There is a new Africa emerging and it is being shaped by a new generation of Africans; by the yous and mes. As we speak of engineers to build our bridges, architects to erect the buildings of the future, lawyers to transform our legal systems into justice systems and accountants to balance the books of a new and promising continent, what is the place of literature in this new Africa? What is the point of this literature that has been around for centuries when millennials are fast losing their interests in paperbacks and their younger cousins, e-books? I mean, when has a pen built a bridge? When have trisyllabic words adorned themselves with lab coats and made rounds at hospital wards? Are hard covers the bricks with which we will build the structures that will change the face of Africa? Is writing even a professional job; one any parent will be proud to hear their children declare as their chosen path?
If we are honest with ourselves, the vast majority does not attach much importance to what they consider as simply ‘stories in a book’ that one visits to escape from that which is real. It is sad that we often lack the ability to look beyond the surface of things. It is even sadder that a lot of the time, there are those who still miss the deep meanings even when they aren’t hidden between the lines, but stare back at the reader in the form of Calibri or Comic Sans M.
The societies that have paid attention to the development of man’s mind are the societies that have thrived. The thing is that words from the likes of Niyi Osundare and Ngugi Wa Thiong’O are not ‘just words on paper’. A major problem with Africans is that we fail to recognize the power of words and the ideas that spring forth from them. Words are often the expression of ideas and mentality inherent in a given man. Do we honestly believe that the likes of Hitler and Charles Taylor got as far as they did on simply guns and manpower? Have you ever asked yourself ‘Why weren’t the greatest tyrants of the world stopped by the people closest to them, those who simultaneously saw the inhumanity of their actions and were in the position to do something?’
I always wondered about that particular question whenever I learned about a new despot or a new act carried out by an old one. I stopped wondering the day I understood how words spoken by a man can be more potent than the most bizarre charm that the native doctor in your village can produce.
How does all this tie into my argument for the relevance of literature, especially at a time like this? Through every decade since the African man’s ability to record, there have been men and women with minds that can only be described as being beyond the average. Minds that started revolutions with the expressions of their minds on paper; words so powerful they leapt off pages and blew a wind of change across landscapes. A lot of times we forget the essence of who we are in this fast paced world that is said to be evolving into a global village. We must go to the old writings to understand where we are coming from. “whoever knows the history of a country can read its future”, Sundiata. We must go to the wisdom in the works of the recent past so that we see the mistakes of the former generation and make better decisions. We must go to the writings of even the present so that we can see the world from different perspectives, so that we can exchange ideas, so that we can be better, so that we can advance into the future.
We can strive for development by chasing all the fields the textbooks tell us are necessary for development but we will be fighting a losing battle against stagnancy if we do not pursue the emancipation and development of our minds. There is a path to development that is paved especially for African feet and our writings are streetlights dressed as paperbacks and pdfs. Niyi Osundare in his essay “Stubborn loom in the thread of being” writes;
These various perspectives on literature may look like self-serving proclamations, coming as they do, from the literary practitioners themselves. But there is so much in literature which justifies their claims, so much force in the magic of the written word which roots the present in the past, making sure we do not forget… No matter what their places of origin, no matter what the period of the composition of their works, a certain thread binds them to the bundle of our human experience; for literature like the other arts, is not only trans-temporal, it is also trans-spatial- a fact which led the Soviet writer Yuri Bondarev to see true works of art as ‘the immense spiritual energy of a nation, its experience and memory’.
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