by Donald Banks
At one time Christian literature with a strong European or American flavor was welcomed in African countries. Christianity was equated with education and progress, and its links with civilized” countries were an advantage.
At one time Christian literature with a strong European or American flavor was welcomed in African countries. Christianity was equated with education and progress, and its links with civilized" countries were an advantage. But with the growing influence of Islam, the resurgence of pagan religions, and the rise of nationalism, this is no longer the case. Christianity’s links with "imperialism" are now a disadvantage to the spread of the Gospel, and missions are now seeking to make the local church indigenous. They realize that Christianity should be seen as something truly African and universal, and not just as the white man’s religion. This means that Christian literature, too, has to have an African stamp if it is to be acceptable.
Christian literature in Africa needs to be genuinely African if it is to speak to the heart of the people. A tract entitled, "Cranberries and Cancer" was offered for distribution in Africa. This tract (which began "The cranberry scare, which caused so much alarm a few weeks ago . . .") is obviously slanted for American readership, and few Africans would even know what a cranberry is.
An article in a Nigerian daily newspaper dealt with this problem. "There are many events and words (peculiar to the U.S.) which are taken for granted by the sponsors, but which no one understands . . . . It’s no use assuming that a message broadcast to the U.S. audience, with its theme on U.S. Labor Day, can make any meaning to the ordinary Nigerian, who is not familiar with that event. The same speeches often mention places, or describe geographical areas in the speech – which the ordinary high school boy in the U.S. will understand, but which make no sense in Nigeria."
Yet many well-meaning people continue to send to Africa tracts written and designed for American readers, and they are surprised when they do not have maximum effectiveness.
The traditional method of making Christian literature African was for the writing to be done by missionaries who thought African. They had usually worked in Africa and among Africans for many years, and they wrote out of their long experience. Much excellent Christian literature was produced by these people, yet frequently something was missing. Often the missionary who most prided himself on thinking African was miles away from what the African was really thinking.
A need still exists for missionaries to write Christian literature for Africans, but it is diminishing. To give their works a strong African flavor, these non-African writers usually use an African name. The woman who wrote Ashanti Boy called herself "Akosua Abbs," typical Ghanaian name.
The other method is to use Christian African writers. This would seem to solve many problems, but still several difficulties exist.
There is a great shortage of Christian African writers, or of African Christians who can write. Training in writing has been lacking. There have been few writers’ workshops, and young Africans of ability have tended to turn their attention toward the ministry and evangelism. Associated with this, the Christian writer often lacks an outlet. Nothing is more disheartening for a writer than not to see his writing get into print. Most missions publish few new tracts, preferring to reprint those which experience has shown are most effective. (However, most missions are constantly on the lookout for potential African writers.)
The number of Christian magazines in Africa can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Many of these, like African Challenge, have their own African staff and rarely accept freelance work unless it has been commissioned. This is because many manuscripts submitted have been writen to propagate the writer’s pet theological idea. He has not studied the magazine to see the type of article used.
The newly-formed Africa Christian Press is hoping to provide an outlet for Christian Africanwriters, but it has encountered another difficulty. Many of the most promising writers have had a mission school education, or have been to a mission-run Bible seminary, or may even have attended school overseas. Their ways of thinking and writing have become Europeanized. They are almost as remote from the ordinary African taxi driver as the missionary is. Those who have been through Bible school have often acquired a magnificent collection of evangelical theological cliches of which they are tremendously proud. Coupled with a tendency to use long words, their writing would be almost unintelligible to many Americans, let alone most Africans.
Nor is it possible to take an article written by one of these young Africans, go into the street, stop a passerby, and ask him to underline every word be doesn’t understand. The ordinary African will seldom admit that he doesn’t know the meaning of a word. Or he may have heard the words, but will have little concept of what the overall sentence means.
Many of these difficulties can be overcome with time, training, patience, and much prayer. On the Sudan Interior Missions African Challenge, a staff of Africans has been built up who now do most of the writing. To insure that the magazine’s content is African and not foreign, an editorial planning conference meets every month. Here, subjects for future issues are discussed, ideas are bandied about, and eventually a pattern emerges of what is likely to be of interest to African readers. It was found essential, however, for considerably more Africans to be at these conferences than missionary staff. Otherwise, the Africans kept silent and the missionaries did the talking. One African put it like this: "I did not want to say anything in case I should show my ignorance." Unless the Africans can be encouraged to speak freely, foreign thinking finds its way into the planning.
In western Christian literature, Christ is presented as the answer to the white man’s questions. J. V. Taylor, writing in The Primal Vision, says:
Christ has been presented as the answer to the questions a white man would ask, the solution to the needs that Western man would feel, the object of adoration and prayer of historic Christendom. But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans were asking, what would He look like?
Africa Christian Press is trying to solve this problem by organizing discussion groups. A number of young Africans with writing potential are brought together to discuss a problem that concerns them. Nothing is written at initial stages. As the problem clarifies in their minds and they begin to sense a Christian answer, perhaps two of the group will write a draft as the basis of a possible booklet on the subject. This draft is then duplicated and sent to a number of critics, both foreign and African. When comments on the draft are received, the manuscript is again discussed, and probably rewritten. The hope is that the resultant booklet will be African both in its thinking and mode of expression.
This method has its difficulties. Many Africans were loath to be critical. The manuscript would be sent back with the comment, "It is very nice," or "The Lord blessed me through reading it." Sometimes there would be no comment at all. The critics had to be trained to be critical.
