Avian Friends, Naturecracy and Artocracy in the time of Coronavirus – Nduka Otiono
It was yet another beautiful dawn during the novel coronavirus lockdown in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The lazy warmth of the spring sun was filtering through our window. A house wren, nesting in our backyard, a patch of land privately screened off with emerald green arborvitae trees from a popular road, was warbling joyfully again. Although, I first noticed it last spring, I did not pay much attention to the bird and its avian companions. Under COVID-19 lockdown, however, I have rediscovered my old hobby of birdwatching, making me something of an amateur ornithologist. It made a lot of difference to me that I did not have to leave our home to indulge in a childhood passion that the hustles of everyday city life in normal times had nearly torpedoed. I must confess that I have been enjoying every moment of it, happily becoming an unofficial host. From the bathroom window and the porch of my kitchen, I see them flirting and mating, twittering in their peculiar avian language, flapping their wings and as carefree as only birds can be.
As dawn flushed into daylight, the singing wren softened its songs; it sang intermittently. Going by the growing intensity of the morning sun, I must have been lost at the window for quite some time, listening to the Avian minstrel. Soon, it came into view as it perched on the arched roof top extension, surveying the environment as if to confirm that it was safe enough to fly into the vent connecting its nest in the attic. At other times, its male partner accompanied this female. Most active in the early mornings and evenings, together they spend the day working and ferrying twigs and food for their chicks.
Irritated by the birds’ unsightly droppings on my rooftop, the signature of their roosting in our attic, I have become hostage to the lockdown addiction, watching them come and go as they like. I have caught myself, in turn caught by my wife, staring out the window pondering, admiring and even envying the artistry, artisanal workmanship and industrious behaviour of the visiting avians. On one of my truly lucky days, different species fly in and out, fluttering and singing in the backyard: American robins, brown-headed cowbirds, Northern cardinals, house sparrows, and starlings.
Unproductive as this pastime may seem, I have come to better appreciate John Harold Johnson’s philosophical declaration in his inspiring autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: “There is an advantage in every disadvantage, and a gift in every problem.” Thus, a remarkable irony about the current COVID-19 pandemic is that while it has upended life as we used to know it, and continues to asphyxiate the old and young leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, it has also given humanity the opportunity to turn to the little but important things of life they previously overlooked. Right now, in parts of England, people are taking up gardening more passionately, nurturing home-grown tomatoes and some such veggies in their backyards. Previously uncommunicative neighbours in a country famous for its horticultural bias have been offering useful hints on how to grow aubergines, for instance, graft a twig, and even giving out seedlings for free.
In all of this, it does seem humanity is returning to nature or is it nature reclaiming the space humanity stole from it? Everywhere in the world, we have heard reports and seen pictures of indolent big cats sprawling or snoozing on major highways, primates taking over government offices, goats stretching out on tarmacs. Call it the COVID-19 Wildlife Occupy Movement (WOM) and you may not be wrong. Ever since the lockdown, there have been unusual reports of “Wild animals . . . claiming their space back as urban areas around the world are emptied due to Covid-19”[i] The wide range of animals sighted occupying or strolling freely through deserted streets of usually bustling cities include wild goats (Wales), mountain goats (Cimesgezek, Turkey); kangaroo (Adelaide, Australia); crocodile (Toronto), monkeys (New Delhi), Coyotes (San Francisco); peacock (Dubai) deer (Paris, France; Nara, Japan; Trincomalee, Sri Lanka); wild boar (Antalya, Turkey; Haifa, Israel; France; Barcelona, Spain); buffalo (New Delhi highway) Puma (Santiago, Chile); sea lions (Mar del Plata, Argentina); wild penguins (South Africa); etc.[ii]
Even inside zoos and national parks and game reserves (Kruger in South Africa, Yosemite National Park, and the Hong Kong zoo), animals have been sighted taking unusual natural “vacation” as they exploit the lockdown to express their much-denied freedom. A particularly striking story is that of the pandas in a Hong Kong zoo finally mating after 10 years, apparently because there were no human visitors gawking at them. In the same vein, environmentalists and nature lovers have celebrated the momentary healing of the earth due to drastic reduction in pollution because of the restrictions on nonessential automobile transportation and industrialization across the world. I call this fresh phenomenon Naturecracy, and by that I mean, Nature’s rule over the material world—as related to but subtly different from “ecocracy,” a term that has been used by “enviromentocrats” to highlight a system of government that privileges natural order in relation to environment and development. In thinking of naturecracy in the time of COVID-19, I am re-envisioning the jubilant reign of nature, even if momentarily, as humanity retreated from the streets in compliance with governments’ emergency lockdown orders to fight the super-spreading of the highly infectious virus.
