Haunting Forest Spirits – is Mother Nature Striking Back?

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Apr 20 2020 (IPS)

Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies
capriciously and without warning, on the contrary, every society
produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to
understand the importance of a society’s structure, its standard
of living, and its political priorities. […] Epidemics are a
mirror, they show who we really are: Our ethics, beliefs, and
socio-economic relationships.
Frank
Snowden 1

After contagion, the symptoms of the Ebola Virus become evident
between two days and three weeks – vomiting, diarrhoea and rash
as victims begin to bleed both internally and externally, an
average of 50 percent of the afflicted will die. The disease was
first identified in 1976. The largest outbreak to date was in West
Africa, between December 2013 and January 2016, with 11,323
deaths.2

A two year-old-boy, Emile Ouamono, used to play with his friends
in a huge hollow tree close to Meliandou, a small village in
Guinea. On March 14, 2014, the tree caught fire and ”a rain of
fruit bats” descended on the village, they had apparently been
living in the old tree. Six months later, Emile was dead from
Ebola. After investigating bat spilling, collected from the site of
the burnt down tree, researchers could establish that they were the
original cause of the deadly infection.3 The bats
had originally been living in dense jungle canopies, though when
the huge trees had been cut down to make way for oil palms the bats
had been forced to move closer to human dwellings.

COVID-19 was apparently also spread by forest-living bats. In
this case they had probably infected ant-eating pangolins, which
meat was sold at wet markets in Wuhan. Everything indicates that it
is humanity’s ruthless abuse of earth’s forests and their
resources, coupled with an ever-progressing globalization, that is
the most significant cause of the current proliferation of
COVID-19.

Some years ago, I flew across the Congo basin. Looking down at
the jungle deep below I could not discern any roads. Occasionally a
village could be glimpsed by the brink of one of the many
waterways, which meandered through the compact greenery. Kinshasa,
proved to be completely different. With a population of
approximately 15 million, growing at a speed with at least one
million per year, it had except for some skyscrapers and villas the
appearance of being a gargantuan shanty town. Most of the
metropolis’s exceptionally straight and long streets were lined
with makeshift hovels. The contrast between the lack of roads in
the jungle and the grid of paths, streets and main roads in
Kinshasa, where it lay spread out on the southern banks of the
wide, sluggishly moving Congo river, could not be greater. This
made me remember the opening lines of Ben Okri’s The Famished
Road – ”In the beginning there was a river. The river became a
road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the
road was once a river it was always
hungry.”4

The Famished Road constitutes a bewildering reading experience.
A magic mirror which accurately depicts the world we live in,
though seen through the eyes and mind of a boy who is far from
being a common child. Azaro is a spirit child, an abiku, who
divides his existence between a West African shanty town and the
Spirit World. Due to the love Azaro has for the family of mortals
he has been allotted to stay with for a while, he decides to remain
with it, acting as a son to his poor parents. He neither forgets,
nor severs his ties with the Spirit World. However, the spirits
constantly keep summoning Azaru to return to their realm, though he
resists all their attempts to lure him back.

Ben Okri who lives in London, though he spent his childhood and
youth in Nigeria, explains that: ”We all have an Africa within
[…] but this Africa has been made sick by the economic, political
and ecological troubles of the Africa outside, [severed from] the
Africa of myths and legends, storytelling and playfulness; the
Africa of paradox, proverbs, and surprise; the Africa of magic,
faith, patience and endurance; the Africa of a profound knowledge
of nature’s ways and the secret cycles of
destiny.”5

In Yoruba mythology, where Okri finds much of his inspiration,
the forest is associated with magic and other supernatural
manifestations. It is where the spirits dwell. The great Yoruba
author Amos Tutuola told in his My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from
1954 about a small boy lost in the jungle and through his
experiences Tutuola explored a world inhabited by spirits, demons
and gods. A threshold existence between our concrete, visible
communities and The Other World, dwelling place of mysterious and
innumerable stories.

The Famished Road takes place in an unnamed African country, where
globalization and neocolonial exploitation expose the fragility of
our natural environment. Azaro tells his story in a straightforward
and deceptively naïve manner. It is a visionary, poetic tale,
filled to the brim with verbal pictures of a cruel, beguiling,
strangely tender and poor community, harassed by corrupt
politicians, thugs, profiteers and parasites. Passions explode in
violence, or heart-felt empathy, while everything is engulfed in
poverty and a constant struggle for survival.

