Short books, carefully chosen: the alluring path to African lit

Not long ago, I met a young woman who had taken a college course in African literature. "What did you read?" I enthusiastically inquired. I was in the midst of rethinking the African lit course I am teaching this fall.

A quizzical expression settled on her face. Obviously her thoughts had not revisited that course in the five or six years since she graduated.

"Things Fall Apart?" I suggested. "Chinua Achebe. Nigerian."

"I think maybe," she acknowledged. Then she grinned sheepishly. She had not expected to be quizzed about her college course work. "I really didn't read all the books," she admitted.

There it was out in the open, the dilemma of teaching literature to a generation accustomed to absorbing visual, rather than literary, information. I felt a visceral twitch.

I am only a visiting professor. Even so, I do understand that reading books and acquiring an education are only the ostensible reasons for going to college. These activities rate much higher: making lifelong friends, cementing those friendships by getting into and out of memorable scrapes, checking out the possibilities of finding a life partner, keeping up with fashion and celebrities. Oh, yes, and trying to figure out what will be on the tests so as not to waste time acquiring insights and information that will not be required for regurgitation.

Given these realities of college life, I have taken defensive action in my African literature course. Since Americans generally get information about Africa from news reports – most of it negative – I want students to read what Africans themselves have to say. I am asking them to master ... er, study ... well, at least read 10 books in as many weeks. And so I have chosen books they might actually enjoy.

One is Camara Laye's "The Dark Child," with its warm recollections of growing to manhood and falling in love in West Africa – and being given the heart-wrenching opportunity of postsecondary study in France. My students will have left home just as Laye does and will understand the loneliness he encounters.

In Mark Mathabane's "Kaffir Boy" they will meet a young South African. With grit and persistence (not bad qualities for college students to contemplate), he claws his way out of an apartheid ghetto and leaves for a better life in the United States.

In Ama Ata Aidoo's "Changes" they will read about an educated professional woman trying to balance her desires for meaningful marriage, work, and parenthood in a Ghanaian society where the rules of conduct are in flux.

My defensive action has also involved the careful choice of short books.

Mariama Ba's "So Long a Letter" about a woman's marital problems in Senegal, weighs in at 89 pages. "The River Between" by Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o is only 152. Amos Tutuola's "The Palm-Wine Drinkard," 110 pages, offers tall tales and a peek at 1950s Nigeria.

Even so, as I thought about the course and about the young woman I'd just met, the usual questions and defenses sprang to mind.

Why should American college students devote a portion of their college years to reading books about African life written by Africans? To enlarge their world, of course. To glimpse lifeways – economic dilemmas, marriage and courtship customs, initiation rites, goals and purposes of living – different from their own. To allow those different lifeways to raise questions about their own ways of living.

These books will allow students to encounter African views of marriage, for instance, and test them against their own. In "Changes," the heroine receives this advice about marriage: "We all marry to have children.... We also marry to increase the number of people with whom we can share the joys and the pains of this life." In "So Long a Letter," the heroine's mother counsels: "A woman must marry the man who loves her but never the one she loves; that is the secret of lasting happiness."

How will this advice affect my students? I hope the course will expand the range of their sympathies – before the pressures of American life narrow that range. I hope they'll make fleeting connections with people less materially fortunate than themselves.

In addition, they'll bump up against some third-world history: the vicissitudes of the slave trade (in which Africans themselves were complicit), colonialism, the "civilizing" efforts of missionaries, the distortions of the cold war, and the hard work of advancing into the modern world, a process the students themselves will soon undertake.

"I really didn't read all the books," the young woman admitted.

Hmm. That puts me on my mettle, especially since I hope the students will not only read the books, but also discuss them. I will soon find out what happens.

• Frederic Hunter is a visiting professor at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

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