John Pepper Clark’s Raft Running Adrift

John Pepper Clark’s Raft Running Adrift


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



An Overview & An Analysis of JP Clark’s Play The Raft



Works by J.P. Clark

Poems  / A Reed in the Tide (1965)  /  Casualties: Poems  (1970)  /   Song of a Goat (play, 1961)  /

The Bikoroa Plays: The Boat; The Return Home; Full Circle (1985)  / The Ozidi Saga (1991) / Collected Plays and Poems, 1958-1988 (1991)

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John Pepper Clark’s Raft Running Adrift

By Arthur Edgar E. Smith

John Pepper Clark, born of Ijaw parents, is along with Wole Soyinka one of the most articulate, and proficient literary artists to have come from Africa.  He received his early education at the Native Administration School and the prestigious Government College in Ugheli. He then got his Bachelors degree in English at the University of Ibadan, where Wole Soyinka also studied. There he edited various magazines including the Beacon and The Horn. Upon graduation from Ibadan, he worked as an information officer in the old Western Region of Nigeria, as features editor of the Daily Express, and research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He served for several years as a professor of English at the University of Lagos until his retirement in 1980. In 1982, along with his wife (a professor and former director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos), he founded the Pec Repertory Theatre in Lagos.  Since his retirement, he has held visiting professorial appointments at several U.S. universities, including Yale.

Clark is most remembered for his poetry, including: Poems  a group of forty lyrics  treating heterogeneous themes; A Reed in the Tide (1965),  focusing on his indigenous African background and his  experience in America and other places; Casualties: Poems  (1970),  illustrating the horrendous events of the Nigeria-Biafra war; A Decade of Tongues (1981); State of the Union (1981), which highlights his apprehension concerning the sociopolitical events in Nigeria; Mandela and Other Poems (1988), which deals with the perennial problem of aging and death.

Throughout his work, themes such as the following recur: violence and protest, institutional corruption, the beauty of nature and the landscape,  colonialism  and  the inhumanity of the human race. Clark frequently dealt with these themes through a complex interweaving of indigenous African imagery with that of the Western literary tradition.

Clark’s dramatic work includes Song of a Goat (1961), a tragedy cast in the Greek classical mode in which Zifa is the protagonist. His impotence causes his wife Ebiere and his brother Tonye to indulge in an illicit love relationship resulting in suicide. Then follows its sequel, The Masquerade (1964), in which Dibiri’s rage culminates in the death of his suitor Tufa. Other works include: The Raft (1964), in which four men drift helplessly down the Niger aboard a log raft. (This play will be the focus of this article.) Then there are Ozidi (1966), an epic drama rooted in Ijaw saga; and The Boat (1981), a prose drama  documenting Ngbilebiri history.

Clark’s other works include his critical study The Example of Shakespeare (1970), in which he articulates his aesthetics and his journalistic essays in the daily national newspapers. In America, Their  America (a travelogue), he criticizes American society and its values. He has, since his retirement, continued to play an active role in literary affairs, a role for which he is increasingly gaining international recognition receiving in 1991 the Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence and the publication, by Howard University of his two definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems,1958-1988.

Though not a tragedy, J.P. Clark’s The Raft  shows the misadventures of four men—Olutu. Kengide, Ogrope and Ibodo—who in attempting  to bring logs downstream to be sold, drift down the Niger in their lumber raft.  Because the raft drifts from its moorings it goes out of control.  The four men are thus cut off from all else except each other and left to face hunger and danger together.  Caught in a whirlpool, they rig a sail so that a storm will blow them out, but the raft breaks up and Oloto is carried off on the part with the sail.  There three survivors drift until a steamboat comes up.  Ogrope, trying to swim to the boat to be rescued, is beaten off by its crew and caught in its stern- wheel.  Kengide and Ibodo drift on towards Burutu but become lost in the fog while trying to make a landfall by night.

Though The Raft  is set in a modern situation, its characters are at the same time  all bound up by tradition.  Their ill-fatedness is like that of others in Clark’s earlier plays bound to some ancestral or cosmic force.  This is suggested when Ibodo complains:

     I promised you a goat

At the next festival, my great – grandmother.  Now

How have you led us into this?

