The language of African literature: a writer’s testimony
I was born to Ogoni parents at Bori on the northern fringes of the delta of the Niger during the Second World War. I grew up speaking one of the three Ogoni languages–Khana, my mother-tongue–and listening to and telling folk tales in that language.
When I went to primary school in 1947, I was taught in my mother-tongue during the first two years. During the other six years of the primary school course, the teaching was done in English, which soon imprinted itself on my mind as the language of learning. Khana was the language of play, and it appeared on the class time-table once or twice a week as “vernacular”–wonderful, story-telling sessions in Khana. We spoke Khana at home, and we read the Bible at church in Khana. It was enough to make me literate in Khana to this day.
The Ogoni lived a simple, circumscribed life at that time; farming and fishing were their sole occupations. There were a number of primary schools in the area, but no secondary school. All those who wished or were able to go to secondary school had to move to other parts of the country.
Accordingly, in 1954, at about 13, 1 proceeded to Government College, Umuahia, which was the best school in the area. I was the only Ogoni boy in the entire school. Others were mostly Igbo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and representatives of other ethnic groups in what was then Eastern Nigeria. A few came from the Cameroons, which was at that time administered as a part of Nigeria. The English language was a unifying factor at the school; in fact, there was a regulation forbidding the use of any of our mother-tongues at work or during recreation. This rule ensured that boys like myself did not feel lost in the school because we could not communicate with any other boy in our mother-tongues. There were no books in any other language, apart from English, in the school’s excellent library. We worked and played in English. One result of this regime was that in a single generation, the school produced Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okaral the late Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi Vincent Ike, and I. N. C. Aniebo, who was my contemporary.
There, at Government College, I began to write poems, short stories, and plays in English, the language which, as I have said, bound us all together. There was no question of my writing in Khana because no one else would have understood it.
From Government College, I proceeded in 1962 to the University of Ibadan, where I met young men and women from different parts of a vast country. By then, Nigeria had become independent. The language of instruction at Ibadan was English of course. There was no restriction as to what language we could use outside the lecture halls. So, those who were there in sufficient numbers invariably spoke their mother-tongues among themselves. However, English was what enabled students from different ethnic backgrounds to communicate with each other. English was also the official language of the country, by necessity. I wrote poems, short stories, and plays in English. Once again, there was no question of my using my Khana mother-tongue, which no one else at the university would have understood. I was studying English and, at that time, had come across the argument of Obi Wali (whom I was later to meet and to know intimately). According to him, English was the dead-end of African literature.
In those days, African literature was a fashionable course of study, although I did not find it so. I had read most of the novels published by Africans in English and did not feel that they added up to much as a course of study. I was also preparing to be a writer, and I was not impressed by Dr Wali’s arguments for the simple reason that I did not consider myself as a writer of African literature. I wanted to be a good storyteller, no more, no less. Putting me in a category would be the business of the critics. In any case, I was yet to publish anything. That was 1963 or thereabouts.
Nigeria had become independent three years earlier, and the country was gradually gravitating towards war. As a boy, I knew that I was an Ogoni. Of that, there was never any doubt. I also knew that Khana was my mother-tongue. Most Ogonis spoke Khana. It was a secure world.
Growing up at Government College in Umuahia, I interacted with boys my age from different parts of the Eastern Region of Nigeria. And because the school taught us to be good citizens, I had learned the necessity of being a good Nigerian. By independence in 1960, I had taken the fact for granted. I had travelled to different parts of the country and knew something of the great mixture of peoples that is Nigeria. Somehow, as long as I could speak and read English, it was easy to relate to the rest of the country–away from my Ogoni home. So, English was important. Not only as the language which opened new ideas to me, but as a link to the other peoples with whom I came into contact during my day-to-day life.
I had barely graduated from the University of Ibadan when I was confronted with the true nature of Nigerian society as an agglomeration of peoples and cultures, much like the rest of Africa. By the way, school taught me about Africa. As a boy in my Ogoni home, the idea of Africa never arose. It is not an Ogoni concept. Nor was Nigeria. But to get back to 1965. The great argument that later tore Nigeria apart and led us to a murderous civil war was already raging. By 1967, the war had broken out. I was then a Graduate Assistant at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
During that war, I played a role which I had not bargained for. Forced to choose between Nigeria and Biafra, I clung to the former because the arguments for Biafra were the same as the arguments for Nigeria. Simply put, Biafra was a mish-mash of peoples and cultures, where the Igbo predominated oppressively just as Nigeria was a mish-mash of peoples and cultures where the Hausa Fulani, the Igbo, and the Yoruba predominated oppressively.
Yes, colonialism is not a matter only of British, French, or European dominance over Africans. In African society, there is and has always been colonial oppression. In my case, the Ogoni had never been conquered by their Igbo neighbors. But the fact of British colonialism brought both peoples together under a single administration for the first time. And when the British colonialists left, the numerically inferior Ogoni were consigned to the rule of the more numerous Igbos, who always won elections in the Region since ethnic loyalties and cultural habits were and continue to be strong throughout Nigeria. Biafran propaganda invariably claimed that the Biafrans were one. But this was a lie, a hoax. I saw it as my responsibility to fight that lie. I did.
