African literature, the english language and the nation – Part 3
The fifth problem is associated with the ironic twist in an African writer condemning European values while employing an European language, which in itself is an European value item. This is probably what Sartre means when he says, “if he destroys it (French value, that is) in French, he poetizes already.” As Ulli Beier observed in 1957, the African writer’s work is “naturally concerned partly with a criticism and rejection of European values – and yet he has to use a European language to express the same rejection”. This may be a sweet twist but it has the deeper connotation of insufficiency, for curses are more efficacious if uttered in one’s own tongue!
Truth be told, the African writer who must earn respectable financial dividend from his/her writing would have to write in one of the major world languages, of which the English language is a prominent one. The world languages are largely European languages which offer a very wide market for a writer’s artistic works. The local languages, apart from being spoken by small populations, are in most cases yet to be developed. Moreover, those literate and committed to reading in the local languages are usually restricted groups. In a situation in which only two or three African writers at the moment may be able to sustain themselves on the proceeds from their writings, to further cut the market could be a drawback to their development as writers.
These burdens impede the writer’s work, but they also pose challenges to him/her. The issue of language is so crucial in African literature that more than fifty years after the debate on it started, it is yet to subside. In 1991 and 1992, two most prestigious African literary journals, African Literature Today No. 17 and Research in African Literatures Vol. 23, No. 1, devoted each of the respective editions to the language problems in African literary expression. This is to be expected since literature is essentially a by-product of language, the formalized representation of life through the crucible of imaginative thinking. To contend with the language question, a number of strategies and options have been advanced and practised by African writers and intellectuals: a new English as propagated by Chinua Achebe, a return to orality, a detour to the mother tongue and the experimentation with Pidgin English.
African Literature, the Nation and Liberation
More than one idea may be read from a literature and the nation. Homi Bhabha (1949 – ) recently popularized ‘nation’ as a critical site and challenges the Enlightenment conception of nationalism and nationality and questioned the possibility of an essentialist or universalist idea of the nation. This cannot be what we desire. ‘Nation’ is an aggregate of people, nay African people, desirous of physical and mental liberation in which development is a target. Thus this seems quite close to my notion of nation and liberation which refers to any deliberate attempt made to open a people’s eyes to both what is wrong with themselves and what is wrong with their society. Tied to liberation is development to which relevance is predicated My thinking of ‘national development’ is ‘growth’ in the mental and psychological attributes of the individuals who make up a society, and so ultimately engineer society’s growth. Consequently, to grow demands that we do so according to our personal and national capabilities, potentialities and endowments, needs and environments. In other words, in our drive to develop, we need not imitate a European man or woman of our age, nor should Nigeria strive to be England or Switzerland. We should grow according to our nature, and the nurture we receive, predicated on the preparation which our own circumstances have permitted us. A seed grows in consonance with its genesiology, the type of soil, space, sunshine and water available to it at the point of germination. An ube seed will never grow into an udara tree, nor would an ukwa seed turn out to be an iroko, no matter what is done or given to it.
Are African nations engaged in true development at the moment? My answer is few and far between. Instead of the Eldorado hoped for at independence some 60 years ago or thereabout, Africa is today bedevilled with a myriad of problems which makes the level of disillusionment Emmanuel Obiechina in 1976 observed inherent in the immediate post independence African novels (three of them) a mere child’s play. Since the late 1970s, African political economy has taken a massive nose-dive for the worse marked by decadent production structures, slump in investment – domestic and foreign – endemic inflation, poor balance of payments, absolute fall in living standards, governmental corruption and the breakdown of civil peace and order (Offiong 1980; Onimode 1983; Ake 1979 and 1985; Akpuru-Aja 1998 etc.). These have had their worsening impact on every facet of African life: distrust between segments of society (e.g. Fulani herdsmen); ethnic rivalry (being stoked in Nigeria, Kenya, the Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia etc. by those in leadership positions); lack of faith in policies (some of which are nepotistically churned out); the breeding of an unproductive moneyed class made possible by institutional failures and weak, uncommitted punishment system; decline in qualitative education; emergence of leaders who serve themselves and their ethnic groups rather than their nations; and a general lack of social and political will to engage eye-ball-to-eyeball any observed anomaly in the civic configuration with a view to exorcising it.
