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Since literature is unimaginable and inconceivable outside the context of language, the issue of language
is central in discussions of African Literature. Colonization of Africa brought about cultural alienation
and one of them being the diffusion of the European languages into the African culture rendering the
African languages to occupy an underprivileged position. This can be attributed to the fact that the
European languages were used as the medium of instructions in schools consequently making them to be
the languages of the African elite. Most of the early literary writers adopted the use of these imposed
languages including Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Leopold Senghor, Wole Soyinka among other
African writers. But with the need to define African literature, there has been a debate about the language
which the African literature should adopt for it to be regarded as African literature. This debate has
brought ideological division among the African writers with some like Ngũgĩ questioning the
circumstances under which the African writers accepted ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position
of English in our literature’ while other like Achebe supporting the use of the European languages with
the view that ‘it will be able to carry the weight of his African experience.

Keywords: African, Literature, Conference, Language

Africa; African; Literature: Terms’ Meanings

We could not start talking about African Literature before knowing what the terms “Africa”,
“African” and “Literature” mean:

Africa corresponds to the world's second largest and most-populous continent (the first being
Asia in both categories). At about 30.3 million km2 (11.7 million square miles) including
adjacent islands, it covers 6% of Earth's total surface area and 20% of its total land area. It hosts
a large diversity of ethnicities, cultures and languages.

African stands for anything from or pertaining to the continent of Africa.

Literature, most generically, is any body of written works. More restrictively, literature writing is
considered to be an art form, or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value,
often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage (…) it can be classified
according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction, and whether it is poetry or prose. It can be
further distinguished according to major forms such as the novel, short story or drama; and
works are often categorized according to historical periods or their adherence to
certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre). (Wikipedia)

Literature is an author’s creative work with particular artistic value on mankind. The author
writes to amuse, teach, and inform. Moreover the three major categories of literature: prose,
drama and poetry, there are other sub-categories: short-story, folktale and myth. Since the author
is reflecting the society with it, literature could be divided into two major fields - fiction and
nonfiction. Such a categorization will consider a phylum like novel, tragedy, comedy, and
poetry. Because literature does not function in a vacuum, the mean of comparison are the
function of setting, characterization, themes and style which embraces African Literature.

African Literature

A straight forward attempt on defining African Literature by The Columbia Electronic

Encyclopedia is: African literature, literary works of the African continent. African literature
consists of a body of work in different languages and various genres, ranging from oral
literature to literature written in colonial languages (French, Portuguese, and English).
As fixed and basic the terms sound, defining African literature in a general and encompassing
manner has certainly not an easy achievement. Several writers have given philosophical, cultural
and literary contributions to the term in an attempt to convey a standard definition. This concept
has been intensively debated among African writers. Among the most popular topics are the
forced influence of European elements on African writers and the usage of English and other
national languages when writing about African culture and literature.

Literature is known to carry literary elements and techniques that push the reader to read
literarily, reflectively, and practically (applying the text to its context). The debate over the
language of African literature has generated significant interest ever since the beginning of
African literary writing in the European languages.

Language is often on focus in postcolonial studies. This problem of language has been brought

out by the imposition and the encouragement of the dominance of the European native language

on the colonized to the extent that even the colonised were forbidden to speak their mother

tongues. Ashcroft et al. argues that: control over language became the main feature of imperial

oppression. He further foregrounds that: fact that ‘the imperial education system installs a

‘standard’ version of metropolitan language as the norm, and marginalizes all ‘variants’ (African

indigenous languages) as impurities’ (1989: 7). As a result of this, language became the medium

through which hierarchical structure of power were perpetuated during the colonial period, and

the medium through which conceptions of truth, reality and order were established.

The Makerere Conference (Uganda, 1962)

The debate on which language the African writers should use has been going on since the early

nineteen sixties after its instigation during the 1962: ‘A Conference of African Writers of English

Expression.’ Though there has been no clear-cut solution to this debate because of the opposing

perspectives by the African major writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Leopold
Senghor among others. Several questions have been raised with regard to which is the best

language that African writers should adopt for purposes of their literary work. The imposition of

foreign culture has had detrimental effects on the African folklore with its infusion of modern

mannerism including its ways of speaking and consequently writing. Ngũgĩ (1994) tells of his

boyhood in Kenya, of how he was taught in his native language at school when suddenly the

British Authorities forced schools to teach in English during the State of Emergency in nineteen

fifty-two. This validates the fact that the Europeans forced their languages on Africa. But the

question still remains: should African literature be written in African language? Ngũgĩ terms the

using of the European languages to map out the African experience as unfortunate and feels that

by doing this, we are enriching another culture with our own experience.

