Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What is African Literature?

 Hamilton Ayuk


How different is African literature from other world literatures is a question many have asked. In order to make a better comparison, the most efficient way will be to examine the elements of literature between the African writers and their world compatriots. It is expedient to acknowledge that African Literature is very difficult to define due to factors that will be explained below. Would the African be anyone born of African parents? This definition would be too simplistic, if we consider the strong African presence in Asia, Australia, Central America, Latin America and Europe. Would all those kids born in these places be considered African? Would Obama be considered an African, since his father was Kenyan? Wouldn’t Shakespeare’s Othello (1603) be considered African Literature since the Moore- Othello is the protagonist? If African Literature is defined as literature written in Africa then would Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, (1885) or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness(1902) be classified as African Literature, since they all take place in the hinterland of Africa, exploiting the people and culture of Africa with European protagonists? At times, in an attempt to define an African, it is rather the color that is defined, and that is what brings the confusion. You cannot define an African by color because there are whites and even Indian Africans. As less informed as westerners could be, they are sometimes very surprised, to a disbelieving proportion that there are white Africans. European and American literatures are literatures that were written by Europeans about Europe and America respectively. Couldn’t that be the same with African Literature? Does The White Man of God (1980) become a European novel just because we have a European protagonist- Big Fadda? What then is African Literature and how different is it with other literatures? While it is difficult to define African literature, this paper will attempt to make a precise definition and elucidate key contrasts and similarities with literatures from other continents.

1.      Definition of African Literature.

Literature is an author’s creative work with some artistic value on humanity and its surrounding. The author writes to entertain, teach, and inform. In addition to the three major genres of literature: prose, drama and poetry, there are other sub-genres like short story, folktale and myth. Since the author is mirroring the society with itself, literature could be divided into two major kingdoms - fiction and nonfiction. Such a categorization will consider a phylum like novel, tragedy, comedy, and poetry that could actually be broken down into different classes of novels, dramas and poetries. Because literature does not function in a vacuum, the vehicle of comparison will be through the function of setting, characterization, themes and style that contrast African Literature with other literatures. African literature then becomes any literature that is written by an African, about Africans in Africa and using the main vehicular characteristic of African languages which is proverbs. In short, the author, the plot, the characters, the setting and the style should all be related to Africa. 

Literature is known to carry literary elements and techniques that push the reader to read literarily, reflectively, and practically (applying the text to its context). In a recent debate in a Cameroonian Forum, there was a struggle to define African Literature. Many participants quickly scribbled a few words like African literature is literature by an African, but after reading the arguments of other participants with the same speed, they quickly made a U-Turn and began again redefining the term.

No one has such difficulty with defining American, Caribbean, European, Latin, or Asian Literatures, yet there is a serious dilemma in defining African Literature. Except Africans stop imitating “French School”, the Eurocentric authors and even trying to be copycats of Camus and Beckett, African Literature will never emerge from its shell. A flashback at books like The Swamp Dwellers (1980) by Wole Soyinka , The Concubine(1966) by Elechi Amadi, Things Fall Apart (1961) by Chinua Achebe, The River Between(1965) by Ngugi Wo Thiong’o, The African Child (1954) by Camara Laye, one easily finds conflict as the theme of predilection. The Africans are always struggling to redefine themselves as most of the French writers imitated the “French School”. What then is called modern, and what is traditional may help upend the rason’d’être of the confusion.

The reason why African Literature is difficult to define is because even the word African has not gotten a fixed definition. The reason it has no concrete definition is because the African and all that surrounds him/her, has always been defined by others. The reason why it has always been defined by others is because the African has been very cosmic and enshrined into the lives and cultures of all other people in the world. Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asian cannot have the annals of their historicity without talking of Africans therein.

After reading six textbooks that were all trying to define African Traditional Religions (ATR), it is possible to conclude that it is impossible to define African Traditional Religions. One would have thought that the easiest way to define African Traditional Religion is to say that  it is a religion practiced in Africa by African ancestors. We could then borrow from the same method to apply in the definition of African Literature as literature by an African about Africans living in Africa or abroad. 

Exploring the Anthills of the Savannah (1987) one easily sees that conflict in which African Diaspora come home and try to redefine themselves in a system they consider corrupt; perhaps genuine and perhaps not. This establishes a conflict between man and the society which subsequently invites the wrath of nature. Its landscape has made things difficult to coin a proper definition.

Because of the topography of the Maghreb region in its similarity with Southern Europe, Maghreb literature also includes Spanish authors. But the quickest question one would ask is why is it difficult to ascertain that Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria are all African countries; thus, writings from those countries should be African Literature? That is because most people from these countries do not consider themselves African; rather, they identify themselves with European countries of the Mediterranean.

