Magnus Taylor is an editor of African Arguments.

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Magnus Taylor is an editor of African Arguments.

Where is African literature at today?

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Ngugi wa Thiongo’s work spans nearly 50 years


When Chinua Achebe, often referred to as ‘the father of African literature’, died earlier this year it seemed a good, if sad, opportunity to reflect on where the continent’s literature is today. Whilst it is difficult, or perhaps even meaningless, to compare authors from radically different eras, in terms of output if nothing else, writers of African origin are more prominent than ever before.

The Royal African Society’s annual festival of African writing, Africa Writes, will be held at the British Library from 5 to 7 July 2013. The event recognizes and celebrates the great variety of African writing and is being run in partnership with organizations including the Caine Prize, Kwani Literary Trust, Yardstick Festival and the Centre of African Studies.

If there is anyone who could be said to have taken over the mantle of continental man of letters from Achebe then it is probably Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiongo. A novelist and long-time political dissident, Ngugi’s work spans nearly 50 years including plays, novels, his prison diaries and influential critical essays. Whilst Ngugi fills the role of literary alpha male at Africa Writes, it is perhaps the younger generation that most clearly characterize where African literature is today.

Whilst Ngugi and Achebe’s literary preoccupations could broadly be described as being the varied corruptions of the postcolonial state, writers such as the British-Kenyan-Somali trio of Diriye Osman, Warsan Shire and Nadifa Mohamend, all appearing at Africa Writes, seem more concerned with their own sense of identity, and those of their literary and poetic creations as 21st century Africans.

Osman’s recently published collection of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, explores the lives of young gay and lesbian Somalis living in Kenya, Somalia and South London. His work exhibits a startlingly original voice that will surely challenge many within the Somali community, not noted for its openness about sexual identity, whilst surprising readers most familiar with the East African country for reports on Islamic militants and piracy.

Warsan Shire, the inaugural winner of Britain’s African Poetry Prize, writes poems characterized by themes of displacement and references to a ‘home’ that she has never lived in and the bodies and minds of people damaged in a war she has never experienced. This is not to suggest inauthenticity in Shire’s work, but rather to underline the fundamental role complex issues of identity plays in her art.

Completing the trio is Oxford-educated Nadifa Mohamed, who made her name with her first book Black Mamba Boy – the extraordinary story of her father’s life from Somaliland to street boy in colonial Aden and to London. Nadifa left Somaliland in 1986, but her ties to the country, as with Shire, remain intimate and her task, as she sees it, is to ‘memorialize the lives of people like my father.’

Africa Writes 2013 may be a demonstration that ‘African writing’ has become bigger and more obviously at ease with itself, moving out of the shadow of its Big Men. During the festival, writers, critics, publishers and commentators will interrogate many of the big questions surrounding African writing.

The showcased authors do not seem overly concerned with writing the next ‘great African novel’, a tag that seems to remain thankfully unused with reference to the continent’s literature. They do, however, do something more subtly novelistic – presenting small lives from which the reader may make inferences about the societies from which they originate. First and foremost these are stories and poems are about people, they just happen to be from the African continent.

You may wonder why we do not abandon the term ‘African writing’ at all, given the vast geographical space and countries incorporated within the description. A valid question, to be sure, but as with all genres and origins, African writing has developed its own history, echoing the increasing political integration of the continent.

Find out more information about the festival, including the full programme at the Africa Writes website.


Kenya still deciding


After two days of excruciatingly slow vote-counting in Kenya’s general election, on the evening of Wednesday 6 and the morning of Thursday 7 March things started moving again. However, the wait has meant that the politics surrounding the poll has also shifted up a gear as it becomes easier to make an educated guess as to who has won.

On 6 March the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced that it was abandoning the electronic delivery of votes to its headquarters at Bomas of Kenya – a centre for ‘Kenyan culture’ in the suburbs of Nairobi. The electronic process had suffered ‘technical difficulties’ that now appear to be more akin to a total failure. These results were only ever intended to be provisional, with the final tally being delivered manually by returning officers who would travel to Bomas with the results in official briefcases. A comparison between electronic and manually delivered results was supposed to guard against any rigging.

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Voters are still waiting for results DEMOSH, under a CC License

When the electronic system stalled with around 40 per cent of the vote counted, it seemed like the process would never end. At the IEBC media centre you could see foreign correspondents becoming increasingly desperate as a first, then a second, choir took the stage to keep us ‘entertained’. Some escaped for a long lunch in the swanky nearby neighbourhood of Karen while others abandoned the centre entirely, heading to Kibera (a nearby slum) to take the temperature of the locals. Most Kenyans seemed tense and perhaps a little tired of the whole process – an emotion with which I became increasingly sympathetic.

As the manual count proceeded fairly smoothly into the morning of Thursday 7 March CORD – the party of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga – called a surprise press conference. Raila himself didn’t turn up; instead, his vice-presidential candidate Kalonzo Musyoka, an articulate and urbane individual, but thought by many Kenyans as being a bit indecisive, made a statement. This made clear that CORD is currently very unhappy with the way the count is progressing and wants vote-tallying to be stopped and restarted using primary documents. He stated that Kenyan electoral law requires both electronic and manual tallying of the results. CORD is stating that it has serious reservations about the credibility of the count and that the responsibility lies with the IEBC.

Such statements will resurrect bad memories among Kenyans of the 2007 polls, when a rejection of the results by Raila Odinga, and a call for mass action, precipitated a post-election disaster in which over 1,000 people were killed. It should be noted, however, that Musyoka was clear in maintaining CORD’s commitment to the rule of law. However, if their demands are not met regarding the manual process then they will ‘consider other options’. The first of these would likely be an attempt to gain a court injunction to restart the count, but Musyoka was evasive on what the full range of options would be.

So why this statement now, when on my last count only 108 constituencies have reported (out of a total of 290)? Official results place Kenyatta ahead by around 600,000 votes, but there is still a long way to go.

The rumour is that CORD has done its own tallies and knows it doesn’t have the votes. Whilst pre-election polls placed both CORD and the Jubilee alliance on around 45 per cent, a small number of quietly confident analysts and Jubilee supporters told me that they were very close to winning in the first round. If this now comes to pass (and only time will tell), then it would seem to explain Musyoka’s statement this morning. Either way, CORD is playing a dangerous game, one that most Kenyans will not relish in the least.

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