The oral tradition
The rich oral dictation tradition in Africa has, through the ages, been expressed in a myriad of forms, from long epics to short and ingenious epigrams that spice up the very linguistic foundations of many peoples. It ranges from the mythical to the everyday, is associated with both ritual and work and can be religious or purely entertaining.
This poetry, which has been seriously collected and documented only from the 1960s, has different expressions in different societies. The traditional communities in Africa exhibit formations that range from large, centralized kingdoms to loose associations of small and self-governing communalist village communities. The historical tradition of these communities lives on in the poetry. There are attempts to explain social change, to provide a religious and theoretical basis for understanding natural phenomena, and to place man in a natural and social context.
For example, the great kingdoms in the interior of West Africa have a traditional poem that draws long lines throughout their history. The poem pays tribute to the heroes and rulers of the people and was associated with a rich court culture in which the poet was a central figure, both through his interpretation of history and through his legitimation of the power of the ruling groups and clans. In the communist societies, on the other hand, there were poems which, in lyrical and powerful images, expressed the unity between the individual and society, and between society and nature, which embodied a divine principle.
Traditional oral poetry is connected to the collective in a completely different way than modern, written poetry – not by being created by a collective, but by requiring collective acceptance to function. Those who performed – and still perform – this poetry have, as a particular social task, to be poets or rapists, bald. Based on fixed patterns with long traditions, they create new poetic expressions that are improvisations within the framework of the inherited basic forms. In this lies not least a well-developed genre consciousness.
The oral poetry is deeply functional. This applies not only in cases where this is immediately clear, as in the case of work songs, but also the mythical poetry which primarily has a religious function, or the entertaining poetry, including the rich fairy tale treasure, which explains natural and social phenomena.
Most of the traditional African poetry is in a bound form and is usually performed together with music, such as song or musical recitation. It is important to master the transferred forms, to preserve the traditions. This poetry presupposes an interaction between the poet / intermediary and the audience. It functions as part of the life of society and permeates every part of a human existence. Not least, poetry plays a major role in connection with the traditional rituals and festivals of traditional societies, which often take the form of mask plays and drama.
Within the folk poetry there is a great diversity of genres and forms. Perhaps the most widely used poetic tradition is tribute poetry. It is about worship and glorying to gods, great rulers and chieftains, but also to nature, geographical areas and cities. This poetry is often a mixture of religious and secular poetry. It is also often characterized by a form of oracle – or mystery – poetry linked to myths and history, and magic in connection with healing rituals. The rich dictatorial tradition of the Yoruba people in Nigeria is a very good example of the scope of this form of poetry, which besides tribute poetry includes hunting songs, poems about landscapes and cities, oracle songs and poetry for the big masquerade.
Within the prose tradition, mythical poetry can be distinguished, which involves extensive attempts to explain historical contexts, the relationship between gods and humans, life and death and phenomena, and adventure. The adventures are of many types, and one of the most prevalent is the animal adventures, which often have a smart animal as the main character. This animal – a hare, a spider, a turtle – stands out by tricking everyone else into battle. The parallels to, for example, the fox in Norwegian folk poetry are clear. In many contexts, this scam character has also been transformed into a human figure. Interestingly, many of these adventures have been continued in Caribbean and other African-American folklore.
Another important part of the oral tradition consists of proverbs and riddles, in which the proverbs, which often contain explanations of contexts and phenomena in nature and society as well as insight into customs and customs, are of great importance. The oral traditions are still strong in the countryside, but are threatened by the new mass media. However, many of the dictatorial forms have been adapted to the situation of modern and urban society, where they play a role as a political commentary, especially in African popular music where the texts are based on ancient dictatorial forms. A good example of this is the so-called chimurenga music which played a significant role during the liberation war in Zimbabwe, and is now being continued by musician, singer and poet Thomas Mapfumo (born 1945), among others, as a critic of corruption and repression under Robert Mugabe’s regime.
Oral poetry is the key to the African people’s worldview, traditional consciousness and historical experience. It plays a significant role in modern poetry as well and develops into new forms, often in connection with music and drama. It serves as a source for modern writers, who use the material, themes and forms of it in their interpretation of the continent’s situation. It is not, however, a matter of linear development, but rather of the use of sources and traditions as the basis for understanding the challenges of modern Africa. Thus, the relationship between traditional oral poetry and modern literature can be said to have parallels with the way folk poetry served as inspiration and subject matter for European literature from the romance and beyond.
