In Africa, Writing Is Not For the Faint-Hearted
Authors confront jailing, harassment, exile
ACCRA, GHANA — THEY say the pen is mightier than the sword. But this is often not the case in Africa, as the recent execution of Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa showed.
For writers in the world's poorest and most volatile continent, literature is often inextricably linked to politics. In countries where people struggle to find food to eat, and wars and human rights abuses are rife, ignoring social problems would be irresponsible, if not impossible, authors say.
Few Africans have the education to reach the intellectual elite. Those who do often feel they have a calling to question authority and use their writing as a tool of struggle.
"The writer must carry himself like a walking question mark," says Atukwei Okai, the Ghanaian poet who is secretary general of the Pan-African Writers' Association (PAWA).
"The particular nature of development in Africa does not allow a writer to sit back and have a distant attitude," Mr. Okai says. "Our self-awareness makes us involved in raising the consciousness of our people at every stage of the struggle."
From Capetown to Cairo, playwrights, poets, and novelists have wielded the pen of struggle.
Some get to power. Augustinho Neto, Angola's first post-independence president, is a poet. Various officials of South Africa's new democratic government are writers, including ministers.
But more often than not writers on are the front line of freedom of expression - the messengers who get shot.
Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria's leading writers, explained shortly before being hanged in November why he felt compelled as a prominent intellectual to organize his minority Ogoni ethnic group to oppose the military dictatorship.
"They [the Ogoni] had been sleepwalking toward extinction, not knowing what internal colonialism had done and was doing to them. It had fallen to me to wake them up from the sleep, and I had accepted in full the responsibility for doing so," he wrote in prison notes.
Saro-Wiwa's death was a worst-case scenario for the members of PAWA, Africa's largest writers' association based in Accra, Ghana, which groups 52 countries and more than 5,000 published writers. Many of them are familiar with jails, harassment, intimidation, exile, and poverty - the scourges of writers across the continent.
Not only do many face censorship, they often also lack funds and even writing paper.
And sometimes an audience as well. As Okai points out, people who have trouble finding their next meal are not going to buy books.
Political repression and lack of readers and publishing houses have driven many African writers into exile in London, Paris, and New York. Among them is Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, who is Nigeria's foremost pro-democracy campaigner abroad.
His country, Africa's most populous nation and one of its major wellsprings of literary talent, has been hampered by both a radically declining standard of living and a military dictatorship. These have depleted the country of writers and readers alike.
Take away repression, however, and a creative void can appear, as South Africa shows. A distinct loss of literary vigor has accompanied the demise of apartheid and censorship.
After so many years of being persecuted, banned, tortured, exiled, or imprisoned, some South African writers are having trouble adjusting to the new democratic age.
For instance, the book "My Traitor's Heart," by Rian Malan, was lauded when it was published in 1990 under apartheid. Writing that book, an anguished look at a fractured, violent society, was "an act of war, absolutely political," Mr. Malan says. Nowadays, he finds it difficult to write another book; he says he is a man without a theme, drifting without direction.
Nowhere can South Africa's literary sea change be better seen than at Raven Press, in Johannesburg, which established itself in the apartheid years as the main publisher of literature about the struggle.
The emphasis now is on non-political works, says Monica Seeber, a publisher at Raven. "Times have changed. What we are doing is looking for new writers who are not obsessed with the past nor forgetful of what shaped them," she says.