Imagine Africa: Idealism and disillusionment in the imagining of Africa

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Imagine Africa
Edited by Breyten Breytenbach
Publisher:Island Position, Gorée Institute
ISBN: 9781935744993

Imagine Africa, a collection of essays and literary pieces edited and introduced by poet, writer and activist Breyten Breytenbach, is the first in a projected series of volumes from the Gorée Institute, one of whose aims is to “celebrate the vitality and the diverse voices from the dynamic continent of Africa”. The literary pieces collected in this book certainly make for interesting reading. Before I turn to them, though, we will need to look at the political essays, which sketch an uncompromisingly bleak picture of the African continent.

Hervé Ludovic de Lys, an economist from Mali, pictures Africa as a sleeping beauty who has slumbered through slavery and colonialism and may now be slumbering through another important part of her life: the imposition of neoliberal economic policies on societies for which they are not suited.

Trudy Stevenson, a former member of parliament in Zimbabwe, now Zimbabwean ambassador to Senegal, writes from a perspective of years of active involvement in postcolonial politics. For her the central problem of Africa is its corrupt and venal new elites. She makes a general case about Africa, but the fate of her country, Zimbabwe,  and indeed her own fate, since she was herself attacked by thugs during a political campaign and severely wounded, serve as an unspoken example. She answers her own question, “Is there any hope for African politics?”, tentatively at best.

Another contributor, American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komuyakaa, imagines what Franz Fanon, that stern analyst and critic of the way the oppressed of Africa allowed their souls to be colonised, would have said about the continent’s current round of unfortunate rulers. Fanon, he suspects, would not have been impressed.

Others, including Breytenbach, have offered critical accounts of the failures of Africa’s postcolonial elites. Until recently at least, the criticism has made little difference. The new African elite has usually been able to sweep foreign criticism aside as tainted at source, and repress dissent at home.

Steven Ellis, former editor of Africa Confidential and a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, does very useful service by demolishing the established precolonial-colonial-postcolonial model of African history. His argument is similar to that of the South African social scientist Moeletsi Mbeki: that “postcolonial regimes that were presided over by Africans rather than Europeans continued in fact to make abundant use of the practices and mentalities of their colonial predecessors”. This fatal mimicry, he argues, means that the colonial/postcolonial distinction makes little sense. And because this mistaken model has been uncritically accepted, the chronologies that are usually offered as the significant milestones of the continent were often wrong. I certainly hope that his essay will set the cat among the historical pigeons, if it hasn’t already.

Alex de Waal’s piece is a study of the savage ironies that Africa can produce. It is a history of the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and later of the African Union (AU), in Addis Ababa, which looked on the notorious prison of Alem Bakegm. The fortress was first used as a torture centre during the Italian occupation, and then in the same way all through the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and then again during the years of the Red Terror – and in all that time no African nation raised any protest against the horrors that were being perpetrated there. Now the prison has been bulldozed away. The OAU-AU has adopted its habitual stance as regards this awkward fact of its history, De Waal suggests: “Ignore the inconvenient, be indifferent to shame.”

The hopes that rose during the early period of the European withdrawal from Africa have now vanished in a murky “postcolonial” quagmire. The ideals and values of the struggles of those countries into existence have been forgotten, rapacious new elites have appeared, neoliberal economic policies have run rampant, thousands of child soldiers are fighting wars for ganglords, high walls have gone up in the expensive suburbs, and everywhere there is a “profound corrosion of individual and collective self-esteem”, as the editor writes.


The second strand of the book consists of a series of essays, stories and poems. They are interleaved with the political reflections, so that a reading-through creates the impression that the more analytical pieces are intended as background explanations to the literary ones. There is a danger in this approach, for it helps to foster the impression that African writing needs political crib notes to be comprehensible.

