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African Literature Is a Country

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What if you survey African literature professors to find out which works and writers are most regularly taught? Only a few canonical ones continue to dominate curricula.

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African Literature Is a Country
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African literary studies today is a site of deep paradox. On one hand, the last two decades have seen astonishing growth for African literature in the global North and South, evidenced by lucrative publishing deals; new prizes and grants; literature festivals; the establishment of many new presses and imprints; and an increase in blogs and platforms that disseminate and discuss these developments. On the other hand, African literature continues to exist on the margins of the academic mainstream and is also underrepresented within larger reading publics.For example, in a recent attempt to “create a fully digitized corpus of 20th-century fiction” Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was the only African novel repeatedly mentioned. African literatures are usually classified and taught within a continental framework—as in the category of “African literature”—a geographical term that implicitly disregards the myriad regional, national, cultural, and economic differences in a continent comprised of fifty-four countries. Indeed the colonial invention of a composite and singular “Africa” remains as entrenched in academic institutions as it is in the global imaginary. That’s how we came to survey instructors of African literature at the university level to find out which works and writers are most regularly taught in their courses.We sent out emails to over 250 academics, a majority of whom were listed as members of the African Literature Association in addition to several others drawn from our own professional networks. One-hundred and five individuals replied, mainly residents in the US or Europe, and a number of Africa-based professors also contributed to the study. Here’s what we found.Of the 671 texts that were listed by our respondents, the majority were novels (369) and short stories (101), while memoirs, biographies and autobiographies (46), poems (56), plays (39), essays and non fiction books (28) and anthologies (32) made up the balance.

Populism and the Global South
The majority of authors (407) were men (251), followed by women (155). One author identified as non-binary.  As for country representation, 45 of the 54 countries that make up the African continent made the cut: South Africa dominated with 106 authors on the list, followed by Nigeria (62) and Kenya (30). Countries with 10 or more books on the list were Senegal (18), Egypt and Zimbabwe (16), Uganda and Cameroon (15), Morocco (11) and Algeria (10). And the total number of languages of assigned texts was 18.

Populism and the Global SouthWhat does all this mean?

Though it was expected that Nigerian and South African texts would dominate the field, we did not anticipate how extreme this would be. Most countries on the continent are represented on curricula by less than five individual texts, whereas 62 Nigerian literary works and a whopping 106 South African are regularly taught.When it comes to languages, English and French are the source languages of the majority of texts, though a smattering of African languages taught in translation are represented by Acoli, Afrikaans, Arabic, Tigrinya, Xhosa, and Yoruba literary works. A fair number of works written in Spanish and Portuguese are also regularly taught.Among authors, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the most taught writer (87 mentions). Nigerians, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, are similarly popular on syllabi (82 mentions each) while J.M. Coetzee is the next most taught author (59 mentions). Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is predictably the most frequently assigned novel, followed by Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (assigned 42, 40, and 34 times, respectively). That two works by Zimbabwean women rank among the top three most regularly taught novels on college syllabi is an encouraging indication of certain changes afoot. Zimbabwe is thus one of the countries best represented on African literature syllabi. Yet this also reminds us how singular works are often instrumentalized to represent not only an author’s entire body of work, but often her country, and even her continent.Populism and the Global South
Senegalese writer Boris Boubacar Diop told us that its always the same old texts as well: “African authors are taught in both [Nigeria and Senegal] however they are almost the same ones since the time of independence: Senghor, Beti, Sembene, Kourouma etc. for the ”francophones” et Ngũgĩ, Achebe for the Anglophones. Quite often, one explores the text more often than the novelistic universe; A Grain of Wheat or Things Fall Apart, God’s Bits of WoodSuns of Independence…Sometimes it feels like students can recite entire passages from these books but also that they only know these.”

Unfortunately, it’s true that only a few canonical works dominate the field, coupled with the near or total non-representation of many important literary traditions including Namibia and Madagascar, to name two countries with rich literary histories that no one mentioned in our survey.

However, this is not a crisis without the potential for transformation. While literary works from South Africa and Nigeria often serve to include African literature in pedagogical efforts to diversify syllabi and include the continent, scholars and teachers of African literature also teach a dizzying number of other works alongside the predictable ones.

Populism and the Global South
Institutional issues

With contemporary debates about decolonizing academic curricula raging in the global North, we wanted to find out where the teaching of African literature is itself positioned within these discussions. The analysis and criticism that follows is therefore primarily directed towards European and North American institutions.

