Culture and Lifestyle

Africans Must Hold Fast to Their Voices

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Nzube Nlebedim

One wouldn’t be denying the truth that being a dedicated Africanist and African writer is a privilege. And it sure has its perks, the major one of which is the pleasure you get from promoting in your own way, the voices from your home. It’s an exciting and heady feeling to spill your creativity in the warmth and freedom only home offers. There is a freedom that comes from being able to soar in spaces known to you, your wings being carried by the same air you breathe. It is the freedom that comes from writing about the people and events you see every day or have witnessed when you lived here. It is the freedom a proper Lagosian in Nigeria or Ghanaian feels writing of the aromatic flavours of ewa agoyin and kenke, agbo or akpeteshi than of burgers in MacDonalds and coffee from Starbucks. There is the need to reiterate that African writers think about the beauty of home, because home is a beautiful place. What is better than thinking about home than writing about it?

One wouldn’t also deny the obvious truth that is evident in our habit of promoting African literature. In holding on to one, we usually neglect, quite naturally, the beauty entrenched in other literatures of the world. In a sense, you would have once or twice been labelled as an adherent of literary bigotry and prejudice. I’m a member of this quasi-minority party. Many would ask what is the use of art when it is limited to a particular continent. Indeed, literature, and art in general, is a monolithic structure that should not be broken into continental divides. However, ‘what is the use of art if it doesn’t speak of its own experience?’

Literature, like language, exists within the society that produces it. Oral literature, myths, rituals and dances all join to build the tapestry of the literature of a society. What, is the benefit of literature when it doesn’t speak of its creators? Would it not be problematic to bring in a stranger into our own ilo to play the ogene they never knew, to soothe ancestral masquerades of whose powers they have never heard about? We believe no one would be able to tell our stories better than us. We are the only ones privy to the keys of our broken pipe, and we know the ways around it to produce great music.

Can we be literary ‘racists’ ? What constitutes the laws that proposed an artist should be only one of the two; of the world or of his own people? What law prescribed that we cannot be on both sides and yet lean more heavily to our own voice? Where was it written? The artist is empowered to tap into the resources of the world in his works, but he or she is let off in his choice on how he wants his stories to be told, of who or what he wants to tell his story.

It disturbs my being when African writers, preservers of their people’s culture, find it difficult to love African writers. Rather, many which I know quite personally, feel safer with the words of Chase, Rowlings, Sheldon, Clarke, and others who, in many cases, know little or nothing about our own culture. While I feel, on one hand, that it is not in my place to choose what literature a person should naturally enjoy, I feel it’s in my place to express the need for us to do better as writers from Africa. Chinua Achebe, in his 2012 book, There was a Country, stated directly, and I paraphrase; that as writers, African writers as it were, our job is not to be standoffish and aloof to the problems of our people, but to be active participants in it. The African writer is identified as a torch bearer for his people. He or she should be a nationalist who should not stand on the sidelines of his people’s problems, but to address it by entering headlong. Achebe further advises that this is not the time to talk about flowers and rocks and love and all, but the moment to address serious issues.

I personally respect African writers. I see them as preachers of a gospel many are scared to engage. The African story must be told. The African writer’s decision to not talk about the problems of his people is an internal problem; a problem of self. Our story has long been kept in the dark, and our people are afraid to tell it. It’s amazing that while we are afraid to speak of the demons we know right in our own evil forests; we feel comfortable in describing the feel of a MacDonald burger. What has blurred the vision of the African writer to his own story? What has stolen our voices? The answers can be found quite easily these days, and I daresay they are answers that are quick to see. An investigation of the psychology of the African reveals a disgusting plethora of truths.

