The language question in African literature: Diana Evans’ 26a and Tewfik Al Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach

The language question in African literature is a debate that started as far back as the 60’s. It bothers on how African writers have adopted the Western language to express the experiences, culture, world view and agitations of the African people as reflected in the many creative works churned out over the years.

The argument however remains that must African literature be written in African language? Will that constitute what is defined as African literature? Or will African literature be defined as any literature written about the people of Africa in a language other than theirs? While all these questions persist , the purpose of this write-up is to situate in proper perspective how the various African writers have been able to express their thoughts about African experiences in Western languages using Diana Evan’s 26a and Tewfik Al Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach.

The legacy of colonialism has left the African writer with a dilemma with regard to the language choice in writing. In his article1, Obi Wali challenge that any true African language has to be written in an African language and that ‘uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing, is misdirected and has no chance of advancing African literature’. Obi Wali continues to give example: “ Less that one percent of the Nigerian people had access to, or the ability to understand Wole Soyinka’s Dance of the Forest .Yet, this was the play staged to celebrate their national independence, tagged on to the idiom and traditions of a foreign culture” Wali’s challenge was met with varying heated responses in particular with regard to the language issue.

This follows Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who has chosen in the years following independence to reject English and other European languages in favour of native African writing stressing that by writing in English or French, African authors are continuing to enrich those cultures at the expense of their own. He opines that European languages are unable to express the complexity of African experience and culture in those languages, along with the fact that they exclude a majority of Africans, who are unable to read in these languages. Ngugi and his supporters have been opposed strongly by several African writers, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi and others, who challenged the usefulness of such a stance.

They are of the view that writing in indigenous African language will not reach the huge audience that abounds in Europe who have over the years tethered Africa with colonialism. They suggested that in fighting for independence and liberation one will need to express the African cultural heritage with the western language in which they have been educated with. Therefore the African worldview and experience is transliterated from its indigenous language into English without altering the original meaning. Hence the use of proverbs, folktales, legends and other oral tradition imbedded in African creative works adding an aesthetic dimension to it.

Culture embodies those moral, ethical and aesthetic values, the set of spiritual eyeglasses, through which they come to view themselves and their place in the universe. Values are the basis of a people’s identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race. All these are factors are carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory bank of the people’s experience in history. Culture on the other hand is almost indistinguishable from language which makes possible its genesis, growth,articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next.

It is on this basis that in 26a Diana Evans fuses the indigenous African language with that of the English language in a way that project the African world view yet both cultures suffer no harm in representation. As captured in this lines where Bessi engages Ida at a garden in Aruwa. “Are we proper Nigerians now?” Bessi had asked Ida after looking in the mirror at the end of an afternoon in the garden watching guavas had replaced apples. Hibiscus had replaced rose. Ida said Bessi cold be as Nigerian as she wanted to be” Pg 58
Here Diana presents us with a descriptive image of what obtains in the two cultures.

Even their arrival at Aruwa, Nigeria sparks up the shouts from children screaming “Oyibo! Oyibo! Which meant white” clearly expresses Diana’s attempt to communicate the African experience and perception of the world. Pg 59
In addition, while engaging with the twins, Nne Nne speaks to them in succinct terms that again relate the myth of twins in Africa. “Then Nne said , ‘it is very special to be twins you kno that? Your motha tell you about them.-the stones?” Pg 61
With this from of expression, Diana is able to relate with an African audience as well as European audience due to the use of a fusion of both languages been adequately represented without ambiguity.

Tewfik Al Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach on the other hand, takes this path. Having been originally written in Arabic, the book is transliterated by Denys Johnson-Davies with all the contents as intended by the writer is conveyed. Through this, the theme of the story is communicated especially to non-Arabic speaking countries.

