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Healing the traumatic wounds of history:Ogaga Ifowodo reconstructs identities

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu   |   01 January 2017   |   3:48 am

colonial-masterThe landmark book – History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives: Reconstructing Identities – written by Ogaga Ifowodo and published by Palgrave Macmillan of New York, USA in 2013 raises very critical questions demanding of immense thinking. The African is a traumatized being. Slavery is still a controversial discourse given the argument that even as the Europeans stand accused of buying the African slaves, the African potentates are just as guilty for selling their brothers and sisters in the vile trade. According to the Malian novelist Yambo Ouologuem, author of Bound to Violence, “After all, the white slave traders only proposed – it was the African notables who disposed.” Be that as it may, the African world has had to deal with colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism and suchlike further down the line. Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, who started out as a lawyer and a poet before earning a doctorate in literature, locates trauma and the necessity of healing in the march of the African world toward redemption in his watershed book, History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives: Reconstructing Identities.

Ifowodo undertakes the encompassing exploration of the African, African-American and Caribbean worlds through in-depth studies of Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, and Derek Walcott’s poetry Omeros. The psychic injury on the people trumps the social-material damage in the light of the fact that the more enduring hurts lie deep inside. The fundamental works of Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon stand Ifowodo in good stead in eating the meat of the matter.

The ready recourse in some quarters is the call for a “return to the past”. This of course is easier said than done. Culture happens not to be static, for at bottom all cultures acquire sundry experiences along the line. In his insightful essay “On National Culture”, Frantz Fanon highlights the compelling need of the imperialists to obliterate the past of the colonized: “Perhaps we have not sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not content simply to impose its rule upon the present and future of the dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes a dialectical significance today.” What Amilcar Cabral brings to bear on the issue comes from his essay “Identity and Dignity in the Context of the National Liberation Struggle” where he states: “Certainly imperialist domination calls for cultural oppression and attempts either directly or indirectly to do away with the most important elements of the culture of the subject people.”

Ifowodo in History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives “draws from philosophical realism and psychoanalysis to examine the ways in which postcolonial narratives seek to recuperate identities battered by and buried beneath imperialist encrustations.” Early in life, back in 1987, as a sophomore in law at the University of Benin, Ifowodo joined a campus radical group and was thus exposed to the study of revolutionary books such as The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paul Frere etc. It was much later that Ifowodo read Fanon’s other books, notably Black Skin, White Masks, Toward the African Revolution, and A Dying Colonialism. The controversies on the study of Fanon between the scholars Henry Louis Gates (“Critical Fanonism” 1991) and Cedric Robinson (“The Appropriation of Frantz Fanon” 1993) serve to broaden the Ifowodo dialectics on postcolonial trauma and identity.


Time was when the social realism of novels, plays and poems used to be the critical fare. The psychoanalytical dimension has been put on the front burner by Ifowodo. His apprehension of trauma in postcolonial discourse is fresh and groundbreaking. According to Ifowodo, “The ordinary meaning of trauma is a ‘wound,’ an ‘injury’ to living issue, but the more specific usage of the term in medical literature defines it as injury inflicted not only on the body but also on the mind.” Ifowodo puts the loaded question: “But what is the need and relevance of the psychoanalytic concept of trauma to literary and cultural theory?” The answer comes thusly: “An obvious answer would be that it pertains to the mind and the human actions it determines, which, in turn, is the realm of literature as of other narratives. Second, the record of our civilization, ancient and modern, is a rather violent and bloody book of atrocities, most of which have had to be repressed if the human mind were to function in any ‘normal’ way.”

