Pauline Dodgson Special Commissioned Essay on Modern African Literature Essay: Introduction

Essay: Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pauline Dodgson (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Dodgson, Pauline. “An Analysis of Modern African Literature.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 163, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following essay, Dodgson examines the history and diversity of modern African literature, focusing on the movement's major writers, significant works, and critical response.]


African writers began to reach an audience beyond their own country and region in the late 1940s and 1950s. Two of the first modern African works to gain international recognition were the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola's work The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and the Guinean writer Camara Laye's novel L'enfant noir (1953; translated as The Dark Child, 1954).

Tutuola, a man of little formal education, was working as a messenger in the colonial service in Nigeria when he started his career as a writer. The Palm-Wine Drinkard is his first and best-known work. It is usually placed within the novel genre, although it could be argued that it is closer to fable. Much of Tutuola's work is derived from Yoruba folktale, and The Palm-Wine Drinkard is typical in this regard. Tutuola's English is idiosyncratic, possibly because of his lack of a formal education but also because he uses Nigerian expressions and idioms.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a fantasy. It tells the story of a “drinkard,” a man very fond of palm-wine, who, when his favourite palm-wine tapster dies, goes to the underworld, the Land of the Dead, in an attempt to find his tapster and bring him back to the world of the living. The story is told as a quest narrative. The drinkard has a series of adventures, some involving the use of magic, before he finds the tapster and then returns without him.

The novel was published by the British publisher Faber and was well received by British critics. However, at the time of its publication, it did not find favour with Nigerian reviewers who disliked what they saw as its poor English. It was also considered to be pandering to a white readership that would find its folkloric origins and characteristics appealingly primitive and exotic. Despite its pioneering status and positive endorsement from Chinua Achebe,1The Palm-Wine Drinkard received little critical acclaim after the 1960s. More recent developments in the novel, particularly the African novel, however, have led to its reassessment. The magic realism of the “boom” novelists in Latin America has made readers more familiar with the appearance of magic in what appears to be ordinary, everyday life. Gareth Griffiths argues that Tutuola's work is significant for its linguistic innovation, its incorporation of the oral into the literary, and its hybrid form and content.2

Camara Laye's The Dark Child has also been criticized for its alleged primitiveness and sentimentality. The novel was written when Camara Laye was a student in Paris taking a course in motor mechanics. It describes in a nostalgic manner his memories of his childhood in Upper Guinea in French West Africa. Camara Laye describes in some detail the art of goldsmithing, a Malinke tradition, practiced by his father. The book is clearly a landmark in the development of African literature, and it received recognition through the award of the Prix Charles Veillon in 1954. Critics have concentrated on the way the author idealises his childhood and have pointed to the anthropological nature of his depiction of the rites and customs of his society, especially in the long section of the novel that deals with male induction into manhood when he and the other boys in his age-group are circumcized. Kenneth W. Harrow has given the novel more sympathetic treatment, studying it as an important example of the literature of témoignage, literature that bears witness to social and individual experiences under colonialism.3


By way of contrast with the novels of Tutuola and Camara Laye, popular literature developed in the cities of East and West Africa. The most well-known example of African popular literature is the Onitsha Market Literature of Eastern Nigeria, which was produced in pamphlet form by local presses and distributed in the market. This literature developed after the Second World War, with the growth of an urban population and the rise in literacy rates. The literature was influenced by Indian popular literature, which had been brought to Nigeria by Nigerian soldiers returning from Asia at the end of the war. The literature included genre fiction such as the romance novel, self-improving texts giving instructions on letter writing, and the inspiring life stories of nationalist politicians. The pamphlets were written in English and, according to Gareth Griffiths, “Their development is part of an extended historical process in which English usage is equated with modernity, self-development and education.”4

One of the writers of market literature was Cyprian Ekwensi who wrote pamphlets in the late 1940s. He went on to write novels and short stories that crossed the literary/popular dividing line. People of the City (1954) is a social realist novel whose protagonist is a crime reporter in Lagos. Jagua Nana (1961) tells the story of Jagua Nana, a woman who leaves her rural community in search of a more independent life. She works as a society prostitute, spending time at a Lagos nightclub and having affairs with politicians and other men. The man she loves, Freddie Namme, marries someone else, and Jagua herself rejects marriage in order to maintain her freedom. Freddie and her current lover Uncle Taiwo are both killed in political violence. Jagua has a baby, after a long period of infertility, but it does not survive. Jagua is remorseful and decides to give some of the money Uncle Taiwo has left her to charitable works and use the rest to set herself up as a trader at the Onitsha market. Although Ekwensi's portrayal of Jagua is sympathetic, his fiction gives specific detail about the degradation of urban life while adopting a moral tone that condemns the characters' behaviour. In this aspect it is similar to the market literature, which includes Christian moralizing on sin, forgiveness, and redemption in the stories.

