Literary Background of the
The most notable literary selections are those that
capture the life and struggle of the African people.
There have been significant struggles that could
have been left untouched, but writers choose to
face courageous task of answering the call of pen,
and begin the process of social healing through
literature. Perhaps, it is this brilliant characteristic of
African literature that enables it to shine and fulfill
one universal function of literature.
Literary Background of the
The literary tradition of Africa became richer than
ever as it gained artistic and sophisticated
expression in different languages. Traditional
languages became vehicles of cultural thoughts.
Poetry, drama, novel, and short story flourished as
the literary genres. The people’s struggle to cope
with – or oppose – the changing atmosphere of
their homelands was dramatically recorder in what
is known as African literature.
Literary Background of the
Literature represents the breadth and depth of
universal experiences of man. The texts for the
study of African literature shed light on
controversial issues such as racial discrimination,
apartheid, political conflicts, civil wars, feminism
and gender sensitivity, and human rights issues.
These have given the selections the flavor of
relevance and universality, which are outstanding
themes of a meaningful literary study.
“A sudden grasp of racial identity and of cultural values and an
awareness of the wide discrepancies which existed between the
promise of the French system of assimilation and the reality.”
Although Africans had been writing in Portuguese as
early as 1850 and a few volumes of African writing in
English and French had been published, an explosion of
African writing in European languages occurred in the
mid-twentieth century. In the 1930s, black intellectuals
from French colonies living in Paris initiated a literary
movement called Negritude. Negritude emerged out of
"a sudden grasp of racial identity and of cultural values
and an awareness "of the wide discrepancies which
existed between the promise of the French system of
assimilation and the reality."
The movement's founders looked to Africa to rediscover
and rehabilitate the African values that had been erased by
French cultural superiority. Negritude writers wrote poetry
in French in which they presented African traditions and
cultures as antithetical, but equal, to European culture. Out
of this philosophical/literary movement came the creation
of Presence Africaine by Alioune Diop in 1947. The journal,
according to its founder, was an endeavor "to help define
African originality and to hasten its introduction into the
modern world.” Other Negritude authors include Leopold
Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas.
Oral literature, also called as “orature,” have flourished in Africa
for many centuries and take a variety of forms including folk
tales, myths, epics, funeral dirges, praise poems, and proverbs.
Myths usually explain the interrelationships of all things that
exist, and provide for the group and its members a necessary
sense of their place in relation to their environment and the
forces that order events on earth.
Epics are elaborate literary forms, usually performed only by
experts on special occasions. They often recount the heroic
exploits of ancestors.
3. FUNERAL DIRGES
Dirges, chanted during funeral ceremonies, lament the departed,
praise his/her memory, and ask for his/her protection.
4. PRAISE POEMS
Praise poems are epithets called out in reference to an object (a
person, a town, an animal, a disease, and so on) in celebration of
its outstanding qualities and achievements.
Praise poems have a variety of applications and
functions. Professional groups often create poems
exclusive to them. Prominent chiefs might appoint a
professional performer to compile their praise
poems and perform them on special occasions.
Professional performers of praise poems might also
travel from place to place and perform for families
or individuals for alms or a small fee.
Proverbs are short, witty or ironic statements, metaphorical in its
formulation which aim to communicate a response to a particular
situation, to offer advice, or to be persuasive.
The proverb is often employed as a rhetorical
device, presenting its speaker as the holder of
cultural knowledge or authority. Yet, as much as the
proverb looks back to an African culture as its origin
and source of authority, it creates that African
culture each time it is spoken and used to make
sense of immediate problems and occasions.
Written literature includes novels, plays, poems, hymns, and
A discussion of written African literatures raises a number of
complicated and complex problems and questions that only
can be briefly sketched out here. The first problem concerns
the small readership for African literatures in Africa. Over
50% of Africa's population is illiterate, and hence many
Africans cannot access written literatures. The scarcity of
books available, the cost of those books, and the scarcity of
publishing houses in Africa exacerbate this already critical
situation. Despite this, publishing houses do exist in Africa,
and in countries such as Ghana and Zimbabwe, African
publishers have produced and sold many impressive works
by African authors, many of which are written in African
Scholars have identified three waves of literacy in Africa.
The first occurred in 1.Ethiopia where written works have
been discovered that appeared before the earliest
literatures in the Celtic and Germanic languages of Western
Europe. The second wave of literacy moved across 2.Africa
with the spread of Islam. Soon after the emergence of Islam
in the seventh century, its believers established themselves
in North Africa through a series of jihads, or holy wars. In
the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Islam was carried into
the kingdom of Ghana. The religion continued to move
eastward through the nineteenth century.
