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A fresh look at writings from Africa

  • Published at 06:52 am April 13th, 2019

Book review

In her book The Doctor and the Saint, Arundhati Roy discusses at some length how Gandhi’s impressions of the Africans during his two-decade-long stay as an expatriate attorney in South Africa were full of superstitions. Naturally, such an attitude was the least expected from a victim of racial discrimination in colonial India. But it speaks volumes about how colonial prejudice had been internalized in the subcontinent and how it did not spare even the best among us.  

For years we had deemed the Africans as the disease-ridden, bug-infested, superstitious people. One reason perhaps is our distance from the rich and distinctive literary canon that Africa has to offer. 

This book is an attempt to introduce the Bengali readership with the great literary wonders sifted from Sub-Saharan Africa. The editors—Kajal Bandyopadhyay and Dhruba Gupta—both specialize in African literature; they have compiled translations of poems, short stories, essays and excerpts of novels and autobiographies by acclaimed poets and writers from different African countries. The time period ranges from ancient oral literature to modern literary ventures (1940-1990). Eventually, the book has become a testament to the rich African literature that, after surviving adverse colonial hegemony, has emerged with a distinct African identity. 

The selected poems represent an almost inseparable connection with nature. Their history of suppression and cultural domination, their struggles, or elements of love find expression in these poems. With the wild, unorthodox and almost metaphysical metaphors, their poetry becomes organic, nearly free from outside influence. Antonio Jacinto (Angola) writes, “Your breasts are hard as wild orange/ your gait is that of a lynx”. The speaker here is an illiterate laborer, working under colonial government, miles away from home; the poem reflects his yearning for his lover and a longing for his home. 

What makes the poems endearing is their honesty. Describing his beloved, one of the poets says, “Her breath does not smell like fish.” In other words, the speaker does not indulge in elevating his lover to a divine stature. On the contrary, the poem acknowledges the imperfections that make us human. 

While the writings of one country or period differ from those of another, the African poets strive to create a distinct literary identity by evoking their landscapes and wildlife, even in an urban setting.

When Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor (Senegal) visited New York for the first time, the thriving metropolis bemused him.  But it was not long before he was disillusioned with the hypocrisies of its consumerist society—a society that lacked vitality in contrast to the lively plains of Africa.  Senghor wrote, “At the end of the third week/ the fever takes hold of you like a spring of a jaguar”. He thus celebrated black identity and dreamed of a different New York.  He wrote, “New York, I say, New York/ let black blood run through your veins”. 

When it comes to prose, hardly any social injustice has been left unexplored by the authors selected in this anthology. They have taken a stand against colonial tyranny, have recorded the horrors of wars that left “the skeletal children clutching their entrails”, as Jack Mapanje (Malawi) writes. Poets like Patrice Lumumba (Democratic Republic of Congo) have contributed to the postcolonial discourse, claiming “they (the colonizers) preach you to believe /that good white God will reconcile all men at last.” 

Consequently, echoes of racial segregation resonate through the poetry and prose pieces in this collection. “As the Night the Day” by Abioseh Nicol (Sierra Leone) illustrates the worst case of apartheid in school, a practice that does not cease to bully a ‘colored’ boy for the crime he has not committed. There the narrator juxtaposes scarcity of water with the European headmaster’s peculiar hobby of buying a new car every year! The severity of the crisis becomes evident when a schoolboy asks his teacher after learning that an electric spark given on the hydrogen and oxygen atoms produce water, “Why don’t we use this method to produce water during the dry season when there is an acute water shortage?” 

As part of the postcolonial criticism, these authors censure the “mimic men”—the byproducts of colonialism who embrace the Eurocentric norms and look down upon their own cultural practices. These authors lament the loss of their customs and values, as evident in Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek’s “Song of Lawino”, in “Wedding at the Cross” by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenya) as well as in short stories by Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana). 

Putting aside post-colonialism, the book depicts the authors’ response to other literary movements. 

Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) and Ama Ata Aidoo’s compositions voice the struggles of African women in workplace and at home. Antonio Jacinto’s “Poem of Alienation” celebrates the “death of the author” and the “birth of the reader”, while a speech by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) rejects the views of liberal humanism that tend to measure every work of literature through the European scales. 

All these powerful writings have been skillfully translated and compiled in this collection to shed light on the darkness of our ignorance with regard to the so-called “Dark Continent” (a derogatory term formerly used by European explorers). Hence the book is justly called Chhayachchhanna, Hey Africa.  

Needless to say, the translators have done an excellent job using colloquial language in the oral poetry. The careful choice of words suggests their sincerity to make the vast swathe of African literature relatable to the readers concerned.  Words like nagor to address one’s lover retains the flavor of a rural area. However, it is undeniable that translations of the prose did more justice to the original stories than did the poems. In rare cases, the use of obscure words has marred the clarity and fluidity of the text. Nevertheless, such minor shortcomings do not, in any way, overshadow this noble initiative that allows the Bengali readers to delve into a considerable range of writings coming from the different African countries. The selections are excellent, enough to understand the influential literary movements that swept through the entire continent. 

Shahroza Nahrin writes for Arts & Letters.

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