The African story has long been darkened and almost demonized. Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, opens further these startling revelations when the protagonist herself, Pecola Breedlove, experiences the ugly black and white relationship in 1941 America. With the recent global outburst of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement and other racial derivatives, such as ‘Asian Lives Matter,’  ‘Jewish Lives Matter,’  which arose quickly by the brutal killing of fourty-six-year-old George Floyd by three policemen in Minneapolis, United State of America. The revelations raised by the killing of George Floyd has opened ancient wounds concerning race, slavery, lack of equal opportunities, discrimination and developmental segregation. However, to state clearly that this is a white-black problem would be understating the point here. The evil of racism has transcended white-black relations. It is no longer a problem of blacks and whites and the usual racist dynamics. The problem has ceased to become an issue of colour bars, it has now become somewhat familial, and internal. In Richard Wright’s 1968 novel, Native Son and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1976 protest play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, we are indeed appalled to experience black inhumanity to black, or at least black disbelief in the worth of their fellow blacks. For instance, in Wright’s novel, Bigger Thomas’s relations with his “black clique” made up of Gus and the other young folks, and his relation with the older Daltons blurs the line between this black and white reality. The psychology of many blacks has been tuned to filtering between shades of black. Black is not black anymore. We’d be damned to believe there is only one shade of black. Comparing the blackness and social realities of George Floyd, a black American living in America and the blackness of a Nigerian living in Nigeria would be understating the problem.

It’s a sad reality that many blacks have become ‘white’ in the mind. It is a shame in the first place that I allude to racist tendencies in my description of white. In the first sense, there should be no white or black, but one people, one human group. However, that would be retracting the clear racial realities. Even in Nigeria, there’s the evident shades of  ‘racism’  which many choose to call it  ‘ethnicism.’  In order to resolve the white-black problem, each racial group must come to terms with their unique racial and cultural differences. If we must accept racial divides, there should be no middle grounds. Ibrahim Xolani Kendi in his 2019 autobiography, How to be an Antiracist, proposes that we can only be either racists or antiracists. We cannot be both. I believe that if there must be a need for a double standard, there must be a corresponding degree of absoluteness. This is what accounts for the fact that after the death of Floyd, following world-wide protests, many African nations and African organizations never took a stand against Floyd’s killing. Save a mumble here and a grumble there, there was not any extensive, definite, aggressive stand taken by African communities outside America to condemn the Minneapolis tragedy. Even the African judicial system itself seems to be having a field day over the death of a fellow brother who lost his life to racially-spurred police brutality.

There seems to be an odd reversal at play. We never take ourselves too seriously when we should, and when we shouldn’t make any move to address issues, we come up with set plans all ready to misplace priorities. It all boils down to our impression of ourselves and in the quality and worth of our humanity. The average African sees himself only in the light of how he is viewed by the West. The average writer judges himself based on the criteria laid by Europe and America. We view ourselves only in the way the whites see us, all because we have been taught to believe that they are the signpost of rightness and flawlessness. For instance, we debunk our age-long religions to take on the belief systems brought by the West. Unfortunately, we have been made to believe that Christianity is the only way to God; and anyone is free to offer a rebuttal here. We have embraced religion, while we neglect the content of our hearts, which is the primary purpose of our faith. We forget that Christianity is not salvation. We forget that it is simply a religion, pointing the way of its adherents to their individual salvations. We need, in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s words, “A decolonization of our minds,” and not be clouded and deluded by baseless, simplistic spirituality.

We must understand that by our actions and inactions, we only testify to the quite obvious truth that colonialism never really ended with the departure of the colonisers. Colonialism lives still in the hearts of many. We have become willing slaves, mental puppets, dancing to the tunes of an unknown visitor. This explains why in these times, writers treasure the Pulitzers and Nobel prizes in literature far above our indigenous literary prizes and honours. We no longer see the worth of our craft until it is vetted, acknowledged and praised by the West. Even in our music, we imagine an album would be great because our own artist featured a  ‘white’  counterpart.  To us, whiteness has become the golden symbol of high achievements. What is deeply sad is that the West is fully aware of this mental frame. They exploit this knowledge in the best ways they can.  ‘White’  rice equals better rice,  ‘white’  soaps equal better soaps,  ‘white’  lotions equal better skin,  ‘white’  movies equal better movies and beat off our home videos;  ‘white’  schools have become the best ones for us. ‘White’  and  ‘West’  have become paragons of superiority, excellence and class. This plays out a nauseating continuity.

