It was a momentous occasion to tell stories; to remind the audience that Africans should live their lives totally immersed in their stories, using fiction as a platform to overcome the world. This was what Chima Anyadike, a Professor of Literature in English delivered in his inaugural lecture at the Obafemi Awolowo University, (OAU) Ile-Ife last week, titled – Living our Lives in Africa: Fiction, fictionality and the Wisdom of Uncertainty. Edozie Udeze was there.
It is often said that the voice of the artist is the voice of the people. It is so because an artist represents the ideals of the society. He is the one who recreates the society through his works – story-telling tradition, drawing, singing, dancing, acting and more – in diverse ways and forms. It then becomes relevant when a teacher of literature draws his theme around the literary theory of prose fiction as the repository of a people and what they stand for.
In his inaugural lecture series 320 held at the Obafemi Awolowo University, (OAU), Ile-Ife, Osun State, last week, Professor Chima Anyadike of the Department of English, carefully built the theme of his lecture around – Living our Stories in Africa: Fiction, Fictionality, and the Wisdom of Uncertainty. It was a theme that opened people’s eyes to the binding principles of story telling as Africa’s greatest weapon to square it up against the rest of the world. But this tradition has to be kept alive; it has to be constantly maintained and upheld not only by scholars and custodians of traditions, but also by all individuals so that the next generations of Africans do not miss this important segment of their lives.
The likes of Professors Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have used story-telling traditions to conquer the world. To them and others of African descent, fiction functions to give the people ideas of who they are especially long before the advent of Western incursion into the African societies. Anyadike who has taught literary theory and prose fiction to generations of students and scholars across the globe did not mince words when he said: “Our individual and collective lives of Africa today are shaped in significant ways; not just by the nature of our natural and social environments but also the actions resulting from the stories we tell ourselves and the ones told or written by others about us and our continent. Wherever these stories originate from – gossip, folktale, history, newspaper or social media, writers of fiction; their effects on us depend on how our minds have been trained to recognize and appreciate the distinction between stories that enhance our reverence for all human life through pleasurable entertainment and those that carry with them infectious germs of prejudice, hate and exclusion”.
In all these, Anyadike maintained that, “What is indisputable is that human beings create, read and listen to stories which in one way or the other, help to direct the course of their lives”. But how does one then stay in the comfort of his home or in the cozy atmosphere of his office to create these stories that he hopes would touch or effect the desired change in the society?
In any event, it has been proved over the years that story telling, its effects generally, act as a therapy for the sick. “Yes”, Anyadike confirmed, “the fact that I work hard trying to impress upon many simple minds I encounter every day, in the classrooms and elsewhere, the necessity, for their complete wellbeing, that they acquire through the reading and study of stories from diverse minds and cultures, an attitude of mind that creatively responds to the complexity and diversity of human situations. This is believing and acting as if the single story through which we see the world, however adequate we find it is the only one for all mankind in all cultures for all time, limits our development and makes us full of prejudices and unhappiness”.
That shows clearly that the more “we read well made stories from a variety of sources and cultures, the more we realize that as important as the comforts of technical civilization, good jobs and healthy environments are, it is from good stories we may learn how to successfully free our minds from powerful impositions and oppressive relationships and cope with problems created by greed, dishonesty, jealousy, religious and social prejudices and broken hearts”.
Drawing from his wide experiences of over thirty years as a literature scholar and researcher, Anyadike made it clear that he has been able to redraw people’s attention to those salient cultural elements that make them who they are. As an Achebe scholar and a strong believer in the potent powerful impacts of prose fiction, Anyadike inculcates in people these positive ideas of cultural identities that help them to live well and try to develop themselves more meaningfully. Africans needn’t be told their stories by outsiders, or live with the obnoxious notion that theirs is an inferior culture or origin. Here, therefore, comes the function of fiction, using the wisdom of the past to connect the future even when those ideals of uncertainty seem to stand in the way of moving forward. This is why all his teaching life, Anyadike has been using the literature of the colonisation of Africa to point ways in which myriad of societal problems can be solved.