When a people are used to denying who and what they are, then their neighbors will help define them. "No father living in a sandcastle should buy the child a water gun as a Christmas gift," and "an animal with a long tail must be careful as it crosses the road," the Africans say. Africans must consider how cosmic they are before they start to doubt who they are because it transcends the present into the future.

Nonetheless, a common characteristic in African Literature is the use of proverbs which Achebe defines as “The palm oil with which words are eaten”. African languages not having a wider vocabulary seem to strive better in a compact language and because conversation is always intense, non prosaic language is required. Consequently, one would easily know an African Literature because of a high volume of proverbs in it; in addition to the fact that it was written by an African, about Africans.

2.      Elements of Literature.

A.    Plot in African Literature.

In looking at the plot of African literature, one easily sees conflict, but the conflict is usually between man versus man, man versus society, and sporadically you see man versus nature, but perhaps rarely would you see man versus self. In African Literature, the conflict is usually exposed abruptly from the beginning as is the case with Anthills of The Savannah by Chinua Achebe unlike in Charles’s Dickens Hard Times where the conflict is seen only en media res. It is mindful to say that The Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe deviates from this pattern and starts en media res. The plot of African Literature could actually reveal different approaches in life between the Africans and the rest of the world.
The African society is a confrontational society as exhibited in their daily speech. Unlike the West where there is a huge usage of euphemisms for fear of hurting the other’s whiny feelings, there are very few euphemistic usages in African languages, except for sex which is considered a taboo subject. Even in their daily usage of foreign languages like English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, they do not use them. Not because they don’t like it but simply because they do not exist. This confrontation has at times transcended even to the spiritual realm with the confrontation of the priests and priestesses of gods and goddesses which culminates into fatalism as you take a look at even works like The Battle of Musanga (1996), and Egg of life (2003).  The theme of conflict developed in the plots is not just between the Whiteman and the African, or Christianity against Animism, or perhaps traditionalism versus modernism, but even amongst Africans there is conflict. Ola Rotimi in Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again reenacts a scene in which his Kenyan wife, Liza injects feminism into their marriage to stage a vote of no confidence against Okonkwo as the only sage of the home and ultimately the state. 

B.     Setting: elements of setting in African Literature.

When considering the two elements of setting: Place and Time, those of African Literature are quite different from the rest of the world. The settings in most African works take place always in villages like we see in The White Man of God, The African Child, The Concubine, Ville Cruelle (1983), and The Old Man And The Medal. Others like (The Swamp Dwellerstake place in swamps. Very few take place in the city like Cry, The Beloved Country) because the city was always regarded as a cursed place that corrupts the innocent. Ngugi Wa Thiongo affirms the assertion in Devil on the Cross (1987) when he shows a young villager: Waringa being exploited by the corrupt city dwellers. It reinforces the general perception of the people that the city is a putrefaction factory. Despite their fondness for rusticity, it differs from the type of pantheistic attachment Western authors portray as in the case of Wordsworth’s “Prelude”.

In addition, they boasted and still boast more villages than cities. To be able to write a work that will encompass the majority of people, it is proper to fit the setting in the village with sporadic city scenes. Furthermore, most of their authors decry the individualistic lifestyle in the cities as evinced in foreign works like A Tale of Two Cities ( 1859), Robinson Crusoe (1719), Rip Van Winkle (1819), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1917), The Scarlet Letter (1850) and many more. To the African, "the cock that crows belongs to the household, but its crows belong to the community." In addition, the presence of priests and priestesses and shrines of gods and goddesses may help to expose the nature of the people. Through this setting, you can decipher the type of religion and the belief system of the people in general.

The second element of setting-time, paints quite a controversial picture and again helps to create a timeline for African history. Many, especially westerners have argued that Africans have no notion of time. This author will treat it in full latter on in this screed.  

C.    Characters in African Literature.

The third element of literature-characterization is even more intriguing in African Literature. Character was defined as a person in a work of art. With time, that definition seems lacking because of the evolution in technology. Nowadays animals (Animal Farm, Lion King) and things (Robot Cops) play a role in movies and other forms of art. Consequently, it will be appropriate to define a character as a person, thing or animal that plays a role in a work of art. Most African characters have the same potentials as those in myths and folktales. They are normal human beings, raised almost to godlike status and then fall as though suffering from the anger of the gods. Again this is due to the conflict that ensues permanently in African Literature when you look at characters like Okonkwo and Camara Laye.

