Reading Africa

After many days and several hours on the phone to an Indian call centre across a period of several days, and in the wake of many conversations with people whose accents I had great difficulty in understanding over the phone, I have internet again! I hope you haven’t all given up hope on me after my lengthy silence.

I’ve decided to move on from Europe and read my way through some African countries for a literary change of scenery. I’m starting with Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. Although I’ve already read Things Fall Apart and I stated I wanted to read as many new authors as possible, I think that as far as African literature is concerned Chinua Achebe is really the only place to start.

Actually, it’s possible that the place to start should really be with some research and reading about African literature and Chinua Achebe so I can better understand and appreciate his work. My reading of African literature to date really only comprises Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also Nigerian) which is feeble to say the least.

Due to the number of countries on the African continent, a single precise definition of what African literature is is impossible. My research has been confined to online resources (and there aren’t many) so what I’m going to write here may not be accurate and shouldn’t be taken as such. Broadly speaking, African literature can be split into three general categories – precolonial, colonial and postcolonial. Precolonial literature primarily consists of an oral literary tradition, as literacy did not become widespread until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1800s. Literature from the colonial period centres around the slave trade while late- and postcolonial literature focused on themes of liberation, independence and negritude (affirmation of the African cultural heritage and identity). Contemporary anthologies of works by African authors, be it short stories or poetry, are always roughly grouped by geographical area – Northern, Southern, Western, Eastern and Central Africa. As far as I can tell (my knowledge of contemporary African politics and culture is also lacking) this is because each region has distinct cultural differences – think about how different Egypt and Kenya and South Africa are, for example.

Some modern authors from the African continent stand out more than others, and Chinua Achebe is arguably the best known of all of them. Among African countries Nigeria has been especially prolific in producing literature – Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Achebe are all familiar names in the West. I’ll write more about Nigerian literature and Achebe in particular tomorrow; for now, I’ll leave you with a poem Achebe wrote during the Nigerian Civil War.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget…

The air was heavy with odours of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried up bottoms waddling in laboured steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one;
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride…She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possesions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-coloured hair left on his skull
And then – humming in her eyes – began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reading Africa

  1. mai wen

    Glad you got your internet problems worked out!

    Thanks for the poem, it was disturbing, sad and beautiful. A breathtaking combination.

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