Dear ardent readers, as observed in the last week’s column, we are celebrating a year’s anniversary of hard work in creative reflections of poetry from various parts of the world. Apparently, I am writing to you from Malawi, the warm heart of Africa in the comfort of Sunbird Capital hotel, one of Malawi’s best hotels, so I have learned. But it is not about the admirable status of the hotel or its hospitable staff that excites me most, true though that might be; it is rather the discovery of all that we yearn for in our column. I just wandered away from my room and found myself at a moderately stocked Nyabufu book shop whose name as I have discovered is fairly deceptive; it stocks mostly curio artifacts. But it is also a bric-a-brac shop with a few shelves nestling Christian Literature the kind that one is familiar with even in our Zambian towns. Strangely, my eyes caught the attention of a few Literature books—Malawi Writing Today: A PEN Anthology of Recent Writing from Malawi, featuring some literary heavy weights such as Steve Chimombo, Professor of English, poet, playwright and critic at the University of Malawi; Felix Munthali Professor of English, critic and poet at the University of Botswana, the well-known poet, Jack Mapanje and, among others, the sharp- tongued David Kerr whom I met years ago at the University of Zambia. Other collections included The Vipya Poem, by Steve Chimombo and one slender volume in vernacular by the same author.
I have also found another volume of poetry by Chimombo, Napalo & Other Poems, and a recent anthology, Poems from the Warm Heart of Malawi, by Marisen Mwale, Mike Zulu, and Chimwemwe Kamanga plus a humorous collection of essays by Alfred Musadala simply titled, ‘One, Steve Chimombo.’ Mwale has also another small volume of A Solomonic Verse. It would be good to read new writings from ‘Zambian PEN’ apart from nagging and frantic reminders of forwarded messages about troubled journalists in hostile contexts; or indeed any other new publications worth reading so we can put behind us lamentations of a year ago—
Creative writing in both West and East Africa had its origin in the periods well before the independence of countries in the two regions. We have in mind particularly West Africa’s most populous nation of Nigeria and, Kenya and Uganda in the Eastern part of Africa. The roles played by two Universities, Ibadan and the Nairobi University College were extremely central to the development of literature. A special mention must be made of one Ulli Beier, a German scholar working at Ibadan and David Cook who was head of the English Department at Makerere University in the case of East Africa. These are but two names among a number of those who worked tirelessly to support the emerging crop of writers. And so, Soyinka, Clark, Achebe and their friends on the other side of the southern part of the River Nile and the Great Rift Valley, Ngugi, Taban and Okot were nurtured by a very strong literary foundation. Readers will recall that as the number of writers grew there was a great sense of selflessness among them so that they went to the extent of assisting other writers who might not have found any publishing outlets for their works. That is how Achebe and Okigbo upon founding a publishing company planned to help publish Okara’s poetry.
The writing that we have had from Nigeria in the past decades has been a great stimulus to the rise and development of literary works. Nigeria was at one time the source of perceived strange writing by Amos Tutuola whose imagination produced, The Palm Wine Drinkard. This was a bizarre story that sparked mixt feelings at home and abroad by literary critics. Many African literary critics dismissed the book with the contempt it deserved because of the English that produced it, coming as it did, from an uneducated writer. However, readers and critics abroad savored the book with delight if, for anything else, the book’s an unusual appeal to an imaginative mind albeit its blatantly flawed syntax. Later on, Achebe provided a remedy with the publication of the classic, Things Fall Apart, to calm the conscious of English readers and critics produced by a colonial educational system; presumably so for academicians who would even beat Queen Elizabeth flat out to the contest.
Nigeria has a complex cultural and social milieu where story-telling has flourished for centuries. Which is why, drama has played a major role espoused by talented men like Hubert Ogunde with his travelling theater, weaving stories of people’s daily experiences and performed to packed theater houses. But that is just one side of the story because on the other hand the great Onitsha market in Ibo land was a boiling pot of literary activity. Writers churned stories by the mill and sold them at the market as one would sell kola nut or cocoa yam; never mind the means of publication, they were written on mere pamphlets but good enough to earn one a Naira or two. What the stories lacked in production, they made up in their humor and engagement in the mundane life of a people starved for news and some small palaver and laughter.
Such is the broad spectrum where West African Literature was founded.
