Accra: Linguistic Barriers to Pan-Africanism discussed

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 29 13:22:20 UTC 2006

ACCRA: African writers, scholars in creative dialogue

By HENRY AKUBUIRO (ifeanyi_mcdaniels at
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Enjoying myself? Yes, I am. I came all the way from India to be part of
this, said Nandini Sen, a participant at the 32nd meeting and conference
of African Literature Association (ALA), which ended in Accra, Ghana, last
Sunday. Sen, a senior lecturer in the Department of English, Bharati
College, Delhi University, was not the only one having fun at La Palm
Beach Royal Hotel, Accra, venue of the literary convergence. The pick of
the literati came from all over the world the US, the UK, Germany, Norway,
Mexico, Japan, China, France, Canada, Nigeria, Cameroun, Cote d Ivoire,
Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ghana, Togo, Benin, South Africa, Mali, Senegal,
Zimbabwe, the Caribbean and beyond to brainstorm on African literature.
They were either students of African literature, scholars, writers and
journalists or culture afficionados. Traces of nostalgic afterglow trailed
the ending.

Co-hosted by the CODESRIA African Humanities Institute Programme,
University of Ghana, and Institute of African and African-American
Affairs, New York University, the theme of the ALA meeting and conference
was Pan-Africanism in the 21st Century: Generations in Creative dialogue,
in addition to other sub-themes. African Literature Association is an
independent non-profit, professional society open to scholars, teachers
and writers from every country. The American-based association exists
primarily to facilitate the attempts by a worldwide audience to appreciate
the efforts of African writers and artists, and is committed to holding
its annual conference on the African continent at least once in five
years. The first time it held in Accra was in 1994.

Of course, the three conveners of the meeting and conference had their
hands full for the six days it lasted. There were Professor Kofi Anyidoho,
Director of African Humanities Institute and Head of the English
Department of the University of Ghana, who was running up and down to
ensure that things went on smoothly; Professor Manthia Diawara, Director
of the New York University Institute of African Affairs, who, like the
former, put his hands on deck to have a memorable outing; and Professor
Awam Amkpa, Academic Director of NYU-in-Ghana, who was pivotal to
efficient logistics. Their work was complemented by Esi Sutherland-Addy,
the daughter of late Ghanaian playwright, Efua Sutherland, who headed the
Planning Committee.

The array of guest writers invited by the association to Accra was
awesome. They included Ghanas Kofi Awoonor, Kofi Anyidoho and Amma Darko;
Nigerias Niyi Osundare and Femi Osofisan, South Africas Lewis Nkosi,
Kenyas Ngugi wa Thiongo, Somalias Nuruddin Farah, Cote d Ivoires Veronique
Tadjo, and the Barbadian writer, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. There was a
strong Nigerian presence at the gathering. The foreign legion was
represented by Professors Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, Ernest Emenyonu,
Tanure Ojaide, Molara Ogundipe, Onookome Okome, Chimalum Nwankwo, Okey
Ndibe, Helen Chukwuma, Marie Umeh, Anthonia Kalu, Tejumola Olaniyan, etc.
The bards, Odia Ofeimun and Nduka Otiono, came from Lagos, together with a
galaxy of scholars from Nigeria, including Professor Akachi Ezeigbo, Osita
Ezenwanebe, Helen Salami, Damian Okpata, Amanze Akpuda, Oyeniyi Okunoyi,
Victor Dugga, Shola Olarunyomi, Monica Ekpong, Alphonsus Oritseremi, to
mention a few.

Driving through Accra city, the first two things that strike a first- time
visitor is its orderliness and cleanliness. There are more cabs, mostly
fairly new, in the city than buses. The city is clean, and you hardly see
dirt littering the neighbourhood or social miscreants or rude policemen on
the roads extorting money from motorists. There is also uninterrupted
power supply in the metropolis, and the people are very hospitable to
visitors. The environment where the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel is located
in Accra, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, provides a crumb of paradisiacal
comfort.  As early as 6.30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 17, participants had
already started trooping to the venue. By 7 a.m. registration exercise had
started, and it went concurrently with other events scheduled for the day.
The official opening ceremony took off at 8 a.m. Kofi Anyidoho, one of the
conveners, introduced the chairman of the occasion, Prof. N.C.B. Tagoe,
acting Vice-Chancellor, University of Ghana, who made a brief acceptance
speech. Afterwards, Prof. Yaw Nyarko, Vice Provost read a welcome
statement for Global and Multicultural Affairs, New York University.

