the traditional oral and written literatures together with the mainly 20th-century literature written mostly in European languages but also to an increasing extent in the many languages of the sub-Saharan region. Traditional written literature is limited to a smaller geographic area than is oral literature; indeed, it is most characteristic of those sub-Saharan cultures that have participated in the cultures of the Mediterranean. In particular, there is literature in both Hausa and Arabic from the scholars of what is now northern Nigeria; the literature of the likewise Muslim Somali people; and literature in Ge'ez (or Ethiopic) and Amharic of Ethiopia, the one part of Africa where Christianity has been practiced long enough to be considered traditional. The literature of South Africa in English and Afrikaans is covered in a separate article, South African literature. See also African theatre.
The relationship between oral and written traditions and in particular between oral and modern written literatures is one of great complexity and not a matter of simple evolution. Modern African literatures were born in the educational systems imposed by colonialism, with models drawn from Europe rather than existing African traditions. The modern African writer thus uses tradition as subject matter rather than as a means of effecting a continuity with past cultural practice.
The poetic and narrative forms of oral tradition among those peoples living south of the Sahara are immensely rich and varied. They include myths (in the sense of symbolic accounts of the origins of things, whether the world, particular cultures, lineages, political structures, or gods), praise songs, epic poetry, folktales, riddles, proverbs, and magical spells. The content of this material also varies considerably and includes children's rhymes and oral history, as well as symbolic texts of profound intellectual significance.
An important feature of African oral traditions is their close link with music. Poetry exists almost exclusively in chanted form or as song, and, among West African peoples with tonal languages (for example, the Akan and the Yoruba), much poetry is recited in musical form rather than spoken or sung. See also African music.
African creation stories are as varied and imaginative as elsewhere in the world. The Kono of Guinea believe that the original force in the world was Death, who existed before God; the Lozi of Zambia see God as retreating helplessly from the cruelty of man; and the Ijo peoples of the Niger River delta believe that God (there regarded as female) allows individuals to choose their own fate before birth. The Pangwa of Tanzania have a fantastic vision of the world as having been created from the excrement of ants. The Yoruba of Nigeria tell of a creator who got drunk on palm wine and so created cripples and albinos. The most detailed cosmology known, requiring seven days for its recitation, is that of the Dogon of Mali. An unusually attractive creation myth is that of the Fulani of Mali, a pastoral, cattle-herding people whose mythology centres on milk.
At the beginning there was a huge drop of milk.
According to nearly all African mythologies, God first agreed to give humans eternal life, but his message was perverted through the stupidity or malice of the messenger. Several hundred African variants of the myth of the perverted message are known.
The most elaborate pantheons of gods are probably those found among the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Fon of Benin. These deities (orisha or vodun) are often seen simultaneously as legendary kings and founders of cities and as supernatural spirits and controllers of the elements. Here the story of a god must often be gleaned from cryptic references embedded in his praise names (oriki, or mlenmlen). These are curious mixtures of praise, description, joking abuse, and prayer; and, although the phrases have been handed down for centuries, the singer is free to add new ones. Thus, Shango (the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning) is compared to the power and rumbling noise of the railway.
The praise name is probably the most widely used poetic form in Africa. It is applied not only to gods but to humans, animals, plants, and towns. Most important in many African communities are the praise names of chiefs and war leaders, as, for example, those of the great Zulu chieftain Shaka:
He is Shaka the unshakeable,
There are numerous other poetic forms. The Yoruba, for example, distinguish between praise names (oriki), the poetry of lineages and towns (orile), oracle verse (ese), hunters' songs (ijala), the poetry of masqueraders (iwi), incantations (ofo), songs (orin), and improvisations (rara). Incantations play an important part in all African traditions. The Igbo diviner, for example, invokes truth before consulting his oracular bones or other apparatus.
A common poetic form is the magic formula, in which the meaning of the words is often obscure. These formulas are sacred combinations of words the correct repetition of which, accompanied by the proper ritual, is believed to be effective both in curing and cursing.
Probably the most elaborate body of poetry is that of the Ifa oracle among the Yoruba. Even the most learned priest is not expected to know it all, and the recital of the most important parts takes a whole night. The poems are accompanied by stories that constitute the mythological or historical precedents by which the diviner judges his client's case.
Every situation in African life is accompanied by poetry and song. The herdsman praises his bull (My bull is dark like the rain cloud in a storm [Dinka]); the young warrior sings of his bride (Neither her heel nor her palm are rough, but sweet to the touch like liver [Fulani]); children invent a song to comment on an important event (Europeans are little children, at the riverbank they shot an elephant, its blood became a canoe and it sank [Nyasa, Malawi]); the widower mourns the death of his wife (What are your wares that they sold out so quickly? [Akan, Guinea Coast]).
The best-known type of African folktale is the animal-trickster tale. In Bantu Africa (East, central, and southern Africa) and the western Sudan, the trickster is the hare; in West Africa, the spider (Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone) or the tortoise (Benin, Nigeria). The Yoruba consciously poke fun at their own faults when they tell stories of the tortoise-trickster. Sometimes the tortoise's cunning defeats itself, as, for example, in the tale in which the tortoise steals from the gods a calabash that contains all the wisdom in the world. He hangs it around his neck and is so eager to get home with it that, when he comes to a tree trunk lying across the road, he is unable to cross it because the calabash gets in his way; in his anxiety he fails to think of putting it on his back. Frustrated, the tortoise smashes the calabash, and so, ever since that day, wisdom has been scattered all over the world in tiny pieces. Anansi (the spider-trickster, of whom stories are told among the Akan and, as Anancy, in Jamaica) often appears as a mythological figure, the fiendish opponent of the sky god, who steals the sky god's stories or tricks him into allowing disease to enter the world. In this function he shows some similarity with the Yoruba trickster god, Eshu, who consistently opposes the other gods and thwarts their intentions. A number of African peoples also have story cycles about human trickstersfor example, the stories of Yo in Benin, the Lay cycle of the Iraqw in Tanzania, and the Zulu Uhlakanyana stories.
