Tejumola Olaniyan

“Twice Bitten: The Fate of Africa’s Culture Producers,” is the title of a lecture Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Writer and Nobel Laureate, delivered at a gathering of African leaders in 1988. Noting the concern of the gathering for the epidemic of “brain drain” specialist expertise and cultural workers then sweeping all over Africa, Soyinka, himself a one-time famous exile, replied with scorn: “Lucky drainees! The brains of their stay-at-home colleagues will be found as grisly sediments on the riverbed of the Nile. Or in the stomach linings of African crocodiles and vultures” (112). This is vintage Soyinka; the distasteful and stomach-churning imagery was deliberately selected and served up for the consumption of the distinguished gathering composed, as it were, of many guilty African leaders or their representatives.

I am particularly interested in Soyinka’s statement as a representative instance of a peculiar conception of exile commonly expressed by African writers. In this conception, physical distance from “home” loses its status as a privileged marker of exile and becomes simply one other feature, perhaps more obvious than others, of that condition. In other words, physical distance from home and its commonly associated feelings of being victimized, of bitterness, sorrow, loneliness, dejection not to say depression, nostalgia, and the likes, may be painful and distressing, but being at home is often not any less so. In fact, in Soyinka’s formulation, staying at home may simply be to live a death. Exile may be anguish and alienation, but home is neither warm nor welcoming. The Somalian writer, Nuruddin Farah, who has been in exile since the 1970s and even now has no country as such to return to, understands this very well and insists that it could even be made profitable. You will understand then why, at a conference of writers in exile held in Vienna in December 1987, the title of his presentation was “In Praise of Exile.” Basically agreeing with Soyinka’s opposition of lucky exiles to dead stay-at-homes, Farah said he could not have been a writer in Somalia, only a prisoner (67). Not for him the common idea that the distance of exile kills artistic creativity: “For me,” he wrote, “distance distills; ideas become clearer and better worth pursuing” (65).

It should be obvious that these writers are talking about a particular kind of exile, an involuntary exile catalyzed by fear of certain persecution by the State. This seems everywhere usually the most talked-about and headline-grabbing, though it is by no means the only form of permanent or semi-permanent departure from one’s homeland. When in 1997 the International Parliament of Writers (PIE), then headed by Wole Soyinka, launched a major fund-raising campaign, it was to enable it to “set up havens for persecuted writers” (Reuter, “Writers seek funds for safe haven,” 9/17/97). The idea was originally Salman’s Rushdie’s, that “cities around the world give shelter to persecuted writers by helping them obtain residential permits and providing them with housing and 10,000-franc ($2,000) monthly allowance for a year.” Only involuntary exile is recognized, and so, for instance, most Caribbean writers, for whom exile had historically been—and still mostly is—voluntary even if nevertheless unpleasurable, would be automatically excluded from the program.

Voluntary or involuntary, it seems to me that what exile inscribes, among other things, is the limit of the nation-state as we currently have it. Exile, a kind of opting out or forcing out, reveals incommensurabilities of interests, hopes and aspiration between individuals and the nation-state, incommensurabilities that the state always denote as crises because its ruling idea of the nation is that it is based on a “deep horizontal comradeship,” as Benedict Anderson would say, of homogenous yearnings. Exile thus puts a perpetual question mark on the nation-state and its idea by revealing its jagged edges and bursting seams that cannot be disciplined into conformity. In fact, the scale and frequency of transnational movements since the 1990s—and the associated development of discursive articulations of such transnationalism—have made scholars in many disciples wander aloud if we are not at the end of an epoch, the Modern Age, whose main agent is the nation-state along with capitalism, and at the threshold of another, a Global Age, whose emerging characteristics include a relativization of the nation-state and consequent souring of nationalist particularism.

This idea is worth exploring a bit. Martin Albrow, a historical sociologist and one of the leading theorists of the emerging age, argued in his book, The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity, that had scholars of the Modern looked carefully, they could have realized that the age was bound eventually to hit its limits. Territorial expansion and the sovereignty of reason, modernity’s intrinsic features, helped to generate ideas of universal human rights, universal order, universal trade, even of universal government of liberal democracy (75). If the world was thus unified, it was ironically at the expense of the main agent of that unification, the modern nation-state, for these practices and sentiments do little but undermine the authority of the nation-state. The result has been the increasing “…inability of the state to shape the aspirations of individuals and to gather them into collective political aims” (76), the end of an age in which one of its ruling assumptions was that “state, society and the individual need to exist in an indissoluble purposive bond and that anything less denotes a crisis” (77). Albrow’s call for the recognition of the contours of a new age of the Global is predicated on the increasing significance of global practices and discourses—human rights, issues of health, women’s rights, ecological movements, population movements, trade and finance, technology—and the way they decenter the nation-state in their configuration and operation. Hence he says that “…in general globalization involves a relativization and destabilization of old identities, whether of nation-states, communities or individuals . . . the creation of new hybrid entities, transnational phenomena like diasporic communities” (93-4).

