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Poverty, precarity and ethics of representing Nigeria, Nay Africa – Part 2


At best, the extroverted narrative offers an avenue, a comfortable one (far from Africa’s poor and hostile publishing terrain) for the West-based writers to anthropologize themselves, as Amaritsero Ede posits, by way of staging, magnifying their talents through what he calls “an extra-textual migrant identity politics that particular writers deploy as paratexts to hold up the credibility of their self-anthropologizing fictional creations, on the one hand, and to draw sympathy to their personal fortunes as exiles, on the other” (123). Ede explains this identity politics thus:

Identity politics might take the form of a cultivated eccentricity, idiosyncrasy, and conscious self-positioning, or an assumed political persona sometimes anchored on, and couched in, pre-exilic and life-threatening real-political terms. Some writers insinuate or directly lay claim to outlandish and fantastic tales of persecution and endangerment by the postcolonial state, consequent on their “fleeing” into exile. (123)

The identity politics is inevitably the reason for, and the result of (in terms of benefits), producing the extroverted narrative. It is the niche the writer negotiates for herself to be relevant in the West by inventing an Africa for her ready-made audience in the global literary capitals, one that is necessarily different from the continent; the process of inventing that Africa, of imagining it, has to be midwifed by the West through irresistible instruments. So, in acts reminiscent of colonial moves, the best of African writers, young or old, it is easily said, are outside the continent (see Adesanmi and Dunton VII-XII). At best, they “divide their time” (this is one of the prettiest phrases of neoliberal migration) between the West and Africa, since they have to, in any way, constantly return home to fetch the raw materials needed for the extroverted narrative.

In a sense, then, the invention of Africa, in the manner V. Y. Mudimbe describes it, is still continuing, the difference between the colonial period and now being that the agents of invention are no longer outsiders but insiders who have to, in the colonial-style, produce a narrative palatable to the West. Among what he calls the “genres of speeches” that contribute to “the invention of primitive Africa”, Mudimbe mentions the “exotic text” (69); this text which “dominates in the seventeen century” (69) is not different from its twenty-first century version, which must continue to influence Western consciousness about Africa. In the present time, the exotica or what Huggan calls “strategic exotic” or what Wainaiana so vividly describes, is often seen as a strategy of marketing that African writers based in Western literary capitals must key into in order to market their works “as cultural commodities…within an economy regulated largely by Western metropolitan demand” (Huggan 30).


My contention is that this market strategy must not only be construed as responding to “Western metropolitan demand”, the economy of demand and supply, or to the cultural logic of self-anthropologizing identity politics (Ede); it must also be construed as a conscious or unconscious process of inventing Africa for a twenty-first century Western consciousness.

A literature produced under this market strategy, for the Western gaze, I would further contend, cannot usefully, fruitfully, represent poverty and precarity in Africa, because it only invents Africa’s other. A young writer and blogger Siyanda Mohutsiwa, from Botswana, exclaims, in her essay “I am Done with African Immigrant Literature”, that she no longer recognises her Africa in African writing – the effect of the extroversion of the African story. “I found myself,” she writes, “flinging my copy of The Granta Book of the African Story across the room, vowing to never read a piece of African fiction again, or at least its ‘Afropolitan’ variety”. Using as reference points Teju Cole’s Open City, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mohutsiwa laments the extroverting of the African story, and looks back with nostalgia to when she read stories written by Africans for Africans and about Africa. The stories, she says,
were written for me. For three decades these books had been doing a very simple job: entertaining numerous ordinary Africans by telling exciting stories in environments we could imagine. They were not competing for the Man Booker Prize, and probably wouldn’t make the cut for any contemporary short-story competition. But that’s because they weren’t written for the White gaze. They were not made to explain Africa to half-curious American housewives, or home-sick African students in UK. These books were written not for the purpose of lifting a mirror to the European psyche, nor did they need to tell yet another tale of the New York immigrant experience.

It is instructive that writers and audiences at home on the continent are expressing dissatisfaction with the extroverted narrative, as Mohutsiwa does here; and yet the tellers of the extroverted tales are said to be the best voices of African writing. Such judgement, it should be clear by now, are made in the West, which the extroverted story serves. In the end, the extroverted African story and its privileged writers in the West will hardly make any impact on Africa’s cultural development. The poverty and precarity the extroverted story depicts is eventually not to help Africa, but to satisfy the desire of the West. Wainaina’s words in the epigraph above suggest that depicting the starving people of Africa is to attract the “benevolence of the West”. In the same manner, extroverting the African story is the writer’s way of seeking the benevolent of the West.


