An Act of Freedom

Kojo Baffoe
Published in
11 min readApr 23, 2021

There’s cause for celebration in the sheer quantity of gifted young writers. But I like to delay my celebrations till the seed has become a tree.

All images: Johannes Dreyer

Written by Phakama Mbonambi for Ogojiii print magazine

Ben Okri walks into the second floor of the National Library of South Africa with purposeful strides, a posse of handlers hovering around him. This colossal Nigerian writer, who won the Booker Prize for The Famished Road (1991), delivered a stirring and eloquent public lecture the night before on “Summoning the African Renaissance: A Vision for the Individual” at the University of South Africa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies in Pretoria, then stayed up late into the night with friends and colleagues but he is chatty and full of energy, showing no trace of fatigue.

With his signature black beret and a white shirt hanging loosely over his black slacks, Okri’s casual appearance belies his tough-as-nails intellect. For our talk, we sit in brightly coloured, cavernous armchairs. A feeble autumn sun streaks in through the glass wall next to Okri, illuminating his well-trimmed beard.

The son of a judge, Okri was born in 1959 to a half-Igbo mother and Urhobo father from the Delta region. After a spell of living in London, he returned to Nigeria with his family in 1968. He read voraciously as a youth while nursing an ambition to write, and studied Comparative Literature at Essex University in England.

From the outset, Okri clarifies that even though he has been living and writing from London for many years, he has no qualms about being labelled an African writer. To him the label is accurate in indicating his origins, but he points out that his work transcends the description. “I’ve written books about Africa and I’ve written books about Europe, about middle space, about the imaginative realm. I’d like to think of myself as an African and a world writer,” he says.

Coming from a country with a long line of prominent writers including Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Kole Omotoso and many, many more, Okri knew early on that he had big shoes to fill. He had to find his own voice early, lest he fell into the trap of rehashing old themes or be crippled by provincialism. Writers of a generation before his had been concerned with the ravages of colonialism and were notable for literary masterpieces that asserted the continent’s intellectual independence and the need for Africans to be treated as sovereign beings like everyone else. It was a literature that marched to the drumbeat of calls for political independence. Okri, whose formative years were after Nigerian independence, had different concerns. He preferred opening the lens through which he looked at the world a bit wider, giving his imagination total freedom to reflect on larger issues in the world, not just on his little corner in Africa.

Today, he still stands by this conviction. “I feel that it’s necessary, as a writer, to look at the conditions of the world in which I find myself. I think it’s important to look at Europe, look at America, to look at the imaginative sphere of the world we live in as well as look at Africa. …I think that’s an important freedom for the writer to have, because an African writer is also affected by the world.”

For Okri, situating the African writer in the larger global context would eliminate the tendency of African literature — and indeed the [African] continent’s — of being insular. “One of Africa’s weaknesses is that we are too inward-looking. When the world comes to us, we are completely unprepared as to what it is we are dealing with. We don’t know the psychology of the people we are dealing with. We don’t know the history of their intentions. But we should, because we are modern nation states. We should try to understand everything. So, when a writer writes about the world, it’s very important information to African nations and to their readers at home and abroad.”

As a result of giving his imagination free reign, Okri can be regarded as a ‘trans-boundary’ writer. “One of the important things a writer does is to constantly show you that you are in one place but intermingling with all places at the same time. The realm of the imagination has no boundaries. That’s the freest part of us — it constantly reminds us that we are bigger than the space we inhabit,” Okri says.


So much has been said on many platforms about the proliferation of new talented names on the African literary scene. What’s Okri’s assessment of the current African writing scene? Is he happy with the quality of output?

A pause. Then a torrent.

“I think there’s cause for celebration in the sheer quantity of gifted young writers. But I like to delay my celebrations till the seed has become a tree. So, there are a lot of gifted writers dealing with secular themes of our times — poverty, exile, women’s issues, travel. I don’t see very many new themes, new angles, but I see good stories. What I would like is a surprise of a completely new vision, a new tone of voice. There are one or two writers who have immense promise, but I won’t mention them just yet. I have a quiet interest in one of them. He could be something special. It depends on where he takes his lens of sensibility to; sometimes a great sensibility doesn’t realise itself if it doesn’t find the right story. So, it’s an explosive moment. It’s a moment rich in potential. It says something wonderful about the state of Africa right now — that there’s more freedom, there’s more creativity, that a new generation is blossoming.”

