Passionate Spaces : African Literature & the Hugh Webb
African Literature & the
Modern African literary texts project the view that the grand hopes of Uhuru did not fade or disintegrate overnight. Generally they present the impression of a gradual movement towards disillusionment. The portrayal is of a macabre nightmare of dashed hopes, of visions soured, of the shock of disenchantment. These are the common concerns: that the Independence ideals are under attack; that it is perhaps not too late to preserve and bolster them; that Africa cannot afford to lose the first fine rapture; that the socio-political reality seems not to be moving in the direction that had been so fervently and optimistically expressed in the early days of Uhuru and before. Signs of a sobering realisation of the illusory nature of the original dreams appear as a common factor in literature across the continent. Only the local names are different.
Significantly, it is suggested in some works that this was nothing new for the African peasant: he had been disenchanted before. He had noted the promises of his various colonial masters, noted the recurrent gap between promise and reality in colonial plans for education, health and land reforms. Meja Mwangi's character Old Mwaniki talks of such promises in the novel Carcase For Hounds from Kenya.1 The old man speaks disparagingly about a promised school for the children:
They learned nothing. Only how to read and write. And in anticipation of things to come, they were taught how to handle a pruner at school. A tree pruner like their fathers used! (p.60)
How to fit into the colonial economic structure, one might say. Mwaniki, clearly, is not at all impressed. He has compared promises with results. When the various African states become self-governing, such comparisons continued to be made. But this time, it seems, the questions implied not criticism of an alien power but self-criticism and self-doubt. The point can be demonstrated by a reading of a poem by Abioseh Nicol of Sierra Leone. Here the poet is seen returning to Africa, after Independence. He sails down the Guinea Coast, loving the sophistication of the "brave new cities" and is then told to go up-country, to "see the real Africa." And so he goes, dancing on his way. But the poet never finds the 'new' Africa, the 'real' Africa. Instead he notices a cyclist who wavers by on the wrong side of the road: "As if uncertain of his new emancipation." Nicol realises that he is chasing a dream and addresses these lines to his homeland:
We look across a vast continent
And blindly call it ours.
You are not a country, Africa,
You are a concept,
Fashioned in our minds, each to each,
To hide our separate fears,
To dream our separate dreams.2
So Africa is reduced to being merely a concept, a magnificent mirage of hopes, with the people (like Nicol's cyclist) unsure of their emancipated identity. There is no buoyant note of confidence here. Rather, the overriding impression is that of a man (and a people) finally forced to confront their African dream. The poet's earlier question - "Is this all you are?" - works as much as a statement as a plea. It stands as a signal to the first shock of recognition.
Dodge Kiunyu is the central figure of Charles Mangua's novel Son of Woman3. Just as Mwangi's old man is shown to have serious doubts about the value of colonial education, so Dodge is presented as having a great deal to say regarding the value of education in an independent Kenya. In one passage of the narrative Dodge is on a long walk from the centre of Nairobi to the Eastleigh slums. As he talks and curses to himself, he remembers his old car "growing moss and lichens at Tigoni Police Station, where they dumped it after dumping me in jail." The old car is the only thing he owns "that has a roof." Things do not look bright for Dodge:
That's me. Plain broke. Broke as a dry twig. Broke as hell. Not a thing. Nothing. Damn it. And I am a graduate. That's what I am. A graduate. University of London Geography Honours at Makerere and I can't get a job. That's how helpful education is. Very helpful. Gosh! I am hungry. (p. 15)
Not many doors have opened for Dodge and Mangua's careful authorial control over the pace and tone of Dodge's remarks is designed to emphasise indignation ("And I am a graduate") at the uselessness of his University degree. The dying-fall rhythm that runs through the passage above complements the overall tone of disappointment, while Dodge's veneer of sarcasm scarcely covers the evident crumbling of hopes: all that Dodge can be certain of now is that he is hungry.
Two radio plays, one from the Sudan and the other from Kenya, carry forward the post-Independence debate. In Station Street, by Khalid Almubarak Mustafa, there is an interesting exchange between father and son.4 The father (Nour) answers his son (Osman) who has been talking about colonial times and exploitation:
NOUR: Exploitation? No. They took and they gave; and we are the worse off now that they have gone. If they had exploited us, why aren't we growing any richer now? The contrary is happening, we grow poorer and poorer. (p. 26)
While the view that Africans are actually worse off after Independence can be seen to be an extreme one,5 that simple question - "why aren't we growing any richer now?" - occurs again and again (explicitly or implicitly) in those texts that take as their temporal locus the years of the early post -Uhuru period. Anna, the prostitute in Jagjit Singh's play Sweet Scum of Freedom, is given an answer to that question.6 For she blames the politicians:
ANNA: I don't like our Ministers. They promise us many things before Uhuru. Uhuru comes. We get nothing; they get all the things ... Is the same with all the rich men. I don't like them. (p. 43)
Here is the recurring division between 'we' and 'they', them and us. At the centre of the discussion are the fruits of Uhuru and those who would appear to have monopolised them. With the identification of "our Ministers" a human target is found for the expression of discontent. The politicians, with their prostitutes and Mercedes Benz, become the focal point for attack. Ranged against the politician-figures (and their vested interests) are the omnipresent beggars, cripples and prisoners who appear, like a common currency of protest, in much of modern literature from Africa. These figures are generally found to be saying what Anna is saying: 'Uhuru - so what?'
