The dead end of African literature- by Obiajunwa Wali

 The Dead End of African Literature

By Obiajunwa Wali


In order to truly understand the context for this article, please read this link first. See How Britain and the CIA deceived Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to destroy African languages in literature. 

PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT ACHIEVEMENT of the last  Conference of African Writers of English Expression  held in Makerere College, Kampala, in June 1962, is  that African literature as now defined and understood, leads nowhere.

The Conference itself marked the final climax of the  attack on the Negritude school of Leopold Senghor  and Aime Cesare. For some time now, African writers  of English expression like Ezekiel Mphahlele, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo, have treated this kind  of literature which expresses sterile concepts such as  "negritude" or the "African personality" with the utmost derision. One would say that negritude is now  dead, judging from the confident tones of the remarks  and decisions made at the Makerere conference.

Another significant event in the conference, is the  tacit omission of Amos Tutuola. Not only was Tutuola, who undoubtedly is one of the most significant  writers in Africa today, not present in the conference,  but there was a careful exclusion of his works in the  discussions of the conference. In fact, according to the  Conference report, Tutuola's publishers protested at the  implied questioning of their integrity in publishing  this writer's works. One can guess that Tutuola received  this kind of treatment partly because influential critics  like Janheinz Jahn have repeatedly grouped him in the  negritude school, and partly because he has gone out  of line winning acclaim overseas for using that kind of  English expression that is non-Ibadan, and non-Makerere.

With the now seeming defeat of the Negritude and  Tutuola schools of African writing, what now represents  African literature can be seen from these examples  from some of the writings of the artists and critics  who now dominate our literature. Una Maclean,  reviewing J. P. Clark's play, Song of A Goat, opens in  the following fashion: "The author of this poetic melodrama possibly perceives himself as some sort of Tennessee Williams of the Tropics. Suddenly the sultry  symbolism of the sex war seeps through the swamps,  to hang like a horrid miasma upon the polluted air ... It is a simple and familiar tale, impotent man, ardent  woman. But this cat on a hot tin roof had once known  better times, for her partner had once given palpable  token of his potency in siring a son."

Christopher Okigbo in his acknowledgement prefixed  to his poem, Silences, makes the following observations:  "the author wishes to acknowledge his debt to those  composers whose themes he has used or varied in certain  parts of the present work. The INTROIT is a variation  on a theme in Raja Ratnam's At Eight-fifteen in the  Morning; the first three passages of the first movement are variations on a theme by Malcolm Cowley;  "Sand banks sprinkled with memories" in the 4th  passage of the same movement is a variation on Stephane Mallarme's "Au bosquet arrose d'accords" in his  L'Apres-midi d'un Faune; the 6th passage of the same  movement is a variation on a theme in Rabindranath  Tagore's Stray Birds.

Ulli Beier, in his paper read to the Makerere conference, discussing the poetry of J. P. Clark, remarks,  "John Pepper Clark is a very different poet. His background is similar to that of Okigbo . . . He studied  English, and what Ezra Pound is to Okigbo, Eliot and  Hopkins are to Clark. As the case of Okigbo, one finds  it occasionally disturbing to recognise the 'ready made'  language.

What these examples clearly show is that African  literature as now understood and practised, is merely  a minor appendage in the main stream of European  literature. Both creative writers and literary critics,  read and devour European literature and critical  methods. The new drama of J.P. Clark is seen in terms  not only of the classical past of Aristotle and the Greeks,  but in the current present of Tennessee Williams, and  the Absurds, leading to such crudities as Una MacJean's comparison of the simple and child-hungry Ebiere,  to the sexual complications of Big Daddy's American  family. In this kind of literary analysis, one just goes  back to parrot Aristotle, and the current cliches of the  English and American new critics.

The consequence of this kind of literature is that it  lacks any blood and stamina, and has no means of self enrichment. It is severely limited to the European oriented, few college graduates in the new Universities  of Africa, steeped as they are in European literature  and culture. The ordinary local audience, with little or  no education in the conventional European manner,  and who constitute an overwhelming majority, has no  chance of participating in this kind of literature. Less  than one per cent of the Nigerian people have had access  to, or ability to understand Wole Soyinka's Dance  of the Forest. Yet, this was the play staged to celebrate  their national independence, tagged on to the idiom  and traditions of a foreign culture. It is no wonder,  that a poet like Christopher Okigbo, so readily resorts  to Mallarme's idea of an aristocratic and limited poetic  community, for his impertinent remark, "I don't read  my poetry to non-poets" is Mallarme in paraphrase.

