Joe Ushie, 2008 Writer of the Year Writer of the Year, JAL, No. 5 2008
Two Africas in One
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. Indeed, on one occasion, he was reported to have stated:
I am the head and ruler of a nation of thieves. To keep them in check I sometimes flog them. Somebody dies as a result. Yes, that’s true. But the number of the dead is only one-tenth of that killed in road accidents in France on an Easter day. What connection is there between these things? Well, in France there will be more victims on the road next Sunday, whereas here, in my country, there will be fewer thieves.(www.newtimes.ru)
Former President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo died only in February 2005. He had seized power in a military coup in 1967, and for 20 years he banned political parties in the country until 1991 when he arranged a flawed election that re-consolidated his stay in power. There were also the duo of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, both of who ruled Uganda consecutively and are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of about one million Ugandans. In addition to his murderous instincts, Idi Amin had a ridiculous and ludicrous obsession for titles, as it is often the case with dictators. He asked to be addressed as His Excellency, the President for life, Field Marshal, Al Hadji, Dr Idi Amin Dada, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa. Another dictator was the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (former Zaire) President Mobutu Sese Seko, whose personal wealth over-reached that of his country, and he remained in power until he was ousted in 1997. Two other notorious ones have been Ethiopia’s Haile Mariam Mengistu, who is said to have been responsible for about 1,500,000 deaths between 1975 and 1979, and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who had followed the footsteps of his predecessor, Francisco Macias Nguema, in human rights abuses and manipulation of the electoral process to favour his continuation in office.
Since her independence in 1960 Nigeria has passed through the jackboots of eight military dictators: Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, General Yakubu Gowon, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, General Olusegun Obasanjo, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim B. Babangida, Generals Sani Abacha and Abdusalami Abubakar. While human rights abuses was a feature of all these regimes, the peak of horror was reached during the reign of General Sani Abacha, a murderous paranoid who blocked his ears against all reasoning. Besides the numerous state-organized bombings and killings, including the horrendous hanging of Nigeria’s environmentalist and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight of his Ogoni ethnic members on November 10, 1995, it was widely reported that he kept a pond of crocodiles into which he fed some of his perceived opponents. In a characteristic African dictator culture, he was working towards transforming himself into a civilian head of state when he died suddenly in June 1998. Like him, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keita, Kenneth Kaunda and Milton Obote either died or were overthrown. Three dictators now remain in Francophone Africa. They are Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon (now Africa’s longest-ruling president), Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo Republic and Paul Biya of Cameroon who must only die in office if left alone or be ousted by some violent action.
This criminal betrayal of the African people’s pre-independence expectations and the euphoria at independence naturally resulted in the bifurcation of the continent into two. There is the Africa that profits by neo-colonialism and the Africa that struggles to emerge into a free and truly independent post-colonial world. There has also been the Africa of the predator and the Africa of the prey; Africa of the hunter and Africa of the hunted; Africa of the rich and Africa of the poor; Africa of the oppressor and Africa of the oppressed; Africa that is material-driven and Africa that is conscience-governed; and, finally, there is Africa of the farm and Africa of the town. In the last case the farm is his land of birth from which the African empties material resources into the town, the town being his home in Europe or the United States. He flies out from the farm in Africa to a foreign country for the treatment of every headache, and his children must all attend schools abroad. Neo-colonial Africans are usually those who preserve, protect and project the erstwhile colonial master’s languages, cultures and literatures. For instance, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o reports that in 1976 he and Seth Adagala, the then director of his play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, were summoned to Kenya’s CID headquarters and warned no longer to interfere with European Theatre [Kenya’s National Theatre] (92). Another example is Nigeria’s recent addition of French, another European language, to English as a second official language when the nation’s indigenous languages are fast losing speakers, especially among the young. Among Nigerian youths today, a disdainful attitude to one’s African cultural ways has become a status symbol signifying that one or one’s parents have successfully crossed the border from the Africa of the poor to the Africa of the rich. In typical Nigerian lingo, the one has arrived.
Africa today is therefore one continent only in the physical geographical sense of space. It is, in reality, two continents in one in the sense of its freedom from foreign control, in the standard of living of its peoples, in the physical and social security of its peoples and in the attachment to the continent as a home. The predator-Africa is only physically present on the continent; it is materially, mentally and emotionally in the Diaspora.
