MODERN AFRICAN STATES HAVE not lived up to their potential. There are complex reasons for this, reasons worth debating and addressing, but they all lie in the great shadow of an irrefutable truth: that citizens have not yet absorbed the idea of a nation. A nation is not about the geography of land but the geography of the mind. It is an idea, or a collection of ideas.
We Africans may have become well versed in performing the rituals of nationhood - the flags and borders and anthems that keep a people ostensibly united - but what has made other modern states succeed is a faith in its own idea of what it is and its place in the world. We are a people conditioned by our history and by our place in the modern world to look towards "somewhere else" for validation, to see ourselves as inhabitants of the periphery. I am not merely referring to political expressions like "Third World", but to the phenomenon of being outside the centre in ways more subtle than mere politics, in ways metaphysical and psychological.
I do not mean merely having what Chinua Achebe called a history of the dispossessed, but also inheriting and experiencing, as an essential part of one's personal history, a certain kind of conditioning, an accumulation of uncertainties, or to borrow from the title of Tsitsi Dangeremgba's novel, a "nervous condition".
African countries need to change and change occurs through ideas. Literature is an essential repository of ideas. Literature can lead to change, not by espousing crude propaganda but by creating a collective sense of who a people are.
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart--which Nelson Mandela called the book in whose presence the prison walls came down--was for many people across the …