Some Uneducated Speculations on “The African Novel” in Tanzania

by zunguzungu

When I was still Tanzania, I greedily purchased the few African novels that were available for purchase. This meant frequenting bookstores that sold novels to two very distinct markets: novels for white people and novels for Tanzanian students. I feel safe in saying that the comparatively high level printing, binding, and prices of the former pretty much limited those books to tourist and expatriate buyers (or were certainly printed with that market in mind), while the very specific pedagogical function of the latter confined their relevance to a similarly particular sub-section of the Tanzanian population: young people still in school. In the first category, you had both canonical English literature–penguin editions of D.H. Lawrence and so forth–and literary supplements to the tourist industry, stuff like this with books like Out of Africa and Green Hills of Africa straddling the gap. The second market was for novels used as textbooks, a mixed bag which I’ll look at in a moment. I was therefore an eccentric purchaser, poorly served by either marketing strategy: I was in search of an object, “the African novel,” which hardly exists as such in the local commercial consciousness.

When I asked for a good riwaya, on the other hand, older shopkeepers would often direct me, without discriminating, towards both canonical works of Swahili literature (especially pious stuff like Shabaan Robert) and towards older popular Swahili writing like Dar es Salaam Usiku (Dar es Salaam At Night, a sensationalist crime novel from the eighties). Younger booksellers would either peg me as a tourist (directing me towards Dineson or Hemingway), or, if my Swahili was good that day, would have no particular interest in me at all. The disconnect between older booksellers and younger ones could be quite profound, and I would speculate that it had something to do with the disconnect between Tanzania’s socialist past and its neoliberal present; when I looked for books by Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s independence-era socialist president, younger booksellers would let me know that none were for sale, while some of the older book sellers not only canvassed their acquaintances to find used copies for me (taking great and unsolicited pains to repair the books’ worn bindings with cellotape) but, on several occasions, refused even to take money for Mwalimu (“Teacher”) Nyerere’s books at all.

Most of the African novels in English I was able to buy, however, were on the shelves because they were (or had been) on the national education curriculum. And just as “the African novel” that is construed and taught in the West includes neither Dar es Salaam Usiku, Shabaan Robert, nor Julius Nyerere, so too does “the African novel” that is taught in Tanzanian secondary schools also categorically exclude such books. Swahili classes might use them (and that’s why they were there to be bought), but pupils would only read such Tanzanian writers in a class meant to improve their facility with literary Swahili; in their English classes, in contrast, the African novel would be taught, novels written in English from across the continent.

The ways that an English/Swahili curricular split implicitly separates the Tanzanian writers from the “African” writers is suggestive, but I draw the distinction only because it’s already drawn in the curriculum: ever since the education ministry began requiring that all secondary school classes (except Swahili class) be taught in English, Swahili writing gets parochialized at the same time that the global utility of English is being increasingly emphasized. Tanzania is one of the few African nations where virtually all business is conducted in an indigenous African language while English is not widely used. So the rationale behind the shift was partly that Tanzanians need to be better trained to face global competition, and partly the coldly pragmatic fact that there aren’t even close to being enough schools to meet the numbers of young Tanzanians that need to be educated (requiring them to do high school work in English weeds enough of them out of the system that the class sizes are simply enormous, rather than catastrophic).

All this is background to some fairly reckless speculations I want to make. First, it it seems reasonable to suggest that “the African novel,” as it’s experienced in Tanzania, is a function of pedagogy in a more specific way that I was arguing before: after purchasing all the African novels I could get my hands on, I found myself inadvertently completing a version of the high school English curriculum. And since it was a function of the books taught in English classes, this canon of “African novels” specifically excludes the canon of Tanzanian novels for having been written in Swahili, creating an interesting kind of distinction between “African” and “Tanzanian.” I wouldn’t want to speculate on whether, or how, this kind of distinction is actually perceived, or practiced, but it does seem significant that while there’s a reasonably broad tradition of Tanzanian critical writing on Swahili literature, the critical literature on Anglophone African writers is so dominated by the West that the canon of African writers considered worth reading in Tanzania look quite familiar to anyone who has ever taken a course in African literature at a Western university.

I hesitate to chalk that up to critical readers independently reproducing the same judgments of quality in both locations, but I’ll elaborate more on that in my next post. And, anyway, there were some surprises. For one thing, the curriculum seemed to be all men (though I was surprised to see a Swahili translation of Mariama Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre for sale). But more than that, beyond the usual suspects (Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (1966), Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958 ) and A Man of the People (1966), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child (1964)), I was struck by two odd additions: Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy (1946) and Ferdinand Oyono’s La Vie de Boy (1956, translated as Boy! ). They’re odd because you can see quite clearly why each of the other texts are there: for the three East African nations, you’ve got Okot P’Bitek for Uganda and Ngugi for Kenya (with Tanzania’s third slot across the hall in the Swahili class), for the novel by a woman you’ve got Mariama Ba, and you’ve got Achebe simply because he’s indispensable. But not only are Mine Boy and Boy! texts from the colonial era (and to me, they feel a lot more dated than the others), but a rather different principle of selection suggests itself if you compare their titles.

