Writing Africa

The future for the African literary realm is immensely promising. There is a curiosity and ignorance that the world has about Africa today, and we can tap into that and introduce them to us - every day Africans; those who haven’t been educated and those who go to school; those who have lived through wars and those who have never even heard the sound of a gunshot; those who walk miles for water and those who have swimming pools in their backyards.
 
 
I was eleven years old, my English teacher gave us an assignment that I will never forget. We were told to each write a novel. I remember the whole of my form one class groaning in disapproval at the rather preposterous task. How in the world can eleven and twelve year-olds write novels? One of my classmates whined. I sat at my wooden desk [the kind you can open and store stuff in], and I grumbled too.
On the exterior that is.
 
 
Inside, I laughed out loud. I did about a hundred somersaults in the grassy, sunny, flowery fields of my mind. I plucked a purple bloom, and inhaled its scent deeply. That’s right- I was in heaven. I was excited about the task at hand.
 
 
I’d always loved telling stories, both orally, and in written form. I’d craft stories of children my age that often ended wittily with the mysterious phrase: ‘to be continued,’ in order to hold the pre-teen girls in my class in a merciless web of suspense. Other times, my side storytelling manifested itself orally - in the form of unforgivably hyperbolic tales of adventures I’d never had, with people I’d never met, in places I’d never been to, or could never dream of going to.
 
 
So the novel writing assignment presented was very much a pleasurable task for me. After a long five minutes of deliberation, I thought up a genius plot.
 
 
The protagonists: Two thirteen year old girls; one brunette, one with auburn hair.
The rising action: A talent show in their school, which they had to be a part of. They
think hard about what they’ll perform, and decide on a “cheerleading routine.”
The climax: One of the girls falls sick two days before the show.
The resolution: The sick girl fights her illness and shows up in the nick of time.
The dénouement: The girls go celebrate their much-too-unrealistically perfect victory
in an ice-cream parlour.
 
 
I remember the day that I first watched Chimamanda Adichie’s Danger of A Single Story. I sat there nodding all the way, because most of what she said resonated with me.
 
 
I grew up reading stories that were not African. My stories presented characters that had auburn hair (I still don’t know exactly what that looks like), were cheerleaders, and ate ice-cream sundaes in ice-cream parlours (neither of which existed in my home country, Malawi, at the time.)
 
 
Until I watched The Danger of a Single Story, I had never realised the toll that the sort of reading I had done took on the stories I told. Suddenly, I became aware of the need for stories of girls like me. Girls who had off-black afro hair, who were not cheerleaders, and who knew of ice-cream (not necessarily Sundaes, or Mondaes or any other day of the weekd-aes.)
 
 
It would be unfair to claim that African Stories are untold. Truly, it is indisputable that Africa has among the richest legacy of oral tradition in all cultures of the world. Figures like Ananse the spider and Kalulu the Hare, are a reflection of the wealth that African stories hold. They are embodiments of how stories have had an impact in African society. They have been a powerful force with which the elderly passed down wisdom to the youth.
 
 
Stories definitely exist in Africa. Perhaps they have been preserved in a way that the world is not used to. And perhaps they have not infiltrated other cultures to the point that they alter the stories that eleven year olds write for their English assignments. Regardless of this, the stories exist.
 
 
Moreover, the stories are being written. Projects like the Golden Baobab prize, which aims to see more African Children’s books written and shared with the world, are telling our stories. Ink is spilling from the hearts of Africans onto pages that are bound in brightly coloured covers that alluringly whisper to the world - Read Me.
 
 
Many would think it a weakness - having read so many non-African books - for an aspiring African writer such as myself. I see it more as strength. I believe that it gives me the edge. Because I’ve read outside stories, I feel as though I have lived a part of my life in their world - at least to some extent. I can tell a story from their perspective perhaps as easily as I can tell it from my own.
 
 
What is the future of African literature then? I believe that the power of any written piece lies in its ability to reverberate with the reader. Given the edge that I believe a reader with a literary history like mine has, I believe that the size of the audience such a writer will have is beyond great, for the stories the writer will craft will resonate with all peoples.
 
 
So the future for the African literary realm is immensely promising. I think about it and I have a positive feeling about where we’re headed as a continent in terms of literature. There is a sort of curiosity and ignorance that the world has about Africa today, and we can tap into that and introduce them to us. Every day Africans; those who haven’t been educated and those who go to school; those who have lived through wars and those who have never even heard the sound of a gunshot; those who walk miles for water and those who have swimming pools in their backyards.
 
 
Our stories abound. Our stories have different shades of a vast array of colours. Our stories have diverse emotions. Our stories have assorted faces, of different shapes and expressions. Our stories have different voices. The world is more than ready to hear those voices, vast and varied as they may be. Some stories are complete, and as we live them, some are still being written. The world is ready to hear our African stories. And we are more than capable of telling them.
 
 
 
This post appeared on Africa the Good News  on  14 December, 2012. Priscilla Takondwa Semphere writes as part of the Africa the Good News & ALA blogging partnership. Click here to see her post on Africa the Good News.