In her statement, the outgoing ALA President, Prof. Debra Boyd, expressed
delight to be back once again in the aromas of our ancestor for a season
of intellectual and cultural enrichment. She reaffirmed the associations
commitment to pan-Africanism and to the power of literary art as a
miraculous weapon in the struggle against oppression, just as it holds
fast to the dream of a free and prosperous Africa where genocide and
pestilence are no more. Speaking on the theme, Pan-Africanism in the 21st
Century: Generation in Creative Dialogue, she noted that it provides an
opportunity for the return of African intellectuals, scholars and writers
who have been dislocated through diverse forms of exile to return home.
Besides, it was a realization of a dream for many of the African diasporas
children who have longed to be reunited and reconnected to their roots.

The Ghanaian government was represented by Prof. Adzei Bekoe, Chairman,
Council of State and former Vice-Chancellor, University of Ghana, who, in
his official opening address, highlighted the charms of literature, its
sheer exhilaration and beauty of self-expression and its amazing capacity
to carry the deepest of feelings and thoughts. He said further that the
theme of this years meeting and conference resonates in Ghana on the eve
of the countrys 50th independence anniversary in 2007. The pan-Africanist
thought of Casely Hayford, he said, was influenced by the pan-Africanist
thinking of Edward Blyden, W.E.D Dubois, among others.

As the 21st century stretches ahead of us and Africans find themselves in
various locations, their relationship with the continent and with one
another would seem to read, more than ever, the metaphors of a shared
vision and new identities offered us through the generous creativity of
our orator, story tellers, dramatists and poets, he said, hinting that
perhaps what remains is to take definite policy measures to bring the
tremendous body of philosophical and literary thought to the attention of
the peoples of Africa in order to engage the generations in a truly
empowering dialogue.

Plenary sessions

The first plenary session, entitled Pan-Africanism in the 21st Century:
The Long View of History, which preceded the opening ceremony in the
morning, was rhapsodic. The panelists were renowned Ghanaian writer, Kofi
Awoonor; Mohammed Ibn Chambas, Ecowas Executive Secretary (who failed to
turn up); and Veronique Tadjo. But the fireworks exhibited by Awoonor and
Tadjo were adequate consolations as the amiable Manthia Diawara moderated
with passion. The award-winning Ivorien writer, Tadjo, in her speech on
pan-Africanism, remarked that Africa has never been so divided before,
with conflicts raging on in many countries and with strong, dividing
ethnic components.  She identified the linguistic factor as an obstacle to
African unification. We have failed to tap into the factor of unification
because the linguistic order inherited from the colonial power does not
correspond with the natural order.

Therefore, we have missed opportunity to better trade and economic link
within Africa. We have to accept the fact that English and French, the two
major languages, have divided the continent along Anglophone and
Francaphone, she said, submitting that pan-Africanism was based on
solidarity and unity, but it would be a tall dream unless African leaders
put their houses in order. The genius of Awoonor and his genial, baritone
tone took the session to another exciting level. He traced the origin of
pan-Africanism to the descendants of African slaves in the West and the
challenges along the way, affirming that the construction of an
independent Africa through its universities, journalists, various
institutions economic and cultural have become a single objective which
must push pan-African ideals beyond 1956. He lambasted France for the
disuniting West African, saying, The betenoire for West African disunity
and confusion is the Republic of France, and he cited the currency charade
it perpetrated at the borders between Cote dIvoire and Ghana as an

He enlightened the audience that late Kwame Nkrumahs first push for a
unification programme was not for any Anglophone Africa, but with Guinea
and Mali, before it blossomed. Thus, he flayed African intellectuals who
have fallen to the Anglophone-Francophone dichotomy, describing the
division as frivolous. In his words, This is a real piece of nonsense.
Awoonor also faulted the feudal authority we have in Africa, stressing
that no people stand with such phoney political configuration. Commenting
on the linguistic barriers to pan-Africanism, the celebrated poet said
that there is nothing wrong in using English language as a medium of
communication in Africa, harping on the fact that we must come to terms
with the reality that English is a unifying factor in Anglophone Africa.
According to him, In a creative process, we must concede that the European
visitation, as inimical as it was, has also changed the paremetres of our
self-perception and the realities for us. We are no longer what our great
grandfathers were. He caused uproar when he condemned the view of Ngugi wa
Thiongo that Africans should write in their indigenous languages, noting
that it would lead to the alienation of many readers not literate in the
local language being used in writing.

