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Have African literary forms been lost in a morass of European culture? For more than half a century Taban Lo Liyong has lamented thus. In the past, he argues, Africans fashioned tools for confrontation and protection, yet our art of fighting wars, and indeed of writing our experience, has fallen to the teachings and structures of the imperial. It’s long overdue that we counter the clatter (and clutter) of western domination by truly singing, celebrating and invigorating African ancestral repertoires.

After the publication of Song of Lawino, Okot p’Bitek with the boyish pride of achievement in his heart, took a copy to his mama and enthused in the Acholi language: “Maa, nen wer Lawino!” The proud mother then asked him: “Wera do!” “If it is a song, then sing it.” Okot was tongue-stuck: he could not sing that song. To an Acholi master-composer this was strange. What Acholi song is there that cannot be sung?

Both as Wer pa Lawino and in translation as Song of Lawino, Okot’s poem observes poetic traditions outside of the native Acholi ones and, if I may add, African ones. Its long stanzas are better read or recited than sung. Song of Lawino testifies to Okot’s “versatility”, as Jorge Luis Borges would characterise it as; Song of Lawino is an African counter-song to European cultural domination as per Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem Song of Hiawatha. An American secondary school English teacher at Kings College Budo in Central Uganda, had read Longfellow to the young Okot. It details the life, wars, arts, culture and other intertribal contests of Native Americans. In Lawino, the Acholi princess takes over the role of the fictional Ojibway warrior, Hiawatha. Impressionable Okot wrote , “lak tar miyo ginyero i wi lobo” (Our teeth are white, that’s why we laugh at the sorrows of the world). Hidden behind this is the idea: “because we laugh, don’t think we are happy.”

The same could be said of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose forte is manipulating the form and styles of the western novel’s masters such as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, George Eliot and, if I may add, Chinua Achebe. Achebe himself confesses that he took up novel writing to correct the distorted picture of the Nigerian office boy, Mr Johnson, which the British colonial administrator Joyce Cary wrote. But if Cary ended up simplifying and popularising the English novel in Africa, Achebe almost nationalised it.

As far as dramatic representation is concerned, the tragic form is foreign to African sensibilities, regardless of the successes of the Nigerian playwrights, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Ola Rotimi, and the Ghanaian, Ama Ata Aidoo in the genre of tragedy. When Ama Aidoo presents her characters in a social and popular setting, one can almost hear the Fanti women haggling and conversing in the market. Representation here is mere imitation. It is not the real thing. The real tragedy is for the tragic artist to attempt to merely reproduce tragedy or to try to harness it so as to entertain the audience. Ours is a comic muse very much akin to Roman national comedy or commedia dell’arte. Reality in Africa is too serious to be reproduced on the stage. The more an African playwright struggles to write/produce a tragedy, the more it veers towards melodrama, as is evident in West African “concert party” and East African “concert play” of the 1960s as well as today’s television soap operas. The transformation from “ritual” to “representation” that took place in ancient Greece followed the decay of Greek religion. We have joined in this act of sacrilege and are excelling in it. It is not that we have not mastered the art of tragic reproduction. It is that the idea of a tragedy or tragic representation is foreign to the African psyche. This is a controversial statement and I am conscious of the rejoinders to follow. But since 1965, when I first assaulted East Africans for remaining in the literary desert, that was 52 years ago, I have never retreated from being controversial.

Among African writers I have detected familiarity with the name and works of the post-modernist Jorge Luis Borges in the exuberant and scholarship-infused writings of Dambudzo Marechera. And perhaps, a percipient scholar may find a connection between Marechera’s writings and mine. I can settle for our supping from the same pot. Yet Borges deserves a broader gaze and more intimate familiarity than that. His oeuvre is a vast and intricate maze or crossword puzzle; it is a refresher course in abstruse and arcane knowledge by one of the greatest men of letters.  Borges, like Brecht, is familiar with the devil and knows that perhaps the only antidote the writer has against him is to call him by his real name and,  thereby, possibly shame him into non-existence.

More to the point, Borges’s oeuvre is a compendium of Jewish/Arabic/African jokes retold with all the mock rigour and seriousness of an artificer. His riddles, like all riddles, tax the mind. They ask questions, but the kind that need no answer but are open to any, and many. Riddles are provisional and contingent; by no means authoritative, insisting narrative is created together, in communication, communion. Riddles, spells, oracles, kennings, parables have multiple uses. They can provide instruction, curse and heal, and, who knows, maybe even aid the soul in its journey to the next world, as the ancient Egyptians thought their spells did.

