‘Political Imperative of the African Writer’


Sometime back I was elated to see a poem by Wole Soyinka in the undergrad syllabi of an Indian university. My elation was cut short when I glimpsed at the annotation attached to it. The editors made no reference to racism, or even faintly hinted at the political undertone in the poem. I only laughed at the sense of decorum the editor’s must have observed. The poem was “Telephone Conversation”. It is significant that in certain societies at certain times, literary representation cannot keep the political in between the lines. There are times when a writer is necessarily a politician of sorts. In 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Indian subcontinent, while the poets were prone to lyricising personal responses to mother nature and stuff, most of the novelists took their vocation to be social-political commentators. Dalit literature including poetry as well as women’s writings show similar trends – personal is the political and all that. But about the African writers there is one more important aspect that Olabode Ibironke brings out well in his article “Chinua Achebe and the Political Imperative of the African Writer” (Journal of Commonwealth Literature). The African writer is not only an intellectual but also a champion of political struggle. Let us not forget the years Soyinka spent in jail. Or Achebe’s No Longer at Ease anticipating the coup. (I dont mean this is true only of the African writer).

Here is an excerpt:

The major African novels have portrayed serious concern for and deep understanding of the political situation in contemporary
Africa. This penchant for political representation is because, unlike his/her first-world counterpart, the African writer occupies the unique position of not only cultivating an intellectual and aesthetic tradition, but also bearing the burden of being actively engaged in the championing of a political struggle, which is deemed absolutely important if literary production is to bear any semblance of relevance to the life of the society.

As for the imperative of the writer Achebe had once said:

The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them.


While Achebe’s point has the colonial condition as its context, there is no reason to believe that this responsibility ends with self-rule and that the writer’s role in raising political consciousness becomes any less important. If at all, it deepens further, I would say. That is why, while Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart focuses on the conflict with the colonizer, his second novel No Longer at Ease talks of the corruption of the indigenous. So, the imperative to tell the people where the rain began to beat them continues.


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