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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The African Novel: An Unlikely Resource for a Socially Engaged Biblical Interpretation?

Andrew M. Mbuvi

The desire of African novelists to portray a "detribalized anti-colonial class," as in Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters and Peter Abraham's A Wreath for Udomo, has to be tempered with the struggle to salvage, albeit in no uniform manner, an African religious identity that straddles both the African religious reality and the Christianity that was introduced in congruity with European colonization of the continent.[1] Chinua Achebe sees the African novelist as a teacher of the community who does "no more than teach [his/her] readers that their past — with all its imperfections — was no one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them."[2] Thus, the African novels are not simply entertaining fictional constructions, but rather qualitative evaluations of the African society whose authors perceive themselves as "social critics rather than entertainers."[3]

For Vincent Mudimbe, the African-instituted churches, like colonial Christianity, are more the products of political resonance than they are of genuine religious conviction.[4] Without acquiescing to Mudimbe's Foucauldian analysis of religion, the significance, especially of Christianity, in shaping the social and political landscape and imagination in Africa has to be acknowledged.[5] Furthermore, a Bakhtinian dialogic calls into question this Foucaultian equation of everything to issues of power, insisting instead that everything has to be seen within a framework of dialogical process that is more complex and open ended than is provided for by the Foucaultian model.[6] Ultimately, one must, nevertheless, still recognize the importance of the religious element in shaping the political and social arena in the African community.

Colonialism, African Literature, and the Bible
The most common and dominant background for most African novels is undoubtedly the experience of colonialism. The colonial background dominates most African novels mainly because the realities of that experience, for example, the political boundaries, administrative policies, and economic structures, have continued to shape affairs in the continent.[7] In conjunction with, or in correlation to, colonialism, came the arrival of Christianity in Africa. According to Mudimbe, this development transformed not simply the concept of religion in Africa, but also the African conception of divinity shifting the Deus Africana from Deus Silentius to Deus audibilis.[8] For Mudimbe, this transformation of religious perception has been so pervasive that any archaeology of ideas on the question of deus Africana runs into signifcant obstacles.

Secondly, colonialism in Africa gave birth to the colonies that would subsequently be defined primarily in light of this reality of a people's subjugation and domination by a foreign power. Without colonialism, the reality that is today's African nations, for example, would not exist. And even if they did, the configuration would be entirely different from the present reality, which is at least partially to blame for the unrest that has characterized the region. Therefore, just like the Psalmists and the prophets were to use the exodus as the matrix by which to understand the subsequent exile to Babylon, so the post-colonial readers use the matrix of colonial experience to interpret the text from the vantage point of the colonized.

Third, according to Gakwandi, "the demand for freedom, social justice and equality runs through African literature before and after independence."[9] While for Gakwandi these aspects represent more of a political sentiment for nationalism, one cannot help but note parallel concerns in the Bible: the call for justice, the experience of exile, struggles with hope for a better world, and the plight of humanity, peace, and the question of evil. This being the case, one is then inclined to anticipate points of confluence and intersection between the Bible and the African novels where address of these key issues is concerned. Such a suspicion is warranted.

The African Novel and Implications for a Socially Engaged Biblical Interpretation
The challenge offered by the African novelists is multifold. It ranges from method to ethics and justice, commitment and involvement, interpretation and vernacular hermeneutics, liberation and emancipation, and imagination and hope. The novel as a genre provides a mode of discourse that resists many forms of restrictive boundaries. It appeals to the imagination and opens up possibilities that other modes of discourse seem unable to attain. The novel opens vistas of communication, comprehension and interpretation that are otherwise impossible to exploit in other forms of writings.

Because of their commitment and engagement of the social ills, African novelists, like the prophets in the Bible, usually find themselves on the wrong side of the establishment. It is not uncommon for African writers to be detained and exiled for critiquing ills of society and the corruption of governments and the elites (including those in the Church). Wa Thiong'o, for example, was detained without trial in Kenya for trying to organize a play with peasants in Kamirithu village; Wole Soyinka was jailed and exiled for his political views and writings; Bessie Head was exiled from her home in South Africa because of her views about the apartheid system; Chinua Achebe found himself in a bind during his involvement in the Biafra uprising in Nigeria while the death of Ken Sera Wiwo under the brutal military rule of Abacha in Nigeria highlights the dangerous terrain in which the African writers have to live.

