African Novels and Novelists

The term “African,” when applied in this essay to the novel and other literary genres, does not include the Arab states of the north or the peoples of European descent who may have settled in Africa. It refers to the black, indigenous peoples in the southern two-thirds of the continent who, to a limited extent, share a common culture. The geographical area extends from Senegal in the west to Kenya and Somalia in the east and southward to the Cape of Good Hope. It encompasses more than thirty-five countries, which are themselves often arbitrary divisions that cut across tribal groups with different languages and customs. It might seem strange amid all of this diversity to speak of an African novel, rather than, for example, a Kenyan or a Yoruba novel. A few countries, in fact—notably Nigeria—have established their own written literary traditions. What makes the situation even more complicated is that African novels, with a few exceptions, have not been written in African but in European languages, such as French, English, or Portuguese. Thus, most scholars, both African and foreign, attempting to understand the totality of the fiction, while not having to deal with multiple African languages, nevertheless do face a language barrier. In spite of these obstacles and differences, the African novel is a meaningful and manageable category.

Though the history of written African prose goes back at least as far as Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), that is, to the era of the slave trade, and even further back if one includes the Islamic presence in the Sahel and cultural centers such as Timbuktu during the medieval period, the African novel itself is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first African novel is thought to have been Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation (1911), written in English by Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford (also known as Ekra-Agiman), who lived in what is now Ghana. Published a decade later, René Maran’s Batouala (1921; English translation, 1922), pretended to be an attack on colonialism but actually reflected European perceptions. Its author, son of Guyanese parents but born in Martinique, did not spend an extended period of time in Africa until he was twenty-three. Other examples of prose fiction before the 1950’s include the famous African tales of Birago Diop, various oral chronicles in written form, and novels derivative of the French. D. O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale (1939; translated by Wole Soyinka as Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 1984), written in his native Yoruba, and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), written in a dialect of English that captures the primitive tone of oral folk tales, both transform traditional myths and legends into a longer structure that approaches novel form but captures a truly African spirit.

Though Peter Abrahams of South Africa anticipated the movement by about ten years with Mine Boy (1946), the true flowering of the novel came in the 1950’s with Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child, 1954; also known as The African Child), Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954; revised 1963), and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). Since that time, the novel has been a consistently popular form, especially in francophone and anglophone regions. From a multitude of rising novelists, several have emerged as accomplished artists and have attained an international reputation and classic status. Among these writers from francophone countries are Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Ousmane Sembène of Senegal, Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Beti of Cameroon, Camara Laye of Guinea, and Yambo Ouologuem of Mali. Anglophone novelists include Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana; Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ben Okri of Nigeria; Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Grace Ogot of Kenya; Nuruddin Farah of Somalia; and Peter Abrahams, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bessie Head, and Alex La Guma of South Africa. This impressive array of novelists is part of a genuine literary revival in Africa, coinciding with political resistance to colonialism after 1945 and the declarations of independence in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. There is a nearly unanimous feeling of responsibility among these writers toward their own peoples, but also toward the continent as a whole. At the same time, they form an elite literary community that is acutely aware of itself, within which literary influences are common; they have begun to create a written African literary tradition. This fact, together with the brevity of its history, makes it still possible to view the African novel holistically.

Furthermore, in the contemporary world, being African as well as Senegalese or Ghanaian is a political reality. The African novel has developed within an international context; the novelists have undergone extensive exposure to the West, and the subject of the novels was, until the 1980’s and 1990’s, almost exclusively the impact of colonialism. There is a feeling of commonality among black Africans because they have shared the same history over the past several centuries: the slave trade, economic exploitation, colonialism, liberation, and political and economic instability during the postindependence years. They have undergone a common psychological experience. Whatever the particular tribal myths and customs might have been, the immediate problems of survival in the face of foreign intimidation have prompted a self-consciousness and a common purpose. In a sense, the West has made Black Africa aware of itself. The novel has played a significant role in this coming to awareness.

Finally, there is a powerful ideological factor responsible for African unity. Behind the violent initiation into the industrial age, there was not only an expansionist policy of exploitation and conquest but also an assumption among the colonizers that the old Africa was primitive and superstitious, that its cultures were markedly inferior to those cultures that colonized it. In order to counter and modify that image, certain African thinkers as early as the eighteenth century, but especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who had lived in the West and had received a Western education, challenged the primitive image and insisted on the value of their own culture.

Léopold Senghor of Senegal coined the term “negritude” to identify the black peoples of the world, including those peoples no longer living on the African continent. For him, it indicated the collective consciousness of the race. He distinguished African individuals by their different mode of consciousness: Theirs was essentially an emotional response to things, not an intellectual one. Their reason was intuitive, not analytical. Rather than the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” Senghor posited the African “I feel, I dance the other.” This definition of the African was long perceived as a francophone response to the French assimilation policy that tried to create a French mentality among the colonized. Abiola Irele, however, convincingly showed in The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1981) that the concept of an African personality—developed among anglophone Africans in the nineteenth century—was essentially the same, emphasizing the communal, religious sense of the world as characteristic of all Africans, regardless of tribe or region. Both concepts, the one epistemological, the other ontological, are Pan-African and have as their purpose the establishing of a positive, dynamic image for the oppressed peoples of the subcontinent. As a concept within the literary world, negritude, or the African personality, has had such influence and aroused such controversy as to warrant special attention.


Léopold Sédar Senghor

Negritude and the Novel

The concept of negritude, perhaps because of its emotive and mystical dimension, originally found literary expression in poetry rather than fiction. Léopold Senghor himself was a poet as well as a philosophical apologist and political leader. Nevertheless, it appears as a basic assumption in the novel as well, especially those by such francophone writers as Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Camara Laye, and Mongo Beti. Kane’s classic work, Ambiguous Adventure, 1963), presents the tragic psychological and spiritual confrontation of two mentalities. Nurtured as a child within the rituals and mystical atmosphere of an African animism modified by Islam, in which he experienced a spiritual oneness with the universe, the hero, Samba Diallo, becomes a student in a French educational system that is characterized by Cartesian dualism. His fate is to end his life with no identity at all, torn between the two worlds. The only way he has to rejoin the universe that was once his is to die, a service symbolically performed by a madman on his home soil. Though Kane was himself from the French colony of Senegal, as is his hero, the novel seems designed to represent the archetypal situation of a Western-educated African during the 1950’s. It laments the loss of spiritual fulfillment and, at the end, reasserts its primacy. Laye, in his autobiographical novel The Dark Child, gives an even more complete picture of traditional life, this time in a Malinké village of French Guinea: the ancient customs, the daily presence of the supernatural, the animism, the honored craft of the goldsmith, and the terrifying ritual of circumcision.

Laye’s second novel, one of the most impressive creations by an African writer, The Radiance of the King, (1956), is perhaps the most striking example of the concept of negritude incorporated into fiction. Laye dramatizes Senghor’s idea that the West needs the imaginative and spiritual qualities of the black race as much as the African has needed the technical and intellectual lessons of the colonizers. The hero is a white man, Clarence, a rarity in African fiction. At the beginning of the novel, he is the typical arrogant expatriate, with the usual sense of superiority to the blacks around him—even though, with his careless sense that as a white man he is invulnerable, he is practically destitute. Laye puts him through a series of adventures, in particular a long symbolic journey through Africa and the life of a stud in a harem. His journey is in search of the African King, who holds court in the south. Though he originally believes that his race qualifies him to speak to the king, by the end he has cast off his Western assumptions about time, money, work, and inalienable rights and has humbled himself before the mysteries of things, of the senses, and of spiritual transcendence. Laye has thus done more than assert the difference between the West and Africa; he has dramatized the primacy of the senses and the spirit, which the West has lost but which the African still possesses.

Certainly not all francophone writers place such faith in the endurance of an African consciousness. Though Mongo Beti often draws striking contrasts between the two cultures, his satiric purpose either throws emphasis on the insidious danger of Western education and religion or exposes the naïveté and vulnerability of traditional village life. In The Poor Christ of Bomba, (1971), it is primarily the central character, the Reverend Father Drumont, who represents the intolerance and insensitivity of the Catholic Church as it attempts to stamp out pagan practices. By the end of the novel, as his failure to convert the natives drives him back to France, he comes to a notional awareness of the inadequacy of himself and his religion, but, as Eustace Palmer has demonstrated in The Growth of the African Novel (1979), he remains blind to his real responsibility for the changes in Bomba and continues to sadistically project his frustrations through his punishments of the young girls at the mission who have violated his rule of chastity. Lying behind the Catholic vision of reality is the indigenous sense of the sacred and the natural purity of sex, but they seem already removed from their original state. The narrator, Dennis, an acolyte in the Mission of Drumont, has long since lost the mentality of the native village. He exits the novel to work for a Greek merchant.

