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The Search for An African Literary Convention



JUNE 29 2018.

This paper is a study of The Search for an African Literary Convention. This paper examines
Obiajunwa Wali’s controversial paper, “The Dead End of African Literature” which he presented at
Makerere University in 1962, where he argued that unless African literature is written in African
language, it cannot be reckoned as African literature. It also examines Adrian Roscoe’s biased views
that any literary work written in English language must belong to British literature and must be
judged by British literary standards. It further analyses Frantz Fanon’s task to African literary
intellectuals to evolve a brand of literature to contend with the current European dominated literary
forms, if ever they hoped of rescuing African literature from the clutches of European cultures.
Chinweizu et al argue that it was wrong to use foreign parameters to judge African literature. Based
on the divergent views above, the paper pursues the theses that language alone does not qualify as
literature and that it is scientifically wrong to use a foreign instrument to measure domestic
phenomenon. Such exercise would amount to futility. The paper employs Cultural Studies to analyze
these discordant tones herein. In conclusion, the paper recommends Afro-aesthetics as the marker to
evaluate African literature. The paper believes that if this is adopted, it will lay to rest the lingering
controversies over an acceptable convention for African literature and also it would decolonize and
liberate African literature from European literary colonization.
The last few decades witnessed an unmitigated scholarly debate within the premises of African
literature. The bone of contention is centred on the crux of Obiajunwa Wali’s paper titled “The Dead
End of African literature” which he presented at Makerere University 1962.
The consequence of this kind of literature is that it lacks any blood and stamina, and has no
means of self-enrichment. It is severely limited to the European-oriented, a few college
graduates in the new universities of Africa, steeped as they are, in European literature and
culture. But the ordinary local graduates, with little or no education in the conventional
European literature, and who constitute an overwhelming majority, has no chance of
participating in this kind of literature. Less than one percent of the Nigerian people have had
access to, or ability to understand Wole Soyinka‘s Dance of the Forest. Yet, this was the play
staged to celebrate their National independence, tagged onto the idiom and traditions of a
foreign culture. (282).
Obi Wali in the text above, strongly believed and advocated for African literature that should not only
be composed in African language, but should wear all the attributes of African culture, if it should
actually be reckoned as African literature. He argued that if such work is written in English, French,
Portuguese or any other foreign language, it would only reflect the culture of that particular society.
He sounds pessimistic due to the onerous task which crafting African literature in African language
would generate. He concludes that until African literature (prose, poem or play) is written in African
language it would never be truly African literature.
To further accelerate the issue of the language of Africa literature, Adrian Roscoe’s work
Mother is God (1971) further rekindled the fire of the debate as he argues, “if an African writes in
English, his work must be considered as belonging to English’s letters as a whole, and can be
scrutinized accordingly (x) in English Language, that particular work is English etc, not regarding the
other paraphernalia and the whole gamut that creates and ties such a work with its regionality.
The dividing line between Obi Wali and Roscoe is that, while Wali’s was born out of a sense
of patriotism, the latter stemmed from the arrogant spirit of selfishness-an arrogant sense of
superiority. These might have influenced the need for African literary writers to explore ways of
plying their art fully in African language; for it to be truly authentic African literary work.
In 1980s, Chinweizu et al published the trail-blazing work, Toward Decolonization of African
Literature vol.1, in which they argue that African literature is different from other foreign literatures
even though they are written in English and since they are different, it would be wrong to judge them
by using the parameters that are employed in judging English, French, or Portuguese literatures.
Based on the above positions, this paper aims at making some contributions, which it believes
would provide some useful insight in the evergreen debate. Since this discourse has regional bias, it is
important to employ Cultural Studies to assist in shaping the debate.
Cultural Theory designates a recent and rapidly growing cross-disciplinary enterprise for
analyzing the conditions that affect the production, reception, and cultural significance of all types of
institutions, practices, and products, among these, literature is accounted as one of many forms of
cultural signifying practices. The concept of cultural theory seeks to establish or promote what is
considered the lower forms of arts that appeal to a much larger body of consumers. It achieves this by
typically paying less attention to works in the established literary canon and popular fictions, best-
selling romances, etc. Furthermore, within the corridor of literature and traditional arts, a frequent
undertaking is to move to the centre of cultural study to those works that have been marginalized or
excluded by the aesthetic ideology of European intellectuals and the likes of Adrian Roscoe.
The precursors to Cultural Studies according to M H Abrams, were attributed to Roland
Barthes in his work “Mythologies” (1957) and later Raymond William in “Culture and Society
(1958), Richard Hoggart “The Uses of Literary” (1958). Scott and Marshal (2005) explain that both
Raymond William and Thompson studied the lived dimensions of culture, the active and collective
process of fashioning meaningful ways out of life. (131).
The dichotomy between European and African literary intellectuals is on the issues of the
language of African literature. While the likes of Adrian Roscoe believe that why African literature is
written in English might have been because African languages are not good enough for such literary
expressions and therefor anyone attempting to express any literary work in English, French,
Portuguese, Spanish and other foreign languages should follow the established traditions which such
language represents, because such work belongs to such culture. This is why Obi Wali and Chinweizu
et al believe that such position amounts to an attempt at sentencing African literature within the inner
cleft of literary colonialism.
This may not have been unconnected with Frantz Fanon’s advocating that indigenous
intellectuals and artists should create a new or another brand of literature, to work in the cause of
constructing a national culture. This paper seeks to make a dialectical appraisal of the issues and
opinions raised by Obi Wali, Adrian Roscoe, Frantz Fanon as well as Chinweizu et al. This paper will
pursue the thesis that African literature is unique whether expressed in African or foreign languages.
It will further pursue the belief that what makes a literary work African is not necessary the issue of
language alone but the content of the literary works speaks a volume as to the origin and regionality
of such work. Lastly, while it is necessary not to judge an African poem by western parameters,
African poems have socio-cultural yardsticks which African literary works can conveniently be

