By Akachi Ezeigbo
The people of what is today known as Nigeria were put through the traumatic experience of slavery and colonization by European powers, especially Britain, for centuries. Though colonization was terminated in the 20th century, other forms of subjugation continued. This phenomenon has become known as cultural domination or cultural imperialism. As a global and economic power, especially since after the Second World War, the United States of America overshadows the other Western powers and has inevitably spread its values and permeates and dominates the cultures of other countries in practically every part of the world. With the rise of postmodernism, following its reaction against the marginalization of cultures and minorities, many such marginalized groups have taken steps to empower and project themselves. Nigerian writers, starting with the first generation writers, have not relented in exploring the various periods of the nation’s experience and recreating in their prodigious literary productions the triumphs, inadequacies and failings of the nation. Indeed, generations of writers, including the home-based writers and those who migrated to the West have consistently produced works that explore and portray the stages Nigeria has passed through in its struggle to become a viable and developed nation. Using literature to achieve the task of nation building has been the driving force that propel Nigerian writers. Nigerian Diasporic writers have produced works that consciously mingle or merge issues and experiences from their home country with those from their new places of domicile. Thus they produce fictions that cross borders. We argue in this paper that Nigerian writers must continue to project their cultures and traditions for the purpose of societal reorientation and nation building. In my lecture, I intend to examine the identity of Nigerian literature, its effort over the years to educate and re-orientate the minds of the people through a reinterpretation of moments in the history of Nigeria with a view to creating positive change in the society. Our writers must continue to educate our people and promote the cause of nation building by producing powerful, inspiring and enduring works of art.
Key Words: Creativity, Culture, Identity, Literature, Imagination, Resilience, Nation building
HISTORY is made in this 2021 gathering of Nigerian writers in Abuja not only because this year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), the largest writers’ body in Africa, founded by the legendary novelist and critic, Professor Chinua Achebe, but also because for the first time the Annual Convention is taking place at the Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village. I am excited to be the first person to deliver a Keynote Address on this hallowed ground. For this privilege and honour, I owe many thanks to the ANA Executive Council ably led by the indefatigable and amiable Mr. Camillus Ukah. I thank you all for the invitation to not only give the Keynote Lecture but also to be part of this history-making Convention at the Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village, Mpape, Abuja. For many years we were dreaming of a time when we would have our own place where we could gather as writers and discuss matters of interest to our association. This is a dream come true. I am glad it is happening in my lifetime. I greet all of you who managed to come to Abuja from far and near with deep affection and great respect. ANA will live long! ANA will become stronger and reunite under one umbrella again!
Introduction: Africa’s Encounter with Alien Powers and Forces
FOR centuries, some Western countries enslaved Africans and colonized and ruled many regions of the world, especially Asia, Africa, the Far East and the areas known today as North and South America and the West Indies. Wherever they conquered, dominated and ruled, these European powers established their own systems of governance and imposed their cultures – including their religion and way of life – on those they dominated. Initially the idea was to spread the Christian civilization to these ‘primitive’ peoples or pagans and to create new sources of raw materials for European industries and also train people that would ensure the economic growth of the colonizing countries. For a very long time black people featured in other people’s histories and their cultural productions as sub-humans, irrational beings and people without civilization or history.. Africa was regarded as the ‘dark continent’.
The history of African people’s encounter with the Arabs from the Middle East and North Africa even before the Europeans came is similar though slightly different. The Arabs conquered the northern parts of Africa and today occupy and possess countries such as Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan, and from these places spread their cultural, religious and political influences to parts of West, East, Central and Southern Africa.. Islam like Christianity became a major religion in Africa, overshadowing if not replacing outright the traditional African religions. The Arabs might not have colonized Africa in the real sense of the word, but their influence is felt in many parts of Africa through their religion, Islam, and their language, Arabic, which is spoken in some places and sometimes used as a language of instruction. Wikipedia states that “Islam gained momentum during the 10th century in West Africa with the start of the Almoravids movement on the Senegal River and as the rulers embraced Islam. Islam then spread slowly in much of the continent through trade and preaching.” And through jihads, I must add, as was the case in Northern Nigeria, Uthman Dan Fodio defeated the seven Hausa States and established the authority of Islam over them.
Why do I recount or revisit these histories of violence, conquest, domination and influence? It is simply because they affected and still affect African writers and what they wrote about in the past and what they write about in the present. In spite of identified flaws in Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, the upheavals that characterized certain periods of Africa’s historical experiences have been graphically explored in the novel. Recently, in 2017, a young Ghanaian-American writer, Yaa Gyasi published a novel entitled Homegoing based on the Atlantic slave trade, covering the experiences of more than three generations of two families from the coast of West Africa (now Ghana) to the plantations in America and on to modern Ghana and USA. This is a work of epic dimension. The two historical novels mentioned above fall into the category critics study under postcolonial writing.
