By Reem Gaafar
A short while ago, I read Chinua Achebe’s reclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart,. The book is set in Nigeria in the late 19th century and tells the story of a fictional male character living and flourishing in the heathen pre-colonial African times, with all its glory of the local heritage, superstitions, morals and values, proverbial methods of communication, and different cultural practices such as weddings, war and death. Towards the very end of the book the white man appears on his iron horse, talking about one God to worship instead of their many idols, and one queen to which they must submit, and how this tears the fabric of the clan and all things familiar then fall apart and dissolve.
Stories of colonialism in Africa are not unfamiliar. Its seems the vast majority of ‘famous’ and celebrated African literature all revolves around the same issue – at least as far as I can see. And stories like Achebe’s serve as reminders of what the continent was before, and how the different colonial powers blatantly trespassed and took over and subdued a free people under the guise of leading them to God and civilization.
Africa, contrary to what many (too many) think, is not a country. It is a continent as large and diverse as a planet. No two countries, or two parts of a country, or two people, are completely alike. Not in how they look, the languages and dialects and accents they use, their customs and traditions, their methods of worshipping their gods, nor in anything else. However, belonging to the same continent makes one relate to the other more than with the outside world. And one factor that strengthens that relationship is the shared history of the European invasion, no matter how far ago it was.
When I read books like Achebe’s, I cannot feel much removed or dissociated, because the same thing happened to us in Sudan. And contrary to what many (too many) believe, colonialism is not a thing of a past that can be atoned for and forgiven, if forgiveness is even being asked for. Its effects plague us to this day, and will continue to do so until God knows when.
It seems that the celebration of these works by the ‘modern world’ is a means to feign transparency and atonement for the horrors of the colonial past, something I personally find quite condescending. Like an errant adult allowing a child to complain and tell everyone what the adult did to them, as if the complaining would do anything at all to erase the action. It doesn’t. It never will. Nothing will atone for that period of time in the history of Africa and Asia, nor what was done to the natives of the Americas and Australia. No amount of celebration and elevation of works like Achebe’s, or Eltayeb Salih,’s or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or others will put any kind of positivity into the colonial experience. The effects of the colonial period remain to this day like an ugly scar of a wound that refuses to heal. Its why African countries roll in their poverty and chaos despite their lands’ insane richness in minerals and natural resources. Its why my country is now 2 countries, since the British rule and its infamous Southern Policy made sure that the South and North remained separated and in constant doubt of each other, and then the idiotic Sudanese leadership that followed rode on that wave and finished the job.
One thing to feel thankful for, however, is that the face of African literature – and African life – seems to be changing. It feels as if we are finally making progress in moving out of the heavy shadow of this foreign invasion, although sometimes in the direction of its new shadow. When comparing the classic old literature with the new, such as Leila Aboulela and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we see the new face of Africa and Africans and their place in the modern world, and how this is a reflection of their current state of affairs. Although the oppression is there under a different guise, and the setbacks and challenges have changed, it is still progress.
The power of literature and media should not be underestimated; it is not only a reflection of what is happening, but it is also board from which people gauge their position and progress. And while it is a good thing to look at and celebrate the early works of post colonial Africa to see how things began, it really is time we moved on to where we are now and where we should be.