However, the traditional has been dwarfed and is being strangulated by the modern. As Kengide states, they have more belief in what is foreign than what is local.   That is why they are never making any good.  Ogro, in his delusion, believes that the old chief will give his daughter to marry without paying any dowry, not realizing as Kengide does that:

 The old chiefs who would hand out

The best of their daughters like that died

Out generations ago.           [p106]

And Kengide himself parallels the oracle to places where one could go to get bad pronouncements, thus dismissing the question of his visiting one.

The world presented here is one in which the modern world has eaten deeply into the traditional roots of the society.  Even at that, modernism still co-exists ,uneasily though, amidst the people bringing  along with it various social and economic malaise which are expounded upon by the different characters in the play   and which is manifested in their behaviour and attitude.

The drifting of the raft in which the four lumbermen are borne, if not trapped, symbolizes the drifting of modern man, direction-less and with futile efforts made to escape a tragic fate, as could be  sensed in their conversation:

Ogro: Will anyone tell where we are?

Olotu: Yes, where exactly are we going now?

Ibobo: I can’t see through the grey baft spread

          Of the night.  The moon has long turned  in, and not

          A single star in the skies.  Why doesn’t

          Someone turn up the lamp?

Kengide: No, that will only serve to create

               A pale of light.  From inside that pool even

               A dog will not see.

Ogro: I think I can just see to my right

          There trees on the bank drifting past.

 Kengide: Don’t be an idiot;  it’s we

                Who are doing the drifting.

The futility of life is not only suggested by the doomed voyage of the raft but by the    uncertain attitude and words of the characters themselves:

Ibobo: Do they ever sing to laugh in your part

           Of the country?

Ogro: No, each day some poor fellow is either

          Going out with a hiss or making his brief

          Entrance with a howl, and the women wail

          Going to bed and wake up wailing, for their seeds

          Are eaten up by the black beetle. 

Ibobo:   Forgive me, Ogro, in my place too, plants

             Wilt and die, but all

             The same, we have our happy seasons.

Kengide: That is because, like the very creeks

               You live on, your ways meander like the python

               You worship.  Thus you drink where you

               Defecate, and will have others believe

               It’s living water.

Ibodo: And your people have pure wells and sweet springs!

Kengide: No, water swirling with mud. 

For all the characters, life is a bitter pill.  They are therefore subjected to perpetual suffering and dependency.  Nothing more emphasizes this than that their fate is being tied and controlled by a rich man wining away at Warri whilst they slave for him.  This pathetic dependency syndrome is elaborated on by Kengide whilst  relating his past plight:


Making money for some man other

Than myself that has been my fortune

In spite of the difficulty and tedium of the work all they receive is a pittance.  This is regardless of the fact that their employers and economic overlords ‘drain/The Delta of all that’s in it, and not/A shrimp slips past their fat fingers.’

This pathetic situation is cogently and aptly described by Kengide:

                                            In this game

Of getting rich, it is eat me or I eat

You, and no man wants to stew in the pot,

Not if he can help it.                                                               [p120]

The exploitation soars to such inhuman dimensions that Ogroo was already thinking  that one real fisherman ought to be fishing for men next as:

     There was

No creek into which he did not make incursion

Not even the mosquitoes could keep him and his band

Of paddlers out.

Such inhumanity of man to man could also be seen in the failure of the captain of a ship to come to the lumbermen’s rescue.  The passengers  instead were callously stoning Ogro with coals, ‘Beating off his hands with bars of iron’ and thus forcing him to slump back into the deep to be caught in the mortal arms/Of that stern-wheeling engine.’ This seems a far cry from the communal spirit of the traditional world.  Thus the direction the modern world has taken is towards doom or nemesis as even within the raft itself the lumbermen are all cut up in various forms of differences including those of opinion and ethnic origin.

