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.
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
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,
Azuike, McPherson ‘Unpublished Interview with Su’eddie Agema.’ University of Jos, Plateau State: 20th
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
Su’eddie Agema, writer and critic, is a graduate of English at the Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria