The View from Ilorin by David Attwell

15 Dec 2015
The View from Ilorin by David Attwell

This is part of the PEN SA essay series on South African literature. If you are interested in submitting a piece, contact us on

By David Attwell

+++I spent the month of September in Ilorin, Nigeria, as a visitor at Kwara State University. I had personal reasons for wanting to visit Nigeria, which go back to being a student at Natal University in Durban in the late 1970s. To any young person with a conscience, the 1970s were bracing, not unlike the present. Black students who rallied behind the Black Consciousness movement were in the firing line; white students, who were freer to choose their battles, were often marked by the times too, even at historically white institutions like Natal.
+++Something was afoot in Durban, specifically. After the industrial strikes of 1973, which brought the trades union into direct confrontation with the State for the first time, NUSAS’s Wages Commission involved students in union work. The Special Branch took this very seriously and it was conspicuous on campus. (They even meddled in gender politics: when we ran a review of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in Dome, the student newspaper, they came looking for her.) Stephen Biko and Rick Turner both had Natal affiliations. Their murders gave their work more currency: I Write What I Like was banned but Biko’s speeches and articles circulated in photocopies; Turner’s The Eye of the Needle became a bible of sorts, for the philosophically discerning.
+++As a white male, if you were not going to take the gap for Amsterdam or London to avoid wrestling with the beast of military conscription (assuming you had ruled out six years of imprisonment for refusing altogether) you had to ask yourself: umlungu, what was your place going to be in the coming Azania? Roger Lucey and Johnny Clegg sang your condition; Nadine Gordimer wrote it up in Burger’s Daughter and July’s People. (Nearly forty years ago, Burger’s Daughter gave a graphic account of the ferocity of Black Consciousness’s rejection of white patronage.)
+++For the literary-minded, one route open to engaging with Africa was through its literature. If Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria would not let you in, you could at least inhabit such places through the word. It is clearer now how the confluence worked: Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS) and a burgeoning journal literature flowed into South Africa, to be taken up eagerly by readers hungry for a more Afrocentric identity. Natal’s English lecturer Mike Kirkwood, who had taught Yeats, Conrad, Faulkner (who were on the syllabus) and who referenced Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi (who were not), left for Johannesburg’s Ravan Press and started Staffrider, the local adjunct to the continent-wide flowering of cultural decolonization. Black Consciousness had its own agenda; for white students, African Studies, especially African literature, made it possible to explore new forms of belonging.
+++The AWS was the bait and we took it. I was mesmerized especially by the mythic power and virtuosity of Wole Soyinka. That a replete mythological system founded on Yoruba tradition could be so powerfully alive and so artfully blended with literary modernism was a revelation. You felt the urgency, the ambition, the gravitas of Soyinka’s language, even – no, especially – in the land of Mongane Serote’s dry white season.
+++It is more obvious now that the books were a substitute for real social connections, but then literature has always marked out ethical alternatives when society falls short. In the early 1980s, when I was privileged to be teaching at UWC (which invented transformation in higher education, years before the term came into general use) those ethical alternatives seemed to take on the shape of reality in a community determined to do things differently.
+++So when an invitation from Ilorin arrived, perhaps for nostalgic reasons I was ready to take it up. Ready, as I discovered when I got there, to be swept along by the romance of towns and road-signs that had long been places of imagination: from Lagos north and west to Ibadan, Oyo, Ife, Abeokuta, Oshogbo, Ilorin. There was also the vicarious déjà vu of scenes first encountered in Es’kia Mphahlele’s writing, in Down Second Avenue (1959), The African Image (1962) and the letters of Bury Me at the Marketplace (1983, 2010). (Having co-edited Mphahlele’s letters, it felt as if the energetic writer-cum-activist of his early years had been everywhere before me.) By the late 1980s, as a graduate student in Austin, Texas with an editorial fellowship on Research in African Literatures, I laid down other memories that were re-ignited by these travels. One stands out in particular: receiving a letter from Amos Tutuola, thanking me for the typewriter ribbons that I had managed to procure for him from a Texas warehouse.
+++It was not long before my host, Abiola Irele, revealed to me the real reason for his invitation. He had outlined the background in an obituary for Chinua Achebe, which he had published in The Savannah Review. When Achebe died on 21st March 2013, the Nigerian press was filled with eulogies, but one claim repeated in the general outpouring of national feeling prompted Irele to object: Nigerians were saying that Achebe was ‘the father of modern African literature.’ Irele pointed out that the description foreshortened the field – it obscured the depth of oral cultures, the longevity of written literatures in Ethiopia and north Africa, and the vitality of literatures in indigenous languages. If ‘modern African literature’ meant literary writing from the mid-twentieth century onwards, mainly in colonial languages, then yes, Achebe’s presence was immense.
+++But Irele didn’t stop there: the origins of ‘modern African literature,’ he said, lay not in Nigeria after all, but in South Africa:

We are obliged to locate the beginnings in South Africa, in the work of early writers such as Tiyo Soga, Benedict Vilakazi, and especially Sol Plaatje, whose novel Mhudi … builds on an ancestral myth to recount the fortunes of a primordial couple as symbolic of the very genesis of African self-awareness … The force of statement in Plaatje’s work and much of this early literature in South Africa determined the character of an African awakening in what may be considered the first Renaissance, anticipating developments that were to follow on a broader front in later times. (The Savannah Review, November 2013, p. 113)

