COMMITMENT AND THE LANGUAGE OF AFRICAN LITERATURE


By Su’eddie Agema

Commitment is the essence of African literature. Well, with most of the evolution going on these days with more recent writers, some might find this arguable. The focus of this discourse is not to fight that argument out. At least, not for now.

The Chiefs and title holders of this great literature have severally dictated that doing otherwise would be foolish. Chinua Achebe has continued to state that “Art is, and always was, in the service of man” (MYOCD 19). Ama Ata Aidoo also put it that she could not write about lovers in Accra due to the presence of several problems in her country: “I cannot see myself writing about lovers in Accra because you see, there are so many other problems…” (19). Putting these two statements together, one can understand how deep commitment lies in African writings. This is probably part of Angmor’s declaration that “Africans cannot afford the luxury of literature as a recondite art” (182). Azuike pushes it further by saying writers in Africa have a duty to our society to address issues instead of indulging in the luxury of the aesthetics (n.p).

This commitment was first shown in the reclamation of past heritages but now, it has shifted to showing the evils of today’s society among other issues. Asomba in exploration of this says that “Having criticised in their writings the evils of colonialism, they [African writers] now look around and try to highlight both the virtues and the evils of their present societies and to point the way to the future” (3). In all these ways though, African writers always try to show a dedication to their roots which is manifest in their writings. Their commitment is so much that even the words and language used in writing bears the trademark of dedication. Whether in strict native narratives or narratives rendered in indigenous alien languages, there is a great effort at showing, or rather, writing in a unique style. Years ago, the heat started with the two big Chiefs of the Black (in all senses of the word, and yes, pun intended) literature, Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o leading two divides on the issue of language. Ngugi stipulated writing in African languages strictly so as to write for an African audience. He felt angry at the imperial or colonial languages being used in the discourse of African languages and chided Gabriel Okara for writing in English (in ‘The Language of African Literature’ and Decolonising the Mind). Asked for a solution to making works available to a wider audience that African languages could not do, Ngugi suggests the use of translation (Jussawala and Dasenbrock 30, 40-41). Moses Tsenôngu’s Sun the Male Born, Moon the Female (a collection of poetry) that presents poems written in English side by side with their Tiv versions remains my best example of a neutral work on the language front. However, the majority of African writers write in colonial languages, bending it to the whims of local African languages by infusing in it among others, local idioms, proverbs and making use of untranslated words (duplomacy). They employ abrogation which is the denial of the rights of any standard Imperial language and seize it in a process called appropriation.

In this way, one notices that picking any work written by most Africans would present a narrative embedded with a native colouration made perfect by language. According to Ajima, these writers want to “show that they have cut their apron string from their colonial fathers and it is by focusing on using their native words, local idioms” (n.p). Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus for instance shows a list of several untranslated words like ke kwanu? instead of the English ‘How are you?’, nne instead of ‘mother’, biko instead of ‘please’, and ka o di in place of ‘good bye’. There exist alternates here but the author deliberately uses the Igbo words. In Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe, we see the use of such words as ozo, and chi in addition to the several other local names that are ascribed the characters like Ikem and Amaechina. There are songs that are completely in Igbo that all point out to the linguistic ‘Africanness’ that Achebe tries to portray. All these are ways in which language is immediately seen to be African. However in Achebe’s case, one notices that there is no alternate in English and so he has to import the terms in their direct form from their source. Then, there is the use of pidgin inherent in several African works. We see a ready example in Soyinka’s The Interpreters where one notices a large dose of it. For example “Oga, na dese foolish firms o. Na today I take dis car comot for service…” (109). Achebe says that this use should be encouraged as they portray society as they are. He wonders why people should be so frightened of letting things that happen in real life happen in literature (Jussawala and Dasenbrock 73).

In the long run, one gets to discover that the use of all these devices tend to make the imperialist languages to bear the burden of the local culture. One remembers Obu Udeozo’s words that “The English language facilitates…creativity impelled by the phantasmagoria of…native idiom. As an African, I endeavour to tame the English language and put it in my pocket; and use it when I must;…” (21). Quite true of most African writers. Mercifully, new age calls in the kill of the fight of a tongue with which to speak…

Thus, one discovers that whether an African work is written in strictly an African language or depicted in an alien tongue, there is no doubt of the commitment inherent in the penning down of the story that bestows on and in it the power of a unique literature that translates in the clearest of terms, the life and culture of a unique people, Africans.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah Ibadan: Heinemann, 1987.

Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd,

1975. (Rpt 1982)

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi Purple Hibiscus Lagos: Farafina, 2006.

Aidoo, Ama Ata. ‘Interview with Maxine McGregor’ in African Writers Talking. Eds. Dennis

Duerden and Cosmos Piertse. London: Heinemann, 1972.

