By Mohamed Gibril Sesay
I have a simple definition of poetry. I see it as reporting your insights and observations with few words and in surprising ways. The words are few, the way you string them together are surprising. So I see this topic here today – ‘the role of poetry in fostering world peace’ as discussing how to promote to peace in few words that are surprising.
Poetry is a double edge thing- it could be used for war and peace. The other day I was reading the Tunisian sociologist Ibn Khaldoun. He has some interesting insights. He simply highlights the contradictions of human achievement by saying that the tools that people use for agriculture are also used to kill each other. Same way poetry, it can provide food for the soul but also spill lot of blood. When Cain is asked about his brother, he utters an ever-remembered poem of infamy, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ I hope you see how ‘am I my brother’s keeper’ also sounds like ‘am I my brother’s killer?’
Killers too can do poetry; poetry, like most of life is coherent contradiction. Or perhaps we can also say, beautiful incoherence that seems to make sense.
Those who study evolution often talk about The Goodness Paradox. This is about the strange relationship between virtue and violence – about the sacrificing and tragedy that uphold life. Like, for instance, those with sickle cell are paying the price of our bodies attempt to fight malaria. And that is why sickle cell traits and diseases are found more in people in places where malaria is endemic. That is why Africans have more cases of sickle cell disease. The war of illness in those with sickle cell is tied to the peace of health that others enjoy.
But why am I saying all this? Why am I seeing connections between war and peace, virtue and violence? The other day I was reading about a teaching and life learning method they call ‘via negativa’. This is about knowing things through their negatives. For instance, you get to know God better by knowing what God is not. Have you ever wondered why most religions have a concept or a being of great evil – they call it Satan or Shaitan, knowing Satan gives you an idea of God. Satan is what God is not. Somebody calls it subtractive knowledge – you know by subtracting certain things. For instance people are more in agreement about what is not a feature of peace, than about what peace is. We know peace is not violence, peace is not war; peace is not about pain and suffering. But on the features of peace – what we may call additive knowledge of peace – there are wide disagreements. For instance people say that peace is definitely more than the absence of war. But what are these other aspects of peace? Additive knowledge is great, and surely has its rewards. But it is often too varied, too difficult to tease out agreements about its essential qualities and those things that needed to be added. Which is why many are concentrated on making sure that which every one knows is not peace, like violence and fighting, is absent. Once that is arrived at; then we may carry on peacefully arguing about the positive features of peace. No, this is not an argument to stop at what is called negative peace and not move on to what is called positive peace. Rather that it is a reminder that the via negativa of peace is a basic and necessary condition.
This is like the advise about how to move forward with life – that it is better to have a not-to-do list and than to have a to do list. Somebody said we easily remember bad things that happen in an otherwise pleasant outing than the good things therein. A person may remember the moments she nearly drowned in an outing than all the other fun she had there, and that remembrance might shape her approach to outings forever. The reason is simple, bad things are mostly immediately life threatening. So we remember them more than the thousand and one things that continue to make us live, that give us life.
So it is then, most of humanity has a negativity bias- there is tendency to remember bad experiences than good ones- and so it is better to list down the bad experiences you have when coming to this seminar than the good ones. When you are doing resolutions, you may want to list down things you will not do rather than things you will do; and those may be things your being finds threatening to your progress and well being.
A lot of poetry tells us about bad experiences. Lots of people are drawn to this type of poetry –about love gone sour, governance gone bad; relationships gone south; about poverty, injustice, and the thousand and one ills of humanity. We are drawn to them, to these sad lines. Perhaps the reason is because we seek help to have not-to-do lists; or get subtractive knowledge.
The story is told of a carver who denies that he is the maker of the very beautiful statues attributed to him. He says, ‘oh no, the beauty was there in the wood. I added nothing. All I did was just chip away the parts of the wood that hid those beautiful figures inside the wood.’ I would call that artist a subtractive artist, a person steeped in the modesty of subtractive knowledge. Sure, this is not to down play the significance of additive knowledge. It is only that we may need to be careful about being addicted to additive knowledge. Most of what is needed may be right here with us, or right inside us – the call may be to remove those things which hide them from us.
