Why African Literature: In Search of the Self.

By Henry Brefo

Credit: John-Mark Kuznietsov

My journey towards African literature began with; Homer, Shakespeare Kipling, Conrad, Hemingway and Naipaul. From their works, I found disturbing depictions of Africa and African people. Yet in fitting with the hegemonic cultural trends of my age, I doggedly charted along the English literary canons, hoping to earn the mark of a literary esthete. I learnt of the magnificence of Greek civilisation; arts, politics and science, perused the brilliance and fragility of the Roman Empire and pathologically admired the ‘civilised’ callousness of western powers, especially in the fervent days of colonialism. Contrary to my own lived experiences, I still considered Africa as a ‘dark continent’. However, a fortuitous encounter with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart changed my perception of Africa.

Things Fall Apart opened up to me a distant chapter in Africa’s historical memory. In the elegance and eloquence of rich proverbs, Achebe initiated me into Africa’s ancient philosophical traditions and civilizational values. It also brought to the fore a world civilised in its human relations, regale in customs and reverent to the sacred.  After Things Fall Apart I thirst for more of what Africa could offer in the form of literature. I washed down the remaining works of Achebe’s trilogy with restless dissatisfaction; No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God. I swiftly proceeded onto the works of other splendid writers of African literature; Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Flora Nwapa, Bessie Head and Buchi Emecheta.

Nevertheless, it was in my early twenties that I discovered that interred in the unbridled lyricism, obscene wit and elegant proses of African literature laid a rich cultural heritage of being and belonging. The twenties was truly a precarious juncture in my life. It was also the age of consciousness. For instance, the question ‘who am I’ rapidly sieved into my consciousness in search of some existential or profound truth. Through the recommendation of a friend I found myself in the company of an extraordinary writer, who gave prominence to the individual self as oppose to the social self. In the evocative works of Marechera Dambudzo (The House of Hunger, Scrapiron, and Mind Blast), along with its visceral cries of dissent often expressed through a disquieting stream of consciousness, I was instructed to embrace my difference and not to completely surrender myself to presiding social norms and expectations.

In a similar vein, the constellation of emerging and contemporary African writers that constitute ‘the new writing genre’; e.g. Chimamanda Adichie, Tendai Huchu, Binyivanga Wainaina, Chinelo Okparanta and Alain Mabanckou reinforced my sense of individuality. Their efforts to tell the story of African people with true grit and plucky imagination inspired me to critically examine negative notions and deplorable depictions of Africa. For in their stories, I found the African humanised and his/ her experiences dignified.

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