The encounter with 3.Europe through trade relationships,
missionary activities, and colonialism propelled the third
wave of literacy in Africa. In the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, literary activity in the British colonies was
conducted almost entirely in vernacular languages.
Missionaries found it more useful to translate the Bible into
local languages than to teach English to large numbers of
Africans. This resulted in the production of hymns, morality
tales, and other literatures in African languages concerned
with propagating Christian values and morals. The first of
these "Christian-inspired African writings" emerged in South
The written literatures, novels, plays, and poems in the
1950s and 60s have been described as literatures of
The African authors who produced literatures in European
languages have been described as literatures of revolt.
These texts move away from the project of recuperating
and reconstructing an African past and focus on responding
to, and revolting against, colonialism and corruption. These
literatures are more concerned with the present realities of
African life, and often represent the past negatively.
Paris in the Snow swings between assimilation of French,
European culture or negritude; intensified by the poet’s
Totem by Leopold Senghor shows the eternal linkage of the
living with the dead.
Letters to Martha by Dennis Brutus is the poet’s most
famous collection that speaks of the humiliation, the
despondency, the indignity of prison life.
Train Journey by Dennis Brutus reflects the poet’s social
commitment as he reacts to poverty around him amidst
material progress especially and acutely felt by the innocent
victims, the children.
Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka is the poet’s most
anthologized poem that reflects Negritude. The poetic
dialogue reveals the landlady’s deep-rooted prejudice
the colored people as the caller plays up on it.
Africa by David Diop is a poem that achieves its impact by a
series of climactic sentences and rhetorical questions.
Song of Lawino by Okot P’Bitek is a sequence of poem
about the clash between African and Western values and is
regarded as the first important poem in “English to emerge
from Eastern Africa.” Lawino’s song is a pleas for the
Ugandans to look back to traditional village life and
The Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono points out the
dillusionmentt of Toundi, a boy who leaves his parents
maltreatment to enlist his services as an acolyte to a
missionary. After the priest’s death, he becomes a helper
a white plantation owner, discovers the liaison of his
master’s wife, and gets murdered later in the woods as
catch up with him. Toundi symbolizes the
and the coming of age, and utters despondency of the
Camerooninans over the corruption and immortality of
whites. The novel is developed in the form of a recit, the
French style of a diary-like confessional work.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe depicts a vivid picture
of Africa before the colonization by the British people. The
novel laments over the disintegration of Nigerian society,
represented in the story by Ok-wonko, once a respected
chieftain who loses his leadership and falls from grace after
the coming of the whites. Cultural values are woven around
the plot to mark its authenticity: polygamy since the
is Muslim; tribal law is held supreme by the gwugwu,
respected elders in the community; a man’s social status is
determined by the people’s esteem and by possession of
fields of yams and physical prowess; community life is
in drinking sprees, funeral wakes, and sports festivals.
No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe is a sequel to
Things Fall Apart. A returning hero fails to cope with
disgrace and social pressure. Okwonko’s son has to
up to the expectations of the Umuofians, after
a scholarship in London, where he reads literature,
law as expected of him, he has to dress up, he must
have a car, he has to maintain his social standing,
he should not marry an Ozu, an outcast. In the end,
tragic hero succumbs to temptation, he, too receives
bribes, and therefore is “no longer at ease.’
The Poor Christ of Bombay by Mongot Beti begins en
medias res and exposes the inhumanity of colonialism. The
novel tells Fr. Drumont’s disillusionment after the discovery
the degradation of the native women, bethrothed, but
to work like slaves in the sixa. The government steps into
picture as syphilis spreads out in the priest’s compound. It
turns out that the native whose weakness are wine,
and song has been made overseer of the sixa when the
Belgian priest goes out to attend to his other mission work.
Developed through recite or diary entries, the novel is a
on the failure of religion to integrate to national
without first understanding the native’s culture.
The River Between by James Ngugi shows the clash of
traditional values and contemporary ethics and mores. The
Honia River is symbolically taken as metaphor of tribal and
Christian unity – the Makuyu tribe conducts Christian rites
while the Kamenos hold circumcision rituals. Muthoni, the
heroine, although a new-born Christian, desires the pagan
ritual. She dies in the end but Waiyaki, the teacher, does
teach vengeance against Joshua, the leader of the
but unity with them. Ngugi poses co-existence of religion
people’s lifestyle at the same time stressing the influence of
education to enlighten people about their socio-political
Heirs to the Past by Driss Chraili is an allegorical, parable-
like novel. After 16 years of absence, the anti-hero Driss
returnd to Morocco for his father’s funeral. The Signeur
his legacy via a tape recorder in which he tells the family
members his last will and testament. Each chapter in the
reveals his relationship with them, and at the same time
bare the psychology of these people. His older brother,
was ‘born once and had died several times’ because of his
childishness and irresponsibility. His idiotic brother, Nagib,
become a total burden to the family. His mother as she
for her freedom. Driss flies back to Europe completely
alienated from his people, religion, and civilization.
