The Sunday News

Role of the African writer

Chinua Achebe

Mubanga Lumpa
In June 1962, the first African Writers Conference was held at Makerere University College, Uganda.

The conference was attended by many prominent African writers from across the continent such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Obi Wali,  Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Bernard Fonlo, Frances Ademola, Cameron Duodu, Kofi Awoonor, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Dennis Brutus, Arthur Maimane, Ngugi wa Thiong’o  (then known as James Ngugi), Robert Serumaga, Rajat Neogy, Okot p’Bitek, Pio Zirimu, Grace Ogot, Rebecca Njau, David Rubadiri, Jonathan Kariara and other writers from the African Diaspora such as Langston Hughes.

The conference was not only the very first major international gathering of writers and critics of African literature on the African continent but it was also held at the very height of the struggle for the political liberation for many African countries.

Thus over the years, there have been many African writers, thinkers and intellectuals who have contributed to the cultural consciousness and identity of the African continent through their writings.

These writers were also part of the movement towards African liberation and unity witnessed in the 1960s. For instance, African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and his influential work Africa Must Unite, Kenneth Kaunda’s books A Humanist in Africa, Zambia shall be free among others, Julius Mwalimu Nyerere’s works Uhuru na Umoja (Freedom and Unity); A Selection from Writings and Speeches 1952-65, Ujama: essays on Socialism among others, Jomo Kenyatta’s book Facing Mount Kenya and Nnamdi Azikiwe and his ideas in his work, Renascent Africa are some of the few examples.

Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the founders of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU) was also a prolific, writer poet who spearheaded the Negritude Movement alongside other writers such as Aimé Césaire, a Pan Africanist, poet and author. The Negritude Movement was a product of African writers who joined together through the use of the French language to assert and restore the African cultural identity.

Other writers such as Frantz Fanon and his extensive writings in his book The Wretched of the Earth also had a great influence on the dehumanising effects of colonisation on Africans.

Hence, throughout the past generations, writers, poets, intellectuals and other African leaders have through their writings contributed to the ideals of Pan Africanism and to the cultural, political and economic integration and identity of the African continent.

Further, the then OAU’s Conference of African Ministers of Education and Culture, meeting in Coutonou, Benin, in 1991 resolved “. . . to afford the African people a moment of pause within which to reflect on the contribution of the African writer to the development of the Continent”.

Today, the role of the African writer remains significant as before. Wilton Sankawulo, the Liberian author and politician, once noted that a great deal is expected of African writers. “Firstly he serves as the spokesman for his people, secondly he serves as a recorder and an interpreter of their experience; and finally, he helps to chart for his people a reasonable direction or destiny”.

Kenyan writer and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o also adds that “writers, artistes, musicians, intellectuals, workers in ideas are the keepers of memory of a community.

It is in this context, that it remains essential to celebrate both the old and emerging African writers, to support them in their essential role as the interpreters and documenters of times and experiences, as the nurturers of the cultural imagination of the African people and as powerful voices that influence the thoughts, behaviours and the future generations of Africans.

African writers create images of their societies and that they are not only the mere reflections of it. There is therefore need for African writers to empower themselves as tellers of their own stories from the African perspective, as Chinua Achebe once wrote that, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

However, for African writers to fully realise this role, they must also take up the challenge of writing in the African languages.

In his work entitled Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiongo argues in support of the use of African language in African literature. Ngugi writes that “language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world”.

As the world today continues to witness the remarkable advent of digital technologies, this changing phenomenon on society has no doubt also impacted on writers, as writing and publishing have also fundamentally changed. For instance, the idea of self-publishing by many writers has emerged, where a writer can publish their work without the involvement of an established publisher through other digital media, such as e-books and websites. The concept of the “book” has also changed to include other forms of publications or writings in digital formats.

Therefore, digital technologies are making available books to different readers through technology that facilitates the creation of audio books and reading facilities for different kinds of readers including the visually impaired and those that cannot read or find the time to do so.

As the concept of knowledge economy unfolds and the increased use of digital technologies, the African writers must therefore, also reposition their role in order to remain relevant in the creation and dissemination of knowledge and also assert their role as the drum major in redefining pan-Africanist principles in the development, preservation and restoration of Africa’s identity, dignity and unity.

 The author is a Zambia based social commentator and blogger