The African languages have not been left out of this abnormality. Europe and America have not ceased in their linguistic efforts to dominate African societies in the 19th to 20th century but to foreground their powers after independence. There seems to be a linguistic imposition by the West in order to weaponize the language to win political and economic laurels for themselves. The English language is possibly the greatest, widely spoken and accepted language of the world with a linguistic system which I use. I do not regret I studied the language in the university. Any trained linguist is very aware of the relevance and the currency of the English language. So, it would be almost slavish and illogical of me to state that the English language should be taken off as the language of global communication. However, following Ngugi’s arguments in his 1986 book, Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, and of course going by his motivation for writing the book, we have little choice but raise our eyebrows when  foreign students in some universities and colleges in Europe and America are prohibited from speaking their native languages in formal gatherings. In some schools, it is written down as a law for non-English students to stick to the English language. If all languages, truly, are equal, what judicial wand has been waved to compel English to be more equal than others? This is a question we need to ask. It only goes to subjugate another language when a speaker of Igbo is derided because they cannot speak the English language. It leaves me to wonder when language became a yardstick to judge intelligence.

We are therefore stuck in quick sand, or so it seems. Or are we simply willing slaves to a now unwilling master? We now appear to be our own colonizers, the puppets pulling the same strings once held by our colonizers. This was Chinweizu Jaime’s stance in his 1983 book, Towards the Decolonization of African Literature. Africans need to be set free, and also set themselves free, from the cultural, linguistic and creative limitations that once stood as the rule. We need to set off the garments put on us by Western literary and political propaganda.

We have the English language as a gift for our creative expression. I mean, it is the world’s most spoken language, and if you understand global economics, you will understand the need to write with the language. But then, should it be seen as the landmark of great writing? In any case, there is the need for the African writer today to express himself in the language that suits him, and when he does this, let it be without fear or favour. Of all things, language has no hold on the will of art to thrive. And this is my singular grouse, and at the same time, praise with Amos Tutuola’s novel, The Palmwine Drinkard. Perhaps, Tutuola’s book would have made a more outstanding progress had it been first published in the author’s mother tongue, Yoruba. I praise D.O Fagunwa’s 1938 work, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, later translated by Wole Soyinka in 1968, for writing it and published it in Yoruba.

While we understand the place of the rules placed on us, Africans cannot afford to be afraid to explore the world beyond their chains. It’s time that African creatives rise up to the task of engaging the world they know and the world they were born into. While, once again, it’s not in my place to be prescriptive, I can’t help but feel bothered. My bother stems from hearing writers and creatives worth some onions making bold to write about a world they have never lived in; about people they have never met. What is the sense in writing odes to snow you have never touched when we can as well sing to the skies, oriki to the Harmattan? What is the worth of being African when Ogun, Amadioha and Yemoja remain veiled in the dark crypts of your creation? African writers are to push forward the gospel of our own stories. While I would commend Taiye Selasi’s propagation of the Afropolitanist doctrine with its advocacy that Africans and African writers are citizens of the world, I must also reiterate the need for writers to give greater thought to the development of our own unique stories. We must be intentional about our people, and we must write about our realities in our works from every corner of the world, and in whatever language of the world we choose to use.

African writing should become a testimony to the boldness and creative maturity of the African. We must begin to hold our voices with a deeper certainty to speak of the ills of the world. We must take the time to catalogue our own stories to present our timeless effort at growing.

In a phonology class in Level 3, about three years ago in 2017, while I listened to Professor V.O. Awonusi’s lecture on Intonation, I grew livid and was compelled to pose a question to him in the 200-plus-man class. It was more of a challenge to him than an actual inquest. I still fail to tell where the bravery came from.

