Celebrating East African Writing!

Crossing the Literary Desert by Richard Malowa

Here we stand, infants overblown

Poised between two civilizations 

Finding the balance irksome 

Itching for something to happen 

To tip us one way or the other 

Groping in the dark for a helping hand

I’m tired O my God am tired 

I’m tired of hanging in the middle way 

But where can I go.

Mabel Segun

And that short verse from one of my favorite West African poets roundly summarizes the dilemma facing emerging African writers in the 21st century. Having been born long after the clash of cultures occasioned by European occupation and bred away from the rich cornucopia of cultural enrichment that village life used to enshroud they  received their learning, not at the feet of the elders but from the pages of books.

The young unknown African writer (such as myself) already experiencing great difficulty in establishing his role in society, faces even greater difficulty convincing his potential audience of his authenticity. More problematic than both these obstacles is the attempt to find a place in his work for those traditions which have fed his people’s cultures and shaped their imaginations.

The genesis of this anomaly may be attributed to what Janheinz Jahn called ‘the African’s prodigious rush to become westernized’ they were under the impression that they must accept modern civilization as propagated by the Europeans or perish.

Therefore, in trying to avoid the fate of the Australian Aborigines and the Native American Indians, Africans as a matter of necessity wholly embraced the European view of the world and embraced it with utmost dispatch.

This would have had less debilitating repercussions if the assimilation of new ideas, a new language and a whole new way of life had been implemented in the form of constructive addition to existing stores of knowledge thus enriching the social fabric of the ‘African experience’. However, the new breed of African took the learning experience to imply replacement of an obsolete way of life with a ‘new and vastly improved’ model.

Deeply steeped in a body of information, ideas and attitudes inherited from the early evangelists and colonial occupiers, this breed of ‘new’ African became the teachers who would teach our teacher’s teachers.

This has led to today’s young writer being severely handicapped when attempting to reach out to an older audience because he is familiar with neither the cultural traditions nor the religious, economic and political heritage of his people. He certainly has no history of glory in the cultural arts for the colonial masters did enough to ensure that teachers of our teacher’s teachers got absolutely no inkling of any pride whatsoever to be found in the pastoral exploits of his ancestors.

The emerging African writer would therefore be more comfortable writing about the conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte than say the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai or even the amazing Ottoman Turks,( an African empire that made half of Europe shiver in their boots) because, believe it or not he knows more about the European midget Bonaparte than he knows of ‘Luanda Magere’ his homegrown ‘man of steel’.

There used to be a time when almost every where, the traditional society meaningfully survived in some form. A time when the most urbane African knew that not too far away, a village of his tribe, where many if not all of the old ways were cultivated and practiced.

Not anymore, those old-ways have been watered down, discarded and in some instances been metamorphosed into their ugliest possible form losing whatever good they may initially have served to sate the selfish whims of a few degenerate individuals.

The young African writer is therefore affected by what Malinowski described as ‘the meeting of a superior culture with a passive one’ that is to say, the more aggressive European culture has subdued and infiltrated our African culture creating a sort of impenetrable buffer between us and our roots.

This is because Africa’s cultural collision with the west had an attritive effect resulting in the loss of a certain part of the traditional heritage.

The older generation of writers fortunate enough to have experienced firsthand a truly African upbringing has been able to create a body of writing that is at once dynamic, original, independent and ingeniously rich in cultural nuance and African in all ways with the exception of the vehicle of transmission-the language.

 To them and to their adherents, the chronicles of the 21st century African writer especially one born after 1975 who tries to cleave to the olden days and ways and writes about those glory days will be hailed as a latter day saint and a modern day Chinua Achebe (read – Chimamanda Adichie).

However, if his writing is a testament to the day and age in which he has grown up and been educated, if it contains even a smattering of so-called western influences; similes, idioms and anecdotes drawn from popular culture and everyday urban life. Then that writer’s work will be dismissed as the unintelligible rants of a ‘literary gangster’ (read – Tony Mochama AKA smitta smitten).

The older more respected writers such as Ngugi wa Thiongo had their first encounter with the western world in an environment where the traditional society meaningfully survived thus its effect on their work is strongly seen. What of we who have been bombarded by a steady barrage of western literature, music and pop culture, growing up in an era where the traditions and culture of our people have been scandalously murdered and ignominiously buried?

Jahnheinz Jahn answers this question when he wrote “the practical application of the extremely obvious is that every artist achieves his best work when he attaches himself to his own tradition.”

Thus the emerging writer should be encouraged and not disparaged for making a concession in the attempt to better communicate his message. A concession that can only prove to be constructive to the continuance of literature as an art form. And that is to let the metropolitan culture be the linguistic vehicle that drives their work into our hearts and minds.


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