The language of African literature

The language of African literature

The debate over the language of African literature has continued to generate significant interest ever since the emergence of African literary writing in European languages. This exciting debate on the most appropriate language of African literature continues to this day from the 1960’s.

When one looks at any given language in this world, one sees hundreds and thousands of years of experience. For instance, a farming community has an elaborate language that describes the seasons and crops. Their proverbs and idioms reflect that they are farmers.

A hunting community has a language dependent on the intricacies of animal life. The Eskimos who live in ice are said to have the largest varieties of words that refer to different forms of ice.
Therefore, when Sesotho, Puthi, Shona, Xhosa, Zulu etc are marginalised, it is the accumulated wisdom of these people on politics, agriculture, philosophy, and on living on the planet earth that die.

For instance, most African terms from Cape to Cairo are relational because Africans depend highly on kinship ties. It is said that in one African village, white travellers found one young African man with over fifty women because all his other brothers had gone hunting. The white travellers asked the one man in the village: ‘What are all these women to you?’ and he said, ‘They are my wives.’ On returning to the same village a month later, the white travellers found a different man who continued to say, ‘These are my wives.’ The white travellers went away thinking that there was promiscuity in this village! They didn’t know that in many African communities all the wives of one’s brothers are considered as one’s wives!

It follows that in many African communities, all the relatives of my mother are my mothers, regardless of their gender! My sister is father to my children, regardless of her being a woman! I refer to my wife’s sister as wife and not sister-in law because in Africa, she can never be my sister. I refer to my husband’s brother as husband and not brother-in-law because he can never be my brother. We also have no cousins but brothers and sisters. This is functional and that is why Africans inherit one another’s families at death.

That is why Frantz Fanon says: To speak a language is to take on a world. He also says that to speak a language is to assume a culture and to speak a language is to support the weight of a civilisation.
V I Lenin says that: “By virtue of its … social function, language is not and cannot be an independent realm; it is indissolubly linked with thought, social consciousness and objective reality … the needs of which language serves. Thought does not exist on its own, it is embodied … in language (language is the direct reality of thought).”

Language influences the way in which we perceive reality, evaluate it and conduct ourselves with respect to it. Speakers of different languages and cultures see the universe differently, evaluate it differently, and behave towards its reality differently. Language controls thought and action and speakers of different languages do not have the same worldview or perceive the same reality unless they have a similar culture or background.
Human beings are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. Suddenly with adoption of English at colonisation, some of your brothers and sisters become cousins and therefore strangers who cannot participate in certain family matters.

It is in this context that the debate on the appropriate language of African literature is interesting.
The African writers and critics who gathered at Makerere in Uganda in June 1962 at a conference called: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression” faced the fundamental question of determining who qualified as an African writer and what qualified as African writing.
Was African Literature only the literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or South of the Sahara, or just black Africa? Should African Literature be only literature in indigenous African languages or should it include literature in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?

A year later, a Nigerian critic, Obi Wali, writing in the famous essay “The Dead End of African Literature” Transition 10 said: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the conference … is that Af¬rican literature as now defined and understood leads nowhere.” He declared that the literature written in European languages did not qualify as African literature. He further pointed out that until African writers accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end.

Although Chinua Achebe countered Wali’s position, Ngugi WaThiongo embraced it, transforming the call for a return to African languages into a critical crusade that has lasted for more than three decades.
Achebe’s argument is as follows: “Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil, throw out the good with it.
One final point remains for me to make.

The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.”
“But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it. I hope, though, that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literature will flourish side by side with the national ones. For those of us who opt for English, there is much work ahead and much excitement.”

In this group, Achebe is closely supported by Wole Soyinka.
Ngugi is in Obi Wali’s group. He is one of the most influential writers in post-colonial Kenya. He played an important role in resisting the oppressions of the newly-formed Kenyan government. He wrote several prizewinning books including Weep Not, Child (1964), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1977), Devil on the Cross (1980).

In his book of essays called Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi describes the damaging effects of colonialism on African literature, education, and culture. Ngugi describes the conflict between the economic effects of imperialism, still present in Africa, and the need for economic and cultural independence for African people. Ngugi views language and literature as playing a central role in this struggle. He asserts that language is essential to people’s self-perception and to their view of the universe.

He laments that despite his former status as only a student with one major publication, at the time of the Makerere meeting, he was invited, while all the prominent Gikuyu writers were not. He describes the ways in which the colonial education system changed African perception of their language, and by extension, of themselves. He recounts the divide that he and other African children experienced between the languages of their home and the language of schooling. He retells his experiences of severe punishments that were inflicted on African children for speaking their native tongues in school. Some of the most brutal instances, which Ngugi recounts, include corporal punishment, humiliation, and fines.

As a result, Ngugi declared that he would return to writing only in Gikuyu. The debate raged over the elimination of English department from the university and its replacement by Literature department.
Achebe’s claims that he has inherited English and that he will make it carry his Ibo experience seem very practical as demonstrated by his Things Fall Apart. However, one realises that in this novel, Achebe is writing back, meaning that he is explaining African pride in English with Ibo expressions, proverbs and thought. His audience is apparently white. He is feeding and expanding English with Ibo and not returning anything to Ibo. Logically, that does not seem fair.

On the other hand, while Ngugi and Wali’s arguments are patriotic to Africa, they run into practical problems. Ngugi himself became well known through writing and publishing in English. It sounds unfair for him to ask others to stop doing what brought fame to him. It is interesting to note that since the declaration that he would only write in Gikuyu, Ngugi translates to English whatever he writes in Gikuyu and immediately having wider audiences.
So the debate continues…

Memory Chirere

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