In another of Beti’s novels, Mission Accomplished, (1958; better known as Mission to Kala), the sixteen-year-old narrator, Jean-Marie, returns to his native village after attending school in the French educational system. He has recently failed his examination, and his education has obviously been incomplete, but the village perceives him as a hero. It is not Jean-Marie, however, who truly knows the world, but the peers he left behind. Gradually, he is initiated into the traditional life of the village and experiences sexual fulfillment. In making a comment on the degrees of usefulness in the education provided by the two societies, Beti assumes a negritudist view of traditional African life. Still, the description is double-edged. Beti satirizes the Kalans for their romanticizing of foreign learning and attacks the father in particular, as Palmer notes, for his authoritarian insistence on his son’s getting a Western education. The father’s tyranny, which may reflect a flaw in the traditional society, drives Jean-Marie away. He, like so many other African heroes, is left wandering between the two worlds. Beti seems pessimistic about the African clinging to a traditional consciousness.

One francophone writer in particular, Yambo Ouologuem, completely rejects the notion of negritude; the naturalistic panorama of African history in his chroniclenovel, Bound to Violence, (1971), unmasks the naked truth. What characterizes Africa (and humankind in general), according to myth, legend, and history, is a penchant for violence, sexual perversion, and political subjugation. Skepticism toward negritude, though it does not elsewhere reach this extreme, is most prevalent among anglophone writers, who have tended to see it as idealistic, needlessly theoretical, and impractical. This idea seems to reflect an “English” insistence on fact and may be the result, to some extent, of English education and English colonial policy. Chinua Achebe, for example, has written two novels that are anthropological rather than theoretical in emphasis: Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God (1964).

Nigerian playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka attacked the concept of negritude directly with his now famous and influential statement that the tiger does not declare his “tigritude.” Yet Soyinka is among the most consistent defenders of African tradition. He objects to what he regards as the backward-looking, nostalgic flavor of the negritudist theory, as well as its vague simplicity and especially its implied acceptance and even glorification of the exploiter’s myth about the African personality. Soyinka contends, in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), for example, that the blacks on the subcontinent are not simply intuitive, sensuous beings, but are as practical, analytical, and sophisticated as their Western counterparts. When he returns to the past and the essential African spirit, it is to recall and reinterpret the myths of his own Yoruban culture, to bring them alive within the contemporary setting. In his novels (as well as his plays), his modern characters are often embodiments of mythical figures; the creator or poet is the servant of the traditional Promethean-Dionysian god, Ogun, and the situations are repetitions of archetypal patterns.

Soyinka’s first novel, (The Interpreters 1965), captures this sense of the past impinging on the present. His “interpreters” are Western-educated Nigerians futilely trying to balance the two worlds in their psyches, to change a society that has imitated and perpetuated the worst features of the new and the old. Although Soyinka uses particular details from his own Yoruban myth and theology, his aim, as his political pronouncements indicate, is Pan-African. Soyinka’s second novel, (Season of Anomy 1973), although somewhat more sensational and melodramatic, follows archetypal patterns, including a paradisal view of precolonial Africa, that assume generalizations about the African continent and, at the same time, provide a point of contact with a foreign consciousness.

Another anglophone novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, based two of his novels on the myth of an African way of life, kept alive by religious leaders, warrior priests, and their followers, who pass the secret down from generation to generation in anticipation of an age when the entire society will be ready to accept it. One is tempted to assume that Armah regards himself and other African intellectuals as members of this secret community. While Armah has a mythical imagination and pan-African aspirations, he does not fit easily into the negritudist concept of Africa. Ousmane Sembène, much more clearly, though a French-speaking African from Senegal, exhibits certain practical, political instincts that place him in the Anglophone camp. In Sembène’s novel (The Last of the Empire, 1983), the major character rejects Senghor’s romantic vision of Africa in favor of native social values that are not simple responses to a myth of Africa perpetuated by white people. Though originally Marxist-inspired, as is evident in the earlier novels, Sembène seems to be envisioning a truly African socialism drawn from traditional sources. Again, however, even when the negritudist position is called into question, the alternative is not usually an insistence on local or provincial values but on values that include the entire subcontinent.


The language Problem

From the point of view of negritude, of the African personality, or of an alternative, there emerges a concept of Africa as one entity that has to some extent contributed to the shaping of an African novel. That is, African writers seem to have a consciousness of themselves that extends beyond their tribal origins or “national” identity. Theirs is a rather special situation in the modern world. What makes it even more special is the language they choose for their works. In the brief history of the African novel, practitioners have in most cases been at least bilingual. They have their own tribal language, which often offers no written tradition, and they have the language of the European country that colonized their regions—in whose educational system they received their introduction to Western culture and literature. Almost without exception, African novelists have expressed themselves in the official European language. Obviously, the choice of a foreign linguistic medium works against the expression of an indigenous African personality, for it is extremely difficult to communicate the mentality of a tribe (or a race) without using the language in which the instinctive responses to life are learned. To put them into another language is tantamount to translating the rhythms of native speech into a foreign idiom. This concept has raised the basic aesthetic problem that writing a novel in French, English, or Portuguese would seem to deny the importance of its Africanness.

Without dismissing the significance of this fact, one must also admit that choosing a European language has enabled writers to cross tribal and national boundaries. Not that the use of a foreign tongue was entirely a matter of choice; certain conditions dictated it. It was through the study of the novel in the foreign idiom that the first generations of African novelists learned their craft. Their audience was not, in the beginning, within Africa but in Europe, and indeed the early novels, satiric attacks on Western culture and defenses of a traditional African culture, were largely addressed to a foreign readership. In addition, financial realities dictated foreign publication. Now that there is an established Western-educated elite in Africa, readership has expanded and evolved. Still, in order to speak to the entire continent, and not only to one tribe within one or two countries whose members speak the novelist’s mother tongue, European languages have remained the primary means of communication. Sembène found film, not the novel, to be an effective means of using the local language. After writing three successful novels in English, Ngugi wa Thiong’o renounced the language of the British colonizers and began writing only in his native Kikuyu and in Swahili, the lingua franca of much of East Africa. In his novels (Devil on the Cross, 1982), (Matigari, 1989), and (Wizard of the Crow, 2006), Ngugi speaks directly to the Kikuyu people in Kenya by writing in their common language. Devil on the Cross was popular enough to go through three editions in Kikuyu; he then translated the novel into English, trying to preserve the native idiom.

Ngugi aside, because the African novel has usually been written in the language of the colonizer, it has had to contend with a corollary issue: whether it is, in fact, an appendage of the mother country—that is, an extension of French or English literature. One of the literary issues facing the African novel, then, is its uniqueness. Has the novelist been able to manipulate the language so that it has become an African medium, or is language itself so essentially a part of culture that Africans must use their own to express their Africanness? Dealt with in this way, the issue is not political but aesthetic, and it has plagued chauvinist sentiment since the inception of the novel in the 1950’s. Ngugi explores the full implications of language for African writers in Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986).

Chinua Achebe was perhaps the most successful in dealing with the problem, both in his criticism (Morning Yet on Creation Day, 1975) and in his novels. The two set in a traditional village during the colonial era (Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God) overcome the barrier by imitating the pattern of Igbo thought in the structure of the English sentence, relying on images and figures of speech from the local setting, and sprinkling traditional proverbs throughout the narrative and dialogue. The novels set in more modern times (No Longer at Ease, 1960, A Man of the People, 1966, and Anthills of the Savannah, 1987) continue this practice to some extent, but they rely also on the pidgin English of contemporary Nigeria. Achebe’s predecessor in Nigeria, Amos Tutuola, who achieved a kind of notoriety through his use of nonidiomatic English in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, raises his own aesthetic and generic problems. Some novelists, such as Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, and Ahmadou Kourouma, seem to have found a satisfactory linguistic compromise. Others have not seen the issue as crucial or have found different ways to reflect an African quality in the total structure and technique. While novelists in Africa have had to experiment with the form, a slowly developing tradition led away from formal realism toward Magical Realism in the 1980’s and 1990’s, influenced no doubt by Latin American authors.


Chinua Achebe

The Major Theme: A Quest for Identity

Whatever else may be said to distinguish the African novel from its Western counterparts—whether a unique consciousness significantly modifies the conventional form—there can be no doubt about its content. The African novel has had as its subject the African experience, and formal realism has been one of the essential modes in presenting it. Colonialism is at the center of this experience. Western industrial society has forced Africa to repeat its 250-year transition within a matter of decades. The Western novel has developed over that same period; in Africa, as it evolved during the second half of the twentieth century, it became an instrument in Africa’s response to the West’s cultural and economic imperialism.

Formal realism has allowed African writers to describe their situation in a convincing manner and attack both foreign presumptions and local acquiescence. The novel, born of an economic era that stressed the reality of things, money, upward social mobility, materialism, and individualism, proved to be appropriate for the kind of existence the West was forcing Africa to live. The African novel is both description and critique, but it has an ultimate goal. Its subject, viewed holistically, is a search for identity. Africa presents a special instance of this significant theme in modern literature, which Robert Langbaum, in his study The Mysteries of Identity (1977), explores in such “romantic” figures as William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence. For Langbaum, identity and humanity are interchangeable. The denial of humanity by industrial and technological progress, however, is compounded in Africa by the attempt of the West over the past several centuries to assert its superiority in all aspects of culture. The West has put Africans in the position of denying the value of their past. In order to recover that past, defend it, put it into perspective, and deal with the modern threat and its consequences, novelists have examined the various stages of Africa’s contact with the West. Four periods in African history have come under scrutiny: the precolonial era, when the African village was supposedly intact; the colonial era, during which the central motif was a conflict of cultures; the resistance movement and the establishment of independent states; and finally the ensuing period of self-rule, dominated by economic distress, political corruption, and what Ngugi calls “neocolonialism.” In this final phase, experimental novelists suggested new directions in thought and aesthetics. A few novels from the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first attempt to give a panoramic view, but most concentrate on one or two of these phases.

