Saturday, December 4, 2010

The concept of Africa

Pius Adesanmi / Photo via

If you’re trying to understand "Africa," you need to have a look at the work of Pius Adesanmi.

Pius Adesanmi is a Nigerian writer of poetry, creative non-fiction, and academic works. He teaches African literature and culture at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Adesanmi is no stranger to awards: his poetry collection The Wayfarer and Other Poems won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2001. But in September 2010, he received the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the Non-Fiction category for his manuscript, You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Penguin Books
cover photo
You’re Not a Country, Africa! is a collection of essays inspired by experiences that have caused Adesanmi to reflect on what "Africa" means, after living in the West for 15 years and travelling through 35 African countries. For example, he tells the story of being in a bank in Canada while an elderly woman was chatting unhurriedly with the teller. People in line were impatient and soon Adesanmi, having been socialised to wait for elders, was the only person left behind her. He listened to her explaining that she preferred banking in person to internet banking. "She was speaking English, but I was hearing my language; I was transported back home, in my village, and listening to one of the core philosophies of Yoruba civilisation being articulated by a Canadian woman possibly in her eighties," Adesanmi recalls, referring to a Yoruba proverb that the face is the abode of human discourse. This incident led to an essay on respect for age, communication, and traits that are not so much "African" as human.

Adesanmi explains that the title You’re Not a Country, Africa! conceptualises a dilemma that arises from him living in France, the US and Canada where he’s often expected to interpret and define "Africa" for Western audiences. He says of Africa, "you do not define it; it moves on its own terms, at its own pace." The book title derives not only from a tendency of non-Africans to assume uniform cultures and politics across the continent, but from the last stanza of a poem, "The Meaning of Africa" by the Sierra Leonean poet Abioseh Nicol: "You are not a country, Africa / You are a concept / Fashioned in our minds, each to each / To hide our separate fears / ".

You’re Not a Country, Africa! will be released in June 2011. Adesanmi is working on a novel as well as a second non-fiction book with the working title of "The Habit of Underdevelopment." In it Adesanmi explores the discourse and politics of development, particularly "the aid/charity/development nexus" that fixates on providing for "lack" while ignoring cultural dynamics.

Adesanmi’s social and political commentary and creative non-fiction also appear online at The Zeleza Post, Sahara Reporters and Nigerian Village Square. See, for example, his poetic and compelling reflection in The Zeleza Post on his father and grandfather in Nigerian society.

Pius Adesanmi is someone to listen to, for his insights on identity, politics, cultures, and humanity, and his command of language. His academic work is also worth knowing about -- so I'll write about it in tomorrow's post.

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