Two Africas in One
Joe Ushie, 2008 Writer of the Year Writer of the Year, JAL, No. 5 2008
IN Africa, whether in orate pre-colonial period or after, literature has never been a phenomenon detachable from the material realities of the society in which it is produced. The umbilical cord between the material world and the fictional world of literature is never severed, as the literature continues to feed on this physical world, which it, at the same time, interrogates, ridicules, satirizes or praises when praise is deserved. A literary work in Africa and the realities of its concrete world are, hence, necessarily mutually embedded in each other.
In most pre-colonial African worlds, there were folktales, legends, myths, proverbs and various forms of the song as an important literary sub-genre. In the traditional world of the people of the present Obudu and Obanliku areas of Nigeria, for example, the song was a major medium of social engineering and criticism. In this tradition, not even burial songs were always carriers of just the usual emotion-laden words of sympathy or sorrow. The tongue of the singer at the burial of a thief or of one who had died in any other species of dishonourable circumstances never failed to inflict deep wounds of shame in the deceased and, sometimes, in his/her entire family or community as a whole. E. O. Apronti notes that in serenading the king of the Ashanti, in Ghana, to his palace, the singer reminded him that he was the servant of the ruled by singing the type of text to which he must stand at attention and be delayed to test his obedience (qtd in Ushie 22).
It was this role of the artist in his society as social critic and ‘righter’ that explains the belligerence of the early modern African writer in his anti-colonial battle. In East Africa, for instance, land as the central issue was given its due prominence in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child, while Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and other Anglophone West African writers consciously glorified their African indigenous culture in the bid to help their African readers to regain pride and confidence in their cultural heritage. In Francophone African countries, where the French policy of assimilation had more consciously sought to obliterate the African culture, the African anti-colonialist writers responded with the equally more corrosive concept of Negritude as we find in Camara Laye’s The African Child, Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala, Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy and in the poetry of Leopold Senghor. In South Africa, the poet, Dennis Brutus, and novelists like Peter Abrahams and Alex La Guma tore the robes off the apartheid policy with their literary works.
Following this role of the African writer, which effectively complemented the political flank in the struggle for independence, ersatz freedom came for the various African States. Most of them became independent in the 1960s while Lusophone Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau freed themselves from Portuguese control only in the 1970s. The apartheid regime of South Africa also grudgingly came to an end in 1994, when the first free-for-all elections were held. This then shows modern African literature’s continuity from, and faithfulness to, its oral antecedents in the pre-colonial era.
Africa and Neo-Colonialism
In spite of the collective struggle for independence by Africans, and the euphoria that followed its attainment, what the vast majority of the people did not know was that it was a mere treacherous exchange of batons between out-going master and his few trusted heirs. In my Bendi community it was told that when the first colonialists sought for men with whom to work they resolved not to send any of their worthy sons to them. Instead, only men whose identity in the community was doubtful, or who were loafers or scoundrels, were made over to the strangers. The thinking was that whatever the whites would do to those men would not affect the community very much. On the contrary, these men, whose exit from the community was a symbolic emptying of the community’s garbage bin into the white man’s travel bag, returned to the community as overlords. They returned as tax agents and court messengers, and, armoured by the new laws and authority, they treated the community without the usual African fellow feeling: their powers and positions had come from elsewhere outside the clan, not from within it. This, perhaps, explains why even today the loyalty of their neo-colonialist heirs remains to this external authority in Europe and America and not to the African community. It was these men or their children, who had come to constitute the first harvest of Africans into western ways ways that dominated the African political and economic leadership class of the colonial days. Examples of fictional representations of these men in anti-colonial African literature are Lakunle in Wole Soyinka’s play, The Lion and the Jewel, whose ways are plastic and his language flowery but without effect, compared to warm, old Baroka, the typical African whose actions are result-oriented. In Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not , Child there is Jacobo, who treats other Kenyans with disdain and takes sides with the white settlers against the rest of Kenyans during the Mau Mau struggle for independence. Obi Okonkwo, who becomes baptized as Isaac in Chinua Achebe’s novel, No Longer at Ease, is another example. And in apartheid South Africa, the black African policeman is, of course, on the side of the whites, under whose command and power he brutalizes his fellow Africans in various South African novels. These early converts into western ways thus became the colonialists’ arsenal in the war against African culture and religion, which they worked assiduously to replace with Christianity and foreign culture.
In some cases the gulf between this early elite class and the rest of the Africans was blurred during the struggle for independence and immediately after. This, for instance, explains why post-independence rulers, such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta in Ngugi’s Weep Not, Child, were the people’s heroes. Sartre summarizes the situation most aptly:
The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture; they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother’s country they were sent home, white-washed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed. (Fanon 7)
Indeed, soon after Gabon’s flag independence, a former president of the country, Monsieur M’ba, assured his former French masters, Gabon is independent, but between Gabon and France nothing has changed; everything goes on as before (Fanon 52). Symbolically, the experiences of Kenya’s writer, Gakaara wa Wanjau, also tie Africa’s colonial period to the neo-colonial: he was imprisoned in both eras, thus showing the continuity of both colonialism and the African writer’s resistance to it even in the period following flag independence. Nothing has changed indeed in most African countries after foreign domination except the skin colour of the exploiter. The African leaders who took over the reins of power have thus been nothing but mere reincarnations of the African middlemen of the slave trade era, and crude surrogates of the former colonizers, whose primary goal in politics has been the prebendal lucre.
This failure of Africa’s former colonies to sever their umbilical cords with the erstwhile mother countries and reposition themselves towards autarky is what defines a neo-colonial state. A post-colonial state, on the contrary, may have scars to show from erstwhile domination, but would have a visible path towards self-reliance as an independent state. Neo-colonial states such as we have in Africa, have only reeking and profusely bleeding wounds to show for their freedom, not yet scars. Africa was therefore directly bled to the marrow by the colonial masters in the heydays of colonialism, and lavishly infested with visionless and maniacal thieves for political leaders in the neo-colonial days. Taking both the first-tier of civilian dictators and their subsequent military counterparts together, as in some cases, we have the representative examples of Francisco Macias Nguema, who ruled Equatorial Guinea for eleven years, and thereafter declared himself Life President, Leader of Steel and the Unique Miracle of Africa. There was Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who was said to have fed dissidents to lions and, in 1979, killed some 100 school children for protesting against a certain school uniform.