In using the palaver form to tell a story, in mixing fiction and faction, Borges is very much an African. Coming from part-Jewish heritage in Argentina, a Latin American country that did not escape the touch of African literary forms, traditions and philosophical outlooks—not  only directly through the slave-trade, but indirectly too, through Moorish /Islamic Spain and earlier on the Jewish sojourn in Egypt, where black Africans as well as Jews pushed and dragged those heavy stones up the pyramids—Borge’s facility in manipulating the form is not surprising.

In one of Borges’ stories/palavers, “Averroës’s Search”, we see that great Arab vector of intellectual properties, the translator/interpreter/populariser of Aristotle’s works, struggling with words and literary concepts foreign to Arab culture and prohibited in Islamic religion.

Averroës – or Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rushd, his full name – was working on his Tahafut-ul-tahafut, translating Aristotle’s Poetics. His task was doomed: both Islam and Arabic culture did not include the concept of theatre. So, how could Averroes understand comedy or tragedy without an understanding of theatre? He could not. The nearest idea Averroës could approximate was: “Aristu gives the name of tragedy to panegyrics and that of comedy to satires and anathemas”. Conscious of his Islamic cultural background—one that had limited foreign forms and traditions –he adds: “Admirable tragedies and comedies abound in the pages of Koran and mohalacas of the sanctuar”.

The Koran as we all know is no plaything; its words are sacred and personalities in it are forbidden to playful representation: “Tragedy” as imitation of high-placed human beings due to God’s anger and human pride and error; and “comedy”, being the depiction of the foibles of the rest of us mundane beings, presented on the stage playfully and for entertainment (and possibly for enlightenment of a dubious sort), are foreign to the Koran.

For an Arab or Moslem to understand and appreciate Greek theatre, he must have cultivated the taste over a period of time. The same for an African. Otherwise he laughs out of tune or turn at comical moments in tragic scenes. And for an African to set himself up as a composer of tragedies he must first have learnt to walk on his head.

I hope I have, by these negative examples, shown how cumbersome Achilles’ battle accoutrement was on Patroklos. You remember the great sulk of Achilles? When King Agamemnon appropriated for himself the war-booty who was to be Achilles’ slave girl? Of course, without Achilles in the war theatre, Hector roamed supreme, decimating Greek heroes as if they were nothing.  Patroklos, to save fellow Greeks from sure defeat, volunteered to scare the Trojans away by wearing the armour of Achilles. In the battlefield, he put up a brave fight. But he was both a mortal and was still a boy. His initial success came mostly because of mistaken identity: the Trojans thought Achilles was in his armour.

Patroklos had his own armour. It was cut to measure and was equal to his efforts. Had he worn it, he would have killed his men and beaten a safe retreat whenever a stronger Trojan hero approached (They had heroes too!). As it was, Patroklos could not run fast enough to elude his pursuers.

The death of Patroklos stirred a wrath in Achilles. If the loss of his slave girl made him sulk, and the death of countless fellow Greeks did not stir him to action, the killing of Patroklos maddened him. With new amour, newly-minted, he returned to the war theatre and fell upon the Trojans like a lion among sheep and destroyed all their heroes, culminating with the killing of Hector, the apple of King Priam’s eye. This brought to an end the physical contest. Henceforth it was going to be a battle of wits. In this, Aeneas was no match for Odysseus.

Like Averroës, we are handicapped in understanding and interpreting intellectual artefacts of other cultures, or when we try to represent la condition humaine of our people. Like Patroklos we choose to wear the armour of other warriors on the day of contest and cannot manoeuvre the wagons well. That is the tragedie Africaine: we behave like slaves or Pavlov’s dogs who answer to our recent conditioning. The human contest takes place on a daily basis. In the past, our people fashioned the arts for representation, the tools for confrontation and the shields for protection. But somebody comes, tells us to throw our weapons away. Then we lose the art of fighting wars our way. We are next taught how to fight the European way. Where they are masters…

By abandoning our forms of war or art we have deprived the world of other forms of knowledge and life. We have lost the ability to tell the stories of a people, of kingdoms and communities, rather than heroic and tragic individuals.

