Will the pro-poor writers please stand up

By IAfrica
In Zimbabwe
Aug 24th, 2014
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Wole Soyinka (above left) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Wole Soyinka (above left) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Stanely  Mushava Literature Today

Africa needs a deluge of liberation theology, even a flurry of potent anti-capitalist polemics to plug the void occasioned by post-nationalist tendencies in contemporary literature.

The frontispiece of African literature is nationalist sentiment. From the outset, the continent’s creative canon has assumed an overtly patriotic tenor, varying between durable writing and political ear candy.

While this undercurrent has been long directed against colonial injustice, there is need to locate new frontiers, chiefly inequality within Africa, which is by far the biggest problem of our day.

Writers must foreground on their taskbars the reconfiguration of Africa into a more habitable space for the poor who saddle the brunt of uneven development, misappropriation of resources and municipal dysfunction.

The poetics of justice must conjure up seared consciences in a continent where the rich fare sumptuously like Arab oil barons while the poor are haunted by the fear of tomorrow.

History has long remained a soft target for African writers, with most writers heaping their patriotic indignation on colonialism.
Imperialist tentacles being an enduring influence in the African society, it is impossible to detach history from contemporary affairs.

However, there is need to progress beyond hindsight and burrow into capitalist indulgence and the tribulations of the poor on the continent as witnessed in our day.
The problems of poverty, inequality and economic injustice no longer merely contrast Africa and the global North but have become precipitate between the continent’s super-rich corporates and politicians and the poor.

There is need to stop specialising with the historical angle of inequality as problem of race against race and confront the looming menace of precipitate class differences in resource-rich African countries.

African writers must antagonise unsparingly a domestic class which will not spare the interests of ordinary citizens in the quest for self-aggrandisement.
One of Africa’s foremost poets Niyi Osundare asks pertinent questions in a speech titled “Why We No Longer Blush in Lagos”.

“How did we come to lose our sense of shame after losing our sense of propriety and proportion? How did we come to develop to a skin that is so thick that no arrows of degradation, no needles of dehumanisation are ever sharp and violent enough to penetrate our body and rouse our senses?

“How did our nerves slide into their present state of stupor? How did we plunge into this state of dysconsciousness?” Osundare queries.
While Osundare addresses Nigeria in particular, for whom, he says, corruption is the fastest growing industry, a flurry of local equivalents can be observed in our country and much of Africa.

In fact, the “Africa rising” buzzword is losing its magic because improved macro-economic indices are not translating to a better life for everyone.
Inequality, corruption and neo-colonialism are holes in the basket of African development. Writers must plug the basket lest the poor be always and forever condemned to crumbs.

Chinua Achebe attributes the proliferation of corruption on an out-of-order corrective system. His compatriots, Achebe observes, are corrupt because “the system they live under today makes corruption easy and profitable. They will cease to be corrupt when corruption is made difficult and unattractive.”

Most African countries reel under the same problem whereby anthropophagous corporate, public service, municipal and political cabals skin the poor alive for dinner.
Their excesses must be made “difficult and unattractive” as Achebe suggests, yet they are the ones with the power and will seldom lift a finger to call each other to order.

That junction where the vested interests of the elites cross is the cemetery of the ordinary citizens’ plea for a minimum semblance of decent life: for clean water, sewer-free streets, affordable access to health-care and gainful employment.

Soyinka recently deplored the obtaining situation whereby the powerful are caught up in a web of social anomie; a situation whereby one “set of power brokers is seeking support from another and there is a tendency to paper over, to pretend that the virus that is being grown is really of a very negligible kind”.

With the elites preoccupied with petty cross-aggrandisement, writers must step up the podium on behalf of the masses. African literature must be remastered to make the continent a povo-friendly space.

The misappropriation of our resources by complacent elites must be made “difficult and unattractive”, even impossible, to guarantee sustainable livelihoods for the poor.

Our aversion to self-abasement is worthwhile but must not degenerate into a shield against introspection. Honesty, not airbrushed self-representation, is what the continent needs to muster justified pride.

Ugandan writer Brian Bwesigye contends that the writer’s lot is with the lowly and suffering of his people; those perpetually consigned by their elected representatives to disreputable conditions. He argues that every expression, even one that negates politics, is a political act and urges African writers to go for the real issues.

Few remarkable titles have emerged in response to the evolving realities of post-colonial Africa but there is need for a sustained assault against the menace.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o in “Devil on the Cross” assumes the role of a prophet of justice and burrows into the domestic segment of capitalism.

He anticipates a backlash from authorities who equate criticism of their excesses with patriotic sacrilege.
This institutional shield against criticism is affirmed by his imprisonment for the play “I Will Marry When I Want”. “Devil on the Cross” germinates from this detention.

Ngugi contends that it is the artist’s function to reveal the less palatable aspects of his or her society.
“Certain people in Ilmorog, our Ilmorog told me that this story was too disgraceful, too shameful, that it should be concealed in the depths of everlasting darkness,” relates Ngugi’s persona Gikaandi Player.

“I asked them: ‘How can we cover up pits in our courtyards with leaves or saying to ourselves that because our eyes cannot now see the holes, our children can now prance about the yard as they like?’

“Happy is the man who is able to discern the pitfalls in his path, for he can avoid them. Happy is the traveller who is able to discern the stumps in his ways, for he can pull them up or walk around them so that they do not make him stumble,” he argues.

Africa needs a deluge of liberation theology, even a flurry of potent anti-capitalist polemics to plug the void occasioned by post-nationalist tendencies in contemporary literature.

Prolific Shona poet and novelist Felix Manyimbiri’s latest novel “Tamba Iri Kurira” is a remarkable indictment on the atrocities of capitalism.
Manyimbiri takes on manifold contemporary problems, including grossly unethical competition for profit, corruption and municipal authorities’ dereliction of duty.

“These trenches brim over with dirt. Water and sewer are obstructed. The houses! I don’t know how the little children who swim in this filth survive disease. Others eat bread swarmed with flies like bees in a hive,” Manyimbiri’s protagonist, Madiya Bhakiro, observes.

“When I opened the window I felt a cloud of stench landing into my lungs. Is this a smell some can endure and remain alive? All these people, populous as ants, do they not care about it?

“The difference is now blurred between the insane and the normal. It’s a mindless maze. Here and there they get mad at each other. Their women and children go barefooted. In this kind of filth?”

“What are the poor doing in the city? Let them go back where they were bewitched, in the peripheries, where poverty stinks,” says Bhakiro.
Tanzanian investigative journalist and theologian Evans Rubara points out in a Pambazuka paper titled “Uneven Development: The Roots of In- equality” that the administration of many African countries is ‘remote-controlled’ and most African leaders are neo-colonial proxies.

“The involvement of transnational corporations has not only externalised profits and financial gains but has by and large appropriated spaces displaced and denied primary sources of livelihoods from the local community members, created and abandoned local satellite towns (which are now ghost towns) and polluted environments leaving irreparable damage behind,” Rubara observes.

The conditions in which the continent’s poor find themselves are a clarion call for a pro-poor function in African literature.


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