A variant of the trickster tale is the escape story, in which the hero extricates himself from an impossible task by imposing an impossible condition. One such story tells how a cruel king of Benin ordered his subjects on pain of death to build a new palace but to start at the top and build downward. All were in despair until one wise old man went to the king and said that they were now ready to begin and asked him, according to tradition, to lay the foundation stone.
Stories of another kind, told for entertainment, usually on moonlit nights, are dilemma tales, in which the audience is invited to supply the ending or solution. An example of a dilemma tale told among the Wolof (Senegal, The Gambia) is as follows: Three brothers journey to a strange land and are all married to the same girl, with whom they sleep in turn. One night she is murdered by a robber, and the eldest brother, with whom she is sleeping, is condemned to death on suspicion. He begs leave to visit his father before he dies. When he is late in returning, the second brother offers to die in place of him. As he is about to be executed, the third brother steps forward and confesses that he is the murderer. But, at that moment, the eldest brother rides in, just in time to embrace his fate. Which of the brothers (the listeners are asked) is the most noble?
In another group of tales, prominent features of animals are explained (e.g.,
so that is why the tortoise has a broken back).
Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten, an Igbo proverb says. The art of conversation and argument depends, in fact, on their use. By them the speaker shows his learning. Use of proverbs also enables the speaker to attack an opponent obliquely, without mentioning his name or the subject of the dispute. Proverbs express not only a people's inherited wisdom and code of behaviour (If a child washes his hands, he will eat with kings [Igbo]) but also imagination and sense of humour (If the earthworm does not dance in front of the cock, he will still be eaten, but at least the cock cannot say that he was provoked [Yoruba]). The largest collection of African proverbs, made by a Swiss Lutheran missionary, J.G. Christaller, and published at Basel in 1879, contains 3,600 in the Twi language of Ghana.
Riddles usually take the form of a statement, not a question. In the riddle People run away from her when she is pregnant, but they rejoice when she has delivered (the answer is a gun), the question What is it? is understood. Often the riddle is an exercise in metaphorical speech, intended to display the questioner's imagination rather than to test the cleverness of the audience (e.g., the Yoruba We tie a horse in the house, but its mane flies above the roof, to which is answered fire and smoke).
Many oral traditions, particularly those associated with traditional ritual, are disappearing, and poetic forms are gaining new content and application (e.g., praise names, applied to politicians; songs of abuse during elections, often taking the form of incantations). Nationalism and higher education tend to make Africans more conscious of their cultural heritage, and the collection and conservation of oral traditions is no longer left to foreign anthropologists. Some of the best collections are by African writers and scholars, and many universities in Africa are engaged in recording and interpolating this material.
African folklore came to life most powerfully in 20th-century writing in the works of Amos Tutuola. The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954) are inspired re-creations of the world of Yoruba folklore. Tutuola, whose long rambling tales are improvisations on traditional themes, was a born storyteller. Better than any exact translation, his books convey the rich inventiveness of traditional Yoruba folktales and their rather grim humour, which is often mingled with fear, pain, and other extremes of sense or impression.
Evidence of the indigenous written literatures of Africa is in some regions ancient and in others comparatively recent. The earliest written African language known is the now-dead language of Ge'ez, from Ethiopia (see below Ethiopian languages). The Latin and Arabic alphabets have had marked influence on developments in written African literature. Arabic was brought to the continent in the 7th century, when the Arabs conquered North Africa, while the Latin alphabet was introduced by Christian missionaries largely in the 19th century.
In West Africa the beginnings of indigenous written literature are linked to the campaigns in the early 1800s of the Fulani reformer Shaykh Usman dan Fodio; in East Africa the earliest extant Swahili text dates from 1652. In southern Africa the history of the earliest written literature, Xhosa, is linked to the printing press of the Lovedale Missionary Institution set up by the Glasgow mission in the 1820s.
There was a great development in both quantity and quality of literary output after World War II, but in many cases, because they saw their own career advancement as being in English and French and perhaps because they regarded those languages as more advanced than their own, African elites tended to be indifferent to indigenous literatures. Indeed, it is only since the 1970s that the dominance of literatures in the metropolitan languages has been challenged and that writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o have begun to write in African languages, with translations into English, Swahili, and other languages following publication in the mother tongue. There is in the literary, political, and educational circles of some African countries a growing sense that the fostering of literature in indigenous African languages is important, especially in the drive to create new national models closer to the culture and history of the people.
The success of such a venture depends greatly on government policy. Somalia is a striking example of a country in which such a policy has been successfully applied. The role of publishers is also crucial; in spite of the severe financial constraints that operate in most African countries, somesuch as Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, and Zimbabwehave indigenous publishing houses serving local readers. In some cases, international publishing houses with African interests also participate in publishing African-language texts. The rate of illiteracy in Africa is still high, which limits the potential readership for texts in African as well as other languages. However, the huge popularity of stage and radio dramas in a number of countries (for instance, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania) demonstrates the great popular interest in forms of verbal art that both entertain and comment on contemporary life.