There is another phenomenon that has developed in this period of coronavirus, which is Artocracy. In deploying this, term, I am aligning with Nuno Sacramento and Claudia Zeiske’s coinage in their 2010 book of the same title, “conceived to help structure our thinking with regard to art and society.”
While naturecracy thrives and heals in a world wounded by the bureaucracy of everyday life under COVID-19, the pandemic has equally ushered in a reign of creativity. This creative spark among artists is visible in Africa and other parts of the world. Next to medicine and emergency medical professionals in the frontlines of the war against the pandemic, the arts and artists have become everyday consolation companion. More so, that “catchy songs,” music, films, books, skits, etcetera have been weaponized to “edutain” citizens of a world stretched to the limits by a merciless scourge that has claimed over 346,000 lives worldwide. And so, while some artists are rediscovering their muses, many people have had to rely on the arts for intellectual and spiritual nourishment as well as for comic relief. What is more, as artists produce literary and fine arts, compose music, and collaboratively perform concerts remotely using ICT, the arts have proven to be a potent force that complements medical care as therapy or psychotherapy for healing an ailing world.
Given the centrality of nature and the arts to our survival of the pandemic and to post pandemic recovery, the question may be asked: How can Nigeria take advantage of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to rethink the role of culture and the creative industries? This question presupposes that the country has a responsive cultural bureaucracy that could re-imagine her cultural and creative landscape using the pandemic as a catalyst to create a model for the future. I am not exactly sure what kind of “model for the future” one might expect. But I would like to state my cynicism about the capacity of the traditional bureaucracy to process the challenges of cultural production in the present times towards developing a programmatic “competitive model for the future.” So, if one is expecting Nigeria’s government agencies to set the agenda, I am afraid, salvation will not come from that critical sector.
Therefore, we should not be looking up to government to construct any new visionary cultural architecture for the creative industries. Instead, I am confident in the capacity of independent Nigerian artists and cultural producers to further strategically entrench artocracy. This much they have been doing by establishing the country as the cultural capital of the continent as per the literary, filmic, and musical subsectors of the arts. On that note, I foresee our enterprising creative artists rising from the ravages of the pandemic to create enduring works informed by the experiences of this terrible season. But this is not to say that the government or corporate sector should withhold support from the creative industry.
It is too early, in my opinion, to see the emerging creative works in terms of a competitive model for the future. The works will speak for themselves in terms of what artistic models emerge and how competitive or not they become. The simple reason being that there is no operational school or movement at work as was the case with say, “the Zaria Rebels” of Nigeria’s Independence era that sprouted in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. But if the pointers are to be taken seriously as evident in some recently released compositions such as Erigga’s “Quarantine Cruise”orBella Shmurda’s“Colodia Drive Us,” then we should be expecting works hinged on humor as metaphor. Instructively, beyond formal artistic production, informal memes, jokes, and online skits have become part of the daily dosage of humour transmitted through WhatsApp and other social media platforms and consumed by the masses towards coping with the debilitating psycho-social consequences of the pandemic. Beyond the epicentres of the pandemic in hospital rooms, artocracy holds sway in the comfort of family homes, balconies, and social media chatrooms as evident on cable television broadcasts.
More than ever before, the new coronavirus has led me, and I believe many others, into rediscovering the god of small things, to appropriate the title of Arundhati Roy’s popular novel. And as the Nigerian pop artist Tekno Miles sings in his hit single, “Rara,” we should “forget about the big things oh/ Say make we talk about the small things.” These ostensibly “small things” include daily watching the spring birds that have made our backyard their seasonal nesting home. The god of small things is teaching us to emulate the animals roaming freely under the pandemic by not focusing on existentialism, but to take one day at a time amid an overwhelming wave of diseases and deaths encircling the world. The healing power of taking life’s inscrutable experiences with equanimity is underscored by the fact that these days, “The world we wake up in” appears as “a counterfeit reality,” to paraphrase Louis Netter’s in his fascinating article, “The importance of art in the time of coronavirus.” And as if to further facilitate conversations on the troubled times we live in, and to foreground the primacy of naturecracy and artocracy to our survival, the speaker in Akua Lezli Hope’s poem, “Arrivant,” asks rhetorically: “Why can’t we see god anymore? And the response follows: “because we don’t bend low enough’/ We are being called by the little/ fish to save the world (Wreaths for a Wayfarer 110).”
Indeed, it is time to start listening to the gods of small things such as the little birds building their nests at my backyard and the little fish in the river calling us to save the world.
About the author
Nduka Otiono is a writer, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada. He is an award-winning author and co-editor of eight books of creative writing and academic research. Formerly a journalist and General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, his professional honors include: Capital Educator’s Award for Excellence in Teaching; Carleton University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Early Career Award for Research Excellence; 2018 Black History Ottawa Community Builder Award.