Africa has a long history with and strong ties to emphatic storytelling with moral teachings. Even the African community in the Carribean has perpetuated this with great tales of the smart rabbit. Often stories are told of how children in rural Africa grew up with their grandmothers sharing folklore around the fire. Ancient tales of stories being shared around a village bonfire have been a strong part of the history we so much relive.
The great spirit of African storytelling did not end with the ancient folklores but found new voices in the modern age. African storytellers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Dambudzo Marechera, Charles Mungoshi, Wole Soyinka, Tsisti Dangarembga, and a number of other contemporary artists found a new voice in print medium to continue with the objective of conscientising the continent and teaching the spirit of Ubuntu at the heart of morality. The stories of these contemporary writers brought to light the struggles that colonial and post-colonial Africa was going through.
In the Congo, one such author who brought to light the struggles the continent was going through was Sony Labou Tansi. Though he was only 47 when he died, Tansi remains one of the most prolific African writers and the most internationally renowned practitioner of the "New African Writing." His novel The Antipeople won the Grand Prix Littéraire d'Afrique Noire. In his later years, he ran a theatrical company in Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo.
Sony’s work explored issues of past colonial exploitation and contemporary political corruption through complex fables that showed elements of satire, dark humour, and fantasy akin to Latin-American magic realism. His work was at a time most African countries had just gained independence yet most African states were under the oppression of their former liberators. An identity crisis still riddled most of Africa.
In 1979 Tansi founded the Rocardo Zulu Theatre and published his first novel, La Vie et demie (1979, Life and a Half), which won the Prix Spécial du Festival de la Francophonie. Soon after his entry in the literary world, Tansi began to earn himself a reputation for his ability to make provocative comments. "I write in French," he once said, "because that is the language in which the people I speak for were raped, that is the language in which myself was raped." His plays were staged in Paris, Dakar, and New York. However, in his own country Tansi was criticized by the Parti Congolais du Travail for his ideologically doubtful views. "Africa is a volcano;" he later wrote in Les Yeux du volcan (1988). "The whole world is another volcano. Our peoples are volcanoes and their eyes are watching us."
The author started writing whilst he was still employed as a teacher. As a tribute to a fellow artist, he adopted the pen name "Sony La'bou Tansi" as a tribute to Tchicaya U Tam'si, a fellow Congolese writer who wrote politically charged poetry about oppressive nature of the state.
In the 1980s, he served under the Congo’s Ministry of Culture where he continued with his work writing a number of poems, plays and books. However, inevitably his work in government and the political themes underlining his work would drive him into politics. At this stage, it was evident he had a passion for serving people and it was time to challenge the system he had strongly criticized in his works.
In the late 1980s he allied with opposition leader Bernard Kolélas to found the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development (MCDDI), a political party acting against the communist regime of President Denis Sassou Nguesso and his Congolese Labour Party. Left-wing forces succeeded in pushing President Sassou toward democracy, and former Prime Minister Pascal Lissouba returned from an extended exile and was elected President in the August 1992 elections. In that same year, Tansi was elected to parliament as a deputy for the Makélékélé arrondissement of Brazzaville, but his participation in opposition politics angered President Lissouba, and his passport was withdrawn in 1994.
In January, reports emerged that Labou Tansi and his wife had sought refuge in Paris for the treatment of an unstated disease. He returned home to Brazzaville in April, encouraged by the fervent support of a large group of French writers and intellectuals who formed the "Association des amis de Sony Labou Tansi". But his wife died of Aids shortly after returning home, and her husband followed her only a few days later.
The spirit of the great writer lives on in his work. It remains as relevant today as it at the time of writing. Africa still finds itself with the same problems that plagued it in the 20th century, contemporary corruption along nepotism, tribal and political lines. Our literature seems to be moving away from the themes as authoritarian leaders clamp down on people who dare to speak up, however, the voices of the people have never been louder than in the arts where leaders such as Bobi Wine of Uganda find the courage to stand up against unprogressive systems.
Header Image Credits: Madinin'Arts