This might well be the likely root for their fate.  R.N.Egudu senses the irony in Ibodo and Kengide getting drowned  when almost at the port.  The irony could not also be missed that it was after the raft had been rescued from the whirlpool and the man had rejoiced for its resumed movement that it broke into two  As Egudu points out, such an irony is not rare in real life.

The parable of the five fingers [p119] pinpoints the pervasiveness of corruption. For all the four are swimming in corruption. Only one, the thumb, is courageous enough to count itself out of such a grabbing spree.  It  is thus representative of the negligible minority of the society who are bold and socially committed enough to stand up and say ‘No’ and thus refuse to be swallowed by the corruptive influence of the majority.  The small finger stands for the one whose greed  initiates the corruption of the other three fingers. This  together with the allusion to the insatiable appetite of  their employers for wealth and the cut-throat fight of the timber merchants to outmaneuver each other further emphasizes the mercenary nature of their materialistic quest.  So the fact that only one of the five fingers has the courage to stand firm  says a lot about the moral weakness of the people and the sheer force of the vice in infecting so many.                           

Greed is stepped up one rung further when the government which one should expect  to be protecting the people from exploitation is portrayed as conniving against their interests.  This is evident in the Government clubbing up against its own very people whom they should be protecting and encouraging.  The pathetic consequences of this is seen in Kengide’s fate.  After working long for a foreign-controlled company, he yields to the crippling demands from his hungry family for him to join the strike.  But due to the politician’s treachery and the instigation from the papers, the strike fails.  The strikers are then left alone to suffer the grave consequences of their actions.  This means that their conditions worsen, taxes and prices on everything in the market are raised and the earning power of producers shortened. 

In craving for more votes the same politicians had ‘promised Jericho itself’.  But the sooner they got firmly entrenched in power did they forget these promises.  Only when too late did the people realize how they were being deceived.  All the  ‘workers had at their incitement staked/All to build’ [p131] were destroyed.  With infinite greed, they ‘drain/The Delta of all that’s in it’  leaving not a single shrimp to slip past them.  It is they, the helpless poor, Kengide complains, who get destroyed:  ‘Man, it is/We ordinary grass shrubs who get crashed/As the mahoganies fall.’[p.121]

Little hope is then seen for being alleviated from their helpless state.  This is underscored by the images of a drifting vessel.  Ogro therefore expresses bafflement as to where they are:  ‘Will anyone tell where we are?’  The problem is not just one of finding their location but where exactly were they’re going, Olutu reveals.  The second movement of the play demonstrates  that even though there might be momentary breakthroughs, these are never lasting. A storm approaches with its winds getting stronger and stronger.  But through Ogro’s resourcefulness, the raft is released from the giddy spin of the dreadful Osikoboro whirlpool.  But this is only a momentary triumph, showing  that such successes are only isolated streaks in a flow of misery and gloom.  No sooner the raft starts drifting again, to everyone’s delight and relief than tragedy strikes.  The very force that liberated them turns its destructive force on the raft, breaking it up and setting one of the crew adrift to an unknown but devouring destination.  The perceptive Kengide concludes it with a revealing:

We are all adrift and lost Ogrope, we are all adrift and lost.  [p112]

The futility of any struggle is suggested through this drifting course of the lumbermen.

Any effort to set the raft on an even keel becomes futile.  The characters therefore remain bewildered about their position and direction.  The gloom is reinforced by the darkness of the night.  Worsening the situation are the hidden  rays from the moon and the stars – clearly suggestive of the loss of hope.  The only source of hope left is from an alternative source of light, a lamp.  But this only creates a pale of light through which not even a dog could see.  Clark thus endorses the uninterrupted continuity of man’s tragic destiny.  Existence in such circumstances is then tantamount to an unending struggle with poverty and suffering, as suggested by Ogro.

Each day some fellow is either

Going out with a hiss or making his brief

Entrance with a howl, and the women wail

Going to bed and wake up wailing for their seeds

Are eaten up by the black beetle. [p113]

The Raft reads like ‘a series of anecdotes and local gossip strung together’ as Dan Izevbaye states.  However, though the play seems episodic, a common thread runs through the apparently unconnected anecdotes in the play to form the synthesizing element piecing all the bits together.  This is the tragic view of life running throughout the work reminding us of the dangerous drift of man.