Such is the view from Ilorin. It is a generous assessment, to be sure. When I read this, I realized the alarming responsibility that Abiola had thrust into my hands. It was my task to give some substance to his narrative for the students and staff of the School of Languages and Literary Studies at KWASU. The responsibility was driven home still further when I learned that my audience included one Gabriel Ajadi, the first translator into English of D.O. Fagunwa, a writer of Yoruba on whose shoulders Soyinka, among others, stands.
+++Thanks largely to the dramatist, Femi Osofisan, the audience knew about Athol Fugard, but that’s about as far as it went. Following a quick tour of South African languages, my agenda had to be the elaboration of a South African canon of writers, few of whom the Nigerians had heard of: Tiyo Soga, Walter Rubusana, Thomas Mofolo, Sol Plaatje, S.E.K. Mqhayi, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, A.C. Jordan, H.I.E. Dhlomo, B.W. Vilakazi, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lauretta Ngcobo, Bessie Head, Njabulo Ndebele, Zakes Mda. I tried to tell them about younger writers, like Lesego Rampolokeng, Lebo Mashile and Niq Mhlongo, as well as those whose lives had ended too early, Phaswane Mpe and K. Sello Duiker. I sketched out an ‘unsettled settler tradition’ of white writing, as it might be seen from Ilorin: a form of modernism in which Africa makes itself felt as silent interlocutor, an insistent demand that was expressed in formal fractures and displacements – a tradition culminating in J.M. Coetzee.
+++At certain points in this story, we stopped to reflect on the resonances between South Africa and Nigeria. Two decades before Things Fall Apart, in 1940, A.C. Jordan published Ingqumbo yeminyanya, translated as The Wrath of the Ancestors (1980). The structure of ideas in Jordan’s and Achebe’s novels is strikingly similar: a careful portrayal of pre-colonial culture, then a tragic hero whose life and death measure out an ambiguous path through modernity.
+++We reflected on the dispersal of the Drum generation, the generation of Nigeria’s own literary Titans, with Mphahlele himself making his way to Lagos and Ibadan where he published Alex La Guma and Dennis Brutus in Black Orpheus. It was Mphahlele who organised the famous conference at Makerere University in 1962 on African literature of English expression, the very conference that Ngũgĩ refers to with scorn in the opening paragraphs of Decolonizing the Mind.
+++But as I made my way through the standard landmarks of South African literature, misgivings began to form at the back of my mind. The first was this: how seriously do South Africans themselves take their literary history? The second was the realization that if I were back in South Africa, as a white academic in the current climate it would not be me who would be asked to facilitate this conversation.
+++The #RhodesMustFall movement had kicked off at UCT back in March, with Chumani Maxwele throwing a bucket of shit over Rhodes’s imperial visage. A gesture of self-conscious shaming but a gesture, nevertheless, that was unable to rise above its impoverishment. If a budding Soyinka of the Western Cape had been part of #RhodesMustFall, he might have made a different kind of statement – a play in isiXhosa, perhaps, performed on the Jameson steps, in which Rhodes on his plinth is put on trial, covered with a kaross. After all, Soyinka had dared something on that scale when he questioned the hubris of the Nigerian independence celebrations in A Dance of the Forests.
+++Not long after Maxwele’s act of protest, the writer Thando Mgqolozana, following his intervention at the predominantly white Franschhoek Literary Festival, sought to decolonize South African literature in a series of twenty tweets. Cultural decolonization on the scale demanded by Ngũgĩ will take harder work than that. It needs a canon, touchstones, a vocabulary, debate. I doubt that it can be done at all on a platform of social media. To his credit, Mgqolozana has gone on to organise a programme of literary events in Khayelitsha.
+++In fact, the movement’s symbolic vocabulary has rapidly expanded (its key documents are now usefully archived by the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism) but the early statements show that in a particular sense, the students were right: if their dignity, their right to cultural sovereignty, had always been assumed, such desperate acts would not have been necessary. By comparison with Nigeria’s universities, South Africa’s are stratospherically privileged, except perhaps where it really counts and that is in affirming the dignity of the student. The infrastructure of Nigerian universities may be poor but in one respect they have got it right.
+++The fact that #RhodesMustFall has evolved into #FeesMustFall’s direct challenge to the State over its failures in higher education is altogether a good thing. We are beginning to catch up with Achebe who stated unequivocally in The Trouble with Nigeria that the problems of the postcolony start with the failures of the national leadership.
+++There is one particular conversation in Ilorin that left a strong impression on me. Irele told me about the early 1960s when Mphahlele was working for the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris. His interactions with the négritude intellectuals of Présence Africaine and the Society of African Culture, Alioune Diop and others, left a sour note. Mphahlele disliked négritude in these early years; to him it ignored the proletarian, urban realities of black life in a city like Johannesburg.
+++Irele told me that the négritudinists were dismayed by Mphahlele’s gauche politics and parochialism. After all, négritude, they felt, was universalist – a parenthetical space in the world republic of letters. Its purpose was to affirm racial pride but its discourse was cross-cultural in poetry and philosophy. This is a paradoxical truth whose import is light years away from the essentialism of South Africa’s identity politics.
+++Such was the view from Ilorin. I left in gratitude to Abiola Irele for showing me in his generosity that it was possible for the great achievements of cultural decolonization to become a shared heritage. But I also left with a sense of foreboding, realizing that the conversations I was party to in Nigeria were becoming increasingly factionalised and out of reach in my own country.
+++The space for the free exchange of ideas across our racial cantonments appears to be rapidly closing down. When the barricades that we are building become so high that we can’t hear one another, or even shout at one another anymore, what will we do then? Will we re-emerge from behind them, resigned to the inescapable fact that history has thrown us together?