African literary studies often produces institutional quarrels at departmental levels since it is taught within constrained spaces. Most regularly taught in English and Comparative Literature departments, African literature has also historically found a tenuous home in area studies units. Comprising widely diverging percentages of curricula, it is nonetheless fair to say that, in general, African literature constitutes a very small part of what students are offered in most Euro-American literature departments, and is rarely, if ever, required.

In contrast, European and American literature is often sub-specialized into regions, historical periods and single author courses. Undergraduates can enroll in Medieval English Literature, Renaissance Literature, Romantic Poetry, Early American Literature, Shakespeare, Beowulf and so on. Courses dedicated to Nigerian or Kenyan Literature, or single-author courses on canonical figures like Achebe, Ngũgĩ, or Djebar, or period courses on precolonial literary Africa are rarely offered. And, of course, other equally important literary traditions (Asian-American, Caribbean, Australasian, African-American, etc.) are in similarly embattled positions within literature departments. In the US, African literature often gets swapped out for African-American works in the push for diversity despite their very different literary histories.

If Africanist scholars were permitted more leeway and given more curricular space, students’ exposure to works from the continent could deepen and increase exponentially. Furthermore, giving students access to this wider range of faculty expertise would disrupt the overreliance on a handful of representative canonical writers who are themselves often opposed to having their work deployed in this way.

African Literature in Africa

Undoubtedly, African literature is taught in widely divergent ways from department to department and from country to country. Though the structures of teaching African literature within African universities are less familiar to us, based on conversations we have had with scholars currently teaching or trained on the continent, the ideological underpinnings of curricula in Africa tend to fall loosely into either a traditional or decolonial model.

At the University of Nairobi and at Makerere University in Kampala, students gain a deep knowledge of African literary traditions with emphasis placed on orature and orality. This, we surmise, is due in part to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong’s efforts in 1968 to decolonize the curriculum, famously described in the subversive memo, “On the Abolition of the English Department.” Though a core text of decolonial theory, so few institutions have put its ideas into practice in the 50 years since it was conceived. Other sites where decolonizing curriculum is at the forefront of campus debates, can be found in certain South African universities: at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg which offers both a BA and MA in African Literature; at the University of Cape Town; and at Stellenbosch University.

In contrast, the second, traditional approach to teaching African literature on the continent describes the vast majority of departments that continue to prioritize Western canonical works over African ones. This Bloomian vestige of colonialism places British or French literature at the heart of literature curricula. Most universities in Cameroon, for example, and several institutions in North Africa are rigorously European in their curricula with very little focus on African or postcolonial writing. It also appears that though there are some attempts to broaden literature curricula in Nigerian universities, quite a few of our Nigerian colleagues, who form a large contingent at the African Literature Association, mention the difficulties in pushing these agendas through the system and in getting Nigerian university departments to embrace decolonized literary models.

Of course, our binary model insufficiently describes the institutional and regional variety of approaches to teaching African literature in Africa. We are aware it also does not adequately represent the curricula in local languages such as Arabic in Egypt, or Swahili in Tanzania.

Going forward

Regardless of the very clear sense that there is much institutional work to be done, the sheer number of discrete literary texts being assigned illustrates the vitality and diversity of the field, and also attests to teachers’ pedagogical commitment to refuse curricula that homogenize the continent. It is heartening to note that this survey’s results suggest that instructors are solidly committed to experimenting with decentered, non-canonical, and potentially decolonial frameworks by assigning texts that cover a wide range of histories, genres, and literary traditions.

This survey is a first step in assessing the teaching of African literature in a multitude of departments. We recognize the vastness of our field and the inherent limitations in our research methods. But this survey and our early observations are first and foremost, a provocation.

These days, the push to “decolonize the curriculum” dangerously approaches a facile tokenism we wish to resist. So-called classics continue to get prioritized but with some commentary on racism or sexism folded in. Syllabi get sprinkled with black or brown writers, women writers, and gay writers. But these gestures are nothing more than a cursory nod to diversity. This diluted approach towards decolonizing our curricula that dominates many Western universities has to stop. It is high time that institutions of higher education carved out more space and funding for the study of marginalized literatures, and reckoned with the deeply embedded epistemological biases inherent in curricular design. Individual departments must be willing to alter their definition of diversity itself, to decolonize diversity, if we may. Giving students access to the massive existing body of African literature is just the beginning.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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Lily Saint is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University and author of 'Black Cultural Life in South Africa' (U. of Michigan Press 2018). Bhakti Shringarpure is Associate Professor of English at University of Connecticut, Editor-in-Chief of Warscapes and author of 'Cold War Assemblages' (Routledge, 2019).

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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