Africa and the World: Writers at Home and Away
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: If one mentions the word “Africa” in a global context, it tends to evoke many responses and perhaps even some obsessions. People tend to project on the continent strange emotions either of unconditional hope, allegiance, and support or unalloyed horror at what they perceive as the terrible things taking place on the continent. Nobody is left unmoved by Africa. But, of course, it’s a huge continent. The people here on stage are either from Africa or they’re writers for whom Africa resonates because of descent, involvement, or interest. I’m not sure what they have in common, but I think that we will be enriched by the vast diversity of experiences, of backgrounds, sometimes of languages, certainly of histories.
Africa is filled with powerful contradictions. There’s perhaps no other continent that is so rich potentially but also actually in its cultural expressions, its history, its religions, its myths, and which is at the same time so abysmally poor—more poor than any other part of the world if you take the continent as a whole into consideration. There’s no other continent where human solidarity, solidarity within family, clan, age group, and even sometimes with the enemy, is as developed, functional, important, and maintained. Yet, as you know, there’s no other continent so wracked by civil wars, uprisings, terrible plagues, things falling apart. There’s no other continent that has taken as easily to some of the manifestations of globalization. Yet there would seem to be no other continent that is as impervious to change. There’s no continent where the word, the tongue, the exact image is as important—talking, reading, oral culture carrying on the traditions, telling the stories. Yet it would seem to be a continent that is blissfully neglectful of its riches in languages. You know from the history of people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, here with us tonight, how much struggle there has been on the continent for the recognition of African languages, and yet we don’t seem to be any further advanced now than we were decades ago. There’s no other continent where the flames of liberation and independence have burned as high, and perhaps there’s no other continent that so demonstrably illustrates the bankruptcy of our dreams and the bankruptcy of our idealism.
The one thread that runs through, I think, is perhaps the preeminent characteristic of the continent, the sense of humanity, the importance of being human. It’s not “Why are we going to change the world?” It’s not even “How are we going to become rich in the world?” It’s not “How are we going to become powerful in the world?” All of that comes much later. Sometimes I remember in a very early story, I imagined that one would go as a subversive agent for Africa all over the world and scribble on the walls, in the dark of night, graffiti saying: “AFRICA LIVES.”