What of the actions of the politicians in this period? How do African authors present their politician-figures as targets for the expression of discontent? Their focus (incorporating, always, an element of indictment) is typically achieved by means of careful authorial selection of details to be presented and emphasised. Representative of this approach is a passage from the novel This Earth, My Brother ... .7 Kofi Awoonor's work is composed of alternating narrative chapters and poetic interludes. The interludes work as scanning charts of the images and thoughts in the consciousness of the increasingly schizophrenic young lawyer Amamu. During one of these interludes, Amamu is shown to be thinking of those glorious days of Ghanaian Independence. Amamu remembers:
... the time when in preparation for Independence celebration beggars were herded off into cattle trucks to outlying villages - concentration, detention, custody - to make way for the overseas dignitaries coming to see the new first black nation being born. (p. 93)
The beggars, arguably the most deserving recipients of any fruits of freedom, are shunted aside as an embarrassment to the new image of Ghana. When the dignitaries had left, Amamu recalls, the beggars were brought back and "released upon the pavements." This is an example of a particular historical detail that has been selected, by Awoonor, to evoke a particular 'mood' response. The exact nature of that response is explicitly defined, within the same section, when Amamu sardonically concludes that the episode of the beggars (amongst others) is evidence of "the new dialectics" of Ghana's politicians: "To those who have, more shall be given, and from those who have not, even the little they have shall be taken away" (p. 93). Amamu's "new dialectics" works as a parodic counterpart to the well-known socialist dictum: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs." Lenrie Peters achieves a similar effect in his poetry by juxtaposing the lines "the Politicians came and went" and "the death rate stayed alive."8 This ironic juxtaposition is then followed by a dialogue between what appears to be an 'ordinary', rather naive African citizen and one of the newly-elevated political leaders. Peters presents the politician as having told the citizen of the necessity for sacrifices to ensure the integrity of the new nation. The citizen asks:
But excuse me, sir;
Why do we have to beg?
- a reasonable question, one would think. The politician figure answers that sacrifices are needed to allow the diversion of funds to industrial development, to "change the face of the Continent." The citizen persists by asking if his children will be able to go to school and whether they will have food to eat, clothes to wear. To these questions, Peters' politician has no reasoned answer. When the man asks if he will have "a house like yours" - a question, with its exposure of inequality, that comes too close for comfort - the politician's only response is the authoritarian command: "Put this man in jail." In dramatised form, Peters presents the first post-Uhuru debate of values. It includes the essential dichotomies of the period:- freedom-poverty, the masses - the elect, equality - privilege, opportunity - frustration, power - defencelessness. Dissent from the priorities of those in power is seen to result in imprisonment, not change.
The status of various Uhuru politicians is often defined by a literary response that centres itself on descriptions of the physically aberrant nature of the politician-figure (as a reflection of suspect ideological commitment). One such instance is to be found in Okello Oculi's work Prostitute.9 Rosa Nakintu, the prostitute, is shown thinking about the visit to her Ugandan village by the Minister of Community Development. She is puzzled as to why this chief "was such a bundle of grotesque anxiety and exaggeration, standing there with the smiles of a dead gorilla playing havoc and deformities on his face." She realises, later, that the man's anxiety is rooted in the fact that here (if only for a short moment) the politician has been forced to face his constituents, away from his safe urban base of ministerial luxury. In the village, the politician-figure appears to be totally alien, ridiculously out of place. Rosa asks herself:
What was it about these men of government and politics that made them goggle around like grandmother dogs and father dogs with puppies jumping and trying with excruciating effort, poignant in its pathos and fickleness, to pull smiles out of their hanging lips? (p. 17)
Oculi's framing of Rosa's question in this way allows the query to work as narrative description of such 'dogs' of Uhuru. One sees again, as with Anna in Sweet Scum of Freedom, the use of the prostitute-figure as socio-political commentator. By means of this device, Oculi emphasises the degree of prostitution evident in the stance of the hypocritical politician who uses this young woman as if by right. The implicit question is raised: who is the greater prostitute?10 At the root of the politician's activities, there is the suggestion of a real prostitution that goes with the betrayal of Uhuru values. In other works, the questions: how did it happen? how did these politicians go rotten? occur again and again. Lombe, the tragic hero of David Rubadiri's novel No Bride Price, talks of ex-Minister Chozo who has just been killed while fleeing from a military coup.11 Lombe remembers Chozo as an excellent head prefect at school and as a keen sportsman. He recalls that each time Chozo spoke at school debates and at political meetings before Independence "the virtues and principles of the man stabbed you so sharply that you could not go back to your bed and just sit down" (p. 154). Then Independence came to Malawi. The excellent Chozo becomes a Minister of State. Lombe describes Chozo as a Minister, as a man changed out of almost all recognition:
He could never look at anyone straight in the face. His eyes had that look of people who are half mad - the eyes of a man who has sanctioned death but never felt the sticky slime of blood on his hands. (p. 154)
"Do you understand what I am trying to say?" Lombe asks of a friend, as Rubadiri presents his hero searching after an explanation for the frightening change that has come over this man of power. In the face of crumbling humanist illusions about 'necessary integrity' and about what were thought to be the inevitable improvements that would come with Uhuru, the comparisons of before and after continue to be made.