The Famished Road that apparently describes a West African
society by the beginning of the 1960s predicts a future where human
agency will destroy nature in an irremediable manner. Azaro’s
position between a concrete, visible world and a vanishing
invisible Spirit World unfolds in a strangely repetitive way. The
tale may occasionally appear as a poetic chant that induces its
reader in something akin to a meditative state of mind. The cycle
of birth, death and rebirth of the abiku Azaru and his continuous
threshold existence between childhood and youth, as a celestial
being and a suffering human, seems to depict a state of perpetual
hardship, a Culture of Poverty marked by endless repetition and
arrested development. It appears as if not much is happening in the
novel. However, while the reader is gently rocked into the
novel’s dreamy atmosphere s/he soon discovers that the society
Okri describes in reality is undergoing violent transformations –
politically, culturally and above all ecologically. Events seem to
be circular, though they are actually spiralling towards
disaster.

The dirt and violence which characterize life in the ghetto
where Azaro spends his perpetual childhood are depicted as a
consequence of colonial and neocolonial policies pushing the
community towards a chaotic and mindless urbanization. The forest
is destroyed and cut down. It will soon cease to be an abode of
resistance against alienating commercialism and rectified thinking.
It will no longer be a domain of vegetal power and natural energy
opposing human greed, violence and inanity. Azaro spends most of
his time wandering around in his ghetto, occasionally walking into
the nearby forest, or sitting in Madame Koto’s bar, while
constantly bearing witness to a slowly changing scenery; the
rivalry between The Party of the Poor and The Party of the Rich,
both equally manipulative, and increasingly wealthy people who
promote deforestation and a building frenzy accompanied but a
constant destruction of nature.

The forest is Azaro´s second home. He calls it ”an
overcrowded marketplace” and it is swarming with shape shifting
animals, monsters and spirits, so numerous that they mutate,
continually changing appearance and voices. Insects, lizards,
snakes, spirits and birds are moving into the shanty town, some of
them are carrying messages to Azaro, others attack him. He is aware
that his entire world finds itself in a state of anomaly. Humans´
ruthless onslaught on nature will eventually destroy everything.
The fragile balance between humans and nature is already
irreversibly upset. The future will bring disease and alienation:
”Steadily, over days and months, the paths had been widening.
Bushes were being burnt, tall grasses cleared, tree stumps
uprooted. The area was changing […] In the distance I could hear
the sounds of dredging, of engines, of road builders, forest
clearers, and workmen chanting as they strained their muscles. Each
day the area seemed different. […] The world was changing and I
went on wandering as if everything would always be the
same.”6 Azaro’s father tells him:“Sooner
than you think there won’t be one tree standing. There will be no
forest left at all. And there will be wretched houses all over the
place. This is where the poor people will live […] This is where
you will live.”7

This is where we all live. Everything is interconnected; the
fate of the poor is also the fate of the wealthy. What we are doing
to nature is now affecting us all, global warming is one result,
epidemics another. The only way to stop this is to act in unison
– our future depends on it; especially that of our children and
grandchildren, and all generations following them.

The bleak future depicted in The Famished Road is already here.
For a long time, we have known that anomalies caused by humans
generate natural disasters – inundations, draughts and epidemics,
still we remain unprepared to meet the consequences. What happens
if COVID-19 hits the poor people living in mega cities in the
Southern Hemisphere, cites like Kinshasa, or São Paulo with its 22
million inhabitants, Dhaka (20 million), Mumbai (18 million), Lagos
(14 million), Jakarta and Manila with 11 million?

Since Ben Okri wrote his novel, most of Nigeria’s forests have
disappeared. Last year, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF)
reported that Nigeria has lost 96 percent of its natural forest
cover and deforestation rate is at an alarming 11 percent per
annum.8 Thousands of animal species have lost
their habitat. This is happening all over the world, for example
has Indonesia since 2001 lost 37 percent of its rain forests, while
Brazil lost 45 percent.9 The spread of epidemics
may be only one indication of the hardships that might be in store
for us all if we continue with our overexploitation of natural
resources.

1 Snowden, Frank (2019) Epidemics and Society:
From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven CT: Yale University
Press.
2
https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ebola-virus-disease
3 https://www.bbc.com/news/health-30632453
4 Okri, Ben (2016) The Famished Road: 25th
Anniversary Edition. London: Vintage, p. 3.
5 Okri, Ben (2011) A Time for New Dreams. London:
Rider, pp. 134-135.
6 Okri (2016), p. 122.
7 Ibid, p. 42.
8
https://economicconfidential.com/2019/03/challenge-of-deforestation-nigeria/
9 https://news.mongabay.com/by/ongabay-com/

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion
from Lund University and has served as a development expert,
researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international
organisations.

The post
Haunting Forest Spirits – is Mother Nature Striking Back?

appeared first on Inter Press
Service
.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Haunting Forest Spirits – is Mother Nature Striking
Back?