Rethinking The Role Of The African Writer
I make these remarks about what I think the role of the African writer should be in the present time, quite aware that a writer, African or not, is a free spirit, a free agent. Whether or not the writer is able to freely express herself is another point, given, for instance, Atta’s worry over what and how the West wants, compels, her to write. I am also aware that a writer is not forced to be committed to a cause, but we cannot deny the fact that to set an agendum of what to write for a writer is to implicitly coerce her to pursue a cause. It must be pointed out clearly that the writer has a will, an agency; no matter what, every writer, I would like to guess, views the act of writing as an act of uttering – the intentionality of uttering could have far-reaching consequences.

The African writer has to, however, give a deep thought to the question of exile and migration. Globalization and neo-liberalism – the perception that everywhere is home and choices about home are personal, individualistic, that it no longer matters where you live – have opened up more opportunities for writers and intellectuals across the world. But the conscientious African writer ought to pause, give it a good thought, take some precaution, before thrusting herself upon the vast opportunities the global community appears to offer. On the surface, it is advertised that one is free to live and work anywhere in the world. But that is, of course, not really the case in the sense that laws from different nations show the attitudes of such nations towards migration. To live and work in any nation, for instance, implies subjecting oneself to the social, cultural, political, economic structures of that nation, a situation that will definitely compel one to reconsider her idea of freedom, that may even lead to temporarily suspending one’s freedom. Given this fact, migration or exile, in my view, becomes meaningful only when one is faced with threat to one’s life at home or anywhere at all. I am talking about the kind of threat that compelled apartheid South African writers like Dennis Brutus and Eastern African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo and Jack Mapanje to go into exile. Indeed, it is in the apartheid South Africa you find writers with the kind of ethics to appropriately aestheticise the predicament of their society, mostly from inside; and if they had to go into exile they did so to save their lives. This, however, is certainly not the case with most African writers, intellectuals and thinkers today. The epigraph from Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel above captures the impulse of migration in the present time whereby a writer stages herself as an endangered person (even when the danger is really not there) and seeks the comfort of the West. While governments in Africa have incredible records of human rights violation, perceived hostility towards the intelligentsia, it seems to me the thing in vogue, since what has come to be widely termed as post-independence disillusionment, is for one to develop herself as a writer, an intellectual, and fervently seek means of migrating to the West. At one point, the question is being asked: must all winners of the Caine Prize for African Writing eventually end up in the West?

As a way of being conscious of her role, the African writer must therefore reconsider the notion of exile, of migration. Africa bleeds when her writers and intellectuals migrate out of the continent. A writer’s commitment, whether in Africa or any continent, is not to the arts alone; she ought to have a commitment to her land, to her immediate society. She ought to have a deep sense of place – a rootedness not as a dogma but as a crucial element in the chemistry of her arts. I am not demanding of a writer to be overly nationalistic. My thinking is that the writer need not turn her back on Africa where the political class creates and uses poverty and diseases as weapons of mass destruction. The example of the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah is important here. He left the US in the 1980s, having completed his MFA studies and rejected lucrative job offers, and came to Africa, his mindset being that Africa needed his services more than the US needed it. Although he was unable to settle in Ghana or Nigeria where he wanted, and although he has encountered great difficulties in living and writing in Africa, he has been making his modest contribution to the continent. I am a product of the nine-month Per Sesh Writing Workshop which he ran between 2007 and 2009, sponsored by TrustAfrica – a workshop that exposed aspiring writers to fiction writing skills, with a mentoring segment that saw Armah giving very close attention to the younger writers’ works. That the novel I wrote under his mentorship, Sterile Sky, won the 2013 Commonwealth Prize Africa region is a credit to Mr Armah’s contribution to the development of African culture. The need to return home from abroad to make contribution to the continent is also captured in Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe. In the last story, “Questions of Home”, Christine, fed up with life in the US, returns home with the resolve that no matter how undeveloped, how hostile, home is, she will stay and render her services. “She would have to learn all over again how to live in this new old place called home” (156).