On the driving seat of this wagon of African woes are the African governing elite, busy doing the bidding of international capitalism with the intention to feather their private nests, the proceeds of which are usually lodged in foreign bank vaults. As a consequence, a low moral now pervades the current social and political climate of African discourse – both at home and among the African Diaspora. This pervading climate of doubt (aporia), this ‘season of anomy’ – to employ a famous Soyinka title – is no more than the result of a cumulative consequence which stretches “not only from the beginning of colonialism but also through and beyond it in the form of neo-colonialism and other guises by which the advantages of colonialism are retained to the disadvantage of the previously colonized”. A recognition of the reverse conditions for genuine development, the opposite of which we have just tried to admit, will ensure that we abandon ‘a faulty foundation’- to employ a popular Pentecostal cliché – and embrace a solid groundwork. It is from an underbuilding which recognises that “a seed grows in consonance with its genesiology” that we may later become whatever we desire to be as a people. It was probably the non-involvement of the African-experience data in the continent’s development forward lunge that led Steve Ogude to observe that “the greatest problem of development in modern African societies is that it is not rooted in the African tradition”. It is only literature – oral and written – that always hammers on the autochthonous and has the immediate capacity to arouse us into action, of taking us back to the drawing board. In fact that is what we should really be doing now – that is returning to the initial steps because, we have really missed both the rhythm and the trend.
African Orature/Verbature and Development
One agrees with Olatunde Olatunji when he insists that oral literature and written literature enjoy “a simultaneous existence and are contemporaneous” (3). However, one would like to give separate treatment to the impact of each in the context of both liberation and development. This way, each of them – verbature and ecriture – may be appreciated for what it is, and can do or achieve in the African quest for growth and development.
The term ‘orature’ was an attempt by the East African critic, Pio Zirimu, to avoid the implication of ‘litera’ which means that which is written, while as we know oral tradition is meant to be verbalized rather than scribbled down. Thus I make bold to add the term, verbature. Orature or verbature stands for the product of a people as they live out their lives on a minute-by-minute basis. In this day of an expansive chirographic influence around the world, it is important to note that there are still people who consciously create in the various oral genres without any inclination to immediately subject their oral artefact to the glitch of writing. As a living tradition, the oral text attains sustenance and survivability by constant use. This is different from what happens to the written text which, in addition, enjoys storage and forms of preservation. So saying, a useful oral literary text is a breathing one. Thus verbal literature or verbature is often used for immediacy, to draw the attention of individuals, and or society to their profane and obdurate ways.
So enthused was Ezenwa-Ohaeto about the Igbo icon of caustic orality, onyekwuru/onyekulie (who said?), the night masquerade, that he cast his artistic mould after this high spirited, dramatic disguise. Onyekwuru set for himself the bounden duty of reviewing from time to time the foibles and follies of individuals in the community and such misdemeanours to their hearing. But this is usually at night when darkness would cover his face and his voice would travel farther than it could ever have done. Ezenwa entitled his 1996 poetry collection, The Voice of the Night Masquerade. No format of criticism other than verbature may successfully do what the night masquerade does without lawsuits. The aggrieved victim of a nocturnal masque’s satiric barbs can only grumble, and should he/she complain to other members of the community, they would discourage him/her from doing anything funny as that could aggravate the situation. Oftentimes what onyekwuru knows and speaks about is already known by the villagers; the night masquerade only emblazon it. Meanwhile, the onslaught against one’s poor moral showing, arrogance, acts of wantonness, horniness, misadventures, wickedness or avarice, poor leadership displays, even at the family level has been exposed, and things could never be the same again. As Professor Sam Uzochukwu summises about orature , it helps restrain people from anti-social acts which are detrimental to their general well-being, and by so doing creates a conducive environment necessary for national development”.
African Ecriture and Development
Compared to other cultures, the African culture is new to ecriture (writing). In fact without ecriture formulated in English and French, one doubts if there would have been ‘African literature’. By ecriture, one is referring to the written text which is propagated as a social institution, invested with ‘public’ meanings. The author, the initiator of ecriture is regarded as only an intermediary in whom the action of writing precipitates the elements and codes of the pre-existing linguistic and literary system into a particular text. It is because of the preserved and preservable nature of the written word, its beauty and compactness, and retrievability that a French philosopher and sociologist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) has had to state, albeit racist in tone: “The depicting of objects is appropriate to a savage people, signs of words and of propositions to a barbaric people and the alphabet to a civilized people” (qtd in Derrida 3). Georg Hegel (1770 – 1831), a German objective idealist put it more crudely when he said: “Alphabetic script is in itself the most intelligent”. One does not intend to join the fray in terms of which one is more liberating – the verbal/oral or the scriptic. It is my considered opinion that both of them in so far as they are the bearers of the literary sign are roots of intellectual extensions central to personal and social development.