The Precolonial Era

The attempt to re-create African society before the arrival of Europeans is generally a defense of African culture and hence of its humanity. Such depictions are often idealistic and even improbable—thus the advantage of the novel form that uses formal realism to establish the illusion of reality. Laye, in The Dark Child, nostalgically describes experiences that were no doubt his own in a village untouched by the outside world. Everything takes place in an atmosphere of mystery, spiritual presences, magical interactions between humans and animals, and rituals that have real and sacred meanings. The absolute faith of the young narrator as he tells the actual events of his early life in unpretentious, simple language lends credibility to the implied argument that such occurrences actually happened. This is not legend, but “fact.” The sacred nature of things is named as part of the identity of the old life.

The experience of Samba Diallo in Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure is similar, though here Islam has become an integral part of African animism and encourages an even more mystical and metaphysical identification with cosmic forces and death. When Ngugi alludes to precolonial days, as in The River Between (1965), he also suggests an idyllic existence; rather than re-create it, however, he usually relies upon the myths and legends about the origins of Kenya. Armah, on the other hand, in both Two Thousand Seasons (1973) and The Healers (1978), makes a daring attempt to create a timeless society that maintains the values of community and selfsacrifice. Consisting as it does of exiles who become guerrillas fighting for the restoration of old Africa, it hardly becomes credible on a realistic level. In Armah’s case, the moral purpose of the search makes the demand of formal realism almost irrelevant.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, which argues that precolonial Africa was not essentially different from its subsequent history of sadism, violence, and treachery. It is difficult to see this novel as anything but an attempt to debunk the nostalgic view of the past. Achebe, who strives to create an impression of complete objectivity, presents an interpretation of traditional African culture between the two extremes. Rather than glorify the past, he takes pains to describe its daily life, the heroism and failings of ordinary inhabitants of the village. The legends become tales that mothers tell their children. The rituals have a perceivable function within the seasonal cycle. The proverbs are practical ways of dealing with other people, with natural forces, and with the gods. Though there are protagonists in both Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God who reflect the traditional life, and though one of them is, in fact, the chief priest of the tribe, Achebe does not insist upon a mystical reality among the Igbo to which European civilization is insensitive. Both protagonists are practical, pragmatic members of society whose downfall, nevertheless, results from the human failings of pride, stubbornness, and self-interest.

The emphasis in Achebe is not so much on the cultural values as it is on the humanity of the African, which differs in no essential respect from that of the invading European, though the rhetorical argument of the novels emphasizes the African’s humanity at the expense of the particular breed of Englishman representing the British Empire in Nigeria. Achebe’s precolonial Africa is a rational, ordered, self-sufficient society, with a legal system capable of coping with violations to the social order, a belief in a supreme being, and a concept of the gods as human creations designed to serve human needs. He also acknowledges that certain customs in traditional life were needlessly cruel and superstitious. The balancing of the virtues and failings makes the total picture believable and lends credibility to the underlying argument that the Western view of African primitivism is prejudicial and self-serving.

The Colonial era: A Conflict of Cultures

Though numerous African novels attempt to identify traditional life, either through an extensive treatment, as in Achebe’s works, or through brief glimpses of the recent or distant past, few confine themselves exclusively to that era, recognizing perhaps the impossibility of return and the necessity of redefining the African identity within an international context. In fact, until the mid- 1960’s, at which time most African states had achieved their independence, the dominant subject of the novel was the initial contact between Africa and the West and the disruption of tribal life. Underlying the conflict of cultures in these novels is racism on the part of the West, which the African was not prepared to cope with, making it difficult to reestablish a clear sense of self. European culture pervaded every part of African life. European mentality and the various institutions that reflected it—the church, education, the law, and the economic system—gradually insinuated themselves into the social fabric.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a classic example of the process, modified by the author’s own premise that resilience and adaptation are essential for human survival. Okonkwo is an aggressive, ambitious individual who has difficulty accommodating himself even within his own traditional world, which is in most cases flexible enough to tolerate his defiance and admire his material success. His concern over his masculine image and his unpredictable resistance to authority—natural, supernatural, or human—prove to be his downfall, however, when it is not his own tribal custom that rises to chastise him but the foreign English authority. Okonkwo’s life covers the crucial period of transition between the old and the new. Though he has passed his youth and achieved his social status within a traditional framework, he has to maintain his success and his image in a changing society.

During his enforced exile of seven years for accidentally killing a member of the clan, English institutions infiltrate his native village. He returns to see his own status diminished and his fellow villagers adopting English ways. When Achebe comments on this process, he presents the typical sequence experienced in practically every African country. The missionary moves in with a new religion and a new god. The clan innocently tolerates his presence and even ridicules him, because he attracts only the social outcasts and builds his church on accursed land. In spite of expectations, the church thrives and continues to make converts, one of whom is Okonkwo’s own son, rebellious against his father’s authoritarian treatment. Achebe calls the church the knife that cuts the ties binding the society together: Without spiritual cohesiveness, the tribe falls apart. Into this disintegrated society enter the government and its legal system. Now Okonkwo is in danger of violating not only his own social codes but also those of white people. It is when the English administration tries to establish control over the village that Okonkwo asserts his manhood—his sense of self defined by his life within traditional society. Okonkwo symbolically lashes out by attacking a representative of the new order and, rather than be humiliated by becoming a victim of English justice, hangs himself.

Meanwhile, the third significant institution has already begun its encroachment on the minds of the villagers: Okonkwo’s Christian son has been receiving an English education. He has learned how to speak and write English—the crucial first step in the new system. When the novel ends, he is already studying in a teachers’ college so that he can enter the ranks of a Westernized bureaucracy. Okonkwo is symbolic of the dying order. The issue in the novel is the inevitability of change, the necessity of adaptation, and the intense desire, nevertheless, to somehow retain a sense of one’s integrity, which is certainly not to be found in the unattractive picture of English character that closes the novel, the district commissioner reducing the tragedies of the village and Okonkwo to one paragraph in his projected study, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

In much more strident and emotional fashion, Ngugi traces the same process of English exploitation. His language becomes more and more that of a revolutionary, intensified by his disenchantment with Christianity, his Marxist ideology, and the particular nature of colonialism in Kenya, which attracted not only European and American industrialists but also settlers who bought and occupied fertile Kenyan lands and subjugated the inhabitants to the role of tenants. Ngugi’s strategy is often to decry this exploitation of the land. To the Kikuyu tribe, land is sacred, its possession sanctioned by the gods. Ngugi draws a parallel between the biblical story of Eden and the Kikuyu myth that defines Kenya as the garden granted to descendants of the original parents. This appeal to myth and the sacred arouses passions that Achebe chooses not to inject into his works. Still, like Achebe, Ngugi points to the Christian Church as the initial culprit in the disasters that befall his country: Missionaries are the prophets of capitalism, and hence their message is tainted. They lull the inhabitants into an acceptance of the foreigner. The education they provide seems to be the wisdom of the future, to contain the “light” of salvation. Weep Not, Child (1964) has as its main motif the exposure of this panacea: Acceptance of Western education and religion means submission to Western imperialism.

It is primarily in The River Between, however, that Ngugi presents the head-to-head conflict between traditional culture and the new Christian faith. He symbolically uses a river to separate the adherents to traditional custom and the new Christian converts. The protagonist, Waiyaki, educated within the British system but sympathetic to the spiritual life of the past, tries to unite the two. His role is complicated by his being in love with the daughter of the pastor who puritanically leads the Christian element of the population. Like Achebe, Ngugi does not see the situation as a simple black-white melodrama. Waiyaki’s defeat is at the hands of devious elements within traditional society, and the Christian intruder is not a white missionary but an African who has become obsessed by the Christian message. Thus, Ngugi’s attack is directed as much against the dupes of Western imperialism—who become traitors to Kenya—as against the foreign force itself. Waiyaki himself carries within him the taint of his mission-school education: He is a messianic hero, his language is sprinkled with biblical images, and his fate is that of a “Christian” martyr who, however, achieves nothing.

It is difficult to determine whether, in this early novel, Ngugi admires the young romantic individualist or looks at him ironically for his narcissism and his want of political savvy. He nevertheless offers evidence that the alien society has infiltrated the consciousness of the people and has set the old and the new forces on a collision course that a simple romantic idealism cannot prevent. The great enemies of traditional culture, for Ngugi, are Christianity and capitalism. It is the former that occupies Ngugi in this early novel and attracts more and more of his venom as his pessimism and his social and political involvement deepen.


