Nation Because of Differences
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Research in African Literatures 32.3 (2001) 57-70



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Special Issue: Nationalism

Nation Because of Differences

Clara A. B. Joseph


If one is nothing but a Spartan, a capitalist, a proletarian, or a Buddhist, one is next door to being nothing and therefore even to not being at all.

--George Devereux

In arguing for an English "national" literature in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe says, "Those who in talking about African literature want to exclude North Africa because it belongs to a different tradition surely do not suggest that Black Africa is anything like homogenous" (56). On the one hand the nation is defined as a unifying entity (Bhabha 19; Debray 51), and yet the various representations of the nation reveal division and disruption at strategic junctures so that the definition is rendered either meaningless or controversial. Case studies of the "nation" of Kenya facing resistance from within and of Nigeria yielding to The Republic of Biafra, labeling of tribes such as the Igbo and the Bedouin as nations (Ondaatje 6), categorizing of races as nations (Bhabha 8) are challenged by events of "independence struggle," "civil war," and something simple--the memory of home.

In all this the present study often encounters the paradox of mobile national boundaries and fluid cultural demarcations and argues that the contradictions and differences that the nation attempts to remove are in fact constitutive of the concept of the nation. The nation is constituted by the very difference it seeks to overcome. The purpose of this paper is not to offer any comprehensive definition of "nation," but to analyze one characteristic--difference--that appears in literary representations of the nation. Benedict Anderson's readily available definition of "an imagined political community [. . .] inherently limited and sovereign" (6) that now comes marked by Partha Chatterjee's question, "Whose imagined community?" should suffice as a frame of reference for the nation.

Achebe's enthusiasm for an English national literature met with criticism from several lovers of indigenous languages, chief of whom was NgUgI wa Thiong'o, the man who after decades of writing well in English, gave up the medium to write in local languages. In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, NgUgI refers to the "fatalistic logic" of English that writers such as Achebe and Gabriel Okara held on to. "What was the route from the Berlin of 1884 via the Makerere of 1962 to what is still the prevailing and dominant logic a hundred years later?" (9) he asks. He traces that "route" through a pedagogy that insisted on one language, namely English. For Ngugi, language is not just a method of communication, it is a transmitter of culture as well (13). In his dream of an African nation, Ngugi believes that literature written in Gikuyu or kiSwahili would spread a fundamentally African culture. By inference, then, English fails to do so. When Ngugi writes in Gikuyu he makes himself accessible to about twenty percent of the nation-state's population of [End Page 57] Africans, Arabs, Asians, and Europeans. However, the twenty percent happens to be the biggest single group in Kenya (Hameso 123). As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari note, "There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity" (7). The attempt to identify the Kenyan nation is grounded in the twenty percent of its unifying element (here of language) and not in the eighty percent of its constituent differences.

In his seminal book, The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, Basil Davidson traces the nation-state as preceding nationalism (138, 185). The nation-state as an administrative unit was the legacy of colonial institutions: "[T]he old states in Africa were swallowed entirely into new states as though these old states had never existed save as quaint survivals from the 'savage backwoods' of a deplorable past" (188). Its later implementation disregarded Kwame Nkrumah's warning that "there is a great risk in accepting office under this new constitution which still makes us half-slaves and half-free [. . .] bribery and...