Ngũgĩ and Achebe’s criticisms are what dominated the 1962 debate. Ngũgĩ’s argument against

the use of Europeans languages in African literature centres on the devastating role these

languages played in the colonization process. This process of colonization is brought out in

Decolonizing the Mind where he intrigues that ‘language was the most important vehicle through

which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of physical

subjugation while the language was the means of psychological subjugation’ (p. 9).

His main perspective was that the use of European languages by African writers was a deliberate

perpetuation of this subjugation, which he believed an African writer must take upon himself or

herself the responsibility of countering it. Achebe believed that the European languages could

carry the weight of his African experience contrary to Ngũgĩ who believed that African writers

cannot use these imposed languages and still achieve this goal. His radical shift from the use of
the European languages to the use of an indigenous African language (Gikuyu), was a way of

fighting imperialism: ‘I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an

African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African

peoples” (p. 28). The overtone in this statement is Ngũgĩ‘s belief in the important role of

working class and peasantry in the continued struggle against the persistent influence of colonial

forces in the post-independence Africa. For him, a real African literature will only emerge after

the Africans writers have severed ties with English, a colonial imposition. He argues that any

efforts to free Africans from the colonizing structures without first repudiating the European

languages are doomed from the very beginning.

African writers and critics met at Makerere University in Uganda in 1962 at “A Conference of
African Writers of English Expression”, to deal with the fundamental question of determining
who qualified as an African writer and what constituted African writing. In his essay, “The
African Writer and English Language” (91-105), Achebe notes that in the conference, he and
fellow African scholars tried to define African literature. He writes:
There was one thing that we tried to do and failed — and that was to
define ‘African literature’ satisfactorily. Was it literature produced in
Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or
must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent, or
south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? The conference produced a
tentative definition as follows: ‘Creative writing in which an African
setting is authentically handled or to which experiences originating in
Africa are integral.’ We are told specifically that Conrad's “Heart of
Darkness” qualifies as African literature while Graham Greene's “Heart
of the Matter” fails because it could have been set anywhere outside
Africa. I could not help being amused by the curious circumstance in
which Conrad, a Pole writing in English, could produce African literature
while Peter Abrahams would be ineligible should he write a novel based
on his experiences in the West Indies. Those who in talking about African
literature want to exclude North Africa because it belongs to a different
tradition surely do not suggest that black Africa is anything like
homogeneous. (97)

He observes that they gave up trying. Indeed in the debate there was a struggle to define the term
African Literature. At first several members attempted a few words for instance, saying that
“African literature is literature by an African”, but soon after reading the arguments of other
members with the same speed, they had to turn back and started redefining the term. No one has
such struggle on defining American, Caribbean, European, Latin or Asian Literatures, yet there
is a serious dilemma when it comes to defining African Literature. The conference
unsuccessfully identified a definition that fit.

Since its recognition as an independent as an area of influence in creative, African literature has
on occasion taken the form of a discourse about faithfulness to African roots that antithetically
ignores its very own roots. To be specific, the focus to a return to true origins, and particularly
with defining the original constitutes of African literature, has focused attention to the language
and identity in African literature.

A year later (1963), Obi Wali, a Nigerian critic, writing in his essay “The Dead End of African
Literature”, in the 10th transition says: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the
conference (…) is that African literature as now defined and understood leads nowhere?” Wali
finished his paper by stating that literature written in European languages was not eligible to be
African literature. Additionally he reinforced his sight by saying that: until African writers
accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would
be only trailing a dead end.

Since the Makerere conference two sides have emerged, one by Chinua Achebe, supported by
Wole Soyinka, the Honorable Laureate who has written many plays including “The Lion and
Jewel”, and another by Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has written several award-winning books which
include “Weep Not, Child” (1964), “A Grain of Wheat” (1967), “Petals of Blood” (1977) and the
“Devil on the Cross” (1980).

Although Achebe strongly contradicted Wali’s argument by arguing that: We may go on

resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of
doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the
world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it. Wa Thiong’o, one of
the most significant writers in post-colonial Africa who has played an important role in the
continuance of anti-imperialist literature, embraced it thus changing the call for a return to
African languages into a critical movement that has persisted for more than four decades.

