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Who Needs Eurocentric Nobel Prizes in Literature?Rogers Atukunda

ActivismWho Needs Eurocentric Nobel Prizes in Literature?Rogers Atukunda

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I am no literature professor or literary giant per se, I write from my humble opinion as a student of the Ivory

Tower where I witnessed how “word politics” (the basis of literature) can shape the world.

I begin with “Eurocentric”, an adjective that reminds me of 20th century most powerful dictator, Adolf Hitler’s Aryanism (finest and noblest race), so obsessed with “racial purity” that he would bake Jews in ovens and suffocate them in gas chambers to that effect.

While Hitler may be an incident in the history of mankind, years after his Aryanism had been defeated; a replacement “Eurocentric” was coined in the 1980s to prove that European culture or history was unquestionably preeminent.

“The idea of white supremacy has been rewarding that western civilisation is inconceivable without it,” Prof Killson Whiteman writes in response to Ugandan social critic, Kihura Nkuba’s When the Afrikan Wakes, a book that shows civilisation started in Africa.


So, this is what it is all about? White supremacy?


I write with the knowledge that my favourite Kenyan writer and one of Africa’s finest, Ngugi wa Thiongo, never received the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.

I was so excited that one of the writers who made me love literature (the second being the late Chinua Achebe- Nigeria) would at last be recognised for his efforts in putting Kenyan post-colonial leadership on the right track.

But Ngugi, like his Nigerian counterpart, Achebe, did not receive the “greatest prize” in the life of a writer. The 2014 Nobel where Ngugi was a favourite, went to the French novelist, Patrick Modiano, whose literary works many academics will not remember ever hearing consuming, has never been internationally popular nor were his novels read or loved. However, though painfully, after some quiet meditation, I came to realise that African writers don’t need the Eurocentric prize in order to be great.


How could Achebe or Ngugi win a Nobel?


Established in 1895, since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel (founder), produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, the ideal subjectively determined by individuals.

Currently, the prize is awarded both for lasting literary merit and for evidence of consistent “idealism” like human rights or what rights bodies determine as human rights.

When Africa’s towering intellectual, Prof Ali Mazrui, passed on over the weekend, that is when we remembered to pay him countless tributes putting him above world scholars although he had no Nobel to his name.

The Indian academic, Sabaree Mitra, says the Nobel is “not the only benchmark of literary excellence” which brings us to the case of Africa’s literary giants (Ngugi and Achebe). Achebe wrote in the 1950s when Nigeria was experiencing the sunset of British colonial rule while Ngugi followed in the 60s with Kenya breaking away from colonialists. The ideal of the time was the legitimacy of colonial rule and the extension of white supremacy to the inferior Africans.

Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958) portrayed the picture of a strong African warrior who was brave enough to challenge the “all-powerful” Whiteman to a single combat or die in the attempt.

He dared tell the Whiteman that Africans had a culture even more sophisticated than the European one. Achebe still pushed his luck by describing the African community as organised, spiritual and ably led by chiefs or kings, something that contradicted the new government system of the British.

These were enough insults to the Nobel’s idealism that Achebe, the father of African literature, was ruled out. In 1988, asked how he felt about not winning the prize, Achebe replied: “My position is that the Nobel Prize is  important. But it is a European prize. It’s not an African prize …Literature is not a heavyweight championship. Nigerians may think, you know, this man has been knocked out. It’s nothing to do with that.”

A once Nigerian Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, said he was not totally surprised that Achebe did not win the Nobel Prize in his lifetime. “Rather than dancing to the tune, I mean the style of the Western world, he concentrated on our tradition here in Africa, especially that of the Igbo extraction, thereby projecting our culture in a good light to the whole world.”


His fellow Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, the first African Nobel laureate (1986), in a shocking revelation asked if “the award was really what the literary enterprise is about? Was it the Nobel that spurred a young writer, stung by Eurocentric portrayal of African reality, to put pen to paper and produce Things Fall Apart?”