Hard as it may look, I believe that the task of dismantling the colonial structures of commandment, what I see as a colonial legacy, operating in Africa, reproducing dictatorships even in civilian garbs, is that of writers and intellectuals. In a world driven by knowledge economy, struggles for freedom and good life must have a firm epistemological base. The best way the African writer can engage the continent, therefore, is to deploy her creative thoughts towards deconstructing the structures, systems, narratives, discourses, inherited from colonialism, which the political class has continued to use to under-develop the continent. The African writer needs to question received and conveniently domesticated categories such as the systems of governance, bureaucracy, education, healthcare, and so on. The writer must expose, for instance, the motive underlying the political elite’s attitude towards public education in Africa, an educational system deliberately underfunded so that it fails to produce intellectual minds that will compete for space with children of politicians sent to schools abroad. The African writer must take her task further by contributing to the creation of a pragmatic Afrocentric epistemology – a new knowledge system responsive to the peculiarities of the continent, on which to build a future.

The African writer also has to go practical, depending on her temperament, by way of engaging in extra-literary activities that will not quite be injurious to her writing – social activities that will project her voice in defence of humanity. This engagement could be in the form of pressure group, NGO, or other aspects of the civil society. I am talking about the kind of extra-literary activities, some of them subterranean, that some South African writers, had engaged in during the apartheid period as efforts to dismantle the structures and discourses of subjugation, injustice and violence. In Nigeria, the military oppression of the 1980s and 1990s did not only inspire an efflorescence of writing, in diverse genres, that constituted an anti-military discourse, it also provoked writers into the streets in persistent anti-military demonstrations, some of them going underground, some of them ending in detention, some of them, notably, Soyinka (and the contradiction of his US green card saga must be understood against this background), going into exile to establish powerful formations against the dictatorship at home.

The example of the Ghanaian undercover journalist, Anas Eremeyaw Anas, is crucial here. His exploits in investigative journalism, in spite of the ‘perilous’ atmosphere in which he finds himself, have yielded positive results in the direction of revolutionary change. I give just one example. In 2015 Anas went undercover to investigate and expose the huge corruption characterising the Ghanaian Judiciary. He disguised himself as a client and caught about 34 judges and magistrates, most of them respected in the system, in hidden camera taking bribes, in cash and in kinds, to influence court cases. His report and the premier of a film, Ghana in the Eyes of God, based on the report, in front of a large audience of 6500 people would cause a serious shake-up in the judiciary system. Anas has carried out dozens of such investigative works including “Nigeria’s Baby Farmers”, “Nigeria’s Fake Doctors”, “Ghana Sex Mafia”, “How to Rob Africa”. I believe this kind of effort, which a writer could choose to take as an extra-literary engagement, could—in the long run—cause the desired change in Africa

To say that there is poverty and precarity in Africa is, in my view, an understatement. I am also of the view that to fully represent Africa’s condition, in this regard, African writers must pragmatically and fruitfully engage Africa from within, not from outside. While the rhetoric of neoliberal globalisation suggests that it does not matter anywhere one lives and works, I firmly believe that African writers – given, in spite of, the backwardness of the continent – should consider living, working and writing at home on the continent. I do not find tenable the argument that the shortcomings of the continent are so injurious to writers that they have to escape to the West to write, rather than confront the shortcomings. In point of fact, there are emerging writers who had demonstrated great promise in their countries only to escape to the West and fail to realise their dreams. Olu Oguibe’s tribute to Esiaba Irobi, aptly titled “Esiaba Irobi: The Tragedy of Exile” tells how the West kills the literary talent of the prodigiously gifted dramatist.

Living and writing in the poverty and precarity of Africa will keep the writer alert to the problems of the society, inspire her to seek new ethics and aesthetics of representing the African condition, compel her to imagine solutions, no matter how hard, and to physically get involved by joining existing forums for change, or creating her own forum as a writer and public intellectual. Furthermore, the need – made more urgent by the deceitfulness of globalisation – for Africa to continue to evolve its aesthetics or domesticate borrowed aesthetics, to take control of its literature by way of drawing canonical protocols from within, not from outside, requires that the best of African writers ought to be based on the continent. Let me make the point, by way of concluding, that literary capitals in Europe, the US and elsewhere to which African writers are attracted must have evolved as the heritage of the contributions of writers, intellectuals and patrons of literature of such nations – indeed writers who probably suffered hostility and persecution in their homes. African nations will only be able to produce literary capitals when African writers, rather than seeking the comfort of writing abroad, remain on the continent, push through the difficulties, and contribute to the development of the continent.

Egya is a professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies at IBB University, Lapai, Niger State.

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