By Biko Agozino
The poem, ‘If…’ by Rudyard Kipling was one of my favourites in High School after I saw a copy on the wall of my English Literature teacher. I copied it by hand on a large poster and kept in my room at home as an inspiration. However, another literature teacher from a girls’ school near home visited me at home once and saw the poem and immediately critiqued my poor handwriting. True to Kipling’s advice, I accepted the criticism and gave as my excuse, the fact that the civil war led to the loss of all the furniture in our school and at the end we sat on the floor and used cement blocks as writing desks with which to learn how to write. The teacher accepted my excuse but encouraged me to work on improving my handwriting.
That should have been the end of the matter but one of my cousins was furious with the teacher for trying to disrespect my prized poster poem. He challenged the teacher to look beyond the handwriting and see the philosophy of the poem as a guide for a young man growing up. Before I knew it, we were engaged in a heated debate about the contents of the poem.
The teacher said that it was actually his original intention to call attention to the content of the poem and that he was glad that my cousin raised it. He said that he did not trust an English man to provide the philosophy with which young African men should guide their lives long after the end of colonialism. He called it an example of colonial mentality. We all disagreed with him and said that it does not matter if a poem is written by an African or by a European, a good poem is a good poem.
The teacher disagreed with us and insisted that what is good for the rat is not always good for the cat and vice versa. So we challenged him to say exactly why he was against the poem. He invited us to read the poem more closely with him and ask the author, ‘What if not’ at every line, would you not be a man still even if you lived your life in a different way from his colonial prescriptions?
First of all, keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you could be a very dangerous thing especially if you are the one responsible for them losing their heads. In that case, you are not likely to keep your head for much longer. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, then you must be smoking or drinking something that you should not be smoking or drinking. When all men doubt you, it is not just some men, say a minority or even a majority, but all men, then you had better re-examine your own confidence for signs of false confidence. Otherwise, you might just come across as an arrogant aristocrat who does not care about what everybody thinks.
Waiting and not being tired of waiting could be simply a sign of lethargy and a dangerous one at that especially if you are talking about decolonization and the colonial masters want you to wait because you are not ripe for independence, as if you are some kind of bananas. Sometimes, waiting is not a virtue if you have waited centuries already, sometimes it is good to say that you are indeed tired of waiting and it does not follow that you will be less of a man when you tell the colonial overlord to get off your back, the teacher reasoned and we nodded.
How about not telling lies even when people lie about you or not hating people who hate you and yet not looking too good nor talking too wise? We asked him, trying to salvage something from my prized poem. He sucked his teeth at us and said that those are not prescriptions for being a man but prescriptions for being a good child. A good man will clear his name when people lie about him and a good man would hate it when the strong oppresses the weak. Who is to say what is too good or too wise? He asked us and without waiting for an answer, he told us not to mind the English man who thinks that he will always be better than us. Instead we should try to be the best that we could.
The next stanza got even worse as the teacher queried who Kipling thought that he was addressing anyway. Why was he saying, ‘If you can dream, if you can think…’ Of course, we can dream and think because we are human just like him and a colonized people do not need to be reminded that dreams are no masters for they still struggled against the nightmare masters that they wanted to free themselves from. We reminded the teacher that maybe he was the knave who was twisting the truths of Kipling to make a trap for us fools but he fired back that we were no fools but free men and that poetry is not truth but arts. As for watching the things you gave your life broken, he said that a good man would at least try to protect or defend the country he gave his life to instead of just standing there and waiting for the invaders to destroy it before meekly trying to rebuild with, of all things, worn out tools. How pathetic, the teacher sighed.
The next stanza is all about gambling and the teacher advised us to avoid that kind of mentality if we ever hope to grow up as good men. We must never gamble all our resources away in one heap and hope to start again at the beginning because there may never be another beginning but a sad end. Instead, we should learn to invest our resources wisely and spread our investments rather than leave all our eggs in one basket. If it only takes a will to serve your turn when your body is tired, remember that you are part of a team and not just a selfish individualist poet. When you are tired, the teacher advised us, take time out and get some rest and let another member of your team continue.
The final stanza warns about the danger of losing your virtue when talking with crowds as if the masses are vile and would pollute your good qualities. At the same breath, the imperialist Kipling advised that we should walk with kings and retain the common touch as if people who live in republican democracies must be pitied for not having kings to walk with. If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, then you are dead already, cried the teacher. Finally, he intoned, what counts is not how many seconds you put into your minutes but how many miles you put into your minutes if you are a long distance runner. So do not let the devil fool you into thinking that yours is the earth and all that is in it, you are already a man my son and you will have to share the earth with billions of other men and women. Kipling is simply crazy, he concluded. I got up and tore off the poster from my wall and shredded it.