You know, the evolutionary scientist say that human beings were one and the same with other apes about two million years, before the branches split and our hominid ancestors emerged. But sort of, we are still fused at the evolutionary hip; for we still have these ape DNAs as member of what they call the great apes family. We share over 98% of our DNA with some of these apes. Two of our extant ape cousins – the chimpanzee and the bonobo have two very contrasting characters that speak to us. The chimp likes to fight and kill. But the bonobo likes to make love; it is as if it was created to make love over and over again in a single day. These two contradictory characteristics inhere in humans- we love to fight and we love to make love. Like we are both chimps and bonobos.
Muslims and Christians would tell us that the human being was made from clay unto which God breathed the divine spirit. Now dust is the lowest element on earth; and God’s breath is the purest. So even according to the religious, the human is a contradiction of the lowest and the highest, an antipode of death and love. An Islamic philosopher says the human being travels between these poles of dirt and the pure- between the peace of God and the violence of the earth. But the call of truly great people is for us to travel towards that which is peaceful and everlasting; raise your existence off the darkness of dust and move towards the light of God.
But the human being has had an interesting relationship with the sources of light. It is not for nothing that humans have for long worshipped what their eyes see as the sources of light –be they the sun, the stars, the moon, or fire. There are lots of stories about all of these. But I want to concentrate on one of these sources of light that human beings learned to control. And this is fire.
Fire has been the human being’s best friend for long. In the early days, fire enabled our hominid ancestors to add many more types of food to our menu. Many plants that would be poisonous when eaten raw were made safer by being cooked. Thus humans had more to eat than other animals. And fire supported the cooking of meat – this made meat safer and released lots more energy, which in turn fed human growth, including the energy needed to process lots of information, which in turn made humans very smart and able to bring down all other animals and control the earth. Somebody once says that the invention of cooking is the basis of human dominance. So anytime you see food being cooked, reflect on that, and thank the cook.
But what is also particularly important to us is that fire lengthens the day for humans. That is, fire created more time for humans at night. And you know what, in most societies this time was used to tell stories. And lots of stories are about cooperation, about coming together, about working together, about doing good. And the skilled storytellers were the poets – like the yeliba or griots of the Mande peoples and the Shakespeares of the English – they tell stories in interesting ways –ways that rouse people to meet the challenges of the times. Poets push the boundaries of expression; they expand the tools human beings use to reflect on themselves and the world.
They say language helps us to cooperate more, and most of these cooperation are to advance the causes of life. Now I have been talking about the strange relationship between violence and virtue. Anthropologists tell us that hunter-gatherers have some of the most peaceful societies on earth. So be it then with the !kung people of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. But again there is a cloudy secret told about them. And it is about a cooperative killing. The narrative is about some men amongst them ganging up to kill a particularly violent person. And what does that do- it ensures peace in the land. They say that type of story has been typical about larger humanity – the murderous amongst them are put down. They are put down to ensure peace. The history of peace is the history of the extinction of the violent amongst us. And it is also the extinction of the violence inside each one of us, about the control of anger, about the mollification of the instinct to do harm. Muslims call this extinction of the violence within us as the jihad of the soul, and they place greater emphases on it. The Buddhist say the expiation of the violence of desire is the way to Nirvana. An African proverb says, the hottest anger cannot cook food. The perpetually angry person cannot cook well, and remember, cooking is a supreme human act.
Today, it often seems like violence is the lot of humanity. There is the war in Ukraine, there is civil war in the Congo, there are gun shootings at schools in the United States, and threats of war in the traits of Taiwan, and even fears of a nuclear doomsday. But the erudite linguist Steven Pinker writes in his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ that we are living in the most peaceful era in humanity’s sojourn on earth. He evidences this assertion with lots of convincing statistics and other data. There is less violence in our everyday encounters than before. This is what for me is also very important – this thing about less violence in everyday encounters. You may want to be reminded that our lives are almost entirely lived through our little every day encounters, the every day encounters with family, neighbours, fellow vehicle occupants, colleagues at the workplace, and increasingly on the web. These are the encounters that make us who we are. Steven Pinker’s arguments speak of the less violence in these encounters in the present era. And where they occur, the more predominant response is that they are condemned or not as praised as before. Racial lynching has declined drastically, wife beating that was seen as the norm is now widely condemned, corporal punishment of children is on the back foot, and even violence against animals is now very frowned upon.
