The artiste’s space in society’s destiny

Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
THE artiste in the African world view plays a plethora of roles, which make it possible for him to identify with his people through articulation of the cultural mores and values that shape his society through language.

African thinkers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek and Chinweuzu et al, though perching on different branches of the same tree, are in agreement that the African artiste plays a significant role in mapping out the destiny of his society as is evident in African Literature.

Chinua Achebe, commenting on the role of the artiste as a teacher in “African Writers Talking” (1972) noted that: “. . . What I think a novelist can teach is something very fundamental, namely to indicate to his readers; to put it crudely that we in Africa did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans.”

The people’s artiste, therefore, should write “about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (Cesaire, 1994:21); because he functions as the custodian of the mores and values that inspire societal aspirations.

As a gifted individual endowed with wisdom and vision, the artiste can guide his people by indicating to them what may be regarded as an ideal way of doing things; as a teacher. The cultural norms and values of a community or nation are contained in literary works, and not in history books, as maintained by Chenjerai Hove in “Palaver Finish” (2002).

A writer does not only awaken his people on the need to preserve their cultural identity, norms and values, but he should also act as the voice of the feeble and the voiceless. As someone with “something significant to say”, a writer should not just tell his/her community what to do and what to avoid; he/she should speak for them” (Nyamfukudza, cited in cited in Maveneke, 1983:5).

Chenjerai Hove cited in Veit-Wild (1993:3, 4) complements this rationale of the artiste as the voice of the voiceless when he quips: “African writers have to perform the task of helping to awaken the consciences of the world to the plight of the powerless in a world where the muscle of arms rather than morality seem to determine the fate of life”. Chinweizu et al (1985) also concurs that “the artiste in the traditional milieu spoke for and on behalf of his community”.

The artiste also functions as the recorder of events as they take place. The renowned critic and writer, Wole Soyinka (1973:89), observed that “the artiste always functioned as the voice of vision in his own time”.

This means that the writer should record current and topical issues, which affect his community, because it is such issues that the reader can easily identify with.

The journalistic aspect of the role of the artiste is also echoed in Chinweizu et al (1985:248) when they say:” Our job as writers is to be articulate and to present to our audience the stresses and joys of our societies as they take place.”

Commenting on Mungoshi, Kanengoni and Chipamaunga have this to say respectively: “I sometimes identified myself with the maze of Mungoshi’s stories.”

“The frustration was so real” (Veit-Wild, 1992:73) and: “The author immediately won my admiration for capturing and fluently expressing the spirit of the time.”

Like a surgeon, the artiste should be able to cure his/her society of the ills that may affect it rather than just expose them. The artiste also functions as a prophet to his society by proffering solutions through optimistic future visions of what society would be like if all problems are dealt with timely.

Good literature, however, should not always be didactic as people need to relax and shift away from the hassles they experience every day, (Muchemwa, 2002).

Humour, therefore, is an important ingredient which the satirist and the artiste exploit in their condemnation of vice.

So, in whose language should the writer express the joys, burdens and aspirations of his/her people?

The issue of language seems to be a thorny one, especially when read against the problematic nature of communication in a globalised village, and the fact that the African artiste remains attached to the language of the former coloniser.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1993, 1981) views the issue of language and culture as sensitive to the African artiste, because of the dynamic nature of culture, and the problematic tendencies of communication in a world that has increasingly been reduced to a single community because of technology.

He believes, like p’Bitek (1981) that language as a vehicle of expression, functions well in its original form, thus, the African artiste should write in his/her indigenous language, and translate to other languages so as to reach a wider audience.

As observed by Furusa, cited in Chiwome and Mguni (2012:40), “(a) search for language should be a search for collective wisdom and sensibility.

“It should be intended to bend the collective volition into harmony with the demands of social development.” This is especially so because “language embodies and is a vehicle of expressing cultural values” (Chinweuzu, et al, 1985:7).

Cultural ethos obtaining in African folk tale, folk songs, riddles, idioms and proverbs can only be aptly articulated through indigenous languages (p’Bitek, 1981). Language is a powerful tool in the conveyance of a people’s values in their original form. Because language is an expression of culture, “African languages must not be afraid of also borrowing from the best in world culture.

“All the dynamic cultures of the world have borrowed from other cultures in a process of mutual fertilisation” (WaThiong’o, 1993:40).

However, the aesthetics of language alone without an informed viewpoint on contemporary issues obtained in any pertinent society is void, as maintained by Nyagu (1990) cited in Chiwome and Mguni (2012) when he says: “African Literature must communicate . . . Writing that is mere intellectualism is not for a country that is full of social ills and miserable poverty.”

An artiste worth his /her salt should go beyond the celebration of language and capture the paralysis, malaise and stasis that weigh down on individual and societal expectations.

He/she should guard against relegating his/her people to the doldrums of socio-economic idiocy by trivialising their suffering through language.

In colonial Rhodesia, the government abetted the subjugation and oppression of the ordinary people by creating stereotypes, demeaning their religious bases and mystifying their cultural and political idols, through indigenous languages.

The Rhodesia Literature Bureau with its gatekeeping posture, created artistes who were enemies of their people as creativity was compromised in the wake of the desire to be published and fear of literary obscurity.

Early literature in African languages was meant to alienate the African from his cultural roots, make him tolerate his suffering through the creation of temporary elixirs in the bar and the city woman. The city woman is portrayed as immoral and devious, and the urban man epitomises irresponsible penchants and seemingly enlightened inclinations; yet when things go wrong they rush to their rural abodes to seek solace.

The real causes of their suffering, which are colonisation and displacement are not disclosed. Enlightenment is offered through Western education and conversion to Christianity.

Emerging Zimbabwean writers have somehow forgotten to express themselves in their mother tongues in their pursuit of sponsored themes, probably inspired by Achebe, who finds nothing wrong in expressing oneself in the language of the former colonial master.

But unlike Achebe, who remains true to his Ibo culture, and is aware that his identity as an African cannot be wished away, the new crop of African writers feed from Western troughs, through skirting the real causes of their people’s suffering.

In the African worldview marriage is revered in that it fosters familial and communal relations. Women were never objectified for personal gain as is the case today, for marriage has becomecommercial vehicle.Through inter-marriages women are also responsible for fostering lasting social and political alliances, as p’Bitek (1981) observes.

Princesses, with their debonair, etiquette, deportment and humility as well as aesthetically African beauty, are expected to be exemplary as they are responsible for keeping the royal name in repute.

Death is revered in African societies, and the dead are respected as they are believed to join the ancestors and look after their families in the spiritual realm.

Because of the fear of avenging spirits, murder is frowned at. Religious and cultural rites performed after the death of loved ones are testimony to the communion that exists between the living and the dead.

The chief’s death and his burial are shrouded in mystery as he is regarded closest to the ancestors and God. Through different pitches, the drum is used in communicating messages of death, war, celebration and exuberance.

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