A Few Days and Few Nights by Mbella Sonne Dipoko
deals with racial prejudice. In the novel originally written
French, a Cameroonian scholar studying in France is torn
between the love of Swedish girl and a Parisian whose
father owns a business establishment in Africa. The father
rules out the possibility of marriage. Therese, their
commits suicide and Doumbe, the Cammerronian, thinks
only of the future of the Bibi, the Swedish who is
his child. Doumbe’s remark that the African is like a
which carries it home wherever it goes implies the racial
pride and love for the native grounds.
The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka is about a group of
young intellectuals who function as asrtists in their
with one another as they try to place themselves in
context of the world about them.
Leopold Sedar Senghor
He is a poet and statesman who was a co-founder of the
Negritude movement in African Art and Literature. He went to
Paris on a scholarship and later taught in the French school
system. During these years, Senghor discovered the
unmistakable imprint of African art on modern painting
sculpture, and music, which confirmed his belief in Africa’s
contribution to modern culture. Drafted during World War II, he
was captured and spent two years in Nazi concentration camp
where he wrote some of his finest poems. He became president
of Senegal in 1960. His works include: Songs of Shadows, Black
Offerings, Major Elegies, and Poetical Work. He became
Negritude’s foremost spokesman and edited an anthology of
French language by black African that became a seminal text of
the Negritude movement. (1906)
He was born in Ugand during the British
domination and was embodied in contrast of
cultues. He attended English-speaking school,
but never lost touch with traditional African
values and used his wide array of talents to
pursue his interests in both African and Western
cultures. Among his works are: Song of Lawino,
Song of Ocol, African Religions and Western
Scholarship, Religion of the Central Luo, Horn of
My Love. (1930 – 1982)
He is a Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and critic
who was the first black African to be awarded the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He wrote of modern
West Africa in a satirical style and with tragic sense of
the obstacles to human progress. He taught literature
and drama and headed theater groups at various
Nigerian universities. Among his works are: plays – A
Dance of the Forests, The Lion and the Jewel, The Trials
of Brother Jero; novels – The Interpreters, Season of
Anomy; poems – Idanre and Other Poems, Poems from
Prison, A Shuttle in the Crypt, Mandela’s Earth and
Other Poems. (1934)
He is a prominent Igbo novelist acclaimed for his
unsentimental depictions of the social and
psychological disorientation accompanying the
imposition of Western customs and values upon
traditional African society. His particular concern
was with the emergent Africa at its movement
of crisis. His works include: Things Fall Apart,
Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, A Man of the
People, Anthills of Savanah. (1930)
She wrote twelve books on children’s stories
known as the Moses Series, which are now a
standard reading fare for African school children.
She also worked for many years for His Highness
the Kabaka of Uganda, in the Ministry of
Education and later served as Kabaka’s librarian.
She was a journalist of the Uganda Nation and
later a columnist for A Nairobi newspaper. Among
her works are: Kalasanda Revisited, The
Smugglers, The Money Game. (1940)
She described the contradictions and
shortcomings of pre- and post-colonial African
society in morally didactic novels and stories.
She suffered rejection and alienation from an
early age being born of an illegal union between
her white mother and black father. Among her
works are: When Rain Clouds Gather, A Question
of Power, The Collector of Treasures, Serowe.
(1937 – 1986)
He is a writer and filmmaker from Senegal.
His works reveal an intense commitment to
political and social change. Sembene tells
his stories from out of Africa’s past and
relates their relevance and meaning for
contemporary society. His works include: O
My Country, My Beautiful People, God’s
Bits of Wood, The Storm. (1923)
She is a South African novelist and short story writer
whose major themes was exile and alienation. She
received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Gordimer was writing by age 9 and published her first
story in magazine at 15. Her works exhibit a clear,
controlled, and unsentimental technique that became
her hallmark. She examines how public events affect
individual lives, how the dreams of one’s youth are
corrupted, and how innocence is lost. Amore her works
are: The Soft Voice of the Serpent, Burger’s Daughter,
July’s People, A Sport of Nature, My Son’s Story, The
Ultimate Safari. (1923)