In his speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1986, Soyinka says: “It was inevitable that the Nordic world and the African, especially that part of it which constitutes the Yoruba world – should meet at the crossroads of Sweden. That I am the agent of such a symbolic encounter is due very simply to that my creative Muse is Ogun, the god of creativity and destruction, of the lyric and metallurgy. This deity anticipated your scientist Alfred Nobel…very definitively, the progenitor of your great inventor…”And so, Soyinka impressed the Swedish academy with the Yoruba deity Ogun, his kind of muse was shared by their scientist Alfred who founded the Nobel.


For Ngugi, it is actually worse; save for rallying his people to shun colonial rule, he followed it up in post independent Kenya where it was dressed in new “independent democratic clothing”.

Ngugi in most of his novels and plays tried to open the eyes of Kenyan masses to the evil of neo-colonialism mobilising them to throw out the black watchdogs who, in the process of overseeing investments of foreign exploiters, oppressed the ordinary Kenyans. Ngugi pictures religion as an exploitative tool used by the rich to amass wealth in the play I Will Marry When I Want; he calls them parrots mimicking foreign words. He calls for the overthrow of capitalism and the embracing of socialism or communism in Petals of Blood.

In Devil On The Cross, Ngugi mobilises masses to crucify the white exploiter (the devil) together with his black disciples (greedy politicians, home guards, hypocritical preachers) and actually shows that its possible. In his epic novel, Matigari, he creates a seeker of truth, justice and equality, so life-like that the Kenyan police was deployed in all parts of the country to arrest Matigari thinking he was a living person. Worse still, Ngugi started writing in Swahili and advocating for the shunning of the English language.

He argued that thinking in the Whitem
an’s language and failure to think in one’s immediate tongue was the reason the Kenyan child had been alienated, (Decolonising the Mind) “…in Kenya, English became more than a language…thus children were turned into witch hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community …”

“…equally important for our cultural renaissance is the teaching and study of African languages…language after all is a carrier of values fashioned by a people over a period of time…” (Ngugi in Homecoming).


This was a direct threat to the spread of English language with its major aim of brainwashing and indoctrinating Africans. As a radical Senegalese historian, Chiekh Anta Diop, quotes Montessequi Rousseau, a French philosopher who asserted that, “unless a conquered people has not lost its language, it can still hope.” After attracting enough hostility from Europe, I am not surprised that Ngugi did not win the Nobel but did he have to win it in order to be great in my eyes or the eyes of Kenyans?


Do great African writers fit the Nobel nomination procedure?


The Swedish Academy sends out requests for nominations of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature each year. Members of the Academy, literature academies and societies, professors of literature and language, former Nobel literature laureates, and the presidents of writers’ organisations nominate a candidate. No one can get the prize without being on the list at least twice, thus many of the same authors reappear and are reviewed repeatedly over the years. The chosen laureate earns a gold medal, a diploma bearing a citation, and a sum of money. During World War I, the committee adopted a policy of neutrality, favouring writers from non-combatant countries; the reason Russia’s Leo Tolstoy and dramatist Anton Chekov never got the prize. It is agreed that Doris Lessing’s (British writer raised in Rhodesia) 2007 prize was driven by political intents. French author, Albert Camus, was the first “African-born” writer to receive the award. As you will realise, most of Nobel winners are European making the continent “the centre of the literary world”.


Dear reader, are you really convinced that no other part of the world can produce such great works as would shake the literary world?

Are you determinedly swayed to believe that the creative mind is centred only in Europe?


Have you read all the brilliant works of African authors, for example, before judging that on the whole continent, only Soyinka (who I agree is a great dramatist) is fit for the Nobel Prize?

