Ojigbo, O.A. (ed.). (1971). Young and Black in Africa
. New York City: Random House.
(Download Young & Black in Africa overview as a PDF)
once said that a person without a culture of one’s own is like a tree without roots. A person’s culture sustains one at a time of crisis and adds richness to one’s life.
African youth, the question of culture is of immediate importance. Young people from the more than fifty African nations are coming into greater contact with the Western world. They are beginning to ask themselves some difficult questions: Which traditions and customs do they wish to maintain? What does it mean to be African today?
To respond to these challenging issues, "Through dramatic episodes from their own lives, eight Africans convey the warmth, the pride, the humor—and sometimes the heartbreak—of growing up in Africa."
Prince Modupe from Guinea describes the transition from his home at the headwaters of the Scarsis river, where he had killed a leopard at age sixteen to prove his manhood, traveling by dugout to the city of Konakry and his first twenty-four hours in "civilization." This selection from his autobiography,A Royal African
, depicts his experiences:
The villagers stood on the bank of the Scarcis to see me off to the world outside. Kende (my future wife) stood beside my mother in the front ranks. The pain of parting, especially from these two, almost unmanned me. Would they ever see me again? They feared not. In one way, they were right. When I returned several years later, I was not the same person who had left.
We swung around a bend. There before my eyes was the dazzling sight of the lights of the coastal city...We passed the blurred outlines of huts of such size as I have never dreamed possible...I was wearing my jungle attire. I was nude to the waist and had my spear and knives and bow and arrows...People on the dock stared at me and pointed...
I saw an African woman seated on the ground. Beside her was a Calabash filled with Akara—fried bean bread. I was hungry and it was good to see a familiar kind of food. She held some up to me, speaking in a language I did not understand. I accepted it and began eating. She spoke out sharply and held up her empty hand...I did not understand...A small crowd gathered quickly as she shrilled at me...A white-uniformed man came over and spoke sharply to me. I could not understand him either...he put a whistle to his lips and blew it...Paul Boolama came running back to me just in time...
Olaudah Equiano of Nigeria tells the sad story of being kidnapped and taken slave at the age of eleven, first with his sister and then alone, being passed from master to master until he was placed upon a slave ship for a terrible trip to the New World in 1956. By the age of 21, he had somehow managed to save enough to buy his freedom. He crusaded against the slave trade, and once handed a petition to the Queen of England. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano Or Gustavius Vassa The African, Written By Himself
, was very popular in his time and remains of interest:
One day, when all our people were gone out to their work as usual, only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house. Two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both. Without giving us time to cry out or make resistance, they stopped our mouths and tied our hands...
When we went to rest the following night they offered us some food. But we refused it, and the only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing us in each other with tears. But alas! we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together. The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced. For my sister and I were then separated (never to be reunited)...It was in vain that we pleaded with them not to part us...I cried and cried and grieved continually, and for several days did not eat anything, but what they forced into my mouth.
Francis Selormey of Ghana tells here of the birth of his sister when he was five years old. The following section of his autobiography, The Narrow Path
, tells how his Roman Catholic family preserved respect for ancestors by way of a domestic shrine.
My mother’s cry of pain awoke me and brought my father rushing in from his room. ‘What is it?’ he cried, and my mother told him that the (childbirth) pains were terrible.
My father hurried off to call my grandmother, and I was left alone with my mother...I went and stood beside her bed and saw her writhing and biting her lips. I remembered that my father had made a towel warm in hot water and held it to her body. I asked her if I should do the same. She looked at me long and lovingly.
‘Thank you, my dear son,’ she said, ‘But there is nothing you can do. Go to bed.’
I was hurt by her answer and went out into the compound. The moon was shining brightly. I felt the spirits around me. I remembered the words that I heard from a missionary priest at a First Communion Mass. He had said, ‘God hears the prayers of little children and loves to answer them. So the children should always remember to pray for their parents.’
Peter Abrahams was born in 1919 in the Transvaal of South Africa of a "coloured" mother and Ethiopian father. In this short selection from his autobiography, Tell Freedom,
we read of the cruelty of racism as experienced in Elsberg and the slums of Johannesburg:
‘Better run for it,’ Andries said.
‘Why?’ There were three of them—white boys, two of about our own size and one slightly bigger. They had school bags and were coming towards us up the road from the siding.
‘Walk faster,’ Andries said. ‘If they come closer, run.’
‘Hottentot!’...They began pelting us with stones. ‘Your fathers are dirty black bastards of baboons!’
‘Run!’ Andries called.
A violent, unreasoning anger suddenly possessed me. I stopped and turned. ‘You’re a liar!’ I screamed. The foremost boy pointed at me. ‘An ugly black baboon!’
In a fog rage I went towards him...Blows rained on me—on my head, my neck, the side of my face, my mouth—but my enemy was under me and I pounded him fiercely, all the time repeating, ‘Liar! Liar! Liar!’ Suddenly stars exploded in my head. Then there was darkness...
There was tension in the house that night...We heard a carriage pull up outside...Aunt Liza leaned back from the table...Before Uncle Sam reached the door, it burst open. A tall, broad, white man strode in. Behind him came the three boys. The one I had attacked had swollen lips and a puffy left eye...The white man stared till I lowered my eyes. ‘Well,’ he said.