One of the most interesting examples of how the oral poetry has been impacted in writing, is Ugandan Okot p’Bitek’s two poetry cycles on the cultural conflict in New Africa. Many of the elements of oral traditions have been taken up and assigned a new function in modern literature. This is true of much of the lyrics, which often build on genres, forms and symbols and combine them with the impressions and experiences of modern society. An example of this is Nigerian Wole Soyinka’s poetry cycle Ogun Abibiman from 1976.
Even in modern drama, the oral traditions live on. They are found, for example, in the so-called Yoruba folk operas, performed by traveling troops in Nigeria. The dramatic action is taken from the rich mythology of the Yoruba people. Traditional forms of poetry are mixed with dance and music, and it is all linked to a form of epic drama.
In many contemporary African novels, the dialogues carry traces of the oral poetry. Chinua Achebe from Nigeria spices her stories with dialogues and sayings drawn from the ibo people’s oral tradition. Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya has built the novel The Devil on the Cross from 1982 on elements of traditional fairy tales. Another example is Nigerian Amos Tutuola’s famous 1952 novel The Palm Wine Drinkard, considered by many to be the first modern African novel in English.
The written tradition
It was not until the 20th century that the writing really made its entry into sub-Saharan Africa, but already from the 1600s Africans had written in European languages such as French, English, Portuguese and Latin. Much of this literature relates to a lesser extent to the conditions in Africa directly, but some of it, such as the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (1745-1801), Equiano’s Travels: His Autobiography. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African of 1789 provides a depiction both of Africa during the time of the slave trade, of the existence of slaves and of the life of an African as a free man in Europe in the 18th century.
In the Islamic part of Black Africa, for many centuries it was also written in Arabic or in African languages using Arabic writing. The first known author to write in Arabic in the area now encompassing Nigeria is the poet and grammarian Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Kanemi, who died in about 1212. Most of this literature is Islamic religious poetry, and much has been lost.. There are also examples of poetry of both epic, historical and philosophical character, especially written on the hausa in the interior of West Africa and in Swahili on the coast of East Africa, dating back to the 17th century. Mention may be the epic poem Hamziyah by Idarus bin Othman, written on the island of Pate off the coast of East Africa in 1652.
Ethiopia was the only African country to have developed its own scriptural tradition, and there exist a number of ancient works of historical, religious, moral and legal character written in geez, the ancient literary language now used only in the liturgy of the Ethiopian church. The most famous of the works at geez is the Kebre Neghest, which has roots back to the 13th century and which is the chronicle of the Christian Ethiopian emperors. Probably the version found on geez is an Arabic translation of an original work on Coptic. The vernacular, Amharic, had also developed an alphabet, and the first examples of modern literature in this language date from the early 1900s.
From the late 1800s, there are a number of significant works written in African languages. These were partly based on the influence of the mission, which gave the African languages an orthography, and based on the need to give the oral tradition a written expression. It is striking that poetry in African languages is primarily found in those parts of the continent colonized by the British, and not in the French and Portuguese colonies. This is linked to the differences in the colonial lords’ way of governing. British missionaries and, in part, the authorities encouraged the use of African languages. The French and Portuguese, on the other hand, sought to develop a small elite of assimilated Africans who were to master the language of the motherland.
Portuguese is the European language that has the longest history in Africa. Portuguese contact with Africa goes back to the end of the 1400s, but Portuguese-language literature with roots in the African colonies came out seriously only in the interwar period, when published in Portugal. Since the Portuguese colonies became independent in 1975, a significant new literature in Portuguese has emerged, particularly in Angola and Mozambique, which, among other things, provides gripping depictions of the civil wars in the two countries. Among the best known authors are Angolan Pepetela and Mozambican Mia Couto. Both belong to their country’s small white minorities.
Literature in African languages in West Africa was largely published by missionary publishers in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was primarily intended to enhance literacy education. Both in Nigeria and Ghana, there is a relatively strong African-language poetic tradition in written form dating back to the second half of the 19th century, in languages such as Yoruba, Igbo, Twi, Ewe and Fanti. Much of this poem is an expression of early nationalism and pride in the African heritage, and it is related to the written traditions that grew in the cities of the British colonies on the coast, including Freetown in Sierra Leone, Lagos in Nigeria and Accra on the then Gold Coast (now Ghana). It was written in prose, which appeared in newspapers and magazines, drama, poetry and short stories, mostly in English, but also part in krio, the Creole mixed language that is based in English, but with strong influences from African languages.