For instance, Tewfik underlines gender issues as he presents his female characters as having certain level of control over the male characters. Perhaps to outline the reality that such culture is alien to the African tradition. Again, presenting the female characters as symbol of colonialism and the male struggling for independence.
As an illustration, the Queen constantly taunts the king of the cockroach so much so that he blurts in Act 1:
King: Make-up and toilet! If all wives were like you then God help all husband!..Please no sarcasm! I have an ever-growing feeling that you are always trying to belittle my true worth.
Queen: Your worth?
King: Yes, and my authority. You are always trying to diminish my authority

This is same when Adil and Samil comes in the scene in Act 2
Adil struggles to define his identity within the ambit of his own house. He wrestles with his nagging wife who keeps up the torment whole he remains torn between two personalities having been denied the proper respect as the man of the house.
Adil: I want to know, I want a quick explanation: who am I?
Samia: What are you saying?
Adil: I’m asking you who I am
Samia: What a question! You are Adil of course
Adil: Adil who?
Samia: Adil my husband
Adil: Is that all? I wasn’t asking about that. I was asking about my true identity. Do you know what my identity is?

Through the characters, Tewfik expresses to his audience about the need to rise up in revolt against white dominance as is also expressed in ACT 2 by the radio announcer. He also suggests the need to live in unity as symbolized by the ants that carry out their functions diligently as a colony. Thus, he addresses the issue of cultural identity, independence and self-emancipation. The constant use of “Hullo” on the phone also gives credence to how he fuses indigenous language with Western heritage.

In conclusion, Diana Evans and Tewfik Al Hakim have been able to use language to express their cultural identity as Africans who seek to speak out concerning imperialism and at the same time achieved what Chinua Achebe describe as the “universal man” where language and cultures are fused to achieve universality. Yet the two cultures in question are not injured.

Ngugi, W.N, (1986) Decolonizing the mind: the politics of language in African Literature. (London: Heinemann) Pg 24, 29

Tewfik, A.K (1973) Fate of a Cockroach (Oxford: Heinemann)

Diana, E, (2005) 26a (London: Vintage books) Pg 58, 59, 61

7 thoughts on “The language question in African literature: Diana Evans’ 26a and Tewfik Al Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach” by sambright (@sambrightomo)

  1. Interesting. Well put.

    Me I think the reason why we do that is because Like It Or Not…English is fast becoming the world’s lingua franca. To get across widely and easily…it’s the most convenient way. However…

    I still think that using some of our unique expressions still projects our identity. The names…foods…clothes…you know na.

    Well said again.

    1. @ Seun thanks for your thought.As regard using our unique expressions, Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart captures that notion.The writer who wrote in response to the European conception that Africans do not have a thriving culture as represented in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson(1938) and Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness(1899), juxtaposes the African world view and that of the English people.
      We see in the novel a sought of transliteration of the African language into English so that the Europeans will have a better grasp of the reality that Africans indeed have a cultureThis is Chinua Achebe’s position regarding language.

  2. What language will you have me write in? How many Africans can read or write in their local languages?
    And some people should stop using NS to polish their terminal thesis and projects o.
    Sam, you don come again abi?(Is this an African language?)

    1. @ oga kaycee, this is the reality of things.Ngugi Wa Thiongo have chosen to write in his mother tongue,Gikuyu because in his view, we are not promoting African literature if we continue to write in foreign language.
      Though writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are against it.They opine that it is best we write in those foreign languages because, the natives form majority of our audience.Besides we want them to get our message in details as such we should write back in their own language.Plus that, so many Africans can’t even write their own dialect and that is what writing in English affords.
      NB: I never come again !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Well, a cockroach can never be innocent in the gathering of fowls. I believe Achebe’s Universal Man. Here, is the innocence. Yet, since language is the vehicle of thoughts, there are some reserves as rightly pointed by Seun-O which are the prerogatives of local languages (in the words of Kaycee) to convey. Not even one foreign language is contented in this habit of thought (expression), hence they too borrow; English prominent in this act of conciliation.

    1. @ Ostar i totally agree with you.chao

  4. well-captured……………… the debate is still on
    Ngugi W’ationgo claims writing in his native language, Gikuyu will translate into proper African literature but how many people understand Gikuyu, not up to half of the African people……….. so what should we do now, use the White man’s language or throw it away?

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