Neo Colonialism and the African Writer
Of the two Africas in this neo-colonial era, the predatory Africa controls most of the media. Hence, much of the time, it is the African rulers’ own assessments of their performance that the media would beam to the world irrespective of what numbers succumb daily to poverty, disease, famine and crime; irrespective of the level of insecurity, unemployment and illiteracy in their lands. This partly explains why in Africa the members of the prey-Africa prefer listening to the foreign media because, at least, these ones would report on their condition, although with their usual mockery. Yet, the foreign media are accomplices in this domestication of Western capitalism in Africa, which has left the continent in this laughable stage. Apart from the consistently negative and, perhaps, self-consoling reports showing the poverty of the people and the occasional references to the corruption among the predatory class, these foreign media are elegantly silent about the collusion of western finance institutions and transnational corporations with African dictators to keep the Africans below the economic survival line. While they show on their TV the usual images of sickly and malnourished African children with their distended bellies, of men and women infected with AIDS, and of squalor, they remain calculatingly silent about the poor wages fixed for the African workers by the foreign agencies, about the vaults of western banks distended with the loot from the sweat and blood of African peasants without linking these images to the poor wages, nor the kwashiokored children’s distended bellies to the distended vaults. As such the localization in Africa of the present economic terrorism goes largely unchecked, is under-reported and hence, under-exposed to the rest of the world.
In the Nigerian situation, for example, this leaves these silent majority with a section of the private press, which often exposes their plight, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which often protests the frequent increases in the pump price of fuel, and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which has been fighting for the survival of education for even the poor in the country. In the continent as a whole, writers have been in the forefront among cultural producers in the fight for the survival and well being of the prey-Africa. They have fought consistently on the side of the oppressed right from colonial days through the early neo-colonial period till these years of economic globalization. This is a basic role of the modern African writer as it was of his singer-predecessor in the pre-colonial days. This is the role that all major writers and critics in Africa expect of their literature. The slain Ken Saro-Wiwa, perhaps put it most forcefully: literature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by intervention, and writers must not merely write to amuse or to take a bemused, critical look at society. They must play an interventionist role (81). Similarly, Niyi Osundare maintains that a writer in African is a person that people look up to, in whose work people are trying to see how they relate to the social, cultural and political problems that we are facing in Africa (Na Allah, 470). The same opinion is articulated by almost every major African writer since Achebe, all of who see the writer as a warrior who should have an opinion on everything from geography, history, physics, chemistry to the fate of humankind (Ngugi, 154). Incidentally, even one of Africa’s neo-colonial dictators, Guinea’s former president Sekou Toure, also stressed this role:
there is no place outside that fight [African revolution] for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity. (Fanon 166)
This role of being the voice of the voiceless in society has therefore naturally pitted the modern African writer against, first the colonial masters, and now the African proxies of these erstwhile colonialists and, always, with very grave consequences for the writer since, by often suggesting a revolutionary path out of preydom, dictatorial leaders consider literature and its producers a threat. In today’s Africa, writers are killed, incarcerated, forced into exile or their works are banned or censored. Above all, there is the inclement publishing climate partly occasioned by the sickly economies and the shift of multinational publishers’ interest to the faster-selling school texts. This becomes African governments’ ‘divine’ sluice gate controlling the flow of otherwise poisonous material into the public. And, so in the end, African writers have ended up suffering more indignities, threats, humiliations and genuine terror than their counterparts in the rest of the non-western world (Larson 144).