Ajima, Maria ‘Unpublished Interview with Su’eddie Agema.’ Benue State University, Makurdi: 17th

December, 2008

Angmor, Charles ‘The Critical Voice in African Literature’ in Critical Theory and African Literature. Ed.

Ernest Emenyonu. Ibadan: Heinemann Ed. Books (Ng) Ltd., 1987.

Asomba, Benjamin Onwuamaeze. The Heritage of Black Literature. Lagos: Pumark Nigeria Ltd,

2001.

Azuike, McPherson ‘Unpublished Interview with Su’eddie Agema.’ University of Jos, Plateau State: 20th

November, 2008.

Jussawalla, Feroza and Reed Way Dasenbrock. Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial

World. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Soyinka, Wole. The Interpreters. Heinemann, 1962.

Udeozo, Obu. Achieving National and Global Peace Through English Language and Literature.

Jos: Fab Educational Books, 2008.

wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.

Kenya: Heinemann, 1986.

wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. ‘The Language of African Literature’ in African Literature: An Anthology of

Criticism and Theory. Eds. Olaniyan, Tejumola, and Ato Quayson. Malden: Blackwell

Publishing, 2007.

Su’eddie Agema, writer and critic, is a graduate of English at the Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria

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24 thoughts on “COMMITMENT AND THE LANGUAGE OF AFRICAN LITERATURE

  1. Obviously,African literature has suffered from what African critics call “linguistic impurity”.Language,better still the problem of the definition of African literature has always been the pressing question which is always asked in regards African literature.African literature suffers from the problem of identity.Content wise, it can be seen that any work of art that encapsulates the African experience is African , though written in foreign language(form).

    Caleb Adoh
    Dept. of English
    University of Lagos

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    • I think your words truly capture most of it, Caleb. Strange that now some people who are not African can capture our experience… Good. Some times, we carry our literature to exceed that of our African experience. African writers writing whether of our own experience or feeling foreign also get that tag… But oh well, isn’t that just the whole deal? 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts Caleb.

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  2. Because language carries cultures and cultures explain the human’s experiences through which life span is Identified. Then how could we deny the truth that, if we are not going to use our own languages to define about African Literature we are deceiving ourselves that we have our African Lit. While not?I’m in much confussion with this, please! Make me clear through this e-mail. From UDOM-TZ.

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  3. Interesting analysis. Controversial too. African languages were influenced deeply in their orthography by Europeans. Some also in content. These languages met others and became and the others met them and became. For example, Kiswahili if accepted as an African language is actually one that came from the Bantu languages, Arabic and Portuguese and etc influence. This is a respected and widely used and studied language of Afrika. Kiswahili could also be called a colonial language which we have somehow redeemed.. to own more closely. The other African language in any country have also been influenced by politics. Language is fluid and easy to influence. Sometimes voters for one president speak a specific tongue. Now if African writers are committed to discussing social evils – though no one said you cannot discuss social evils through love stories.. re the book of Hosea the Prophet in the Bible for eg- are also political even when indirectly as are most writers everywhere. But the writer is not campaigning most of the time at least for this or that political party or person.. maybe for virtue and principles yes. So, if you have strong writers, nationally and internationally heard writing in their mother tongue and not translating immediately into other tongues spoken in their land, and if these writers happen to come from a majority group, the writer is seen to be only talking to his own ethnic group. What should we save here? What should we look at? Is it the physical language or the language in the content, meaning ideas? What can we do so that writers who own MT and write in it do not seem to be partial especially when they come from a majority group? It is terrible that we lost our languages partly but it would be a catastrophe to lose ties in our communities because we choose one language over the others.

    As for appropriation, I like it. There is no forgetting that our languages are dynamic and so is culture. OUr culture now is this mixed up situation and every writer has to choose the language they hear their story in?

    Africa has a huge problem getting publishing. If writers did not write in some languages like English, French and etc.. there would be no African lit to talk about. We if we want literatures in all our languages must wake up and start. Today it is not only the books that have influence. It is also the internet. Where are African languages .. I know Kiswahili is.. on the internet?

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  4. The issue of language and African literature should be handle with care. Africa is a land of many languages, so what can we do? If the language of our writings is not pure English, then we have a sense of direction, only that we don’t know how to get there!

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    • Indeed, I totally agree. However, it would seem that we have passed the stage of the language question now…Africa has found a way to tackle her language issues – mainly in translations or side by side things. Is it any wonder that the language question doesn’t carry too much dominance in discourse these days?
      It is only sad that most languages are dying these days as we have adopted the outside language (not just English but also French, Portuguese and the like). I think that the only thing we can smile at is that we have found a way to bend the languages to our whims and direct it in the way we desire (and aren’t our writers making us proud in that way)…
      Would love to discuss this with you and if you decide to follow up, let’s talk. Many thanks, S’

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  5. The issue of which language to be used in African literature is still a problem. We must use internation language which is known to many people.

