I remember Sheikh Yassir saying that when you love something, you want everyone to see what you love. Here is something I love, and its a relatively new love. It’s the African novel. I have read a few over the years, beginning with my first African history course at Santa Clara. But over the past few months, I have realized how much the writings speak to me.
Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa’s past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity.
African novels speak to me, not because my experiences are the same. But they speak to me because of what the common struggles we share as human beings. We are able to speak because those commonalities manifest themselves in different ways. I find part of myself as fragmented reflections in the characters and their struggles. Also I find a part of something outside of myself that, in turn, defines me.
Years ago I had aspirations of becoming a writer. In my novel writing class my instructor asked each student why they wanted to write. My answer was, “To tell the stories that haven’t been told.” When I decided to become a professional historian, I forgot about that creative drive. But underlying everything that I’ve done since 1998 was to tell untold stories of real people. I realize that some people tell amazing stories, but sometimes they are not within our ear shot. Other times, dissonance of our instant message, text message, reality tv noise drowns out those stories. Often we are not willing to hear stories about people who do not live like us, who we do not believe think like us, and therefore we assume we cannot understand their experiences. Other times those stories challenge our basic assumptions. I’ve always seen books as windows to other worlds, as a way to broaden my own. But novels are not just a window, they allow me to reflect upon my own experiences and see myself in a different light. Find yourself in a book, walk in some one else’s shoes, imagine who you are and who you could be. I hope you pick up a book from the canon of African literature. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite novels:
Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong’o Kenya
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane Senegal
Shehu Umar by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Nigeria
Nervous Conditionsby Tsitsi Dangarembga Rodesia
The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampate Ba Mali
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe Nigeria