In the course of the 20th century, the colonization of the countries of the South by Western countries gave way to political independence for the former colonized countries, but unfortunately other forms of domination continued. The former colonial masters imposed their cultural values on their former subjects. This phenomenon has become known as cultural domination or cultural imperialism. The rise of the United States of America as a world power has complicated the issue of cultural domination. As a global and economic power, the United States of America overshadows the other Western powers and has inevitably spread its values and permeates and dominates the cultures of other countries in practically every part of the world.
In the wake of postmodernism, its shattering of closures and its reaction against the marginalization of cultures and minorities, many such vulnerable groups cashed in on the spirit of the new movement (especially in the late 20th century) to empower and ‘en-centre’ themselves in the scheme of things. The dismantling of strong traditional identities and cultures as embodied in the West was inevitable following the decline of Modernism and the rise of postmodernism. I have delved into Africa’s variegated experiences of Western and Arab domination simply to give a solid background to my discourse. However, this lecture focuses on Nigerian writers as well as the role Nigerian literature has played in nation building. But first I would like to define and explain some concepts or key terms that are indispensable to our understanding of the role literature plays in nation building.
Culture and Identity
I consider it expedient to define some of the key terms in this presentation – culture and identity. Culture is the sum total of a people’s way of life including their language, food, clothes, traditions, customs, attitudes, beliefs, etc. Quoting Ansah (1989, 13), Okunna defines culture as “that whole complex which includes knowledge, morals, religion, customs and habits, or any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society” (142). In their own definition, Kroeber and Cluckhohn state that
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and
transmitted by symbols constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups,
including their embodiments in artifacts…. (522)
Culture, cultural tradition and oral tradition played major roles in the work of Nigerian writers, of the first generation such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chukwuemeka Ike, Flora Nwapa, T.M. Aluko, John Munonye, Elechi Amadi, Onuora Nzekwu and Mabel Segun. The influence of culture is also seen strongly in the writing of those often described as second generation and they include Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Buchi Emecheta, Tanure Ojaide, Festus Iyayi, Olu Obafemi, Chimalum Nwankwo, Ifeoma Okoye, Zaynab Alkali, Ahmed Yerima, Sam Ukala, Abubakar Gimba and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, etc. For these two generations of writers, their cultural identity is not ambiguous, for their works are rooted in the cultures of their people. For instance, the Igbo culture informs Achebe and Emecheta’s writing while Soyinka and Osofisan are steeped in Yoruba culture. Tanure Ojaide draws material from his Urhobo culture in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta. Osundare and Chimalum Nwankwo’s poetry are rooted in the oral tradition of their people while Zaynab Alkali and Abubakar Gimba’s fiction are influenced by the cultural traditions of their people. And so on and so forth.
A third and perhaps fourth generations of Nigerian writers have since emerged and their orientation seems to be somewhat different from that of those who preceded them. What is the attitude to culture and to the identity question of the younger generation of writers? To this group belong Nigeria-based writers such as Toni Kan, Jude Dibia, Odili Ujubuonu, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Hope Eghagha, Remi Raji, Obari Gomba, Lola Shoneyin, Maria Ajima, Obinna Udenwe, Promise Ogochukwu, Denja Abdullahi, Henry Akubuiro, Akeem Lasisi, Perpetual Eziefule, Jeff Iwu, Achalugo Ezekobe, Osita Ezenwanebe, Bose Afolayan, Onyeka Iwuchukwu, Folu Agoi, Olatubosun Taofeek, etc. To this group also belong Diaspora-based writers such as Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Chris Abani, Chika Unigwe, Helen Oyeyemi, Teju Cole, Taiye Selassie (of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin), E.C. Osondu, Nduka Otiono, Nnedi Okorafor, Unoma Azuah, Akwaeke Emezi, Yewande Omotoso, Chibundi Onuzo, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia to mention but a few. Regarding the Diaspora writers, most of them had either migrated to the West (Europe and America) from Nigeria or were born in the West by Nigerian immigrants. Nigerian culture or oral tradition may not charm them as it had charmed the earlier generations. So there seems to be a growing divide between these border-crossing writers and the older writers as well as writers of their generation who live and write in Nigeria – the indigenous writers as they are called.
