About this writer
A Transition from ¨Tales by Moonlight¨ to Literacy …
What is a writer’s value if they are born in a country where the people hardly read? This is the question African writers have faced since Africa’s decolonization. Being aware that African cultures function around the narratives of oral literatures and those who are literate do not necessarily live their lives as readers after receiving their certification for formal education makes any argument about adopting compulsory literate cultures a matter of political and intellectual controversy.
Culturally, Africans have this flawed notion that culture is culture, it is part of tradition, heritage and legacy of ancestral inheritance and has to be maintained the way it was bestowed from generation to generation. Consequently, African scholars have invested academic energy in defense of the status quo of African cultural beliefs. However it has to be pointed out that the authors who specialize in the intellectual self-justification of African culture had to attain the required literate education and credibility to argue in text, to defend African oral cultures in writing. Hence it is a contradiction, using literacy to defend orality as a culture. If non-literate cultures are self-sufficient, why do we need text to defend their validity?
The point of this essay is to present the case for a literary revolution in African cultural thinking. Inherited cultures that function on non-literate communication devices are no longer self-sustainable in the face of modernity and globalization, hence the need to make the radical transition from orality to literacy. This will set in motion the intellectual and creative mental processes within the African brain for a scientific and technological revolution.
African societies are in dire need of socio-cultural transformation to enable the continent to become a participating and contributing member of the global economy through technological advancement, architectural innovation, infrastructural development, scientific and medical progress and the transformation of its natural resources into consumable products towards the creation of wealth. This process of socio-economic change can only take place if African societies embark on an effort to adopt literate cultures whereby reading and writing become part of the social construct of human existence. For this reason the role of the African writer in every genre is more important than ever. The writings of African leaders, intellectuals, scientists, entrepreneurs, journalists, academics and the (auto)biographers must be published, so that their experiences and knowledge can be the public. Hence, without the existence of reading communities whereby social culture is defined by reading and writing, no matter how many books African writers publish, it will not have the required socio-cultural impact to transform our African way of life.
As the developed world reads and emerging economies make the rapid transition from oral cultures to literacy and writers are writing in their countries where they are appreciated, supported and published, African writers have to rely on Western literary agents and publishing houses to have their works published. Besides, African writers are mostly read by non-Africans or Africans who live in the Diaspora. If Africa’s condition is to change, Africans must make the internal transformational effort to become knowledgeable through reading, adopting literate cultures by embracing the values of reading and writing as a way of changing and improving their socio-economic and political circumstances. Literacy equips the mind and provides the mental strategies to liberate a people from historic servitude and socio-economic slavery.
One always wonders what Africa would be today if its post-colonial founding leaders were illiterate. What if Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Senghor, Azikuwe, Nyerere, Kaunda, Annan, Tutu or Mandela, etc, never had the opportunity to go to school and remained illiterate? Just imagine if we who are literate today never received formal education. What will our lives be but a reflection of what Nkrumah described as being in a state of nature? As Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) the English philosopher pointed out in his treaties on society and human nature that, without the civilizing influences of learning and a social contract based good governance, society would live:
¨consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them…. In such condition there is no place for industry… no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Leviathan, 1651, pp.62)
Obviously, majority of the problems Africa faces have their roots in cultures that are illiterate, tribal, parochial and the existence of a semi-literate population who only went to school to pass exams in order to look for non-existing jobs. So many Ghanaians today have become unemployed graduates. But the truth which most people are ignoring is that fact that certification is not necessarily education. The best education in when the student becomes a self-motivated reader/writer, adoptable to change, progressive, innovative, self-reliant, imaginative creator of opportunities for themselves and for their country. To be able to invent new technologies, build industries, discover scientific laws of the universe, to transform thoughts into things, expand and use their imagination, enlightened, entrepreneurial, leaders in their own right in whichever profession they pursue on the pathway into the future.
Consequently, we have to wonder what would the world be if writing and reading were never invented and the great philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, playwrights, intellectuals, physicists, thinkers, artists, journalists, critics, biographers, astrologists, travel-writers, great leaders and captains of industry never wrote their thoughts and discoveries down to share their experiences or ideas through the medium of text. In this regard, Africa’s intellectual leadership, economic, technological and cultural limitations and underdevelopment are a reflection of the limitations of a culture that is defined by talking, utterances, sayings and oral discourses that are based on inherited narratives from the past. Oral culture despite its richness in its communicative devices, oratorical nuances, proverbial sayings, etc are limited to their ethnic association or group identities from which particular oral cultures emanate and evolved over a sustained period of time.
Africa must now face the reality that the future of the continent can no longer be defined by oral and traditional cultures alone, but by literate cultures based on the technology of the written word. Africa must liberate itself from illiterate and ethnic-based cultures and adopt literate cultures that are expansive in consciousness, modern, national, continental and universal in outlook. Therefore, despite the arguments towards the 2012 elections over “Free SHS” or the constitutional provision of “universal education” when the country can afford it does not dismiss the truth that illiteracy is Ghana’s biggest problem. Ghanaians must be encouraged to read for knowledge, pleasure, self-improvement and enlightenment, universal cultural awareness, intellectual advancement, improve intelligence towards the development of mental independence. Without that African countries shall remain at war, trapped in poverty, exploited and filthy without the required socio-cultural and economic infrastructure needed to advance and fulfill the promises of democracy and independence.
African writers of all genres have to write with the ultimate objective of making sure that Africans read their works, to acquire and share knowledge, insight, foresight, and awaken the consciousness of the race to the importance of reading, research and the task of self-redefinition, geared towards a defined future and not the nostalgic past. To be truly literate is to be liberated, conscious, enlightened and aware. Through deliberate reading of African and world literatures, Africans will be able to transform their lives from the state of nature to the process of self-improvement to attain the goal of self-actualization as responsible, civilized and developed citizens of the modern world.
Kabu Okai-Davies, PhD, novelist, playwright and poet
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