The role of African writers in telling the African story

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NEXT month, local and foreign writers converge in the capital for the annual book indaba, The Book Fair.
It is during this forum writers are reminded of the key role they play in preserving the African heritage and culture through their work.
The African culture has more often than not been seen through the ideas, ideals and values of others, not Africans themselves.
The artiste in Africa and in an African perspective is expressed through indigenous beauty, beliefs and ideas.
The artiste shapes the African destiny and society through the richness of culture, music, poetry, sculpturing, oral speech and dance.
This is coupled with the extensive and intensive use of idioms and the African language.
Okot p’Bitek said oral tradition shapes social relations, and those vital relationship-building oral tradition practices are found in daily meaningful activities or life as it is actually lived.
He stresses that most African literature is oral, which includes stories, riddles, proverbs and sayings.
In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o discusses the importance of oral literature as a key form of art during his formative years.
He writes: “I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fire side. It was mostly the grown-ups telling the children but everybody was interested and involved. We children would retell the stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields.”
The artiste in the African oral literature comes to the fore through these stories whose main characters were usually animals.
The artiste in this case creatively uses animals as human beings in order to bring the moral aspects of our humanity as Africans.
Ngugi buttresses this point by highlighting the role of oral story-telling.
He says, “Hare being small, weak, but full of innovative wit, was our hero. We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey like lion, leopard and hyaena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that the apparently weak can outwit the strong.”
Chinua Achebe brings an interesting dimension to the discussion on the African artiste and his role.
In his essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments, he says the Western notion of art for its own sake is misplaced. 
Instead, he embraces the conception of art at the heart of African oral traditions and values.
He writes, “Art is, and always was, at the service of man.”
He emphasises this point: “Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories with a human purpose hence, any good story, any good novel, should have a message, should have a purpose.”
Achebe himself is the epitome of the concept of the artiste in African worldview.
He has unravelled the Igbo culture and brought it to the fore, in the process mapping out its destiny and society.
Few can talk about Nigeria without having to contend with the Igbo culture, its norms and values and how it brings about African pride and beauty.
According to Achebe, one cannot study African literature without studying the particular cultures and oral traditions from which Africans draw their plots, styles and metaphors.
Traditional African writers were inspired individuals who sought to give expression to their artistic visions in an accommodating environment.
Once the society has embraced the writer and his works, the African beauty and creativity is truly expressed in a real and true African context.
An example is the case of Unoka, Okonkwo’s artistic father in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and three Ewe poets who have sung what he calls ‘poems of abuse.’
Such form of art was part of the very texture of life, whether as proverbs ‘the oil with which words were eaten’ or as stories, as songs or as sculpture.
Achebe says the reason Unoka was such a miserable failure was not that the society had anything against his musical art as such, but that he had singularly failed as a man to provide for his family and meet his other commitments.
As a matter of fact, his artistic performances did not give any indication of alienation on his part because, even while he was derided as an unsuccessful farmer, he retained a basic identification with the society. “Sometimes another village would ask Unoka’s band and the dancing egwugwu to come and stay with them and teach them their tunes. They would go to such hosts for as long as three or four markets, making music and feasting. Unoka loved the good fare and the good fellowship.”
In conclusion, writers help in the preservation of the African cultural identity and, subsequently, heritage which is almost always under constant threat of annihilation by the colonialist.
A writer then takes the African story forward and exports it to the rest of the world so that it can appreciate that beauty.
In the same vein, the writer helps society escape from the many cultural dilemmas confronting it.

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