Wole Soyinka controversially warned that his play Death and the King’s Horseman should not be seen as a “clash of cultures”, advising that “the Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely.” Kwame Anthony Appiah sees Soyinka’s claim as being “disingenuous”. Ifowodo brings on other scholars such as Adebayo Williams, Tejumola Olaniyan, Biodun Jeyifo and Olakunle George in the disquisition. It is a mark of the range of Ifowodo’s grasp that he juxtaposes the failure of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to “kill” the white man’s message with the stopping of Elesin in Death and the King’s Horseman “from the execution of autonomous will, quaintly described as ‘committing death’ by Amusa to Pilkings.” The tragedy of the British “civilizing” mission in killing two persons, instead of one, serves up the end-of-world scenario of literally ending a people’s way of life.

Of course it is not as if Africa has no share of its atrocities as Ifowodo writes: “the extent to which the traumas visited by the pre-independence ruling class and by the national bourgeoisies of the post independence states – which themselves are laughable parodies of the modular nation-state imposed by the departing colonial regimes – repeat the traumas of slavery and colonialism, often to more shocking dimensions, and knock the wind out of the sails of the postcolonial writer. In concrete terms, how such atrocities and depredations as the crisis in the Congo that claimed Patrice Lumumba; the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70; the seemingly unending chain of coups and countercoups; the grotesque phenomena of Mobutu, Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, Emperor Bokasa, Master-General Sergeant Doe, and Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha; the ‘revolutionary’ wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone; the ethnic cleansing genocides of Rwanda and Sudan make a mockery of any claim to even a moral victory in the project of self-apprehension and race retrieval.”

In moving ahead to the African-American experience, Ifowodo’s treatment of Toni Morrison’s Beloved goes beyond the “ghost story” façade to understand the psychic resources of the black family under slavery. Ifowodo plays up the critic Joan Scott’s dismissal of experience as “an essentializing concept too dubious to be relevant to the discourse of identity.” The other dimension is Dominick LaCapra’s argument that “Scott may have overstated her strict constructivist view of experience.” In his book History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory, LaCapra promotes the goal of attaining “greater clarity about the concept of experience, especially in its implications for historical understanding.”

In Ifowodo’s reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “historical reality serves as the frame and referent of the disempowering trauma that the characters seek to escape but that they successfully grapple with only by acknowledging it. In short, it becomes obvious that the further Sethe and Paul D sink into the abyss of the unconscious, the nearer they come to the sociohistorical reality of their trauma.” This understanding lends credence to the concluding words of Ifowodo: “Morrison’s portrayal of Sethe and Paul D shows us that trauma is not beyond but only a form of experience – albeit, a kind that is resistant to schematization. Through these characters’ layered exploration of the original and subsidiary causes of their trauma, its effects, and the viable modes of working through it, Morrison helps us see a way of talking about experience as a cognitive category without denying that the identities it enables are social constructs.”

The Caribbean dimension of Ifowodo’s study involving Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros asserts the homing instinct of the Afro-Caribbean poet, intervolving the dead father and the eponymous character in the urge to undertake the task of returning home. Of course after referencing the wound of trauma there is the drive toward the pursuit of healing. Ifowodo avers that Walcott had prepared the ground for his all-encompassing insight in Omeros through the transformative healing of the Caribbean wound of history via the earlier poetry collection Midsummer. Language has always been a pivotal key in the entire oeuvre of Walcott. Hybridity is a major concern in the identity question. Ifowodo pins the trauma down thus: “To delineate more clearly the wound, it is the open sore of the transatlantic slave trade and its trans-generational posttraumatic syndrome manifested in what later became colonial possessions and the nominally free nation-states that succeeded the colonies at independence. It is also the wound of genocide against the native Indian populations of the West Indies.” The Walcott dilemma should not really be read as taking sides but engaging “the bitterness of the history of slavery and colonialism that justified an essentialist identity politics.”