The African novel as a genre may also be shown to share certain characteristics with the biblical parables employed by Jesus. Like the parables, the African novel challenges the hearer (or reader) to action. The parable not only provides food for thought, it also stretches the imagination in its attempt to highlight a truth. It incorporates the every day and ordinary to frame what is otherwise peculiar and extraordinary. The parable then assumes a subversive nature where the obvious is made obscure and the opaque brought to light. Similarly, the African novel, adopted from its original function as a colonizing tool, has been embraced by the African writer essentially as a subversive literature that challenges the status quo and demands the justice and truth that emanate from the same biblical text.

The African novel challenges the ethical interpretation of the Bible that seems to maintain double standards — "preaching water and drinking wine." The western reading of the Bible that had been propagated as the foundational basis of its "manifest destiny" with regards to Africa and with its colonization project, is called to question on the basis of a reading of the Bible that takes cognizance not only of the equality of humanity, but also of a God who has continually dwelt in the very midst of the oppressed and the victims of colonial project.[10] The conflicting theology of preaching "pie-in-the-sky" then grabbing the land from the unsuspecting Africans, is exposed as a fraudulent scheme that was neither biblical nor Christian (wa Thiong'o).

Like the parables, the African novel calls for a committed and socially engaged Gospel that is grounded on justice and human dignity. It is an interpretation of the Bible that engages the daily affairs of the common folk whose only other encounter with the Bible would have been as an oppressive tool of the colonizer. Like the picture Bessie Head richly paints of a God who "walks in the dust with the poor of this world," the message that emerges from the African novel is of a deus Africanus that is intricately entwined in local affairs of the subjects. This God measures well with YHWH, the God of Israel, who not only rescued the Israelites from Egypt but provided for their needs in the wilderness (Exodus). The fight for the ancestral land finds justification from the biblical stories of Israel so much so that the characters in the novels share characteristics with the biblical characters, e.g., Kihika's view of himself as a Christ.[11]

The dichotomy of the body and soul so that one could talk of saving souls is a theological framework that is constantly challenged by the African novelist, who incorporates an African perception of a person as holistic — body, soul, spirit. Thus, the African novelist calls for an ethical treatment of persons that recognizes and respects the whole person. This mode of thinking demands a theology that is cognizant not only of the fact of the sanctity of the human spirit/soul but of the human body as well. This African sense of the holistic resonates well with the biblical teaching that humans are created in the image of God. Integration into the story world of the Christian God is not limited only to certain aspects of one's existence but to the whole. It is no wonder that the cry for justice and fairness dominates the ethical conviction of the African novels.

An obvious element in the writings of African authors is that the biblical narratives are not simply historic revelation from the ancient past unrelated to the present realities. So, for example, in Wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat, the people identify directly with the biblical characters so that Mugo can wake up and answer to the name "Moses" by responding "Here I am, Lord!,"[12] Mumbi can see herself as biblical Esther bringing justice to the land,[13] and Kihika can see himself as a Christ figure ready to sacrifice his life for the sake of the people.[14] Kihika makes the following declaration in clear allusion to 1 John 3:16 (We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another):

XXXX Had Christ's death a meaning for the children of Israel? In Kenya we want a death that will change things, that is to say, we want a true sacrifice.... I die for you die for me. We become a sacrifice for one another. So I can say that you, Karanja are Christ. I am Christ. Everybody who takes the Oath of Unity to change things in Kenya is a Christ."[15]

The direct equation of the biblical characters with the African characters is an overt association with the elect Israel, and thus at once a challenge to the same claim by the European colonialist.[16] It is a counter narration that privileges the victims as the favored of God. The biblical narratives are weaved into the ongoing historical realities of the African characters in a way that is distinct from the missionary readings in the novels.

A dichotomy between institutionalized Christianity and the individual expression of it is evident in the African novels, especially those of Wa Thiong'o. Nevertheless, salvation is expected to be realized at both the individual and the communal level. The Christian church's complicity in the African front is construed as the acquiescing to the dictum of western Christianity's interpretive domination and the silencing of any voices of decent against oppressive systems: Whether governments, private institutions, or multinational organizations, the implication is clear that silence is complicity and a mark of guilt by association.

