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Listen to the African voices

Most books on Africa available in the United States were not written by Africans. They are books by outsiders: histories of the area compiled by European or American "Africanists," lushly illustrated books on African wildlife prepared by conservationist groups based outside of Africa, or memoirs penned by foreigners who have gone to Africa seeking some form of spiritual enlightenment.

For years these books were embarrassingly paternalistic and demeaning to Africans and their culture. The histories, written by the conqueror and not the conquered, justified the colonial invasion and dispossession of Africa, depicting Africans as children who must be led toward civilization by other peoples, particularly the British and the French. The animal books totally ignored the economic problems on the continent while the memoirs _ Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa is perhaps the most famous _ movingly described the physical beauty of Africa but portrayed the people of these lands in a condescending way.

After the '60s and the growing call for a more multicultural approach to foreign studies, the blatant racism and arrogance began to disappear in books about Africa. As the reviews on these pages show, Americans and Europeans for the most part have moved away from a such a Eurocentric viewpoint when writing about the continent.

History books, such as Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble for Africa: The White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876-1912, make a concerted effort to provide a more objective account of the continent's political, social and cultural development. Visitors to the area, like Eddy L. Harris (Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa), make an honest attempt to understand Africa and its peoples. Even those who still come to the continent with their own psychological agendas, such as Kuki Gallmann (I Dreamed of Africa) and Aaron Latham (The Frozen Leopard: Hunting My Dark Heart in Africa) now treat their hosts with a certain degree of respect.

Yet we still seldom hear what Africans themselves think about Africa. These Western authors have not written from inside the African experience. They may be sympathetic observers. They may even, like Harris, have African ancestry. But they are foreigners.

It's about time we find out how Africans see themselves and the land they inhabit.

As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe says: "Many Europeans have made enormous contributions toward the understanding of Africa in Europe. Some of them have even helped us to see ourselves anew in the freshness of an itinerant perspective. But what we are talking about here is dialogue which requires two people and cannot be replaced by even the most brilliant monologue."

For that dialogue to begin, Westerners must listen to what Africans have to say. One way to begin is to read their literature. The choice available in America is limited but rich, with authors from the English-speaking African nations predominating. Nigerians are particularly well represented, including Achebe, who burst on the scene in the '60s with books about the social disruption of colonialism (Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease) and Wole Soyinka, a playwright who was the first African to win a Nobel Prize in literature.

Achebe's collection of short stories, Girls at War

and Other Stories, has just been released in paperback by Doubleday ($8). In June Doubleday will publish The Famished Road, by another Nigerian, Ben Okri. The novel won the Booker Prize last year, the first time an African has been awarded Britain's most prestigious literary award. This month Dutton released a novel by still another Nigerian, T. Obinkaram Echewa: I Saw the Sky Catch Fire ($20).

To really listen to what Africans have to say, we have to be willing to enter their world on their terms not our own. Americans often balk at things that are not immediately accessible to them. "Why are foreign films so . . . foreign?" asks the popular beer commercial. We are used to foreigners adapting to our way of thinking, not the other way around. Western critics, complains Achebe, criticize African literature for being too African and not "universal" enough, but what they really mean by universal is that it is not American enough: "Does it ever occur to these universalists to try out their game of changing names of characters and places in an American novel, say, a Philip Roth or an Updike, and slotting in African names to see how it works? But of course it would not occur to them. It would never occur to them to doubt the universality of their own literature."

I was reminded of Achebe's words as I was reading I Saw the Sky Catch Fire. Set in Nigeria, the novel is about a man caught between his ambitions to study in the United States and the world he leaves behind in Africa. It is also about that man's discovery of a world that is even a greater enigma to him than a foreign country: the world of women. In this powerful novel Echewa bravely confronts the machoism of his own gender while exploring the extraordinary resilience of his female counterparts.

The night before Ajuzia is to leave for the United States, his grandmother, whom he calls Nne-nne, decides she must tell him stories about the women he grew up around. Leading a war against the white colonizers, and at one point even kidnapping a white anthropologist and holding her hostage, these women are a formidable lot. They are bawdy, hard-working and amazingly loyal to each other.

As Ajuzia's struggles to grasp the mysterious ways of this community of women, united by what Nne-nne calls "Woman's Grief," I struggled to understand a world that couldn't have been further from my own. The text was filled with phrases in Igbo, one of Nigeria's many languages (Echewa even provides a glossary in the back), unfamiliar names and new ways of thinking. What did I know of these women who hoed cassava ridges, trudged from the river with heavy water pots on their heads and a sick baby on their backs, pounded fufu for their husbands' suppers and squatted to deliver their babies?

Yet by novel's end I found myself empathizing with these women and their griefs _ and so does Ajuzia. When he finally returns after five years abroad (someone has cabled him that Nne-nne is on her deathbed), he finds his wife is pregnant by another man. At first he is outraged, but a dying Nne-nne reminds him of his own blame. "At some point you should have realized what you left at home and come back to tend to it," she says. "If you leave a pot on the fire unattended, what you are cooking will burn or boil over."

Universally good advice.

Margo Hammond is book editor of the St. Petersburg Times.