We have also abandoned the way we kept dangers in our part of the world at bay. Take the mock fight with sticks and shields, does it not teach, or help rehearse the real thing? Does it not teach the youth the real thing? The epics, do they not teach history, allowing us to understand the past as indelibly tied to the present? Do they not relate to the youth the wealth of knowledge and heights of courage their ancestors attained? Stickfights, are they less dangerous than rugby? But who teaches mock fights? The schools that precede cultural circumcision—instead of making them medically safe, we want to ban them altogether. When then do we teach the youth of Africa ancestral history and courage? We really have been damned. And we continue to disdain ourselves. Was this what we got independence for?

Hollywood, in its war theatres decimates the Vietnamese by the thousands and this is called entertainment. And you watch them whilst eating. Children watch other children killing other children. They begin believing that those who are shot do not die, since they reappear in other movies. So, they think there are people who cannot die; perhaps they have bathed in holy or blessed water? Am I banning today’s tragedy altogether? Perhaps, yes. At least the Greeks never shed blood on the stage. Such gruesome scenes should be done behind the scenes and only reported.

If we had no proverbs we would be named the world’s lackers of wisdom. But we have proverbs handy to impart knowledge, to sanction a good or bad deed, or approve a youth’s first act of bravery.

If we had no riddles we could justify our willingness to believe in a single absolute truth. We could be excused for a soft-headedness which keeps us in a primary school of knowledge. But we know the difference between day and night, and also that that difference is contingent, blurry, dusk-etched and always dawning.

If we had no parables we could accept E.M. Forster’s laughing at us for being primitive and always using the question format by asking “what next?”. “What next?” in a story. In which racial story is there no “what next” intimated, implied and animated? But we have parables, some of them (or the form) popularised by Jesus of Nazareth (previously of Egypt).

If we had no myths we could be forgiven for our lack of imagination, and our inability to imagine new futures and new pasts. And if we had no folktales (and folktale forms)  we could be excused in our ambitions to go to Iowa Writers Workshop to become International Fellows in narrating folktales the way the white man does. But, only laziness, and nothing else, stops African universities from offering courses in the folktales as a genre to be enjoyed and to be used for modern fictional representation of la condition humaine, here in Africa, and there in the Koreas, the West Indies, the Americas, and Europe of La Fontaine, Rabelais, Boccaccio and Chaucer. (As for me, I went to Iowa to write folktales and read philosophy and psychology. Read my MFA thesis.)

Then the parables and the folktale could be strung together and longer works on more ambitious themes and sub-themes attempted. It could be folks-tales! When, into a kinky-hairs’ country, an uncle wanders, the barbers may be excused if they wonder how fast the hair will grow back. Isn’t it possible that one would never finish cutting such hair with the blunt knives our blacksmiths made? For as you go forward two inches, the hair starts to grow back. If the hare or rabbit talks our language with a lisp, are we not dealing with foreigners? What are Khoisan clicks for if not for detecting foreigners who may have come to do them harm? The highest linguistic engineering, I am telling you, is Khoisan’s click tongue.

If we had no dramatised folktales, then our topsy-turvy romance with the proscenium theatre could be excused. By representing sacred scenes, Greek playfulness went beyond the pale. We have to take theatre back to the level where Roman comedy left it.

If we did not cross-examine litigants exhaustively to arrive at the truth in tasks, there would have been no Socratic dialogues. For Plato, released from 10 years’ enslavement in Cyrene, Egypt, made Socrates an African elder by questioning his audience for truth, after he had mastered that form, and African philosophy, at the feet of Egyptian philosophers. Fellow Athenians paid for his release. If others make mountains out of our hills why do we not recognise our hills for the mountains they are? And infuse them with new life. Are we called animists for nothing?

If we had no griots and their epic literary forms, then we could be excused for forgetting our collective history. We could be forgiven for our fascination with the tragic individuals that define the Dostoyevskian Russian epical and moral novel. The English novel originated with the advent of industrialisation and rustics moving to town or going abroad and the rise of prostitutes! Charles Dickens gave it a moral bent, but still depicted these unfortunate characters comically. The African “novel” took after Dickens, but attributed the cause of the malaise first to colonisation as subalterns, and now to greedy, inept or slavish African presidents. It has not yet arrived at the truth that the fate of man in the era of lucre makes us all our brothers’ preys rather than shepherds.

