Paul T. Shipale
On Thursday, 22 October 2020, I attended the official launch of the book titled “Journey into the Unknown” authored by Namibia’s current Minister of Health and Social Services Dr Kalumbi Shangula.
The occasion was graced by the Founding Father of the Namibian Nation and First President of the Republic of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, who delivered the keynote address.
The Founding Father commended Dr Shangula for writing a book sharing his experiences in exile and for bringing to readers events that happened at various stages of his life.
Indeed, the liberation struggle is understood as a process and not just an event. Therefore, all events and processes in the war, including the aftermath, provide the legitimate source for what the PhD thesis in Literature and Philosophy in languages titled; “Interface of History and Fiction: The Liberation War Novel” by Dr Itai Muwati from Zimbabwe, conceptualises as liberation war historical fiction.
As used here, liberation war historical fiction refers to all narratives, biographical and autobiographical works that draw their creative inspiration from the liberation struggle. In this regard, the liberation struggle is the major theme and is classified as part of the country’s recent history.
The distinction between biographical, autobiographical and non-biographical or non-autobiographical work is difficult to decipher because a number of authors are former combatants and their accounts are first hand experiences like in the case of Shangula.
While this is a generalised characterisation which creates problems about whether any work that refers to the war can be said to be historical fiction, Dr Muwati explains some of the investigative parameters that at least attenuate the difficulty in making the distinction between history and fiction.
From an African centered point of view, the link between fiction and history is an age-old and established relationship. Niane (1965) unambiguously explains the connection between art and history.
He raises three notable points. The first and most conspicuous is that the artist is a historian. Secondly, there is no bifurcation between art/fiction and history. Third is the fact that dialogue on history needs to be anchored on concrete knowledge and research and not mere wishful thinking.
As a culturally recognised vehicle for historical expression, art/fiction transmits historical values from one generation to the other using images. These culturally derived canons provide wisdom which regulate the manner in which writers interact with history.
They serve as “an axiological reference point for the purpose of gathering, ordering, and interpreting information about African people” (Keto quoted in Furusa 2002).
In terms of contemporary politics, I wish to fully appreciate the centrality of liberation struggle history as it aims to assess the bearing of fictional images on contemporary debates on nation, nation-state, nationalism and conflict resolution, wherever permissible.
Thus, fictional interpretations of the liberation struggle history spawn an intellectual surface and discursive turf upon which the subjects of memory, nation and nationalism can be engaged, interrogated and discursively broached in the neocolonial phase of the country.
This is so because liberation struggle history is important to the country’s contemporary and future realities – political, economic, ideological and sociological.
Consequently, Dr Muwati’s study comes to the conclusion that historical fiction is a veritable stakeholder in the history issue and becomes another type or source of history that cannot be papered over when dealing with the nation’s history.
As such, with this book, Dr Shangula is a writer and a historian and his writing is based on lived and true experiences.
In a nation where liberation war history is not only taken seriously, but is also a vigorously contested terrain, historical fiction becomes part of those discursive contestations, particularly on nation and nationalism.
The war is an important aspect in the discussion of nation, nation-building and national development. While fiction writers who prioritise celebrating the war intend to advance ‘patriotic history’, they certainly fail to realise that patriotism is not just limited to the singing of praises and churning out of panegyrics.
Patriotism is also to be found in criticism and reflective writing.
It is precisely for this reason that praise and criticism need to be balanced because cultural nationalism sometimes is superficial.
It is not informed by Afrocentric epistemological assumptions in which a balance between celebration and critical reflection and or criticism is emphasised.
Whether romantic or celebratory and critical or non-celebratory, historical fiction on the liberation war contributes to a better understanding of experiences related to the liberation war – in the past, present and future. Of importance is the fact that it contributes to an understanding of the nation’s ideological history and its future course. It increases historical consciousness by illuminating what is ‘beautiful’ and what is ‘ugly’.
Since literature contributes to a people’s evolving consciousness about their history, we feel that there is a need for a comprehensive literary study that looks at the Liberation Struggle novel as an important component in understanding the dynamics of the development of our country’s literature.
A work of this nature and magnitude is long overdue and speaks to the continued search for identity and the search for historical and political authenticity and truth, which Fanon (1967: 39) defines as “the property of the national cause”. This is guided by the broader context of Afrocentricity and incumbent African epistemological assumptions on the role of the story-teller/writer as an integral part of our identity and shared experiences.
The responsibilities that Africans place on their story-teller in the traditional context are similar to the ones placed on the novelist today who is a product of this story-telling tradition whose social function compels him or her to be a teacher, historian, philosopher, healer and critic.
In other words, he or she is expected to be a vessel and an avatar of functional, lived and liveable ideals that have the potential to equip society with an empowering and ennobling consciousness.
It is this understanding that Achebe (1989: 40) presents in one of his titles as, ‘The Novelist as Teacher’. It is also this philosophy which undergirds the entire spectrum of the teachings of Afrocentricity.
One hopes our novelists will deploy creative energy to the effect that it becomes indisputable to lay claim to the notion “that the soul of a nation is to be found in the temple of its literature and arts...” (Obote in p’Bitek, 1986: vi).
In this regard, through this book, Dr Shangula transmits historical values to future generations using images. He serves as a griot who is the equivalent of a modern day writer.
Shangula’s book is not a mere novel singing praises to the liberation struggle on ‘patriotic history’ but contribute to a better understanding of experiences related to the liberation struggle and as such contributing to nation building.
In the same vein, Shangula’s book is part of the national historical record that archives history through images, symbols and characters.
Because people who lose memory are prone to degeneration, the Founding Father was right to say that with this book Dr Shangula has contributed in a significant manner to the existing body of knowledge and literature on Namibia’s struggle for freedom and independence.
* Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely my personal views as a citizen.