Passionate Spaces : African Literature & the Hugh Webb
African Literature & the
In the beginning
One of the memorable passages in Ngugi's novel Weep Not, Child evokes the atmosphere and excitement of a strike-meeting held by Africans in Kenya.1 The meeting is projected as being part of the early agitation that eventually flared into the armed struggle called Mau Mau by those who opposed it. Ngugi shows Kiarie, an organiser from Nairobi, speaking to the crowd. He speaks in a low, sad voice. He speaks of justification ("why we must struggle") and of demands:
All the land belonged to the people - black people. They had been given it by God. For every race had their country. The Indians had India. Europeans had Europe. And Africans had Africa the land of the black people (p. 64).
As the applause gathers strength, Kiarie's re-telling of history continues. He tells of the Africans who were taken to fight Hitler. He tells of a man named Jomo, the Black Moses. He pleads that Africans must rise and shout that the time has come:
'"Let my People go. Let my People go!
We want back our land? Now!"' (p.65)
Despite the urgency of those demands, the speaker goes on to stress that this must be a peaceful strike. Peaceful or not, the twin demands of Uhuru are there plain to be heard: Freedom and Land. As Ngugi's story moves into the period of armed struggle, one finds the young central figure Njoroge trying to console his girl-friend (daughter of the local Home Guard chief). He cannot accept that life "will always be like this with blood flowing daily." Surely it will not always be so dark and terrifying.2 "Surely", says Njoroge, "there will be a sunny day, a warm sweet day after all this tribulation ..." (p. 121). To Kiarie's demands for freedom and land one can add, then, the prospect of a warm sweet day when the struggle will be over and justice will be done. The portrayed pattern of expectation is clear. Natural justice is seen to demand that the white man must go; the African must rule. Only then can the demands for freedom and land be met. Only then is there hope for the future - the two are seen to be inevitably linked together.
The euphoria and jubilation that surrounded the end of colonial rule has been symbolically located in the lowering of the alien flags. Mbella Sonne Dipoko, from the Cameroon, captures the significance of the event:
Never again will it rise
The old flag
Artificial rainbow that dried the sky of rain
Pompous drunkard draped in wind-borne colours.3
The 'artificial rainbow', token of colonial power, is hauled down. The significance of the event is made clear in a couplet from the same poem, "And the oppressed freed themselves/And the oppressors killed themselves." With the removal of the emblems of colonial dominance, the new symbols of African freedom, what the poet describes as the "Glory of our struggle/Dressed in the uniform of hope," are raised on high. The vaunting optimism of a liberated Africa, fed by a widespread feeling of release from oppression, is articulated in the literary response to Independence. The presumptions that underlie this optimism are these: the inbalance of colonial rule will be corrected, the African's lost (or robbed) humanity will be restored, things will be put right.
In William Conton's work entitled simply The African, one of the earlier novels of the modern period, one sees again this notion of a drive towards a new measure of self-respect and, significantly, a demand for respect from others.4 Kisimi Kamara is presented as a bright young man who has returned to his country after studies in England. He is determined to lead the push for Independence. Kamara is elected leader of the Party for Unity and Liberation (PUL) thus emerging, as a consequence, as the possible future Prime Minister. Apart from a concern with such matters as poverty and the abuse of power, Kamara's thoughts are directed towards attitudes - particularly the attitudes of the British. He remembers a sentence that he had read in a British periodical. It was part of an article on the Cyprus dilemma (specifically, on Cypriot demands for 'enosis'). Kamara recalls that the sentence read "'And we (the British) must always remember that we are dealing with an intelligent, European people (the Cypriots) - not backward African natives'." Conton has his central figure describe how this sentence was now "burned in my consciousness with great clarity." Faced with the prospect of being Prime Minister after Independence, Kamara's reaction to this attitude is an illuminating one:
God has now given me the opportunity I needed to make it impossible for any intelligent person to make a remark like that again. (pp. 144-45)
So Independence 'means' not only freedom but a chance to change attitudes. In the process, the African will emerge as a rational human being (in a 'true' light), as a person deserving of respect and as a member of a nation that deserves international respect. That respect is not necessarily to be gained, so it seems, from continual criticism of the white man. The sensitive Dr. Kawa,hero of Lenrie Peters' novel The Second Round, talks to his mother who has been busy condemning European influences.5 Things are changing every day, he tells her. "Ten years ago there wasn't a single African with real power, but now most of the power is in the hands of Africans...," Kawa points out. Therefore, he maintains, we must stop blaming everything on others:
...we musn't spend the next century moaning ...
