Two years ago, a friend in a college in California, US wanted me to cross over to that part of the world and talk about the character of literature in the Southern African region. That never materialised because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the idea of talking about literature in what has grown to be the SADC region is a challenging and daunting idea for many reasons. First there are too many countries, too many languages, too many themes and too many phases to contend with.
One wanted to be impressive and exhaustive too.
But my friend saying in his emails, “Keep it simple and go for the works of established authors of fiction and poetry from the region and assess how successfully these authors express the experiences and common aspirations of the people in the sub region.” He also added “and for convenience, work with those works written only in English and those that have found themselves in the English language through translations”.
We were agreed that although that would be very limiting, the project would come out with at least the essentials as had been seen by coming out with the courses called African Literature for universities, colleges and schools across the continent.
I started to think deeply about our literature and noted that if you came from Southern Africa, you surely are aware of the over-powering presence of the farm. The endless stretches of wheat, cotton or tobacco lands that go from where you are “until you wonder whether the vehicle you are travelling in is still moving or not”.
It might be legitimate to argue that “the farm” in Southern Africa constitutes a socio-geographical “type”. The “farm novel”, or “plaasroman”, is a special novel form in Southern African literature (in both African and non-African languages.) This is generally a novel partly or wholly set on a commercial farm.
The farm novel of Southern Africa is vibrant and it reproduces itself with minor variations. Rhodesia produced Doris Lessing’s great novel The Grass is Singing, while South Africa produced Olive Schreiner’s breathtaking novel The Story of an African Farm and JM Coetzee’s various novels.
For the settler farmer, the farm is perceived as a personal property and space that should be mastered in order to eke out a living. For Slatter and Dick in The Grass is Singing, the farm is a potentially viable alternative to the working class life of the metropolis. However, the fact that the farm is a later-day acquisition, long distances away from one’s indigenous country and environment, is an idea that remains at the back of the settler’s mind.
The farm remains psychologically external to the settler’s nature.
For the black farm labourer, the farm is a lived irony. It is a familiar but perverted territory. Although the farm is situated in a familiar territory, it remains external to the black man’s nature because it is organised for purposes outside his indigenous philosophy.
The black labourer on the farm is consistently uneasy with both the farm and the white-master.
Another key feature of writing from the region explores the black person’s mental colonisation after white occupation, such as Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain.
That novel is a story about Lucifer Mandengu, who has been to a mission school and is considered elite and very educated. He has just been offered a scholarship to go abroad and train as an artist.
Before he leaves, he boards a rural bus towards home to bid his people farewell. His return becomes occasion during which the author tries to capture the extent to which African society in general, have been influenced negatively by the colonial set up. It is a moment of stocktaking, a moment to assess the damage inflicted.
Mungoshi’s novel resonates with other novels outside the SADC region – like Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure and Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala – in showing the connection between despair and colonialism in Africa.
Another interesting literary feature in the region, is the war of liberation. This is common from countries like Angola and Mozambique, where political independence had to come through the barrel of a gun.
One very prominent piece of writing is the novel from Angola called Mayombe, written by an MPLA ex-combatant called Pepetela. From a participant’s viewpoint, Mayombe is centered on a group of MPLA guerrillas operating in Cabinda.
Led by Commander Fearless, Pepetela uses the group to reflect on various issues which affected or was rather a threat to the progress of the war and also which posed to be a destabilising element to an independent Angola, if not corrected. These issues are hinged on conflicts among guerrillas – ethnic, ideological and motives which further invited prejudices and suspicion.
In Mozambique Jorge Rebelo and Jose Craveirinha were leading war poets whose poetry continue to be read long after the war. Craveirinha has one such poem called “I Want to be a Drum”. The persona here wishes he were just, of all the things, an African drum!
Craveirinha gave his all to the struggle. He began as a journalist but got heavily tortured for supporting the struggle in 1966.
Literature from the region has also indicated that independence or self-rule tended to give birth to tyrannical rule and lack of democracy and human rights.
The poetry of world renowned poet, Jack Mapanje of Malawi tended to dwell on this.
Mapanje did not take any particular party line in his criticism of the rule of President Kamuzu Banda in Malawi but his poetry attempts to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, using a simple language often imbued in the rich orature of Malawian traditional culture. One good example is his poem called “Song of Chicken”.
In this kind of writing, he was joined by fellow poets Frank Chipasula and Steve Chimombo. In turn, the Kamuzu Banda system tended to punish the poets severely for this kind of criticism.
Women’s voices have been paramount in the SADC region, too.
They tend to write about women’s troubled conditions in an African patriarchal setting that has been itself overtaken by colonial modernity. These are women having to deal with both colonial oppression and the predicament of being women in colonised modern African society.
Tsitsi Dangarembwa and Neshani Andreas have been prominent in this area.
In her novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Namibia’s Andreas’s seeks to open up and expose the anti-women violence imbedded in Namibian beliefs and culture within the institution of marriage.
The above would be my general outline for my talk on a SADC regional literature.
But thanks to COVID-19, my paper is still not done! I have lots of time to rethink it again and again.
Memory Chirere is an author and University of Zimbabwe lecturer. The full article can be accessed at https://menafn.com/1102637867/The-literature-of-Southern-Africa