For many of us, childhood memories are filled with the wonder of the stories our elders told us. As we gathered around to listen to the great orators regale us with tales that pried our eyes open in pure amazement, we were transported into the worlds created right in front of us.
The details of these stories would keep us thinking, verifying and reconsidering for days as we tried to reconcile the world we left behind as the story ended with the world we still lived in. These were the ways we learnt to think beyond the here and now and see more in ourselves than just our commitment to the present moment. We existed before. We travelled from somewhere. We had multiple lives before arriving here. In this way, we created our relationships to the world, our languages, our cultures.
Our stories also create and recreate the worlds we live in and tell others what the world looks like through our eyes. This was the original social media.
The ingredients that make our stories great vary, but what remains carries them as imagination and memory. There are very valid contestations around whether the two exist in isolation or tend to shape shift into versions of each other in a never-ending dance that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Nevertheless, we employ both memory and imagination in different measures when we tell stories. The act of remembering, especially in Africa, is a revolutionary act.
We are people of whom many lies have been told across the world. Our histories have been assigned ill-informed start dates and premature end dates. It has been said that we did not have means of communicating nor recording our lives accurately before colonists arrived to show us how. The evidence, which has been subjected to many efforts to destroy it, paints a different picture. From Egypt’s hieroglyphics, to Southern Africa’s rock art, Africans have made a point of recording and remembering their existence, and the various relationships to the world around them. The symbols and imagery that featured in early forms of writing, exist in relationship to the imagery we create with our languages. The deep romance evoked by metaphors and proverbs integral to African languages, tells you much about the ways we lived and what we saw around us. That is built-in memory that has travelled across generations to meet us in this present world.
Our stories are also filled with imagination, found in fables and myths. Their function has always been to convey hidden, sometimes difficult truths about the world. Though implicit and sometimes convoluted, fables and myths try to communicate the world to us in a way that reduces the harm reality might cause when allowed to confront us unattenuated. We are people who cared enough to protect each other while still conveying a message of caution. The way we imagine and construct what may be considered fantasies, tells us about the limitlessness of our minds. It tells us about the capacity we have for creativity, innovation and renewal as a people who see the world beyond its material form. There are opportunities for us in the worlds we have created and recreated through time.
On this foundation, African literature has lived and grown to break the borders that separate us from each other and the world. With every attempt to misrepresent or defame us, our writers and orators have saved us time and time again from dishonesty. We have had our voices muted, our artefacts stolen, and our ideas eclipsed, but the resilience of African writers, time and time again, has made fools and liars of those who tried to erase us.
As we explore the rich intellectual offerings of African writers and the growing industries we have built around the promotion, appraisal, and critique of our outputs, I prefer for us to remember that this is not new. We build on traditions that are centuries old. We are simply continuing the traditions we were born into.
One of my memories regarding literature offers both a sad and hopeful contribution. As a child, I loved the wonder literature transported me into. However, with what was at my disposal, I developed the understanding that books and writers came from The USA and Europe. The imagery, sure, was beautiful and interesting, but never familiar. In that way I could never see myself existing in the worlds I read about as more than a visitor. I also could not imagine writing my own stories because I saw nobody like me doing it. I did it despite all of that.
As we consider the vast landscape of African storytelling, I hope we remember the power of sharing stories with those like us and so continue to hold Africa to a light of our own making