A great debate ensued thereafter on the issues raised by the panelists.
Nigerian scholars dominated the debate, with eleven out of the fifteen
that indicated interest, taking to the floor to make their points.
Professor Kofi Anyadiho, Awoonors countryman, rose to contest the view by
his elder brother on the use of indigenous language in writing literature,
citing Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Okot p Bitek as writers whose
mastery of their local languages has impacted on their mastery of
literature in English.
Professor Niyi Osundare gave every Nigerian in Accra a cause to be proud
to be a Nigerian.

As Soyinka is hardly seen in literary functions nowadays, Osundare seems
to be stepping into his shoes. The manner he marshalled his points drew
great applause from the audience. He attributed Africas inability to
achieve a perfect pan-Africanism to the inability of the peoples of Africa
to solve their internal problems. If you dont have unity in your country,
how can you then go on to espouse continental unity? he asked
rhetorically. His view on the language question is that Ngugis idea may
sound idealistic now, even chaotic, but this is how good ideas always

Professor Femi Osofisan was another remarkable Nigerian writer who upped
the ante as the Achebes would. He attributed the retreat from
pan-Africanism to the concentration of African states to build their
nations after independence, as opposed to the larger ideals of
pan-Africanism. Odia Ofeimun carpeted African leaders for being myopic and
paying little or no attention to language policies of their countries,
which has made indigenous languages to be subordinate to foreign

If Africans must perpetrate their indigenous languages, according to Prof.
Molara Ogundipe, they must write first in indigenous languages and then
translate into European languages. Onookome Okome charged the literary
community to take African popular literature seriously, especially African
films. Monica Ekpong, in her contribution to the language question,
emphasized the unity in our mother tongue, citing the similarities between
Akran language in Ghana with Igbo, Efik, Ejegam and other Nigerian
languages. John Muran from Sierra Leone, in his contribution, stressed on
the need for parents to direct their children on cultural norms, the
cloths they wear and the music they dance in order to impress on their
children to respect African culture and pan-Africanism.

The second plenary session on Friday, May 19 entitled Re-current
Predicaments of the African Global Family was another bang. The panelists
included eminent guest writers, Niyi Osundare, Lewis Nkosi and Ngugi wa
Thingo. The Kenyan stuck to his gun on the ingenious language paradigm,
berating the conspiracy of Africans in wholeheartedly patronizing foreign
languages to the detriment of theirs.

He said, The predicament of Africans is the loss of their languages. I
have never seen a place where the loss of language is celebrated by those
who educate users of those languages. The predicament of the African
problems is that we actually celebrate the loss of our languages imposed
upon us by the West.
Osundare, speaking on the question of remembrance being selective in
African literature, stated that remembrance is subjective, and because it
is subjective, it is also partial. One of the problems of Africa is that
so many authors, ethnographers and Hollywood have misremembered the
continent. Thats the basis of racism. Misrepresentation and misremembrance
go hand in hand. He averred that for Africans to employ language policy
successfully, they must have to cultivate the people, noting that our
problems are not insolluble.