Mongo Beti

Perhaps the most devastating critique of Christianity’s impact on African culture is Beti’s The Poor Christ of Bomba. It presents a striking contrast between the natural, uninhibited sexual attitudes and social forms of the native people of Cameroon and the Church’s absolute notions of sexual purity, abstinence, and monogamy. The Reverend Father Drumont’s mission to convert the natives leads not to the virgin ideal but to either total rejection of his dogma or a deceitful subversion of it that spreads syphilis throughout the region. This has both a real and a symbolic significance. The Church has not really succeeded in establishing itself, but it may, nevertheless, have contaminated the rhythms of life it has tried to replace. The novel is also a philosophical analysis of the Catholic menace. In this roman à thèse, Father Drumont engages in periodic discussions with the local administrator, Vidal, who views Christianity in the skeptical European manner but who regards it as an essential weapon in the struggle against Marxism in Africa. Specifically, Vidal confirms Ngugi’s and Achebe’s contention that the role of the missionary is to soften the natives’ resistance to political and economic exploitation. At the same time, he is convinced that the introduction of French civilization is for the Africans’ benefit.

Father Drumont had never shared these assumptions but had come to Cameroon as an idealist to save the natives for Christ, naïvely believing that his religion so clearly represented the truth that the lost, unfortunate natives would hunger after it. Whatever Father Drumont’s failings may be at the end of his experience, he does eventually admit his ignorance and youthful innocence. In his last conversation with Vidal, he rejects his role as a prophet for capitalism. Besides, he has seen clearly that the natives’ acceptance of Christianity is superficial, a purely formal one arising first out of curiosity, then out of fear and self-defense. He has never reached their souls. In addition, he recognizes that they have, almost from the start, seen through the subtle process of exploitation. Though he still makes statements that indicate an insensitivity toward their culture, he has begun to admit their intelligence and their humanity, thus emphasizing, as do other aspects of the novel, the dominant motif of colonial fiction—the insistence on an independent African identity.

These, then, are three among many African novels that treat the challenge to African identity during the initial conflict with the West. Where white characters appear, they are either stereotypes—thus reversing expectations and pointing up the depth of the African character by contrast—or, in the exceptional case of The Poor Christ of Bomba, complex individuals exposing the immorality and deficiency of the European in Africa. Here, it is the African who perceives and interprets human nature. These novels are set within the village, where white people are anomalies, albinos, ghosts riding their iron horses—comic precursors of doom. In these novels, one also finds the transition already beginning between the old and new orders. A few Africans have adopted Western ways, become Christian, joined the administration, learned to read and write. They have assumed an importance in society because they have the foreign government behind them. The black missionary is a potent force. It would appear that the only way to survive is to change allegiances.

Sembène, because of his atypical education and experiences among the poor, presents a special variation of the transition. His novel, oh my country, my beautiful people (1957), is also, for the most part, set in a rural community, the Casamance region of Senegal, but establishes its ties with the urban seat of government and with the mother country, France. More important, it has as its protagonist Oumar Faye, a son of the region who has fought in the European wars, has had extensive experience in France, and has discovered and defended his identity among white people. He returns home to a people who have not yet learned that they can face up to the white political and economic leaders who are controlling their lives. His mission is to unite the farmers into a cooperative strong enough to resist pressures from the white businesspeople—a community effort that draws upon African and Marxist ideals—but also open enough to introduce technological knowledge from the West.

Again, white people tend to be stereotyped, but Sembène at least makes an attempt at compromise here, too, through a mixed marriage. Oumar brings back with him a Frenchwoman who sincerely joins in with the traditional life, eventually wins over Oumar’s family, and ends the novel pregnant with a symbolic union of the two races and cultures. Sembène has obviously moved beyond a definition of the conflict toward a political and ideological solution. To some extent, he re-creates the traditional life in the family and in the fishing and farming communities, but his attitude, shaped as it is by contact with the West, tends to be critical of those customs that militate against reason, individualism, and practical adaptation to the contemporary world. Yet, through all of this, one continues to sense a loyalty to Africa, a love of the land, and a preservation of tradition.

Other novels, which transport the African to the city, deal with a later stage of the colonial period and are mainly concerned with the phenomenon of alienation and disorientation. No longer surrounded by traditional custom, the protagonists must adapt to the white people’s world. Perhaps the writer who deals with this situation most extensively is Cyprian Ekwensi. This prolific storyteller has attempted to describe practically every phase of African life, including the old precolonial era, but such accounts as found in his Burning Grass (1962), about the Fulani herdsmen of northern Nigeria, seem more like tales than novels.

One can almost say the same about Ekwensi’s stories of city life: People of the City, Lokotown, and Other Stories (1966), Jagua Nana (1961), and Jagua Nana’s Daughter (1986). People of the City, the first Nigerian novel to reach an international audience, introduces a common motif: the youth who has left the village and is trying to make his way in the city. Ekwensi’s rather improbable (and Western) choice to make his hero, Amusa Sango, a crime reporter and a part-time trumpeter in a dance band nevertheless gives him the opportunity to introduce practically every facet of the city’s teeming life. However, improbabilities, so uncharacteristic of what one expects in a novel, plague the development of Amusa’s adventures.

Ekwensi defines Amusa as the most eligible bachelor in the entire metropolis of Lagos, anxious to achieve success but addicted to pleasure and especially to women. His irresistible charm (never made convincing) almost appears to be authorial wish-fulfillment, as not only the loose women of the city but also the respectable seek him out and involve him in seemingly inextricable situations. Aina, a Moll Flanders type, enters the novel as his mistress, soon goes to jail as a thief, and eventually uses her pregnancy (by another man) to appeal to his conscience, while her vindictive mother, thinking he is responsible for her imprisonment, unsuccessfully tries to implicate him in an illegal racket. Beatrice, a social climber who attaches herself to numerous successful men, but especially white men, also becomes Amusa’s mistress. Then there is Elina, Amusa’s childhood fiancé, whom he tries his best to abandon because she is plain and holds none of the excitement of city life. The fourth attraction is a well-educated, respectable girl, also named Beatrice for some curious symbolic reason, who apparently combines the best of two worlds but whom Amusa cannot marry until Aina has a miscarriage. Aina’s mother suffers a miraculous change of heart, Beatrice the First is mauled to death by women whom she had slighted in her ambitious seductions, Amusa’s own mother dies (leaving him to choose his own wife), and Beatrice the Second’s fiancé commits suicide after failing his medical examinations. The novel ends as Amusa and Beatrice incredibly set off into the sunset in a lorry bound for Ghana (the Gold Coast).

Amusa’s adventures have involved him in all the “romance” of the city: theft, murder, prostitution, political and economic corruption, and swindling and racketeering, as well as an election and a labor march mourning the death of a spiritual leader who is described as an African Gandhi. The message is clear that money has replaced the old values, in particular loyalty to relatives and to the people of one’s own country. Amusa has to experience it all before he can accept the responsibility of doing something and becoming something—that is what his self-imposed exile is all about. It is difficult to take this romantic, melodramatic, chaotic novel seriously. Yet Ekwensi wrote better works, and this is his first. For a long time it was pointed to as the first anglophone novel to be widely read outside Africa. It is thus historically important. It is also an unfortunate example of some of the worst elements in Western fiction and illustrates what appears to a Western reader to be a complete loss of an African perception. It is difficult to distinguish Amusa’s goal of success from a Western one, or from Ekwensi’s. His father’s challenge to seek opportunities in the new world, to do something, to become something makes success a definition of one’s humanity. Thus, People of the City is, above all, in both its story and its point of view, a record of the moral confusion that Western civilization has incited in such urban centers as Lagos in West Africa.

In Jagua Nana, Ekwensi is again in Lagos, and the protagonist is a female version of Amusa Sango, a fortyfive-year-old prostitute with dreams of marrying into the elite. She plans to achieve her goal by sending her young lover, Freddie Namme, to England to get a degree in law. When he abandons her for a younger woman and then dies in a political vendetta, she returns to her native village and dreams of setting herself up as an independent merchant. Ekwensi fleshes out this skeletal plot with almost as many varied adventures as make up People of the City and with the same titillating language. The male protagonist, Freddie, is even closer than Amusa to the fictional type that dominates the late colonial period: the young, Western-educated African—usually a “beento”—whose main goal is to imitate white people, enter the elite of the city, drive a car, have money, and attract women. That is, he not only has rejected but also is ashamed of his past and wants to be completely independent of the old ties of loyalty. Unlike Amusa, Freddie must pay for his selfishness and betrayal with his own death, but Jagua Nana herself survives and returns to moral sanity. Jagua Nana became such a popular character in Nigeria that Ekwenski returned to her twenty-five years later with Jagua Nana’s Daughter. In the sequel, Liza, the daughter, has reaped the benefits of the struggles of her mother’s generation. She is educated, sophisticated, and ultimately happy.