We must get on with tackling the vital problems of
Africa without making martyrs of ourselves ... .(pp. 22-3)
The objectives of the post-Independence period are to be achieved, then, by African actions directed towards African interests. The question of what are, exactly, 'African' interests (or even 'national' interests) becomes a centre of ideological debate.
This early period, then, is shown to be one of great expectations. A striking instance of these expectations is presented in a novel by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author who is arguably modern Africa's most well-known writer. Achebe, treating the subject with rather gentle irony, introduces into the novel No Longer At Ease a poem supposedly penned by young Obi Okonkwo when he was a student in London during 1955 (before Nigerian Independence).6
The poem is a mixture of doggerel verse, naive sentimentality and boundless optimism. It reads, in part:
God bless our noble fatherland
Great land of sunshine bright,
Where brave men chose the way of peace,
To win their freedom fight.
May we preserve our purity,
Our zest for life and jollity. (p. 151)
Embedded in the framework of concepts that make up Obi's national praise song - bright sunshine, peace, freedom, purity, life - the positive features that made up the hopeful, forward - looking drive towards Independence are shown. As the narrative concludes, this optimism is severely undercut. Caught in a maze of social pressures, the young hero (a government officer) is charged with bribery. Achebe's novel traces the path from ideals to the 'reality' that would appear to negate them, presenting what is (essentially) a liberal humanist view of a world gone wrong. The utopian concepts surrounding Independence are presented here as a positive vision, a reminder of early ideals. It is a vision of undoubted power, full of lofty ideals and immeasurable, rather vague appeals to a struggle for freedom that was seen to stretch right across a continent. One can sense the tone of appeal, the feeling of unanimity, in these lines by Lenrie Peters with their reference to a new creation:
In the beginning
out of the dark wilderness
for paged history ... .7
In the beginning (Peters' text claims) a whole continent was rising up to break the colonial chains. The African politicians- Azikiwe, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyerere, Kaunda8 (all referred to, in the poem, as "Saviours of a nation/of the race..." and "Each a giant in his place") - speak to weeping and cheering crowds, then, the poet continues, we "thought we understood each face." These were marvellous days:
They were glorious days
shouting and fervour
the tension of a bent reed. (p. 81)
What did the people hear from their 'saviours'? They heard of capitalists and imperialism, of socialism and the equal sharing of goods. They heard of the new Africa and of the African personality. Most of all, they heard the word "which crazed and touched the sky": Unity. This crusade was to be of continental (or, at least, of pan-Africanist) scope:
Unity after freedom was the cry.
Unity across the offal of Imperialism
Unity after Uhuru. (p. 82)
and 'the people', enmeshed in Uhuru-worship (so it is claimed), believed it all. They did not think then of "the ravings of hot heads or the promises of foxes" because they so desperately wanted to believe, wanted to hope. They all raised their voices to the sky. Lenrie Peters' poem attempts to show how it was - in the beginning.
Cameron Duodu's novel The Gab Boys is another work that concerns itself, in part, with the emotive response that went with Independence.9 Presented by Daodu's young 'gab-boy' narrator (Akwasi), the narrative includes parts of a speech supposedly given by Kwame Nkrumah at a Ghana Independence Day Rally. As the speech builds to a climax, Nkrumah declares:
... And so, at long last, the battle is ended.