The dominant theme in much of the literature in African languages is the conflict between traditional cultures and modernization. In the novel and the short story, although the influence of modern European literary forms is clear, so, too, is that of the oral narrative. Sharp political comment on corruption and inefficiency is also prevalent. In general the role of public comment on national problems, and on wider topics such as African unity and racism, is a highly developed and important one, just as it is in the metropolitan languages.
The rich oral literature of the Yoruba, who live mainly in Nigeria and Benin, consists of myths, legends, folktales, and song. It is still flourishing, particularly in the rural areas, and has exerted a considerable influence on the written literature. Yoruba orthography was standardized in 1875 by the Church Missionary Society, in Lagos. The Bible was translated in 1900 and was widely used in Yorubaland. It was followed in 1911 by a translation of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, which has probably exerted more influence on African-language writers than has any other English work. The first written poetry, Iwe Ekini Sobo (Sobo's First Book), came in 1905 from the pen of the prolific and popular J. Sobowole Sowande. Sowande wrote several more collections (the last in 1934), publishing most of them himself. The first Yoruba novel did not appear until 1938; it was Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa's allegorical novel Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale (1938; The Forest of a Thousand Daemons). It uses the traditional Yoruba themes of virtue, courage, and perseverance and focuses on the vices of cruelty and greed. Fagunwa's second novel was Igbo Olodumare (1949; The Forest of God). Two others in a similar style followed, but his fifth and last novel, published in 1961, was considerably more realistic. Fagunwa's allegorical and fantastic adventure tales, full of folkloric elementsspirits, monsters, transformation flights, gods, magic, and witchcraftprovided a model for other writers.
A literary competition held at the time of Nigerian independence in 1960 was won by Femi Jeboda's realistic novel Olowolaiyemo (Mr. People-Rally-Only-Around-the-Well-To-Do), which deals with the hardships of urban life in Yorubaland. The trend of contemporary realism continued with Afolabi Olabimtan's novels. His first, Kekere Ekun (1967; [Lad Nicknamed] Leopard Cub), depicts the intrigues of a typically polygamous Yoruba home and the role of the church and school in a rural community. His second novel, Ayanmo (1973; Predestination), follows a village schoolmaster who studies hard to become a medical doctor. Various tempting and sophisticated women almost prevent him from achieving his ambition, but in the end he marries a girl from his hometown. Another successful writer was Akinwunmi Isola. His popular novel, O Le Ku (1974; Heart-Rending Incidents Occurred), depicts love and tragedy in a contemporary context.
There has been a tradition of Arabic writing in Hausaland (northern Nigeria and Niger) since the end of the 15th century. The Hausa language has been written in the Arabic alphabet since the early 19th century and in the Roman alphabet since the early 20th century. Islamic influence is still strong. A key feature of Hausa literature is the interaction of the oral and written traditions, and the emphasis (as in other literatures, such as Somali) is on recitation. Comment on religious, political, and social life has always been central to Hausa poetry. Its importance as a vehicle for comment is fostered by radio, the press, and television.
A key role in the history of Hausa poetry was played in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by the Islamic warrior and reformer Shaykh Usman dan Fodio. He wrote poetry in both Arabic and Hausa, using it to exhort the Hausa to follow Islam. Early religious poetry included the mystical writings of the Islamic Sufi brotherhoods. Of political and religious importance were the praise poems to Muhammad and to secular leaders and the chronicles of the city-states, such as Sokoto and Kano. One of the best known of early 20th-century poets is Alhaji Umaru. His Zuwan Nasara (1903; Arrival of the Christians) describes the chaos caused to traditional life by the British occupation. The tradition of religious poetry has continued through the custom of public recitations, often done by blind beggars who learn by heart the texts of manuscript poems.
Secular poetry flourished after World War II. It remained deeply influenced by Islam, but poets tended to be drawn from a wider range of occupations, and poetry became far less the preserve of Muslim functionaries. A number of well-known poems were composed by the political leader Sa'adu Zungur; among the best known is Wakar maraba da soja (1957; Song of Welcome to the Soldiers [on Their Return from Burma and India]). Other eminent poets who followed the tradition of commenting on contemporary life are Mudi Sipikin and Hamisa Yadudu Funtuwa. The latter wrote poems on social evils such as alcohol. In his Wakar uwar mugu (1957; Song of the Mother of Evil) he wrote on the attraction of prostitution as an emancipated alternative for women facing the tedium and constriction of polygamous marriage. International political relations have also been the subject of poetry, as in Garba Gwandu's Julius Nyerere (1971). Akilu Aliyu, like many of his fellow poets, wrote and recited poetry on the Nigerian civil war and on contemporary politics.
Novel writing in Hausa is more recent than the tradition of written poetry. The first clutch of novels was published as the result of a competition held in 1933. Dominant interests were heroic figures of the past and aspects of traditional life. As in Fagunwa's fiction, much use was made of fantastic figures and allegorical elements from oral narrative. Interest in social comment has been less marked in fiction than in poetry, but it is still present. A theme that occurs often is that of childlessness in marriage and its disastrous effects on those involved. Trenchant comment on political corruption is featured in Sulaiman Ibrahim Katsina's Turmin Danya (1983; Hog-Plum Mortar). Science fiction is particularly popular with youth; an example is Tauraruwa maiwutsiya (1969; The Comet) by Umaru Dembo.
