wholly revolutionary.

Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, argues that social media activism is only useful for shallow, low-risk causes because the vast majority of connections on Facebook and Twitter are acquaintances or strangers with whom we have weak ties.

This has some pros because, “our acquaintances — not our friends — are our greatest source of new ideas and information.

The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency,” writes Gladwell.

However, because of these weak ties, causes on social media attract a lot of supporters simply because they do not ask for much — they just need you to click an icon — “Like” or “Follow” — and perhaps donate some spare change.

Gladwell writes that social media “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

But Okri’s ideas are not the kind that you can interact with at arm’s length or at the click of a “Like” button. His work is not Facebook-friendly, and would hardly be fodder for the Online activist. It is arresting reading, which demands your full attention and commitment.

His new work, A Time for New Dreams, is a book of “poetic essays” that comprise stories, aphorisms and philosophical reflections.
The truth is that poetry and the ideas of poets do not have many fans or followers. First, the vast majority “just don’t get it.”

And the minority who do, mostly import the American “spoken word” style, adopted wholesale in artsy Nairobi circles as the modern way to perform poetry.

Storyteller

But listening to Okri speaking about life and writing is to listen to a man who is consumed by his poetry. He is a storyteller whose soul is completely occupied by the spirit of the story, and it shows.

“What a writer puts down on the surface level is not the real current of what is moving through him,” he says.

“He is a victim of his own subterranean themes and mythologies. So the real theme of his work tends to emerge on its own. Most writers surprise and astonish themselves when they look back at what they’ve written,” he says.

Okri says that a writer’s job is to look deep and write truthfully. “Listen to the idea,” he says.

“You don’t know where it’s going to end up.”