Before now, writing and poetry were seen as the depth of the soul. They were considered to be ways, generations are fostered and histories archived. However, In Africa today, the political influence of writers has greatly diminished, with different kinds of artists starting to take their place.
Africa’s great artists and leaders often overlapped. Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Agostinho Neto of Angola, for example, were all poets and writers as well as founding presidents.
Similarly, the novelist Chinua Achebe led Biafra’s diplomatic front in the war in the late-1960s. The playwright and poet Wole Soyinka has been one of successive Nigerian governments’ most vocal critics and once founded a new political party. Ama Ata Aidoo served as Education Minister in Ghana. Ken Saro-Wiwa led the Ogoni struggle in the 1990s in the Niger Delta. And Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s outspoken political activism led to him being jailed in 1970s Kenya.
Renowned author Timothy Wangusa was an MP, Education Minister, and is now a presidential adviser. And Mary Busingye Karooro, who founded the Association of Uganda Women Writers (FEMRITE) in 1995, has been a member of parliament since 2004 and served in several senior cabinet positions.
The illustrious list is long. But looking across it, it’s quickly apparent that all these individuals are either fast-approaching retirement or have passed away. It is difficult to find any of today’s generation of writers with nearly the same political influence as their forbearers.
How did creative writers lose political influence?
In the 1960s and 1970s, state publishing was thriving thanks to the East African Literature Bureau, which ensured audiences were served by local writers in both English and indigenous languages. This was complemented by the African Writers Series of Heinemann Educational Publishers, which, besides their main target market of schools and universities, also produced work for the general public.
Over time, however, the state publishing model has disappeared and publishing has fallen into the hands of the market.
This situation has particularly affected indigenous language publishing, which has greatly declined. Whereas the likes of P’Bitek made sure to publish in their local languages, many contemporary Ugandan writers publish exclusively in English. The literary and cultural infrastructure that produces the critical acclaim today is also decidedly Anglophone and typically controlled from outside the country’s borders. The many prizes that have been lauded on Uganda’s authors, for instance, are mostly limited to works composed in English.
While there may be advantages to writing in a language spoken so widely across the world, English is not Uganda’s lingua franca. It may be the official language and the one used in the education system, but it is not the language in which business is conducted or through which voters interact with their leaders.
Political influence is about followership, and followers will not be attracted to people they do not know or to artists whose work they cannot access or be inspired by.