'Generations' inspired by a roots revival

January 7, 2005

What makes a hero? Dying used to be a prerequisite - but these days a good right foot is enough. Over five pages, we ask who makes the grade

Some of the great names of African literature are helping rekindle the continent's creative traditions, writes Jack Mapanje

The politics of Kenya have changed. President Daniel arap Moi is, in effect, out of the political arena; only his ghost lurks among the Nairobi alleyways as ghosts must. The East African literary scene, which his regime all but destroyed, was rekindled at the Seventh Nairobi International Book Fair in September 2004 when international publishers, writers, academics, students and those generally engaged in the book trade resurrected the creative environment that was once the pride of East Africa. It was heralded by the historic visit in August of Kenya's eminent novelist and academic Ngugi wa Thiong'o after more than 20 years in exile.

Nairobi was a vibrant literary centre in East Africa in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. From the university campuses of Nairobi, Makerere and Dar es Salaam in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania respectively, academics such as Andrew Gurr, the British Shakespearean scholar, Angus Calder, the Scottish historian, literary critic and poet, and editor David Cook, joined Es'kia Mphahlele of South Africa, David Rubadiri of Malawi and other African scholars and writers to create an effervescent literary landscape.

Nairobi bookshops were full of novels, plays, poetry, anthologies and magazines from West, South and North Africa, published in Africa and Europe. Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino , Song of Ocol , Song of Malaya and Song of Prisoner established the "song tradition" in East African poetry, which was emulated by Okello Oculi, Jared Angira, Joseph Buruga and others.

But the prose fiction tradition did not stagnate. Ngugi's short stories, Secret Lives , his plays and the novels Weep Not, Child and The River Between appeared. Grace Ogot's novel The Promised Land followed her book of short stories, both of which were steeped in African folk culture and magic. Then there was Rubadiri's novel, No Bride Price .

The jewel of this year's book fair was the launch of two books of poetry, published by the rejuvenated East African Educational Publishers, from poets covering two generations of African writing. One, An African Thunderstorm & Other Poems , is a collection by Rubadiri, probably the best teacher of poetry the African continent has known. Rubadiri belongs to the "second generation" of African poets that includes Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus, Agostinho Neto and Leopold Sengor. They wrote in English, French and Portuguese, and were often inspired by European traditions. But the issue of African writers using European languages, themes and forms prompted intense debate about the need to "decolonise" African literature.

In the foreword to his collection, Rubadiri acknowledges the staff at King's College, Cambridge, where he studied in the Sixties, and "E. M.

Forster, who quietly and in the shadows strengthened those of us from overseas". You can see, for example, the influence of Dylan Thomas's complex rhythmic structure in The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower in Rubadiri's The Tide that from the West Washes Africa to the Bone . Rubadiri writes:

"The tide that from the west

Washes Africa to the bone

Gurgles through my ribs

And gathers the bones

That clatter into clusters

Rough and polished

To fling them back destitute

To the desolate river-bank."

But tracing Western influences in African poetry in this way is unproductive and typical of the Western colonial critic who tended to reduce the worth and inventiveness of African writing to naught. Africans were influenced by other poets but eventually developed their own voice, style and forms. Rubadiri's poem is essentially African, exposing the contradictions that obtain when zealous religious leaders bring bloodshed and chaos to Africa instead of the civilisation and peace they claim to bring - a theme that has been covered extensively in the early novels of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi and others.

Most writers of the second generation were born in the Thirties and were engaged in their countries' liberation struggle against European imperialism and colonialism. Rubadiri was arrested by the British and imprisoned in Bulawayo in 1959 during the struggle for the liberation of Nyasaland. At the book fair, the "third generation" of African poets was represented by Angira, whose latest collection, Lament of the Silent and Other Poems , was launched with Rubadiri's. This generation was born in the Forties and Fifties and began to write when the literature syllabuses in the schools, colleges and universities throughout Africa were keen to consign their colonial image to the shadows. Africa's political leaders at the time cried out for an education system that reflected the nature of the continent. Every country looked for its own writers to put on the new literature syllabus. I remember the inaugural lecture of the first vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi, Ian Michael, in which he appealed to heads of disciplines not to follow the Oxbridge academic tradition for its own sake, but to redraw their map of knowledge so as to reflect independent Africa's aspirations. Some literature lecturers considered the possibility of teaching classical and Western epics alongside African epics. Our department embarked on the collection, transcription, translation and analyses of texts that were being performed in Malawi's rural communities. Creative writing courses were introduced to speed the creation of a national literature. Writers' groups mushroomed, and those who took up writing at this time had boundless sources from which to draw.

It was Tanure Ojaide of Nigeria and Tijan Sallah of the Gambia, editors of The New African Poetry: An Anthology , who proposed "generations" as a template for mapping the development of modern African poetry. It is a useful concept, although they did not develop it into a fully fledged theoretical framework. The concept was rooted in the work of Frantz Fanon and picked up at the First International Conference On African Oral Literature held in Nigeria in July 1975.

Michael Echeruo, professor and head of the English department at Ibadan, had organised the conference and I was invited as editor of Kalulu - Bulletin of Malawian Oral Literature . I was sorting through the theoretical stances, themes, interpretations, arguments and contradictions presented by the conference papers on "African oral literature" and its interpretation when Ojaide appeared. He offered to drive G. G. Darah, a budding literary critic, two other Nigerian writers and me to sample the city's local scene.

We discussed Ruth Finnegan's Oral Poetry from Africa , which was widely quoted at the conference, and began counting the poets of our generation who were drawing their inspiration from African festivals, dances, songs, proverbs, riddles and other traditions - the so-called oral literature.

The issue of generations and influences in African poetry has since been much debated. At the conference of the African Literature Association held at the University of California, San Diego, a couple of years ago, poets of the third generation boasted of being brought up on the inspiration of African orality and the second generation of African poets. And at September's book fair the pernicious memory of these past generations came flooding back. As we saluted Kenya Publishers' Association in the context of the new politics, we hope that the revival of the East African literary tradition would become a permanent feature.

Jack Mapanje teaches creative writing in the School of English at Newcastle University.

Tom Wakeford, senior research associate, Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Institute, Newcastle University

"Dina Weinstein, a professor of sociology, springs to mind. She said that as a white male from a well-off country I would be able to say things that would perhaps be accepted more easily than if I were someone from a non-Anglo-Saxon background or was female, disabled or from a low socioeconomic group. This was 20 years ago.

"She was attending a conference in the UK and was hitchhiking.

My Dad, John Wakeford, a retired sociologist, picked her up. I was sitting next to the first American I had ever met. Having parents who were sociologists gave me a pretty odd view of life and it impressed me to hear something that wasn't from my parents.

"We have kept in touch since I was a teenager, but she hasn't in any way given me a reference or a leg up.

"In 1978, she was the first person to write about fraud in science. Then, a couple of years later she did something on the sociology of heavy metal music. We are both really interested in how small groups gel. I look at how groups who don't have a voice get a voice. She's dealing with groups of rock fans and rock bands, looking at how bands work together - the relationship between the lead singer and the guitarist, for example.

"Another person who has inspired me is the sociologist Tom Shakespeare, whom I met at university. He was inspiring in showing that you can be a really good academic while holding religious beliefs."

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