The global is replacing the bounded nation-state, and if the creation of diasporic communities is one of the consequences of globalization, then what was or is exile? Here is where the logic leads us: Diaspora, with its evocation of large-scale dispersal into a boundless space, is to the age of the global what exile, with its intimation of alienation from a national homeland, is to the age of the nation-state. There is a conceptual shift here. The phrase “Global Diaspora,” though I cannot say that I am sure exactly what it means, does seem to recognize a world where exile is at such a pace, frequency and scale as to require redescription as “diaspora.”

But as it is often used today, “diaspora,” unlike “exile,” does not always invoke or invite immediate enquiries into its causes or origins. This is perhaps because “diaspora”’s two most common historical referents in the history of the Jews and the Africans, seem to be all too well-known. A complacent assumption, surely. Plus, the word is often used in contemporary immigration studies in a way that effectively subsumes the agony it had historically carried and implied. For these two reasons, it seems to me that for African writers who always insist on the immediate causes of their exile and even point accusing fingers, the idea of a “global age” or “global diaspora” could not but sound like a dilution of specific local struggles. We may be at the threshold of the Global Age, they would say, but would that eradicate national oppression, a major origin of the exile of most African writers?

Indeed, there are as many origins of the African writer’s exile as there are writers willing to pronounce on the subject. The “twice bitten” in the title of Soyinka’s lecture cited at the beginning refers to the bites of colonialism, and after that neocolonialism. In his formulation, it is the writer’s task of helping the continent to heal the two wounds that brings the writer into confrontation with the state and hence the hounding of the writer into exile. And when Nuruddin Farah suggests another and fundamental layer of exile to which the African writer is subjected, it is the imperial encounter that is fingered “…I was born in the oral tradition,” he said, “the move from oral tradition to a written tradition is itself one form of exile” (63). The imperial encounter is also located at the heart of another foundational issue, language, explored by the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I quote him in substantial detail:

But there is another sense [apart from physical exile], a larger sense, in which we can talk of exile in African literature. The writers who emerged after the Second World War were nearly all the products of universities at home and abroad. Some of these universities like Ibadan in Nigeria, Makerere in Uganda, Achimota in Ghana had been set up to manufacture an elite that could make a good partnership with the British ruling circles. The curricula reflected little or nothing of the local surroundings


Writers were part of the educated elite, and there was no way they could escape these contradictions. For instance, they nearly all opted for European languages as the means of their creative output. Thus English, French, and Portuguese became the languages of the new African literature. But these languages were spoken by only about 5 per cent of the population. The African Prometheus had been sent to wrest fire from the gods, but instead became a captive contented with warming himself at the fireside of the gods. Otherwise he carried the fire in containers that were completely sealed and for which the majority had no key. For whom were they writing?” (Moving 106-107).

It is not clear how the heralded age of the global will address these issues. What is the language of that globalization itself? Does a weakening of the nation-state equal to an unraveling of the hierarchies hitherto in place, both within the nation and among nations? I don’t see a large thriving community of Iraqis in Mexico or Cambodia, or Americans and Britons rushing in droves to catch the next flight to Nigeria or India for want of a better life. Isn’t globality, like modernity, another way for the West to generalize its “experience of history as the universal experience of the world” (Ngugi, Moving 25) while making others pay the bills? What is the social agency underlying globalization? How can the Ugandan participate in the new age of the global other than as consumer of American made jeans, sneakers, Michael Jackson CDs, and yes, notions of human rights, economic deregulation and liberal democracy—all of which assume an empty, passive, obliging surface for inscription? (See the revelations of Stiglitz, for instance.) When Rushdie called for cities around the world to set up safe havens for writers, which cities does he actually expect to respond to the call? Teheran or New York?