The purpose of this article is not to discredit these  writers who have achieved much in their individual  rights within an extremely difficult and illogical situation. It is to point out that the whole uncritical  acceptance of English and French as the inevitable  medium for educated African writing, is misdirected,  and has no chance of advancing African literature and  culture. In other words, until these writers and their  western midwives accept the fact that any true African  literature must be written in African languages, they  would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only  lead to sterility, uncreativity, and frustration.

The conference itself, faced with the fundamental  question of defining African literature, and the problems involved for an African writing in a language that  is not native to him, came very near the truth: "It was  generally agreed that it is better for an African writer  to think and feel in his own language and then look for  an English transliteration approximating the original.  This very conclusion, as naive and as misguided as it is,  expresses the problem concisely and accurately, and it is  from that we shall find a new direction for African  literature, if we are really serious and sincere in what we  are doing.

An African writer who thinks and feels in his own  language must write in that language. The question of  transliteration, whatever that means, is unwise as it is  unacceptable, for the 'original' which is spoken of  here, is the real stuff of literature and the imagination,  and must not be discarded in favour of a copy, which,  as the passage admits, is merely an approximation.

Of course all the old facile arguments would arise  again - the multiplicity of African languages, the  limitation of the audience to small patches of tribal  groups, questions of orthography, and all the rest of  them. Yes, but why not? I believe that every language  has a right to be developed as literature. There is no  part of the world where a false literary unity has been  attempted in the way that we are doing today in Africa,  not even in Europe. The problem has always been met  by the technique of translating outstanding literary  achievements into other languages, especially the more  widespread and influential languages of the world.

One wonders what would have happened to English  literature for instance, if writers like Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, had neglected English, and  written in Latin and Greek simply because these  classical languages were the cosmopolitan languages of  their times. Even though a man like Milton could write  even more easily in Latin and Greek, he did his major  works in his own mother tongue without playing to the  gallery of international fame.

Literature after all, is the exploitation of the possibilities of language. It is the African languages that are  in crying need of this kind of development, not the over worked French and English. There is, for instance,  a good deal of scholarly work being done in the linguistic structure of several African languages, but  there is practically no use being made of these in creative  writing, simply because we are all busy fighting over the  commonplaces of European literature. If linguistic  science devotes so much energy and attention to African  languages in spite of their tribal and limited scope,  why should imaginative literature which in fact has  more chances of enriching the people's culture, consider  it impossible to adventure in this direction?

The criticism being done today in African writing in  English and French, sounds so dull, drab, and flippant,  mainly because there is no opportunity for original  thinking. It is the same cliches over and over again - romantic and classic, realism, sentimentality, Victorianism, surrealism, and so on. There is no need for  creative thinking in order to become a 'leading,  critic or authority' in African literature. Fraser,  Freud, Darwin, and Marx, are, as in European literature,  the necessary reading for the acquisition of fundamental  critical tools.

What I am advocating here is not easy, for it entails  a good deal of hard work and hard thinking, and what is  more, a necessary casting overboard of hardened  debris of the overblown ego. It would force some  'leading' critics to go in for the hard school of African  linguistic studies, a knowledge of some of the important  African languages, before generalising and formulating  all kinds of philosophical and literary theories. Literature  in Africa would then become the serious business that  all literature truly is, reaching out to the people for whom  it is meant, and creating a true culture of the African  peoples that would not rely on slogans and propaganda,  nor on patronage of doubtful intentions.

The basic distinction between French and German  literature for instance, is that one is written in French,  and the other in German. All the other distinctions,  whatever they be, are based on this fundamental fact.  What therefore is now described as African literature  in English and French, is a clear contradiction, and a  false proposition, just as 'Italian literature in Hausa'  would be.

What one would like future conferences on African  literature to devote time to, is the all-important problem  of African writing in African languages, and all its  implications for the development of a truly African  sensibility. In fact, the secondary place which African  languages now occupy in our educational system would  be reversed if our writers would devote their tremendous gifts and ability to their own languages. Attempts have  recently been made to include the study of African  languages in the curriculum of some of the new African  universities. This programme would certainly have no  future, for all that is available even at the university  level is the usual string of proverbs, a few short stories  on the tortoise and the tiger, and a number of inadequate grammar books written by untrained linguists.  The student of Yoruba for instance, has no play available to him in that language, for Wole Soyinka, the most  gifted Nigerian playwright at the moment, does not  consider Yoruba suitable for The Lion and the Jewel  or The Dance of the Forest.