‘Do we have to use this when we speak?’

He was silent a moment before he replied. I cannot readily remember his retort, but I was glad it was not a confrontational encounter that day. I believe he got my point. If I could risk forfeiting a good grade in the course, I would have told him this: every geography in the world is blessed with its own peculiarities and impediments, and these differences define their uniqueness. Every nation is unique in its own ways. It is in our peculiarities that our beauty lies. This cannot and should not be changed.

I would relate this to language. My conviction is simple. In my opinion, and I believe others, too, it would be disrespectful and over assuming to attempt to impose the accent of the British or American, as the case may be, on us Africans. We are bound to the British only by linguistic and cultural ties such as in their ways of eating, dressing, among others. However, we are Africans, bound by the same ancestral blood, pain, colonial torture and exploitation; slavery and oppression. I could recommend that Africans ‘swap’ accents on an annual schedule. To the English are we bound by a history of colonialism only with its several exploitative angles. It is disheartening that a host of Nigerians, Angolans, Ghanaians, Zimbabweans, have not yet accepted this reality. Sadly, we are still bound to the past, Ghana to 1957, Nigeria to 1960. It is rather unfortunate that we have begun to believe that the accent of the British is superior to that of Nigerians. I would not be myopic, anyway, to ignore the fact that this nuance is borne out of the age-long colonial ‘supremacy’ that has now become ingrained in the fabric of our existence.

I taught English phonetics and grammar in schools for more than five years. I hope to one day teach Igbo Grammar, too. I’m proud that the Igbo language is beginning to gain access into distant territories outside the Nigerian shores. In one of those schools, the teachers were wont to teaching their pupils the doctrine of speaking like the Englishman! It particularly irked me when they recited the national anthem, punctuating every word with needless stresses, their young, impressionable voices breathing a corruption of the English tongue!

The one thing I would not fail to tell my introductory classes right in front of those same teachers, in my usual revolutionary manner, was this:

‘I would teach you how to pronounce these words correctly. But you must speak with the accent you were born with. The greatest African men and women did not take on the accents of the English but stuck to their own, only stealing their words. You are African, not English, not American. Speak with your accent and not that of a stranger!’  I hope they listened to the last part.

Africa’s literary leadership, African writers and indeed the entirety of the African race must step up to a beckoning reality. While the obligation rests on the African governments to ensure that our products–literary, commercial, social, and others, come up to par as much as possible with those from our foreign counterparts, our creatives must make our literary output better. Many are doing so. However, there is greater work to do.

One slice of interest for me is in translations and transliterations. How eager is the literary writer to use speech nuances that are only native to his tribe? How does the writer use his English words? Does he, like Achebe posits, dip his words in the oil of proverbs and the mythoi of his race? Our writers should promote more of their languages in their novels, plays and poems. Literature allows for such practices. We are allowed to bend the language into our own, domesticate it and nativise it so much so that it reads like the author’s deviant tongue. How much are we willing as writers to let foreign readers of our works go the extra mile to find out the meaning of the words we use? The big question begging for an answer is, really, how many African writers are willing to write in their local languages now? Save the pioneers of the practice such as Pita Nwana who kicked off the Igbo novel, D.O Fagunwa who wrote in Yoruba, Ngugi wa Thiong’o who started writing initially in Gikuyu, and a few others, how many more writers would dare to write a novel in Hausa? It was a big sacrifice that these writers had to pay in the form of relatively low sales of their books, but in the end, it is a sacrifice which if generally taken up by our new, budding writers, would yield great fruits in the long run. The African writer must begin to hold fast and true to his voice. In the end, our voices are the only weapons we have to peg down our realities.

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1 reply »

  1. It is high time the proponents of upholding the African voice stopped addressing us in anglicised voices by taking the pain of promoting and imposing the African voice the way their white counterparts did and still do through politics, trade, technology and perhaps colonization.

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