Nonetheless, there is still a similarity with world literature since society though may not have the same people, it has the same ills in different forms. Just as we have tragic heroes in western literature, we do have the same in African Literature. A man like Okonkwo in Things Fall Part (1961) is a typical tragic hero whose flaw of excessive manliness creates a vaulting ambition that overleaps its bounds into accidentally shooting a man. The same flaw awaits Ezeulu in The Arrow of God (1964) who transgresses village norms to make his case.

Characters are known for some awkward acts like a woman breastfeeding her child in front of strangers. While western authors use a real person as a Deuse ex Machina, the African character must transmogrify into a totem to play God in a machine situation. Nowadays, in western works of arts, there is a lot of animated technology that has widened the definition of a character. While animals are now used in both George Orwell "Animal Farm" and the movie Lion King, the African authors employ the totemic technique. Each person is believed to have an animal person that inhibits them, and into whom they metamorphosed when they desire to do evil or at times to escape from danger.  Since they communicate with the spirits of their ancestors, the easiest bridge will be their totem that would lead them into worship.

That is why in The African Child, the snake is kept in the house because they believe it is their ancestor that protects and gives them good success (Chpt 1). This totem is quite different from the pet that westerners keep, for the totem is actually worshiped and is part of the person in the spirit world. Another aspect that influences characterization in African Literature is the ghost.

The ghost of a deceased person usually appeared to give warning or to solve an enigma. It is no doubt necromancy and ventriloquism are common in African literature.  While it is a phenomenon in western literature, it is a form of worship in African Literature as the individuals must undergo some rituals while alive and funeral rites after they die for them to appear. In most African works, the appearance of a ghost is a sign of danger. The ghost of Emenike-Ihuoma’s late husband in The Concubine who dies appeared and asked her for food (chp 6). That was a premonition of dark paroxysm!

D. Major Themes.

African literature sometimes bears the same themes like other literatures as we see in George Orwell’s Animal Farm when Boxer says “Napoleon is always right” (chp5). It correlates with the generic message in Anthills of the Savannah that the African leaders think they are always right; thus, making themselves demigods. That shows that humanity faces the same problem, though in different forms and time. 

i.                    Theme of nudity.
 Africans believe that nudity starts and ends with genitals only. That is why in most of their cultural dances (like the South African Reed Dance[1]) the women dance without tops. They believe that nudity is the westerner’s making. They believe that seeing the nakedness of a strange woman will bring you a curse. The westerners instead pay to watch nudity in strip clubs and porn sites. Perhaps it explains why the West and its migrants are perpetually and eternally cursed. They argue that when the African did not know that exposing the woman’s breast was a “sin”, no one condemned those who walked bare breasted. That again correlates with the Bible as explained in Rom. 7:7-8. More so, lust is just ingrained in the human heart. Most Africans have contended that the breasts of a woman have not been shown as part of nudity that God set an injunction against. Furthermore, they argue that if nakedness comprises breasts, then since God made both Adam and Eve with breasts, the chest of a man is part of nakedness. That too would not be true because the Old Testament priest was cautioned not to climb right high less he shows his nakedness (Thompson Chain reference Bible Ex 20:26).

Consequently in some African works like Your Madness, Not Mine: Stories of Cameroon (1999) or --during some special dances for women only- the old women wash their vaginas to curse or threaten to curse culture and customs defaulters. A virgin was never included in the process because she was still considered pure. If eternity is in the hearts of all men as the Bible says (Eccl 3:11), it means that God would have made the entire humanity aware that bare breasted was a sin, even before the arrival of the Whiteman. The African authors make their case. That means; if God put bare breasts as nudity in the hearts of the westerners, then He would have put the same thing in the hearts of the Orientals, especially because civilization began in Egypt (Africa).

ii Theme of Polygyny.

The recurrent theme in African literature is Polygyny (one man marrying many wives). This theme is rare or totally absent in western literature because it is not part of their culture. In A Man of the People (1989), Odili’s father is married to many wives. Achebe does not think that is the cause of his poverty. Polygyny first found its place in the African society due to the many men who died in inter-tribal wars; thereby, leaving behind many women who were single and ready to mingle. It was befitting for one man to take many women to provide for them. The advent of slavery helped to enforce polygyny because many men were taken away and many women left behind. The scarcity of men was a great factor encouraging polygamy. The exponents posit that polygyny has the interest of the woman, economically and romantically. The argument becomes more intense when they find solace in the Bible where men considered as men of faith were polygynists. Africans practiced levirate marriages where when a man died, his brother inherited his wife in addition to his, so he could provide for her. More so, women who were seized from the vanquished tribe were brought to the victors’ village, and they became their wives. That is why most Africans are almost interrelated. They became their wives as spoils of war. Polygyny also found its way because of unpaid debts. When a man could not pay his debt, he surrendered his wife or his daughter to the creditor, especially if she was beautiful.