The tradition versus modernity theme is developed in two poems by the Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek. His long poem, Song of Lawino, was written in Acoli and published in 1956. Okot's English version was published in 1966. Song of Lawino is the lament of a traditional Acoli wife, Lawino, to her husband, Ocol, who has taken a second, Westernized wife, Clementina. In an interview with Robert Serumaga, Okot explained the content of the poem:

It's a big laugh by this village girl called Lawino, laughing at modern man and modern woman in Uganda. She thinks that the educated folk are spoiled, in the sense that they don't belong, that they don't fully enjoy the culture of the people of Uganda, and she thinks that if only these educated people could stop a little bit and look back into the village they would find a much richer life altogether.5

Okot's humourous description of the subject matter makes the poem sound more light-hearted than it is. Lawino makes fun, often in a crude manner, of those who adopt Western culture and religion, but the poem makes serious points about a society in transition. In Song of Ocol (1970), Lawino's husband retorts that traditional culture is outmoded and that Western culture and new technology are what matters.

Popular literature in Kenya developed in the 1970s. Charles Mangua's novel Son of Woman (1971), which was influenced by American popular culture, is an example of a genre novel with a criminal as a hero. The best-known popular novelist in Kenya is David Maillu, who established his own press to publish his fiction. Like the Onitsha Market Literature writers and Ekwensi, Maillu presents decadent low life and moralizes about the consequences of sinful living. His After 4:30 (1974), a novel in verse that has been influenced by Song of Lawino tells the story of a prostitute, Emili, who warns that men are always gleeful about making life difficult for women.

Popular literature, infused with social and political consciousness-raising, was published in South Africa by Drum magazine from the 1950s and Staffrider magazine from the 1970s. Among the journalists working on Drum was Es'kia Mphahlele, whose autobiography Down Second Avenue (1959), an account of his childhood in a poverty-stricken township, was published near the beginning of his twenty-year period of exile. Drum published the stories of Richard Rive and Can Themba. Rive later wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Emergency (1964), set during the state of emergency following the Sharpeville shootings and subsequent riots. Themba's stories draw on popular genre and depict the shebeens and criminal haunts of the Johannesburg township of Sophiatown before it was razed to the ground. His best stories, for example “Kwashiorkor” and “The Suit,” provide a social commentary on life under apartheid. Themba's stories were collected after his death in The Will to Live (1972).


A dominant trend in both Francophone and Anglophone African writing in the late 1950s is anticolonialism. This trend can be seen in the fiction of the Cameroonian writers Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono. Beti's Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; translated as The Poor Christ of Bomba, 1971) tells the story of a white missionary and his black assistant who both change in the course of a journey they take together. Mission terminé (1957; translated as Mission to Kala, 1964), Beti's third novel, is the story of a young Cameroonian man who is sent to the village of Kala where he is honoured by the villagers because they believe him to be highly educated. Beti's novels use satire and irony to show how the imposition and internalization of French colonial values have led to alienation. Oyono's Une vie de Boy (1956; translated as Houseboy, 1956) reverses the colonial stereotype of the settler who ridicules the native to show Africans who are astonished by the behaviour of the French colonisers.

Sembene Ousmane, a Senegalese writer and Africa's foremost filmmaker, has directly confronted colonialism and depicted anticolonial resistance in his fiction and motion pictures. Sembene's Le docker noir (1956; translated as The Black Docker, 1986) is the story of a Senegalese immigrant, Diaw Falla, in the port of Marseilles in southern France, and the racism he encounters. Falla is tried and convicted of murder after he has accidentally killed the woman who has passed off his novel as her own work. Sembene's short movie La Noire de … (1966) tells a similarly tragic story of what happens to the African in the colonial mother country. A young Senegalese woman accompanies her French employers to Antibes in southern France, where she is treated harshly. Her employers have no understanding of her loneliness and cultural alienation. The movie ends after the woman has committed suicide by cutting her wrists.

Sembene's major anticolonial novel is Les bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; translated as God's Bits of Wood, 1962), a fictional account of the historical railway strike on the Dakar-Niger line in 1947-1948. Sembene himself had participated in this strike. The novel shows sections of the community in different towns who organize and participate in the strike. In one of the most impressive episodes in the novel, Sembene describes the march of the women from Thiès to Dakar to protest about the conditions of the workers. The novel has its origins in Sembene's radicalism, class-consciousness, and trade unionism. It has been compared to the work of the French naturalist novelist Emile Zola because of the broad sweep it takes in its representation of the workers' lives.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's novels Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964, revised 1974) portray the impact of colonialism on Igbo traditional society. Achebe was also one of the first African writers to write about the corruption and disillusionment of a post-independence African society. No Longer at Ease (1960) tells the story of Obi Okinawa, the grandson of the warrior Okonkwo, represented in Things Fall Apart. Obi returns from Britain, where he has had a university education, and tries to participate in a new Nigerian society that is on the brink of independence, but he ends up by taking bribes and fulfilling the colonialists' expectations of him. A Man of the People (1966) depicts a young man's encounter with a corrupt politician, Chief Nanga, whose corrosive hold on power seems to be all-pervasive. A Man of the People was published shortly before Nigeria's first military coup and, given that the novel ends with the military taking over as the only possible answer to corruption, the novel was seen as prophetic.