The indictment of political corruption is a strong thematic concern of many modern African texts. There is the sharply delineated figure of Uncle Taiwo, in Cyprian Ekwensi's novel Jagua Nana12. Uncle Taiwo, the paid political party organiser, is shown descending from the rostrum and moving among the people, scattering handfuls of ten-shilling notes while the crowd scrambles and fights for the spoils. Later, as one band of power-brokers succeeds another, Uncle Taiwo disappears from the scene. At a roundabout, in the very centre of the city of Lagos, his body is found "lying twisted and swollen; one knee was drawn up against the chest, the arms were clutching at the breast, rigid like a statue" (p.139). The macabre tableau of Taiwo the power-broker is presented as an available image to typify not only the violence but the sheer grotesqueness of political activity in early post-independence Nigeria. T.M. Aluko's figure of Alade Moses, that naive Minister who started with such high ideals, inevitably confronts the common dilemma. Aluko presents him asking himself:
Just how did one say to a civil servant that contracts for government works financed from public funds should not be given out to the men who by knowledge, experience, and financial standing were most suitable for them ...?13
The Minister sees these contracts going to "the shoemakers, the barbers, and the unattached women with painted lips, the new class of society known as Party supporters." As Aluko's Minister is looking to reconcile the dream of Independence with the reality of African local politics, it is not surprising to discover that Alade Moses never finds an answer to his question. The collective emphasis of these literary texts suggests that the process of soul-searching was a rare and temporary phenomenon among the new ruling groups. Significantly, one of the few works where the ideological thrust could, even marginally, be described as sympathetic to the actions of the post-colonial political elite was written as early as 1956 (that is, before the reality of Independence). The reference here is to the massive novel A Wreath for Udomo by Peter Abrahams.14 Even here, in what amounts to a prophetic projection into the next decade, one finds the presentation of a politically-motivated betrayal. Abrahams has the figure of Mhendi betrayed to a white racist government by his friend Michael Udomo (Prime Minister of Panafrica) in exchange for industrial aid. The luckless Mhendi's comment - "I sometimes think winning power is the easiest part" (p. 200) - is positioned so as to point to a major paradox. Power has been won. The more difficult task of implementing the hopes of Uhuru lies ahead. Many of the later texts strongly suggest that the task was never undertaken.
Instead of praise-songs of freedom, there are angry literary expressions of protest. It is a defiant protest on behalf of those who found themselves outside the privileged areas of prosperity and power. Charles Mangua captures the mood well in a passage where one of his perambulating adventurers(Samson Moira) finds himself in Nairobi without money or employment. Samson states that he made up his mind a long time ago to "quit the country for the town and I ain't going back on that decision." Why should he? As he says:
The politicians are telling us to go back to the land and what have you but I am deaf. I have no land. I don't know what land they have in mind. One wonders why the hell they don't go back themselves .... .15
The general line is clear: Uhuru has been no magical key to the future. The sarcasm and the stubbornness of Moira's reaction, incorporating the division between them (the politicians) and us (the people), typifies the turn from disenchantment to expressions of anger and outrage.
1. Meja Mwangi, Carcase For Hounds (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974).
2. Abioseh Nicol, "The Meaning of Africa", in A Book of African Verse, ed. John Reed and Clive Wake (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1964), pp. 43-44.
3. Charles Mangua, Son of Woman (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1971).
4. Khalid Almubarak Mustafa, Station Street, in African Theatre, ed. Gwyneth Henderson (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).
5. Actually, in Station Street, the playwright makes it clear (by a humorous twist at the end) that this is an attitude adopted by the father to cover his own earlier involvement in the anti-British struggle.
6. Jagjit Singh, Sweet Scum of Freedom, in African Theatre, ed. Henderson. The title of the play itself (incorporating the normally contradictory concepts of 'sweet' - 'scum' and 'scum' - 'freedom') is a motto of disenchantment.
7. Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother ... (197l; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972).
8. Peters, from "In the beginning", Satellites, pp. 83-84.
9. Okello Oculi, Prostitute (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1968).
10. Rosa's account makes it clear, in fact, that it was the Minister's action (taking her to the 'big city') that led her into prostitution. The device of using a prostitute as a symbol for exploitation, as a projected "scapegoat for the real prostitutes of society" has been commented upon by Peter Nazareth, Literature and Society in Modern Africa: Essays on Literature (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1972), p. 39.
11. David Rubadiri, No Bride Price (1967; rpt. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 197l).
12. Cyprian Ekwensi, Jagua Nana (196l; rpt. London: Panther Books, 1968).
13. In Chief the Honourable Minister, p. 143.
14. Peter Abrahams, A Wreath for Udomo (1956; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 197l).
15. Mangua, A Tail in the Mouth, p. 256.