Achebe, in No Longer at Ease, also examines the experience of the “been-to.” However, rather than allow the melodramatic elements to get out of hand, Achebe uses various devices, such as flashbacks, juxtaposition, point of view, irony, and humor, to force a judgment of the protagonist, Obi Okonkwo (grandson of the hero in Things Fall Apart). The novel begins with his trial and indictment, for example, and the plot moves inexorably toward a financial and moral indebtedness that tempts him into the widespread practice of accepting bribes. Though he begins his life in Lagos with a sense of mission, to remain above the prevailing moral corruption, he eventually succumbs but is not clever enough to succeed. Through Obi and his experience, Achebe indicts the entire Nigerian society for its unfair demands on the young, for the corruption of the older members in both the city and the native village, for the false values that have replaced the traditional ones, and for the vanity and naïve expectations of the young. Nor do the racist British bosses escape blame. No Longer at Ease may not have the firm sense of place and authority found in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, but it convincingly reveals the loss of identity and integrity in the transition from village to city.

Both Achebe and Ekwensi are Nigerians, with Lagos providing their common example of the new culture in Africa, but their perception is not essentially different from that of observers in other regions with somewhat different colonial histories. Lenrie Peters, from Gambia and Sierra Leone, describes a similar situation in his novel The Second Round (1965). In this case, however, the protagonist, Dr. Kawa, retains his integrity. He returns from England with his medical degree and with high ideals of serving his country but finds Freetown a divided city, European civilization having modified the traditional society. Uncomfortable in the superficial, materialistic environment and unable to satisfy the expectations of his mother and friends, Kawa decides to transfer to a country hospital in hopes of washing off the stain of moral contamination. In spite of his moral integrity and his attack on superficial Western values, Kawa remains a contemporary man. This novel is at a far remove from the negritudist perception of an African personality that one finds in the novels of Laye.

The same can be said of the novels of city life that come out of South Africa, an area that poses a special problem to readers of African literature. Until the 1990’s, it represented an entrenched colonialism, a white minority that controlled the political, social, and economic situation under the system of apartheid. On the other hand, South Africa has long been so highly industrialized that relations between the races resemble the American experience in that black writers are often far removed from their tribal roots. The return to an African identity that shapes literature through much of the continent has not been a major motif in South African work.

This can, at least, be said for one of the country’s most prolific novelists of the colonial period, Peter Abrahams, born in a Johannesburg slum, son of a black father and a colored mother. Early in his life, he made the breaking down of the color barrier a major conviction and goal, and rejected negritude, which seemed to glorify blackness and emphasize racial distinctions. For him, spiritual freedom and individualism, Western values with an early touch of Marxism, ignored distinctions of race. Eventually, as his later novels reveal, he argued that political freedom must precede individual freedom. His novel of city life, Mine Boy, written in his mid-twenties, already indicates these directions of his thought. Its purpose is to expose the evils of apartheid, which denies the humanity of blacks and either maims or kills them. Xuma, a strong young man from the country, comes to the city with illusions of money and success. He receives evidence of the city’s destructiveness in the form of disheartened men and women, hears advice from Leah, a magnificent mother-protectress, but remains in his ignorance until he goes to work in the mines.

Once on the white people’s ground, he begins to feel his inferiority. It requires the support and wisdom of his Irish boss, Paddy O’Shea—a Marxist and hence a rare example of tolerance among white people—before he recovers his sense of integrity. He then becomes aware of the political situation that will not allow him his humanity, and this, in turn, prompts him to lead a strike against his white bosses at the mine. Though still subject to apartheid law at the end of the novel, he declares himself a spokesman for his people—the role that Abrahams himself has assumed. Through all of this, it is evident that Abrahams makes no appeal to tribal values. It is the Westerner, Paddy O’Shea, who guides him, and, though Marxism may be at the root of the economic struggle, it is Western individualism that wins him over. Abrahams himself insists that racism, prejudice, and provincialism are prevalent in every culture and that international understanding and pluralism are the answer.

Abrahams’s critique of society, in particular the city, is tame and romanticized in comparison with that of another South African, Alex La Guma, who relies extensively on realistic and naturalistic detail. His attack is almost exclusively against the evils of apartheid, which necessitates underground resistance (In the Fog of the Seasons’ End, 1972) and results in large portions of the nonwhite population spending their lives in prison for politically or economically motivated crimes (The Stone Country, 1967). In the former novel, La Guma inserts a typical interrogation of a nonwhite by a white authority who details the endless regulations that control the nonwhite’s movements within the country. Both of these novels deal with urban blacks, but La Guma’s earlier work, the short novel A Walk in the Night (1962), gives the clearest picture of what it is like for a nonwhite to live in a South African city. It recounts the events of one evening in the life of a Coloured, Michael Adonis—a bitterly ironic choice of names—who has recently been fired from his factory job for speaking disrespectfully to his white superior.

Frustrated and angry, Michael wanders the streets, frequents old restaurants and bars, is interrogated by a policeman, comes into contact with the lower elements of society, and ends up at the house of his neighbor, Mr. Doughty, an old Irishman and formerly successful actor whom life has beaten into alcoholism. In a drunken fit of passion and resentment over Doughty’s philosophizing, but especially over his whiteness, Michael hits him with a wine bottle and kills him. He has a series of psychological reactions to this, his first murder—rationalization, indifference, a sense of superiority, entrapment, and fear. Ironically, it is not Michael whom an informer names as the guilty party, but Willieboy, one of his acquaintances in the streets. In a brutal sequence of scenes, the police constable, Raalt, chases Willieboy like an animal, shoots him, and allows him to die in the back of his van while he stops to buy cigarettes on the way to the station. Michael has no idea that Willieboy has died in his place, that he is a “sacrificial victim.” The old Irishman who futilely quotes William Shakespeare to Michael, describing life as the ghost of Hamlet’s father walking the night, cannot become his spiritual father. The only culture in these streets is in the gangsters and cowboys at the cinema. Joe, the young vagabond who wanders through the novel, warns Michael to preserve his integrity, but this advice, too, fails.

Michael decides to join a band of thieves. Hope seems impossible. La Guma ends the novel with a cockroach gorging itself on a mixture of liquor and vomit in old Mr. Doughty’s room; John Abrahams, the informer, living in shame and helplessness; Joe escaping the city for the sea; and the anonymous Frank Lorenzo, with his five children and his pregnant wife, Grace, looking to the dawn. The irony of Michael Adonis’s name continues to the bitter end. The experience of the black South African is almost a thing apart. It seems closer to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) than to colonial literature in the rest of black Africa. Nevertheless, the need for community, which Michael is able to find only in a robber gang and which Joe seeks in Michael, is as real in its absence as in Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). Identity within the community is an essential motif within these African novels.

From Resistance to Independence

The theme of resistance to apartheid, strongly suggested in such novels as Mine Boy, A Walk in the Night, and The Stone Country and treated directly by In the Fog of the Seasons’ End, finds its parallels in the countries to the north. Throughout the colonial period, before the final achievement of independence in the early 1960’s, there were pockets of resistance to foreign intervention. Armah presents this phenomenon mythically in The Healers and Two Thousand Seasons, the former concentrating on the defeat of the Ashanti during the British conquest of Ghana in the late nineteenth century, the latter tracing the resistance to exploitation over the past one thousand years. Armah raises the issue of the slave trade, a rarity in African fiction, and accuses his own people of complicity and betrayal in this and in the turning over of power to British authority. In both novels, however, he contends that a group of spiritual leaders has continued to preserve the old African traditions and has periodically engaged in guerrilla warfare in order to survive.

Mongo Beti of Cameroon attempts a more realistic account of the struggle in Remember Ruben (1973; English translation, 1980). It deals with the exploits of a trade union leader, who first opposes the French through political means but eventually must become a guerrilla leader. The novel has a romantic strain as well: MorZamba, the true protagonist, attains heroic status in the eyes of his fellows. It is his realization that constitutes the message of the novel, that the struggle has nothing to do with individual personalities or personal gain, that the goal is not simply political power or economic control but African identity and spiritual independence of foreign cultural domination.

Meja Mwangi of Kenya, in his Carcase for Hounds (1974), relies even more than Beti on pure realistic detail. He examines the role of one particular group of Mau Mau fighters, the carryover of tribal ferocity into the struggle for liberation, and, in particular, the quest of the legendary General Haraka for the heads of tribal chiefs who side with the British. More gruesome, however, is the loyalty code that demands success or death. The novel ends with Kimamo, who functions as the main focus of narration, nursing his wounded and feverish general, watching him execute a fellow terrorist who has failed in a mission, and then watching his own execution for the same reason. The final paragraphs reintroduce the almost inevitable but ambiguous romantic note of the soul’s survival in a paradisal afterlife in which Kimamo and General Haraka reunite. The hyena’s sardonic chuckle, which had floated as a motif in earlier scenes, dimly qualifies the spiritual affirmation.

