An invitation to imagine Africa otherwise

Imagine Africa, edited by Breyten Breytenbach, Island Position, Gorée Institute, 2011.

Reading the collection Imagine Africa, I am reminded of two iconic poems about Africa by two celebrated poets of African descent: African-American poet Countee Cullen’s “What is Africa to me?” and Senegalese poet David Diop’s “Africa.” Diop’s poem addresses Africa as follows:

Africa, tell me Africa
is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation?
Impetuous son, that tree young and strong
That is Africa, your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquire
The bitter taste of liberty

In a sense, Imagine Africa embodies Diop’s Africa: a continent burdened with challenges, yet tenacious and resilient enough to remain “alive with possibility”, if I may borrow that popular South African phrase. And indeed, this is no cliché. One needs only to skim through recent news from across the continent to see this complex spectrum of peril and possibility that constitutes the trademark alphabet of everyday life in Africa. A glance across the continent in the last couple of months, for instance, yields among other landmark moments: the birth of Southern Sudan; the “Arab Spring” in North Africa; a peaceful election in Zambia; the Somali famine; and two African women Nobel Peace laureates.

The complexity of Africa is an obvious truism that nonetheless bears repeating; especially in light of the embedded trinity of disease, poverty and violence that continues to frame the lens of global perceptions of Africa, despite countless bodies of research, personal experiences and counter-narratives speaking to the contrary position. In light of this, any intellectual project that ventures into the terrain of “writing” Africa finds itself haunted by the shadow of perceptions and stereotypes, both positive and negative.

Published by the Gorée Institute’s imprint, Island Position, Imagine Africa is a product of the Pirogue Collective, an initiative of the Institute. The volume — edited by renowned South African writer Breyten Breytenbach — brings together fiction, poetry, critical essays and art in an eclectic blend of voices, critiques and celebrations of Africa. In some ways then, I see the volume as an orchestra of responses to Countee Cullen’s question: “What is Africa to me?”

Imagine Africa features an engaging range of voices, genres and perspectives on Africa. It includes the lyrical poetry of Cape Verdean Corsino Fortes, South African Adam Small and Kenyan Shailja Patel; the compelling critical essays of Africanists Stephen Ellis and Alex de Waal; and the evocative short stories of Eben Venter, Ayesha Harruna Attah and Ngugi wa Thiong’o; this volume mirrors the varied texture of the continent’s linguistic, cultural and artistic landscapes. The various contributions are framed by Senegalese Amadou Kan Sy’s evocative art. Though English seems to be the main language, some sections are bilingual, while other entries are translations from Portuguese, French, Gikuyu and Afrikaans (unfortunately these are the only African languages represented in the volume).

Breyten Breytenbach opens the volume with an excellent introductory essay entitled “Africa Lives”. Breytenbach flags the possibilities and the challenges posed by the task of writing Africa. As he notes, “to write about Africa is to go on a journey, confronted by endlessly unfolding conjugations of an elusive reality; [it] is to embark on travels into a language which is matter, an exorcism of time, the dance movements of the tongue living in the grave” (3).  Individually, the various contributions can be read as fragments of these journeys, which, for Hervé Ludovic de Lys, demand the transcendence of

uncertain conclusions and other sterile certitudes of the debate between the Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists if Africa ceases to be that Sleeping Beauty whom the languorous kisses of Prince Charmings awakens to the will of national and international interests” (18)

Lys’ chapter — entitled “Sleeping Beauty” — offers a sobering historical overview of the continent’s place in the global political and economic landscape, with a lingering examination of the plight of children in Africa, in landscapes marked by brutal poverty, child labour and malnutrition. Lys concludes with the question:  How can we hope to build a peaceful and prosperous Africa that will be in a position to fully participate in the world if the basic qualities of our human capital are dangerously eroding? (30).  One possible glimmer of hope, for Lys, lies in recent attempts by various actors of civil society to “seize the opportunities offered by the major international forums in order to become part of the international movement aiming at a better articulation of the resistance to liberal globalisation” (30-31).

Charl-Pierre Naudé’s contribution is equally engrossing in its examination of the politics of translation. Dating back to the 1962 Makerere African Writers’ Conference, the language question remains an unresolved issue in debates on African textual imaginaries. Beyond concerns with cultural imperialism and African “authenticity” which have dominated the perspectives of icons such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o on the language issue, mutual intelligibility remains a challenge, as the continent’s linguistic barriers impede the circulation of ideas across the boundaries of language.