Nowadays, polygyny is gaining grounds because of the stigma placed on being single. Women want to be called Mrs., even if they are fifth or sixth wives. Mischievously too it is a means to cuckold a rich fellow generally called tycoon. If he has many wives, he will not be able to satisfy them emotionally, but he is more than able economically and financially. Thus, it enables them to keep their indolent boyfriends by the side while they carry the title of Mrs. to reap their subsistence from their Sugar Daddies as the West calls those type of men.

 Another important reason was that there was a high infant mortality rate and children were used in doing most of the farm jobs. In certain cases a woman with 10 children could lose 8 and only two survived. So the man needed many wives to have many children who were at the same time too the pride of the man.

In Things Fall Apart, polygyny is a theme of predilection as Okwonkwo boasts of his three wives and 8 children. The people of Umuofia and its environs believe that a man’s wealth could be seen through his many wives. That is why Achebe takes time to paint a buoyant picture of a villager who had 9 wives and 30 children. Nowadays, the same practice though not too common is still prevalent and permeating the entire continent as the president of South Africa- Jacob Zuma has 6 wives[2]. Just of recent, a man married four wives on the same day to minimize wedding expenditures[3].

iii. Time.

Paul Hiebert, in Anthropological Insights for Missionaries suggests that “Africans have no notion of time.” John Mbiti (an African himself) confirms that in some of his writings. There are two major reasons why Herbert and Mbiti think this way. Some of the reasons others have thought Africans have no notion of time is because no African meeting will ever start on time. You smile; don't you? Sadly like “E. V. Lucas once said: “I have noticed that the people who are late are often so much jollier than the people who have to wait for them”.  It seems like coming late to any appointment makes them happy! However, most African authors assert that if the African has no notion of time, why did their fathers sacrifice only during specific periods? They did that because the gods will only receive those sacrifices during certain periods of the year. Though they did not have watches, their fathers read their shadows to tell time. Both Herbert and Mbiti failed to show the importance of time between the Westerner and the African. The Westerner sees time mechanized in monetary terms as Charles Dickens shows it in Hard Times while the African sees time in terms of work done as in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Dickens said: “Time went on in Coketown like its own machine.”[4] Time in the west is mechanized and thus has made even the people mechanized, and life has become monotonous and insipid in its emphasis too as Dickens says “deadly statistical clock”. It is not that Africans do not have a notion of time; they simply differ in the way they use time. For example, when Okonkwo and his people go out for hunting, it does not matter what time they leave or return; what matters is that they go for hunting and bring some game.  

Meka in Oyono’s The Old Man and The Medal spent almost an entire day waiting outside for a medal to be given by the "colon"because it was important to him and his family. The medal that he received, submerged his fatigue and converted his wait time into a non factor. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “This time like all times is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” The lack of clock in those days means that time was recorded by market days of the villages in the environs.

            iv. The Theme of Jungle Justice

The Theme of Jungle justice is no where better than in Petals of Blood (2005) in which Munira, Abdullah, Wanja and Keraga are charged with the murder of Chui, Kimeria and Mzigo-directors at the Theng’eta Breweries (Chp 1). Even today you still see the same pattern. On July 10, 2009, a Kenyan bishop was paraded naked for being caught in flagrant adultery[5].   There are great similarities in some form of parody between Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame (1974) with Sophocles ' Oedipus The King (1885). In both of them, the protagonist kills the father and marries the mother. In each of them, the people do not wait for the authorities to decide; they decided at the customarily level because customs weighted more than legal power.

V. Christianity against Animism.

The Arrow of God and The African Child have the same type of conflict where in both novels, the villagers wonder whether their children should attend the Whiteman’s school. In The River Between, the father advises his son in these words, "Go to the mission place. Learn all the wisdom and all the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices. Be true to your people and the ancient rites."(Chapter 5, Page 20).

In Things Fall Apart it is put this way:

Does the white man understand our custom about land? How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The Whiteman is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. (Chp 20).

The Whiteman of God and The Petals of Blood (2005) bear the same message: “the black man” was so “bad”, “the Son of God ... sent the Whiteman to teach us the way to heaven” (44). While in Moll Flanders (1722), Moll’s male platonic companion’s wife had gone literarily mad, in Ola Rotimi’s [6]Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again (1977), the madness is figurative.  It is just that by learning the Whiteman’s ways, the women are considered mad. Women who wore trousers were considered mad. Women who wore short skirts were considered mad. Men who disobeyed the chief were considered mad. In Africa, people who wore clothes with holes were the mentally ill and paupers; meanwhile, in the West, the manufacturers make them with holes as a style or fashion and charges a little bit more.

vi. The theme of corruption.

