Tribe and Prejudice, Sam Omatseye, Origami Books, Lagos, 2018, pp.63
Tribe and Prejudice: the title of Sam Omatseye’s latest poetry volume reminds you of the title of Jane Austen’s romantic novel, Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1983, a comedy that trails the emotional development of the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, who learns the error of making hasty judgments and comes to appreciate the difference between the superficial and the essential.
But Omatseye’s Tribe and Prejudice is a different kind of sweetener. It is a poet’s dissection of Nigeria’s socio-political excrement and the enormity of its purgation. Looking at the ethnic configurations of Nigeria vis-à-vis their acrimonious relations, artifice and mutual suspicions, Tribe and Prejudice paints a disemboweled image of a colonial contraption that is gradually becoming evanescent in glow.
Though majority of the poems revolve around the Nigerian entity, there is a serrated edge to the collection as it extends its interrogation to international frontiers, especially on some cult figures abroad who, by their straddling cultures, have impacted our worlds.
From the beginning to the end of this poetry volume, the reader is stirred by sordid symbols and sullied dreams by a perspicacious poet reinventing subtleties in his diction. Succinctly put: plurality can be an advantage, but sometimes tribal prejudice in Africa make plurality suspect. Pride and Prejudice, thus, offers the reader a fizzy combo.
The poem that captures the essence of the collection is the title poem “Tribe and Prejudice”. The poem reassesses the lessons of coexistence among the ethnic formations in the country. First, they seem united, for example, in the Lagos metropolis where: “All tongues tied to one thread/Called English”. But, along the line, everybody becomes conscious of their nationality and cautious of others. Hence: “We no longer convene in/One tongue/ But longed for moth-eaten lores/We corrupted the corruption” (p.2)
Party politics is now divided along ethnic lines, contrary to what was the fashion, the poem tells us, yet old wounds continue to fester among the major ethnic groups. Even among the smaller ethnic groups, like in the Niger Delta, the discovery of oil has exacerbated animosities. Thus:
Never have black people
Come to carnage
From grudge and greed
Like the heroes who called themselves/Militants (p.7).
There are historical references to the Ife-Modakeke skirmishes, the Urhobo-Itsekiri/ fraternal wars over land and oil, the religious-motivated killings in north and the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast that has claimed many lives.
Chris Okigbo’s lines, “…Before you, my mother Idoto, naked I stand …”, have become an eternal bardic tic that sticks in the memory. The opening line of Omatseye’s “A Stranger’s Invocation”, dedicated to the German cultural aficionado, Susan Wenger, tickles a swift deja vu. It reads: “Before you, this morning, I bow, goddess of Osun” (p.15). This is a poem of veneration inspired by the wonders of Osun River. The speaker in the poem confesses he is a stranger, yet the river’s supernatural effects are far-reaching, for “The goddess of water is the goddess of life, Water permeates existence” (p.15).
The mood in “Asaba Massacre, 1957” is funereal. This poem recounts how the Federal Troop conducted ethnic cleansing in Asaba during the Nigeria civil war where Asaba men invited to a meeting were exterminated without warning. The voice in this poem laments: “They did not crave a party but a fest/ That dissolved all flesh” (p.16).
Also, a mournful tone lingers across the poems “The Songbird”, “Tyranny”, and “Indolent Beauty”, showcasing paradoxes of our social fabric. While the futility of war reechoes in “The Fart of War”, the social contradiction that produces the mendicant, Almajiri, and his growing defiance is scrutinised in the poem “Almajiri”.
The poems “Obama in Kenya” and “For Muhammad Ali” are focused on two of America’s best known black figures. While the Obama poem serenades his African roots, the Muhammad Ali poem valorizes the bravura of his punches. Themes of corruption and deception can be deduced in “Wretches”, “False Light”, and “The Convention”; love in “Faraway Love”, and God in “Kaleidoscope”. Omatseye’s Tribe and Prejudice is an audacious poetic excursion you need to explore.