In “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature” (1994), Ngugi
speaks of the destructive effects of colonialism on African literature, education and culture. He
describes the conflict between the economic and cultural independence of African people. Ngugi
views language and literature as playing a central role in this struggle. He asserts that language is
essential to people’s self-perception and to their view of the universe.

In evaluating the two contending views, we can conclude that Achebe’s claims that he has
inherited English and that he will make it carry his Ibo experience seem very practical as
demonstrated by his “Things Fall Apart”. However, one realises that in the same novel, Achebe
is writing back, meaning that he is expressing and explaining African pride in English with Ibo
expressions, proverbs and thought. His audience is apparently white people and/or English
speaking public. That does not seem fair that he is thus feeding and expanding English with Ibo
and not retuning anything to Ibo.

On the other hand, while Ngugi’s arguments are patriotic to Africa, they run into practical
problems. Ngugi himself became well known through writing and publishing in English. It
sounds unfair for him to ask others to stop doing what brought fame to him. It is interesting to
note that since the declaration that he would only write in Gikuyu, Ngugi translates to English
whatever he writes in Gikuyu and immediately having wider audiences.

The reason why African Literature is difficult to define is because even the word African has not
gotten a fixed definition. The reason it has no concrete definition is because the African and all
that surrounds him/her has always been defined by others. The reason why it has always been
defined by others is because the African has been very cosmic and enshrined into the lives and
cultures of all other people in the world. Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia cannot have
the annals of their historicity without talking of Africans therein. Indeed defining Africa or
identifying an African is even more of an ambiguous task. The modern day African struggles
with self-determination and identity clashes.

Defining the term has only thrown up more questions than answers. African writers themselves
seem to be lost in this dilemma. The literary works of Africans have shown that we are still
struggling to define ourselves. There is so much cultural pollution. An African in diaspora would
certainly reflect western values in his works, perhaps more vividly than those of his roots.

When people are used to rejecting who and what they are, then their neighbors will help define
them. "No father living in a sandcastle should buy the child a water gun as a Christmas gift,"
and "an animal with a long tail must be careful as it crosses the road," the Africans say. Africans
must consider how cosmic they are before they start to doubt who they are because it transcends
the present into the future.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend as pointed out earlier is the unidirectional approach at
clarifying this concept. Tales of war, child soldiers, kidnappings, corruptions, widowhood are
shaping the definition of African literature. African writers with foreign counterparts are painting
a picture of a dark and hopeless continent. African writers are fuelling the fire of cultural
genocide in distorting the true picture of what African literature should entail. There is the need
for more works which would celebrate rather than berate the continent.

Another conference was held at Fourah Bay to discuss African literature and defined it as,
“creative writing in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experiences
originating from Africa are integral.” For Achebe and his colleagues therefore, African Literature
cannot be one unit but a group of associated units- in fact, the sum total of national and ethnic
literatures of Africa. A national literature is one that takes the whole nation for its province and
has realized audience throughout its territory because it is written in the national language.
Achebe therefore refers to all works written in African ethnic languages as ethnic literatures
because they are only available to one ethnic group. In the Kenyan example, national literature
for Achebe is that written in Kiswahili and English

There is also the issue of generational gap. Each generation of African writers have brought its
own set of ideologies, world views and how phenomena are interpreted. If Soyinka was to read a
science fiction novel by Ayo Arigbabu, what would he think? If contemporary works by
Africans contains less proverbs, does it make it any more less African? If we chose to dispel
mysticism and superstition and replace masquerades with terrorists and bombs, does it make it a
western imitation?

Indeed the picture depicted shows the looming gap in identifying ourselves as a people. Until we
Africans chose to takes a common stance on our identity, the split personality would continue.
The present day African struggles to define himself, and depends on what others define him to
be. This has reflected in our literature. Concisely put, if we are to define African literature
successfully, let us start with ourselves first.
Nonetheless, a common characteristic in African Literature is the use of proverbs which Achebe
defines as “The palm oil with which words are eaten”. African languages not having a wider
vocabulary seem to strive better in a compact language and because conversation is always
intense, non-prosaic language is required. Consequently, one would easily know an African
Literature because of a high volume of proverbs in it; in addition to the fact that it was written by
an African, about Africans.