The main reason for the study of a language is that it  contains great literature or some form of literature.  This was what led scholars like Eliot and Pound to the  study of oriental languages in their poetic experiments  early in this century. There is little doubt that African  languages would face inevitable extinction, if they do  not embody some kind of intelligent literature, and the  only way to hasten this, is by continuing in our present  illusion that we can produce African literature in English and French.

The last junketing at Makerere was good as far as it  went, but it is a little scandalous to admit that its only  concrete achievement is that it gave African writers  and their patrons, the opportunity to get to know one  another!

TRYING TO EXPRESS IDEAS even in one's own language is  difficult because what is said or written often is not exactly  what one had in mind. Between the birth of the idea  and its translation into words, something is lost. The process of expression is even more difficult in the second  language of one's own cultural group. I speak not of  merely expressing general ideas, but of communicating  an idea to the reader in the absolute or near absolute  state in which it was conceived. Here, you see I am already groping for words to make you understand  what I really mean as an African.

"Once an African, always an African; it will show  in whatever you write" says one school of thought.  This implies that there is no need for an African writer  to exert a conscious effort to make his writing African  through the use of words or the construction of sentences. Equally it seems to say that the turns of phrase,  the nuances and the imagery which abound in African  languages, thinking, and culture are not worth letting  the world know about.

As a writer who believes in the utilisation of African  ideas, African philosophy and African folk-lore and  imagery to the fullest extent possible, I am of the opinion  the only way to use them effectively is to translate them  almost literally from the African language native to the  writer into whatever European language he is using as  his medium of expression. l have endeavoured in my  words to keep as close as possible to the vernacular  expressions. For, from a word, a group of words, a  sentence and even a name in any African language, one  can glean the social norms, attitudes and values of a  people.

In order to capture the vivid images of African speech,  had to eschew the habit of expressing my thoughts  first in English. It was difficult at first, but I had to learn.  I had to study each !jaw expression I used  and to discover the probable situation in which it  was used in order to bring out the nearest meaning in  English. I found it a fascinating exercise.

Some words and expressions are still equivalent to the  present day life of the world, while others are rooted in  the legends and tales of a far-gone day. Take the expression "he is timid" for example. The equivalent in !jaw  is "he has no chest" or "he has no shadow". Now  a person without a chest in the physical sense can only  mean a human that does not exist. The idea becomes  clearer in the second translation. A person who does  not cast a shadow of course does not exist. All this means is that a timid person is not fit to live. Here,  perhaps, we are hearing the echoes of the battles in  those days when the strong and the brave lived. But is  this not true of the world today?

In parting with a friend at night a true ljaw would  say, "May we live to see ourselves tomorrow". This  again is reminiscent of the days when one went about  with the danger of death from wild beasts or hostile  animals dogging one's steps. But has the world we live  in changed so much? On the other hand, how could an  ljaw born and bred in England, France or the United  States write, "May we live to see ourselves tomorrow"  instead of "Goodnight"? And if he wrote "Goodnight",  would he be expressing an !jaw thought? Is it only the  colour of one's skin that makes one an African?

In the Ibo language they say something like, "May  dawn come", or "May it dawn". Once again it is a wish  or a prayer. Isn't the grave sometimes likened to an  endless night and is it not only the dead that go to the  grave? The lbos sometimes lighten this sombre thought  with the expression, "You sleep like a rat while I sleep  like a lizard." Because it is thought that rats never sleep.  while lizards are heavy sleepers, this never fails to produce peals of laughter.

Why should I not use the poetic and beautiful,  "May we live to see ourselves tomorrow" or, "May  it dawn", instead of "Goodnight"? lf I were writing a dialogue between two friends, one about to leave after  visiting the other at night, I would do it this way:  "Are you getting up now?" said Otutu as he saw his  friend heaving himself up with his two hands gripping  the arms of the chair be was sitting on.  "Yes I am about walking now. The night has gone  far", Beni his friend said, for he was a very fat man.  "May we live to see ourselves tomorrow", Otutu  said after seeing his friend to the door.  "May we live to see ourselves tomorrow", his friend  also said and walked panting into the night.

What emerges from the examples I have given is that  a writer can use the idioms of his own language in a way  that is understandable in English. If he uses their English  equivalents, he would not be expressing African ideas  and thoughts, but English ones.

Some may regard this way of writing in English as a  desecration of the language. This is of course not true.  Living languages grow like living things, and English  is far from a dead language. There are American,  West Indian, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand  versions of English. All of them add life and vigour to  the language while reflecting their own respective cultures. Why shouldn't there be a Nigerian or West African  English which we can use to express our own ideas,  thinking and philosophy in our own way?

 Obiajunwa Wali https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obi_Wali#Contributions_and_views_on_African_literature

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