As for East Africa’s literature, its origin lies in the colonial period. Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley, two prominent white settler authors wrote about their experiences of Africa as they saw it in the Kenya of that day. Although the novel, Out of Africa by Karen smacks of black racial tendencies while Huxley’s book, “The Flame Trees of Thika, is only good as a literary historical piece, they at least placed Kenya on the world map. The result of this foundation gave birth to literary journals by the score: Ghala, Busara and Zuka for Nairobi, Dhana and Transition for Kampala while Dar es Sallam was the birthplace of Umma. Little wonder that when the two English Departments in West and East Africa were changed for something authentically African, there was so much material for learning institutions. One could talk of a long list of novels, plays and short stories, poetry— name it, that were written in both regions for local readership; they even had enough for countries like Zambia where Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Alechi, Oyono are part of our literature studies in secondary schools. The universities set up Travelling Theaters that went around the country towns to bring theater closer to the people. Publishing Houses produced as much as they could; this drive added tremendously to the growth of literary works in the respective countries.
Zambia’s literary tradition, however, is littered with a patently precarious foundation whose dented past haunts the nation up to now.
As recent as the 80s, a few years after independence, the situation had deteriorated considerably. Apparently, there is no literary colonial history to our story worth any mention. And if there is, it is perhaps in the name of one Robert Baptie author of The Drummer of the West, a book whose only literary charm would be for toddlers in a kindergarten. The Phala Creative Society established to support creating writing in Zambian grew frail and eventually collapsed. And so was the student’s own magazine The Jewel of Africa, so called to showcase Zambia’s (or is it Africa’s) ‘jewels’ in short story writing, poetry and literary criticism. But gone too was The New Writing from Zambia ironically coined to replace the nonexistent ‘old’ writing; the journal, Ngoma, publishing articles by lecturers had its days aptly numbered too because it also naturally died. At least for it, I saw its few copies before its eventual death, as it was carted away into the proverbial dust bin of history.
I remember one remarkable feature of the university at the time and this was the consistent production of renowned and acclaimed plays. It was a requirement for students of literature to write short plays, direct and act as part of a continuous assessment. The productions were preceded by rigorous advertisements on bill boards in town. That was the case, for example, for Aime Cesaire’s play, A Season in the Congo, directed by a fourth-year student, Chola Chisunka; we spent weeks of rehearsals but it dearly paid for all of us who took part in it. The play chronicles the intrigue and betrayal of global financiers in the fall of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s nascent president and icon of Africa. I wonder what preoccupies students and lecturers these days.
Although there was not much support from lecturers as was the case in the two case studies of West and East Africa, there were some lecturers who were inspiring: Stewart Crehan, now Professor at the Open University, a lecturer of Ghanaian stock nicknamed, ‘Uncle’ Tamaclore and David Kerr. They worked hard to sustain Chikwakwa open theatre, a kind of open amphitheater located somewhere around Munali for producing plays. With a robust construction industry in Lusaka, it is unlikely anyone can locate where the open theatre once stood.
The Department of Literature and Languages proudly supported the Travelling Theater that went to towns to perform at markets and little theatres; it is unlikely too that it is there today.
For a few of us that were part of this literary tradition, it was difficult to get to secondary schools and work with plays of questionable standards. I, for one, went on to produce Soyinka’s play, The Lion and the Jewel, in which the late ‘Post’ journalist Bright Mwape took part. Bright was at the time teaching at Mutende primary school in Mansa.
Later on Bright took up a major role in Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero. I also did Robert Serumaga’s play from East Africa. One would think I am of a kind that has tasted the proverbial meat and has no appetite for anything less.
So then, what went wrong in our country? For starters, the teaching of literature in schools should not have been an option to students especially in a case where the schools have no other stories for students to read. I still remember as a little boy at a primary school reading a well-illustrated children’s book, Mbungwe, the Frog and many other stories that were kept under lock and key in the head teacher’s office.
We even had time set aside for reading once or twice in a week. In higher grades/standards or forms novels were plenty because the African writer’s series was just emerging.
The policy, (or call it by whatever name), of making literature an optional subject in schools deprives future teachers and learners alike an opportunity for intensive training.
It is assumed that these teachers will later handle Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest and other books that may as well be above their heads. In fact, I am not sure how many teachers would effectively teach such texts. Ultimately, this development nips future creative writing in the bud.
Changing the situation is a mammoth task but Zambia’s literary artistic tradition can thrive, all it requires is a man or woman of courage with a big head like Taban’s and powerful hands like his to not only squeeze it but swing it around on a slender and flexible neck, hit several walls, ceilings, tables and chairs until it bleeds of blood for literary works to flow— better that desperate feat than absolutely nothing!