Flora Trebi-Ollennu Wishes Authors of African Descent Would Write More About the Tiny Cultural Connections that Thread the Unique Universe of Africa and her Diaspora
Interviewed by Jasmyn Owen
“I find it encouraging to dare to believe that Africa and her diaspora would have a better chance at solidarity and progress if we developed a better sense of our responsibility towards that which sustains us, that is, our identity” says the writer, whose new book is “Christmas Arrives at Lajwahe.”
Why is your writing focused on Africa?
I’ve been forced to intentionality due to the reality of the meagre and miserly opportunity available to Africa and the African diaspora in the world economy. I therefore see my writing career as an opportunity to look at things from the perspective of African culture least credited with shaping the collective dominant economies in our world.
I find it encouraging to dare to believe that Africa and her diaspora would have a better chance at solidarity and progress if we developed a better sense of our responsibility towards that which sustains us, that is, our identity.
I ask myself often, is there a better way to situate and entrench our writing among Africans and the African diaspora in a way that can produce transformation of our culture? Because the African culture both on the continent and the diaspora is one but with many faces.
Taking charge of our identity through creative writing can bring and spread enduring hope, an imminent sense of transformation made possible through tiny cultural connections with all inhabitants of this unique universe of Africa and its Diaspora.
I believe that this individual sense of responsibility, of being able to create these works can cultivate a sense of purpose in our youth: “to be deeply resilient, sensitive to the biases ingrained in our societies, generous in spirit, unafraid to question inherited mores, and have a deep sense of fairness,” as Katharine Norbury put it perfectly, which altogether spell hope for a better future.
Why do you think culture is important?
Culture is the invisible infrastructure of any community. Culture itself is based on knowledge. See my illustration on my slide on the screen.
Based on the quality of knowledge, a community progresses where progress means people grow in self-worth, family-worth and community-worth to produce a just society where ideas thrive to bring prosperity. A culture based on poor knowledge produces people who lack self-worth, and the community goes towards a downward spiral both socially and economically. And as you all know true knowledge comes from the Lord. Proverbs 1:7 (NLT) says “Fear of the LORD is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Proverbs 9:10 also approves that “Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.”
True knowledge starts with knowing Jehovah, The Lord God, the spiritual path which is key to transformation. The teaching of Jesus is the gate to this spiritual path. The teaching of Jesus can be taught through expositions as in commentaries like my book series My Daily Walk, which are devotional commentaries on the Life of Jesus and The Work of the Holy Spirit. The teaching of Jesus is also taught through lectionary pieces or sermons or through creative works like stories and art. A good culture provides a strong invisible infrastructure that knits a community together for progress.
What attitudes do you hope to change among the youth through your writing?
I agree with Katharine Norbury’s statement that “it is our species that has the capacity to act, consciously, for the good of the whole. To act, to conserve, to change, to renew, to invigorate that which we encounter, not merely to observe and catalogue its fall. We must learn our proper place and start inhabiting it.”
My works aim at making the youth take responsibility for the development of Africa and its diaspora, shedding the role as “care-givers” of Western economies or China’s by
i. Shedding the retrogressive and irredeemable aspects of our culture, the worship of gods and ancestors, idols, cults systems and customs and traditions that undermine self-worth.
ii. Embracing the redeemable aspects of our culture — be it traditions and customs (from birth to death) to catalyze transformation and bring about a just society in our own community.
iii. Upholding and enriching our mother-tongues in creative works
I like to illustrate my point. Let’s look at my next slide.
What sets a community apart is its language, history, values and norms, and traditions. As you can see the language expresses the soul of the people and this cannot be copied from another. That is why it is so important to render who we are in our own native African languages. And I am hoping more African writers will be encouraged to write bilingually both in the languages of commerce and the native languages of Africa and its diaspora.
What do you feel is the role of a writer in all of this?
I would like to capture the role of the African writer in this poem
Africa in Ink
To you all nebulous words that dull our African uniqueness
Genres now defined to exclude our essence of possessing
Kant conjured, Hegel caricatured, and Levy-Bruhl too
“Culturally naïve, intellectually docile, rationally inept,”
They wrote, they write, they spoke, they speak
But caricatures are reactions only to reality
Conjuring exaggerations to magnify doubt
Yet, it is also a search for truth in whole
That Egypt is the mother of Greece
Is kinship that cannot be denied
It has been lost to the ages
Papyrus of the Nile Valley
Papyrus of Egypt and Kush
Mother to parchment, to paper
First to commit thoughts to paper
Records of kings, storied in philosophy
Always there, now in, here in full,
A redeemed creative practice.
My role as a Christian writer is to reclaim, redress, redeem, and reshape the voice of the African past, the voice of the African present, and the voice of the African to come, so we do not lose sight of who we are, so we can occupy our rightful place in God’s story and the human family.
So Why Did you write Christmas Arrives at Lajwahe?
The idea of celebrations and festivals belongs to God.
The images at Mount Sinai, the giving of both the moral and ceremonial laws, the nativity scene at Bethlehem, and the cry of “It is finished” on the Mount of Olives are images of hope. There is great hope in these. Because in these images I see that God himself created celebrations as a means of transmitting and entrenching the principles of His Word in Israel to transform their culture. The story of the golden calf illustrates how Israel reflected the culture of idolatry they had been part of in Egypt. God transformed this culture of idolatry by giving them various festivals to celebrate. The accoutrements, symbols, music, and foods used in these celebrations were native to the geography in which Israel’s culture was situated but were transformed for God’s use.
Christmas celebration is another way the gospel is spread and entrenched in society and African Christians must continue to celebrate with the accoutrements, symbols, music, and foods which are native to our culture and geography but transformed for God’s use. For example, the focal point of Ghana’s holiday décor and family traditions is the Christmas Hut which reflects the geography where our culture is situated. We do not have spruce or firs, but we have palm trees. Let’s not abandon this symbol but promote it to empower our uniqueness and expression of our culture.
The process of the sound cultural contextualization of the gospel was started by Ephraim Amu of blessed memory in 1927, a Ghanaian Christian of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. It is because of him that today we can wear traditional clothes to church in Ghana. It is because of him that we can use African drums to worship in church in Ghana. This process must continue in earnest by Sprit-filled Christians until African cultures are transformed to display God’s glory.
God loves variety. Creation shouts it out from all directions.
Get your copy of Christmas Arrives at Lajwahe at Amazon.com