In the last month, I travelled with my friend across the middle belt, central and south eastern region of the Nigerian States. These were routes I had taken before, but travelling with Halima gave a refreshing perspective to the sceneries of Eastern Nigeria. Not forgetting the potholes which had become the marquee of the Nigerian road, the entire journey was filled with scenes that would make for good tourist appeals, divergent attractions and hills of various shades.
My friend Halima is of Fulani descent and comes from the Northern region of Nigeria, characterised by absence of grass and trees, with hazy and hot weather. Being her first visit to Eastern Nigeria, the site of steady green vegetation was particularly striking for her. Clusters of lush green little woodlands sighted on the roadsides were a contrast to the progressively dry northern states where she is used to seeing many lonely trees. I was amazed to note that I also had not consciously observed this stark difference in landscape. Before now, I assumed that all regions are endowed with at least a number of woodlands, shrubs, high density tree areas with closed canopy. Now I realise my assumptions are wrong. Some places have them, and others do not. For the have not’s, it could be as a result of the arid nature of the region, drought as is the case of northern Nigeria. In other places, it could be deforestation practices such as wood logging caused by the pressures of industrialization.
As I reflect through this new revelation, I thought that in the era of climate change, it could indeed be possible that more regions will lose their woodlands and perhaps become progressively dry as the northern Nigeria. Sustaining my faith in Literature, I began researching on writers who have prophetically captured the possibilities of this reality and advanced issues of deforestation such as tree logging.
Most captivating is Dalene Mathee’s ‘Circle in the Forest’. This work of fiction has remained a modern classic that portrays the magnificence of Africa, with a universal symbolism that is applicable to every country, hamlets and all people. The character of Saul Bernard the son of Joram the wood-cutter stands out as the protector of the Knysna forest. This forest was an inheritance vanishing under the political manipulations and threat of exploitation of the timber merchants and ivory hunters. Mechanisms such as debts where used by capitalist timber merchants who ensured the woodcutters never got out of debt, hence blindly they continued to supplement their lack of income by killing elephants, cutting woods and destroying the forest. As he fights to halt these destructions, he finds a strange magical kinship with the spirit of Old Foot, the indomitable and majestic elephant who like him is running from a lie placed over his life. The story is woven together to propel Saul to a life transforming experience that comes with many confrontations. Saul’s life was one of questions, he questioned the conventions on his love for Kate (the daughter of MacDonald the wood buyer) whom he could not be with, He questions the power relations in the wood market.
The Knysna forest was home to many wild elephants and trees. Kysna like most African forests, acts as a carbon sink that mitigates climate change. Forest are essential for our living on earth. They provide oxygen, shelter for arrays of plants and animals, food and wealth for indigenous people and timber for everyday use. In the era of deforestation, most African forest are still surviving. In comparison with other regions of the world, such as Eastern Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, Africa’s biodiversity is still in good condition but yet under severe threat by interest of developed countries in their forest.
China is one of the largest exporter of timber from various African countries. Illegal hunting of African elephants for the ivory, Rhinos for their horns is notably a practice of traders from this country. Symbolically, Dalene Mathee’s novel is indeed prophetic as it rightly represents the reality of today’s forests which is in constant exploitation by timber and ivory merchants amongst other. While the colonists might be accused of exploitation, they still left a preservable forest reserve for future generations. With the invasive interest China has in Africa, can the same be said of possible footprints that China will leave in African Forests? The colonialist may have raped the African mind and land; will China perform the last rape with our forests?
Though timber trading means more money in the short term, how is this interest improving the lives of local people and in the long term, what future does it hold for the forest? The more questions I ask, the lesser answers there are.
The European Union seems to be creating stricter timber regulations, but the poor governance of African forest remains an issue of concern. Hence this makes it difficult to gauge precisely what impact this industrial activity will have. More so, poor governance cannot aid the mitigation of negative effects. If climate change is indeed an issue of global concern, policy makers have a call to ensure implementation of good practices in ongoing forest use. Like Saul Bernard, the world of Africans must now go beyond seeking guarantees as it may not be enough. Like Saul Bernard, the African government and its people must chose a self imposed mission to prevent any wanton forest destructions by instituting processes to secure the biodiversity in this region.
While on my tour with Halima, I paid a visit to the house of my birth in Benue state. Whereas not much has changed, I was excited to find the tree of my childhood still standing. That tree holds memories; it taught me and my siblings how to climb. Standing by it, I wondered how many children born today will have the privilege of finding the tree of their childhood (if they have one) three decades after. In that moment, I began to appreciate people who have fought to preserve our biodiversities and our trees and I hope that their fight would be worthwhile.
In conclusion, I remember the non-fictional Saul Bernard’s of our time; the larger than life Wangari the tree lady. But henceforth, when I honour the life of Wangari Mathaai the amazon of the forest, I’ll also remember Dalene Mathee whom with her pen remains a great protector of the African Forest. May their souls continue to rest as the forest trees sway in their praise.