In the same way that the Makerere Writers’ Conference of 1962, convened under the now unfortunate banner, “African Writers of English Expression,” came to mark a watershed moment in the African literary tradition, so too will Jalada’s digital tower of babel be a watershed.
The Makerere generation was composed of writers in their twenties and thirties who understood themselves as having a mission to contribute to decolonization. The Jalada Collective that produces Jalada Africa is composed of young writers: Moses Kilolo, the Managing Editor, Novuyo Tshuma the Deputy Editor, the Treasurer, Ndinda Kioko and other writer administrators are in their 20s and early 30s. Amongst many others, writer members of the collective include the 2013 Caine Prize Winner Okwiri Odour, the brilliant Mehul Gohil, featured in the anthology Africa 39: New writing from Africa South Sahara, and the gifted poet Clifton Gachugua, whose first collection of poetry, The Madman at Kilifi (University of Nebraska Press in 2014) won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. These are the future carriers of the African literary tradition. They have undertaken the mission to create democratic spaces for African literatures and languages, and, through the Internet, created a Pan-African collective of readers, publishers, critics and writers and translators.
Translation between African languages has yet to be practiced and theorized into critical and popular acceptance. Jalada is undertaking both theory and practice, and saying that African languages can talk with each other. Their call and answer sends out a challenge to writers, scholars and publishers who see African languages in the service of the more-useful English. Or conversely, who understand translation as most desirable when coming from superior European languages into anemic African languages desperately in need of anglo-aesthetics transfusion.
Jalada is part of a larger language awakening. In February of 2015, Ankara Press, a Cassava Republic Press romance imprint, produced a Valentine’s Day Anthology. The anthology featured romance stories originally written in English and then translated into the author’s mother tongue. The anthology was digital and free to download. At the same time, both the original and the translations were read aloud by the writers themselves or others and the recordings made available along with the stories online. As the editors explained in their introduction, the valentine’s anthology was “a much truer representation of romance in Africa as we can hear and see what romancing in different languages might sound like and mean.”
Also capturing the shift from an English-only consensus to a multiple-languages debate, the 2015 Kwani’s literary festival titled, “Beyond the Map of English: Writers in conversation on Language” centered and celebrated the language debate. It was at the 2015 Kwani literary festival that prizes for the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature were awarded. Scholar and writer Prof. Boubacar Boris Diop in Senegal has started an imprint, Ceytu, dedicated to the translation of seminal works by Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire and others into Wolof. In 2013, Chike Jeffers edited an anthology of philosophical texts originally written in seven African languages and then translated into English. And Wangui Wa Goro, who translated Ngugi’s Matigari from Gikuyu into English in 1982, has done a lot of work to make African literary translation viable and visible.
There is a lot more being done, but the African language awakening amongst post-Makerere writers still has a long way to go before it can claim a democratized language space. Indeed in setting up the $15,000 Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, Dr. Lizzy Attree and I were immediately confronted by the absence of structures that are simply taken for granted when it comes to English language writing. Most, if not all, colleges in the US for example have a literary journal for undergraduate and graduate students. English and other literary departments have top or second-tier literary journals (not to speak of academic university presses). States and cities have their own regional prizes and hundreds of writer residencies compete for prestige. Yes, in the United States, as literary critics have pointed out, books in translation are not popular. And writers in the US do not have it easy, but they do have a roadmap.
Consider this, the US has a population of 320 million. For Kiswahili, with over 400 millions speakers, literary prizes are not more than five. I do not know of a single journal devoted to literary criticism in an African language. Or any writer residencies that encourage writing in African languages. The point is, given a population that will soon reach 1 billion people spread out in 55 countries, even a hundred African language centered journals and literary prizes would still be pitifully inadequate. African literature needs a lot more of everything.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the author of the novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, argued in a 2010 New York Times op-ed titled “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse” that because Ngugi wrote in an African language, he should not be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She wrote, “I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.” To make the argument that languages creates “tribal differences” sounds so asinine in light of Jalada’s translation issue. As Jalada Africa shows, A thousand African languages, a thousand opportunities to make literary history.
In translation, there are no indigenous, vernacular, native, local, ethnic, and tribal languages producing vernacular, native, local, ethnic, and tribal literatures while English and French produce world and global literature. There are only languages and literatures.
*Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and author of Mrs. Shaw and the forthcoming poetry collection Logotherapy. He is currently writing a book, The Rise of the African Novel, in which he looks at English and African Writing. www.mukomawangugi.com
This article was first published by Africa is a Country and is republished here with the authors permission.