Literature: A Universal Phenomenon.

Literature is a universal phenomenon. When it is seen from Plato’s view in his book Republic as
translated by Robin Waterfield (1993) argues that literature like all other concepts “exists in the ideal
state and things we see here are only copies or representation” of the original (343). It follows that
for the fact that there are literatures around suggests that there is the original “LITERATURE” in the
ideal state. What literary artists do is to copy from it and domesticate it to suit the needs of such local
region. This explains why there are regional literatures like English Literature, American Literature,
Caribbean, African-American literatures as well as African Literature to mention a few. By the very
existence of the regional adjective in the phrase initial position, differentiates one literature from
another loudly proclaims that the literatures are no longer the same. This is to argue that African
literature is different from English Literature. Though, they may resemble one another, but they are
not the same. It would therefore be erroneous to assume that African literature is the same with other
literatures around the world just because it is written in English or other foreign languages. What
unites African literature with other literatures today arguably are the form, language of expression and
theoretical framework with which literature is consumed. But content wise, they are not really the
same, just as their titles suggest their differences.

On the Language of African Literature

Obi Wali strongly advocated for African literature in African language. According to him:
It is either that or nothing. An African writer who thinks and feels in his own language must
write in that language. The question of transliteration, whatever that means, is unwise as it is
unacceptable, for the original which is spoken of here is the real stuff of literature and the
imagination, and must not be discarded in favour of a copy, which as the passage admits, is
merely an approximation. (283).
It is obvious that writing literary work in some African languages would pose some daunting and
enervating challenges. But language is just one aspect of literary experience. Literature is not all
about language only. There are other aspects that uphold literature. In fact, what does the language of
literature express about?
Africa is extra-ordinarily divergent continent; there are numerous languages and dialects. Now
which language should African writers adopt to enjoy wider readership? In Nigeria alone; there are
well over four hundred ethnic languages and dialects. It will amount to effort in futility? If Achebe
had crafted Things Fall Apart in Igbo language, the problem of which Igbo dialect to use would have
been a big issue. Also, would the Western scholars have read it? If the colonialist could not have read
it, would the novel have achieved the desired effect as a novel that confronted colonialism and
showcasing African belief system and civilization effectively? The issue of one’s audience is critical
in literary work. Does a writer write for himself or for his audience? Does that audience exclude non-
Africans? What is wrong in writing in a cosmopolitan language: a language that enjoys almost greater
readership and followership?
Also important is the question of translation, if a literary work is written in African language
and then translated into other foreign languages, does the translated version become the literary work
of the translated culture? This question is also pertinent because transliteration is important in that
every writer conceives the work in his mind based on the culture he is familiar and if written in
foreign language, that version is seen as the translated version.
Furthermore, if an African bears English name as well as speaks English language alongside
his original African language or dialect, does such person automatically become an English man? Of
course, the answer is an emphatic NO! What makes such person African does not lie in his name or
the language alone. But on his general disposition, mannerisms, world view and his cultural place of
origin: viz as viz his culture and tradition. In the same way, the essence of African literature cannot be
found only in the language of expression alone.
In this particular paper that Wali presented at Makerere University in 1962, there is no record
to show that the paper was written in traditional Ikwerre Language, and also during the presentation
at the seminar, that he did it in Ikwerre Language. Why did he resort to using English Language
instead? This fact has undermined the very essence of what he aims at achieving. One would have
