Etinosa Agbolahor Off the Shelf
As the child of academics growing up in Nigeria, I was introduced to books at a young age. My first book was a paper-thin story about a corn princess and ants. As I grew older I read more books, mostly European and American; Judy Blume’s novels “The Babysitters Club”, Enid Blyton’s mysteries, stories in which curly-haired little girls yelped “Golly!” and sucked on lollies in the summer (in Nigeria, we had Fan-Ice. I testify it was just as good).
However, the stories I remember most were those set in other parts of Africa.
Books such as “The Boy Slave” by Kola Onadipe, “An African Night’s Entertainment” by Cyprain Ekwensi, “Without a Silver Spoon” by Eddie Iroh, and many other books within the African Readers Series.
They taught me about other aspects of different Nigerian ethnicities and the African world at my doorstep, stories from Kenya, Cotonou, Sierra Leone, etc, full of houseboys who retained their integrity in the face of poverty, slaves who became kings, queens who defended their kingdoms in lieu of kings, greedy waziris’ whose greed led to their downfall, cryptic stories about the crafty tortoise, and so on.
These were the stories in which I encountered my first notions of Africa.
Literature is how we document our lives, fictionalised stories often reveal truths and subjective experiences that other sources cannot.
At the start of Europe’s “civilising” mission in Africa (read: colonisation, slavery, mass violence, and theft of culture), great steps were taken to erase any ideas of Africans as a people with history or methods of conveying that history (read “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad).
Today, the world knows more about Africa, we know about its peoples, we know its history before colonisation and slavery. At the same time, Africa is still constantly presented as a victim; the lovable yet inevitably doomed junior brother of the world.
A classmate once suggested that while she knew South Africa was a well-developed country, the other African tribes were still struggling.
The thread of discourse that has coded Africa in a specific light of backwardness and victimisation still exists today.
African writers therefore have an important job to do. They bear the burden (as do all Africans) of reintroducing Africa to the world, through our literature and arts.
We need to tell our own stories, to show the world our experiences of what it means to be African, and overcome tales of victimisation and backwardness the world consistently hands us.
More importantly, Africans need to start discovering other Africans through our literature.
The average Nigerian knows less about Ghana than he does about London, and we are only two countries apart!
Imagine the discourse that could come out of Africans actively engaging with Africans.
Discovering what it means to be a certain kind of African, what it means to be an Egyptian, an Edo girl from Nigeria, a Tunisian elder, realising our shared struggles and goals which too often are the same soul masked in different clothes.
Imagine having great African literature that is not able, not because it has been deemed appropriate or illustrious by European editors or American critics, but because other Africans have engaged with it, argued about it, and ultimately decided that it in some way captures an experience that resonates with them all.
To Africans and everyone else reading, this is the takeaway: it’s important to present Africa, not as the slighted and reduced victim of the world, but as the complex, impossibly diverse, confusing, exciting and altogether human world we grew up in.
But it’s more important to discover life outside of our respective countries within our shared continent, to truly be Africans in discourse with other Africans through their literature.
We can’t all pen masterful novels, we probably will not write the next Things Fall Apart, but we can all read.
There is a dearth of African literature on bookshelves both in Africa and elsewhere, but that cannot stop us from engaging with what is available.