In A Man of the People (1966) by Chinua Achebe, we see two camps: those who perpetrate corruption and those who want to extirpate it. Odili the protagonist is trying to deracinate corruption, but his former teacher Chief Nanga who permeates it is against his efforts. Such was and still is the problem of Africa heretofore.  In The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1988), Ayi Kwei Armah decries corruption which has hitherto plagued Africa as a cankerworm. The author is so pessimistic that he believes that those who can deliver Ghana in particular and Africa as a whole from the claws of corruption are not yet born. Ironically, Ghana seems to loosen itself from that grip while its compatriots wallow in its shackles and manacles. In the Lion and The Jewel (1963), we see that the women themselves prefer those traditional values contrary to the portrait by western authors. In this book, marriage is regarded as a sign of a hard worker, since the man has to work hard to obtain a bride price before he could marry because without a bride price, there is no marriage. That is why Lakunle (protagonist) trying to exploit his Europeanism fails to convince, even his own lover to sidestep tradition for the sake of love. Lakunle-is a poor man running his mouth and cannot put his money where his heart is. 

vii. The theme of colonialism.

Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness has this excerpt in part 1, "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." In a play that examines postcolonial Africa I will marry when I want (1988), the authors posit that neocolonialism that replaced colonialism has benefited western imperialists rather than the Africans themselves. Ngugi Wo Thiongo and Ngugi Wa Mirii teamed up to portray the plight of the Africans in this play, by suggesting through their characters that “The oppressor, son of grab and take” still holds them in bondage through the means of finances. As you know, " He who pays the piper dictates the tune."
When one compares the reactions of the woman in I will marry When I Want with those of Pride and Prejudice (1813), we see diversity and cultural priorities. In the latter novel, in a heartbeat the women forgo their basic upbringing, if at anytime they think it will make them happy or win a man; whereas, in the former, the virtue is more than temporal happiness, for within lies intrinsic happiness. This could not be an aberration to conclude that women are unique in their being and must be treated as individuals because what makes this woman happy may not necessarily be that which makes the other woman happy. 


Although the elements of literature may differ between African literature and other literatures, there is still a huge pool of similarities. When an individual reads novels, plays or poems from Africa and those of the world, he or she must be willing to look further into the local color because therein lies the key to proper criticism and analyses. There must be a cross cultural connection that will place the audience in the same locale with the author because language is so ambiguous that at times, it tends to set ablaze the very fire it was trying to quench. For people to start enjoying literature out of their surroundings, they must be willing to assimilate the author’s language and identify themselves with a character or two in the book.

As one reads Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), he/she tends either to hate Iago or love him for his intrigues and wits or perhaps gaze into Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (shakespeare1606) when she says,

O, never shall sun that morrow see! Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters. To beguile the time, Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t. He that’s coming must be provided for; and you shall put this night’s great business into my dispatch, which shall to all our nights and days to come give solely sovereign sway and masterdom (Act 1 Sc 5).

One can easily imagine a wife in the bedroom wheedling the husband to collude with her in their evil in the pursuit of her overreaching dream. That way literature tends to satisfy all classes and all generations, no matter when and where it was written. Teenagers of all societies would enjoy the dramatic irony in Romeo and Juliet (1597). By implication, literary and sound devices will be efficient in any work anywhere.  That is why works like Things Fall Apart though with the Igbo local color have been able to find abode in the hearts of western readers. Through reading, we tend to go closer and visit places we would not have visited and will never visit, perhaps before we die. Consequently, literature should not be interpreted by nation-based constructs especially because although the problems that people face in different countries are different, they are similar in nature. African literature should be defined and compared with literature from other continents through a cross cultural modus operandi. Therefore, African literature is literature written by an African, about Africa, using common African characters, setting and themes that are conveyed through the common African vehicle of proverbs.  

You can invite the author to present this paper anytime anywhere. 

Copyright © 

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[6] Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Oxford University Press Nigeria, 1977.

Prince & PA Hamilton Ayuk
“No matter how a rat becomes the house pet, if it is sleeping beside the bag of groundnuts the owner may not have much sleep. ” (Hamilton Ayuk)."If a goat runs from the owner’s leash it will be tied by the council in a market square" Hamilton Ayuk).

Dance for Jesus and you will never suffer?

Sesekou Arrey-Mbi, the honorable Mfor Ngbe of Atlanta,  This is your son speaking! This reply is in relation o the video above. I kn...