thought that he would set the example. After all, seeing, is believing! And also ought to have set the
needed example! He did not do that. Was it an omission or an outright deliberation? This paper wants
to believe that it was deliberate because he knew; no one in that seminar auditorium would have
understood him. Why force others to do what you know it is really impracticable and unnecessary all
in the name of achieving independence? The pursuit of a utopic freedom that would create more
contradictions, confusions, retardations and problems is not worthwhile but a plunging into further
abyss of colonialism.
Can English Language today be said to be sole language of England? The answer again is no.
Can African English used by Achebe in Things Fall Apart be said to be the same as the Australian,
New Zealandish, American or British English? English Language has undergone a lot of regional
appropriations and domestications. The position of Chinua Achebe on this subject is apt. English is
foisted on us, against our wish, therefore it is only wise to use it as one deems fit, if only such would
convey one’s intended message, it is alright. This is appropriation. By appropriation, it is meant the
principle of importing or copying a phenomenon and domesticating it as ones’ own. Based on this, it
is erroneous to say that English is still the sole and bona fide language of Britain alone now. Other
Englishes have sprung up everywhere and are identified with each particular region. It would not be
true to assume that the language that Achebe employed in Things Fall Apart is purely English but
African English Language. And so, by the differentiating adjective Nigerian English, African English
are not the same as British English. So the issue of African literature that must be written in African
language is neither here nor there since such literary works are written in an Africanized English
The paper also believes that if colonialism uses AK47 rifle to attack and hold one captive,
common sense requires that the captive must use the same AK 47 rifle to confront his captors.
Traditional bow and arrow might not be ideal. If Achebe had not turned the same weapon the
colonialists used on Africa, the literary campaign would not have been successful.
Finally, African language is necessary in crafting African literature but it will achieve far more
advantage if written in English Language or French (a cosmopolitan language) than if written in in a
local language. Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote one of his plays I will Marry When I Want” in Gukuyu
Language. Unfortunately it did not enjoy wider popularity like his other works such as Weep Not
Child, Petals of Blood, River Between, A Grain of Wheat, etc, of what benefit is it to the world? It
only gained popularity when it was translated into English Language.
Whether anybody likes it or not, the world has become a global village. This feat is brought
about by the fluidity of language, cosmopolitan languages. Therefore, the languages are only a
necessity which everyone in all spheres of life is converting to advantage. African literature does not
stand to lose anything but gain more if written in any cosmopolitan language but stands to lose more
if cocooned in a language that does not enjoy wider understandability and readership. This arguably
will project African literature the more in the committee of nations of literatures.
The arguments of Chinwezu et al did not hinge much on the of language use but rather on the
parameters of judgment. Their arguments are that, if African poems are judged or evaluated with
same yardsticks used in Western literature, it will amount to hoisting upon oneself the yoke of
colonialism. Hence they seek African parameters with which African literature should be accessed,
judged and consumed.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o aptly puts the issue into clearer perspectives in this text.
But all over Africa there was a similar development-resurgence of African language
literatures. The written tradition in African languages was superseded by that of writing in
European to languages. Here once again Africans turned that which was meant to imprison
then into a weapon of struggle. They took the language of Europe to denounce colonialism or
simply to assert their negritude from the slave narratives of Equiano and others to the fictional
narratives of Chinua Achebe, the literature produced celebrated the struggle against
colonialism and asserted the African presence in the world. (22).
There was no way these works would have achieved their desired effects if they were coined in Igbo,
Yoruba, Hausa, Izon, Swahili or Gikuyu languages alone.