We start with two warhorses of the postcolonial poetry scene by Corsino Fortes, the Cape Verdean poet. Born during the period of Portuguese colonial rule, Fortes has had a career that has been an emblem of the turmoil – and perhaps also of the new opportunities – that followed its end. Like so many of the continent’s intelligentsia he has earned his living by other means than by writing – working as a teacher, a lawyer, and as a judge in Angola before being appointed ambassador. And through all the years of change and travel he has retained a poetic identification with the ordinary folk who keep things going during difficult times – the emigrant sending back remittances, the tenant farmer.

The themes of exile and a yearning for a recovery of authenticity are strong in his work. Fortes sketches the land – and seascapes of the Cape Verde islands in an expressionist, physical style that aims at giving it a mythical quality. The opening lines of “Emigrant”, for instance – “Every evening, sunset crooks/ its thumb across the island” – are at once mythic and disarmingly human. The mythic element is in the personification of the sun. At the same time this could be the gesture of a fisherman, perhaps, estimating his course, or an emigrant with his hand to his forehead, looking back as the ship sets out. In either case, how different that experience is if you are the one on the boat.

In its mythicising, at least, Fortes’s work is similar to the work of that other island poet, Derek Walcott. One of the deepest instincts of postcolonial literatures, it would appear, has been the urge to reclaim landscapes from the colonial aftermath, and in some cases even languages, and to do so through myth. In some cases the emphasis has been on the recovery of old stories; in other cases the recovery has centred on autonomous, subconscious invention. (There are parallels here with some works of South American literature.) In any case, a major question then and now has been for whom such work is written. Whatever else it may be, ours is not a heroic age.

The other pieces in the literary sequence encompass a variety of styles and subjects. I was pleased to find two poems by the South African poet Adam Small. I owned a book of his verse when I was a boy, and coming across some of his poems in this book was like running into old friends. Small wrote in the 1950s and ’60s. His inclusion made me realise that the literary work ranges over a longer period than the political items, which are written from a contemporary point of view.

I liked the poems by Tahar Djaout, an Algerian poet, novelist and journalist, although it took a while to get close to them. The poems, written in French and translated here, are delicate pieces about loss and memory, and a sinuous blend of surrealism with a North African sensibility. Djaout, the author of The Last Sleep of Reason, an important novel that tells the story of the descent of a North African country into fundamentalism, was murdered by fundamentalists in 1983. The inclusion of his work here is significant both because of its quality and because of the fact that he was murdered because of that quality. It was feared that it would seduce the faithful to secular views. (The great Iranian singer, poet and writer Fereydoun Farrokhzad was assassinated in 1992 in Germany for the same reason.)

From the other end of the continent, South African Eben Venter’s short story is delicate, telling of an encounter of a troubled urbanite with a group of migrant labourers. It makes its point about the relative nature of freedom in a subtle, low-key way.

In contrast, Kenyan Shailja Patel’s mixed verse and prose account of the fraught days leading up to and following the Kenyan election of 2007 puts its finger on the nerve pulse of a nation “on the brink of civil war” – from which it stepped back at the last moment. Her attitude signifies the sensibility of a new generation in Africa with a sense of their civic rights and a knowledge of how to use the social media.

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s fairy tale, “A Pan-African Flight”, is an extended shaggy dog – or “shaggy bird” – story. It tells the tale of a magical bird’s survey of the continent of Africa, with its many deserts and its many wonders. The journey continues overseas, to end in New York, city of the United Nations. It ends when we realise that both Africa’s problems and their solution lie at home, not in the fashionable conference resorts. Clearly a moral lesson to Africa’s jeteratti, it keeps the criticism relatively light in discreet African fashion.

Ghanaian Ayesha Harruna Attah’s short story, “New Shoes”, is an interesting exercise in a strong new realism – a naturalism, even – that may be new to African writing. It tells the story of a naïve young man who rapes a young woman. It is told entirely from his point of view, and he has only a vague glimmering of the violence of his act.

