Many African countries have recently found themselves in the news, making headlines — not for resolving any essential social problem but for responding to derogatory remarks on some ‘backward’ countries attributed to the United States.
Africa was particularly on the defensive, crying ‘racism’ and above all a pledge not to take this presidential insult lightly. The argument goes on. But this was not the first time Africa particularly responded to such remarks that generated outrage. On other occasions, these ‘negative references’ to Africa were in the forms of essays or novels. Some novels distinctly standout in this league. At a point in time, many African writers claimed they started writing or they have been writing to ‘fight back’ such references. One can also rightly say, perpetually Africa has been on the defensive.
One of the major works that triggered defensive sentiments was Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece ‘Heart of Darkness’ which on many occasions great Chinua Achebe made reference to as one of the symbols of fictional attack on Africa — an attempt to paint the continent ‘black.’ Although many critics say Conrad, with that novel, was criticizing imperialism, still more see his work as another form of imperial response to the plight of colonized and exploited Africa.
Published in 1979, ‘A Bend in the River’ is one of the outstanding works of VS Naipaul that endlessly attracted praise and criticism — almost in equal measure. Many writers, including Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Edward Said, and later Kiran Desai, and Chimamanda Adichie were fierce in their condemnation of what they see as a novel aimed at glorifying colonialism, while making those colonised appear as people who should be grateful for being put through rough course of imperialism. Of course, many others were full of praise for this novel through which many had their first impression of Africa. A reading of this novel will definitely leave one with a negative impression of Africa. But it will also leave one with some hard to beat truths on Africa; the size of corruption, the pettiness of leaders, the low expectations, tribal and ethnic sentiments, etc.
These negative tendencies are not peculiar only to Africa, infact every continent has its own fair share of these toxic tendencies that keep a society backward. At some points even African writers engaged these issues in fiction. Ngugi wa Thing’o’s “Wizard of the Crow” is about a kleptocratic leader of a fictional African country whose ego and amazing greed wrecked a whole nation and rendered everything hopeless. Ngugi was not the only writer who faced African realities of backwardness. Younger writers chasing fame were often accused of indulging in ‘poverty porn’; the kind of fiction that confirm anxieties and impressions of Africa as a backward continent.
Since fiction is largely a reflection of reality, it is difficult to build a different reality of Africa that contradicts the realities.