Africanness in African Literature.

What defines a literary work is not the adjective of its regionality alone but the content of
such. There are issues that are peculiar to African landscape of which, if absent, the work would never
be regarded is African literature. To this end, a pertinent question is this, can one; with all sense of
sincerity accept Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) as an English novel just because it was
written in English Language? Would Achebe have done justice to the novel if he had named his
protagonist James White instead of Okonkwo Unoka; winter and snow instead of dry season? English
rhyme instead of the oral songs; Christmas, Easter, church harvest services, Sunday services instead
of traditional new yam festivals and shrines and masquerade dances? Would the novel have achieved
verisimilitude of Africanity?
This brings us to the concept of verisimilitude in literature. Verisimilitude helps a literary
work to achieve a-near-reality image. It is this quality that accords literature its regionality. Therefore,
what makes African literature African is the whole plethora of socio-cultural issues. Most of African
literature (in all its genres-poetry, drama and prose) is rooted in the orality of the literary artiste’s
cultural background. Therefore any literary work that does not depict cultural African experiences is
not really African even though crafted in African language.
On Frantz Fanon’s Indigenous Literature
Decolonization does not only mean duplicating every facet of our life: every aspect that has any
affinity with the western culture. Running away completely from Euro-eccentrism will not give
Africa the much needed international respect. Rather than running away from the contentious issues
by floating another version of the game, would it not rather be easier to work harder by employing
western method and beat the Westerners at their own game? For instance, when Nigeria’s Dream
team I went to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, no one gave Nigerian team a change of beating the
best of European and American teams to emerge the best; Nigeria then brought respect and
recognition to Nigeria and Africa at large. Would that achievement have been possible if Nigeria
floated another version of soccer or a parallel African Olympic game? This is why Smith Linda
Tuhiwai (2005) has argues that:
Decolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonialism at multiple
levels. For researchers, one of those levels is concerned with having a more critical
understanding of the underlying assumptions, motivations and values which inform research
practices. (95).
The main thrust of the text above, is for researchers to come to grips with and interrogate the issues
which project African values in African literary works. These values would in turn serve as
motivations and reinforce that resolve to dismantle colonial vestiges and then afford African literature
a deserved place in the committee of nations.
If Chinua Achebe did not write the trail-blazing Things Fall Apart (1958), Arrow of God
(1958) Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood, Weep Not Child, River Between, etc, western
intellectuals would not have believed, Africans possess such high power of creative imagination. The
accolades that follow are signs of victory or rather triumph over colonialism. It would have amounted
to an aberration and grave injustice if Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and indeed other great
African writers are not named in the annals of great creative writers in the world.
These writers were able to achieve this through individual hard work, and leveraging on the
African socio-cultural issues, and also on how the colonial machineries oppress and suppress
Africanity. The works of these great writers are succeeding to put the records straight, because
Africans believe, in the words of Maori Patricia Grace colonial writings view:
They do not reinforce our values, actions, customs, culture and identity. (2) When they tell us
only about others they are saying that we do not exist. (3) They may be writing about us but
are writing things which are untrue; and (4) they are writing about us but saying negative and
insensitive things which tell the world that we are not good (21).
Opinions above are almost some of the motivations behind African writers taking up the
gauntlet thrown at us by the likes of Joseph Conrad and Joyce Carey, to put the issues on their right
perspectives; by employing the foreign weapons to attack the spurious premises of the foreign
writers. If the African writers had invented another brand of literature and coined in Achebe’s Igbo
language and wa Thiong’o’s Gikuyu Language, would they have achieved these feat? In lending a
strong voice to this discourse Tuhiwai further has affirmed as follows:
A critical aspect of the struggle for self-determination has involved questions relating to our
history as indigenous peoples and a critique of how we, as the other, have been represented or
excluded from various accounts. Every issue has been approached by indigenous peoples with
a view to rewriting and rerighting our position in history. Indigenous peoples want to tell our
own stories, write our own versions in our own ways, for our own purposes. It is not simply
about giving an oral account or a genealogical naming of the land and the events which raged
over it, but a very powerful need to give testimony to and restore a spirit to bring back into
existence a world fragmented and dying. (102-103).
The issues above lend voice to the salient need to tell our stories ourselves. After all “he who feels the
pain knows where it pinches him most? It is only Africans that can tell their stories correctly even
using one of the colonialist’s methods or weapons to counter the denigrative and subjugative weapons
they employ will make such venture more interesting.
Also to further underscore this issue of fashioning imperialist weapon against them, Emenanjo
Nolue: quoted in Okoh
... Things Fall Apart was an open threat to centuries of European fantasies and distortions of
African reality symbolized by such African classics as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,
and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson. Today Achebe enjoys the irrefutable reputation of Africa’s
master story-teller, while Things Fall Apart (now in over fifty world languages, and over eight
million copies in sales) is widely acclaimed as the model and foundation of the modern
African literary traditions. (Emenyonu Preface (x) 22).
The concern of the text above is that these African classics are inside stories which can only be told
truthful by Africans. It is difficult to imagine that these African classics would have made indelible
marks on the world literary marble if they were crafted in their native languages or through another
medium other than established western form, they would not have achieved this success.
The fore-goings are also applicable to the other genres and subgenres of literature. Therefore,
there is no need for another literature as enunciated by Fanon, or resorting to local languages to
achieve prowess in literature at international arena.

