Why African Literature: Navigating the Past

By Zaahida Nabagereka

Like many of you, my journey into African literature was painful and simultaneously liberating.  Painful in that it took too many years to be exposed to it, and liberating in that I had now found a huge part of what had been  missing.  I suppose Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is where I really started.

Things Fall Apart was the first book of African literature that I read. I remember being so stunned by the decision Okonkwo takes at the end of the book that I had to re-read the last few pages several times to be certain I had read them correctly. Realising I had, I proceeded to cry. Up until this point in my life I had mainly learnt about Africa through the semi-Afrocentric politics classes of my degree, which did not focus on the impact of colonisation on the individual – which is what struck me so much in Things Fall Apart.

Learning about important socio-political and historical events in Africa’s past through African literature has allowed me to be the judge of how I conceptualise ‘Africa’ as a continent. Realising that there is so much more to Africa’s history than invasion and conquest is one of the most valuable lessons African literature has taught me. But then again, the fact that there are many books that speak to the outrage and despair that invasion and conquest have caused is also reassuring to me. I sometimes wonder if I had been Okonkwo would I have made the same decision or acted differently.

Today I am not faced with anything like the same situation, but knowing that Western power structures still play a huge role in Africa, I feel that Okonkwo’s decision will be forever crystallised in my memory and is perhaps one of the most tragic tales of African experience.

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