Travel writing and biography have also featured in Hausa prose. An interesting comment on the individualism of European society viewed through African eyes is provided by the playwright and biographer Aminu Kano, whose Motsi ya fizama (1955; Moving Is Better than Sitting) is an account of his visit to Europe in 1946.
The oldest literary language in Ethiopia, Ge'ez, which is related to classical Arabic, was first used for the writing of Christian texts in the 4th century AD. It was the literary language of Ethiopia until the 19th century and was used for recording the lives of saints (hagiography) and for writing royal chronicles. A great deal of religious poetry was also written in Ge'ez.
In Amharic, a language spoken throughout Ethiopia, one of the founders of modern literature was Blattengeta Hiruy Walda Sillase. His two novels, addressed to a generation educated in European-style schools, criticize outmoded social customs and dubious religious practices. Thus, he focuses on child marriage and on the venality of some of the lower clergy. Hiruy argues for the adoption of Western technology and for a return to uncorrupted Christian ethics. Equally important as a founder of modern writing was Afawarq Gabra Iyasus, author of the first Ethiopian novel, Libb Wallad Tarlk (1908; Imaginative Story).
The critical thrust of the new Ethiopian literary trend was disrupted by the Italian conquest of 1936. However, a novel in the same critical vein, Ar'aya, was published in 194849 by Girmacchaw Takla Hawaryat. The Western-educated hero of this work is thwarted by intrigues in court and government circles when he returns home and tries to put his newly learned Western skills at the service of his people. Historical fiction, based mainly on the complex and commanding figure of the 19th-century emperor Tewodros II, is also well represented, particularly in And Lannatu (1967; His Mother's Only Child) by Abbe Gubañña and Ya-Tewodros Inba (1966; The Tears of Theodore) by Birhanu Zarihun. Didactic and socially committed writing is common: some touches on social issues such as prostitution, as in the short story Abbonas by Taddasa Liban, in his collection Lelaw Mangad (1959; Another Way). A novel that sympathetically examines the dilemma of a woman faced with the challenge of survival is Setiñña Ahari (1963; Fallen Woman) by Innanu Aggonafir (pseudonym of Nagash Gabra Maryam). Haddis Alamayyahu's novel Wanjalaññak Dañña (1974; The Crooked Judge) depicts corruption in the government of Emperor Haile Selassie I, while Fiqir Iska Maqabir (1958; Love unto the Grave) is a love story of two people from different social backgrounds.
The conflict between old and new and the antagonisms in Ethiopian society are explored by writers such as playwright Mangistu Lamma (see African theatre). Acculturation and alienation are explored in Taddasa Liban's short story Yatabattasa Fire (The Seed of the Sundering) in his collection Maskaram (1956). Writing since the proclamation of socialist Ethiopia is best represented by Birhanu Zarihun's trilogy, Ma'ibal (197982; Storm), which describes the revolution and its effects. Political problems such as apartheid, Pan-Africanism, and the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia have also been featured.
Besides the centuries-old practice of composing religious verse in Arabic, Somalia has a very old and rich tradition of oral literature in Somali, which still flourishes and influences the modern written forms. Written Somali literature really did not begin until after World War IIand even then did not flourish until after 1973, when the government introduced a standard orthography based on the Roman alphabet. Two periodicals, Sahan (Reconnaissance) and Horseed (Vanguard), fostered Somali writing in the 1960s. The first poet to commit his poems to writing was Cali Xuseen Xirsi. Two of his poems appeared in Sahan and Horseed, although most reached the public in oral form. Cali wrote often on public themes; one of his poems, for instance, commented on the political plight of Somalis in the late 1950s, and another, composed in 1962, protested the importation of foreign automobiles when the mass of the people were still living in poverty. The emphasis on oral performance and transmission has continued in the era of print and amid a strong campaign for adult literacy under the socialist government established by the military in 1969. Poems may now be written down, but they are subsequently recited on the radio or at public or private recitals, or they are circulated on audiocassettes. Cabdulqaadir Xirsi Yamyam became one of the leading poets of socialist Somalia. The themes of his and of his contemporaries' poems tend to be public, stressing, for example, dedication to the country and its new order and support for the feminist stance of the government.
In prose, the fiction of Faarax M.I. Cawl, which incorporates oral historical narratives and poems, marks a transition from oral to written form. His novel Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl (1974) is highly didactic, exhorting the virtue of literacy. It is about an illiterate dervish warrior who is unable to read a vital love letter from a young girl, and so the love affair ends tragicallyhence the title of the novel, translated as Ignorance Is the Enemy of Love.
Written poetry in Swahiliwhich drew inspiration from the Islamic literatures in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu taken to the east coast of Africa by traders and scribesgoes back at least to the mid-17th century. Until the mid-19th century, Arabic script was used, but thereafter Latin script became more common and is now standard. The oldest extant epic is the Hamziya (1749), a court poem written by Sayyid Aidarusi, who was assigned the task by Bwana Mkuw II, ruler of the island of Pate off the coast in what is now Kenya. It was written in Arabic script in the old Kingozi dialect of Swahili.