If we had no izibongo we would need to go to our neighbours, the Arabs and Indians or literary forms for praising our kings and heroes. But the Ankole also have ebyebugo for chief and self-praise. The praise poem is a two-bladed knife. The up-thrust praises, the down-thrust dispraises. So, what are we waiting for? When we started writing, we were the second tier of the freedom fighters. We had Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Kwame Nkrumah to urge forward. Now have we not reached the age of parting of ways? Are the youths of today not born in the age of abuse? We elders abuse our roles. Should not the young artists abuse us back?

If we had no hymns to Onyame, Ngewo, Lubale, Mawu, Nkosi, Ngai, Mungu, Ngulunkulu, Ngun, we would be excused our copious outpourings to Jehovah and Allah. But the Godhead revealed himself to us too, and gave us—the worthy men and women—ways to approach to him. Why do we have to go to the North Pole in order to perceive the snowy birth of a child-God? How can a proud Zulu call a man who died young and unmarried, Father? Besides, he is of another race? After we have believed such make-beliefs, is there anything else we cannot believe?

If we did not have songs, otole songs, bwala songs, we could be excused for torturing the Acholi language with end-rhymes to get Lawino, a tradition-bound girl, to give comment on the “new” world that bewildered (in English end rhymes) her and that she did not like. (End rhymes in Wer pa Lawino will hit you in the face when you want to translate them into Song of Lawino, the original house of end rhymes!)

Not that I do not like the efforts we have made and the achievements we have left as testimonies to our having attended the church and colonial schools. We are versatile.

The language debate is detraction and a halfway house. Because an English-novel is written in Kikuyu, the Kikuyu people might think decolonisation has come. It has not. You are simply introducing a foreign art form into your shrine, where it will sink roots and crowd out your native forms. Let’s cast laziness aside and analyse problems to the end. For decolonisation entails the sound rehabilitation of our native art forms.

Not that we have not moved in the direction being advocated: poems and folktales of Birago Diop and Kofi Awoonor are true to native forms. The tales of Ama Ata Aidoo, especially those wearing a comic mask, are modern Fanti-tales. I hope one day she will translate them from English back to Fanti. Drum Magazine in its golden-age, gave us those half-fact-half-fiction stories, so transparent like a body wearing a see-through dress, that kept the dance of truth and fiction before us, so we remained philosophical throughout and did not lose our hold on reality or consciousness of the morals being demonstrated.

D. O. Fagunwa showed us the way in Yoruba by writing down a hunter’s saga (Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀) Wole Soyinka translated it (Forest of a Thousand Daemons). Then we returned to study fiction in western universities. Gabriel Okara gave us a philosophical story, a story about a searcher for Truth. But, unlike Pontius Pilate, we never even asked “what is truth”, instead continued eating grass like sheep. Ayi Kwei Armah in his Two Thousand Seasons experimented with the fireside narrations of our aunts and other matrons. And before he died, Camara Laye showed us that he was Le Maître de la parole by performing in the ancestral griot-form. Tayeb Salih gave us night’s entertainment in the Season of Migration to the North that is perfect African evening entertainment. He, too, is a master. But does anybody turn to him for entertainment? For edutainment?

If I have not demonstrated satisfactorily that form or genre alone determines African literature, then I ask you to refute that the haiku is Japanese, the sonnet through Italian was imported to England and English by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the izibongo is Zulu and Xhosa, the ijala Yoruba, the ebyebugo Nyankore, the griot Mandingo. And many others I do not know because their owners are too shy to use them. I am waiting for the day African art forms shall be celebrated.

We are not saying Africans should eat pap alone, or only rely on pap and beef. The pap that now maintains us is made from maize, a product of Latin-American Indians (sic!) and they also gave the world Irish (sic!) potatoes. We also eat rice, from Asia. Bread, from European wheat. We are not saying we should limit ourselves to eating millet. Or that other races should not eat millet bread.

What we are saying is the Japanese invented haiku, and other races are using it to describe aspects of the world as they see it, or as it presents itself to them. In the evening of my life, a Japanese has invented Sudoku! And the world’s travellers use it from airport to airport. The African epics, a genre monopolised and maintained by griots, should be studied, practised and used by Africans, Chinese, Japanese, and Italians alike. They will expand our world view and our understanding of history; allowing us to imagine the future as the present conjugated—conjoining the past and the present with some other time. Aesop, the Ethiopian who lived in the seventh century BCE, gave the taste for African literature to Europe. His fables playfully impart wisdom, offering us a different means of resistance against repressive structures and the violences they engender yet their fabulist thinking can be used as a complex medium of political analysis and resistance against tyranny. That is why history remembers him. But the didactic short form that he practices is not the only literary form Africa has.

