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Recovering our social memory

This morning’s event at the Italian Cultural Institute was one of the most memorable mornings featuring high-profile authors.

Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thing’o, a winner of the Grinzane for Africa Prize, discussed ideas related with recovering our social memory: the heritage of African languages based on a chapter from his forthcoming book, something Torn and New, (Basic books, NY) that would come out later this year.I think the best way to share the ideas is to publish it whole.So, here we go.

Wherever it went, in its voyages of land, sea and mind, Europe planted its memory on whatever it came into contact. Mapping which involves exploration and surveying, was followed by naming and ownership. Mapping was the imperial road to power and domination. The renaissance fictive figure of Christopher Marlow’s Tamburlaine comes to mind. Even in his last gasps of breath, Tamburaine is still hankering after a map:

   Give me a Map, then let me see how much

    Is left for me to conquer the world

A map in his hands, the world left for him to conquer includes Egypt, Arabia, India, Nubia, Ethiopia, across the tropical line to Zanzibar and then North till he has all Africa under his sword. The imaginary Tamburlaine dies before he can achieve world domination, he does not even know America exists, but his real life historical children do know and carry on his renaissance ambitions of mapping, naming and owning.

Columbus goes west across the Atlantic and despite finding people inhabiting the lands, he calls what he finds New Hispaniola. Later the whole land mass is named America after Amerigo Vespucci. Much later we get New York, New Jersey, New Britain, New Haven and of course New England. Maori territory, Aratoara, becomes New Zealand. An entire Asian/pacific landscape becomes the Philippines. Africa is no different. The Africa landscape is covered with European memory of place. Like East Africa the main source of the river Nile and hence the base of one of the major world civilizations is named for Victoria. But all these places had names before, names that pointed to other memories, older memories.To the Luo people of Kenya, Lake East Africa was known as Namlolwe. The result is a European layer of memory covering up al older memory, or more strictly speaking, burying the native memory of place. A European memory becomes the new marker of geographical identity. Now and then, as in the case of New Zealand and even the USA, one can see the older and newer memories in contention; but generally after planting  of European memory, the identity of place becomes that if Europe. Even today, years after achievement of political independence, the African continent is often identified as Anglophone, Francophone or Lusaphone.

Europe also planted its memory o the body of the colonized. This is not a peculiarly European phenomenon. It is in the nature of colonial conquests and all systems of foreign occupation. In his attempt to remake the land and its people in his image, the conqueror acquires and asserts the right to name the land and its subjects, demanding that he subjugated acquire the names of the culture of the conqueror. When in 1906 Japan occupied Korea, it banned Korean names and required the colonized to take on Japanese ones. But what is in a name, one might ask? A rose by another name would still smell as sweet, said William Shakespeare. Yes, except that its identity would no longer be expressed in terms of rose it would assume that of a new name. Names have everything to do with how we identify objects, classify them and remember them.

The basic naming system is that of languages. Languages are our greatest heritages as an African people. But Europe also planted its memory on our entire naming system, so that

the languages that built ancient Egypt, Ethiopia, Timbuktu, Mali, Ghana, are no longer the major languages by which Africaidentifies itself. They have been replaced largely by English, French and Portuguese, so today we have Francophone Africa, Lusaphone Africa and Anglophone Africa, in short Europhone Africa. In other words Europehas planted its memory on our greatest hertige:Languges.

What we today call African literature is that which has been written in European languages. Mark you this has produced a literary heritage of which we can be genuinely proud. It has produced great works and the writers who have written them have become household names and titles in Africa. In fact these literary products are the nearest thing we have to a common pan African property.This has helped in cementing an African consciousness among the educated elite. But it is also interesting that these works, though written in European languages, borrow heavily from the oral traditions of African languages. This linkage to African orature is what has given this Europhone African literature its great vitality and identity in the European language global market.

If I were to be asked, what I thought was the biggest challenges for Africa, I would say it was that of helping Africa reconnect itself to its social memory through its rediscovery and reconnection with her languages. Writing in African languages has always been there in many parts of Africa, Ethiopia being the best example. It is only that these writers and their works are not as visible in the continent and in the world as those in European languages.

But wouldn’t a literary multiply of African languages increase and deepen divisions among African people? This assumes that languages have been at the heart of inter and intra African conflicts. But still, they have to make African dialogue among themselves through translations.

Translation is the language of languages, language through which all languages can talk to one another. Thus, for a writer, given that translation between African languages can cement the heritages that are shared by the languages, the entire continent, with its vast African language audiences, becomes a potential market. Though translations of works written directly in African languages, a shared modern heritage will emerge. But apart from aiding conversations among contemporary African languages, translation will benefit the African renaissance.

One of the greatest sons of Africa, Kweggyr Aggrey, used to tell the story of a farmer who brought up an eagle among the chickens. The eagle grew up behaving like a chicken

and believing he was a chicken. One day a hunter visited the farmer and argument ensued as to whether the eagle could remember who he was. The farmer was absolutely sure that he had turned the eagle into a chicken. The hunter asked whether he could try to revive the eagles’ memory.  On the first day, he was unable to make him fly beyond the distance that chickens can manage. I told you, says the farmer: I have turned him into a chicken. On the second day, the same disappointment occurred, with the eagle flying a few yards and then diving downward, earthbound. I told he cannot remember says the farmer in triumph: He walks like a chicken and thinks like a chicken; he will never fly. The hunter does not give up. On the third day, he takes the eagle atop a hill and talks to him, pointing his eyes to the sky and reminding him that he is an eagle. And then it happened. Looking at the limitless immensity of the blue skies above, the eagle flapped his wings, raised himself, and then up he soared, flying toward the azure. The African eagle can fly only with his re-memberd wings. Re-memberingAfrica will bring about the flowering of the African renaissance; and Afro-modernity will play its role in the globe on the reciprocal egalitarian basis of give and take, ultimately realizing the Gaveysian vision of a common humanity of progress and achievement “that will wipe away the odor of prejudice, and elevate the human race to the height of real godly love and satisfaction.”

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Yaya
    October 24, 2008 at 4:57 am

    Arefe, thanks for this interesting post.I think this would inspire a warm discussion.It is still saddening to see that my country, Ethiopia is far from visible, as Ngugui put it from the african world literary scene.Higer uinversties, scholrs and wrters have to go a long way in this regard.In this world of divertsy and multiculluralism, we should stride to open up ourselves at least for our african brethen and siiters.Sticking to the idea we should use only our native tongue t owrte has become as little repertvie and pathetic.We haven’t been consisent about it.while elite scholrs advocate using a national languge, what they have in mind is Amharic.Not Ormogna, Afar, Kembata.this double and parahorical world has done a lot of damages than good.

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