Possibly because of the didactic thrust of Islamic poetry, Swahili poetry has a strong tradition of public and religious commentary. The first well-known poet writing in this didactic vein was Mwana Kupona binti Msham, from Lamu Island, Kenya. His Utendi wa Mwana Kupona (Poem of Mwana Kupona) dates from 1858. Another poet of the 19th century is Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassany, from Mombasa, Kenya. Using a variety of stylesincluding lyrical, satiric, and panegyrichis poems presented a social and political commentary on urban life.
The acknowledged father of contemporary Swahili literature is Shaaban Robert, a Tanganyikan, best known as a poet (e.g., for Almasi za Afrika [1960; African Diamonds]) but also as a novelist and essayist. Robert's later style moved away from fantasy to the realistic portrayal of contemporary problems in novels such as Siku ya Watenzi Wote (1968; The Day of Reckoning) and Utubora Mkulima (1968; Utubora the Farmer). The next generation of poets, among whom the best known are the Kenyans Ahmad Nassir and Abdillatif Abdalla, continued to focus on public themes.
Social change and the confusion caused by the clash of tradition with modernity feature strongly in the contemporary novel. The Tanzanian Euphrase Kezilahabi's third novel, Dunia Uwanja wa Fujo (1975; The World Is a Chaotic Place), exemplifies this preoccupation. The general mood of contemporary novels is pessimistic. Heroes are often unsympathetic characters whose decline and fall reflect the difficulties of maintaining a moral stance in modern urban society.
Like other African-language literatures, Swahili suffers from a publishing and book famine. Poems on a wide range of topical subjects appear regularly in the local Swahili-language newspapers, but the publication of novels is hindered by the lack of strong indigenous publishing houses, despite a large potential readership.
Writing in Shona, the major African language group of Zimbabwe, is fairly recent, little of note appearing before the 1950s. In the novel a dominant trend has been the imaginative exploration of a heroic past. An example is Solomon Mutswairo's popular novel Feso (1956; Eng. trans. Feso). Patrick Chakaipa's Pfumo reropa (1961; The Spear of Blood) also explores the workings of Shona society before the appearance of whites, while his Rudo ibofu (1962; Love Is Blind) and Garan dichanya (1963; I Shall Return) treat the conflict between values of the two cultures. Other writers have focused on the harmful effects of urban life and the alienation that Western education may cause. John Marangwanda's Kumazi vandadzoke (1959; Who Goes to a Place Perhaps Never Comes Back) and Mutswairo's novel Murambiwa Goredema (1959; Murambiwa, Son of Goredema) focus on this urban theme.
Early Zulu writing at the beginning of the 20th century comprised mostly historical and religious works. Magema Fuze's reconstruction of the Zulu past, Abantu abamnyama lapha bavela ngakhona (The Black People and Whence They Came), was published in 1922. The Zulu-language newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal (The Natal Sun), founded in Durban, South Africa, in 1903 by John L. Dube, helped shape the Zulu readership. One of the paper's later editors, R.R.R. Dhlomo, wrote a series of novels on the Zulu kings of the 19th and early 20th centuries: UShaka (1936), UDingane (1936), UMpande (1938), UCetshwayo (1952), and UDinuzulu (1968). Dube wrote Insila kaShaka (1933; Jeqe, the Bodyservant of King Shaka), a historical novel on the powerful theme of Zulu royalty, and UShembe (1936), a biography of the charismatic Zulu prophet Isaiah Shembe. Fascination with the heroic Zulu past continued in works by later writersfor example, Leonard Mncwango's Ngenzeni? (1959; What Have I Done?). Muntu Xulu's Simpofu (1969; We Are Poor) focuses on the struggle between the Zulu king Cetshwayo and the white Natal politician Theophilus Shepstone.
The question of how to accept Westernization without abandoning tradition has always been a dominant theme in Zulu fiction. Dhlomo's novel Indlela yababi (1946; The Way of the Wicked) shows the disastrous effects of urban life on people from the village. J.K. Ngubane's Uvalo lwezinhlonzi (1957; The Fear of Authority) touches on the same theme, and C.L.S. Nyembezi's masterly Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu (1961; The Wealthy Man from Pietermaritzburg) portrays the wiles of a city man set against the upright morality of country people. Nyembezi's earlier Mntanami! Mntanami! (1950; My Child! My Child!) depicts a boy caught in the crime of the city who finally returns to his mourning family. A variety of themes covering the Zulu past, the clash between tradition and modernity, and the benefits and dangers of education feature in the short story collections Uthingo lwenkosazana (1971; The Rainbow), by D.B.Z. Ntuli, and Amawisa (1982; Fighting Sticks), by D.B.Z. and C.S.Z. Ntuli.
The finest Zulu poet to date is B.W. Vilakazi, who wrote passionately about nature, the Zulu past, and the injustice and degradation of apartheid in South Africa (in, for example, his famous poem Ezinkomponi [In the Mines]). Vilakazi's two volumes of poetry, Inkondlo kaZulu (1935) and Amal'ezulu (1945), are translated together as Zulu Horizons. In some instances the traditional praise poem has been effectively used to express contemporary experience, as in J.C. Dlamini's collection Inzululwane (1959; Giddiness) and Phumasilwe Myeni's Hayani maZulu (1969; Sing Zulus!). A poet who uses traditional and modern styles, covering both public and private themes, is N.J. Makhaye in his collection Isoka lakwaZulu (1972; The Popular Young Man of Zululand).