And GHANA, our beloved COUNTRY, is FREE
FOR EVER! (p. 138. Capitalisation in original)
His remarks are greeted with frenzied applause and with shouts (Akwasi reports) "just as the titallated woman does:
--- YIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! ...". The jubilant ululations continue after the playing of the Ghana national anthem. Akwasi reports that he felt his whole flesh tingle with emotion (p. 139) as Nkrumah hammers home the gospel of freedom: there is a new African in the world; the new African is ready to fight his own battles, ready to show that he is capable of managing his own affairs; "we are prepared to lay our own foundation"; a distinctive African identity will be created. Again, both the ambition and the vagueness of these loudly-proclaimed ideals are foregrounded.
What is seen to be the purpose of these ideals? For what cause could such a mass of energy be harnessed? An indication of the answers to these questions can be gained by reference to two novels, one from Tanzania and one from Nigeria. The presented world of Gabriel Ruhumbika's Village in Uhuru is that of the immediate pre-Independence and early post-Uhuru period in Tanganyika.10 Balinde, one of the ubiquitous young hopefuls of African fiction, is shown talking to a Tanganyika National African Union supporter while on a train trip to Dar-es-Salaam. The two men have just travelled through a poverty-striken area and Juma (the TANU man) comments:
The Mzungu [European] simply cannot do anything about such things. Why should he? Why? But we, if we get our 'uhuru', we cannot leave our people in such misery. We cannot govern ourselves and leave ourselves in such misery. (p. 59)
The people must be raised up from the poverty level. It will be a matter of common concern, a matter of national self-respect, to achieve that objective. It comes as no surprise, then, that Balinde should report (later in the novel) TANU activities in "the even more important fight, the fight against disease, poverty, ignorance, the fight to build their country into a healthy and prosperous nation" (p. 86). One of the satirical episodes in T.M. Aluko's Chief the Honourable Minister presents Alade Moses, M.P., B.A. (Hons.), Dip. Ed., Minister of Works, working on a party policy speech for education in the newly-independent state of Afromacoland.11 In terms of the objectives of Independence, his stated ideals and his hopes for the future represent an interesting commentary on potential targets for political action. Maintaining that the greatest asset of the nation "is our human resources" (p. 133), the Minister goes on to declare war, "total war, against the common enemy, illiteracy ...". To combat illiteracy an appeal is made for collective effort, for a common commitment to educational goals:
Let each man reach one with the message of hope and salvation and the light of knowledge. There is much we can achieve together: their is much honour that we can share together when the fight is over ... the fight will be fought till victory is won against illiteracy and against the vestiges of imperialism. (p. 135)
Knowledge, hope, salvation, sharing, fighting, victory: these words are presented as being the essential vocabulary of the Independence period. While the Minister - like young Obi Okonkwo in No Longer At Ease - is shown as not being able to translate his hopes into practice, he stands as a paradigm of the Uhuru ideals. Like the TANU man in Village in Uhuru, he sees the achievement of certain objectives as a necessary vindication (an inevitable continuation) of the struggle against colonial domination. In that struggle it appeared that the sky was the limit - all Africa was on the march forward.