Talking about the enlarging of themes, Okri rattled a few feathers late last year in an essay titled “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness” that appeared in The Guardian. In the essay he worried about African writers being read by Western audiences primarily for the painful subjects they write about — slavery, colonialism and other African troubles. “Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness?” Okri asked. He warned that Westerners’ fixation with this kind of literature might lead to “distortion and limitation”. It seemed a fair warning from a well-read writer who knows that “Flaubert is read for beauty, Joyce for innovation, Virginia Woolf for poetry, Jane Austen for her psychology”. Okri simply wanted African writers to stop being pigeonholed or allowing themselves to be pigeonholed.

Despite his good intentions, reaction from some quarters was harsh. “The essay was much misunderstood because of the title given to it by editors. And most people only read the title, which is unfortunate. I was a bit disappointed… The warning in the essay is this: just because we go through difficult situations doesn’t mean that our literature should constantly be about those difficult situations. This would be saying our literature is no greater than our circumstance. Literature is an act of freedom, an act of the imagination. It should transcend our circumstance. We should not only write about what is hurting us. We should write also about what we dream of. What we would like.”

He stresses that the warning in the essay is directed at young writers whom he believes should “widen the canvas, open the tone of their trumpets”, so they can find joy, pleasure and beauty in literature.

On the issue of African writers being shunned by top literary prizes, an issue some observers have raised repeatedly when various long lists and shortlists are announced, Okri feels– or rather, moans — that African writers need to take it upon themselves to submit their books to judges of international prizes. “Judges can only deal with books that are sent to them. If you are writing from the continent, send your books to all prizes you are open to,” he says.

But he does concede that some of the best work about Africa — work that succeeds in garnering international acclaim — presently comes from writers of African origin who do not necessarily reside on the continent. A quick scan of the current African literary landscape shows that new heavy hitters include writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, NoViolet Bulawayo, Helon Habila, Chris Abani, Uzodinma Iweala, Chika Unigwe and Taiye Selasi. All of them live abroad and tend to look homewards in their work.

Does writing away from home, often about home, help a writer’s creative process? Does living in other lands make shapes clearer? “I don’t know whether there’s a change in scope. I don’t know whether sometimes leaving home frees you to see much wider,” Okri says reflectively. “I remember writing a short story about a street I was living in in Lagos. I’d write a paragraph and I’d walk down the street and I’d take note of things and I’d come back. In the end it was a very bad story. It had too much detail in it. I couldn’t see the essence of the street. Years later, in England, when I went back to the story it came out effortlessly. I needed just four or five details for it to come alive. Sometimes it’s difficult to write about a place when you are in it because you are overwhelmed by the details. “Distance gives perspective. I admire writers who are able to get perspective while being in situ. Also, I think many writers abroad have had the benefit of writing schools, which you don’t have in many places in Africa.”

Even though he’s clearly a writer of the world, one shuttling between spheres, geographic and ideological, Okri isn’t taken by the term Afropolitan. In the crudest sense, the term refers to Africans who are global nomads, with fluid domiciles. “I don’t feel it applies to me. My perception is very fluid. But I see its usefulness with a generation of people who live very in-between the two places. Also, the term is important because a new group has come into being that wasn’t there 20 years ago.”

Interestingly, even other African thinkers such as Achille Mbembe and younger African writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina have issues with the efficacy of the term. Most fault it for promoting commodification and rapacious consumerism at the expense of identity politics.

Okri seems to be on the “right” slate, then.


From a young age Okri has been keenly following events in South Africa — from the grim past of apartheid to the sometimes-shaky present. In his 2012 keynote address for the 13th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, titled “Biko and the Touch Alchemy of Africa”, Okri highlighted his life-long affinity not only with the slain Biko’s towering intellect and formidable fighting spirit, but also with the greater South African struggle for liberation. He said that as a child, after seeing the horrific images of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he instantly identified himself as a black South African. “Your great struggle and your history have been the background music to our lives. Your struggle highlighted to us all over the continent the meaning of justice,” Okri said during that lecture.

