EATING FROM THE WORLD OF THE ANT EATERS
by Su’eddie Agema
What most people look for in works of art is something new, something creative that makes a work truly a creative work of art. The Ant Eaters finds a home in the quest to fulfil that. Welcome to the world of ants, where ants rule and have their stance stamped. It is a world where they forsake their little essence and form a part of a whole that attacks all. This is The Ant Eaters, a collection of poems (or as he puts it, rants and anthems) by ‘kufre ekanem (published by Kraft, Ibadan in 2010). Forming words, ideas, and thoughts from the inspiration of these creatures he offers poetry in his own style, or to be more exact, the ants’ own style. The first thing one notices about the poem is that there seems to be a fascination with ants that goes beyond the beautiful cover depicting an ant. There is the mentioning of ants in all titles and in every section of the collection. From the description of the collection as that of rants and anthems; a dedication to Ezinne, his wife and confidant and Aniong, infant extraordinaire; an antilog (now, you would have expected to see a preface or something), we are shown that we are in for a ride for a whole collection of poems strengthened by the power and antique wisdom that the world’s arguably most organised unit still teaches, this time in verse. Going through the book, one notices that each title has an ant in it from ‘migrants at shore’ to ‘kettle at the hydrant,’ ‘farewell to adam ant’ and ‘constant at the walls,’ we find them prominently seated in words that we might have overlooked or not thought of. But it doesn’t stop there as some poems within too carry this ‘ant-y anthem.’
‘Second revolution of the ants’ (14) is one of the examples of the best representation of the ants in message, tone, music and beauty. The poem centres on a slow transformation of ‘a joke from harmless mendicants’ that steadily evolves peaceful descendants of perpetual supplicants into ‘warriors’ used by politicians and dropped! They mutate into militants and fight. After much chaos, soldiers come in. The persona that begs that ‘the plenty non-truants’ be spared a thought ‘suffering shame from elite cabals and neo-complainants’ caught, milked, and wounded by cross-colluding mutants. In the full easy tale of today, this is the story of those boys and girls, children of the Niger-Delta whose parents had to turn supplicants at the shrines and alters of policy makers and multinationals who spoilt and their land and destroyed it with the ‘black gold’ – more like Midas land, where they couldn’t eat the fruits of their places anymore. Politicians turned this ‘new’ generation into thugs at their bidding, giving them a breakaway from poverty through violence. Slowly, the guns are turned at these politicians and oil companies, the rants and chants thus evolving to blasts! Sure, the vengeful JTTF, soldiers are sent to quell the notorious ‘vagrants’ by powers who had forgotten the genesis of these groups, our new revelation. The eternal saying of the grass suffering when the elephants do whatever – kiss, make love, or even worse, fight comes to light again. Lots of innocent are caught in the crossfire between these soldiers and the vagrants. This is the story of the evolution of the ants who tired of staring at, waiting and being told to be patient as all plans for their betterment were in the pipeline decided to take a chance and go get it for themselves (as Matthew Kukah rightly put it).
Except the lovely content concealed in the poem, other things step out to make it lovely. This is shown in the great attention to structure given to the poem by ‘kufre. Prominently is the lovely feat of thirty ants that march in rhyme at the end of each of the five lines of the six stanza poem. All this is in addition to some inner ants like the descendants in the third line. So to say, there is a musicality that lies in this poem due to this stunt and more. In the rare case, where you have an in-ant as expressed above, descendants rhyming with the rest at the line, you have to smile or even clap. It is noteworthy that all the rhyming ‘ants’ are different, individually standing out in their functions in the poem. In other words, there is no repetition of words in the placement of the ants at the end of the lines making the poet’s chants fresh and his rants louder and more pleasurable to listen to. There is no doubt these words are individually relevant J and not imposed. I could go on and on with this poem but let’s move to others…
If you think ‘kufre’s music stops at rhyme, you find a full song replete with chorus and numbered stanza in the remix of ‘The First Noel’ in what he titles ‘The noel chant in Abuja.’ It is written in ‘polished’ pidgin English, not the Warri type or our usual street one to perhaps show the tosh – aje buta in this case, aspect of the poet. In the five stanzas, each accompanied by a chorus, the story of ‘no well, no send’ is rendered, talking of people struggling and crying till ‘we go gba-dun with shepe/till things re-vert.’ In essence, we would simply celebrate our misery and drink away our sorrows till things revert to better, if ever they do. Till then, or meanwhile, ‘No well, e no well/No well, e no well/But dis na thing/Wey we fear yest’ !! Again, it isn’t written but a trial at rendition shows that the poems can be sang to the tune of ‘The First Noel.’ Nice!