Some mythologizing of the resistance movement is almost inevitable. The resistance fighters must become heroes of legend, especially within the African context, in which such transformation is basic to the oral literature. Ngugi, in his resistance novel, however, has his legendary figure recede into the background and concentrates on the psychological realities of betrayal, deception, and cowardice. A Grain of Wheat (1967) is many things at once: a mythical but humanized treatment of the guerrilla fighter Kihika; a clever merger of Christian myth within the thematic structure of divine mission and Judas-like betrayal; and a satiric portrait of the anemic white administration in the last days of the colony. Its purpose, however, is to raise essential questions about motives and aspirations of the combatants and to suggest, finally, the ambiguity surrounding heroism, cowardice, and the personal struggle that is even more intense than the public one. Mugo, the betrayer of the legendary hero Kihika, endures the most intense moral struggle among the participants; ironically, his public avowal on the day of independence, which leads to his execution by people of less moral stature, is too late to have any effect on the political situation. Gikonyo returns from a detention camp to find his wife pregnant by Karanja, a subordinate for the white administration. Despite the ambiguity surrounding her submission to Karanja, Ngugi seems to insist on her essential integrity and puts the burden on Gikonyo to accept her in an act of faith. Again, this struggle is as real in the novel as any directly connected with the resistance movement. Contained in A Grain of Wheat are the seeds of success and of failure in the postindependence society.

Like Ngugi, Sembène carries the resistance movement up to the moment of independence. His novel God’s Bits of Wood, (1962) is a fictional account of an actual event in the Western Sudan, the railway strike of 1947-1948. He treats its success as a temporary triumph against oppressive French authority and treats its leaders as romanticized heroes. It is an epic portrayal relying upon realistic detail, romantic gesture, communal loyalty, and a touch of Marxist ideology. Sembène’s next novel, L’Harmattan, livre I: Référendum (1964), treats events in an anonymous African country in the late 1950’s. He shifts focus from the band of Marxist revolutionaries endorsing a vote for independence on the referendum to the personal and public life of Dr. Tangara, who sympathizes with their goal but not their ideology and methods and who must make a decision for or against them. Though the referendum results in independence in only one of the French colonies, the revolutionary forces have not lost heart, and the hesitant politicism of such rare humanistic figures as Dr. Tangara withdraws from the scene. Sembène in these novels is much less pessimistic about the future of Senegal than Ngugi is about the capacity of Kenyans to maintain a high level of resistance to the temptations of Western civilization. Like Sembène, Ngugi eventually turns to Marxism as an ideology that better suits the African sense of community, but more than Sembène, he desperately needs to recover and reinstate traditional African values—hence, perhaps, his deeper pessimism about the future.

This pessimism is also evident in two other novelists, Armah and Abrahams. Armah’s Why Are We So Blest? (1971) is a unique version of the revolutionary theme. The action takes place entirely outside black Africa. This universalizes the revolutionary struggle and, in fact, turns it into a conflict of races. The colonial situation in the sub-Sahara is essentially no different from that in America and North Africa, and Armah holds out no hope of success. Of the three protagonists, the white American girl, Aimée, has motives that are suspect; the young African student at Harvard, Modu, dies while naïvely trying to join the revolution; and the mature Solo, also an African, is too skeptical about revolution and the callous organization that runs it to commit himself. His contribution will apparently remain that of a philosophical literary exile.

Abrahams, in A Wreath for Udomo (1956), likewise carries the struggle outside Africa, to a core of political leaders residing in London. Their job is to conduct a propaganda campaign that forces the British government to turn power over to the indigenous population. Michael Udomo, in rather unconvincing fashion, soon becomes the center of the group, wresting power and influence from the country’s idol, who has lost touch with the real political situation. Although he returns to “Pan-Africa” to prepare the way for Lanwood, by the time the latter arrives, Udomo is firmly established in the seat of power and has changed markedly from the rash, irresponsible youth he was in London to an astute politician, sure of himself and his goals. He no doubt represents the voice of Abrahams in the novel, but as a result, it brings both him and the author into conflict with the voice of tribalism. Udomo uses his power to modernize and industrialize his country; he works to defeat the tribe, which stands for everything evil, superstitious, and savage. This goal drives him to a temporary compromise with Pluralia (South Africa) and a betrayal of his best friend, who heads a resistance group within that country.

Whether such actions go beyond Abrahams’s own convictions is difficult to say, but Udomo seems to retain his romantic image to the very end. Abrahams’s pessimism does not, it would seem, arise from the necessity of compromise but from his awareness that the enemy, tribalism, is a powerful force. Udomo dies a sacrificial death at its hands in a savage and terrifying ritual ceremony. The intellectual of the novel, Paul Mahbi, in a letter to Lois, Udomo’s white mistress whom he had abandoned for the African cause, composes an eloquent defense of his greatness in spite of his violation of private moralities. Whatever Abrahams’s intentions, the conflict in the novel suggests the necessity of compromise between the new civilization and the old and makes one wonder if the tribe does not, after all, have values that Abrahams and Udomo do not allow to surface. In any case, A Wreath for Udomo is a remarkable novel, written as it was in 1956, some years before the majority of the African countries had achieved independence. It is prophetic in its anticipation of the internal struggles that were to ensue.

Postindependence and Neocolonialism

Many of the new African states that achieved independence after 1960 have borne out Abrahams’s fears, and fictional representations of these states have been harsh. Return of political power to African hands has not been complete—for economic control has remained, for the most part, with international conglomerates and with “black Europeans” who reflect foreign interests. The new political leaders themselves have been corrupt or incapable of controlling the competing factions and often corrupt forces within the country. Another problem is the basic ideological conflict that Abrahams identifies In practically every novel dealing with contemporary Africa, the temptations of Western materialism—the dream of social advancement, status symbols, the luxuries of modern civilization and technology, and the power that makes their attainment possible—and the capitalistic ideology that lies behind them receive the brunt of the attack, but now it is not usually the foreigner who is the villain. The novelist points to the African who betrays his heritage. The rare individuals who maintain their integrity either have no visible or respected sanctions for their morality or more or less vaguely inherit it from the traditional past. In the most pessimistic of the novels, the individual becomes a helpless and alienated victim of corruption and various economic and sociopolitical forces. Among the many who have set their novels in the postcolonial period are the canonical figures in African literature: Aidoo, Achebe, Emecheta, Soyinka, Sembène, and Ngugi.

The most erudite novelist and critic of the contemporary scene is Wole Soyinka, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. His first novel, The Interpreters, is a masterpiece of virtuosity, ironic commentary, philosophical probing, and mythic intimations. Though it touches every level of society, it concentrates on the social elite: those people who belong to the hypocritical majority and the few intellectuals, educated abroad but spiritually bound to Africa, who try to act, to find a place for themselves, and to interpret their situation. They include Egbo, the son of a tribal chief whose dilemma is to reconcile his obligations to the past and the present and whose conflicting sexual attractions to the sensuous Simi and a young university student provide a specific locus for his choice. Egbo’s return with the other interpreters to visit his tribal home vividly depicts the power of tradition over the minds of the descendants. His private encounter with Ogun—the Dionysian god of creation and destruction—puts him into spiritual contact with the natural world and is only one of many ways that the mythic impinges on the daily lives of the interpreters.

Kola, the painter, makes contact through his art— Ogun himself being the patron of artists—as he struggles to finish his masterpiece, a merging of contemporary personalities into the forms of the Yoruba gods. Egbo is Ogun, the god of contradictions, repeating the god’s symbolic journey from the traditional world of spirits to the contemporary world of the living. Kola’s sculpture, The Wrestler, is a heroic elevation of a comic incident involving another of the interpreters, Sekoni. This idealist and spiritual inspiration within the group is already dead but has become a legendary hero. After his attempt as an engineer to construct an electric power station in a rural community is rejected by provincial and corrupt politicians, he goes insane, for the power station represents for him not simply a technological achievement but a harnessing of natural power through human creativity and was to give meaning to his new life in Africa. This failure haunts the other interpreters. They see his death in terms of a ritual sacrifice.

Sagoe seems in some respects to be a practical member of the group. As a reporter for a Lagos newspaper—a position he obtains in a strange and comic way—he investigates curious happenings in the city. He is also bound to one of the female protagonists in a relatively conventional fashion. Yet his strange and symbolic philosophy of “Voidancy”—spiritual elevation being achieved through complete relieving of the bowels— gives him an opposite dimension. The philosophy is not only comic playfulness, but it is also part of the motif of excrement and filth, of fertility and sterility, in contemporary Nigerian society. Finally, there is Bandele, apparently the cohesive force of the group. Generally a detached observer, quiet and pragmatic in his actions, he is a professor of English at the university and may be Soyinka’s authorial voice, the raisonneur.

While these characters exist on many different levels, from the profoundly sacred to the farcical, the characters representing a hypocritical society reside in a world of satiric comedy, and Soyinka is brilliant as a Molière in exposing them to ridicule. Faseyi, Sir Derinola, Chief Winsala, Professor Oguazor, and Dr. Lumoye are “petrified” brains, concerned only with facades and trivia. Through them, Soyinka attacks the materialism and utilitarianism that inhibit the interpreters from realizing their creative energies within the social fabric. A third group of characters introduces the strange world of evangelical religions so prevalent in modern Nigeria and a common theme in Soyinka’s other work. The interpreters visit the church of the prophet Lazarus, who claims to have risen from the dead. Soyinka seems to use the religious service—which is fraught with theatrics—as well as the other pseudo-Christian rites and avowals, to emphasize the quest for spiritual values in the void of contemporary life. The activities of the interpreters themselves are part of the same quest.

Rather than provide answers, however, the novel seems to end in paradox and mystery. There is a strange equation of disciples and thieves, of sinners and martyrs. The mystery of death and resurrection is present throughout the novel but reappears at the end with the symbolic, nightmarish drowning of Joe Golder, a black American, in a vat of black dye. Golder, who has no identity, who is black and yet an American rather than an African, obsessively defends the principle of negritude. Yet Soyinka also identifies him as homosexual and, in the eyes of Sagoe, a pervert. While Soyinka defends the integrity of the African tradition, he does not make it a matter of color and rejects here as elsewhere the negritudist definition of the African. His vision of the African is complex. It is not even clear that he has intellectually sorted it out or wishes to do so in any dogmatic or analytical way. He states as much in his second novel, Season of Anomy.

The Interpreters ends as a night of severance: The disciples are separated, and the Savior has not come. The interpreters are “apostates,” but to what, they are not sure: to the new world that demands their acquiescence, to the real or imagined past that still has a spiritual hold on them, or to the inner self as the final sanction for responsible and heroic action? Bandele usually remains quiet in the face of the irreligious society that sacrifices its young to the preservation of itself, but he is the one who gives the parting ironic shot: May they all live to bury their own daughters.

While Soyinka’s first novel focuses on the lives of intellectuals during the early sixties, and his second, Season of Anomy, on the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), others writers such as Armah, Achebe, Ngugi, and Sembène turned their attention to the political leadership and its effect on the citizenry. Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born looks at national corruption, as condoned and even encouraged by politicians, through the eyes of an unnamed protagonist, “the man,” a controller in a railway office. He is the only moral force in the society, surrounded by images of filth and excrement, by fellow workers who take bribes, by a family whose material desires pressure him to do likewise, by a cynical “Teacher” friend who has retreated from society, and by a former schoolmate, Koomson—the main human symbol of social degradation, who has used corrupt means to rise to political prominence and who is using the man and his family in yet another of his illegal activities. Armah transforms the protagonist into a hero—a model of moral behavior—in the second half of the novel when, after a military coup, with absolutely no ulterior motive, he risks his own life to save Koomson’s. Armah’s indictment of the new African leadership is achieved largely through scatological imagery and character foils: the indulgent materialism of Koomson and the reflective sensitivity and compassion of the man.

Achebe presents similar portraits of political leaders in No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People, but most impressively in his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah. Using shifting points of view, overlapping time sequences, and periodic flashbacks, he focuses on incidents surrounding a military coup in present time in an imaginary African country (actually a thinly disguised Nigeria in the early 1980’s). Kangan’s president, familiarly known as Sam, has gone the way of other political figures in postcolonial Africa, abandoning his revolutionary ideals and abusing his newly gained power. The main characters are Sam’s former schoolmates, who react in various ways to his betrayal: Chris, minister of information, who tries to guide Sam back to public responsibility; his friend Ikem, editor of the city newspaper, who attacks Sam in his columns; and Beatrice, a secretary and priestess in love with Chris and confidant of Ikem. When Sam refuses to acknowledge the needs of the people, specifically ignoring a delegation of elders from the drought-plagued north, a military junta assassinates him and assumes authority. At the end, with both Chris and Ikem dead, Beatrice hosts a symbolic communal meeting of friends that suggests the ideal future direction of the country. The novel reflects, through its various techniques, a contemporary experimentation with fictional form; through Beatrice the growing feminist voice in Africa; and through the use of myth, folktale, and legend the continuing attempt of novelists to explore the relevance of tradition in modern Africa.

In Kenya, Ngugi continued to develop as a novelist as well, and to respond in fresh ways to the postcolonial situation in his country. In Devil on the Cross and Matigar he asserted his indigenous culture by writing in his native Kikuyu before producing English versions and by adapting oral techniques to the novel form. Both works attack corruption of the neocolonialists. The former specifically targets Western capitalism and patriarchy, using griot narration, folktale monsters, ritual repetition, and a female folk hero to rouse the public against blatant abuses of power. The latter targets government and economic abuse through parabolic characters and stories that mix social satire and fantasy in a form of Magical Realism. A folk hero-father returns to his native country after fighting wars of revolution only to find that imperialist forces are still in power behind the scenes. In his search for truth and justice, he rescues a prostitute and a child-thief to form a new African family but is chased out of the country, wounded and perhaps killed, with only his “son” to carry on the cultural war. The satirical novel, Wizard of the Crow, is set in the fictional Free Republic of Abruria, governed by a tyrannical figure known only as the Ruler. Ngugi again attacks corruption—all of the authority figures in this novel are greedy and destructive—but uses humor as a device to offer a degree of hope.

Likewise, Sembène, first in Xala (1976), then in The Last of the Empire, attacks neocolonialism from an African socialist perspective. Xala focuses on the chamber of commerce in Dakar, in particular on one representative member, El Hadji, who follows the typical literary pattern of neocolonial capitalists. He forgets his revolutionary ideals before independence and becomes a corrupt opportunist, taking advantage of the economic system to acquire wives, material possessions, and social standing. Sembène traces his gradual fall at the hands of the people he has disenfranchised and impoverished, led by a beggar-griot who, through the curse of impotence, reminds him of his crime, its human consequences, and the necessary cure: an identification with the community of Senegal. In The Last of the Empire, in a political plot similar to Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, the “chamber” is that of the government, the ministers who serve under Léon, the president of Senegal. The main character is the minister of justice, the conscientious elder Cheikh Tidiane, who at the beginning of the narrative resigns his post just as Léon mysteriously disappears. The novel is itself a mystery, which gradually reveals the reason for the disappearance, exposes the egotistic struggles for power of Léon’s subordinates, provides the stimulus for Tidiane’s realization of his social role as writer-griot, and sets the stage for Sembène’s own political agenda in support of feminism, social responsibility, and sanity in dealing with issues of religion, polygamy, property, and education. All of these writers—Achebe, Armah, Ngugi, and Sembène—assume the role of traditional griot, assessing the needs of contemporary African society in the light of indigenous traditions and colonial influences.


Ben Okri

Other voices on the literary scene include a second generation of male writers and a growing number of female writers to complement such established names as Aidoo, Emecheta, and Head. While they continue some of the same social and political themes, following the African aesthetic of writing for the people’s sake, they also often exhibit a highly experimental style, sometimes resembling the Magical Realism of Latin American novelists. Among the most distinguished of the male artists are Ben Okri of Nigeria and Nuruddin Farah of Somalia. Farah published eleven novels between 1970 and 2011, including From a Crooked Rib (1970), a sympathetic, even feminist, portrait of a Somali woman, and two sets of trilogies with political themes (a third trilogy saw its first two novels published in 2004 and 2007). The first novel in the trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), led to his exile of almost twenty years from his native country. His works, fictional manifestations of Edward Said’s Orientalism argument, are exquisitely written assertions of Somalian identity in the face of Western “othering” of Third World, or developing world, peoples. Okri, who has expressed the wish to be known as a writer, not simply as an African writer, is a superb stylist who mixes realism with mythical and magical qualities that draw on African folk literature and themes. The Famished Road (1991) and Songs of Enchantment (1993), for example, present as the protagonist an ogbangi child, the literary prototype for which is Ezinma in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. His characters move through fabulous worlds reminiscent of Tutuola’s narratives and African folktales. Okri won several literary prizes in recognition of his technical skills, and his moral commitment to the African people is a visible part of his fictional achievement. Several other writers emerged at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, including Henri Lopès and Labou Tansi of the Congo, Tierno Monénembo of Guinea, South Africa’s Zakes Mda and Zoë Wicomb, and Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

One of the most encouraging signs in the literature of this period was the emergence of new women authors, including novelists. Few women of the first generation continued to write. Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana was mainly known for her poems, short stories, and plays until 1977, when her 1966 African feminist novel, Our Sister Killjoy: Or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, was finally published; in 1993 she published a second novel, Changes: A Love Story. Another West African writer, Emecheta of Nigeria, wrote some fifteen novels between 1976 (The Bride Price), and 1994 (Kehinde). Her most famous and important novel, The Joys of Motherhood (1979), offers a wrenching account of a wife and mother in the modern city of Lagos, bound by the tradition of polygamy and spousal inheritance that forces a second wife into her already established monogamous marriage. Grace Ogot (Died: 18 March 2015) of Kenya was the first and is perhaps the best known East African female novelist. Her early novel The Promised Land (1966) and her collection of literary folktales, Land Without Thunder (1968), established the themes and folkloric style for her later works that deal with the impact of tradition on modern life and the plight of women. Her novel The Graduate (1980), about women in postcolonial Kenya, like her first, was written in English, but her later work, including Miaha (1983; The Strange Bride, 1989) and Simbi Nyaima (1983), was written in her native language, Luo. Among francophone women, Mariama Bâ followed up her widely read So Long a Letter, (1981), which raises serious questions about polygamy, with Scarlet Song, (1986), which deals with mixed marriages within the particular cultural expectations of postcolonial Senegal.

Among women novelists of the second generation, one of the most productive is Aminata Sow Fall, a francophone writer from Senegal. Fall’s novels, including Le Revenant (1976; the ghost), La Grève des bàttu (1979; The Beggars’ Strike, 1981), L’Appel des arènes (1982; the call of the arena), Ex-père de la nation (1987; ex-father of the nation) and Festins de détresse (2005; feasts of distress), focus on unstable socioeconomic and political situations that make victims of everyone in society. Ex-père de la nation traces the life of an imprisoned former president of an African country to show that neither the “fathers” nor the “mothers” in Africa are fulfilling their nurturing roles. They promise no future for Africa until individuals assume communal responsibility. Although Fall studied in France at the Sorbonne, she made a conscious determination that her writing would not reflect Western influences or experiences. Other novelists who have received critical attention are Calixthe Beyala and Werewere Liking of Cameroon, Angèle Rawiri of Gabon, and Véronique Tadjo of Ivory Coast. They offer a variety of perspectives on the personal, familial, and social positions of women in Africa. Yvonne Vera, an anglophone writer from Zimbabwe, was poised to become another canonical figure, but she died at the age of forty, having produced five novels: Nehanda (1993), Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998), and The Stone Virgins (2002). Her books, four of which won major literary prizes, are psychological studies of women in exile caught between a disturbing past and an uncertain future.


Aminata Sow Fall

Among women novelists of the second generation, one of the most productive is Aminata Sow Fall, a francophone writer from Senegal. Fall’s novels, including Le Revenant (1976; the ghost), La Grève des bàttu (1979; The Beggars’ Strike, 1981), L’Appel des arènes (1982; the call of the arena), Ex-père de la nation (1987; ex-father of the nation) and Festins de détresse (2005; feasts of distress), focus on unstable socioeconomic and political situations that make victims of everyone in society. Ex-père de la nation traces the life of an imprisoned former president of an African country to show that neither the “fathers” nor the “mothers” in Africa are fulfilling their nurturing roles. They promise no future for Africa until individuals assume communal responsibility. Although Fall studied in France at the Sorbonne, she made a conscious determination that her writing would not reflect Western influences or experiences. Other novelists who have received critical attention are Calixthe Beyala and Werewere Liking of Cameroon, Angèle Rawiri of Gabon, and Véronique Tadjo of Ivory Coast. They offer a variety of perspectives on the personal, familial, and social positions of women in Africa. Yvonne Vera, an anglophone writer from Zimbabwe, was poised to become another canonical figure, but she died at the age of forty, having produced five novels: Nehanda (1993), Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998), and The Stone Virgins (2002). Her books, four of which won major literary prizes, are psychological studies of women in exile caught between a disturbing past and an uncertain future.

One of the most celebrated writer from Nigeria is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who tells the story of the failed struggle for Biafran independence from Nigeria in Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Called “the twenty-first century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” Adichie presents a picture of a Nigeria that has accepted the colonists’ notions of class and bureaucracy while retaining ancient tribal practices and prejudices. By focusing on a few main characters— the sisters Olanna and Kainene, their lovers Odenigbo and Richard, and a houseboy—she provides both brutal detail of violence, hatred, and greed and a compassionate and ennobling view of struggle. Half of a Yellow Sun, like much of the literature from this period, is a realistic novel based on recent history, not on oral culture, but it depicts urban, Westernized characters with lingering ties to rural, traditional ways. The voice of this novel is clearly a woman’s voice—unusual for a novel about war—a trend that flourished throughout African literature in the postindependence period.

Generations of African writers have lived part of their lives outside their native countries, and this trend has continued into the twenty-first century, with writers living in Europe and North America while continuing to write about Africa. Adichie, who was named a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, settled in the northeastern United States in 1996. South African novelist Zoë Wicomb, author of David’s Story (2001) and Playing in the Light (2006), moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where she has taught postcolonial literature. Her novels deal with racial identity issues in South Africa, particularly among the mixed-race people known as “coloureds”; her shortstory collection, The One That Got Away (2008), contains stories set in Capetown and in Glasgow. Even in the age of globalization, leaving Africa for a better education, or more political freedom, or wider access to publishing and the arts is a good career choice—especially for those who seek a worldwide readership.


Conclusion: A Critical Evaluation

Throughout its brief history, the African novel can be characterized as theme and variation on the issue of identity. An internalized sense of inferiority and the threat of cultural extinction contributed to its rise, usually as a mode of defense and a means of preservation. What the novels often lament is the loss of community, and of customs, rituals, values, and sanctions that give meaning to an individual life. When the incursion of an alien culture began to destroy cultural cohesiveness, alienation was an inevitable result. While some novelists, such as La Guma and Mwangi, stress the anonymity that comes with the loss of tradition, others make an effort to integrate the past with the contemporary world. In any case, the novel is not only a literary phenomenon in Africa but also a social document that traces the history of Africa during the past one thousand years. Furthermore, as Kenneth Harrow has argued in Thresholds of Change in African Literature: The Emergence of a Tradition (1994), the written tradition is now at least fifty years old and has begun to build on itself. In these documents containing the gradual and then the sudden introduction of Africa to the West, that is, in these various commentaries on the threat to traditional African identity, one motif stands out, that of initiation.

To personalize the conflict, the novelist almost inevitably has created a narrator or a central character who undergoes an initiation experience. This technique is a common theme in Western novels as well, but it seems particularly appropriate to Africa in its period of sudden transition to a society that still practiced age-old initiation rites as an integral part of its communal life. Eileen Julien, in African Novels and the Question of Orality (1992), sees initiation as one of three genres from the oral tradition still practiced by African male novelists. In God’s Bits of Wood, Sembène explicitly states that participation in the protest march to Dakar is a realistic and practical substitute for the ritual of initiation. The usual pattern in the initiation process is a character’s introduction to Western culture, ordinarily through education; a resulting split in personality and loyalties; alienation from the old community and a failure to integrate into the new one; at the extreme, a total exile from the country or a mental breakdown; and finally, in rare cases, a recovery and the beginning of efforts to reestablish ties or create a new community. Novels that end in alienation are likely to be realistic in mode; those novels that project a cure are likely to emphasize the archetypal aspects of the motif and rely on the romantic and mythic mode. No African novel, however, is written exclusively in one mode or the other. The novel that is perhaps the best example of the entire process is, ironically, Laye’s The Radiance of the King, which forces a white man to discover the cultural realities of black Africa.

This is only a hint at the variety one finds in the African novel. Certainly there are other archetypal motifs. Initiation itself can merge gradually into the quest, as is the case with Soyinka’s Season of Anomy. The sacrificial scapegoat is a common motif that arises out of the historical situation, though often the victim’s death does not seem to have any immediate benefits, except perhaps in its effect within the fictional rhetoric. It is partly through the use of archetypes that the novelist, consciously or unconsciously, appeals to an international audience while reflecting local realities. The myth of paradise is a common device to contrast the old life with the new. In numerous novels, symbolism breaks through the realistic description. In some novels, local color—sociological and anthropological documentation—is a significant part of the structure. In others, the novelist explores the psychological impact on a highly sensitive individual reared in one culture but educated into another. Often the primary purpose is social or political satire. Some novels are structured as histories in imitation of traditional chronicles told by the griots. Others are highly experimental, attempting to incorporate Western devices into the African context or carry over folk and mythic qualities from the past into the contemporary novel form.

In the light of this variety, it may seem somewhat surprising that the African novel has come under fire from Western critics, especially the formalists. African intellectuals have often been sensitive to outside criticism; Achebe is a case in point. They question whether the foreigner really has enough knowledge of African history, the African oral tradition, the African mentality, the contemporary situation, or, more particularly, the biographies and intentions of individual authors. Formalist critics would tend to downplay such factors anyway, and they complain that African novelists are so concerned with social purpose that they neglect aesthetic matters. Achebe’s response is that the purpose of literature is first of all humanistic and that this obligation pertains especially in Africa.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate the African novel is through such a sociological critic as Kenneth Burke, who defines all literature as essentially a strategy to deal with reality. His emphasis is on the reality imitated, as is the case in the African novel, but he also stresses the importance of a complex strategy—how well and how convincingly it responds to the situation. This allows some latitude for the pedagogical function that Achebe sees as essential, for the satiric attacks on Western exploitation and African assimilation, and for the general quest for a new African image. This is somewhat the approach Eustace Palmer takes in his 1979 study The Growth of the African Novel. The novel began as a response to a new situation; it has provided not only complex presentations of it but also a variety of strategies to deal with it. Significantly, Burke uses the proverb to illustrate the way literature deals with reality. It is a way of coping. Achebe himself defines the proverb as “the palm oil with which words are eaten.” He and other African novelists respect the aesthetic medium, and some, including Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Laye, Kane, Okri, and Farah, achieve a high level of artistry that deserves recognition, especially considering the short history of the form in Africa. The fact that the novelist uses that artistry primarily in the service of a humanistic and social purpose should not be an object of criticism but a source of admiration.

Read the article Phases of African Postcolonial Literature

Phases of African Postcolonial Literature

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Hay, Margaret Jean, ed. African Novels in the Classroom. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000. Irele, Abiola, and Simon Gikandi, eds. The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
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Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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