by Lewis Nkosi
reviewed by Ben Oswest
At one of their halts (August 18), the expedition left behind: the ashes of the night fire… the leg bones of a springbok… Fecal matter, blood, pus… Semen (all).
- JM Coetzee, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee”, Dusklands
Despite Africa’s large, often unrecognised, literary wealth (its robust oral traditions; its poetry and proverbs; ancient writings like the Timbuktu Manuscripts; the more recent tradition of fine playwrights and novelists), African “master texts” are few and far between. For writing in the West, the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and others supply a vast, rich - and tamed - metaphorical space for new works to resound in, their own meanings amplified by echoes from the past. Modern African literature enjoys no such milieu - but what Africa lacks in great texts, it makes up for with a powerfully symbolic pantheon of great men, the continent’s liberators, who loom so large in the popular imagination that they are themselves like great texts, their lives of struggle and triumph echoing with as much force here as, say, The Odyssey in imagined Europe.
This would explain autobiography’s prominence in contemporary African literature: the need for the great men’s lives to be made into books underscores a larger project of making independence permanent, of bolting the fact of liberation securely down into world history. In effect, then, the autobiographies of great men stand in as Africa’s master texts - and among them none can be accounted more weighty, more foundational, than Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.