The Search for an African Literary Convention

Probably as a result of the views expressed by some western scholars that any literary work written in
English language should be regarded as an English literary work and must be subjected to European
standards of literary evaluation, African literary scholars see this as an attempt at recolonizing African
literature. Chinweizu and others representing the voice of some sections of African literary
scholarship believe that it is wrong to classify African literary work written in English, French,
Portuguese languages as an English work, French, or Portuguese or belonging to such foreign culture.
How on earth could Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Arrow of God, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s
Petals of Blood and Devil on Cross, Ayi kweh Amah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Born, Ola Rotimi’s
The Gods Are Not To Blame; Gabriel Okara’s The Call of the River Nun, and The Fisherman’s
Invocation; to mention just a few as English work. Even though language preserves literature and
literature refreshes the stream of language, literature embodies a lot other regional socio-cultural
properties that tie and identify them with African geographical space. Therefore, to ignore these
properties is to misunderstand African literature.
Following Kantian age of Enlightenment theory of “art for art’s sake” Most western scholar
pay attention only to the literary works based on their formal properties alone; devoid of references to
like history, and contextual backgrounds, politics and other nuances. If this theory is imposed on
African literature, African literature would lose its potency, flavour and beingness.
Furthermore, the western attempt at usurping African literary works based on their foreign
language status is colonization, to which Chinweizu and company protest. Now, what does it mean to
decolonize African literature? Wa Thiong’o’s 1997 work has argued that mind control through culture
was the key! Central to that cultural subjugation was a necessary condition for economics and
political control. He further stated that Amilcar Cabral has argued that to dominate a nation by force
of arms is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralize and paralyze its culture. But
as long as a section of the populace is able to have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure
of its perpetuation” seed of cultural opposition could so easily erupt into political resistance and even
armed opposition (9). So, for the fact that African has always boasted of a full-blooded, vibrant
literature and culture, colonialism will not succeed easily even though African literary works are
written in the European languages.