Corruption and post-independence disillusionment are the themes of the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah's novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). This novel is a strident critique of the failure of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, to bring prosperity and stability to post-independence Ghana. The protagonist of the novel, referred to only as “the man,” is a railway clerk. He resists the corruption that he sees around him, despite the promptings of his wife and friends who cannot see why he cannot do what everybody else is doing. Complementing the man is the character known only as Teacher, an intellectual, a former nationalist who has withdrawn from society. The role of Teacher is perplexing. Ama Ata Aidoo comments, “Is he just a good man or does Ayi Kwei feel in spite of himself, that he ought to give us someone who is of us and yet wise enough to be our guiding light.”6

Teacher is a contradiction. He analyses the failures of post-independence societies, but rather than engaging with the political struggle to change them, he tells the man, “It is not a choice between life and death, but what kind of death we can bear, in the end.”7

Set against Teacher are the corrupt government minister, Koomson, and his consumerist wife, Estella, whom the man's wife admires. At the end of the novel, after Koomson has been ousted from power, he is forced to escape, with the man's help, by crawling through a latrine. Filth and excrement and the pollution of overconsumption are used throughout the novel as images of the corruption and rottenness of contemporary society.

Sembene Ousmane's Xala (1974; translated 1976) similarly regards postcolonial society as corrupt and decadent, but it is neocolonialism that is foregrounded in the novel. The French are no longer the direct rulers of Senegal, but they remain in the country as advisors and use bribery to retain their power and influence. The novel's protagonist, El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, is a businessman and member of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. El Hadji has two wives. His first wife is Adja Awa Astou, a traditional, religious woman who believes it is her duty to support her husband even if she does not like the way he treats her. The second wife, Oumi N'Doye, is Westernized and materialistic; she can be compared to Estella Koomson in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

El Hadji takes a third wife, a young woman N'Gone, but he is unable to consummate his marriage with her because he is suffering from a Xala, or curse of impotence. El Hadji also becomes economically impotent as he loses his credit worthiness after failing to repay money he owes to the National Grain Board. He is expelled from the Chamber, and his place is taken by a street thief. At the end of the novel, beggars, whom El Hadji has had removed from the streets near his office, invade his house. One of the beggars accuses El Hadji of having stolen land from him, tells him that he has put the curse on him and that if he wants it removed, then he must remove his clothes and allow all the beggars to spit on him.

Xala is also a motion picture, which Sembene directed in 1974. The representation of women in the novel and movie is symbolic. It can be argued that El Hadji's wives, especially his third wife who in the movie undresses for her wedding night juxtaposed against a nude photograph of herself, exist only as types who represent stages in the development of Senegalese society. It is El Hadji's daughter, Rama, who offers a way forward. In her attitude and behaviour, she synthesizes progressive elements in the traditional and the modern.

The Malawian poet Jack Mapanje's collection Of Chameleons and Gods (1981) draws on orature and myth to offer a veiled critique of the Hastings Banda regime. Mapanje was imprisoned by the regime from 1987-1991. His The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (1993) includes poems written about his imprisonment.

The trenchant and satirical representations of postcolonial governments co-existed with works, in some cases by the same writers, which looked to the precolonial African past but moved away from the realist narratives of Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Armah's novel Two Thousand Seasons (1973) presents a panoramic but controversial view of African history, which shows how Africans have deviated from the “way,” an indigenous Pan-African humanist philosophy. Armah, using the first person plural pronoun, “we,” as collective narration in the manner of an oral or epic storyteller, tells the story of the invasion of Africa first by Arabs and then by Europeans, “the white destroyers.”

In a powerful section of the novel, the narrator describes how “the white destroyers” come to the precolonial communal society Anoa and promise material wealth to the king and his flatterers in exchange for allowing them to exploit the land and enslave the people. A group of young Africans are sold into slavery by the king. They escape and then wage warfare against the slavers. Adewale Maja-Pearce argues that “History itself is the hero of the novel, the two thousand seasons from conquest through regeneration to the final liberation when Africa throws of the yoke of oppression and reconnects with its own fractured past.”8 The novel depicts a prehistory for African-Americans. It shows African complicity in the slave trade but also African resistance. In this, it bears some resemblance to Sembene's movie Ceddo (1977), which also represents the imposition of Islamic and European culture in Africa and the enslavement of the indigenous people.

Camara Laye's last novel, Le maître de la parole—Kouma Lafôlô Kouma (1978, translated as The Guardian of the Word, 1980) is a rewriting of the epic story of...

(The entire section is 7948 words.)