Who Named the Continent?

By Marcelle Mateki Akita

‘I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me’ – Kwame Nkrumah

There is no denying that when Africa is mentioned an image or sense of familiarity hits each and every one of us. Concerns towards the state of Africa transcend fixed geographical contours on the globe, stemming from various global constituencies; those associated with the continent by interest, birth or descent. When speaking of Africa, it is often personal and in fact affective.

It has always perplexed me that when we talk about Africa, within the diaspora, the pre-eminent focus is on leveraging countless business opportunities or corporate recruitments with the underlying impression that we (Africans living outside of Africa) should give back to the continent our “invaluable” tools and ideas because, for some narcissistic reason or the other, we in the West are the panacea for the political and social maladies ‘Back Home’. In as much as I find this propaganda warped, I can see that a similar impression has been pumped into the publishing industry as well as the global reception to literature by Africans today.

Let me divulge further, and before I do let me insert a precautionary disclaimer at this point. Firstly I am not against the encouragement of recruiting or advising Africans (particularly young Africans) to venture out into building a career back ‘home’ (which to most of the young population, the idea of home collates distant memories belonging to their parents). What I am disputing is the unhealthy breeding of lies that we are somehow better equipped than those who have schooled and trained in Africa. It is impossible to build healthy working relationships when approaching this decision with a superiority mindset. Who are we to know or even be better? Secondly, I am not an expert. Just putting it out there.

So how do we see this superiority approach within the African literary context?  Here are a few;

  • There is a divide in how African literature is conceived, there being the classics of (post-)colonial era and the present sudden outburst or ‘wave’ of African writers writing from the diaspora;
  • African written literature is highly esteemed and received only when produced in European languages, whereas those written in the mother-tongues either go unnoticed, are marginalized and less celebrated;
  • Our literature is secluded mainly to the medium of writing – but what about those which are performed? Told? Sung? Ululated?

This sudden craze around African ‘new writing’ propounds a believable lie that African literature has made a trendy niche appearance within the past decade. What about the 80’s and 90s? Even so, those writing from the diaspora are heavily criticised for not sounding authentic enough, not like those of Aidoo, Bâ, Thiong’o, Cawl. Recent interview by BBC Africa with Ama Ata Aidoo echoes popular misconception that the standard of written African literature in English today has fallen, that we have compromised (though Aidoo heartily disagrees – yes!). But isn’t the story told from London, Brussels, New York, Geneva a story of authenticity in itself? Why do we perpetuate the need of homogenising the African experience, which is what we have ironically been fighting against. In Brefo’s defence, he gives clear and inspiring examples of the writings we should be celebrating – yet there seems to be a generous and dangerous emphasis placed on stories coming from the diaspora since it garners more publicity.

In an ideal world, an equal emphasis would be placed on African writers, poets and performers all round, with illimitable accessibility to all, whilst not branding Western publishers’ interests as neo-colonialism (as suggested in a recent interview with Adichie), because we, the Africans, would have absolute control of the stories we tell. However, like I said, in an ideal world. It should be our mission as African readers and writers to have a holistic embrace of the literature- that goes beyond the confines of the diaspora- regardless of its mode of delivery

The face of African literature is as diversified as the continent itself. Africa is a mystic shelter we hide behind, and try to make it fit into our own opportunistic gains and philosophies but it is high time that we recognise that Africa will live beyond us, as it has done before us. Instead of thinking that the continent needs US, we should really reevaluate our mindset and recognise that we are the ones who need Africa.


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