The language of African literature cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention, and a problem calling for a resolution.footnote On the one hand is, let us call a spade a spade, imperialism in its colonial and neo-colonial phases continuously pressganging the African hand to the plough to turn the soil over, and putting blinkers on him to make him view the path ahead only as determined for him by the master armed with bible and sword. In other words, Imperialism continues to control the economy, politics and cultures of Africa. But on the other hand, and pitted against it, are the ceaseless struggles of African people to liberate their economy, politics and culture from that Euroamerican-based stranglehold and to usher in a new era of truly communal self-regulation and self-determination. It is an ever-continuing struggle to seize back their creative initiative in history through a real control of all the means of communal self-definition in time and space. The choice of language and the use to which language is put are central to a people’s definition of itself in relation to its natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe. Hence language has always been at the heart of the two contending social forces in the Africa of the twentieth century.

The contention started a hundred years ago when the capitalist powers of Europe sat in Berlin and carved an entire continent with a multiplicity of peoples, cultures and languages into different colonies. It seems to be the fate of Africa to have her destiny always decided around conference tables in the metropolises of the western world: her emergence from self-governing communities into colonies was decided in Berlin; her more recent transition into neo-colonies along the same boundaries was negotiated around the same tables in London, Paris, Brussels and Lisbon. The Berlin-drawn division under which Africa is still living was obviously economic and political despite the claims of bible-wielding diplomats, but it was also cultural. Berlin in 1884 saw the division of Africa according to the different languages of the European powers. African countries, as colonies and even today as neo-colonies, came to be defined and to define themselves in terms of the languages of Europe: English, French or Portuguese-speaking African countries.

Unfortunately writers who should have been mapping paths out of that linguistic encirclement of their continent also came to be defined and to define themselves in terms of the languages of imperialist imposition. Even at their most radical and pro-African, in their sentiments and articulation of problems they still took it as axiomatic that the renaissance of African cultures lay in the languages of Europe. I should know!

In 1962 I was invited to that historic meeting of African writers at Makerere, Kampala, Uganda. The list of participants contained most of the names which have now become the subject of scholarly dissertations in universities all over the world. The title? ‘A Conference of African Writers of English Expression’.

I was then a student of English at Makerere, an overseas college of the University of London. The main attraction for me was the certain possibility of meeting Chinua Achebe. I had with me a rough typescript of a novel in progress, Weep Not Child, and I wanted him to read it. The year before, 1961, I had completed The River Between, my first ever attempt at a novel, and entered it for a writing competition organized by the East African Literature Bureau. I was keeping in step with the tradition started by Chinua Achebe with his publication of Things Fall Apart in 1959 or even earlier by Peter Abrahams with his output of novels and autobiographies from Path of Thunder to Tell Freedom, or the tradition started by their counterparts in French colonies, that is the generation of Sedar Senghor and David Diop included in the 1947/48 Paris edition of Anthologies de la Nouvelle Poésie Nẽgre et Malgache de Langue Française. They all wrote in European languages, as was the case with all the participants in that momentous encounter on Makerere hill in Kampala in 1962.

The title, A Conference of African Writers of English Expression, automatically excluded those who wrote in African languages. Now on looking back from the self-questioning heights of 1984, I can see this contained absurd anomalies. I, a student, could qualify for the meeting on the basis of only two published short stories, The Fig Tree (Mugumo) in the student journal Penpoint, and The Return in the new journal Transition. But Shabaan Roberts, then the greatest living East African poet writing in Kiswahili with several works of poetry and prose to his credit, or Chief Fagunwa, the great Nigerian writer with a number of titles published in Yoruba, could not possibly qualify.

The discussions on the novel, the short story, poetry and drama excluded the main body of work in Swahili, Zulu, Yoruba, Arabic, Amharic and other African languages. Yet, no sooner were the introductory preliminaries over than this conference of African Writers of English Expression sat down to the first item on the agenda: What is African Literature? The debate which followed was animated: was it literature about Africa or about the African experience? Was it literature written by Africans? What about a non-African who wrote about Africa: did his work qualify as African literature? What about an African who set his work in Greenland: did that qualify as African literature? Or were African languages the criteria? OK: what about Arabic, was it not foreign to Africa? What about French and English which had become African languages? What if a European wrote about Europe in an African language? If . . . If . . . If . . . this or that, except the issue: the domination of our languages and cultures by those of Imperialist Europe: in any case there was no Fagunwa or Shabaan Roberts or any writer in African languages to bring the conference down from the realm of evasive abstractions. The question was never seriously asked: did what we wrote qualify as African literature? The whole area of literature and audience, and hence of language as a determinant of both the national and class audience, did not really figure: the debate was more about the subject matter and the racial origins and geographic habitation of the writer.