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Africa: Anthony Chennells

For over four hundred years Africa has been precisely imaged in the European mind. The Sahara is extended south to make a continent of sand-dunes and oases and at some point in the eighteenth century tropical rain forests replace the deserts. More recently, tourist promotions and television reports have competed with one another for the authentic image of Africa: luxurious safaris across the game-covered plains are placed alongside the civilian casualties of famines brought on by Africa's many wars and droughts. Quaint ‘tribal’ Africans laid on for a tourist adventure, and starving Africans as objects of world philanthropy, serve to confirm older impressions of African passivity: they were either being enslaved or were waiting for a missionary to point them towards the true god, the settler to teach them the dignity of labour, or the entrepreneur to draw them into the world economy. Only as savages rejecting divine grace and civil order were Africans ever represented as agents of their own destiny.

Of course Africans were never passive and Africa's enormous diversity of climates produced widely different cultures with complex theologies and philosophies and technological, medical, and scientific systems appropriate to widely different material needs. The African literature produced prolifically over the last forty years is evidence of the opposite of silent passivity. One of my favourite early modern African novels, the Nigerian Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God (1964), opposes images of African disorder with highly ritualized festivals which celebrate the interaction of a spiritual order and the demands of an agricultural economy. Such an account could easily result in fictionalized anthropology or become a celebration of pre-colonial Africa as a Golden Age. But while Achebe traces the tragedy of a man who underestimates the power of the new colonial dispensation, he also shows a society divided between power-hungry factions. Nor are beliefs fixed in past practice; the novel debates the sources of moral authority. Achebe refuses to be dogmatic and the reader has to draw his or her own conclusions from the story itself.

Most of Africa's written fiction was produced either just before or since the decolonization of Africa, and consequently colonialism, anti-colonial resistance, and the often tyrannical regimes which replaced the colonial state have been important subjects. One of the most interesting of these novels is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat (1967) which is set immediately before and during the celebration of Kenyan independence. While the brutalities of colonialism are attacked, people who opposed it are not shown as uncomplicatedly heroic. Ngugi's later novels reveal a greater disillusionment with the path independent Kenya has been led along. The ruthless élite are agents to international capitalism and allow foreign domination to continue but Ngugi never loses his faith in the capacity for resistance by the mass of the people. The most ambitious of these later novels, Petals of Blood (1977), is on one level a detective story but on another displaces the Christian conception of human history moving towards a New Jerusalem with a secular myth of a country moving through socialism towards true democracy.

Ngugi wrote his later novels in Gikuyu, believing it to be politically, socially, and culturally vital that African writers write in local languages. These works were soon translated into English, as were the great Francophone novels of the late 1950s and 1960s. The Senegalese writer Sembene Ousmane's most famous novel, God's Bits of Wood (1960), provides a useful contrast with Ngugi's and Achebe's contention that the retrieval of a people's cultural memory is an important mode of anti-colonial resistance. Sembene makes no attempt to return to a pre-colonial past but instead centres God's Bits of Wood on the historic strike on the Dakar-Bamako railway line in 1948. The colonial railway has forged the workers of the novel into a new class who transcend Senegal's pre-colonial ethnicities. Through the strike a new consciousness grows in both the men strikers and the women, who in having to forage for food, discover in themselves a forgotten capacity for militancy.

Sembene was an orthodox Marxist when he wrote the novel and few other African novelists share his view that African culture is richer if it is open to foreign cultural influences. The Francophone novelist Mongo Beti uses satire to show how French colonialism ignored the profundity of religious beliefs and the complexity of social organization in pre-colonial Cameroon. Beti's The Poor Christ of Bomba (1956) satirizes the naïvety of a young Christian boy who by the end has learned that people turn to Christianity in the hope that the institutional church will stand between them and an oppressive colonial state, while in Mission to Kala (1958) the tables are turned on a boy educated at a colonial secondary school. He discovers that his education has detached him from any context while his family has been educated into a culture which shapes their relationships, and satisfies both their material and spiritual needs.

Another novel which examines pre-colonial culture with respect is Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain (1975). Mungoshi is a Zimbabwean and this, his first novel, was written when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. By telling the story from differing points of view, Mungoshi is able to register something of the alienation of people under settler rule. At one extreme is the grandfather who is concerned only that his family remain faithful to tradition; at the other extreme his grandson Lucifer believes that personal fulfilment is possible for him only by going abroad. The novel is open-ended, refusing the dogmatism of cultural nationalism, while recognizing the danger to Africa's self-esteem if it looks at the West with uncritical admiration. Ayi Kwei Armah's Fragments (1970) develops this last idea. Ghanaian culture in this novel is a culture of dependency incapable of creating meaning in the lives of Ghanaians. The families in the novel are literally dependent on the ‘been-to’, the relative who has travelled to Europe or America, who will enrich his family with First World wealth.

An often repeated observation about colonial Africa is that women were doubly oppressed both as blacks and as women. This is largely confirmed by women writers. The Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi's powerful God Dies by the Nile (1974), written in Arabic, shows the local officials of a small Nile town despising the peasants but regarding young peasant girls as being at their disposal. These petty tyrants appropriate for themselves the authority which properly belongs to God. Only through the violence of an older woman is this blasphemous connection broken. Another ambitious feminist novel is Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (1988). Instead of taking women as a group, the novel traces the lives of five women who range from illiterate to highly educated and from marginalized peasant to a girl whose formative years have been spent in England. The novel shows that only when speaking on their own behalf will women escape both colonial and patriarchal control.

Several men have also written sympathetically about the condition of women in African countries. In Nuruddin Farah's Sardines (1981) the traditional subordination of Somali women to men echoes Somalia's political dictatorship which tries to impose conformity through terror. The cosmopolitan scepticism of the main woman character subverts the beliefs of cultural traditionalists, self-serving lackeys of the dictator, a naïve African-American and an Italian communist, the last two claiming that the regime represents whatever their different ideologies want Africa to mean. Farah seems to suggest that since both traditional clans and modern regimes are corrupt, the only collective from which people will derive strength is the western-type nuclear family.

African literature includes the work of many whites since whites have lived and written in South Africa for over three hundred years. Of all these books J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) may seem a curious choice since it is not set in any particular country or time. But this story of a magistrate serving his empire on its frontier is deeply informed by apartheid's use of terror and mind control to make groups of people, both white and black, play their allotted roles. The magistrate discovers that his passivity has made him a collaborator with evil, and so arbitrary is the designation ‘barbarian’ to describe people beyond the empire's frontier that by the end of the novel, the magistrate himself is a barbarian as far as the empire's police are concerned.

My final choice is again from Zimbabwe when it was still Rhodesia. Doris Lessing's African short stories, published in two volumes as Collected African Stories (1973), manage to show not only something of the racism of Rhodesian settler society, but also the diversity of the colonists. Despite the independence they showed in emigrating from England and South Africa, race inevitably became an issue for such people and they allowed themselves to be pressed into a racist conformity.

An entry of this length can only skim the surface of African literature in English, but will, I hope, convey something of the power and the variety with which the continent's writers speak about their own familiar realities.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction