Togo finally gives its authors recognition in its school syllabus

Screenshot from Mawuline2.0‘s YouTube channel.

As a result of a reform of the literature syllabus in secondary schools, Togolese authors are at last making their entry into the lessons of their country. 

Until 2018, literature syllabuses in the Togo education system, notably in secondary schools, privileged the works of foreign writers from the African continent. These consist principally of the great classics like “Maïmouna” by Senegalese Abdoulaye Sadji, The Black Cloth” by Ivorian Bernard Dadié, “Caught In The Storm” by Malian Seydou Badian, “Houseboy” by Cameroonian Ferdinand Oyono, “The African Child” by Guinean Camara Laye , and “The Suns of Independence” by Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma. All these works are foregrounded in school education, to the detriment of the works of Togolese authors.

And yet Togo can boast a long list of authors: the first Togolese novel dates from 1929 — “L'esclave” (The Slave) by Félix Couchoro — followed by works such as “La victime” (The Victim) by Yves-Emmanuel Dogbé, “Morte saison” (Dead Season) by Gnoussira Analla, and “Gaglo ou l’argent cette peste” (Gaglo, or This Plague, Money) by Koffi Gomez.

The Togolese essayist Baguissoga Satra applauds this change in the school syllabus in noting, in a study entitled The Elements of Selection of Togolese Literary Works for the National Education System, that:

Certes, tout récemment (au cours de l’année scolaire 2019-2020), une légère refonte du programme de littérature a été opérée au premier cycle du secondaire. Ainsi, en classe de 6e, on  introduit leJournal d’une bonne” de Dissirama Boutora-Takpa (Prix France-Togo) et en 5e,Des larmes au crépuscule” de Steve Bodjona. Pour cette année en cours (2021-2022), trois ouvrages sont introduits :Atterrissage” de Kangni Alem,Femme infidèle” de Sami Tchak,La guerre des Aputaga” d’Ayayi Togoata Apedo-Amah.

To be sure, just recently (over the 2019–2020 academic year), a light-touch recasting of the literature syllabus has been carried out in the first cycle of the secondary school [ages 11–15]. Thus, in class 6 [UK Year 7/US Grade 6], Dissirama Boutora-Takpa‘s “Journal d’une bonne(Diary of A Maid) (Prix France-Togo, 2002), and in 5 [UK Year 8/US Grade 7], Steve Bodjona‘s “Des larmes au crépuscule” (Tears At Dusk) were introduced. For the current year (20212022), three works are being introduced: Kangni Alem‘s “Atterrissage” (Touching Down), Sami Tchak‘s “Femme infidèle” (Unfaithful Wife), and Ayayi Togoata Apedo-Amah‘sLa guerre des Aputaga” (The Aputagas War).

In emulation of its neighbouring countries, Togo must promote its literature. Witness thise tweet from Marthe Fare, president of Pen Club Togo,  on the occasion of a promotion of Togolese works:

Today I'm at lycée Bassar Ville where I'm dialoguing with students on Togolese literature. With Awoudy publishers, this tour is to help students from Lomé à Dapaong to discover Togolese authors.#TT228 #TgTwittos

— Marthe Fare (@Nounfoh) February 10, 2022

To get a better grasp of the evolution and the belated recognition of this literature, Global Voices chatted with Mawusse Komlan Heka, founder of Editions Awoudy, who are based in Lomé.

According to their website, Editions Awoudy first saw the light of day in 2009 after a long period of eight years of self-publishing from its founder. The company has set its sights on demythologizing publishing in Togo and fostering burgeoning and new emerging talents.

The interview has been edited for style and length.

Jean Sovon (JS): Where does Togolese literature find itself today? 

Mawusse Komlan Heka (MKH): La littérature togolaise se porte au mieux de sa forme puisqu’il y a beaucoup d’auteurs qui écrivent, des éditeurs qui éditent, des activités littéraires qui se font par-ci par-là, quelques émissions littéraires qui passent sur des chaînes. Il y a toujours des lecteurs qui lisent même si ce n’est plus autant qu’avant. On peut donc dire que la littérature togolaise vit et se développe. En termes de contenus, c'est varié et on rencontre tous les genres: récits, théâtre, poésie, essais portant sur des thèmes divers. En termes de qualité, comme partout ailleurs, il y a du très bon, de l’acceptable et du moins bon, au goût du lectorat.

Mawusse Komlan Heka (MKH): Togolese literature is in great shape since there are many authors writing, publishers publishing, literary activities popping up all over the place, some literary shows relayed on broadcast channels. There are stil readers reading, even if not as many as there used to be. So we can say that Togolese literature is alive and developing. In content terms, it's varied, and you can come across every genre: stories, theatre, poetry, essays on diverse topics. In quality terms, like anywhere else, for that matter, there is very good, acceptable and at least good stuff, depending on the taste of the readersip.

JS: Today, Togolese literature can take pride in over 100 writers. What explains this revolution?

MKH: Je crois que cela est dû aux nouvelles maisons d’édition, à commencer par Awoudy et aux activités de promotions initiées pour révéler les talents et encourager d’autres à se faire découvrir. Beaucoup d’auteurs sont longtemps restés dans l’ombre car ils attendaient un déclic pour se lancer. L’évolution technologique, l’ordinateur, l'internet jouent un rôle important dans cette révolution, et c’est plus facile aujourd’hui de faire un livre qu’il y a quelques années.

De plus, les prix littéraires semblent se multiplier depuis quelques années: ainsi le Prix AGAU de Littérature qui en est à sa seconde édition ; le Prix littéraire plumes en herbeIsaac Kokou Fambi est primé en 2020 lauréat de la première édition avec son ouvrage « Un funeste destin » ; le Prix Littéraire France-Togo qui a primé en 2022 Yvette Koulitime Gnossa avec son roman “Faces Cachées” lors de sa 16è édition ; le Prix Littéraire Komlan Menssan NubukpoGuillaume Djondo avec son recueil de poèmes “Senteurs des fleurs fanées” est primé lauréat de l'édition 2022.

MKH: I think it's due to the new publishing houses, starting with Awoudy, and to the promotional activities curated to reveal talents and encourage others to get discovered. Many authors have rested in the shadows a long time waiting for a boost to fly. Technological evolution, the computer, the internet, play an important role in this revolution, and it's easier today to create a book than a few years back.

What's more, literary awards seem to be mushrooming in recent years: so the AGAU Prize for Literature which is on its second iteration; the Plumes en Herbe [Budding Pens’] Literary Award, which was won in 2020 by Isaac Kokou Fambi in its maiden year for his work “Un funeste destin” (A Dire Fate); the France-Togo Literary Award, which in 2022 went to Yvette Koulitime Gnossa for her novel “Faces Cachées” (Hidden Faces) at its 16th presentation; the Komlan Menssan Nubukpo Literary Award which was carried off in the 2022 competition by Guillaume Djondo with his collection of poems “Senteurs des fleurs fanées” (Scents of Faded Flowers).

JS: From 1990 up to the start of the 2010s, the Togolese education system did the job of promoting writers of other nationalities. What does that situation look like today?

MKH: Depuis cinq ans on note un certain changement tant attendu. L’État fait l’effort de mettre à chaque niveau au moins un ouvrage de littérature togolaise au programme. Par exemple, actuellement, “Des Larmes au crépuscule” de Steve Bodjona, publié aux Editions Awoudy, est au programme au Togo en classe de 4e. Réjouissons-nous déjà de ce qui a commencé, mais on espère encore mieux. Par exemple, certains ouvrages togolais sont inscrits au programme, mais n’existent même plus sur le marché, il faut donc remédier à cela. Nous devons aussi pouvoir exporter nos livres pour qu'ils soient lus et étudiés dans les pays voisins. Il est temps que notre littérature aussi soit aussi exportée comme nous avons importé celles des autres pendant si longtemps.

MKH: For five years now we've been noting such a long awaited change. The state is making an effort to give each cohort at least one Togolese literary work on the syllabus. For example, just now, “Des Larmes au crépuscule” (Tears At Dusk) by Steve Bodjona, published by Awoudy, is on the syllabus in Togo Class 4 [UK Year 9/US Grade 8]. Let's celebrate what's already begun, but we hope for even better. For example, certain Togolese works are incorporated into the syllabus, but aren't even in print, so that needs putting right. We also need to be able to export our books so they are read and studied in neighbouring countries. It's time our literature too was exported, the way we've imported other people's for so long.

JS: What view do you hold of the first-generation writers of the 30s to 60s?

MKH: Les anciens sont pour la plupart très bons. Avant, le niveau de langue était élevé et beaucoup de ceux qui écrivaient étaient assez cultivés car ils étaient enseignants ou universitaires. Leur environnement inspirait beaucoup leur écriture. On doit à nos aînés respect et admiration.

MKH: The elders are mostly very good. Before, the level of the language was elevated and many of those who wrote were quite cultured because they were teachers or professors. Their environment greatly inspired their writing. We owe our elders respect and admiration.

JS: What range of themes is more developed in the rising generation?

MKH: L’environnement agit sur l’écrivain dans sa création. De toute évidence, on n'aborde pas la thématique de la négritude ou de la colonisation aujourd'hui comme on le faisait il y a quelques décennies. Mais il y a des thèmes universels qui traversent le temps comme l’amour, la condition humaine, les inégalités sociales. De nos jours, la nouvelle génération écrit sur la migration, la situation politique de nos pays, la vie familiale avec ses secrets et dérives (viol, inceste), la modernité et ses visages (homosexualité, les personnes transgenres), et toujours sur des thèmes classiques (polygamie, mariage forcé, trahison, maltraitance des enfants, rivalités). On retrouve aussi parfois les forces occultes et le merveilleux dans certains textes.

MKH: A writer's environment acts on his or her creativity. Going by the evidence we have, the themes of négritude [Black consciousness] or colonialism are not taken up today as they used to be a few decades ago. But there are universal themes that cut across time, like love, the human condition, social inequalities. Nowadays, the rising generation is writing about migration, the political situation in our country, family life with its secrets and aberrations (rape, incest), modernity and its faces (homosexuality, trans people), and still about classic themes (polygamy, forced marriage, betrayal, mistreatment of children, rivalries). We also find at times occult powers and the miraculous in certain texts.

JS: Your closing words?

MKH: Les acteurs de la culture togolaise et particulièrement ceux de la littérature font part de leurs talents, passion, et moyens pour faire vivre le Togo artistiquement. L’État fait aussi des efforts mais parfois même un simple projet de loi sur les droits d’auteurs met plus de 15 ans pour être validé et voté, ce qui montre à quel point c’est dur d’être un acteur de la littérature. La littérature togolaise a aussi besoin de plus de promotion sur le plan national et international. Nous avons besoin d’être présents sur les différentes foires et salons du mondes. A ce sujet, le Ministère de la culture et du tourisme pourrait nous aider à y participer, même si nous ne sommes pas officiellement invités.

Il reste donc à faire comprendre à beaucoup de gens que la culture est aussi urgente et fondamentale que d’autres secteurs qu’on dit prioritaires. L’éducation repose sur la culture, les livres. Il y a autant de malades psychologiques que physiologiques qui ont besoin d’un conditionnement culturel pour guérir.

MKH: The movers and shakers of Togolese culture and in particular of its literature are sharing their talents, passion, and capacities to bring life to Togo artistically. The state is also making efforts but sometimes even a simple legislative proposal on authorial rights takes over 15 years to be approved and voted, which goes to show just how hard it is to be a literary creator. Togolese literature also need more promotion on a national and international scale. We need to have a presence in the different festivals and circles round the world. In this matter, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism could help us participate, even if we aren't officially invited.

So we still have to make a lot of people understand that culture is as urgent and fundamental as other sectors labelled ‘priority’. Education rests on culture, on books. There are as many psychologically as physiologically sick people who need cultural conditioning to get better.

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