Recommendation: Afro-Aesthetics:
African literature (poem inclusive) is the works composed or written by Africans, about Africans and
for Africans as its primary focus. Works that portray African sensibilities: literary works that
showcase African socio-cultural life, and works that highlight African communal (norms and values
as well as geographical and environmental realities. Works, whose preoccupations are geared towards
reviving in Africans hope in the midst of hopelessness. Works punctuated with African geo-political
manifestations with the view of re-engineering and reconfiguring communal development: works that
interrogate the exclusions that the western nations slam on African; works that rekindle a sense of
humanness in Africanity-to generate a sense of pride in Africanness; and works that are capable of
creating a renewed sense of pride in blackness. These are some of the issues any true African literary
work seeks to address.
Also, African literature is those literary works that capture the essence of African oral literary
life and emphasize on the flora and fauna of African environmental landscapes. Works like these can
stand face to face with their European counterpart to stir each other eyeball to eyeball without African
literature yielding an inch or blinking a second. African literary works like these are indomitable,
unchainable, full-blooded and assertive and can stand firmly, holding his head high in committee of
literary works, can only be composed and written by Africans who feel the pain of colonialism, racial
segregation, and alienations on all fronts. Even though such works are expressed in European
languages it is still African literary work.
Therefore, to adequately judge or evaluate African poems, the critic ought to look for and
whether the poem (other literary genres inclusive) exhibit these character traits enumerated above.
This is in line with Joseph George’s observations that:
Literature can also imply an artistic use of words for the sake of art alone… traditionally;
Africans do not radically separate art from teaching. Rather than write or sing for beauty in
itself, African writers taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate
important truths and information to society. Indeed, an object is considered beautiful because
of the truths it reveals and the communities it helps to build. (1).
This affirmed to the fact that African literary writers are teachers, performers, educators and
entertainers; communicating African cultural values and world views which are aimed at engendering
egalitarian society. This is the better aspect of beauty in poem which African writers aim at achieving.
In addition to George’s observation above is that demonstrated by Kudzai Matereke and Jacob
Mapara (2007) while commenting on the aesthetics of Shona proverbs have argued:
Traditional society emphasized beauty as holistic to include such elements as moral
uprightness and humility as the sole markers of inner beauty. While physical or outer beauty
was appreciated, looking for it as the sole desirable quality as done in the modern pageants
misses the core of the way the traditional Shona society conceptualized it. (i).
This paper agrees with this position. True African poets would not sing songs for beauty alone. But
would rather sing songs that would help mould and remould African societies. In fact, what beautifies
a poem is the advice and warning it offers; and knowledge it seeks to disseminate. These are realized
in their themes.
Finally the best way to judge whether a literary composition expressed in African or foreign
languages is African literary work, is to search for the African markers, and colorations. Any work
that exhibits enough of Africanities can then be seen as a true African literature
. This agrees with Chinweizu et al that it is wrong to judge African literature with the western
standards because by virtue of their qualifying adjectives, western literature and African literature are
not the same. How successful could one be to employ the same parameter to administer a judgment
on two different entities? Any attempt at using western ruler to measure African poems amounts to
recolonizing African poetry. Western yardsticks should be used for western poems, while African
literary Afro-aesthetics for African poems. This, no doubt, would enhance a sense and spirit of
African literary freedom.
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