The frequent incarcerations have resulted in the emergence of a sub-genre of literature on the continent, commonly christened prison notes. Among those who have contributed to the genre are Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Lewis Nkosi, Bessie Head, Wahome Murahi, Dennis Brutus, Molefe Pheto, Kofi Awoonor, James Matthews, Todd Matshikiza, Micere Mugo, Percy Mtwa, Luis Bernado Hibwaba and Rene Philombe (Larson 127-128). It is therefore no exaggeration when Josaphat Kubayanda considers African writers as the new ‘nation’ of desaparecidos in Africa today (6), or when Niyi Osundare observes that Africa today is a dangerous place to think, a risky place to argue (Omuabor 1). It needs to be stressed, however, that not only writers have been so killed, imprisoned tortured or forced into exile in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, the nation’s foremost journalist, Dele Giwa, was killed by a letter bomb on October 19, 1986 while non-writers like Pa Alfred Rewane, Kudirat Abiola, M.K.O. Abiola, Emmanuel Omotehinwa, Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua and Obi Wali were also killed during the dark nights of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
The repression has certainly been fossilized in the African literature of the neo-colonial period. While a few of the writers surrendered to the predator African world by either self-censorship or giving up writing altogether (especially in Sierra Leone, Liberia Rwanda, the Congo), others who continued writing have had to inscribe certain strategies into their style. They have had to prefer the passive voice for their sentences, which facilitates the dropping of the actor element (logical subject or agent of the sentence). They also have had to resort to the use of certain symbols: wolves, hyenas, jackals, hangman, bayonets, lions, vultures to represent the predator Africans; and lambs, sheep, skull for the prey (Ushie 355). This, then replicates and reflects the bifurcated structure of the material world of the continent as two Africas in one the Africa of the predators and the Africa of the prey. This mutual embedding of the realities of the concrete physical world of Africa and the continent’s literature into each other also explains the striking similarities in the works of most modern African writers. They all have a common monster to confront: neo-colonialism and Western capitalism. Furthermore, this situation also manifests in literary theorizing in Africa. The material realities of the continent are yet without those features that could be described as modern; therefore, modernism as a literary theory is not a first-hand experience of the African writer or critique, let alone its successor, post-Modernism. Since our colonialism is yet to be posted anywhere at all, we have reversed from our post-colonial literary journey of the nineteen fifties and the sixties to neo-colonial criticism, which is the major preoccupation of our writers today. The brilliant post-colonialist efforts of the early modern African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Kofi Awoonor, Wole Soyinka, Leopold Senghor, Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Beti, which began with the fictional ridiculing of early converts to western ways, and the work of their coeval critics, were made to reach their menopause soon after their first birth, just like the continent’s stillbirth independence. In Africa and elsewhere in our modern world, the brawn of the transnational corporations and international finance institutions as manifesting in the security personnel of the neo-colonialist nations, their negatively utilized super-brain, which invents ceaselessly more and more confounding economic and financial jargons, and their sheer wealth have combined to dwarf the stature and policing role of the United Nations. The UN has, hence, become nothing more than a Red Cross Society offering first aid to the wounded at the various financial and economic battlefields officially labelled as developing or underdeveloped nations and regions of our worlds. These aids come for the victims of crises and upheavals in Africa, wars and conflicts in Asia’s Middle East, terrorism and labour unrests in various parts of the world, and in the form of hunger, disease, illiteracy, poverty and unemployment in many countries.
It is necessary to end this long jeremiad on a note of hope for Africa and humanity by suggesting that African leaders work in close cooperation with their co-wayfarers in the so-called Third World, and, especially realize that the human resources of any nation are its greatest assets. They must therefore build a bridge between themselves and their intellectuals and cultural producers for the overall health of their countries. No nation rises above the level of its educational development, it is often asserted. Writers and other cultural producers from all over the world must also continue to use their craft for the good of the oppressed peoples of the various lands as their African counterparts have been doing.
Secondly, neo-liberal capitalism, rather than terrorism or racism or religion, constitutes the greatest threat to humankind. Yet, it is a mistake for anyone to think that the brawn and brains and gold of the advanced economies will continue to keep the rest of the world down; or that the ignorance being cultivated in the helpless nations of the world will thrive infinitely; or that their doubles-speak and ‘double acts’ will continue to be masked to the rest of the world. To think so is to be ignorant of the history of humankind. The only solution is therefore a relatively fair redistribution of wealth such that the poor will not have to be kept awake by hunger, as their being awake will not allow the rich to sleep.
Thirdly the concept of globalization that fosters inter-racial, international, inter-regional and inter-religious understanding and harmony is not evil if it is made to function as a vehicle for spreading the cherished pre-industrial and pre-racialist human values of love, compassion, human solidarity and fellow feeling instead of individualism and cannibalistic materialism. To realize these noble aims of globalization, it would be necessary that an international code of conduct for economic relations among the nations of the world be provided. This should, for example, make it possible and easy for nations to retrieve and return to the source- country all wealth stolen from any part of the world and stored in another. If this were done, it would help Africans much more than the present culture of stuffing the mouths of its dictators with economically poisonous loans. A happy illustration of the operation of economic globalization is the current fight against corruption in Nigeria, which is being dictated by the nation’s creditor-institutions and nations. The need for this humanistic and healthy form of global co-operation and harmony cannot be more necessary, urgent and crucial than at this time in human history when the human family is being daily faced with natural disasters of all kinds. All these ideas and many other similar positive ones are necessary at this time of our history so that we can return our two Africas to one continent, so that we can return our two worlds to one world, so that we can rehumanise our commodified world by making it conscience-driven rather than gold-governed.
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