There was a Country
There was a Country, by Chinua Achebe

The Igbo believe that art, religion, everything, the whole of life are embodied in the art of the masquerade. It is dynamic. It is not allowed to remain stationary. For instance, museums are unknown among the Igbo people. They do not even contemplate the idea of having something like a canon with the postulate: “This is how this sculpture should be made, and once it’s made it should be venerated.” No, the Igbo People want to create these things again and again, and every generation has a chance to execute its own model of art. So there’s no undue respect for what the last generation did, because if you do that too much it means that there is no need for me to do anything, because it’s already been done.

p. 59. There was a Country, Chinua Achebe,

I don’t know.

I know the hectarage where my grandfather was buried, but I do not know his grave. When he was laid to rest no burial stone was raised above his burial plot. He was buried in the CablePoint farmland on which he raised his guinea fowls. In the early years after his death, there would have been a raised mound of earth to tell the spot. In the decades since it would have leveled off. My father was not five years old when his father died. He did not know the spot. What my father did not know, he could not tell me, so I on my part know neither my grandfather nor his place of rest. All that is lost to the memory of those who knew him.

My grandfather’s cemetery is virgin farmland once again.

There is a contest of philosophies here, between those who live in order never to be forgotten, who plant their egotistic pyramids in the paths of their grandchildren, who chew up virgin forests to build their grandiose ‘villas’, who build mausoleums and cemeteries, and Cities of the Dead, who gouge their grotesque presence on the landscape for ever… and those who choose to live lightly, even shyly on the land, the earthen walls of whose homes may survive them but not by much, but will be leveled by the sun and the rains and the wind that buries the palm fronds of the roof as well. The anonymous grave is an eco-friendly way to rest a deceased ancestor. In a culture without cemeteries where loved ones are interred next to their homes, no one needs a marker to know the graves of their dearly departed. And when the near and the dear of the dead are gone as well, the graves can sink into anonymity, and life can continue.

And graves can be virgin, fecundated farmland once again.

These days, our dead are much memorialised. Our cemeteries and the estates of the dead expand as fast as those of the living. Our ornate tombstones will tell the tale of our recently departed to future generations who neither know nor care about them. These days, our loud lives gouge an indelible mark upon earth, and our deaths do so as well. And even dead, we control the future by the way we have lived and built our present.

In the above quote from his new book Achebe talks of a different philosophy, one in which every generation has an opportunity to create its own art – because the art of the old is not venerated or preserved.

And yet, one cannot help remembering the metaphor of Igbo Ukwu.

Igbo Ukwu Sculpture
a bronze bowl, 9th or 10th Century AD, unearthed in Igbo Ukwu

 

From 1938, the most exquisite works of art began to be unearthed from sites beneath Igbo Ukwu, displaying technology and skills of the most advanced workmanship going back centuries. Displaying skills alien to the current population of Igbo Ukwu. A philosophy of daily discovery, ala Achebe, of the regular reinvention of the wheel, will result in the contradiction of a present people ignorant of the historic heights of their illustrious ancestry.

Our present philosophy must be one of balance: we must live lightly today, preserving the best from the past for the children of the future.

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