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    • Well, I guess the issue of the debate on language use has really rested… or rather, it isn’t much of a topic these days. We seem to use the international languages more. I still think that a mixture of both would help. We can keep using our languages alongside translations like Tsenongu (quoted in the article).
      Well, things would get better – I hope. Thanks for dropping by Pius. Thanks.

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  6. The issues is, we African we hate our things and appreciate the abroad things. but we must understand that each one of us has his/her own native languages which can be used to present our literature, but if we want to wider it the translation can be used. from UOA-TZ

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    • Well said Marco…the love of everything else other than ours is something that most of us have had to grow out of. The audience factor is what has killed most of those who would rather have written in their languages… Well, guess we would have to continue trying like Tsenongu (discussed in the article). Thanks for stopping by. Best wishes…

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  7. Africans are vermin. They never had a written language in the first place. Africans were primitive when Europeans found them. There was no alphabet or books ever in Africa. It useless to speak about african literature written in African languages when they were never EVER written in the first place. They have no literary culture and therefore have to borrow literary languages (languages that have been written for hundreds or thousands of years ex french, english, portuguese, arabic)

    If africans wanted to write in their own useless languages then they should have started hundreds and thousands of years ago, not now, it is too late for the vermin race. European languages are better than oral vernacular language dialects that have no written history.

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    • Hullo Jacque, thanks for your thoughts.
      First, I don’t think Africans are vermin in any sense of the word. It is easy to think of a certain race as being superior especially when they have capitalised on the civilisations of others to reach the heights where they are. Still to call any names that are demeaning does not say well, at all.
      As humans, we all have our strengths, and yes, our weaknesses. It would help our world better if we respected each other and collaborated to be far better.
      Sometimes lack of information and experience on certain things can cause certain reactions – which is only natural.
      That said, you would be amazed at the history of Africans and all their literary traditions. You might have heard of the writing cultures of places like Egypt and yes, Timbuktu. Does that stand as something to talk about? In the Western dark ages, there was great light and flourishing in Africa. You might want to check on that too.
      Oral literature has brought so much and enriched life in ways you cannot near imagine. Several scholars would argue that certain Western interferences have destroyed a lot…
      But the argument is for far more than the sentiments that we are bringing 🙂 …
      Thank you for your feedback, Jacque. Best wishes.

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  8. Thanks to Su’eddie for this take, the question of language choice as regards African literature has toned down lately though the heated debates it attracted cannot be forgotten in a rush. Scholars such as Ngugi believes it is better to decolonize the mind by portraying Africanity in the use of language i.e. using African languages, but i feel Achebe takes a better turn when encourages hybridization process in the use of language, that is combining both African and the international languages since the audience are not only indigenes neither are they exclusively foreigners.

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    • Thank you Tijah! Yes, we seem to have long gone pass that talk… But somehow it still stays with us especially with diminishing and endangered languages. I guess that’s what the Ngugi group were arguing for. We sure pray things get better for us all. This piece is old itself but would soon be publishing something on the universalism of art as discussed by myself and a few friends on Benue ANA fora on FB. Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. Su’eddie I am simply telling the truth. There was never any written african language. Egyptians were not “African” in the sense a Bantu or Congolese or Kenyan is african. Timbuktu borrowed Arabic and Arabic script. The africans invented no written language, they borrowed everything.

    They write in English, French, Arabic, portuguese and that is the way it will always be for a continent with no literary and written history. The indigenous Africans will adapt to European languages and always will do so since they have no great literary histories. The facts are the facts, African literature will always be written in a european language.

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  10. it is true that Africans have not the same language that maybe used to unite them,therefore it is better to use foreign languages in writting African literary works so that to make majority of Africa get the messages.OK!!!!!!!!!!

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    • You couldn’t have said it better. Fortunately, we have our local colourations working to our favour such that no one can say purely that the language is alien… We have wrapped the language in the folds of our culture and given it new life. That, is something I deeply admire African writers for.
      Thanks for the time Mbusi. Gaston, yup, we ‘yah’ to him. 🙂

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  11. It is true that Africans have no single languge that unite them,it is better to use foreign languages in writing African literary works so that the majority may get messages easilly.OK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    • I couldn’t agree more. Still, there’s a lot we can – and should – do. We can develop our local languages too even as we worry about the number of people who would read. Truth is we are a sum total of our language, culture and tradition. What happens when we lose it all?

      *sigh

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