Since the end of that war in 1970, I have been engaged, as a writer and as a man of public affairs, in fighting the oppression and bad faith of the majority ethnic groups–the Igbo, the Hausa-Fulani, and the Yoruba–in Nigeria. The end of that struggle is not in sight. The facts of it are so sordid that even well-known Nigerian writers would gladly keep them away from the rest of the world. For that reason, not much has been heard about it outside Nigeria.
All the foregoing might seem irrelevant to the question of the language of African literature. Yet what I have tried to show is that, using Nigeria as an example, different languages and cultures exist in Africa. The fact that we share a common color or certain common beliefs or a common history of slavery and exploitation are not enough to just lump all Africa into a single pigeon-hole.
If Europeans speak of French literature, Spanish literature, and English literature, why do we insist on having an “African literature” and debating what language it should be written in? Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It has a multiplicity of languages and each language has its own literature. So, there is an Ogoni literature, a Yoruba literature, a Wolof literature. Most of this literature is oral because these societies are, in most cases, preliterate. That is a fact.
However, the need to communicate with one another and the rest of the world, and the fact of colonialism (which is also real) have forced us to write in the languages of our erstwhile colonial masters. I, for one, do not feet guilty about this. Were I writing in Khana, I would be speaking to about 200,000 people, most of whom do not read and write. Writing in English as I do, I can reach, hypothetically speaking, 400 million people. That cannot be bad. So, for me, English is a worthy tool, much like the biro pen or the banking system or the computer, which were not invented by the Ogoni people but which I can master and use for my own purposes. Writing in English has not prevented me from writing in my Khana mother-tongue. I am, indeed, working on a Khana novel at the moment, but that is not because I want to prove a point. I am writing this novel so I can offer it to my seventy-year old mother. She is always reading the Bible–the only book which exists in the Khana language–and I would like to give her some other literature to read.
But I am also writing this novel because I can self-publish it. I am lucky to be in a position to do so; none of the established publishers in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world would have accepted to publish it for the simple reason that it would not be profitable to do so. I have also self-published most of the twenty books I have written in English because publishers of fiction by African writers are few and fat between. But that is another story.
I am aware of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s argument about decolonizing the mind and his determination to write in his native Gikuyu. He is of course welcome to do so. In Nigeria, many writers have been writing in their mother-tongues for a long time. There are newspapers in Hausa and in Yoruba. There is no need to blow this matter out of proportion. Besides, I detect some posturing in Ngugi’s stance. Because he had already made his mark as a writer in English, his works have become instant subjects of translation into English, enabling him to live by his writing. If this were not the case, he might not be so sure of his decision. I also wonder if he has thought or cares about the implications of his decision for the minority ethnic groups in Kenya and for the future of Kenya as a multiethnic nation or, indeed, as a nation at all.
Furthermore, I have examined myself very closely to see how writing or reading in English has colonized my mind. I am, I find, as Ogoni as ever. I am enmeshed in Ogoni culture. I eat Ogoni food. I sing Ogoni songs. I dance to Ogoni music. And I find the best in the Ogoni world-view as engaging as anything else. I am anxious to see the Ogoni establish themselves in Nigeria and make their contribution to world civilization. I myself am contributing to Ogoni life as fully, and possibly even more effectively than those Ogoni who do not speak and write English. The fact that I appreciate Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Hemingway, et al., the fact that I know something of European civilization, its history and philosophy, the fact that I enjoy Mozart and Beethoven–is this a colonization of my mind? I cannot exactly complain about it.
I am also aware of the proposition that Africa should adopt one language–a continental language. Wole Soyinka once suggested the adoption of Swahili. Quite apart from the fact that the idea is totally impracticable, it seems to me to lack intellectual or political merit. Once a language is not one’s mother-tongue, it is an alien language. Its being an African language is a moot point. As I said earlier, Africans have practiced colonialism as much as Europeans. In most cases, this colonialism has been harsh and crude; it is as detestable as European colonialism. The position in today’s Nigeria is a case in point. The Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo have inflicted on three hundred other ethnic groups a rule that is most onerous. Were I, as an Ogoni, forced to speak or write any of these languages (as is presently proposed), I would rebel against the idea and encourage everyone else to do the same. Moreover, people of the same tongue are not always of the same mind.
African literature is written in several languages, including the extra-African languages of English, French, and Portuguese. As more and more writers emerge, as criticism responds to their works, as African languages increasingly acquire written form, and as communities become more politically aware of the need to develop their languages and cultures, African literature will break down into its natural components, and we will speak of Ogoni literature, Igbo literature, Fanti literature, Swahili literature, etc. But there will continue to be an African literature written in English and French and Portuguese. The fact that these languages have been on the continent for over a hundred years and are spoken by many African peoples entitles them to a proper place among the languages that are native to the continent.
With regard to English, I have heard it said that those who write in it should adopt a domesticated “African” variety of it. I myself have experimented with the three varieties of English spoken and written in Nigeria: pidgin, “rotten,” and standard. I have used them in poetry, short stories, essays, drama, and the novel. I have tried them out in print, on stage, on the radio, and with television comedy. That which carries best and which is most popular is standard English, expressed simply and lucidly. It communicates and expresses thoughts and ideas perfectly.
And so I remain a convinced practitioner and consumer of African literature in English. I am content that this language has made me a better African in the sense that it enables me to know more about Somalia, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa than I would otherwise have known.
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Saro-Wiwa, Ken. “The language of African literature: a writer’s testimony.” Research in African Literatures 23.1 (1992): 153+.