Towards the Department of African Literature and Languages

Molly Yancovitz '98, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

In discussing the long-term effects of colonization, it is imperative to analyze the colonial structures and institutions that remain in place after countries gain their independence, since these structures influence the socialization of generations of people who were not present during the actual period of colonization. Institutions have the power to shape the attitudes and behaviors of the people who operate within their dominion, as they prescribe norms and tenets of conduct. A crucial example of the staying power of colonial influence is in education. Formerly colonized countries in Africa have struggled with the foreign establishment of educational curriculum that governs the development of their students.

Education, the means by which a society learns of itself and thus of others, creates a knowledge of culture, tradition, identity, providing a basis upon which to negotiate other cultures, to accept, reject, or integrate their ideas. Therefore education must act an extension of the culture of those it wishes to inform.

The question arises in the post-colonial context: how can education be recentered? Because the colonial educational systems emphasized in European ideology, tradition, and history, they obstructe and undermed the transmission of African cultures as students were forced to adopt a European perspective of the world and their role in it. As newly emerging nations have dismantled colonial institutions, the issue of education has necessarily received much attention.

An important contributor to the theory of post-coloniality is Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan author whose anti-imperialist writings have aided in foregrounding the dilemmas faced by post-colonial countries. He argues for the necessity of the realignment of educational institutions so as to eliminate the internally enforced subordination of African culture by the imposition of European frameworks.

In 1972, nine years after Kenya declared its independence from England, Ngugi published a paper forwarding the restructuring of the departments of the University of Nairobi. In "On the Abolition of the English Department," Ngugi argues simultaneously for replacing a traditional English departments, with a Department of African Literature and Languages. This change would undermine the "basic assumption that the English tradition and the emergence of the modern west is the central root of our consciousness and cultural heritage. Africa becomes an extension of the west" (Ashcroft 439). To place Africa in the center requires a curriculum that teaches from an African perspective, in which African literature is an essential component. Literature describes culture. Thus, "[t]he primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement" (Ashcroft 439).

Ngugi's emphasis that Africans should use their own literature both to understand their culture and to create continuity with their past also appears in the writings of post-colonial authors. Literature is essential in creating a truly historical consciousness. The articulation of history can empower the present, strength can be found in the myths of the past. For example, in the Zimbabwean novels Nehanda and Bones, ancestors are an authoritative group who direct the actions of a community. Nehanda can to motivate her people to stage a war of liberation against the colonial settlers.

Nehanda's trembling voice reaches them as though coming from some distant past, some sacred territory in their imaginings. It is an alluring voice, undulating, carrying the current of a roar that reminds them of who they have been in the past, but it is also the comforting voice of a woman, of their mothers who they trust. Her voice throws them into the future, and she speaks as though they have already triumphed, as though they only looked back at their present sorrow. But again she abandons that voice and brings them back to their present sorrow (Nehanda 62).

Nehanda acts as a spirit medium, inspiring her community to rise up against the oppressive forces of the settlers. This battle for liberation was fought in 1896-1897, and in the end Nehanda was executed. At the time of her death, she is believed to have said, "My bones shall rise again" (Zhuwarara 1994).

The myth of Nehanda is revisited in Bones, in order to display the continuity between Nehanda's power of resistance and that of Marita.

My bones will rise in the spirit of war. They will sing war-songs with the fire of battle. They will compose new war-songs and fight on until the shrines of the land of their birth are respected once more (Bones 50).

The telling of these inspired stories has the power to establish a bond between the reader and the past, through the recognition of common goals, common obstacles, and common solutions. These novels instill an awareness of customs indigenous to a people, an understanding of change, influences, power dynamics, and oppression. This continuity provides a tool that can be invoked to manipulate one's circumstances; here, the liberation movements represent entwined forces of oral tradition, literature, and social action.

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