Modern letters in Nigeria, particularly the sophisticated and written literature, recall Chinua Achebe’s writings which began in 1958. This does not in any way suggest that nothing had been written amounting to literature in Nigeria and Africa before him. Or that Achebe wrote alone. What is being said is that Achebe’s writings “inaugurated the Nigerian tradition in literature”. Nnolim advances his contention by further saying:
It is Chinua Achebe who originated and finally defined what I shall call the Nigerian tradition in literature. By that tradition I mean… the literary conventions and habits of expression deployed by Achebe in the practice of his art. It subsumes other narrative techniques employed by other Nigerian writers, especially Achebe to highlight the Nigerian worldview in literature. By the Nigerian tradition in literature, I further mean that tradition which takes its roots from our oral literature and folkways and is given ballast by vigorous and robust recourse to our folk culture. (Nnolim, “Writer as Nigerian” 3)
One has been keen to quote Nnolim at length because in his remark about Achebe’s place in written Nigerian literature, he (Nnolim) consciously emphasizes the famous writer’s penchant for using the oral heritage, thus the two traditions of literature – oral and written – cohabit in one writer’s body of works. Most African writers achieve similar feats in their oeuvre because they are both Africans, and at the same time colonial victims upon whom foreign languages have been imposed willy-nilly.
With respect to African poetry, we easily remember the infectious style of Okot p’Bitek in whose poetry, just like in Achebe’s fiction, both the oral and the scriptic reside. Not only is his poetry cognitively simple and perceptible, his ‘songs’ are various tearful lamentations which compellingly return us to what we should have loved to forget about the colonizer’s social and cultural castration of the African. In his major poetry volumes – four of them – he devotes each to the sorrowful circumstances of the African, imposed on him by colonial conquest as well as how poorly the colonial victim has had to grapple with the emergent situations. His tone is largely abusive and mocking, reflecting the Igbo response of “ama nwata ajo nkwukwa, ajo ikwu afuo ya n’onu” (if a child is given a dangerous shove, maledictions issue from his mouth). Thus p’Bitek’s personae’s catachreses are not lost on us as we know the source of the vituperative response. The poet strives to arouse us out of our complacency as when Ocol thinks he is now a new and superior species of the African just because he has received unhelpful Western learning or his Clementine who paints her lips and uses toning ointments to mediate the colour of her skin.
In African drama, I have the singular honour of referring to another Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, who perches at its apogee without yet harbouring the intention of flying away. Not only is he the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has written in all genres of literature, including autobiography and mythology. Specifically, his drama is filled with a passion for challenging the African who has failed to utilize the energy inherent in his cultural nexus. He is often identifying with Ogun, the Yoruba god of creativity and destruction, god of war and iron, and the patron saint of blacksmiths. He sees in this deity a combination of forces which may turn our lives around if only we would exploit its symbolic and artistic depictions. Although Soyinka’s drama is often lodged in ‘ritual aesthetics’ which occasionally alienates his audience, his writings are always calling for a revolution of sorts against injustice, misrule, oppression, corruption and general amnesia. Thus, many of his plays are often directed at Africa’s anaemic leaders and their antics. For him, it is only when this category of misleaders declines in importance, shall Africa experience genuine renaissance.
My conclusion is that ‘African literature’, ‘the English language’ and ‘the nation’ are not settled issues. For a long time, African intellectuals will continue to toil over those epistemes because they are protean, rapidly assuming different shapes and forms. For instance, when the definition of African literature was all the rage, the novels with ‘gender agenda’, those with Marxist orientation or novels by migrant Africans were not part of the picture. Ngugi, taking after Obiajunwa Wali, abandoned writing in English, but tolerated the translation of his works into English. This Ngugi paradigm recalls the picture of the man in an Igbo anecdote who fearing he may be poisoned threw away the oiled ugba delicacy placed in his outstretched hand but immediately licked the palm! While Achebe regards Ngugi’s stance as “doctrinaire”, Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1992 described it as “some posturing”. Simon Gikandi, a fellow Kenyan asks: “Did his (Ngugi’s) new writings belong to the world of Gikuyu literary expression or were they novelistic or dramatic genres in the European tradition?”. These counter positions by critics of Ngugi’s ‘defection’ to the mother tongue school show that the debate on the use of the English language in African writing remains unsettled.
With respect to ‘the nation’, the concept is still expansive and the discourse is ever mutating. For instance, is Sahrawi Republic a nation? We knew what happened in Rwanda in the 1994 when more than a million Rwandans lost their lives to ethnic cleansing. In Nigeria, are we in a nation where colonialism compelled over 250 ethnic groups to be compressed into one country in which those at the helm think first about their tribes before they think about Nigeria, in which Nigeria’s money is laundered in order to buy commercial and residential houses in developed nations and then bank the rest? If the Sudan had been a nation, would there have been a Southern Sudan today? Does the 2008 Kenya post-election crisis which sacrificed over 1000 nationals prove that Kenya is a nation? We can go on and on. However, African writers should not lose hope; they should continue to question their respective countries until things change for the better.
• Nwachukwu-Agbada is a professor of Literature at Abia State University (ABSU), Uturu.
NOTE: “The Guardian Literary Series (GLS), which focuses on Nigerian Literature is published fortnightly. Essays of between 2500 and 5000 words should be sent to the series editor Sunny Awhefeada at email@example.com.” 08052759540.