Sunday, October 17, 2010

African Literature and History Inseparable

Literature, history inseparable

Zimbabwe Herald

NO serious scholar of literature would want to ignore the role history plays in a comprehensive study of the former domain.

Colonialism was a historical process that many countries in the world went through. The various struggles that were waged to free colonised communities manifest themselves in different ways.

While armed confrontation constituted part of the strategy to liberate societies from the yoke of colonialism, literature in the form of poetry, prose and drama also played an important part in educating the oppressed populations of their plight and by so doing urge them to fight that oppression.

Some of the earliest literature that sought to do this in the African context would be negritude writings. The most prominent personalities in this movement included Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was later to become the first leader of Senegal, Aime Cesairre, David Diop, Birago Diop, Agostinho Neto, the first leader of independent Angola among others.

This group of writers examined African history after years of dehumanisation via the slave trade — a trade in humans whose sweat oiled the machinery of western capital — and sought to reassert African dignity.

They coined the term negritude, an intellectual movement, which in essence was a response to the racism that was still prevalent in France. Negritude became a celebration and assertion as well as valourisation of African culture, values and worldview. In other words, the hegemonic influence of French culture in the colonies could not go unchallenged. It is in this way then that we see literature being interrelated with history.

For Aime Cesaire, who hailed from the French island of Martinique, the question of identity was of paramount importance. His book, "Cahier d’um retour au pays natal" (Notebook of the Return to the Native Land) could be viewed as an expression of the cultural identity of blacks in a colonial setting.

Most readers of African literature have found literature to be written for a purpose all the time and nationalist sentiments cultivated by the negritude movement remained forever present in literature from the continent.

Even in the colonial setting, writers like Chinua Achebe seek to explore Africa’s relationship with imperial Europe. Things Fall Apart, one of Africa’s finest novels, can be viewed as an exploration of the experiences that Africa went through at the hands of Europe, whose greed for Africa’s resources led to colonisation.

Literature that emerged from the continent at that time precisely looks at the consequences of Africa’s contact with Europe. The Berlin Conference of 1884 had granted European powers the "mandate" to occupy territories on the continent. Francophone writers like Ferdinand Oyono seek to explore the brutality of the European settler administration in Africa.

In the Old Man and the Medal, Oyono illustrates the injustices suffered by the colonised starting with dispossession. Meka, the major character, has lost two sons in the First World War while fighting for the French cause. He has also lost his land but to compensate for this, the French administration awards him a medal.

At a later stage, Oyono again makes scathing attacks at French systems and methods of colonial rule.

It is in this light that he writes Houseboy, a novel which explores the brutalities associated with French settler administration.

Toundi suffers because the white man whom he has trusted and worshipped all along realises that he has discovered that the commandant’s wife is being unfaithful and has an affair with another man.

Achebe’s Arrow of God also looks at colonial administration but this time it is the British system that comes under criticism. Ezeulu represents all that relates to the pride and values of the African.

His pacification therefore symbolises the pacification of African value systems and this is the predicament that befalls Okonkwo in Achebe’s earlier novel Things Fall Apart.

Achebe is one writer who is known for exploiting the history of his community in his books.

Zimbabwean novelist Godfrey Ndhlala’s Jikinya also gives experiences of this country at the time of colonisation.

John Brown the Explorer sounds representative of pacesetters of the colonial drive like David Livingstone.

A number of other novelists from Zimbabwe also interrogate the nature of relations between indigenous populations and Rhodesian settlers.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, in exploring gender relations in a patriarchal colonial society also looks at the politics of dispossession of land in Nervous Conditions. She also looks at the missionary education system, a creation of colonial rule.

The coming in of missionaries in Africa is a specific historical process that is seen preceding colonial conquest in a number of localities. It is missionaries that established mission schools with the aim of creating a subservient population in the colonisers’ areas of influence.

South African writers grapple with historical experiences following the institutionalisation of apartheid in that country. Allan Paton, a liberal white South African, in Cry the Beloved Country, tries to show the material inequalities created by apartheid.

While he sees that the city has nothing to offer to the indigenous black South African like Absolom Khumalo, Ndotsheni, where he is supposed to go to avoid a life of crime in Johannesburg, has nothing to offer. The maize there hardly reaches the height of a man.

Worse examples of apartheid are contained in books by Alex la Guma, himself a man of colour, but a member of marginalised groups in South Africa. Notable titles include A Walk in the Night and In the Fog of the Season’s End.

In the latter, the population has established an underground movement that is organising the overthrow of the apartheid regime.

The brutality manifested by the Afrikaaner policemen time and again is a reflection of the general ill treatment that the local population has to live with.

Playwrights like Athol Fugard and his colleagues used drama to show the various injustices of the apartheid regime. The pass laws, restrictions on inter-racial marriages are some of the concerns of Sizwe Bansi is Dead.

Just like elsewhere on the continent, the South African literary artists also find themselves grappling with complex political and social issues affecting their country at some point in their country’s history.

They, like Achebe and other writers from Africa, do not see the value of writing "art for art’s sake". For the literature is a reflection of society and as such should deal with the issues affecting their respective societies.

Struggles to deal with colonialism and establish more equitable systems come in as concerns of other writers. Zimbabwean poets like Chenjerai Hove (Up in Arms), Musaemura Zimunya and Mudereri Kadhani eds (And Now the Poets Speak) do make the struggle for freedom a prominent subject in their poetry anthologies.

However, the neo-colonial political, economic and social history of the continent variously becomes the concern in most writers in the post-colonial era. Writers like Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana), Chinua Achebe, especially in No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, Senegalese Sembene Ousmane in The Last of the Empire among others, examine disillusionment with independence as a major concern. All hope for a better life for the generality of the population has been lost owing to rampant corruption, nepotism among other ills.

In a way, they remain committed to the historical experiences of their societies.

According to Ngugi wa Thiongo, the writer who ignores the social, economic and political realities of his community "is like the absurd man in the proverb who leaves his house burning in pursuit of a rat fleeing from the same flames".

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