As in Zulu literature, the themes of the heroic past and of the opposition between beneficent tradition and harsh modernity are much in evidence. The question of how best to come to terms with change is also central in Xhosa literature. Much important early writing, expressing Xhosa aspirations and views on Christianity and tradition, appeared in the Xhosa-language newspapers and journals of the mid- and late 19th century: Ikhwezi (The Morning Star), Isigidimi samaXhosa (The Xhosa Messenger), Imvo zabantsundu (Opinions of the Black People), and Izwi labantu (Voice of the People). Xhosa writers were also concerned with contemporary political themes, particularly the struggle against the loss of their land and power and their economic subjugation by the white South Africans.
The earliest exponents of written poetry were Samuel E.K. Mqhayi and J.J.R. Jolobe. While Mqhayi modeled his verse on traditional praise poetry, Jolobe experimented with such European-inspired forms as rhyme and descriptions of nature, thereby laying the foundations of modern Xhosa poetry. Mqhayi's important novel, Ityala lamawele (1914; The Lawsuit of the Twins), demonstrates how native justice had operated quite successfully before whites arrived. It was, however, A.C. Jordan's Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (1940; The Wrath of the Ancestors) that set the principal theme of later Xhosa prose: how to retain the strengths of tradition in the face of inevitable change. Some writers, such as Z.S. Qangule and K.S. Bongela, set the rural-versus-urban conflict in stark polarities. Qangule's Izagweba (1972; Weapons) depicts the conflict between uncompromising traditionalists and Westernized, urbanized individuals. Bongela's Alishoni lingenandaba (1971; The Sun Does Not Set Without News) deals with the squalor and corruption of life in the black townships surrounding the affluent white cities of South Africa. Some works look critically at traditionparticularly at the custom of the bride-price; others, such as Godfrey Mzamane's Izinto zodidi (1959; Things of Value), suggest that synthesis can be achieved. In Mzamane's novel a strong and clever son succeeds in the new urban world, whereas his less well-prepared father has been corrupted by it and forced to return home.
Though the written literatures in African languages antedate in origin those in European languages, they are discussed after the more widespread modern literatures in French, Portuguese, and Englishthe so-called metropolitan languages of Africa.
The body of published African literature written in European languages is sufficient to be studied in its own right. Critical opinion within Africa remains divided about how authentically African experience can be rendered in a language of European origin, but, despite the growth of indigenous language publications, there is no serious threat to the survival of literatures in the metropolitan languages.
The first contemporary literature was born as a protest against French rule and the policy of assimilation. Its leading figure was Léopold Senghor, who in 1960 was elected first president of the Republic of Senegal. In Paris during the 1930s, he met Negro writers from the French Caribbean, such as the poets Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon Damas of French Guiana. Together they began an examination of Western values and a reassessment of African culture, and in 1947 they founded Présence Africaine, Africa's leading literary journal. Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948; Anthology of the New Negro and Madagascan Poetry) was an important influence in the formation of the idea of a Negritude (a term first used by Césaire) that should include poets outside Africain the French Caribbean territories and in Madagascar, for example. Senghor's poems are sometimes regarded as examples of 20th-century French poetry in the manner of Paul Claudel or Saint-John Perse, but they are, in fact, essentially African: his love poetry, in particular, is intensely so in structure and tempo. Senghor's themes are those of Negritude: he attacks what he sees as the soullessness of Western civilization (no mother's breast, but only nylon legs) and proclaims that African culture alone has preserved the mystic warmth of a life that could still revive the world that has died of machines and cannons. This culture, says Senghor, gains strength from its closeness to nature and constant contact with the ancestors; Western culture is out of step with the world's natural and ancient rhythm. Therefore, he proclaims, [We are] the leaven that the white flour needs. In long rhapsodic lines he tries to make the French language swing and dance in the rhythms of his native Serer language.
Another Senegalese, Birago Diop, has similarly explored the mystique of African life in a volume of poems, Leurres et lueurs (1960). His countryman David Diop wrote the most violent and full-blooded protest poetry to be produced by the Negritude movement: When civilization kicked us in the face, when holy water slapped our cringing brows.
Two of the most important Francophone novelists are the Cameroonians Mongo Beti (pseudonym of Alexandre Biyidi), who wrote Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba), and Ferdinand Oyono, author of Une Vie de boy (1956; Houseboy) and Le Vieux Nègre et la médaille (1956; The Old Man and the Medal). All three novels aim to explode the French colonial myth of France Outre-Mer: that the French West African possessions were not really colonies and that educated Africans are thus simply black Frenchmen.
The second generation of French African writers was less concerned with the public rhetoric of Negritude. Thus, though the Congolese poet Tchicaya U Tam'si sometimes spoke of his people's sufferings (My race remembers the taste of bronze drunk hot), he did not claim to be the spokesman of his race. In Le Mauvais Sang (1955; Bad Blood), Feu de brousse (1957; Brush-Fire), À triche-coeur (1960; A Game of Cheat-Heart), Épitomé (1962), and Le Ventre (1964; The Belly), he explored his personal agonies in Surrealist poems in the dense texture of which mythological, Christian, and sexual imagery are juxtaposed.
Camara Laye became famous with his romantic autobiography L'Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child), which draws a poetic, idyllic picture of life in a traditional African town. His most important work, however, is the novel Le Regard du roi (1954; The Radiance of the King), which describes a white man's quest for personal salvation in the mysterious atmosphere of the West African jungle. It is regarded as among the most imaginative novels to have come from Africa. In a third novel, Dramouss (1966; A Dream of Africa), Laye, who in 1965 became a political refugee in Senegal, attacks the harsh methods of Guinea's ruling party. Among Africa's socialist intellectuals, Senegal's Ousmane Sembène is best known as a film director, but his Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God's Bits of Wood) is a classic novel about the poor.
