Waiting for an Angel: Portrait of Helon Habila as a Righter
This paper examines Helon Habila's Waiting for an Angel in the context of Niyi Osundare's thesis of “the Writer as righter”, an assertion of the role of the African writer in society. The paper discusses the qualities of Habila’s novel, and how they conform largely to what Osundare believes African writers must demonstrate before they could be considered as ‘righters’. For this purpose, therefore, I have deliberately adopted the Marxist Literary Criticism particularly as it aligns with the revolutionary temper Osundare proposes. The paper adopts content analysis approach in exposing the tyranny of militarism and the reactions of the inhabitants of Poverty Street.
Key words: Righter, tyranny, militarism, African writer, Marxist literarycriticism.
Within the short period of its history, specifically just before and after the independence of most of its states, Africa has produced a crop of writers whose thematic preoccupations have dwelt on many of the topical issues that have come to define post-independence 21st century Africa. The realisation of this historical trajectory coupled with the time of emergence of each writer has birthed what we now know as the generations of African writers. However, scholars like Niyi Osundare and Ngugi wa Thiong'o have shown some concern about the corpus of works by some African writers who fail, in their estimation, to provide the much needed succour and vision capable of changing the terrible state Africa has been plunged into since independence. Thisbecomes the more revealing going by the constant painting of a hopeless situation in their works with their cynical perceptions of their society.
Undoubtedly, to give further weight to his belief on what should constitute the engagements of African writers, Osundare, in 2007, published one of his seminal papers entitled, The Writer as Righter where he provides an incisive exposition on what the focus of Africanwriters should be if they are to become the change agents that would cause positive and radical changes in their society. It is, therefore, within the context of the salient issues raised in Osundare’s The Writer as Righter that I intend to explore Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, with a view to discovering whether or not he has fulfilled Osundare’s prescription. To this end, I choose to adopt the Marxist literary criticism particularly as it aligns with the revolutionary temper Osundare proposes.
The Writer as Righter: An Overview
Niyi Osundare’s assertion in The Writer as Righter (2007) that the African writer is always a ‘righter’ is intriguing as it throws open a window through which the African writer can be examined more closely with reference to his preoccupation or thematic thrust. Osundare (2007: 30) presents us with the view that the African writer does not only write for pleasure and entertainment but to also change the world. Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1981:75) lends credence to this when he affirms that "... the (African) writer can and will help in not only explaining the world but in changing it…" Osundare, therefore, highlights different writers that Africa has produced and points out the obligations they must fulfill for them to be qualified as ‘righters’ indeed.
He says, "A real (African) writer has no alternative to being in constant conflict with oppression" as he locates the cause of Africans’ oppression within the matrix of a global complex of exploitation and does everything within the lens of his imagination to speak against it. This task, Achebe avers, is "a self-imposed responsibility hoisted on the writer by the realities of his existence." Achebe specifically warns:
...any African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of the contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his house burning to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames (Cited in Dasylva 2003: 209).
Many African writers, especially the negritude writers, eulogize Africa in their writings, getting lost in the self-constructed maze of their overwhelming and overbearing nostalgia about the past without a clear insight into the problem of the present, and hardly a vision of tomorrow. They engage themselves in a dialogue with history as they faithfully reproduce the past, but without a progressive recreation of it. These writers, Osundare maintains, are not f i t t o be called ‘righters’.
Similarly, those African writers are not ‘righters’, in Osundare’s view, whose vision and subject (i) focus on the oppressors rather than the oppressed; (ii) believe in the deification of high status and the marginalization of the common man; (iii) whose emotions rise with what they see instead of what they feel; (iv) who have little or no affinity with the working class (v) who were nourished on the intellectual concept of "art for art's sake" and thus reflect this in their writings by remaining silent on the neo-colonial exploitation of Africa, its distressing socio-economic inconsistency, the cannibalistic ethos of its comprador capitalism. These are the people who give the impression that Africa is the sole architect of its own misfortune, thereby leaving out the European factor and forgetting that colonialism was a dictatorial regime that denied people's right to self-determination. These are not “righters” in Osundare’s view as they fail to address the marginalization of the common man, giving him the impetus with which to liberate himself and breathe in a new world of hope. The stance of these writers also runs contrary to the opinion ofNgugi (1972: 50) who said:
African intellectuals (writers) must align themselves with the struggle of the African masses for a meaningful national ideal. For we must strive for a form of social organization that will free the manacled spirit and energy of our people so we can build a new country, and sing, a new song.... The African writer can help in articulating the feelings behind this struggle.