The long-term answer to the shortage of Christian writers is in mission and church schools. Students have to be made aware of the need for Christian African writers. They should be shown the possibility of their being able to meet this need, and also their Christian responsibility. They should be encouraged to be observant and to see the significance of things. Much mission teaching has tended to be dogmatic, and hence not conducive to original thinking or the production of writers. Students could be introduced to the habit of keeping a diary, and taught to jot down ideas forpossible articles.
So often the African sees study and schooling as valuable only to pass examinations. The teacher needs to create wider vision. The student should see his compositions as training for writing on a wider scale, writing that could be used for the glory of God and the salvation of men and women. Yet at the same time, the student should see that his writing need not always be on religious subjects. One young African gifted in writing approached his teacher and said, half-ashamedly, "I have had two articles printed in the Citizen." This teacher was "enlightened" enough to express her pleasure, though others, tragically, would have greeted the news with a frown and seen it as evidence of backsliding.
Another African with a mission background, a committed Christian, who has personal potential, admitted that he never read anything except Christian books. This is the extent of the reading of some missionaries and national pastors, and they would applaud such an attitude. But it is not the best way to develop good Christian writing.
FEATURES OF AFRICAN WRITING
African writing certainly shouldn’t be obsessed with mud huts and village life. Some secular African writers, like Chinua Achebe, delight to hark back to old African customs and tribal life. Achebe explains his preoccupation with the past by saying that a novelist cannot explore the human condition in depth unless he has a proper sense of history. What is certain is that the African novelist who wants his books to sell has to keep one eye on the European reader, and stories about tribal Africa are what the European reader wants. But this Africa is passing, and the Christian writer should generally avoid it. It has colonial and imperialistic overtones, and many literate Africans have little time for that former way of life. They want to cast off these customs as quickly as possible. They see the new Africa, the progressive Africa, the Africa of smart clothes, big cars, industry, world politics. Rev. David Olatayo, general secretary of the Evangelical Churches of West Africa, put it plainly when speaking at a Nigerian literature conference at Jos, Nigeria. "When Africa is portrayed in literature in comparison with other groups in the world, the white man will be dressed nicely and look smart, but when an African is presented he is lean and in rags, and this is not good. When an African is presented he should be presented as he is. We certainly know that we are backward and need development enough, but there are people in Africa who are well developed and we do not want to wash our dirty clothes in the marketplace."
Yet Christian writing has to draw illustrations from African life and African thinking. It has to make Christianity relevant to the African’s ordinary life. The young couple, for example, whose marriage is not blessed with children are subject to serious problems in Africa. Even in the city, the man will be encouraged to consult a JuJu man. He may be a Christian, but he will be under pressure from his family to take another wife in order to have children. This type of problem, and others like it, are not dealt with in books on Christian marriage published in America or Britain.
APPEARANCE OF THE LITERATURE
Christian literature needs to be African in appearance, but here again there are difficulties. If the cover shows an attractive young African woman in tribal dress and bare arms, this may be acceptable to the Yorubas from whom she may have come. If the magazine circulates in Kenya, it will be thrown down in disgust. The girl is a "bush" girl. In Kenya the arms are kept covered. An Ibo in Nigeria is unlikely to be particularly interested in a Yoruba girl and even less in a Hausa from the northern region. For this reason, it is often best to show Africans dressed in modest European clothing. This is acceptable in most places. The clothing is no longer regarded as European, but is as African as any other form of dress.
Names also present a problem to any publication having panAfrican circulation. A Nigerian would immediately recognize names like Achookwu, Chihcoke, Chukwualuka, and Muolookwu as Ibo names, but if he belongs to another tribe he has less interest in the publication.
The difficulties have led some people to say that it is impossible for Christian literature to be pan-African. It should be geared to Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, and so on, and not try to appeal to the whole continent. However, there is a basic agreement among Africans of different countries, and a remarkable degree of common thought. Many of their problems are similar. Apart from the economic advantages of wide circulation, the feeling of African solidarity is growing and is likely to become increasingly important. This makes it important that Christian literature should likewise try to have continent-wide appeal.
Few things stamp a book or article as distinctly African more than the English in which it is written. This raises an immediate problem. A publication like African Challenge is used in many schools as a model of standard English. Should Africanisms be edited out?
To do so would be to lose much in effectiveness. Mr. James Bolarin, the African managing editor of African Challenge, says: "We want the African to think it is an African speaking to an African."
African English is not "pidgin" English. African English has been described as the English language slightly distorted, like something seen through water. The effect of this can be beautiful.
Achebe, the writer mentioned earlier, touched on this subject in a lecture to the Nigerian Library Association. He saw African English as a "pushing back" of the limits of conventional English to describe situations and modes of thought that have no direct equivalent in English life.
He went on: "But it can get out of hand. It can lead to bad English being accepted and defended as African or Nigerian. I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thoughtpatterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence."
Though African English may come from innocence rather than mastery, provided it is grammatical and clear, a case can be made for its use in Christian literature. It will speak to the heart of the African reader more directly than conventional English. Just as the American people have made English distinctly American, so the African people are moving toward their own development of language.
African writers from French-speaking parts of the continent do not readily admit to similar problems. They feel that French is their language, and not a second language at all. They are proud of French and believe it can adequately express the African personality.
Yet it might be asked: "Why not write in the vernacular? Why not write in Yoruba, Hausa, and so on?" Much Christian literature is put out in these languages, and these publications have been greatly used. But although English is still a second language to most Africans, it is English that is taught in the schools. English is the language of the government and of the national newspapers. The writer who wants to speak to the nation, who wants his message to cut across tribe or clan, must use English.
Facing these problems realistically, missionaries today can make a fresh start toward the production of indigenous African literature-literature that will speak from the African heart that has been won to Christ, and that will speak to the hearts of fellow Africans with the ring of spiritual reality expressed in contemporary idiom.
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