African Literature: What Tradition?

It all started when Africa was shanghaied into the history of the West in the late nineteenth century. What were we coming into? —– a long line of continuity going back some 9,000 years since the civilizations of the great river valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus, and the Hwang-ho had launched man on a long intellectual quest. We had been discovered by an aggressive Western Culture which was never going to let us be. Nor could we cease following the neon light —- or has it been a will o’ the wisp? Time will tell.

Perhaps Hegelian historical determinism will have it that it is as it should be: How could Africa be left out of it all indefinitely? And so here I am, an ambivalent character. But I’m nothing of the oversimplified and not sensationalized Hollywood version of a man of two worlds. It is not as if I were pinned on a rock, my legs stretched in opposite directions. Education sets up conflicts but also reconciles them in degrees that depend on the subject’s innate personality equipment. It seems to me a writer in an African setting must possess this equipment and must strive towards some workable reconciliation inside himself.

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It is an agonizing journey. It can also be humiliating to feel that one has continually to be reassessing oneself with reference to the long line of tradition he has entered— the tradition of the West. How else? I have assimilated the only education the West had to offer me. I was brought up on European history and literature and religion and made to identify with European heroes while African heroes were being discredited, except those that became Christians or signed away their land and freedom, and African gods were being smoked out.

I later rejected Christianity. And yet I could not return to ancestral worship in any overt way. But this does not invalidate my ancestors for me. Deep down there inside my agnostic self, I feel a reverence for them. The majority of writers in Africa, I venture to say, are attached in a detached manner to one indigenous religion or another. They are not involved in its ritual, but they look at it with reverence. When, in their full consciousness, they have found themselves Christian— which can often just mean baptized—- they have not adopted ‘churchianity’.

Because our whole education system in Africa has been mission-ridden right from the beginning, and the white minister was supposed by the government or commercial or school-board employer to know the “native,” you had always to produce a testimonial signed by a white church minister when you were applying or a job. Not even black ministers could speak for you. If you wanted to go out for further studies, you knew where to find St. Peter. The black minister himself required testimonials from one his white brethren, never from another black minister.

So we called ourselves Christians; we entered “Christian” on the line against an item that asked for it on all the multiplicity of forms, just in order to save ourselves the trouble of explaining and therefore failing to go through the gates. In independent Africa, we are luckily able to trust fellow blacks who vouch for us and others. And you can almost see the Christian veneer peeling off because it has nothing to do with conscience… By far the larger part of Africa is still traditionally minded in varying degrees. The whole dialogue around tradition is an intellectual one.

The parents of people of my generation, although they may be urbanized, are still close to tradition. They worry a great deal about the way in which we break loose at one point and ignore some elements of tradition. Each time an African mother sends a child to high school, it is like giving birth to him all over again. She knows she is yielding something. Dialogue between her and the child decreases and eventually stays on the level of basic essentials: our needs, our family relations, family life, which must continue more or less normally, whatever else around us may progressively be reduced to abstractions or gadgets.

It is no less excruciating for the young man who stands in this kind of relationship with his parents. But he can reconcile himself to it—– the very educational process that wrenches him from his moorings helps him to arrange a harmonization within himself. The parent will often moan and complain to him about the awkward distance he has reached away from tradition. But it is never a reprimand; it is an indulgent complaint. Because, I think, the parents are always aware that this whole business of education does not of itself engage you in an activity that expressly subverts the morals of the family, the clan, or of the tribe.

They are aware of the many situations around them that require an education to cope with them. The benefits of tradition are abstract, and the parents’ own thinking has not been stagnant while the whole landscape around them has been changing, while the white man’s government has been impinging on their way of life over several decades. And the benefits of a modern education are tangible, real. I have always asked myself what it is in one’s formal education that leads to the rupture, to the ever-widening gulf between one and one’s parents and one’s community.

You recognize the alphabet, then words, and then you can extract meaning from many sentences in a row. With that shock of recognition, words leap into life in front of you. They set your mind on fire; longings and desires you would never have known are released and seem to whirl around in currents that explode into other currents: something like what you see in a glass flask of water that you have on a naked flame to observe the movement of heat in liquid. From then on, one must not stop.

Yet it is not something one can take for granted in an African context, because to start at all is not inevitable: Education is not compulsory, and the financial cost of it is immense. In your higher education, you assimilate patters of thought, argument, and so on from an alien culture in an alien language; they become your own. Of course you cannot help using your African setting as your field of reference; you cannot help going out of the queue of Western orientation now and again to consult those of your people who are not physically in it.

You try to express their philosophy in a European language whose allegory, metaphor, and so on are alien to the spirit of that philosophy: something that can best be understood in terms of allegory and metaphor that are centered heavily on human relationships and external nature. All the same, you are in the queue, and you belong not only to an African community but also to a worldwide intellectual or worldwide economic community, or both.

This is why communication becomes difficult, sometimes impossible, between your people who are still not tuned into Western intellectual systems and yourself. Your mind operates in a foreign language, even while you are actually talking your mother tongue, at the moment you are engaged in your profession. You try hard to find correspondences and you realize there are only a few superficial ones: You have to try to make most of them. In the pure sciences, which are universally applicable, the correspondences are numerous; there is no problem.

Indigenous languages that have only recently become literary, that is, only since the church missions established presses in Africa, seem to have relied more and more heavily on the spoken word, so that gesture, facial expression, inflection of voice became vital equipment in communication. Language became almost a ritual in itself, and metaphor and symbol became a matter of art and device. Metaphor became a sacred thing if it had descended from usage in earlier times; when an elder, in a traditional court case, prefaced a proverb or aphorism or metaphor by saying, “Our elders say… ,” his audience listened with profound reverence.

Notice the present tense in “our elders say… ” Because his elders would be the ancestors, who are still present with us in spirit. You can imagine what confusion prevails in a modern law court when a witness or the accused operate in metaphor and glory in the sensuousness of the spoken word quite irrelevant to the argument at hand. Ask any magistrate or prosecutor or lawyer in a differentiated Western-type society whether they find a court trial a sensuous activity, and hear what they say. Even the rhetoric that a lawyer may indulge in is primarily a thing of the brain rather than of the heart.

In African languages, activities overlap a great deal, and there are no sharp dividing lines between various functions. All that I have said so far has been an attempt to indicate the relative distances between tradition and the present—- some shifting, others freezing, some thawing, others again presenting formidable barriers. And we are living in a situation in which the past and the present live side by side, because the past is not just a segment in time to think back upon: We can see it in living communities. We need to appreciate these distances if we are to understand what the African writer is about. He is part of the whole pattern.

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