We Were Africans
My first contact with Mark Twain, with William Faulkner, was in my secondary school in Nigeria. That was in the early 60s. That was also when I read Shakespeare, when I read Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and so on and so forth. Shakespeare, of course, presented us with its own problems, because we were Africans reading the works of an Englishman. Now, we were separated by space, we were separated by time, an Englishman who lived between 1564 and 1616, the Elizabethan period, and we were 20th century then Africans, and the history too, Elizabethan history, Renaissance history and so on, the first thing we did was to settle down and study what England was like in the time of Shakespeare. We read English history and we were able to link this up with European history.
You couldn’t understand English history. If you understood English history alone, you will not be able to handle a play like Hamlet. You will not be able to handle a play like The Merchant of Venice. You will not be able to handle Othello, because those plays go really go beyond England, they are into continental Europe. And of course the history then, who was Queen Elizabeth? What about the voyages of discovery, the images in Shakespeare’s play? Could Shakespeare have written The Tempest if he hadn’t encountered the travel accounts, the travel diaries of those who made those voyages of discovery?1
It took us time, we read all those things, because we wanted to know, and also because of our respect, even our awe for western education. Most of the people doing this kind of work in the west don’t do much research on the works we are doing, I think because quite a number of them don’t have enough respect for us, for our culture. For you to study the culture and the history of other people, you must have an issue, have some respect for those people and also have the feeling and the conviction that yes, their culture and their history are worth studying and worth being understood.