In the 1960s there was an important development of the philosophical novel in French-speaking Africa, notably by Sheikh Hamidou Kane in L'Aventure ambiguë (1961; Ambiguous Adventure) and by Yambo Ouologuem in Le Devoir de violence (1968; Bound to Violence). Both writers belong to the Islamic western Sudan and present their novels partly in the form of dialogues, either between Islam and Western materialism or between traditional autocracy and Christian compassion. Remarkable as women writers in a hitherto male world were Mariama Bâ, recipient of the first Noma Award for publishing in Africa for Une Si Longue Lettre (1980; So Long a Letter), and Aminata Sow Fall, a fellow Senegalese, who earned praise for La Grève des battu ou les déchets humains (1979; The Beggar's Strike), an ironic novella of great skill.
The 20th-century poetry of former Portuguese Africa, first widely known through the Angolan Mário Pinto de Andrade's Antologia da poesia negra de expressão portuguesa (1958), is mainly extremely militant. Both Andrade and the more important Agostinho Neto became actively engaged in the Angolan liberation movement, Neto serving as the first president of the People's Republic of Angola from 1975 until his death in 1979.
The Mozambican José Craveirinha, an assimilado (i.e., assimilated to Portuguese culture and Roman Catholicism), like all the African writers who have published work in former Portuguese Africa, is yet deeply concerned with problems of race and discrimination. Mozambique's capital of Maputo (Lourenço Marques), the centre of a considerable literary and artistic activity, has also produced Luís Bernardo Honwana, one of Africa's outstanding short-story writers. In 1980 an Angolan writer of stature emerged, Pepetela (Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana dos Santos), whose novel Mayombe is regarded as the major work of African fiction to have derived from guerrilla experience.
Although a genuine African literature in English did not emerge until the 1950s, writing in English by Africans goes back to the 18th century. Many slave narratives were published in English between 1760 and 1865, when the Civil War ended in the United States. Perhaps the most remarkable is The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789; enlarged 1790; critical ed., 2001). Long regarded as the first known English account by an African of his native country, the Interesting Narrative has come under increased scrutiny because of recently discovered documents suggesting that Equiano may have been born in North America. In the 19th century, with the spread of missionary schools, several Africans published prose works in English, among them Samuel Adjai Crowther (who in 1844 translated part of the Gospel According to Luke), Africanus Horton, and Edward Blyden. In the early 20th century the Ghanaian minister of religion the Reverend Carl Christian Reindorf wrote one of the first works by an African to make use of oral traditions, The History of the Gold Coast and Asante (c. 1911); and Joseph E. Casely-Hayford, also a Ghanaian, wrote Ethiopia Unbound (1911), a mixture of novel, autobiography, and pamphlet that is a forerunner of Negritude.
In the 1940s the popular novelettes of the Onitsha market literature, named after the famous market where they were sold, began to be written, and a number of pioneer writersamong them Michael Dei-Anang and Raphael Armattoe of Ghana, Dennis Osadebay of Nigeria, and Edwin Barclay of Liberiabegan to publish poems that, technically often crude and somewhat didactic in theme, prepared the way for later poets.
The institution in 1948 of university colleges at Accra, Ghana, and Ibadan, Nigeria, gave impetus to poetry, the novel, and drama in the 1950s and '60s. The most intense activity was in Nigeria, the Igbo proving particularly prolific. Cyprian Ekwensi, who began as an Onitsha pamphleteer, enjoyed great popularity with Jagua Nana (1961), the story of a prostitute. Onuora Nzekwu explored the relationship of the educated Igbo to his traditional culture in Wand of Noble Wood (1961), Blade Among the Boys (1962), and Highlife for Lizards (1965). Nkem Nwankwo created the comic protagonist of Danda (1964), the irreverent antihero perhaps inspired by trickster tales. The outstanding Igbo novelist was Chinua Achebe. All his novels present the conflict of emergent Africa: in Things Fall Apart (1958) he showed the impact of British rule on Igbo village life; in No Longer at Ease (1960) he analyzed the conflict in the mind of an African civil servant in Lagos who is torn between the social pressures of upper-class urban life and the demands of his village union; in Arrow of God (1964) he explored the breakup of traditional values and the struggle for political power in an Igbo village. A Man of the People (1966) is a bitter, disillusioned story of political corruption and intimidation in independent Nigeria. The same themes emerge in Anthills of the Savannah (1987).
The development of Nigerian literature owed much to two related centres in Ibadan. The journal Black Orpheus, founded in 1957 with Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn as its first coeditors, took its name from Jean-Paul Sartre's famous Orphée noir (1948), the introduction to Senghor's anthology (see above French), and from Jahn's anthology, Schwarzer Orpheus (1954). Inspired by Présence Africaine and the First Congress of African Writers (Paris, 1956), Black Orpheus published the earliest efforts of African writers in English to find a literary mode of expression. A second influence on the establishment of an independent Nigerian culture was the foundation (1961) of the Mbari Mbayo Club (also called the Mbari Club), a meeting place for new writers and artists that also published the work of many poets and playwrights.
Among the poets published by Mbari was Christopher Okigbo, who, until his early death in 1967 while fighting for Biafran independence, was the most polished and prolific Nigerian poet. In Heavensgate (1962) and Limits (1964) he developed a sensuous verse using styles borrowed from African and Western sources.