The beauty of some, most if you want, of ‘kufre’s poems are that they usually have humour splashed into them. This might be the reason why his authorial picture behind the book is that of a grinning wide eyed man! That aside, You don’t always have to dig hard to get the underlying pun to get a good laugh. Yeah, isn’t this the sort of thing most of us would rather have? Enjoy the essence of whatever, laugh and leave the meanings to whoever – maybe, idle reviewers! In some poems, it is laughter galore. Picturing the singing of ‘The noel chant in Abuja’ would give one this feeling. However, it is in poems like ‘Litigants and Mitigants’ (45) comes to mind at this point. Dr. Ferdinand Asoo, lecturer and literary critic in one of his lectures said in definition of a good poem that the title tells you about it all. This one does, though not in your exact sense. So, in this case you are prepared for a legal poem that might have all the ‘Order!’ ‘Order!’ ‘Order!’ thrill to it or maybe something else to do with legal cases that might involve corruption, land issues, the Niger-Delta (borrowing from earlier poems) and the like. Well, court okay but with a twist. From the start gives you thoughts of the village: ‘torn singlets…fowls…pammy…hot.’ We’re most probably in the village! We move forward to note that the poem talks of ‘court’ sessions in this village (?) where there are ‘dusty feet as debates raged…an abundance of meat/From penalties given to the guilty.’ All this accompanied with ‘pammy’ (palm wine) or ‘hot’ (usually dry gin). ‘Judgment is killed and roasted/Penalties are drank instantly.’ Selective pronouncements are made for the merriment of them that be even as every case is ‘impromptu.’ All the players in this legal drama (or trauma if you happen to be the unfortunate person pointed out to defend) from defendants to plaintiffs and all are sourced on the spot. No adjournment, simply pronouncements at session ends and agreed dates for settlements. Wait a minute, let’s get this all in. At the session, a person is simply pointed out to defend with another chosen to what’s the term, attack (?) J It probably is in this case! In this circus court, full with refreshment, there is no appeal or adjournment, all cases must end with a punishment in forms of rewards that must be remitted to the council that be. Wow! Well, the poem ends with the persona wishing (s)he was around to be in court – whether as ‘litigant, mitigant, or defendant’ for he is born of the soil, like all ‘else in court.’ So, he hopes that if someone pays (the usual ransom, due or whatever the ‘punishment’ here is called), he would be remembered. In this case, the Nigerian context of ‘remember’ comes into full effect as not just an act of picturing someone in mind but noting that the person is still existent and as such must have something reserved as if he was present. Hmm…
Follow humour to ‘…Antacid for antiquity’ (39) that centres largely on Robert of Mugabwe, whose name we can deduce to be a certain President who has refused to follow the Mandelian example. In pidgin, the persona carefully crafts yabs at this man who has refused to note that ‘na humble ant de become giant’ (Nice pun!). In the end, the question comes wondering if the gods of Africa are still alive and if Robert Mugabwe doesn’t eat ‘apple,’ that ultimate fruit that drawing from allusion to a dark goggled King in Nigeria, finds a way to end it all for goodness sake!
And now, ‘Ant Eaters?’ (47), a poem which is a reflection of childhood, specifically eating mbube. It opens with a riddle posed by the poetic persona on whether the termite is an ant or not. The persona quickly dismisses this puzzle thinking rather of cuisine, taste over reason, if you would. In reality, on the plate and in the pot, does it really matter if the chicken came before the egg or vice versa? As long as they take their proper turns in getting to the stomach, what does it matter? So, our persona here simply switches to memory of the thrill of eating mbube, its taste and loveliness. He misses this sweet meat, even years later after sampling several ‘meats and chews’ since those days of innocence. In the end, nothing else seems to matter except that he would miss ‘mbube.’ Let us not forget that the poem ends in him speaking in his mother tongue, the taste is so sweet that English cannot express his full love. Thus, he ends ‘O Mbube, abu nenem ukpa!!’
In all, one notices that ‘kufre ekanem’s debut collection is quite novel without being quite so different in its approach to poetry. The use of the lessons of the ants to teach morals while also using words containing them to take his message home is an innovation that is quite commendable. Tracing from their simple size and way of life, the poet allows the poems to be quite simple with a language that is quite without easy to flow with. There is no effort to use big words that would confuse and when that is done, it is for effect and probably out as a result of no other word being available to achieve the artistic or stylistic objective that the poet aims at in that particular poem. Where he is complex in theme or language, it might be in honour of the complexities of the selfless and sometimes complex activities and designs of the ants that we keep on trying to understand every day. But on language again, there is the use of Pidgin English to give the poems a street feel. This might also have been in a post-colonial stance to show that despite the posh nature of some of the poems, the poet has a connection with his roots, his lands, and environment. This would also account for the use of local languages as seen in ‘Ant Eaters?’ (explained above). Some local idioms are used and local allusions introduced like that of apple in ‘…Antacid for antiquity.’ Even from the same poem, we note the activist and complainer in the normal African writer. We see from ‘…Antacid for antiquity’ and several other poems the usual issues that are raised by African writers in their works, those of corruption, ills of government, underdevelopment, and all the other ills that plague the African contemporary society. The poet backs this all with messages on hypocrisy, religion and all the headaches that one would rather not hear but would appreciate in the subtle verse. So to say, despite the complaints and nags, ‘kufre adds themes of love and a big dose of humour to keep you reading, entertained and alive! In all these, he does not forsake the beauty of rhythm in his poems as he touches on music, providing rhymes in most of the poems and also giving a full song. The potent imagery and enjoyable poetic devices employed in the book point out that despite the author’s message and all, he has the full essence and definition of poetry in his mind and is ready to offer not just disjointed prose but real verse – whatever your definition of it might be. Thus in the end, through their wisdom, we join in eating the essence of their thoughts and become truly, at ‘kufre’s invitation, the ant eaters.