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African writers celebrated

By - ZAKAYO AMAYI | July 6th 2013


Kenya’s prolific writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his son Mukoma wa Ngugi are among the literary icons to attend the UK’s largest festival of African Literature, that has been organised by The British Library in partnership with the Royal African Society.

And the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has this to say about the event:

“It’s delightful to see a festival that showcases a wonderful diversity of African writing — from exciting thrillers to meditative novels.

Africa Writes is a bold addition to London’s cultural calendar.” Adichie, Nigerian best-selling author, this year released her latest novel Americana, which discusses challenges regarding immigration, love and race. The young writer has remained independent on the debates pitting the late Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka on whether Achebe was the Father of African Literature.

“It was a complicated issue that was simplified…I don’t know who invented it, it’s one of those convenient things people just say, Africans had been writing for centuries,” she told Blackstar News. And instead described Achebe as, “the leader of a group of deeply talented Anglophone writers in English on the continent of Africa.” Her writings, she says on a SaharaTV interview, have been as a result of ‘permission Achebe granted her’ to write. “Chinua Achebe meant permission to write, if one needed a push to write ones’ own story, Chinua Achebe gave me that push…his presence for me was nurturing and he was important to my work and I think for the generation… he was iconic.”

Expressed admiration

 But she too expressed admiration to Soyinka in the interview with the Blackstar News: “I think he is cool, I love his writing and I love his hair…I am a Soyinka fan.” And from yesterday, established and exciting new writers from the continent and the diaspora are celebrating contemporary African writing in the Africa Writes festival. An in-depth conversation between Ngugi and son Mukoma will be chaired by editor Ellah Allfrey in an event Richard Dowen, Director of the Royal African Society says will be marvelous: “From Chimamanda Adichie to Binyavanga Wainaina, now more than ever, African writers, and literature, are dominating the world stage, with the best new writing. Our partnership with The British Library confirms this and brings together the Royal African Society’s excellent cultural connections and knowledge of Africa, with the prestige of one of the world’s largest libraries, for an exciting weekend of literary events, open discussion and networking.”

Female writers, Zoë Wicomb (South Africa), Doreen Baingana (Uganda), Leila Aboulela (Sudan), Nadifa Mohammed (Somalia), Warsan Shire (Kenya/UK/Somalia), Bernadine Evaristo (UK/Nigeria), Hannah Pool (Eritrea/UK), and Chibundu Onuzo (Nigeria) will attend.

The festival will close tomorrow storytelling session through a production of Epic of Sundiata, which is about Sundiata Keita, founder of the Empire of Mali. Chinua Achebe will be commemorated.

 But what is there in the current crop of African writers to celebrate? Dr Jenniffer Muchiri, Literature lecturer at the University of Nairobi says there is a lot to consume and celebrate in the current writers. She, however, argues that the older generation might not understand well the new writers because of the difference in cultural background.

“The old generation captured Africa during and after colonialism, trying to reclaim African dream, culture that was stolen. But the current generation, the Kwani? generation, is post-Independence generation, dealing with different things altogether. Their language would be different from that of the older generation. This is why some old generation writers and critiques would not be happy with the writings of the likes of Tony Mochama and Binyavanga Wainaina.” 

 Current generation

The current generation writers have their unique ways of writing as influenced by the flora and fauna.

Prof Peter Amuka of Moi University argues: “The Achebes were mourning Africa, reconstructing African identity while the current ones are composing about changed identities…writers derive from realities around them.” Amuka says that writing must be different to avoid being irrelevant. “Mochama must be different because they are focusing on tradition they know best, the post-colonial experiences.” The Africa Writes is coming just few days after Ngugi rekindled the debate on language use in African Literature in Makerere, Uganda.

In 1962, a conference of African Literature in English language, the first African Writers Conference, was held at Makerere University and attended by prominent African writers, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (then known as James Ngugi). The conference dealt with issues of how the legacy of colonialism had left the African writer with a dilemma with regard to the language choice in writing. During the session, several nationalist writers refused to acknowledge any literature written in non-African languages as being African literature. The historic 1962 conference at the Makerere University brought together scholars and writers from various parts of the continent to discuss the state of African literature: who should write it, what it should depict and of central importance – how it should be communicated.

This gathering produced a tidal wave of opinions and opposing philosophies on the matter of defining the communicative and cultural works of an entire continent. Though many voices joined the discussion at Makerere and countless others have chimed in since, the late Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o remain at the forefront of this long-standing and ever-relevant debate.


   Radical writer

Following the conference, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who is widely considered to be more radical of the two, has been advocating for writers to use their vernacular languages in their literary works as a way of fighting colonialism. Since then, the scholar has been concerned with individual, cultural and national responsibility and, ultimately, the preservation of African ideals among sustained multilingual diversity. On the other hand, the late Achebe advocates the use of the English language because of its merits, which outweighs potential consequences.

In his response to Ngugi’s argument that African writers should write in African languages, Achebe wrote: “The British didn’t push language into my face while I was growing up…it does not matter what language you write in, as long as what you write is good.”

Five decades later

On 27th June, 2013 about 50 years later after the influential conference, Makerere University organised a celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of East Africa that was graced by celebrated Kenyan novelist and alumni of Makerere University College (then under the University of East Africa), Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

In his keynote address titled: 50 Years of Education Transformation and Development: Prospects for the Future in Celebration of the 50 Years of the University of East Africa, Ngugi reiterated that African languages and cultures are likely to die because scholars have abandoned their call and remained intellectually enslaved to the western world. He said African scholars have let down the continent by failing to publish in native languages, which is detrimental to social transformation and economic development. He condemned scholars, who claim to be specialists of African history, culture, society and politics, without accepting the linguistic challenge and the responsibility.

“If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of the culture of the community into which you are born, that is enslavement,” he said. “But if you know your language and add to it all the languages of the world, that is empowerment. The choice for us is between intellectual enslavement and intel.”

 But according to Prof Christopher Joseph Odhiambo of Moi University, politics of language is a paradox. The scholar, however, is skeptical when it comes to writing in our native languages given that in developing countries such as Kenya that has 42 ethnic tribes, such writings will call for translations of what is written despite our minimal resources as a country to do the undertaking. He notes the issue of universality demands that we use the language of the coloniser.

“Ngugi’s initiative is good but in countries such as Kenya where we have more than forty tribes, writing in native languages will promote ethnicity and competition in the sense that writers will tend to promote their own languages and not caring about others. In this case, Ngugi’s agenda seems to be highly ethinicised because it privileges Kikuyu Nationalism.”

But Prof Kithaka wa Mberia, a Kiswahili scholar at the University of Nairobi, has a different opinion. He argues, “Many countries have done necessarily well without using the language and culture of the colonisers. As an example, European countries do speak their own indigenous languages such as Finnish, Swedish, Spanish, Dutch and German. Chinese and Spanish have very wide coverage as compared to English and the idea of English having a wider readership does not hold water.”

Prof Mberia, therefore, rubbishes the notion that books ought to be published in the colonial languages for wider readership. He is categorical that well-written books do sell irrespective of whatever language they are written. “I advocate the use of indigenous languages,” he says.

The writer teaches Literature at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology

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