To be sure, the globalist idea of a nation-state unable to embody the aspirations of its people is one African writers would easily relate to; the question they would pose is whether globality, which is replacing the pre-eminence of the nation-state, serves those aspirations. For those who are familiar with African literature, its uneasy relationship with the African politics is legendary. To explain the historical antagonism between these two discourses and practices is none other than to account for the origin of the exile of African artists and cultural workers.

Independence from colonial rule was barely achieved or years old when powerful literary representations of systemic schisms between the people and the new states began to emerge. In other words, while social scientists reveled in the euphoria of independence, helping the new states to fashion “ten-year development plans” and other such grandiose “let’s rush to ‘modernize’” schemes, African writers were busy showing what cakey clay feet the elephants of uhuru (freedom) have. Peter Abrahams’ . Wreath for Udomo (1956), William Conton’s The African (1960), Chinua Achebe’s . Man of the People (1966), Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest (1967)….the list is endless. The represented schisms raise several issues, especially formal and epistemological, about the nature of the postcolonial State.1 And they are precisely the fundamental issues the social sciences avoided for decades after independence and only now discreetly addressing. Such matters include the basic incompatibility between the dominant imposed and undercolonized nation-state form and its supporting institutions, and the subordinated but not completely erased precolonial modes of governance. Hence, argues the literary discourse, the complete lack of affect, the cardinal ingredient of effective governance between the rulers and the ruled. A self-feeding circularity has been the result: because of the state’s lack of legitimacy, there is widespread popular cynicism against it, and incompetence, graft and corruption at all levels of government; the state, without any moral force, cannot mobilize the people except through violence, a situation that further alienates the state from the people. I think Patrick Chabal, the Africanist political scientist, should have included non-African scholars of Africa too when he argued, correctly, that African writers “did more to reveal the reality of postcolonial Africa than most African scholars” (8).

The problematic the literature articulated is this: Africans compulsorily living a modernity they have contributed overwhelmingly to but do not chart and can merely-only-futilely try to modify and domesticate. African literature became such a perspicacious watcher of African politics that it would have been a miracle for both of them to get along in harmony. It is not surprising then that one of the peculiarly postcolonial literary forms is the “writers’ prison diary,” accounts by writers of their imprisonment and often torture by the state. For if the writers were, as I argued, one of the earliest professional / social groups to doubt the new state, they were also, expectedly, among the first of such to encounter its jail or forced exile.

So, if the problems of the African artist are thus specific—linguistic colonialism, national exploitation, imposition of alien political systems and institutions, etc—and those problems implicate the same forces that are now said to define a new global age, what would be globalism and a global diaspora to them, even when they participate in it? When Soyinka unceremoniously escaped—Rambo-style, he likes to say—from Abacha’s Nigeria a few years ago, he probably got a red-carpet welcome in France, Britain and the United States, and I am sure he was grateful. But I am sure that (1) the irony was not lost on him about the historical culpability of these countries in the formation of the peculiar nature of the Nigerian state, and (2) that the real joy for him would be to be in a position to return the welcome by playing host to a Western writer in similar circumstance, or better still, that no one globally should be forced to leave his or her home in that way, so that no one should have to be the ever-welcoming host. Globality and the global diaspora seem to be an unequal and one-way traffic. I have pushed my exploration this way because of my suspicion that the ideas of a global age and a global diaspora, attracted to them as I am, may not be globally shared, and that my attraction to them is simply due to my location in a “metropole” where the intensity of both legal and illegal immigration have contributed to a sense of the US as not a “nation” as such but a land of many diasporas. At instances such as this, I am reminded of the warning by Rey Chow in her book, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, that “third world” intellectuals in the metropole guard against the “lure of diaspora,” that is, the tendency to forget the difference between one’s experience as a diasporic intellectual and that of those “stuck at home” (118). Her words, “stuck at home,” are sobering enough.


Albrow, Martin. The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Chabal, Patrick. Power in Africa: An Essay in Political Interpretation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992

Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Glad, John. Ed. Literature in Exile. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey, 1993.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

Sheffer, Gabriel. Ed. Modern Diasporas in International Politics. London: Croom helm, 1986.

Soyinka, Wole. “Twice Bitten: The Fate of Africa’s Culture Producers.” PMLA 105.1 (Jan. 1990): 110-120.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.


1. This peculiar nature has produced such literary “genres” as “dictatorship literature,” “guerilla poetry,” “theatre for development,” “writers’ prison diary,” and so on. In the other arts, there are categories such as “engaged cartooning” and “rebel music.”

Copyright 2003 Africa Resource Center, Inc.