However, three years later, the background music Okri heard all those years ago has become a discordant symphony given the xenophobic violence, or Afrophobic violence, meted out against foreign-born African migrants in South African townships and cities. The first signs of trouble took place while Okri was in South Africa, a month before the country celebrated 21 years of democracy. It’s a nasty turn of events. A tough economic climate, hopelessness, despair, unemployment is blamed for the mayhem. These reasons are not enough to placate Okri. The violence reminds him of a time when masses of Ghanaians were forcibly expelled from Nigeria in the early 1980s. “It was a disgraceful moment in Nigeria’s history,” he says.

He never expected to witness a similar nightmare in a country that gave the world Biko, Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. His condemnation of the recent violence in South Africa is frank: “I’m surprised and saddened, because over the whole anti-apartheid period South Africa has been the central concern of Africans. We’ve all felt that South Africa’s struggle was our struggle. South Africa was the receptive basket to all of Africa’s hopes, affection, feeling, concern and support. Then South Africa gets independence. It’s natural for people to come here in search of economic opportunities — as is the case elsewhere on the continent. But 20 years later there’s this distrust and hatred of fellow Africans. It’s shocking. It’s deeply wounding. Why hasn’t there been a dialogue in the nation about the relationship between South Africa and the rest of Africa? I understand people’s economic circumstances make people wary of foreigners, but I’m genuinely puzzled.”

What’s the solution, then? “It’s something politicians and community figures need to address. There needs to be a greater sense of Pan-Africanism on the continent. We should exist in co-operation and mutual support against huge forces ranged against us in the world. I’m talking about big, big powers, and here we are, little nations, fighting with one another, being distrustful of one another.”

A momentary silence falls in the room.


The interview then segues back to Okri as a writer, a familiar territory. He visibly relaxes and his eyes twinkle with delight once again. He explains that his creative process is not just about sitting at his work desk: before writing anything, he prefers taking long, solitary walks to allow an idea to germinate in his mind. “I get my best ideas walking. I write sentences in my head when I’m walking, looking at the landscape. I walk for two to three hours, until I’m lost. When I come back, whatever I want to write becomes quite clear.”

He advises younger writers to incubate their ideas in their minds for a long time. “I read a lot of young writers. I fear they do not marinade their ideas long enough. They would conceive an idea and then rush to put it down on paper. Actually, ideas need to grow, they need to ventilate, they need to be aerated.”

An African writer, a world writer

Known for his intriguing and dazzling exploration of the spiritual realm in books such as The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Starbook (2007), Ben Okri is indeed a world writer on par with contemporaries such as Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. His world of magical fantasy is richly illustrated by the adventures of Azaro the spirit child in the trilogy of The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches (1998). These books are rendered in a rich poetic language and read like magic realism as pioneered by Latin American writers. For inspiration, Okri taps into Yoruba folklore as well as New Ageism, spiritual realism, visionary materialism and existentialism.

His first two novels were Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within (1981), set in Nigeria. Both books examined the political violence that accompanied the Nigerian civil war of 1967–1970, a turbulence young Okri had witnessed first-hand. He also dabbled in poetry. Indeed, between 1983 and 1986, he was poetry editor of West Africa magazine.

Over the years, Okri has been nothing short of prolific. He has also published two collections of stories, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), both set in London and Lagos. His other fiction includes Astonishing the Gods (1995) and Dangerous Love (1996), In Arcadia (2002), Starbook (2007) and Tales of Freedom (2009). On the poetry front, Okri has published collections of poems, An African Elegy (1992), Mental Flight (1999) and Wild (2012). He also boasts a collection of essays, A Way of Being Free (1997) and A Time for New Dreams (2011). He has also written a play, In Exilus.

Apart from the 1991 Booker Prize, recognition for his work includes a Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) in 1987 for Incidents at the Shrine and Premio Palmi (Italy) in 2000 for Dangerous Love. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2001.



Kojo Baffoe

Writer, content strategist, freelance editor. Author: #ListenToYourFootsteps, Host: Listen To Your Footsteps Podcast