But the play lacks striking and memorable characters.  For no character emerges individualized though Fergusson calls them fairly well differentiated.  Olutu, Ogro and Ibodo share the same attribute – optimism.  Kengide is the only one to emerge distinctively.  But then as Fergusson states, there is no apparent connection between  a character and his particular misfortune.

Clark’s failure to bring out the necessary contrasts n character and situation results in little significant dialogue being developed, though Fergusson states his fascination with the apparent accuracy of the dialogue.  The characters talk alike and the dramatic situation remains uneventful.  There are no conflicts, no intrigues and no twists in fortune – just one straight course.  The characters have too little action and the raft too much.  In addition, there are the technical difficulties of staging involved:  one is how the drifting raft with its crew will be represented and how its movement and statism could be suggested.  Not surprisingly then, it has remained for long unstaged.

Despite the claims of critics to the contrary, the language of the play has a kind of somber poetic wit and depth which could only be slowly uncovered.  And if it should be credited for its evocation of life on the river and of Ijaw proverbs and customs, as  has often been the case, it should be due to the evocative suggestiveness of its language.

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Clark J. P. The Raft  in Three Plays.

Egudu R.N  ‘J.P. Clark’s The Raft: The Tragedy of Economic Impotence,’ in World Literature Written in English, Vol 15, No 2, November1976, pp297-304.

Izevbaye Dan  ‘The plays of John Pepper Clark’ in English Studies in Africa, Vol.18 No1, March, 1975, pp. 30-40.

Encyclopedia Wikepedia.

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John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (born April 6, 1935) is a Nigerian poet and playwright who publishes under the name J.P. Clark. Born to Ijaw parents, Clark received his early education at the Native Administration School and the prestigious Government College in Ughelli, and his BA degree in English at the University of Ibadan where he edited various magazines, including the Beacon and The Horn. Upon graduation from Ibadan in 1960, he worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information, in the old Western Region of Nigeria, as features editor of the Daily Express, and as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He served for several years as a professor of English at the University of Lagos, a position from which he retired in 1980. In 1982, along with his wife Ebun Odutola (a professor and former director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos), he founded the Pec Repertory Theatre in Lagos. A widely travelled man, JP Clark has, since his retirement, held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States.—Wikipedia

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Arthur Smith a Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and editor Sierra Leone PEN is available for public lectures as well as speaking tours. He also writes extensively. Visit him at his website at:

Arthur Smith: Why We Should All Love America?

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Arthur Edgar E. Smith was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He attended  Holy Trinity Boys Primary  and proceeded to the Prince of Wales Secondary School. He did his sixth form at Albert Academy and  went up further the hill to Fourah Bay College. He has taught English since 1977  at Prince of Wales, Milton Margai College of Education  and now at Fourah Bay College again he has risen to the rank of Senior Lecturer of English. Mr Smith is widely published both locally as well as internationally.  

He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in  a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department from June to August 2006. His thoughts and reflections of this trip which took him to various sights  in Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.can be read at His other publications include:  Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ‘The Struggle of the Book in Sierra Leone’. He holds a Masters in African Literature from Fourah Bay College.  A recent story of his could be read at .

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  Video: “South Side Story” —Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses Michelle Obama with Paul Coates an outspoken publisher and former Black Panther—his father.

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By Ta Nehesi Coates

When Michelle Obama told a Milwaukee campaign rally last February, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country,” critics derided her as another Angry Black Woman. But the only truly radical proposition put forth by Obama, born and raised in Chicago’s storied South Side, is the idea of a black community fully vested in the country at large, and proud of the American dream.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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posted 21 April 2007




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Related files:  Female Characters in Camara Laye  John Pepper Clark’s Raft Running Adrift   Wole Soyinka Kongi’s Harvest  Black Consciousness Poet–Claude McKay  The Life and Times of Black Poet Claude McKay

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