Among the strategies of rendering these linguistic boundaries porous is translation. Naudé’s “A Road Going Both Ways” explores the question of translation from his particular position as an Afrikaans writer. For Naudé, Afrikaans, a language historically divided into “coloured” and “white” Afrikaans under apartheid, now finds itself “having to translate itself to itself — at the very least in moral terms — after the demise of apartheid” (44). Naudé, who has written poetry in both English and Afrikaans, rejects the seduction of writing in English exclusively, noting that “expediency cannot be trusted for truthfulness” (45). Rather, he goes beyond concern with linguistic accessibility to offer fresh perspectives on translation. For him, the most interesting thing about translation is not “its increasing feats of accuracy, but the delightful margins of deviation, which give birth to new moons” (46). Naudé suggests that the multilingual South African context, despite its challenges, preempts what he terms the “ethical hazards” of monolingual cultures:  “[I]f you write in two languages at the same time, you might think twice before saying something disingenuous. It is going to be easier not to confuse what others want to hear with what you really want to say, or to confuse turn of phrase with substance — because the lie of phrase-turning often falls flat in the other language” (46).

This collection is interspersed with lyrical poetry from across the continent, most of it presented in two languages. Among the poems is Adam Small’s playful “Come Let us Sing” which draws intertextual allusions to the biblical story of Moses’ calling to lead the people of Israel from Egypt. The poem, originally written in Afrikaans, is translated into a playful English patois that captures the rolling rhythms of “coloured” Afrikaans speech. Similarly, Corsino Fortes’ “Emigrante” and “Konde Palmanha Manche” [Portuguese for “Immigrant” and “When the Morning Breaks”] paint rich portraits of Africa’s island topographies.

One of the chapters — a letter to President Barrack Obama, entitled “The Uncompromising Beauty of the World” — is an extract from a previously published article, but this does not take away from its relevance to the volume. In this letter, the two Martinican scholars Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau read Barrack Obama as embodying what they term “a Poetics of Relation.” For them, a Poetics of Relation signals “the pleasure of seeking and finding other places of encounter and decision-making, whenever the antiquated frameworks of old meetings have sufficiently displayed their uselessness” (76-77).

Glissant and Chamoiseau remind us that beyond all the optimistic expectations that attended the prospect of an Obama presidency — a change in US foreign policy and the improvement of the condition of Blacks and other minorities, among others — and regardless of the potential erosion of these expectations in the actual exercise of power, one fact remains: Obama is the “miraculous, embodied result of a process hitherto ignored by the various modes of public opinion and global consciousness: the creolisation of modern societies in opposition to the traditional pressures of ethnic, racial, religious and statist exclusivity of the communities presently known to the world” (69).

Yet, Glissant and Chamoiseau simultaneously sound a cautionary note against expecting a sudden end to the problem of racism. Drawing comparisons to the case of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, they remind us that

a black man at the head of the greatest world power  (a precious symbol) will not magically change either the condition of Blacks in the United States or the immediate condition of the peoples controlled by capitalist regulations and Western standards. In your [Obama’s] case, as in Mr. Mandela’s case, a symbol is of capital importance not because it can change things directly, but because it enables a greatly intensified designation of everything that has been and continues to be intolerable and pathological in human relations, whenever they form themselves into collective entities (74).

Shailja Patel’s “Jacaranda Time” offers a blend of what can be termed autobio-fiction-poetry, in a reflection on the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya. Patel’s piece is both an autobiographical lament at the greed for power that unleashed bloodshed in Kenya and a tribute to the various Kenyans who mobilised together and offered whatever resources they could to save their country. The piece is a reflexive auto-biographical essay interspersed with Patel’s provocative poetry. On his part, her compatriot, novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, offers a delightful allegorical tale titled “A Pan-African Flight” — a fascinating blend of oral literature and modern technology. The story is in some ways a tribute to a Pan-African range of iconic places and histories both on the continent and in the Diasporas.  Similarly, André Naffis-Sahely’s contribution, titled “Fables” is, as the title suggests, a collection of African fables with interesting twists and turns.

With over 25 contributions, it is difficult to do justice to this collection in a short review. Ironically, the collection’s eclectic mix of genres, voices and views, is both its core strength and its potential shortfall. The blend of perspectives and genres means that most readers will find something delightful in this collection; yet this eclecticism also lends the collection a certain unevenness which can be jarring. Then again, it is precisely in this way that the volume mirrors Africa’s textured cultural and political landscape.

Ultimately, Imagine Africa is a compelling invitation, in Breytenbach’s words, to reflect on the creative topography of Africa in its diversity and resilience; as we grapple with Countee Cullen’s question: “What is Africa to me?”

* Imagine Africa is available from Protea Bookshop in Stellenbosch. Alternatively, you can contact to get hold of a copy.



Thank you for this fine review, Grace Musila. Not only because you say interesting and thought-provoking things about the contents of the volume, but – more importantly – because you engage with the process and take possession of the vast subject. (Which does not mean that you need to refrain from being critical where you disagree!) This was exactly the intention of the project: to stake out the need for large and multiple forms of engagement through a host of disciplines and approaches – with the one burning and urgent and beautiful but also terrible hugeness in mind of Africa.
I know distribution is practically non-existent (we need money, a network, a ‘system’), but I hope others will follow your example and look at this thing seriously – be it to dismiss, discard or take it further.
A small correction: it was very much a ‘collective’ editing – a joining of enthusiasm, competence (some), and dreaming. And it could not have come about without the generous trust of the contributors.