Like Okigbo, John Pepper Clark graduated from the University of Ibadan. His passionate Poems (1962) and Song of a Goat (1961) were first published by Mbari. Clark is the most urgent and immediate of the Nigerian poets. Less reflective than Wole Soyinka, less meticulous than Okigbo, he works out each poem on the impetus of a single lyrical impulse. He has also written successful plays: Song of a Goat (performed in London at the 1965 Commonwealth Festival) is the tragedy of a childless woman. The Ozidi of Atazi (performed in the early 1960s; published 1966) is a stage version of a traditional Ijo ritual play.
One of Nigeria's most sensitive poets is Gabriel Okara, whose novel The Voice (1964) is a fascinating linguistic experiment. Okara forces English into the straitjacket of Ijo syntax, producing an extraordinary and archaic effect that is often as beautiful as it is bizarre.
Africa's most famous playwright is the Nigerian Wole Soyinka (see African theatre). Apart from his plays, Soyinka's tragic view of life is also expressed in his novel The Interpreters (1965). Publication in 1967 of Idanre and Other Poems, his first anthology, established him as a poet of distinction. Here, too, he explored his tragic sense of the difficulties and cost of human progress. Soyinka's autobiography of childhood, Aké (1981), was masterly in its tender recollections of his early years.
Nigerian writing in the 1970s lost some of its momentum. While many writers were coming to terms with the effects of the civil war of 196770, new writers emerged dealing with other preoccupations. These included Buchi Emecheta, who documented the position of women in Nigeria and Britain; Festus Iyayi and Ben Okri, who showed the stresses within urban African society; and playwrights such as Zulu Sofola.
Among the most important poets outside Nigeria in the late 1960s were a Gambian, Lenrie Peters, and a Ghanaian, George Awoonor Williams (later known as Kofi Awoonor). The early work of both was published by Mbari: Peters's Poems and Awoonor's Rediscovery and Other Poems (both 1964). Peters brings an unusual scientific intelligence to bear in his poetry, while Awoonor is deeply concerned with his native Ewe poetic tradition and the means of extending this in English.
In 1968 the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah's novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was published. On the surface it deals with the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah's government, but, on a more universal level, it sums up the drift and despair of many African writers in the years after the stilling of the drums that celebrated independence. Armah's later work included The Healers (1978), a novel set in the 19th century that, like those of many other writers, uses the past as a key to understanding the present.
In East Africa in the 1960s, written literature was only just coming to birth; and the literary review Transition (Kampala, Uganda, 196168) played an important part in encouraging young writers. In the late 1960s the most original talent in East Africa was that of a Ugandan, Okot p'Bitek, whose long poem Song of Lawino (1966) treats the conflict of cultures with freshness and imagination, using the device of a lament by an illiterate woman. Already, however, Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya had emerged as East Africa's leading novelist, with two novelsWeep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965)in which he tried to do for his native people, the Kikuyu, what Achebe had done for the Igbo. In a third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), he reflected profoundly on the meaning of heroism and of national independence. His Petals of Blood (1977) is complex in its narrative technique and explicit in its call for popular rebellion against the injustices of external domination. Ngugi's plays in particular were sufficiently outspoken to result in his spending a year in detention. He turned to writing in Kikuyu as well as in English, notably in his novel Devil on the Cross (1982), a scathing satirical fantasy.
The emergent work of writers born in, though often living in exile from, South Africa was long dominated by the political fact of apartheid. Many found the short story the best medium of protest; among the most successful writers were Bloke Modisane, Todd Matshikiza, Es'kia Mphahlele, Richard Rive, Alex La Guma, and Can Themba. In the late 1950s Drum magazine provided an important forum for these writers.
Autobiographies are among the most moving and significant works by black South Africans. Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue (1959) has become a South African classic; and Alfred Hutchinson's Road to Ghana (1960) and Bloke Modisane's Blame Me on History (1963) are passionate documents in which the authors try to overcome the humiliation of their experience as blacks living in white-dominated South Africa.
The outstanding nonwhite novelist in South Africa in the 1960s was Alex La Guma. His superb eye for detail makes it possible for him to let the horror of a situation speak for itself, so that he never becomes sentimental, prolix, or overemotional in describing it. His short novels, including A Walk in the Night (1962), And a Threefold Cord (1964), The Stone-Country (1965), and Time of the Butcherbird (1979), are tense works of protest. The subtlest treatment of the recurrent theme of race relations, however, was perhaps that by Lewis Nkosi in his extraordinary play The Rhythm of Violence (1964).
The leading South African poets of the 1960s were Mazisi Kunene, K.A. Noortje, and Dennis Brutus. Many writers went into exile, but the country continued to produce, as a main focus of opposition to apartheid, some of the outstanding black writers on the continent. Prominent prose writers in the 1980s included Njabulo Ndebele and Mbulelo Mzamane; poets included Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Mtshali, and Mongane Serote. A notable playwright was Maishe Maponya.
The 1980s saw the emergence of Zimbabwean fiction (represented notably by Dambudzo Marechera and Charles Mungoshi), at least one major Malawian poet (Jack Mapanje), the Botswanan (formerly South African) novelist and short-story writer Bessie Head, and a brilliant Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah. The last two were perhaps Africa's most profound interpreters of women.
Alastair N.R. Niven
Copyright © 1994-2005 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.