I was pleased to discover two poems by the South African poet Charl-Pierre Naudé in the book. Having translated some of his earlier work I was already familiar with his paradoxical imagination. In these poems I find that imagination released from the constraints of rhyme and metre, and working in a different, freer mode. In one poem Naudé plays delightful games with the familiar trope of the blocked writer, and conjures a window in the wall that he is looking at, which “looks out, or rather in”.

In the other poem he recounts the story of an encounter of two lovers with a storm in a mountainous area of South Africa notorious for its frequency of lightning strikes. We see the lovers running across “ancestral ground” to reach safety, only to find that their house has been broken into and its contents strewn all over. Whoever/whatever had been there has left only a “feral smell” in the air. And then the apparently simple narrative takes on a suddenly larger significance.

And thinking back, the shelter did not deliver us – we were
Still on ancestral ground, exposed to its caprice.

That’s really good.


Introducing the book,Breytenbach says that its main intention is to demonstrate that “Africa lives” – although, he goes on, it “might be considered incongruous if not downright subversive” to do so.

It isn’t difficult to see why it might be regarded as subversive – at least, to the people it criticises. The political essays outline a situation of general moral failure in Africa’ s political classes. Such people will not like the views expressed – if they ever read them. Readers in the world outside Africa, meanwhile, may find that it confirms an impression that has been building up over the past few decades of a distant continent in the grip of terminal political incompetence. Nevertheless I would recommend the political essays to such cynics for their details, for the closeness and the accuracy of the observation, and for the urgency and authenticity of their voices. There is reason to be concerned if such people are concerned.

On the other hand the literary work demonstrates that the continent is producing writing of high quality. Why should this be subversive? Is it subversive to assert that writing of this kind is “representative” of Africa, perhaps? For we have here examples of physical surrealism (Fortes), poems in dialect (Small), exercises in emotional abstraction (the South African-born Australian poet John Mateer), the strong colours of an Algerian-French imagination (Djaout), melancholic metaphysical celebrations of the redemptive powers of the imagination (Naudé), Hafiz-like modern fables (the Italian-Iranian writer Andre Naffis-Sahely), a sort of hyper-realism (Ayesha Harruna Attah) … These are all by writers who have moved far beyond the boundaries of style and of expression imposed by the narrow aesthetic requirements of national liberation struggles, who are confident of the styles and techniques that they have developed, and who draw inspiration and insight from wide-ranging points of reference. As so often in history, they have achieved these things not because of the successes, but despite the failures, of their political classes.

If I have a criticism of this book at all, it is that the political pieces are so focused on Africa that they deprive the point sometimes of perspective. No one would dispute that African countries have generally failed their citizens, especially in the matter of safety and security. But in other respects – corruption, for example – Africa is hardly unique. At the time of writing, major cases of corruption are being prosecuted in the US, the UK and the Netherlands. During the years I have lived in Europe I have seen numerous other cases, in a number of countries, passing over the TV screen. Scaling the level up a notch or two, the global community recently learned how vulnerable we all are to the suddenly cumulative effects of large-scale corruption when it emerged that the greed of a few thousand people had pushed the economic system to the brink. Criticism of the new African elites should address their humanity, not their sense of being African. And it should be based in a capacity to act, through civil society, for example.

That said, my earlier feeling that there was something perhaps a little artificial about providing “political crib notes” turns out not to have been accurate. In fact, the interleaving of the political and the literary elements makes an important point. If anything is clear, it is that there is a startling difference between the brutal incompetence of contemporary politics in Africa and the wide-ranging sophistication of its literary writing. As elsewhere in the world, there doesn’t appear to be much of a bridge between the two. But as elsewhere too, it’s a good bet that some of the literary work will survive to shape identities and cultures long after the politicians are pushing up the daisies.

Of course, one can imagine that a volume called Imagine Africa compiled by Ngugi wa Thiongo or by Wole Soyinka would read very differently. But every anthology is a selection, every imagining is from a point of view – what matters is whether it is interesting. And on that score, this imagining of Africa succeeds hugely.


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