Modern African literary texts do not, however, exclude the doubting voices. On the contrary, they are omnipresent. Charles Mangua's novel A Tail in the Mouth is clearly a picaresque narrative, realist in mode, episodic in structure, and often satiric in aim.12 The fact that the central figure Samson Moira is positioned in such a framework allows for a range of socio-political commentary in the text. Samson comes out of the Kenya forests with his fellow freedom-fighters having gained what appears to be a major victory. He and his comrades appear at Ruringu Sports Stadium "all smelling like the good old forest." In fact, with tangled hair and tattered clothes, they stink. But they have won, the British flag has come down, they are now heroes of Uhuru. As Samson puts it:
Our own African Government has called us out ... We have everything. We have come out to reap the fruits of our struggle. The freedom we have been fighting for since fifty-two. (p. 175)
As the local Provincial Commissioner explains the arrangements for resettlement, Mangua shows Samson as being suspicious about the nature of the 'fruits' of the struggle. The freedom-fighters must "be given everything - within reason", thinks Samson. They have been fighting without pay and unless the "ideals for which we fought" are realised it would all have been a wasted effort:
We have to get something. No point in risking one's neck in the forest when other folks are sitting on their arses for nil reward. Congratulations are not enough. (p.176)
Are the fighters for Uhuru to be given everything, just something or maybe even nothing for their efforts? The first cracks in the edifice of Uhuru-worship begin to appear. Samson Moira's pragmatic assessment of the situation becomes a representative image of the uneasy alliance of hope and scepticism, belief and doubt.
The impression given by these texts is that, in the exciting first days of freedom, there was little time for doubts. In the sixth section of his long poem Song of Ocol, the Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek has his narrator (Ocol) speak of that marvellous night of Uhuru when the celebration - drums throbbed and men and women wept with joy, dancing with their hands raised in salute to the national flag.13 On this morning of Uhuru, expectations were high, doubts were stilled. It seemed that there were no limits to the African surge forward. Ocol, with heavy sarcasm, speaks of those days when he asks a friend:
Did someone tell you
That on the morning of uhuru
The dew on the grass
Along the village pathways
Would turn into gold
That the leaves
Would become banknotes
And be scattered by the wind
Among the villagers? (pp. 62-63)
Uhuru: a time of fantastic dreams, of boundless ambition (both individual and collective). A time - if one is to follow these African works - when the emergent black elite groups moved forward to fill the partial vacuum left by the repatriation of colonial administrators. The social and political power-game was thrown open for brand new players and there appeared to be no joining fee. An illustration of the ambitiousness that is seen to characterise the period is provided by Chinua Achebe. His young hero (Obi Okonkwo) is out driving with his girl when he is suddenly forced to stop by a careless cyclist. Obi jams on the brakes, the tyres scream, the cyclist looks back and then rides away. On the black bicycle-bag is written FUTURE MINISTER, an ambition for all to see.14 That sign, brash but briefly honest, encapsulates the vision of future advancement.
So this period is shown to be one of great jubilation. It is also presented (with a sense of paradoxical inevitability) as the beginning of a stunning scenario of disillusionment.
1. Ngugi wa Thiong'o (James Ngugi), Weep Not, Child (1964; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972).
2. Ngugi carefully emphasises this expectation by his choice of a passage from Walt Whitman's "On the Beach at Night" as a frontispiece for the novel:
"Weep not, child
Weep not, my darling
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not be long victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky ..."
The title of the novel is, of course, from the same source.
3. Mbella Sonne Dipoko, "Our Destiny", in Black and White In Love: Poems (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p. 30.
4 William Conton, The African (1960; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).
5. Lenrie Peters, The Second Round (1965; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).
6. Chinua Achebe, No Longer At Ease (1960; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).
7. Lenrie Peters, from "In the beginning", in Satellites (1967; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971), p. 80 et seq.
8. Central figures of the Independence struggle in, respectively, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.
9. Cameron Duodu, The Gab Boys (1967; rpt. London: Fontana Books, 1974).
10. Gabriel Ruhumbika, Village in Uhuru (London: Longman, 1969).
11. T.M. Aluko, Chief the Honourable Minister (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970). The connection between Afromacoland and its model (Nigeria) is a close one. The fact that Alade Moses is suddenly appointed Minister of Works (although he is shown to be one of the nation's experts in education) is typical of Aluko's satirical treatment of post-Independence politics.
12. Charles Mangua, A Tail in the Mouth (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1972).
13. Okot p'Bitek, Song of Ocol (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1970).
14. Achebe, No Longer At Ease, p. 18.