Say What! Where are the Black writers from Portuguese Africa?

By Yovanka Paquete Perdigao

Known writers of Lusophone Africa tend to be descendants of white Portuguese who settled during the eve of colonialism. Their contributions to Lusophone literature, is only matched by their commitment to the anti-colonial struggles. The father of Angolan literature Pepetela, born in Benguela 1941, fought as a member of MPLA and wrote extensively on Angola’s political history. Mia Couto from Mozambique, the runner up for the Man Booker International Prize this year, is known to have suspended his studies to join the ranks of Frelimo during the liberation struggles, as a journalist for the newspaper “Tribuna” in 1974. His book Sleepwalking Land brilliantly explores the Mozambican consciousness in the aftermath of the civil war (1977).

What about Black writers?

Within popular African literature, Afro -Lusophone voices are largely marginalized and predominantly featured within the genre of poetry, which is perhaps indicative of the violent colonial struggles in Portuguese colonies. Works from that period often exalt Africa, lust after the lands that gave birth to the fathers of independence, or highlight the disturbing legacy of Portuguese colonialism. For example, Alda Espírito Santo, one of the outstanding female poets produced by Lusophone Africa, was an activist for the independence movement of her country, São Tomé e Príncipe, and also served in several high offices in the post-colonial government. Another noteworthy poet with international acclaim, Agostinho Neto- Angola’s first president- is famed to have published 3 books of poetry in his youth.

Although, one can also find an abundance of prose fiction writers of African descent, they remain largely unknown and inaccessible to the general public especially outside of Lusophone Africa. Take Abdulai Silá from Guinea-Bissau, whose novel Eterna Paixão (Eternal Passion) was the first to be written and published in Guinea-Bissau. It touched on several socio-economic issues and was critical of Guinea Bissau’s political situation. Other Black novelists worth mentioning are Sousa Jamba and Ondjaki from Angola.

Sousa Jamba was forced to flee Angola after violence engulfed the country right after its independence in 1975. Drawing on his experience of losing his family and living as a refugee in Zambia, the autobiographical novel Patriotas (Patriots) was critically received both in Angola and internationally. Ndalu de Almeida, better known by his pen name Ondjaki published in 2001 his hilarious childhood memoir Bom dia camaradas (Good Morning, Comrades), depicting 80’s Angola . Ondjaki was also one of the young writers (aged under 40) who was chosen from sub-Saharan Africa as part of the Hay Festival’s Africa39 project.

Portuguese Africa also produced incredible black & female novelists. Orlanda Amarílis remains indisputably one of Cape Verde’s most talented writers. Amarílis began writing and working for the Cape Verdean magazine Certeza in 1944. Her many short stories were featured on various Cape Verdean literature anthologies. Her writing often focused on the lives of Cape Verdean women, as well as the experience of the Cape Verdean diaspora. Another worthy Black female writer, Paulina “Poulli” Chiziane from Mozambique was the first woman in her country to publish a novel. Not only that, her writing has ignited intense debate on social issues such as the practice of polygamy in Mozambique; explored in her first novel Balada do Amor ao Vento (Love Ballad to the Wind) published in 1990.

Why you haven’t heard these names?

A few possible factors must be considered as to why Black Lusophone writers and their works are not as widely accessible as other works from other parts of Africa. Language has also been a major obstacle for Lusophone writers. Given that English is the lingua franca of this world, it is very difficult for Lusophone writers to achieve global exposure unless their works are translated from Portuguese into English.

Portuguese colonialism also neglected the educational development of its colonies. For decades, education has remained something only reserved for the “assimilados”, thus institutions that could have fostered the growth of black writers were minimal. One must also bear in mind the devastating legacy of colonialism, seen through the regimes of post-independence violence across Lusophone Africa. In fact out of the five Lusophone countries, only Cape Verde did not suffer from political conflicts- post independence. However there is a glimmer of hope as younger generation of writers that have lived through wars and violence, construct their own narratives.

Yovanka Paquete Perdigao is a writer and Commuications and Marketing Manager at Royal African Society.

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