Published in 1990, Omeros is divided into seven “books” of 64 cantos or chapters. The poem bears vistas of Homer’s The Iliad and depicts Walcott’s blend of nativism and classicism. The characters sailing on a boat on the sea of life are Achille and Hector – fishermen of the island; Major Plunkett – a retired English officer and his wife Maud; Helen – the housemaid; Seven Seas – the blind man symbolizing Homer; and Derek Walcott – the author. Even as a well-known cosmopolitan man-about-the-world, Walcott wants to actually be situated within his native home of St. Lucia as he stresses that he “would really prefer to be working and writing and painting in the Caribbean.” The lionized poet would rather not be “anywhere else but in St. Lucia.” Ifowodo gathers Walcott’s depositions toward the overall ambit thusly: “This unambiguous filial identification with home coupled with an instinct to return whenever he should be abroad, I argue, constitute the core of Walcott’s poetic vision; it is what helps to situate ‘Philoctete’s primacy’ and ‘the trauma of slavery’ at the heart of the narrative achievement of Omeros.”

Ifowodo poses these questions in the course of conclusion: “What are the specific symptoms or manifestations of postcolonial trauma today? And why have we lost – well, not shown – the theoretical will to uncover and subject them to (critical) analysis?” Ifowodo does not waiver about being beholden to Fanon: “There is enough in the Fanonian oeuvre to help us illuminate some of the hardest problems that define the postcolonial condition. We should always be reminded of what Diana Fuss points out: that Fanon’s conscious decision to locate his theory of radical decolonization at the intersection of anti-imperialism and psychoanalysis gave him ‘a vocabulary and intellectual framework in which to diagnose and treat not only the psychological disorders produced in individuals by the violence of colonial domination but also the neurotic structure of (post) colonialism itself.’ One such neurosis – a problem of gargantuan proportions now, in fact, with a prominent role in perpetrating the notion of postcolonial pessimism – is that of official corruption.”


Coming back home to Nigeria, Ifowodo cites the instance of the then chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Farida Waziri who attributed the mindless corruption in the land to “madness” or “some form of obsessive-compulsive psychiatric disorder.” This assertion echoes Fanon’s submission: “only a psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for the structure of the complex.” The “heroic” welcome given to a jailed chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) takes the cake. Even the convening of the truth and reconciliation committees by the postcolonial countries as a balm for trauma can only go so far. The 2009 view of the Catholic Church in Nigeria is given pride of place by Ifowodo: “We regret lost opportunities for nation building in Nigeria. We are saddened by the recent riots in the cities of Jos and Bauchi, despite our emphasis on dialogue as a veritable means of resolving crisis. Each time we witness ethnic and religious conflicts, each time we hold elections lacking in credibility, we lose opportunities to build a nation. Each time the people of our richly endowed land are impoverished through acts of violation of fundamental human rights, each time we make or fall victims of injustice, bribery, and corruption, we lose opportunities to build a nation.”

Beyond the intellectual game of “calling for a psychoanalytical interpretation of the postcolonial problem”, Ifowodo hazards “to pursue transcontinental readings of insights developed in relation to other problems of the colonized.” Ifowodo confronts the troubling question: “But what is it about the postcolony – Nigeria, in this case – that makes its leaders so oblivious to excess, to the obscene and grotesque, in the exercise of power; what makes them so totally unshamable?” Of course the envious African leader is driven by the mad urge to take the place of the colonizer, a mere change of white with black. Ifowodo who pillories Nigeria as “The Federal Republic of No-Man’s Land” traces the history of Nigeria back to the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates by Lord Lugard and the coining of the name Nigeria 17 years earlier by Lugard’s consort, Flora Shaw. While a “founding father” of Nigeria, Obafemi Awolowo, saw the country as “a mere geographical expression”, the other, Ahmadu Bello, saw it as “the mistake of 1914.” Ifowodo puts the case pat: “It was certainly not the kind of space that would inspire filial love or patriotism, there having been no patria – a common fatherland, so to speak.”

Ifowodo’s History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives dissertation breaks bold ground in the reconstruction of identities towards the transcontinental appreciation of culture. Ogaga’s development in cultural-materialist studies deserves attention, commendation and wider disquisition.
• Maxim Uzoatu, a literary critic and journalist, lives in Lagos. He could be reached through:maximuzoatu@yahoo.com


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Ogaga Ifowodo


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