When we hear about the African writer we often ask ourselves who is an African writer. Is it someone of African origin? Someone who lives in Africa or simply someone who writes about Africa? Africa is a continent of rich cultures, traditions, heritages and customs, producing great writers from different backgrounds. Some of the writers’ books have played a significant role in Africa’s education for ages.
Chinua Achebe in his essay The Novelist as a Teacher (1965) addresses crucial issues relating to the role of an African. Achebe asserts that “the writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and re-generation that must be done.” Which means that the African writer must be accountable for his society. The writer has three primary functions in relation to his society: 1. As a historian rescuing its past, 2. As a critic analysing its present, 3. As a mentor helping to guide it towards is future. One of the duties of an African writer is to be willing, in certain circumstances, to stop being a writer and to not think of himself as “African.”
Chukwudi also notes that an African writer cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing into the cocoon of creativity in the name of art for art’s sake. The writer can use his or her skills to help shape the future of the society.
Whether we like to face up to it or not Africa has been the most insulted continent in the world. Dr Schweitzer, “notable” thinker, once remarked that the African was certainly the white man’s brother, but always junior brother. Africans’ very claim to humanity has been questioned at various times, their personalities abused, and their intelligence insulted. These things have happened in the past and have gone on happening today. The African writer has a duty to bring them to an end for our own sakes, for the sake of our children and indeed for the safety and happiness of the world and this can be done through fiction which serves to conscientise readers.
Achebe in The Novelist as Teacher attacks the notion that the African writer should adapt the western modernist pose of the angst-ridden writer living on the fringes of society. An African writer is not just an African novelist just because he writes about Africa, but because he writes about it in an African kind of way. An African way includes educating us on issues we are unaware of, expressing cultural identity, preserving our past, and addressing issues of racial inferiority, which is a disease deeply entrenched in some of us as Namibians due to the apartheid scars we bear up to this day. Most of these issues have a connection with colonialism of which works of African writers like Joseph Diescho, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembene, Bessie Head, Mariama Ba, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O reflect on.
It is because of issues like these that the African writer is expected to be a teacher, to rescue Africans from such beliefs that were planted in the African’s mind during colonialism. Achebe agrees that a novel affords the novelist an “opportunity for education” but the education he is thinking about is not the same as the moralising which European theorists like Plato are concerned with.
The African writer is more concerned with the importance of combatting our acceptance of “racial inferiority” by confronting the disasters brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien races. Racial inferiority which, whether or not we realise it, is at the very root of Africa’s problems and has been for centuries.
African writers are committed to the revolutionary struggle of their people for justice and true independence. They are committed to a new society which will affirm their validity and accord them an identity as Africans and as people. The writer should be one and the same with his or her society and the writer must live and communicate the society’s ethos. There is the phenomenon popularly known as “The Empire Writes Back.” It is a form of re-writing colonial texts, questioning the colonialist assumptions underpinning them, and besides that, it offers decolonized writers the opportunity to bring new interpretations to bear on colonialist narratives.
A great writer creates a new, unique, individual world through acts of imagination, through a language that feels inevitable, through commanding forms and responding to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but that is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds. The writers who matter most to us are those who enlarge our consciences, our sympathies and our knowledge. We have our very own prominent writers in Namibia who write about the society they come from, the likes of Neshani Andreas, Professor Joseph Diescho, Lydia Shaketange, Sifiso Nyathi, Kavevangua Kahengua, Sylvia Schlettwein and Peya Mushelenga.
The African writer’s task is to rescue the African past from the colonial misrepresentation and biased stereotyping to which it had been subjected. The writers in contemporary African societies have to perform the dual function of educating his audience and helping them reclaim their past heritage. “To write is to try to understand, to try to repeat the unrepeatable, to write is also to bless a life which has not been blessed.” – Clarice Lispector
Anna Ndishakena Nandenga is a Master of Arts English Studies student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org