Concurrent Sessions and side attractions
There were readings by eminent writers, film screenings, caucus meetings,
ALA Executive Committee meetings, annual business meetings and round
tables as the conference progressed. The multiplicity of sessions made it
difficult for participants to attend all of them. Professor Akachi Ezeigbo
of the University of Lagos was often seen running from one hall to another
to catch up with different sessions.
Femi Osofisan, Abena Busia of Ghana and Chimalum Nwankwo took part in the
first of the special readings on Thursday. Osofisan, in particular, was
outstanding with his use of Yoruba folklore and he made sure he carried
the audience along, to their admiration. Odia Ofeimun made some scathing
criticisms on the delivery of some of the poets after the readings. On
Thursday May 18 the poet, Tanure Ojaide, Nana Ama Danquah from Ghana and
two young writers from Ghana who won the Young Writers Club Prize in
Ghana, Nana Ashifia Gogo and Ama Frempong, read from their winning short

On Friday May 19, Niyi Osundare was in a class of his own as he dazzled
the audience with his poems, alongside Veronique Tadjo of Coted Ivoire and
Benjamin Kwakye of Ghana, winner 2006, Commonwealth Prize for First Book
in Africa. The audience sympathized with Osundare after listening to his
Hurricane Katrina ordeal in the US last year, which swept away all he had
toiled for. Later in the day, there were readings by Kofi Awoonor, Lewis
Nkosi and Ngugi wa Thiongo.

The 32nd ALA meeting and conference was not all about literary discourse.
The welcome reception at W.E.B. Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture at
21 1st Circular Road, Cantonments, Accra, afforded participants the
opportunity to behold the beautiful scenery of the city and also dance to
Ghanaian highlife music. Femi Osofisan enthralled the audience with deft
dance steps. Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Molora Ogundipe, Eustace Palmer,
Kofi Awoonor, Charles Larson, Kwabena Abusia, and others had a swell time
in the dancing binge, with the Americans, Europeans and Asians wriggling
their waists to the alluring African rhythm. There was a dramatization of
the late Efua Sutherlands The Marriage of Anansewa on Thursday night at La
Palm Beach Royal Hotel.

On Friday evening, participants were taken to PAWA (Pan African Writers
Association) House, venue for the Fonlon Nicholas Prize Award ceremony.
Chaired by Professor Atukwei Okhai, Secretary General of the association,
Femi Osofisan of Nigeria was awarded this years prize for his
contributions to African literature and human rights. Professor Tejumola
Olaniyan of University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, who read his citation,
described him as the best dramatist from Africa after Wole Soyinka and
Dennis Brutus. Music interludes by Wolomei band livened the night, which
also featured readings by Ghanaian and international poets, as well as the
presentation of the first ever edition of African Literature Today by the
editor, Professor Ernest Emenyonu, and the publisher of the African
edition, Heinemann Educational Books, Ibadan, Nigeria.

The Vice-President of Ghana, Ali Mahatma, was the special guest on
Saturday night at the conference banquet. With the Sappers Band providing
highlife music, participants danced freely with the unassuming
vice-president. The event marked the end of the one-year tenure of ALA
President, Debra Boyd. The Sierra Leonean scholar, Eustace Palmer, was
sworn in as the 32nd president of the association with a traditional pomp.

The last day of the literary gathering was marked by a one-day tour of
Akosombo, with a Volta Lake Cruise with buffet on the Dodi Princess. Like
the previous ALA meetings and conferences, Nigerians dominated events. But
what is surprising is that the country, the powerhouse of African
literature, has yet to host this biggest literary gathering in Africa.
Morocco, Egypt and Ghana have all hosted ALA, Ghana even twice. The reason
for this discrimination, it was learnt, has to do with alleged security
threats in the country. But Odia Ofeimun objected vehemently, There is no
country in the world that doesnt have a bad side. Nigeria is overdue to
host ALA meeting and conference. We have places in the country that can
host it. Many Nigerian scholars in Accra echoed Ofeimuns view.

The mistake by the Western world is that they often use Lagos and Warri to
judge Nigeria. To an extent, Lagos is chaotic, especially when compared to
Accra, what with the nuisance of area boys and policemen on the roads. But
Nigeria does not lack peaceful and beautiful cities. Places like Abuja,
Calabar and Owerri are capable of hosting any event in the world without
disgracing visitors.

The memories of the ALA 32nd meeting and conference would remain indelible
just like the film screenings of Manthia Diawara. Among others, it offered
visitors the opportunity to interact with likeminded people, participate
and patronize rare book exhibits and brainstorm on peculiar fields. I will
be happy to meet you again, said Michael Koltoh, a research officer with
TV/Video Production and Multimedia Solution, Accra, on the eve of
departure. The geniality of his smiles drove home the message.

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