In a keynote lecture he gave at the 2018 African Literature Association (ALA) Conference in Washington DC, USA, Helon Habila might have spoken for a sizeable number of this category of writers whom he referred to as Afropolitans (borrowing Taiye Selasi’s term) – “born in Africa but living in the outside” and “born in foreign lands by African parents”. Habila also referred to these writers as “new voices since the Caine Prize and the Etisalat Prize” and, one might add, since the Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by Nigeria LNG Ltd (a literary prize that has revolutionised writing in Nigeria). He made some remarks regarding African literature and its current state which were challenged by many of the conference participants – an audience that could easily be described as the cream of modern African and African Diaspora literary critics. One of the questions Habila raised was: “What is the future of African literature?” He touched briefly on the language question in African literature and wondered if the African writer was “still in a state of disillusion. What does the term nation mean to the writer?” Pointing out that a writer like Dambudzo Marechera had rejected being classified as an African writer, Habila seems to think that the term ‘African literature’ may have lost its meaning, especially for the writers who like him either migrated or were born outside Africa. In the criticism of the works of African migrant writing, new terms like “global writing” and “post-nation” are used to discuss works like Teju Cole’s Open City and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah – terms that exclude the writing by Africa-based or African indigenous writers. The Diaspora-based writers have often been criticized for pandering to Western taste.
Habila endorses Selasi’s categorization of Diaspora writers as Afropolitans and considers it a more viable definition. He advocates a resistance to what he calls “the confines of boundaries.” The truth is that the writers who regard themselves as Afropolitans do not want to carry the burden of African issues or concerns. This is probably because foreign publishers who publish their works are not interested in the concerns of Africa. They are compelled to write what the West wants to read. On the other hand, indigenous writers prefer to recreate experience from the African perspective, about the nation, especially regarding issues of corruption, bad leadership and bad governance, ecological problems, insecurity and gender issues. Habila is of the view that writers can write on any subject as Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Chika Unigwe, etc, have done. He disapproves African literature’s “insistence on materiality and the humanity of the people” but rather prefers that the focus of writing should be the individual in the world. According to him, a writer is free to use his or her work to intervene, protest; and he/she can be political, using the writing to instruct and entertain. He called this “instrumental aesthetics.” In his own keynote address at the same conference in Washington DC, the critic Ato Quason cautions against the over lionization of Taiye Selasi’s Afropolitanism which he describes as a “variant of Cosmopolitanism” and which he thinks is “completely rubbish”.
The question that came to my mind which I asked Habila was what he thought would be the fate of African literature as a discipline and as a critical category if we abrogate or abandon the term. What would be the fate of our hallowed and famous association, African Literature Association (ALA)? Would we then split the discipline into two as 1: African Literature and 2: Diaspora African Literature? And subsequently split the association into two as African Literature Association and Diaspora African Literature Association? Do the transcultural experiences of the migrant writers exclude their works from being classified as African literature or Nigerian literature for the purpose of our argument in this lecture? These are questions for Habila and those who share his views; and also for all of us who are Nigerian and/or African writers and critics. I should point out, though, that there are migrant writers based in the West like Tanure Ojaide and Chimalum Nwankwo (and, of course, the Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiongo’o) who are somewhat suspicious of globalization and prefer to project their culture in the global scene.
The above reflections on culture, tradition, migration and African writers across generations dovetail nicely with the issue of identity. Culture is considered to be central to the construction of identity theories. I am interested in the theory known as Identity Negotiation Theory which was first described by Stella Ting-Toomey in 1986. The act of negotiation takes place at the point when individuals in an intercultural/transcultural situation embark on defining, modifying, asserting their own self-image or identity. Nigerian migrant writers battle with this form of negotiation, no doubt. Thus the individuals while protecting their own identity (culture) are aware of other individuals’ right to theirs. Consequently, the individual promotes oneness with others while respecting diversity. The whole idea is that the individual undergoes cultural experiences in relationships with others rather than being trapped in his/her mono-culture. This is exactly the experience of Ifemelu in Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah. Much of the novel recounts Ifemelu’s individual experiences among cultures, ethnicities, gendered situations and racial divides. This is an illustration of identity negotiation in a transcultural setting. Transculturalism involves a merging of two cultures with each reflecting the other – as if “seeing oneself in the other” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). It involves merging, mingling or combining the features or elements of more than one culture. Fernando Ortiz, a South American scholar, defines transculturalism as “a synthesis of two phases occurring simultaneously” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia), leading to the construction of something different; a new common culture. This type of identity embracing a new common culture is what is needed in Nigeria to unite all the ethnic nationalities for the purpose of building a strong nation under the mantra, unity in diversity. Literature can help achieve this important goal.
