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Writers on Africa

Friday 12 April 2013

By Akwasi Aidoo, Senior Fellow, Humanity United

Recently, I attended a very inspiring event at Bard College (in up-state NY) where a panel of writers spoke about Africa. It was to launch the "Chinua Achebe Fellowship" program, which is funded by the Ford Foundation to enable young African writers spend time at Bard College. The speakers were Chinua Achebe, Helon Habila, Kofi Anyidoho, Emmanuel Dongala, and Caryl Phillips (a native of St. Kitts).

A collection of the presentations should be out soon... Meanwhile, here’s a glimpse of some of their thought-provoking statements and ideas:

Chinua Achebe

  • He spoke about the "Unity of Stories." Some of you may know of his earlier seminal piece, titled: "The Balance of Stories", where he makes the case for telling our own stories of what happened to us, in order to counter the self-serving stories others have told/continue to tell about Africa. In the "unity of stories" presentation, Achebe told a memorable vignette of how, after hurricane Katrina hit, an African-American woman, in a group of rich black women with whom he was having tea, posed an uncomfortable question: "Why is it that everywhere you look in the world (Haiti, Africa, New Orleans), black folks are at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the queue?" Achebe’s response was that it’s because blacks everywhere share the same story: the story of the slave trade. He said that was when and where "the rain started to beat us", and unless we get back to that and figure out why and how we’ve kept that mentality and legacy going, we’ll not find our way forward. That’s the "unity of stories."
  • Achebe also told a moving story of what happened when he first met James Baldwin in 1962 at a meeting in Florida. He (Achebe) had been looking for Jimmy Baldwin for years, and in Florida, the following ensued:

 Achebe: "Mr. Baldwin I presume?"

Baldwin: "This is a brother I’ve not seen for 400 years. And, it was never intended that he and I would ever meet."

  • Achebe’s concluding statement set me thinking for a long time: "It will take a long, long time for Africa to make it", he said. I suppose what he meant was that this is marathon we’re running, not a 100-meter sprint.

Kofi Anyidoho

  • Anyidoho started with Agostinho Neto’s powerful poetic statement: “My hands lay stones upon the foundations of the world. I deserve my piece of bread.”
  • He went on to explain that in a world where Africa has taken on the image of poverty, of the professional beggar, we have to come back to the understanding that it has not always been like that. In fact, "once upon a time, the world came to Africa to learn."
  • Something did go wrong 400 years ago, and something is still wrong, he said, noting that "often those who have been enslaved have a tendency for self-enslavement."
  • But we must remember that "no matter how far away we try to hide away from ourselves, we will have to come back home and find out where and how and why we lost the light in our eyes, how and why we have become eternal orphans. We must remind ourselves that just to survive, barely to survive, and merely to survive can never be enough."

Emmanuel Dongala

  • Dongala made a controversial point about Francophone African literary writers being pre-occupied with French standards and expectations as compared to their Anglophone African counterparts who seem not to care about what the British think of it. He quoted Achebe who once said of Camera Laye’s The African Child: "It is too sweet for my taste." 
  • He asked a thought-provoking question: "Has there ever been such a thing as an authentic African identity in a continent with so many ethnicities, each with their own individual culture?" He went on: "You read Things Fall Apart and learn that in Ibo traditional society, twins are evil and have to be abandoned to the forest to die. Read my own Little Boys Come from the Stars and you will learn that twins are to be celebrated and that their mother is given a special status." Other related questions: "How can a writer in postcolonial Africa talk about a supposedly authentic African identity? And what is his or her identity when he or she is a son or daughter of immigration? Are you still an African writer when you have not lived on the continent at all and do not speak any African languages?"

Helon Habila

  • Habila was more pessimistic, starting with the frustrations of Africa’s newer and younger writers: "The society that the new African writers must make sense of is a society that still struggles between democracy and dictatorship, a society where most of the graduates are unemployed because of the collusion between the unfair global economic system and corrupt politicians, a society where most of the women are still exploited and voiceless. And I see in the works of young writers a feeling of exhaustion, a lack of conviction…" 
  • This generation "lacks conviction not because it has forgotten its history, but because it’s not sure of the efficacy of literature…, no one pays attention to the written word." He went on: "It seems that to protest, to express dissent, one must resort to extra-literary channels. And so recently, to make himself quite clear to the Nigerian government, Professor Achebe had to turn down an award. And two weeks ago, the 71-year-old Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka had to take to the streets to demonstrate against the government’s economic policies."
  • But Habila ended on an optimistic note, quoting Salman Rushdie: “Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance.”

Caryl Philips

  • Philips analyzed the famous dialogues between Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire in Paris in the 1930s, which marked a defining moment in the Negritude literary movement. Senghor went on to become president of Senegal, and Césaire became the mayor of the capital city of Martinique.
  • Negritude was path breaking because it suggested, against the dominant European discourse of the time, that "a common black culture existed, a culture whose strengths were such that if one could only recognize and promote them, it would no longer be necessary to continually negotiate Europe’s assumption of black inferiority, artistic or otherwise." I (Akwasi) couldn’t help reflecting that Negritude, for all its appeal, had some powerfully authentic literary minds set against it: Wole Soyinka, for example, ridiculed it with the statement: "A tiger does not proclaim its trigritude, it pounces."
  • The highpoint of the movement was September 1956, when Senghor and Césaire met again in Paris for the Conference of Negro African Writers and Artists. In attendance were James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Baldwin, who wrote about the conference, detected a profound new development: "a discomfort between what he termed the American Negro and other men of color."
  • Philips noted that "potentially, an African man and a Caribbean man have much in common, largely because they were forged in the same crucible of colonial exploitation. But the African American has an altogether different history. He has not been shaped by colonialism, but by American expansionism. In fact, he’s been a central participant in it. Remember, the buffalo soldiers had rifles."
  • Today, Philips pointed out, Negritude has been replaced by "migratude"— "major migrations from Africa and the Caribbean to Paris and London and the United States, now clearly the first choice of most migrants." What literary import does this have?
  • Philips posed questions that I assume post-modernists would love: "How does one have a conversation between African writers and writers of the African Diaspora and productively include African Americans? And if we do speak, what should we talk about beyond banalities of pigmentation?"

Regrettably, though, there were no women on the panel. How I missed the voices and ideas of our women writers! This is a scandalous situation that has to be rectified next time… Attached is a photo of the panelists.

See online: Writers on Africa