There are many reasons why Africa is fast becoming the envy of the world. Its rich culture, many languages, and diverse lifestyle of loud colours, and picture-perfect backdrops make it an attractive flame the world can’t resist being drawn to.
Yet, only a few decades ago, western literature such as Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad was one of the few voices Africa had to tell the world about its tales. He did a very poor job— as though depicting Africa as dull and without life wasn’t sufficient, Africa in his account had neither face nor soul. Africa was presented as, ‘the other world’ and the River Congo was described by such words as, ‘…going up the river was like traveling back to the earliest beginning of the world ‘.
Africa was just Africa. All its countries, unique and separate from each other, assumed the abused collective: Africa. The United Kingdom was described in much detail and the reader could tell when Scotland, Ireland or England was being referred to and yet the same reader would find no distinction between Nigeria and Kenya.
Ethiop and Nubian were terms used by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs to describe an Africa that was scary, unknown and uncivilized. They seem to be telling their readers, let’s talk about Africa from afar. We mustn’t get anywhere near it because we don’t want to get acquainted with it. And for a time, their voices were credible. People believed them.
Then out of nowhere, Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart emerged. It is not unintentional and farfetched that he’s regarded as the pioneer of African writing. This iconic book has been translated into more than 50 languages, well received around the globe, and forcing all mankind to rethink the tainted narratives they’d heard about Africa and Africans.
Even though it was published in Europe, the book gave the African, and collectively, Africa a voice, a face and a name. It gave Africa an identity the whole world could relate to. For the first time, the African was a person who had emotions and wanted things and wanted them in a particular way. He was intelligent, civilized, literate…, and so was Africa. Gradually, readers from around the world noticed that Africa possessed a depth that may be lacking elsewhere. They longed for more and sought intimacy with this former stranger called Africa.
But Chinua Achebe wasn’t done. His writings contained a cause and strove to bring awareness. Didn’t he himself say, ‘…here again I believe that something more willful than a mere lack of information was at work. For did not that erudite British historian and regius professor at Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper, also pronounce that African history did not exist?’
It was as though Chinua Achebe had given other African writers wings to fly…and they chose to take off from his shoulders. Authors like Nuriddin Farah, Aminatta Forna, Mariama Ba, Nadine Gordimer, Chimamanda Adichie, Ben Okorie also appeared on the scene with strong voices about war, politics, family life, and of course love.
The romance between Africa and the world suddenly became intense and the world clamors still for more of her. Would Chimamanda have been believable if she didn’t live with the ever-existing Nigerian idiosyncrasies of gender, the dynamic culture of the Igbo society, and the politics of her nation? Would Mariama’s narrative still have held that Africanness if her divorce, and being a mother of nine, weren’t commonplace issues peculiar to Nigeria?
In the same disposition, it was from a place of personal understanding that Ayi Kwei Armah, spoke clearly of Ghana, deftly describing its political frustrations, and not once did we feel it was a stranger abusing the pen. Who wouldn’t shed a tear with Aminatta Forna in the Devil that Danced on Water? She wrote of family, and the tragedy of living in Sierra Leone in a time of war and bad politics; and not once did we feel frazzled by the narratives unlike the ones the strangers disbursed to the world.
We journey through South Africa and discover a country so beautiful and rich in the very core of its soul, despite being ravaged over and over again by apartheid. To the reader, it seemed as though the more South Africa was wounded the stronger it became. Without Nadine Gordimer, Peter Abrahams and JM Coetzee, we would have continued to imagine it was a bare and unfruitful land where no one and nothing mattered.
My question therefore is, should only Africans write about Africa or would you prefer more Africans wrote about Africa?
Whatever your answer is, it is clear that Africa has assumed celebrity status, and any author who writes about her in a negative light may be accused of worse offence than mere ignorance or racism. The author may very well be convicted of an irredeemable crime which he may never recover from.