In the next section of my lecture, I will discuss the role of Nigerian literature in nation building, by examining the experience of Nigeria’s indigenous writers as well as the transcultural experience of Nigeria’s Diaspora writers with close reference to the contributions their works have made to the cultural, political, socio-economic and physical development of Nigeria.
Literature as a Tool for National Development
FOR me, nation building and national development are semantically the same and will be used interchangeably in this lecture. As I stated in an earlier lecture, development is the gradual growth of a people and a country, so that they become better, more advanced, leading to an unfolding of the potentialities of the individuals in that society. Development can be two ways – on one hand, the physical factor in the form of infrastructure, and on the other hand, the human factor which is indispensable because it is when people are properly educated and socialized that any form of development can take place. Development, therefore, is people-driven. Consequently, for a country to develop, the citizens must be ‘equipped’ with a sound well-grounded and balanced humanities and science education right from primary to the secondary and tertiary levels. The point I am making is that literature (among the Humanities) is the most efficacious subject or discipline to provide the humanistic education Nigeria needs to make progress and to escape from the scourge of corruption, ethnicity, nepotism, greed and bad leadership. Literature teaches us about life, enriches our experience of human psychology and relationships, which are needed to build character and nurture balanced human beings (Ezeigbo 2008, 16).
Romanus Egudu rightly states that the literary artist “dissects the society not only at its political level but also at its moral level” (64). Nigerian writers have always pursued these goals since Nigerian literature came of age with the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958. Nigerian writers are among the best not only in Africa but also in the world; they are contributing, through the power of their imagination and artistic creativity, to the growth of literary productions that are changing the face of Nigerian as well as world literature. Many of our writers have put Nigerian literature in the world’s literary hall of fame and contributed to Nigeria’s cultural and intellectual development. They have used art as a means of effecting revolutionary change in society. For instance, in Season of Anomy, Soyinka creates characters like Ofeyi and Demakin who act as agents of justice with the moral and humane spirit lost by the society through the evil machination of two oppressive regimes. Through them and the forces they represent, Soyinka hopes to restore to his society its moral character and humane sensibility.
From a close reading of some texts available to us, it is quite obvious that literature can be a catalyst to revolutionary change: what is required is for an individual (a reader) or individuals (readers) to apply the knowledge, the information gathered from literature to bring about social change. The unrelenting persecution faced by writers all over the world is a clear indication that literature can indeed be a weapon to achieve change and raise the consciousness of a people – which bad leaders dread. Examples abound – in South Africa during the Apartheid era; in Kenya during the time of Arap Moi; in Nigeria during the period of military dictatorship, especially under Abacha; in Eastern European countries during the Cold War and in some Islamist States in the Arab world. In these places and others, many writers faced and still face death sentence, imprisonment and detention as a result of their work and their activism.
Nigeria was 21 years old in 1981 when the legendary Chinua Achebe gathered other writers together at Nsukka to form the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). This calls to memory a similar gathering of writers at the All Soviet Congress of Writers in 1934 where A.A. Zhdanov declared that “the writer must depict life not simply as objective reality, but . . . in its revolutionary development” (Damian Grant 1970, 76). Similarly, most Nigerian writers have always depicted life with objective reality, interpreted history and portrayed the socio-cultural developments and political challenges in the country. This is not unique to Nigeria, for as I stated elsewhere, “Examples abound in literatures from all over the world of how writers use the power of the imagination and the illusion of reality to create and re-create experiences that hold up a mirror to their societies to view their actions and understand the need to achieve positive transformation of the society” (Ezeigbo 2008, 12). The renowned Achebe explored the impact of colonization and the British colonial administration in Igboland in Things Fall Apart.
The literary history of Nigeria has been driven by resilience, courage, commitment and the will or determination of the writers to guide, lead and direct the developing and evolving nation along the path of unity, accountability, positive social change and reorientation. For a literature that is conscious of the need to empower and encourage the people with self-knowledge as well as teach them their past, present and even future for the purpose of societal re-engineering, the importance of creating or nurturing an inclusive literary culture that harnesses and promotes writing from every part of the country is imperative. As we all know, literature in its oral and written forms has always been a tool to entertain and instruct the individual, the family, the community and the society at large. For example, in the traditional society, folktales, fables, myths, riddles, legends – forms of oral literature – were used to give pleasure as well as teach both the young and the not-so-young in the family or community. Literature in its written form has continued to fulfil this function in modern society. In other words, literature has always been deployed to the service of society. History has been described as the hero of Nigerian literature because the development and growth of the literature appear to have be
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