A basis of those every day violence was this notion of people owning others, of seeing others as property. Thus it was that the white man in the Americas saw the black man as his property, the husband everywhere saw the wife as his property; and the father saw the son and daughter as his property. And the owner would do unto his property as he pleased. But the world has moved passed that – ownership of other beings is ending – there are still pockets of this evil, but they are on the back foot; as is the violence against those who were once considered as property. Time was when the human would not venture a few miles out of his homeland without being killed, enslaved or hurt. Now, that vulnerability is on the wane. The violence of the everyday is questioned now as never before.
A country, we should be reminded, is as civilized as the extent to which it condemns these various violence of the everyday; a nation is as civil as how it creates statutes that negate these practices – the via negativa we talked about earlier. Do not lynch racial minorities, do not batter women, do not corporally punish children, do not harm not sexual minorities, and do not be cruel to animals.
But what has poetry got to with this. Well, as you may notice, the title of Pinker’s book is very poetic – The Better Angels of Nature. Remember our attempt at a definition of poetry earlier on? Well it is also in that light that I consider African proverbs as amongst the greatest poems on earth. They aid conversations, they enhance how things are told. The Hausa say proverbs are the horses of words. This is like saying that when words get tired, proverbs get them going. Listen to this proverb about the virtues of patience and skill in removing sources of hurt, ‘a person does not slap a mosquito stinging his balls.’
Everything in how it is told. And poetry has ways of telling things that advance possibilities of actions. Sierra Leone is very poetic in the ways it tells its tragedies. You remember the rebel war; how lots of its stories are recounted in ways that lowered the anger we might have felt at the callousness and meanness of the spirit. There is the story of the woman that a rebel was about to give a short hand or long hand amputation (amputation at the wrist was called long hand and amputation above the elbow called short hand). When the rebel asked her, ‘short hand or long hand, what do you want?’ The woman replied, ‘you are the tailor, whatever hand you give me is fine’. We hear the sad stories, we feel them, but they are told in ways that detraumatise us. Poetry works like that – building expressions of detraumatization.
Chinua Achebe has one of his characters ask, ‘which is greater, the story or the warrior?’ Another answers, ‘the story’. This is because it is the story that lives on long after the act. And I dare say that the thing that gives the story greater longevity is the way it is told, the way creatives say it. And that often, the most remembered things are those in poetic form. So do not just tell the story, tell it in unforgettable ways. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson asks that people hitch their wagon to a star – hitch your efforts to a star, to a nobler end. Poetry enables that, it allows poets to hitch their experiences and the experiences of all humanity to the brightest stars of human narration – and that telling, that narration, that poem, becomes a shining light, the guide along the paths of this rocky existence. Even where the story is about war, the way you tell it lifts the spirit, gives people the ‘aha spirit of reflections, of wonderment, of perseverance, and fortitude.
The United Nations at its headquarters has a carving of one of the most poetic lines about war and peace – let’s transform swords into ploughshares. The words are few, but the insights and aspirations are entrained to the larger human songs of life. That’s how poetry contributes to world peace – pushing us away from the reality of war to the aspirations, hopes and actions for peace – allowing us to peep through the cracks of hurt into the hopeful skies of peace. Poetry tells us about the dirt, but the aim is to move the human towards the spirit of God, of life, of peace.
My late friend, fellow truant during sixth form at the Albert Academy and FBC classmate, the journalist and poet Tatafway Tumoe told us about fragments of peace. Let me put it in context. The poem was written during the war in Sierra Leone. And fragments were those from bullets and bombs. Fragments killed. Was Fway telling us about the violence of peace, about the killers of peace? The poem is a coherent contradiction of hope in times of war. Fear lurks, but hope peeps through its cracks – let me quote from the poem:
Here is peace in our time,
Listen to the guns, talking.
Explaining and melting a story:
We have the power
We are part of this country
See the magic in our dance,
See the quickness,
Quickness of our feet.
In times of war, the poet tells us in another poem, go for love. Poetry has that power of transporting from a place of sadness to a place of wonderment through the language it uses, and the insights it gives. In times of the violence of the chimpanzee in us, think of the bonobo in us; in times of mud, think of the spirit, in times of death, think of life. That is how poetry contributes to world peace, making us see through the fear, making us advance the fire into the night, letting us pierce the night of war with the flaming stories of our cooperation, of our hopes and the better angels of our nature.