Complaint by some that this way of reading over-emphasizes the experience of the reader and, therefore, is de facto hegemonic in relation to those who lack such an experience, is simply poor grievance by the "colonizers" who have dominated the interpretive enterprise anyway. The voices of the oppressed have to be heard. Nevertheless, the value of the enterprise has to be greater than a parochial reading of the Bible that is not open to critique. For this reason, Sugirhtharajah is right when he warns, in relation to interpretive methods, that "[n]othing is axiomatically admirable because it is indigenous and local."[17]

Recently, we have been hearing a lot about the "ordinary reader" (variously referred to also as "popular," "pastoral," and "communitarian" readers)[18] especially from the important works of Gerald West of South Africa. I would like to suggest that the African novelists could be classified as "sophisticated ordinary readers" of the Bible.[19]

Andrew M. Mbuvi, Shaw University Divinity School
For a copy of the full article contact the author: ambuvi@duke.edu

Endnotes
[1] Arthur Shatto Gakwandi, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa (London: Heinemann, 1977), 129.
[2] Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 45.
[3] Gakwandi, The Novel, 130.
[4] Vincent Y. Mudimbe, Parables and Fables: Exegesis, Textuality and Politics in Central Africa (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 31. Mudimbe dismisses the theologian and prophet as simply politically motivated individuals whose real inspiration is "less than divine and more like an astute correlation of fantasies with a psychological urge for power." For this reason, Mudimbe defines revelation as "fundamentally a political performance."
[5] V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). The significance of the religious and its relation to the reality of life in Africa is highlighted by Valentine Mudimbe who argues that religion is "fundamentally a political performance."
[6] Susan VanZanten Gallagher, "The Dialogical Imagination of Chinua Achebe," in Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call Justice (ed. Susan VanZanten Gallagher; Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 1994), 149: "Active dialogue between self and Other, Western critic and postcolonial text, reveals the potential hidden in each and gives rise to unexpected questions and discoveries."
[7] For example, conflicts in the continent such the Biafran War in Nigeria, the implosion of DRC (formerly Zaire), apartheid, civil wars in Sudan, and even the genocide in Rwanda are all direct or indirect products of nineteenth and twentieth century colonial impositions of Europe on Africa.
[8] Mudimbe, Parables and Fables, 24: "In fact, we are facing a central issue that, I think, has been so far overlooked by theologians and specialists of traditional religions: God who, in Africa, according to anthropologists' studies, for centuries has been silent — a Deus Silentius Remotique (a silent and a far away God) — becomes talkative once Christian missionaries arrive. This is a decisive event. Before the arrival of Christianity in Africa there is not really such a thing as prophetism, religious renewal decided by God, or the divine direct message for a transformation of societal structures.... God, who is a known concept [in Africa], is a pure idea, benevolent and interested in the human experience, but completely detached from it."
[9] Gakwandi, Novel, 7. Gakwandi notes that African novels have been conveniently classified into three categories: the South African novel with its focus on racism and the ills of apartheid, the Anglophone novel and its focus on the tensions of the coexistence of the Western and the African traditions, and the Francophone novels, which tend to emphasize African identity contra the French notion of assimilation.
[10] Peter Wamulungwe Mwikisa, "The Limit of Difference: Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's Redeployment of Biblical Signifiers in A Grain of Wheat and I Will Marry When I Want," in The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends (ed. Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 163-83.
[11] Wa Thiong'o, "Literature and Society," 22, referencing Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, opines: "For a colonized people, Fanon has written, the most essential value, because the most concrete is first and foremost the land. People want to control their soil, their land, the fruits of their labour power acting on nature; to control their history made by their collective struggle with their natural and social environment." (In Gachukia and Akivaga, Teaching, 1-29.)
[12] A Grain of Wheat, 164.
[13] A Grain of Wheat, 67.
[14] A Grain of Wheat, 73, 83.
[15] A Grain of Wheat, 83.
[16] John A. Anonby, "Grim Present, Glorious Future: Millennial Implications in the Novels of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o," in Faith in the Millennium (ed. Stanley E . Porter, Michael A. Hayes and David Tombs; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 379.
[17] R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press, 2001), 195.
[18] Gerald O. West, Contextual Bible Study (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 1993); "Reading With": An Exploration of the Interface between Critical and Ordinary Readings of the Bible — African Overtures, Semeia 73 (1996); The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); "The Use of the Bible among the Poor," in Rowland, C. (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 129-52.
[19] I am well aware of the fact that the category of "ordinary," as used by West and others, presupposes a certain socio-economic strata of readers into which most African novelists would not fit. Nonetheless, I still want to maintain the "ordinary" nature of the novelist as not trained in the specialist study of the Bible, and also recognize the claims of some of them, e.g., wa Thiong'o, to be representing the views of the ordinary, oppressed people.

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