Which leads me back to continuing fascination with the ways the “Africa novel” is conceptualized through reference to states of immaturity (which I’ve been going on about already). In the case of Oyono and Abrahams, the “boy” of the title is a member of the first generation to leave the traditional home, the first to learn to read, and the first to have a conception of the outside world. This plot, in which the (inevitably male) protagonist becomes modern and literate at the same time as he becomes alienated from the “traditional” world, is a common plot structure among the writers of the late colonial and early independence era. Yet it’s also a very common way that African writers conceptualized their status as writers. In Achebe’s own uber-canonized Things Fall Apart, for example, the novel’s thematic center is the decision by Okonkwo’s oldest son to reject his father, convert to Christianity, and go to school. Yet this decision is also, in a very direct way, a formative event in Achebe’s own family history, which he was loosely fictionalizing: in the trilogy as he originally imagined it (he changed his plans soon after) the first novel would be about his grandfather’s time, the second about his father’s, and the third about his own. In other words, Things Fall Apart is not only a story about colonialism and traditional Igbo life, but it narrates the first branch in the genealogy of Achebe as writer, an originary moment defined by the rejection of the “traditionalism” that Okonkwo is taken to represent.

Achebe, however, is not the only innovator here. Indeed, it would be difficult to construct a meaningful timeline of the “African novel” without accounting for the centrality of the trope connecting literacy to the conditions of the novels‘ production themselves. Camara Laye’s first book, for example, L’Enfant Noir, (1953) is the story of a naïve young Guinean gone to Paris to be educated, told in the nostalgic register of an adult struggling to remember his lost childhood. He remembers (in terms of great pathos) the moment when he forgot the totem animal of his childhood, and the final image of the novel is the deracinated young writer, standing in the Paris metro, struggling to make sense of a metro map. He uses Flaubert’s Sentimental Education as his model, in other words, in order to perform the adult writer’s struggled remembrance of his childhood, a time defined by his not-yet-being-a-writer. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s first published novel was Weep Not, Child, a meditation on the meaning of European education in the midst of the Mau Mau rebellion which puts narrative pressure on the challenges of competing visions of manhood offered to the young Njeroge. Does one seek adulthood in the forest with a machete or in the schools with a pen? A large part of Ngugi’s subsequent career would be spent struggling to reconcile the choice both he and his protagonist made (to choose the pen) with the road not taken, the “traditionalist” anti-colonial resistance figured by Mau Mau. And Amos Tutuola’s first published novel (The Palm Wine Drinkard, 1952) is not only about the search for maturity occasioned by the death of the protagonist’s father (in which he leaves home, acquires a wife, confronts his mortality, etc), but, as I wrote here, its publication was rendered legible in the Western publishing media through a discourse on the youth of the African aesthetic (the novel, said Dylan Thomas, was written in “Young English”).

I could keep going on; not only is Wole Soyinka’s most popular book his Aké: The Years of Childhood, but Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and Nuruddin Farah’s Maps carried the trend into the eighties. But what interests me is the way that each of these texts, like Ferdinand Oyono’s La Vie de Boy and Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy are discussions of traditionalism that take, as their point of reference, a de-tribalizing African society (arguing for something by taking it’s existence for granted). Oyono’s La Vie de Boy, for example, pairs the protagonist’s failure to be circumcised (his status as “boy” in traditional terms) with the racial pejorative “boy” to make of this immaturity a kind of privileged status within a modernizing African, a society “young” in development terms yet, as growing and full of potential, clearly differentiated from the merely tribal society of its elders. In Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy, the “boys” who work in South Africa’s mines are used to figure the rising urban proletariat, displacing their traditional elders on the basis of the “modern” knowledge they acquire there and standing as representative of the future of South Africa precisely because they are boys. These novels, in other words, use the trope of the “boy” as a way of talking about the very practices of literacy in which they themselves are becoming privileged objects. They not only theorize about the role of writing, education, and literacy within a variety of modernizing African societies but they are, themselves, the texts through which these theories are practiced.

While the experience of the educated son displacing his “traditional” father was a common experience during both the colonial and early independence era, education and learning to read in English have not ceased to imply a profound class and generational alienation throughout sub-Saharan Africa (and, more specifically, in Tanzania). Broadly painting education as a “colonial” project doesn’t really help us conceptualize its continuing social function, of course. But I do think a focus on the continuing political meaning that seems to give the “boy” figure its privileged place in the educational curriculum helps illustrate why colonial-era texts focused on the trials and tribulations of the modernization project would still have such resonance, why the work they do might still be considered valuable pedagogical practice. And this line of thought makes me look at the current vogue in African “boy soldier” novels and memoirs with a certain amount of suspicion. If the “boy” novel had a certain meaning in a time when the West could still, without self-consciousness, imagine Africans as culturally young, what does it mean today that books like A Long Way Gone, God Grew Tired of Us, Beasts of No Nation, Johnny Mad Dog, and What is the What? assume such a large portion of the West’s small market for writing about Africa?