Sankofa and the Afterlives of Makerere

December 13, 2021   •   By Panashe Chigumadzi

ON THE EVE of African decolonization in 1962, writers and critics gathered at Makerere University for the Conference of African Writers of English Expression. The first item on the agenda for the conference was overwhelming, almost designed to start an argument: “What is African literature?”

In his post-conference write-up, “A Kenyan at the Conference,” a young Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o captured the gathering’s excitement when he concluded, “With the death of colonialism, a new society is being born. And with it a new literature.” But the conference didn’t produce a singular definition of this new literature, and in the more than half century since Makerere, the question continues to generate many important debates, including the “language question.” Ngũgĩ later emerged as a key advocate for writing in African languages, famously making the case in his seminal 1986 treatise, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, that “African literature can only be written in African languages.”

On the eve of Makerere’s 60th anniversary, Ngũgĩ’s son, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, a scholar, writer, and activist of the next generation, appears to be moved by the historical spirit of Sankofa — the Akan and Twi philosophy which calls on us “to recover from the past what is good and bring it into the present.” He goes in search of the late 19th-century African-language literary ancestors who preceded those English proponents at Makerere, envisioning African literary futures free from Makerere’s linguistic specters.

In what has become a landmark text, The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership, Mũkoma examines “the rise — and cost — of the African novel in English,” arguing that the paradigm set forth by the Makerere generation has led to “a major crisis in African literary criticism.” Taking on his father’s mantle as he rails against the perpetuation of the “English metaphysical empire,” Mũkoma examines the consequences of the Makerere generation, who “cemented the idea that African writing, Pan-African writing that is, ought to be in English.”

Crucially, The Rise of the African Novel is the first work of literary criticism to situate South Africa’s African-language literatures beginning in the 1880s through the early 1940s as the true ancestor of the Makerere generation’s decolonization literatures and the contemporary generation of established and emerging continental and diasporic African writers.

Here, I wager: a historical imagination of African literature that truly embodies what I call “Sankofa dialectics” demands that we free ourselves from the tyranny of Roman script wrought by late colonialism and the attendant myth that there are no prior traditions of written African literatures prior to European intrusion. If there is already an emergent field of “Early African Literatures,” as advocated by the likes of Wendy Laura Belcher working on Ethiopia’s centuries-old Geʽez literatures, then our African literary archive must include the centuries-old Ajami literary traditions of African languages written in enriched forms of Arabic script. These African literatures find their genesis in the rise of medieval African empires, such as Songhay, and continue with the spread of literacy through West and East Africa’s indigenous Islamic intellectual traditions. In South Africa, where a (whitewashed) Afrikaans came to be understood as the language of apartheid, its black textual roots can be traced back to the early 19th-century Cape Colony where enslaved Muslim Malays wrote some of the first documents of Afrikaans in Ajami, locally called “Arabic Afrikaans.” Our expansive African literary imagination, then, requires new periodization: ancient, medieval (circa sixth to 15th centuries), early modern African (circa 16th to mid-19th centuries), and modern (mid-19th century onward).

As Mũkoma examines shifts within the modern African literary tradition, he looks at the consequences of this literary amnesia, taking African writers and their Western publishers to task for the ways in which they are currently creating and canonizing the “African political novel.” He revisits the publication of Amos Tutuola’s fantastical novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1954), famously disparaged by many of the Makerere generation. Tutuola’s editors at Faber and Faber exploited his poor command of English to foreground his “nativeness” and in so doing heighten the anthropological appeal of his novels to a Western readership. While paying respect to the Makerere writers, Mũkoma declares his text a “call for an African literary criticism and tradition that embraces its history of writing in African languages and for a broader African identity that is historically diasporic and presently transnational.”

Mũkoma is not alone in raising the specter of what I call the “Afterlives of Makerere.” Students of African literatures would do well to read Mũkoma’s criticism alongside the powerful missive launched by Cassava Republic’s founding publisher, Dr. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, during her keynote address at the 2018 Abantu Book Festival in Soweto, South Africa: In “Archival Fever,” Bakare-Yusuf takes on what she calls the “Makerere Brotherhood” and goes further than questioning the dominance of European languages in African literatures. She challenges their masculinist and realist traditions. Mũkoma certainly does correct some of the Makerere Brotherhood’s slights of their female peers — citing the contributions of Grace Ogot (one of the Makerere Conference’s two, often unmentioned female participants) and Ama Ata Aidoo — but he does not go as far as Bakare-Yusuf. The Rise of the African Novel’s linguistic indictment of Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard would certainly be complicated by the ways both Bakare-Yusuf and novelist Unathi Slasha, reflecting on contemporary black South African writing, hold Tutoula as the ancestral exemplar for contemporary African authors whom they see as imaginatively constrained by the realist paradigm that Makerere entrenched.

In rallying to correct what he calls “the misreading of African literature,” Mũkoma makes the case that translation from indigenous languages is the most viable route to realizing his father’s linguistic dreams. After all, Ngũgĩ declared, “Translation is the common language of all languages.” Mũkoma thus points to literary prizes for writing in African languages, such as the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, which he co-founded, and Jalada Africa’s historic 2016 Translation Issue, containing what has become the most translated African-language story: Ngũgĩ’s previously unpublished Gikuyu piece, “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ,” (in English, “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright”). It now appears in 100 languages.

In the Sankofa dialectic typical of his and his father’s intergenerational praxis, Mũkoma suggests that African literary scholars should look back to the rooted transnationalism put forth in Ngũgĩ’s Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012). Drawing on his 2010 Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory, Ngũgĩ revisits the linguistic activism first begun in his Makerere years and inflects it with wide-ranging international influences, including Goethe’s transnationalism, Marx’s cosmopolitanism, Spivak’s planetary, and Glissant’s poetics of relation to launch a global call for the democratization of old linguistic hierarchies in world literatures. Ngũgĩ defines globalectics as the embrace of “wholeness, interconnectedness, equality of potentiality of parts, tension, and motion.” His aim is to launch a visionary new conception of global ethics and literary aesthetics that can reintegrate a world fractured by the historic violence of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and their current afterlives.

Ngũgĩ reflects on an academic moment in which “poor theory once produced a literature revolution at the University of Nairobi in the sixties” that would have a global influence on the birth of postcolonial studies. Importantly, this revolutionary moment was a blow against “intellectual self-enclosure” in national, cultural, and linguistic silos. Critically for Ngũgĩ, achieving this globalectics is only possible through the global mourning for all victims of historic horrors, particularly the oft-forgotten victims of colonialism and slavery, including the many who lost their lives in “Britain’s gulag” during Kenya’s Mau Mau Uprisings. Invoking the prophetic role of the griot, Ngũgĩ strives to dream the future into being by calling on the past. Future global unity is possible through remembering the past’s broken body.

Writing decades after Makerere, the vitality of Ngũgĩ’s intellectual output lies in his rootedness in a Sankofa dialectic — advancing into new domains by committing to an intergenerational and internationalist ethic. Indeed, the former is explicitly confirmed in his acknowledgments, where he thanks his son Mũkoma for “feeding me useful suggestions for readings and ways of approaching my subject.”

Together, Ngũgĩ and Mũkoma — father and son, creative-critics and artist-intellectuals, located in different times and spaces, both concerned with the interplay of the past, present, and future, and the local and global — offer an exciting model of Sankofa dialectics, forging an African historical imagination of the future free of Makerere’s specters.


Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of These Bones Will Rise Again (Indigo Press 2018), which was shortlisted for the 2019 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction. Her debut novel, Sweet Medicine (Blackbird Books, 2015), won the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award.