Critic, please! Soyinka and his peers did not mislead Africa

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By Alexander Opicho

I enjoyed reading Tee Ngugi’s article published in the Saturday Nation of 11th November 2016. The author fiercely condemned African scholars in the generation of Wole Soyinka for having misled the continent of Africa through their irrelevant works of literature. Ngugi was reacting to Wolexit, a public declaration by Wole Soyinka that he would destroy his green card and exit or move out of America if Donald Trump won the presidential election. The writer looked at this as a shitty, thoughtless act that does not help Africa by way of intellectual leadership.

Ngugi was partially right: Wolexit was supposed to have been perfected ten or even twenty years ago. But he was also mistaken; scholars in the Soyinka generation did not mislead Africa. Instead, the literary movement of Soyinka and his peers inspired Africa into the right intellectual and cultural direction.

Ngugi used Okot P’ Bitek’s Song of Lawino as an example of books that misled Africa by only perpetrating out-dated and archaic cultures. It was a point he did not exhaust but still, he would have not got it right had he dealt thoroughly with it.

The fact is that one would be hard pressed to find an African writer from the Soyinka generation that can be pointed out as a literary sham or a conceited intellectual misleading the continent and its residents. Tee’s example of Song of Lawino was just a literary subtlety. The mind and style of writing in the Song of Lawino was expected of any conscious writer from a post-colonial world.

P’ Bitek wrote more other formidable books apart such as Song of Malaya to decry the cult of political assassination in Africa – this was his literary reaction to the death of Tom Mboya. He also criticised dictatorship and political buffoonery like that in the example of Id Amin Dada in the Song of a soldier. P’ Bitek attacked crude African cultures like the oppressive dowry system among the Acholi in his White Teeth, and cautioned and questioned the relevance of imperial religions like Islam and Christianity to Africa in his collection of essays under the title Artist the Ruler, which also shares philosophical and intellectual themes with his other work of essays under the title African Cultural Revolution.

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses at his home as he reflects on his works and life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses at his home as he reflects on his works and life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

In all of these works, I have not seen an instance where P’Bitek attempts to mislead Africa other than his palpable tireless efforts towards sensitisation of an African reader to self-esteem, cultural dignity, and intellectual well as ideological decolonisation.

I also encourage Ngugi to read two of Achebe’s books – Troubles with Nigeria and The Education of a British Protected Child. Why these two in particular? Because they are written by a contemporary of Soyinka – Soyinka and Achebe are members of the generation Tee condemns as dis-educators of Africa. Besides, they are the simplest works by Achebe – anyone can understand them.

In Troubles with Nigeria, Achebe gives very practical solutions to Africa’s social problems, like political corruption, tribalism, injustice, the cult of mediocrity and other pertinent social challenges to Africa, such as what needs to be the nature of true patriotism. Even when he dealt with the Igbo question in the Troubles with Nigeria and the Biafra question in The Education of a British Protected Child, he remained intellectually objective to a standard that conforms to technicalities of nationalism as a fact of politics and statehood.

The Soyinka generation of writers was made up of men and women who attended The First International Literary and Cultural Conference at Makerere in 1962. Among them was Langston Hughes, Ngugi wa Thing’o, Achebe, Soyinka, Taban Lo Liyong, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Micere Mugo, Nadine Gordimer and very many others. They have all written in support of good governance in Africa, decolonising the mind and sources of knowledge, linguistic freedom, ideology and liberation politics, gender and human dignity, religion, and cultural dignity, among many other questions that affect social, technological and political spaces of Africa.

For example, Langston Hughes remained avuncular to African literature and politics of African nationalism throughout his life. He wrote against slavery, racism, auto-racism and colonial brutality. One easily affirms his service to Africa’s struggle and service all those oppressed by forces of capital as employed by those suffering from colonial paranoia – I suggest a reading of his poem the Negro Mother.

I agree with Ngugi that when writing to be published by Western publishers, one is forced to write about cosmetic and extra-ordinary ideas in order to be accepted. This has been evidently seen in the position of the London based Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s attack on African writers as victims of memories of sorrow, pain, suffering and regret. These are the same economic forces that have made Binyavanga Wainaina to dwell on homosexuality in most of his writings not for anything else, but for the sake of winning the western audience.

Unfortunately, homosexuality and the social rights of the sexual minorities are not the most urgent or imperative question for Africans. They are such non-issue themes in the current writings from Africa that they send most of us to go back to Soyinka and his contemporaries for serious literature. The literature Ngugi trashes is the same one that had Soyinka and Ngugi detained, caused Alex La Guma and Mphahlele to be banished from their countries, and P’Bitek to be fired from his government job.

It is also the literature and revolutionary intellect observed in the works of Abdalla Abdallatif, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Ali Mazrui, Samir Amir, Amilcar Cabral and Julius Nyerere. It is the very same sensitive and pertinent literature, such as that evinced in Soyinka’s Season of Anomie, a book that gave a clear diagnosis of Africa’s post-colonial problem of political paralysis, in the same measure as wa Thiong’o has analysed Africa’s cult of dictatorship among both the oppressor and the oppressed in the Wizard of the Crow. What, pray tell, is misleading in these works of literature? ^

Writer commentates on social issues

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