Letter from Africa: Readers need writers

 
A man reading a Cairo book fair - 2007

In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the influence of great writers on the continent.

It has often been said that despite boasting several Nobel laureates for literature, many Africans themselves are more fond of reading the Bible or the Koran, and that literature and its army of novelists and poets matter little to the millions to whom independence delivered literacy and an appreciation of the written word.

Start Quote

Doris Lessing

Perhaps it may be that the love of the country will be strong enough to link people who hate each other now”

End Quote Doris Lessing

I am not sure what kind of people make up these generalisations but to those Africans who have heard of Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, J M Coetzee, Naguib Mahfouz and Doris Lessing, the literature laureate who grew up in Zimbabwe, the influence of the African world on the continent's men and women of letters continues.

When Lessing died earlier this month at the grand old age of 94, she had already left her mark on many people's bookshelves and minds.

We all gravitate to those authors who come closest to describing the physical and psychological worlds closest to our interests.

More than half a century ago a young Lessing was telling us:

"Africa belongs to the Africans; the sooner they take it back the better.

"But - a country also belongs to those who feel at home in it.

"Perhaps it may be that the love of the country will be strong enough to link people who hate each other now. Perhaps."

And with such clear observations, the author was kicked out of colonial Zimbabwe, or Southern Rhodesia as it was then called, for her "subversive" views and wrote about Lomagundi and the country she lived in and the simmering encounters between white and black from exile and new citizenship.

More writers than politicians?

In the year we also lost Chinua Achebe - on whom commentators stubbornly stapled the ridiculous label of "father of African literature" - we should be heartened to know that should we get tired of the scriptures, Africa's past and present is being well handled by authors from Algeria to Zimbabwe following in the footsteps of the Lessings and Achebes.

The books South Africa's Nelson Mandela had in his prison on Robben Island on display in Johannesburg, November 2013 These books, and others, were hugely important to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island

While poets may be assassinated in Somalia or imprisoned in Eritrea, would it be too much to ask the conglomerates and philanthropists to stop throwing their millions at just mosquito nets or retired presidents in futile leadership awards and invest a little in unearthing the writers who will tell our great-grandchildren how our world was?

We could go on, of course, and ask: "Should we have more writers than politicians, more writers than medicine men - for it is not as if we don't have enough writers?"

Julius Nyere in 1985 Julius Nyerere made time to translate some Shakespeare plays into Swahili

But my answer would have to be: "Yes - for it is better to have more writers than child soldiers."

It was for nothing but a love of reading that Julius Nyerere, Tanzania's independence leader, found the time to translate Shakespeare's Julius Caesar into Swahili for his countrymen.

The prisoners on Robben Island found beating pulses on tiny bookshelves in tiny spaces.

The truth is there has never been a father of African literature, but there have always been Africans who read.

And what can we learn from the wordsmiths with such long lives?

That words and thoughts so carefully observed in books like Lessings' The Grass is Singing or African Laughter will mean more to generations to come than many a speech or election slogan.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.

 

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