Africa, fiction and fictionality
“It is often said that the major problems facing Africa are poverty, disease and ignorance. One way of understanding why these problems are not being seriously tackled as is done in other places may be through a consideration of how African traditional conceptions about how to improve lives on earth through the powerful imagination of a relationship between the living, the dead and the unborn, was replaced by the fearful conceptions of last judgement, heaven and hell. . . Thus, the body of work in which African stories are told constitutes the laboratory for me and my students and is scattered among novels, novellas, short stories, science fiction, literary and online magazines and blogs, film and drama scripts”. In Africa, as it is in Nigeria, the story-teller, the writer and the teacher of literary prose falls within this range. But to make it more beneficial to the people, it is more imperative to be mindful of the local languages. As much as this approach or medium is appropriate, Anyadike nonetheless averred, that literature can be conveyed in any language that can be well-grasped by the people. “Writers of literary fiction, our main subject matter in this lecture, will continue to imagine different ways of handling them for different times and cultures and in addition to their love of story telling, must possess consummate skills in the use of language and an eclectic knowledge of the conventions of narrative fiction acquired from in-depth and wide reading of fiction from cultures of the world”, he presented.
As a scholar well versed in the innate ideals of prose and its many therapeutic effects on the psyche of the people, Anyadike postulated that, in the course of time, in 1978, Achebe’s visit to the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), became a turning point in his literary worldview. His presence and the issues he presented promptly gingered in him that renewed zeal to continually dwell in the teaching of prose fiction as a way of life. Titled the Truth of Fiction, Achebe said: ‘What distinguishes beneficent fiction from such malignant cousins as racism (and men are superior to women) is that the first never forgets that it is fiction and the other never knows that it is”. This is why he uses the term “fictionality to refer to beneficent fiction’s never forgetting that it is fiction. My theory of the uses of fiction is that beneficent calls into full life, our total range of many faculties and gives a heightened sense of our personal and human reality”. It is important to note that in this theory, both the writer, through the careful artistry of the text and the reader, through close imaginative reading, work together to produce the power of fiction. Local stories told by our forebears therefore help to illustrate the wisdom or foolishness which inadvertently aid modern people to learn ways to live.
Anyadike’s strong belief in the importance of local stories in the powers of fiction were well elaborated in the multiple examples he gave with writers like Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Frantz Fanon, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Amah, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Amos Tutuola and numerous others whose stories have helped to open new vistas of hope for living our stories in Africa.
Even when Anyadike feels it is imperative to situate stories in local languages, he gave example of what Achebe postulated as the way out of the situation. He said, “This is not the moment to delve into the troublesome question of whether fiction written in foreign languages should be regarded as African fiction. The closest we have come to an acceptable answer is the adoption of Achebe’s view that both indigenous and foreign literatures should co-exist. Achebe himself, apart from the work on his novels, did not take a lot of serious measures to ensure that the indigenous languages grow in power as landlords not tenants in their own houses”.
However, Achebe uses genuine dialogue to establish authentic views and this helps to cement an equilibrium in his novels of Igbo traditional life. It helps to create a bond between English and Igbo Languages and worldview. But it will be difficult to see which language or languages to play up against the rest in a situation like Nigeria’s.
In this regard, Anyadike also solicits for the use of local languages in the education of the children. “We have made considerable progress in providing our children with stories in English”, he reflected, his attention focused on the audience. “However, their proficiency will continue to decline. Even now some educated parents encourage or demand that the teaching of indigenous languages be taken seriously in our primary and secondary schools…”
Whatever be the case, enough texts in the local languages have to be provided if these languages have to grow and prosper. Professor Wa Thiong’O has tried to do this almost all his writing life. Taking a deeper look into the depth of books provided and the number of authors produced by the University, Anyadike, notably one of the most liberal English scholars of his generation, gave credit to some of his teachers and colleagues who have contributed immensely towards his success.
He, nonetheless, poured encomiums on some of his students who have become great and renowned writers. “Today Ife has produced Biyi Bandele and others that are on the way. I am also happy that it is possible I made a little contribution towards the emergence on the world literary scene of Ayobami Adebayo Famurewa whose debut novel Stay With Me, is at the moment, making the rounds in all literary circles of the world in three different English editions and four other international languages. I supervised Ayobami’s work at both the undergraduate and post graduate levels. I think we will hear more from her. Sam Omatseye (author of My Name is Okoro, Crocodile Girl and more), Toyin Adewale, Ife Adeniyi were also my students and have written good works of fiction”.
In his opening remarks the vice Chancellor of OAU, Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede informed the mammoth crowd inside the Oduduwa Hall, “that here is a story-teller whose inaugural would be next to none. This inaugural is like stories, well-told stories, and it will be one of the best ever recorded in this campus” He went into a brief academic history of Anyadike who has been to all corners of the world preaching the gospel of fiction and the emancipation of the continent of Africa.
In the end, the large audience could not but agree with this profound story teller that Africans should live and tell their stories in all forms so as to raise the standard of wisdom of uncertainty in all sense of the word.