‘He’s sorry Baas,’ Uncle Sam said quickly. ‘I’ve given him a hiding he won’t forget soon. You know how it is, Baas. He’s new here, the child of a relative in Johannesburg, and they don’t know how to behave down there.’
‘He insulted my father,’ I said.
The white man smiled. ‘See, Sam, your hiding couldn’t have been good...Then, teach him, Sam. If you and he are to live here, you must teach him. Well—?’
Uncle Sam went into the other room and returned with a thick leather thong. He wound it once round his hand and advanced on me. The man and the boys leaned against the door, watching. I looked at Aunt Liza’s face. Though there was no sign of life or feeling on it, I knew suddenly, instinctively, that she wanted me not to cry.
Charity Waciuma describes her life in Daughter Of Mumbi
. Her depiction of her grandfather from the perspective of a modern Kenyan bridges the generation gap between traditional and modern Africa:
It was fun to sit and listen to grandfather’s stories, though he often reminded us that, when he was young, girls were not allowed to sit near when the elders were discussing such things. For this reason I was glad I was not alive in those days.
When I look back, I remember how upset my grandfather was by our shapeless red and white striped Sunday School dresses. I wonder what he would say if he were alive today and could see his granddaughters driving cars, working as air hostesses and twisting the night away in jeans and slinky skirts.
R. Mugo Gatheru experienced the brutality of the old British pass system, Kipande, in colonial Kenya. "I Was Hit by a Night Stick" is a brief illustration of his experience from the autobiography, Child Of Two Worlds
The Kipande system was officially introduced in Kenya in 1921. Every male African above sixteen years of age had to be registered, fingerprinted, and issued with a registration certificate—Kipande...
In Kenya a policeman could stop an African on the road or in the street and demand that he produce his Kipande—regardless of whether the African concerned was as wise as Socrates, as holy as St. Francis, or as piratical as Sir Francis Drake.
When Kenyattat took over the leadership of the Kenya African Union, he announced publicly that the Africans had carried Vipande (plural of Kipande) long enough and that they should burn them if the (British) Kenya Government refused to repeal the ordinance which had instituted the system...
A well-known missionary, and one of the few well-wishers of the Kenyan Africans among the Europeans there, complained in a letter to the London Times of June 1938 that not less than 50,000 Africans in Kenya had been jailed since 1920 for failure to produce Vipande—an average of 5000 Africans per year!
Nigerian Babs Fafunwa is perplexed by racism in the land of liberty. He describes "An African’s Adventure in America" for the Chicago Defender in this selection. He came to study at Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College in 1948 and returned home to Nigeria in 1956 with a doctorate from New York University
One of my most exciting experiences happened when I arrived in New York City. On that day it had one of its greatest snowfalls, and what’s more I had never seen snow in my life. That day, my heavy overcoat was no solution to my dilemma. As I stepped out of the airplane I was baptized with the unusually biting cold. I was shaken to the bones and all my limbs were trembling. The woman in me subdued the man and my eyes were shedding tears like an Arabian gum tree. That night I slept in my overcoat, suit and all. The temperature was 19 degrees F. and the lowest I have ever seen in Nigeria is 60.
(The African student in America can be asked...) What is your name? Where do you come from? What is your impression about America? How many wives has your father? Are you married? Is it true that you buy women in Africa? Are you a prince? Is your father a king or a gold miner?
Dreaming of a college education in America, Legson Kayira planned to walk four thousand miles, from Nyasaland to Port Said, Egypt. He told his mother it would take five days to walk to America and left with two books, two shirts, one pair of shorts, a blanket, a map, and a few cents. Two years later, he had walked 2500 miles and reached Khartoum. You may want to read how Legson got from Khartoum to Skagit Valley College in the American state of Washington, graduated from the University of Washington in 1964, and returned to help his new country of Malawi as it became independent from the British. He shares his journeys in his autobiography, I Will Try
. In this book, he also tells of the birth of Malawi:
Future generations of Malawi will inherit independence and freedom. They will not have the same feelings for it as the Malawians of this day. They will probably take it for granted. Those today who have worked hard for it know that it is only by hard work that this independence will survive.
There may be some who are laughing at Malawi now; there may be some who are waiting to see what will happen to her, but she is holding on to her decision.
We know that with the spirit that has directed this country and its people in the past, the independence of this country can be assured...A salute to you, Malawi, and Godspeed. We have just begun to try.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Which of the biographies interests you most?
- What strikes you most forcibly when reading the selections above? What makes it so compelling?
- Which of their traditions and customs should young Africans keep? Which should they discard or allow to pass?
- What does it mean to be African in a modern world?
- What, in your opinion, has been valuable and/or detrimental in the interaction between Africa and the West?
- Share these readings and this discussion with someone else in your family or a friend. Discuss their reaction to these readings with the group.
- How should one respond to politics today as related to Africa?
- "A person without a culture of his own is like a tree without roots." The reading of the past is a necessary key to the future.
- Role models of yesterday should not be lost. The reading of biographies and autobiographies is one way to draw from the wisdom and richness of the past. Through such reading, ancestors can be respected, and they can continue to serve those who live.
- You may want to read more of these autobiographies. Those in print include:
Abrahams, P. (1982). Tell Freedom. Faber & Faber.
Gathero, M.R. (1979). Child of Two Worlds. Purcells.
Olaudah, E. (1967). Equiano’s Travels. Heinemann.
Selormey, F. (1967). The Narrow Path
Dean Borgman cCYS