Pre-Colonial* and Post Colonial African Literature - Is Writing the Path to Development
Pre-colonial African Literature concerned itself with the fight for independence. Writings that were churned out during this period (before the 1960s) addressed colonialism and occupation and its tone was vitriolic. Such books as Ngugi's Weep Not Child sought to put the fight for independence into perspectives. So drunk were the people with the struggle of the day that the people (of Africa) began to confuse independence with development. And as a matter of fact development, by a people for the same people according to their likes and dislikes, is truly a function of independence. However, when those who position themselves to enjoy the fruits of independence behave like the oppressors, against whom the masses struggled, then the people's development becomes a mere word not a philosophy.
Dissolved in the quest-for-independence euphoria, the people - the freedom fighters , those whose real blood fetched freedom - forgot to ask questions of those who were window-sitting expecting the seat to be empty and jump onto it. So that when independence was gained and the only thing that changed was the colour of the oppressor and the mode of oppressing did not abate but in certain situations increased, the people of the pen picked up their writing materials and opened the flood gate of words. The objective of post-colonial literature then moved from attacking the white oppressors to attacking the native-black ones. Like the Jacobos in Weep Not Child, the John Boys of Matigari and the Koomson's in The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born, these individuals misappropriated the country's resources: making the Castles that beheld slaves their abode, riding in upgraded vehicles like the colonialists did and living in absolute luxury like the colonialist while leaving the development of the masses to the masses.
Thus, from the mid to the late 1960s, when the independence euphoria dissolved, the people woke up to the realities of their plight. The people realised that independence in itself is a necessary condition for development but not a sufficient one. Sufficiency comes from having selfless leaders, leaders who look beyond their paunches and hear the groaning of other people's intestines; leaders who want to lead rather than to be led; leaders who have vision.
When these characteristics were found to be dearth in the early leaders of Africa, many a literary giant faced the problem head on and addressed their illusion, their disappointment. During these periods the man Ngugi wa Thiong'o became an ardent speaker against the atrocities perpetrated by the Kenyan government against its people. He spoke and wrote of the corruption breeding in the fish's head; against the poor vision of the leaders; and of leaders aping the very people who had just been somewhat 'sacked' from the country. Ngugi wrote A Grain of Wheat and Matigari, which addressed these issues and which also sent him running into exile. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born addressed this issue, hammering more on society's part in corruption, which was manifesting itself into moneytheism. Many poems were written with the sole aim of asking questions. Asking why we have not yet developed, as promised by the quest for independence. But it turned out that it was the objective of the masses and not the 'aristocrats'.
Within this decade most African countries are celebrating or would be celebrating their 50th Independence Anniversary. The question that begs to be asked and answered is what are our literary giants writing about the current state of the continent's affairs? What are they writing about? What are they fighting for? Are they the same people who fought against the colonialist? and against the early despots and juntas? Or have they morphed into a caricatures, who in connivance with governments, are sucking the masses dry?
Today, most governments are afraid of literary personalities and so this 'industry' is given little to no attention. They become government-relevant on the few occasions when they are called to recite poems to grace or mark an event. African governments have done little to support the publishing industry.
As Ghana celebrates its 9th Book Fair, I ask: are writers still influential as they were? Are they still holding governments to task? In an interview with a writer I asked him whether the influence writers have is declining and he asked if they even had an influence before? An educated society is one that knows about itself. It is also one that use the civil discourse of the pen to address issues and not guns and bayonets. Hence, let's look back at the writing profession, for in it lies our path to development.
*The use of pre-colonial here is deceptive. It should be colonial as the period before colonial rule isn't what has been captured in the above article but rather the period during colonial rule (Updated on March 1, 2011).