Q1. What do you think of literature as being more effective as reflection on human rights and as a cultural tool that can influence human rights? What is literature’s ability to shed light on human nature and how does that reveal the effects of political actions on individuals. How can literature shed light on human rights abuses in a way that other things can’t?
I want to include in that film and theatre. The writers that I spoke about, moved from writing literature to film for the specific reason of being able to communicate with their own African population. Another writer I spoke about, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o from Kenya, who started out writing plays and short stories. As a result of one play that he wrote which was performed in his local community he was arrested. His detention was triggered specifically by the performance of one of his plays, so these several discourses act as different media for communicating within ones own population the social and political issues, and particularly the human rights issues as well. Literature obviously also reaches an international audience, and as I said at the beginning it’s a very appropriate vehicle for the average person to inform themselves about human rights issues. Now obviously reading a novel is a different form of access to information about human rights issues as opposed to reading a report by the international court of justice, or a report about human rights abuses. But we can for example, introduce high school students to human rights issues by reading a novel, and can introduce community groups who want to inform themselves by showing a film. Those groups are ones which wouldn’t necessarily read a statistical report as readily. Obviously an artist has a different perspective and a different agenda from a social scientist, or a journalist. However, the aspect of such recording that literature brings is often an inside perspective, a perspective from someone in the group whose human rights are being violated. Literature offers us the opportunity to see into the thinking and the responses, while films offer us facial expressions and reactions. We read reports or statistics of how many people are abused or how many people suffered, but when we read literature, we hear from the sufferers. Of course we see that in some documentary films as well, but a literary artist has an opportunity to reflect, to look at a suffering woman from the perspective of her background, it can help us know what she has gone through and therefore why this particular experience helps her in ways that the best documentary is not able to do. Many people say it is just fictionalised, and that’s true, but these African writers who are writing about these issues are speaking or writing if not from personal experience, but experience that is close enough to them so its authenticity is guaranteed.
Q2. How effective do you think that African film and literature are at communicating a more nuanced understanding of some of the complexities that are on the African continent to the outside world, considering its portrayal in the media can be somewhat one-dimensional?
Sembène Ousmane is a perfect example of an African filmmaker who does all those things you just said. Documentary films by African filmmakers also bring different perspectives from documentaries that are made from the outside. Again, there is sometimes the criticism that a person from inside cannot be objective but then one has to also ask the question, ‘how objective is a person from outside?’ The international audience’s interest is so determined by what it sees through the international media that to see a Sembène film with its nuances, really takes someone who is interested in opening themselves up to seeing something they may not understand. Of course the outside journalist is going to translate or interpret things so that that audience can understand it, but it’s important to see a Sembène film where there are some things that you won’t understand. That at least allows us to know that there are other elements involved here that need to be taken into consideration, even though we may not understand what they are. To be able to see films and read novels from African writers gives a perspective that has for the most part not been there. But how do you get an African novel on the curriculum of an eleventh grade class studying English? They read British and American literature.
Q3. “Culture humanises what politics demonises”. How do you think that literature, films, and storytelling can be used to foster a greater intercultural communication and also is there a difference between facilitating an understanding and being able to accept those cultural differences?
Cultural contact and communication is a very good way of opening oneself to the world, humbling ourselves and recognise that people from other cultures essentially have the same basic issues in their lives that we have; we all try to get through the day, however getting through the day is different for some people. In Ghana one often sees beggars, not as often as in Senegal for example, but they are most often the handicapped; although the government has established institutions for the training of the handicapped, some of them say they can earn more money begging than they can with the skill they’ve been trained in. There is a man whose legs don’t work, he cannot walk, I drive past him often on the days when I have to take my daughter to school which is not often, but it’s often enough to have become familiar with him. He sits on the ground, and I give him money most of the times that I pass him, I’m very selective as you can be bombarded, and he always says have a nice day. One day I drove away from him thinking of what a nice day constitutes for this human being. He sits in the sun, and he seems genuinely friendly and that’s an expression that trips off our tongue so easily ‘have a nice day’, and I just wondered what does a nice day mean for this man. You can’t put yourself entirely into someone else’s place, but at least asking the question of what does comfort consist of, what is this family’s dreams for their children, or what is the worst thing that could happen to your family, how do you express or celebrate this or that? Having access to peoples everyday lives is the most important thing about cultural understanding because I don’t think that most people’s everyday lives are affected by what happens in the capital, except to the degree that happens in the capital increases the price of something, but otherwise getting through the day for most people is what life is about and it is in most cases not political as most people cannot afford the luxury of being political. So to the degree that taking a political stance affects how a person votes then yes, but after the election, then it’s about whether that candidate is going to decide to underwrite school uniforms or not. So as far as cultural diplomacy is concerned, seeing films, reading literature, and gaining access to the cultural production of people is one of the most effective things and it needs to be fostered as a form of diplomacy.
Interview conducted by James Hood