The writer in the presence of whom the prison walls come down. That was how President Nelson Mandela described him. Simply put, and deservedly so, Prof. Chinua Achebe is Africa’s most widely read author. His debut novel, Things Fall Apart has been translated into 42 languages with over 40 million in sales.
In spite of how much he constantly downplayed or sometimes denied it, he is widely regarded as the ‘father of the African novel’. Not that he was the first African to publish an African story, but the art of telling a truly African story using a majorly African cast from an African’s point of view was perfected by his hands.
After him, a host of younger African writers had risen who would not deny being heavily influenced and inspired by the works of the Professor. The professor is how he is fondly referred to among young Nigerian writers and book lover.
It must be mentioned however that among his contemporaries were other immensely talented wordsmiths who must not be ignored in this article or any of its like. Aside from being interesting story tellers, they were dependable bearers of the state of immediate post colonial Africa to theirs and generations to come.
These were writers whose pens shamed the swords of dictators and warlords of their times. Writers whose stories exposed the many ills of their societies. Sometimes in dark humor, sometimes in a wrinkled-nose satire, some other times, it’s a downright tragedy story. With their written words, they beam the flash into every dark corner where dirty hands transacted. They healed the broken and condemned the breaker. That was what they wrote for.
These early African writers demonstrated that writers do not write to make friends, rather, they write to bring freedom for themselves and their readers.
It goes without saying therefore, that to the folks in the continent; a writer is not just the one who has taken up the trade of making and selling stories to make a living. She is more than that, she is the one who has taken upon herself the duty (or burden, if you like) of speaking up for the voiceless masses at all times.
That was the sense of duty that Prof. Wole Soyinka, the first black to win a Nobel Prize for literature, had in mind when he stated, “A writer’s responsibility is to his society.” That responsibility is to tell their stories to the rest of the world.
The compelling force of that responsibility was at work when Achebe wrote passionately about the breakdown of true African cultures and customs in his stories. It was at work when Assia Djebar wrote of Algeria’s struggle for independence and of female liberation. It was there when Ayi Kwei Armah wrote The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born to decry the corruption in nascent African nations. We see it in Mongo Beti’s stories that rue the social disorientation caused by colonialism and denounce neocolonialism in his native, Cameroon. It helped J. M. Coetzee explore the deadly effects of South Africa’s apartheid. It pushed Cyprian Ekwensi to become a master at telling touching tales of ordinary people.
The list is endless and space will fail me to go on. But I cannot silence the urge to mention Soyinka, who stood his ground against a ‘senseless’ Nigerian civil war at the risk of a time in jail. Or the golden Nadine Gordimer whose anger with racism in South Africa jumps out of her pages. Brink Andre, Bessie Head, Alex La Guma and Es’kia Mphahlele are among the crop I call the literary fighters of apartheid. And so on.
It must be made clear however that what endeared these classic writers to their country men and women was not necessarily the allure of their works (and that too is never absent). It was their fearlessness in speaking up for them while telling their every-day stories in the face of unimaginable perils of tyranny.
These men and women of early African literature went through countless trials in the hands of villainous and oppressive regimes. The likes of Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong o were imprisoned. Achebe and others were forced into exile in foreign lands. Some others like Ken Saro Wiwa were unjustly executed by dictators. They were not naïve; they knew the dangers therein yet chose to tell stories that exposed evil.
As we begin to roll into an era when these letter warriors begin to rest in peace in large numbers, the younger generation of African writers should be more ready than ever to march in and fill the trenches. The need to tell the people’s story no matter how bitter has not disappeared. There is today as much issue in the continent as there was when the Achebes charged into their studies pen in hand, hurt in heart.
Armed and ruthless rebel units still trouble east Africa. Terror groups run rampage up north. Corrupt public officials endlessly loot national treasuries across Africa. Hunger and diseases ravage in many corners. There remain plenty to write about with that same old undying passion.
It is obvious every generation in Africa need their own class of writers telling their stories with as much grace as the early writers did. Nadine Gordimer couldn’t have put it any better by stating, “I think that…you just make your own response to your own generation. A response adequate to your time.”
There is no doubt there are hundreds, even thousands of young African writers who are willing and equally capable of sprinting away with the baton. The message hence shall be; now is the time.
The likes of Chibundu Onuzo, NoViolet Bulawayo, Aminatta Forna, Ahmed Alaidy and many others have shown great promises with dazzling talents but most significant of the new generation in telling courageous African stories is arguably, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Her telling of the Biafra war in Half of a Yellow Sun was a fearless stomp into the darkest corner of her country’s history. A corner even the older folks with a first-hand experience of the war would rather stay away from as a matter of caution. Many who have been following trends in African literature would agree with me that Adichie in the company of a handful of others should and hopefully would lead the new battalion of African writers.
Written By: Ray Anyasi