Writing Africa

How does one write Africa?

Contemporary anthropology—names will not be named—offers an intriguing example of how Africa keeps being invented. It is noteworthy that “responsible” contemporary articles seem to make no distinction between colonial archives and recent research, such that a typical citation reads (X, 1865; Y, 2005). What does this temporal juxtaposition suggest? And why is it often in reference to Africa? (I admit, I’m quite thin on Asian anthropologies.)

As my friends know, I am slightly obsessed with citation—as format, as genre, as archive. I’m intrigued by the kinds of historical work performed on Africa through citation. On the one hand, we could take temporally disparate citations as evidence of persistence, a kind of long memory. Yet, the nagging questions that Africanists and postcolonial scholars have raised about temporality also persist.

In juxtaposing evidence from 1865 and 2005, do researchers seem to suggest that “nothing” has changed? We could be more sympathetic and argue that this temporal simultaneity diminishes the role of colonialism on Afro-temporality. In such a reading, colonialism does not re-organize time and borders. Yet, such a reading willfully ignores that the evidence adduced from 1865 (a temporal marker I use metaphorically) comes, almost inevitably from Euro-colonial sources (this phrasing also accomplishing some work). It is, invariably, from the chronicles by, the diaries of, the unpublished manuscript rendered by (insert European name).

And so what seems intriguing is that the circle of knowledge about Africa, at least in some places, continues to be a Euro-network, where the citations are invariably comforting in their Euro-familiarity. Even works that strike a good note—I like Rudi Bleys very much—can become distressing when one reads that the function of transnational ethnography is to teach Euro-Americans about themselves.

This is true, yes. But what about the hapless African (me) who picks up a book or article that mentions “me” only to discover the content and lessons are not for me? (Whether this is critique or complaint remains to be determined.)
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All of the above is why it’s good to think Afro-modernity with Tutuola. Far from presenting Afro-modernity as a spatio-temporal transition from the forest to the city, he depicts this transition as a journey through the metaphorical forest of modernity to spaces of strangeness: his characters are often confounded and imperiled, but rarely impressed or comforted. They are constantly translating, using approximation to describe the sensation of things: one feels Tutuola’s modernity in all its bewildering splendor.
Here is one Tutuolian narrative by Taban lo Liyong:

Note VI
5 a.m. Had a long dream tonight. Dreamt was in a classroom – professor (my ambition in childhood). Right there before my pupils, had a most singular intrusion from vandals. A horde of them had the guts to come to my classroom, and call me a debtor, to my face! Within no second they had reclaimed every thread I owed them; every one I owed them; every synthetic unit I owed them; every piece of wood or grass they claimed I had taken from them. Then they proceeded to gnaw away at my skin, cubic millimetre by cubic millimetre, beginning from toes and fingers. I felt the reduction coming inevitably, but surely. Fortunately, it was quick – they were numerous. They made a special point to stop before attacking my heart. They even had the common sense to draw the attention of my bewildered students to my heart and saying that this organ ‘could have saved me, but . . .’ The class jeered before that fateful sentence was completed. Then they set to work again, with renewed vigour, with claws and teeth, and enlarged swallowing throats. They spent more time there. It was then an easy matter passing from lungs and liver to throat and neck. When they reached my head, they had instructions to the owners of my bushy hair to reclaim their things and go. That done, those who wanted my eyelashes, eyebrows, whiskers, moustache, beard (I am an intellectual intelligentsia-convertible, you should know) and any other hair on my face was taken. The skin was removed (together with the ears and the nose), the lower jaws were disengaged, with tongue, teeth, and palates. Two creatures (I think man and wife) sucked my eyeballs at a go. Now the skull was eaten away, and earthworms given the privilege to gobble my brain. (“Lexicographicide”)

It has been 15 years since I first read “Lexicographicide.” And it is only within the past two years that I have started to understand it, to think through the complications of adopting or, to use Liyong’s concept, to borrow one’s very being, one’s way of being in the world. We recognize the hints of Shylock in this exchange.

The story is dedicated to Amos Tutuola.

We recognize, from Tutuola, the idea of the complete gentleman (a professor in this case), who returns what has been borrowed, or, in this updated version, has the creditors come for their payment. This story strikes a note with me because of its setting: the university classroom becomes the site of undressing and denuding, where the post-independence, post-colonial scholar is unmasked.

Whereas Tutuola’s unmasking of the Complete Gentleman reveals the insidious death-making intelligence of imperial and war-making enterprises, Liyong’s macabre live dissection unmakes the “new” African, the new intelligence-producing African. It is a dangerous narrative insofar as it suggests that one’s heart, if it remains true, might save one. But true to what? (To be fair, this question was much in the air at the time of this writing—the story is first published in 1969 and Liyong had been a student in the States.)

It is here, I think, that African thinkers can learn from Afro-diasporic intellectuals and artists, who have been theorizing hybridity for at least one hundred years, if not longer. For while debates about authenticity and purity have been essential to Afro-diasporic discourses, they have existed, been woven with practices and discourses of hybridity, of learning to be multiple (an inadequate designation).

We need to learn from Afro-diasporic thinkers for as we write Africa as Africans, we risk autochthony too often, become hermetic. We need to learn how to write Africa as Claude McKay writes France in Banjo, to acknowledge the effects and affects of deracination with which we continue to negotiate, which continue to provide us with new energies, new paradigms, new ways of being in the world.

I have suggested previously that the labor of thinking Africa and the term African has the potential to alter how we imagine who and what we are, that, in fact, as opposed to those who want us to be specific, divided into countries and nations, tribes and ethnicities, races and genders, we might be and become African. To think this is to envision diversity as Afro-diasporic thinkers and artists have imagined it for us.