NDERITU: Arise! African writers tell stories from South Sudan

Sunday November 10 2019

South Sudan books

A handout photo by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) shows former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (left) interacting with children of the Hope Primary School at Protection of Civilians (PoC) in Juba, on February 25, 2016. PHOTO | JC MCILWAINE | AFP 

ALICE WAIRIMU NDERITU
By ALICE WAIRIMU NDERITU
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The peace deal in South Sudan is at a halt, again, with the country’s main opposition calling for a six-month delay in the formation of a united government. This, after months and months of talks and broken ceasefires. It’s difficult to believe this back and forth as people have lost lives since 2013.

Last week, German writers discussed the impact of a momentous event on their personal lives. The event, that happened 30 years ago, was the fall of the concrete wall dividing East and West Germany.

In South Sudan, we hear of the war from political pronouncements, within the context of failing peace agreements. Where are the personal stories of the South Sudanese?

Although there are many creative writers in South Sudan, few are published, denying the world an opportunity to know the story of ordinary people.

When people quote the fallacy based on an unqualified generalisation “Africans do not read” I tell them about a dialogue meeting of political rivals we had in Nigeria.

Such meetings are initially characterised by hesitancy, sizing each other up and pauses pregnant with the fear of someone saying something that could throw the dialogue into disarray before it even begins.

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Someone mentioned their side had “an ear to the ground” on the political happenings.

A person from the opposing political side said, that’s the title of a novel by James Hadley Chase. We broke into nervous laughter until another person said ‘Believe this...You’ll believe anything’, another chipped in ‘The way the Cookie Crumbles’, ‘Strictly for Cash’, on and on we went naming titles by Chase.

We then proceeded to remember scenes from books by Senegal’s Mariama Ba, Cameroon’s Mongo Beti, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nigerian greats Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, Ghana’s AMA Ata Aidoo and Ayi Kwei Armah.

We exchanged views on current reading—Lola Shoneyin, Chinamanda, and marvelled on our so similar diet of novels in both Kenya and Nigeria.

Our past reading habits were also similar, we realised, books then as now were expensive, rare, luxuries. None of us remembered ever reading a new book in our childhood.

Books were borrowed and reborrowed, much in the same way one often sees people hanging around a newspaper vendor in many African towns, waiting for someone to buy a newspaper.

As soon as one person buys then individual sheets are “borrowed” and exchanged until the whole newspaper is read by tens of people.

Quenching Africa’s insatiable thirst for reading materials that are not overly available as abundance free religious literature is quite the challenge.

The proliferation of religious literature follows in the tradition began by European missionaries of printing and distributing religious books for free, many even translated to African mother tongues. This prepared Africans for religious conversion which in turn paved the way for subjugation and colonialism, but I digress.

The power of the books-we-read conversation created rapport to discuss the sensitive political issues. It also generated a new reading list and a focus for future meetings beyond political dialogues.

Maybe the African Studies Association of Africa conference recently put together by Njoki Wamai, Assistant Professor at the United States Institute of Africa seeking to begin a tradition of situating conferences about Africa in Africa could be held in Juba next year.

This could help situate South Sudanese writers on the Pan African stage. It’s often the case that conferences on Africa are held in Western capitals.

The African Books Collective, represented at the conference, an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for scholarly, literature and children’s books from Africa is instrumental in marketing and distributing books by African authors.

Africa is the storytelling continent, home to some of the oldest universities and libraries in Timbuktu and Sudan. The journey for a book by an African writer, particularly unheard voices such as in South Sudan to reach its audience, should not be long and arduous.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]

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