Africa, a continent of over fifty countries, has by some accounts over 3000 native languages (Epstein ix). Such a complex linguistic landscape presents a challenge for regional and even national literatures. Chinua Achebe explained the obstacle well, asking, “Where am I to find the time to learn the half dozen or so Nigerian languages, each of which can sustain a literature?” (“English and the African Writer” 345).
In such a linguistically fractured continent, colonial languages can offer an opportunity to reach wider and more varied populations. English, for example, is the first language of 54,000,000 sub-Saharan Africans, and the second language of another 23,000,000, as well as the official language of over 20 African states (Epstein x). Many African writers, like Chinua Achebe, wrote and continue to write in English or French, not to ignore their heritages but rather to speak to a broader African as well as international audiences.
However, the use of colonial languages has raised concerns about the authenticity of African literature written in the languages of imperialism. Obi Wali, a well-known Nigerian critic, once asserted that, “any true African literature must be written in African languages”, and that writing in English or French “can only lead to sterility, uncreativity, and frustration” (“English and the African Writer” 347). Chinua Achebe responded to this concern by arguing that languages remained flexible, and could be adapted and modified to carry the “peculiar experience” of individual African authors (“English and the African Writer” 347). For example, English arguably reflects Chinua Achebe’s experience as a Nigerian author and citizen. Achebe quotes African American novelist James Baldwin at length in his response to Obi Wali; here, Baldwin writes of his struggle with English:
“My quarrel with English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way… Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test” (“English and the African Writer” 349).
The debate between Achebe and Wali continues to divide the African literary community today. More importantly, authors continue searching for the language that best “bear[s] the burden” of their individual experiences, writing in everything from Swahili to local dialects to English (“English and the African Writer” 349).