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close this bookThe Courier N° 126 - March - April 1991 - Dossier: AIDS - The Big Threat / Country Report: Burkina Faso (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
close this folderCulture and the arts
View the documentExhibition of contemporary Senegalese art
View the documentThe market men of Northern Ghana
View the documentA Mozambican painter in Brussels: Iņacio Matsinhe
View the documentAfrican literature as seen through some African authors
View the documentFilm industry takes off in Southern Africa

African literature as seen through some African authors


In 1960 Wole Soyinka was commissioned to write a play for Nigeria’s independence celebrations. Contrary to the expectations of his patrons, Soyinka does not glorify Nigeria’s past in ‘The Dance of the Forest’, the play he then wrote. Instead he shows that humankind was no happier in the past than it is now and that brutality and war have always been with us. The theme of the play is that the past has to be accepted as it really is and not in any way glorified or idealised. From the first, Soyinka leaves no room for doubt that he wants to write for Africans. Even in this easy play, he uses Yoruba myths so naturally that Europeans unfamiliar with the historical and cultural background cannot understand the play. ‘The Dance of the Forest’ is a popular drama; songs and pantomime accompany the action and translate it for Africans in the audience who have no English.

Even at this early stage, Wole Soyinka distances himself from the philosophy of Negritude. Whilst the Negritude movement glorifies the former Africa and the African past and trumpets Senghor’s call to return to the traditional values of Africa, the younger generation of African authors set itself the aim of writing for Africans and making them more familiar with their country, their history and their culture whilst at the same time confronting them with the reality and problems resulting from cultural conflict, the generation gap and the differences between traditional values and modern, western schooling. This younger generation considers that literature should be more and do more to promote and idealise Black Africa’s own history; it should discuss contemporary social problems whilst not ignoring Africa’s own traditional culture and myths. The beginnings of this concept of the role of literature were already discernible in the work of the first generation of writers using English as their vehicle. Chinua Achebe, one of the first great African writers using metropolitan English still thought along the lines propounded by the Negritude movement and wrote on similar themes. For instance in ‘No Longer at Ease’ (1960) he tells the tale of Okonkuros ‘been to’, who tries to settle down again at home after having spent some time in Europe. In this work the author creates a character typical of the African navel of the type found mainly in the metropolitan French literature of Africa, but he Africanises the English by transposing African expressions, images and sayings into English. In so doing, he already distances himself from works created in the shadow of the Negritude movement and written in classical French. Achebe thereby points the way to a change in the attitude of the African author to his own history and culture, which also means that he is primarily addressing another public, namely his own compatriots. A criticism often levelled at works written in the spirit of Negritude is that they were produced for a purely European, mainly French, public and the young African intelligentsia educated and assimilated to European ways. The rediscovery of the ‘Kingdom of childhood’, on which many authors of the Negritude movement embarked could only ever be a rediscevery for those who had become estranged from their families and homes, in other words for assimilated Africans -a mere handful of people. European readers admired these works chiefly for their exotic places, the foreign world and way of life they described and it was not until much later that their anticolonial nature and the criticism of colonial methods, both discernible in many of these works, were recognised. As English speaking critics of the movement constantly stressed, the concept of Negritude presupposes that assimilation has already taken place. The fact that the call to return to traditional African values, i.e. consider Africa’s own history, must necessarily have been preceded by a loss of identify is clearly expressed by the South African author, Ezekiel Mphahlele, when he says:

‘If there is any negritude in the black man’s art in South Africa, it is because we are African. If a write’s tone is healthy he is bound to express the African in himself.’

The tendency to treat contemporary problems in their own country and address themselves primarily to their own compatriots has become even stronger among the younger generation of African authors. Those who take the decision to continue writing in the language of the former colonial power, compensate by slipping in more and more of the syntactical structures, expressions, metaphors, images and myths of their mother tongue. Naturally this creates barriers for the European reader but this is con sciously accepted by these authors. It also means that, when new literary works are translated into other languages the, almost always come with comprehensive explanatory annexes.

Europeans like to aim their criticism precisely at the increasing tendency to write about local and regional subjects, take up specific problems and above all, take a political stand. Such criticism betrays a point of view that is as arrogant as it is unconsidered. It shows that Europeans still cannot, or will not, recognise that African literature is setting its own standards and wants to be judged by those standards, that it wants to acknowledge its national character and refuses to be pigeonholed by Europeans. The fact that political and social problems such as racism, cultural and generational conflict are the dominant themes in contemporary African literature is not because there are no other subjects but because of the sad truth that everyone is daily confronted with these problems, as the Ghanaian author, Ama Ata Aidoo highlights in an interview with a French journalist when she says:

‘I cannot see myself as a writer, writing about lovers in’ Accra because you see, there are so many other problems...

Whilst the Africanisation of English in the English-speaking parts of Africa began as far back as the late fifties and early sixties, for many reasons it took some years for this development to French-spread to French-speaking Africa. For one thing, with the exception of Portugal, France, more than any other colonial power pushed the policy of assimilation; in other words of training an African elite by educating them in colonial schools according to the French system. Perfect command of French was a gateway to French culture and its attendant amenities. Independence has not done much to change that. The sine qua non for obtaining a good job in the administration is still a perfect command of French. In English speaking Africa, English has always been less of a vehicle for culture than the practical instrument of day to day communication. The Africanisation of English was therefore never regarded as an offence against one of the colonial power’s instruments of authority. Consequently Ahamadou Kourouma’s novel, ‘Les Soleils des Indndances’, (1968) drew attention throughout Frenchspeaking Africa less because of its harshly expressed criticism of conditions of the post-colonial era, than because it represented the first attempt to Africanise the French language, a process which had been regarded as impossible until then, since French syntax is more rigid than English syntax.

By Africanising the various European languages, African writers are demonstrating that they have found the way back to their own language and their own form of national awareness and have created an independent African literature. Nevertheless, most of them still draw back from taking the next step of, freeing themselves from the linguistic fetters of the former colonial rulers and writing in their respective mother tongues. To do so would mean conscious acceptance of the fact that their literary output would hardly be read beyond the confines of their own country. Semb Ousmane, who wrote in his mother tongue, Wolof, is a case in point. At any rate, all African writers are probably well aware of the fact that even if they wrote in their respective mother tongues, they would still be a long way from reaching the ‘general public’ at home. The cinema and theatre are far more appropriate vehicles for that and writers have taken this on beard. For instance, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, currently Kenya’s foremost author, writes his plays in Kikuyu, his mother tongue, but his short stories and novels in English.

As Nadine Gordimer says, to be an African writer you should lock out at the world from inside Africa, not into Africa from the outside. And this is an attitude uncompromisingly adopted by the younger generation of African writers.