Have you read the works of Peter Abrahams chronicled in The Long Eye of History and how he meticulously paints the picture of the British fascist apartheid system that dehumanised, alienated and turned South Africans into hogs hunted and killed for sport? Read South African literature; Bessie Head, Athol Fugard, Alan Paton, Es’kia Mphahlele and Lewis Nkosi. In East Africa, Makerere University produced Ngugi, Okot p’Bitek and Taban lo Liyong.

West Africa is just the “knowledge basket” with writers like; Cyprian Ekwensi (perhaps the most sophisticated African writer), Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ousmane Sembène, Amos Tutuola or Birago Diop.

I am not asking you to nominate them for the Nobel, but after reading their works, tell me if they all wrote trash unworthy of recognition.

I don’t believe that Africa lacks the creative genius as racially-biased individuals would have us assume but the problem is that when an African writes, he/she must meet European set standards or topics thought appealing to a European and the like.

“In the end it has come to this prophetic prediction. That in the days of perpetual slumber, the warriors will adopt a philosophy where, ‘to be or not to be’ depends on whether one is known in Europe or accepted in America,” Kihura Nkuba; 1995: When The African Wakes (3).

The role of the African writer is not to appease the West

Stephen Gray in his treatise, The Making of Apartheid (6-10 February 1990) quotes Peter Abrahams (Return to Goli), “My business as a writer was with people, with human thoughts, conflicts, longings and strivings, not with causes.”

In his commentary on The Novels of Chinua Achebe (1969), G.D Killam explains that the past informs the present by quoting Achebe, “The writer’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headlines in topicality, it is to explore the depth of the human condition. In Africa, he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history.”

Chinua Achebe in his essay, The Role of the Writer in a New Nation (1964), also observes thus: “I believe that the writer should be concerned with the question of human values. One of the most distressing ills which afflict new nations is a confusion of values.”

G.A Heron, in a preface to Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, quotes Okot p’Bitek (African Religions in Western Scholarship), “during the very first lecture…the teacher kept referring to Africans or non-western peoples as barbarians, savages, primitive tribes etc. I protested but to no avail.”

In his essay, Artist the Ruler (1986) Okot quotes an ex-catholic priest, Charles Davis, “An author, if he is big enough, can do much for his fellow men. He can put words in their mouths and reason into their heads; he can fill their sleep with dreams so potent that when they wake they will go on living.”



The American Oscars depict the politics of prizes


After watching 12 Years a Slave, I told a friend that Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actress who plays Patsey, a slave who becomes the object of her brutal master’s sexual obsessions, would win an Oscar for playing a role that demeans the dignity of an African woman.

The next day, she was given an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and named “The Most Beautiful

Woman” as if in all my years, I haven’t encountered beauty.

Hollywood needed a black person to give to the audience and Lupita came in handy, a renowned writer and friend said.

I was not surprised because there were other cases; Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. in 1989 won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing a defiant self-possessed ex-slave soldier in the film Glory and won an Academy Award for Best Actor in his next film, the 2001 cop thriller Training Day as Detective Alonzo Harris, a rogue and evil Los Angeles cop with questionable law-enforcement tactics.

According to Wikipedia, there have been three occasions in the history of the Oscars, when more than 1 black actor has been nominated in the Best Actor category: 2001, Denzel Washington for Training Day and Will Smith for Ali; 2004, Jamie Foxx for Ray.

Edward Regan aka Eddie Murphy never won an Oscar for Coming to America, a film that portrays the greatness of Africa; the land of kings, culture, riches, love, etc.

He was instead nominated for Worst Actor and Worst Screenplay, won awards for Worst Supporting Actor, Won

Worst Supporting Actress, Worst Screen Combo and Worst Picture (Norbit).

Willard Carroll aka Will Smith, Jr. won the A
cademy Award for acting the story of the boxer Muhammad Ali, who converted to Islam, criticised Vietnam War, was banished from boxing and probably because the tale includes assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought for black people’s civil rights.

As you can see, there is always the unseen politics behind each European or American award; ask analysts how the late South African icon, Nelson Mandela, came upon his Nobel Peace Prize!

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