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By Ben Okri’s repetition of death, symbolism shown throughout the story, and his value of family in “A Prayer From the Living,” he tells the reality of the demise of a small village in order to inform the reader about the helplessness of the villagers and to inspire a connection between the reader and the villagers. Throughout the story, as well as through scholarly sources, the reader is able to see Okri’s experience and his perspective on the world and how that developed, as well as how it ties into his writing.
Growing up, Okri moved around between Nigeria and London, which he mentions was beneficial to his writing in a sense of deepening perspectives. He was interviewed about his experience in Nigeria, having moved back days prior to the Nigerian civil war, and says during this time, he was “nearly shot” because of the difference between the african languages of his parents. He explains that through this experience as a child, it’s “strange,” “weird,” and “confusing,” rather than scary to be in Nigeria at this time (Novelist).
Okri’s experience and nativism to Africa is believed to have sparked an interest in raising concerns for this starving Somalia village. He’s using his voice to allow the reader to connect with the villagers.
Prior to this story’s publication, the famine in Somalia was a big issue in 1991-92. The famine consisted of starvation, disease, and war. During this time, the Red Berets were destroying reservoirs and contributed to the constant loss of necessities for the villagers.
The group was started under the ruling of Siad Barre, who (insert something smart instead of saying ruined) their once beautiful country. While other countries recognized Somalia’s need for assistance and sent food shipments to the villagers, the Warlords, who were a powerful and violent group during the time, would disrupt the food shipments that provided aid and would take it all for themselves, leaving the villagers malnourished and dying. (need a good transition here)
While telling the story of the villagers and the effect of the famine, Okri repeats the idea and for the villagers, the reality, of death within the story. The narrator talks about the delusional effects that start to take over from the starvation they’re experiencing, saying “the hungrier [he] became, the more [he] saw [dead people]” (Okri). By saying this, Okri is hinting to the reader that the narrator in the story is nearing death and is starting to go to ‘the other side’. He speaks of the dead as “more joyful than we are,” stating that the dead are happier than the living, because they’re no longer suffering (Okri). Okri paints almost a connection with the dead and the villagers, saying “death made them my kin,” because the only things left living in the village were barely hanging on (Okri). By repeating the idea of death, the author is informing the reader on the harsh reality of the villagers at this time, and the rapid deterioration of the village and everything in it.
Along with death, Okri repeatedly mentions singing in his story, and it always represents the nearness of death. In the beginning of the story, Okri mentions how the dead were “singing golden songs” and were the only things living in the village, referencing how near to death everything was. The narrator talks about the dead like they’re still alive, doing the same things they always do. He mentions a mountain of death in the story and references back to it when talking about his nearness to death, saying he will “submit [himself] to the mountain songs” (Okri). As he’s getting closer to his final moments, the narrator “began to sing in silence” (Okri). The reader interprets this as him acknowledging his last moments and beginning to pass away from dying of starvation. By including these details, the reader understands who the villagers are as a whole, being cheerful and singing songs in the midst of a tragedy.
Throughout this story, the author uses a variety of symbolism, imagery and metaphors to show the readers the realness of the disaster happening to this small village and how it’s affecting both the people and the environment as a whole. Okri mentions the last town, which is basically now a desert, being “beyond the rusted gates” (Okri). The image created by Okri in this line can be compared to the gates of heaven, but now rusted and worn down. The gates symbolize how the external beauty has faded, along with the life that was once held inside the gates. As the narrator continues to search through the town, when he reaches his final destination, he mentions the school’s air being filled with prayer, rather than death. The atmosphere in the building seemed selfless and hopeful for all those who remained, which ended up being the inspiration for the narrator’s prayers for the “entire human race” (Okri). The school, as a whole, symbolized the selflessness of the villagers in a time of desperate suffering. It allowed the readers to understand more of the hearts of these dying villagers and their hope for all who live on after them. The narrator mentions the white men with cameras to represent the disconnection between the severity of what has been going on and how the rest of the world perceives it. The author tells the story first-hand of all the heartbreak, hopefulness, and everything in between, just for the “white ones” to give people a different, less gruesome perspective on the reality of what’s left of their lives.
A common thread seen throughout Okri’s works and scholarly articles is the high regards in importance of his family and how that is shaped by his upbringing. When asked about returning to Nigeria before the civil war started, Okri said that the war “greatly affected his family” (Novelist). His experiences with his family and his moral sense of prioritization of his family is seen being portrayed in his writing. For example, when the narrator first walks into the village, he mentions that he will be able to die peacefully when he finds out that his family was dead and was no longer in need of his assistance.
“I was searching for my family and my lover. I wanted to know if they had died or not. If I didn’t find out, I intended to hang on to life by its last tattered thread. If I knew that they, too, were dead and no longer needed me, I would die at peace.” (Okri)
The almost immediate concern of the narrator’s family shows that the narrator is trying his best to maintain the role of the provider that he plays in his family, and is driven by a high regard and value of his family’s lives. These morals and values of the importance of family, as well as the experiences shared with his family had a positive influence in this story, because Okri was able to connect the life and morals of the narrator with his personal life. Okri also talks about how “his childhood significantly influenced his writing” (Bennett). Being raised the way he was, Okri was able to gain perspectives and “develop a worldview that combines African and European traditions” (Bennett). His parents, being from Nigeria, but ultimately having a whole new culture when he lived in London, helps the author gain multiple different cultural perspectives and combine the two to create his stories.
The author’s cultural background contributes to his interest in Somalia. His story speaks of the calmness of the demise of the country’s village and the helplessness of the villagers. Okri stepped into the opportunity to be their voice, because the complete destruction of their village is nearing and they are defenseless. The author created a story to tell the neglected and ugly truth of a small village in Somalia, during a terrible famine.
In the story, “A Prayer From the Living,” Ben Okri utilizes the repetition of death, symbolism throughout the story, and his value of family to tell the story of the demise of a small village in order to inform the reader about the reality of the helplessness of the villagers. The author’s main purpose in his story is to allow the reader to connect with the villagers on a more personal level, not just through a screen, but rather know their thoughts and have the reader develop a connection with them.
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