There are African art forms that lend themselves to easily capturing the complexities of contemporary life. They can provide tools for imagining and thinking, with, in, and for the world, without separability, determinacy, and sequentiality. Thus releasing us from the grips of the forms of modern Western representation and the violent political and economic structures they support. African art forms should be used to open up the minds and hearts of the speakers/users of other languages to the realities that have always been seen by the inventors! I cannot put it any clearer than that.

Will English, as it aspires to become a world language, take along the burdens of literary realities from Africa as well? Yes, if and when the owners expose them.

Coda. When reviewing Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poems/songs, Lewis Nkosi noticed that some of them were to be accompanied by khalam or tama. “In what key?” Nkosi asked. Whether he was playing the fool to Senghor or was quite serious is difficult for me to tell. But I detect here the beginning of some enlightenment. The Acholi harp called nanga has three keys. And you compose nanga songs to conform to the particular key, particular nanga dance.

Perhaps Senghor owes keys to khalam or tama, after all. In the African tradition, hard and fast genre distinctions are rejected; speech and music, dance and theatre inform each other, and each is itself the site of multiple languages.

Now, when the universal literary festival of all the continents or nations takes place, the Japanese have already put the haiku on the world stage. The Italian-developed sonnet was imported to England where the English men or poets made it staple food; the Hebrew created their quasi-religious legends of ancestral origin by their own God called Jehovah; the Ethiopian didactic popular poet has, raised millennia of Europeans on his words of worldly wisdom that go by his name: Aesop; the grand Nigerian inventor of the African novel, Amos Tutuola, had already strung together a number of Yoruba folktales that even took the hero in quest of his palm wine tapster into the world of the dead where people walk backward – called Palm Wine Drinkard. Yet you praise Achebe, Soyinka, Okri, Chimamanda too much. What Tutuola did is akin to what the Czech classical composer Dvořák of symphonies, concertos etc. did to popular Czech ditties and songs. He strung them together to produce a modern symphony. And did not, two American white musicians produce a symphony out of Negro spiritual and jazz?

We should also not forget the pioneer South African writers. Unfortunately most of them excelled in utilising European forms and genres. It was only when Mazisi Kunene, older than me by a few years, wrote the epic, Shaka Zulu that they approached the use of an African form. But I am not entirely convinced that the originals in isiZulu, which Kunene says his mother had recited to him, exist.

The Imbongi tradition has been utilised in South Africa. The voice of the people: the carrier of news, the perpetuator of history, imbongi is allowed to criticise communities, use suggestive language and make outrageous statements which are normally regarded as unacceptable. A conduit, the imbongi is a mediator between the people and the chief.  By invoking the names of departed ancestors, he is able to conjure their presence and facilitate communication between the living and the dead, thus releasing the imagination from the grid sustained by separability, determinacy, sequentiality. We need to give the experts in the villages two months’ fellowships in departments of literature to teach the oral genres and forms to students of Tshivenda, isiShangaan, isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiPondo, and tapes should be made of their renditions.

Furthermore, the students should, of necessity, compose new poems, new stories in their native languages; these languages—including English and Afrikaans—should be taken as majors with another unrelated tongue as a minor; and for a language degree or diploma, a translation course should be a necessity. For in the mind of the language expert, the languages of South Africa should converse. That way you learn the nature of languages, and do not spend more time than you should on admiring your native umbilical cord. As talking too much made the chickens lose their teeth, I had better stop here. Those who have ears, I hope, have heard for those who have none, those whose minds are not yet awake to benefit from verbal transfer of knowledge, or wisdom.

In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.

This story, and others, features in the Chronic: On Circulations and the African Imagination of a Borderless World (October 2018). This issue highlights ideas of circulation that include the notion of justice and collective freedoms. Conceptions of community that do not enforce transparency but rather make room for what Glissant called “opacity”. The African world has produced plenty of these, from non-universal universalisms, relational ontologies, refusing that which has been refused to you, and “keeping it moving”.

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