The first example of modern fiction literature in English comes from Ghana, namely Joseph Casely-Hayford’s mix of a political pamphlet and educational novel, Ethiopia Unbound from 1911. The poetry in West Africa during the interwar period consisted mostly of apartment poems published in magazines and newspapers..
Literature in African languages was also relatively strong in South Africa at this time. In the three major languages Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu, several significant works were written, both novels, short stories and poetry collections. Many of them were strongly influenced by Christian mission, but much of the poetry expresses pride in ancient culture. The 1925 novel Chaka, about the famous Zulu ruler of the same name, is a classic in African literature. It was written in sotho by Thomas Mofolo.
In East Africa, written poetry was somewhat weaker, with the exception of what was written in Swahili. However, this was to a small extent published before in the 1960s and 1970s. At the beginning of the 20th century, considerable epic poems were written about the resistance to the German colonization of Tanganyika. Due to the brutal suppression of this resistance, this dictatorial tradition was also almost forgotten until it was continued in the works of, among others, Shabaan Robert (1909–1962). For African acronyms, see ABBREVIATIONFINDER.
In the French colonies in Africa, little was written in languages other than French. However, national poetry was in progress in both Algeria and Morocco in the 1920s and 1930s. In the French-speaking West African communities, especially in Dakar in Senegal, there is from the second half of the 19th century onwards a similar French and Creole literary tradition as in the British colonies. The same goes for the two island communities of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius and La Réunion, and somewhat later on Madagascar.
The modern literature
The history of modern black African literature, which can be said to extend from the mid-1930s, can be divided into four, albeit partially overlapping, phases.
The first can be characterized as a confrontational phase. The authors found themselves in a situation where opposition to colonialism was crucial. The poetry received different expressions depending on how fierce the struggle for independence was. In the countries where the national liberation movement had to resort to armed struggle, strong traditions of emergency preparedness and fighting songs developed. This was the case, for example, in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe ( Southern Rhodesia ). In other societies, where the transition to independence was more peaceful, literature was characterized by novels and plays that addressed the cruelty and oppression of the colonial power.
The second phase is characterized by a form of poetry which can be described as identification literature, which is closely linked to the confrontational attitude, the criticism of the colonial power and white racism. The ancient African cultures and traditions are highlighted and appreciated.
The third phase is characterized by disillusionment with the new Africa and is related to the second half of the 1960s as well as the 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s can be described as a new phase of confrontation in which literature criticizes the new rulers, and where the influence of events internationally and in South Africa has put the struggle for human rights and democracy at the center of the authors’ activities as well.
The writers representing the first two phases were, in many cases, also active as political leaders. Several of them held central positions in their countries after independence. Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sédar Senghor, is one of Africa’s foremost lyricists, and Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, was also a significant poet.
It is especially in the 1950s and 1960s French-language poems that the attitudes of the confrontational and identity phase emerge in clear text. In 1948 a poem was published in Paris entitled Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. It was edited by Senghor and was a result of the work done by a group of black intellectuals in the journal Présence Africaine. Both the journal and the anthology can be seen as an expression of the literary and ideological flow associated with the négritude poetry. The concept was originally created by Aimé Césaire from Martinique and came to represent some kind of mental decolonization. It entailed a mythification of African history and a portrayal of Africa as an ideal in which there was a true humanity. In contemporary African literary debate, négritude poetry and ideology have been attacked for being romantic and nostalgic as well as for being distant from the problems of most people. It was primarily a poetic direction, but some of the authors, such as Birago Diop of Senegal, used prose to express the value of ancient African culture. Prose was also used to create biting satires about the French colonial institutions, including Cameroonian writers Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Beti.
The experience of colonialism is fundamental to understanding the intellectual development of modern Africa. Both in fiction and in political and historical works there is a dominant perspective. For example, Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1973 novel Two Thousand Seasons can be read as a kind of fictional commentary on African history as the repressed continent. The book is akin to the 1968 Yambo Ouloguems Le Devoir de violence painter, the first African novel to be awarded the French Renaudot Prize.
Much of modern African literature has reinterpreted the history of the continent. Perhaps the most significant example of this is Chinua Achebe’s novels, which present a vision of the cultural and political history of a local community, a people group, a region, a nation and finally an entire continent.
The exile is a political and existential condition that African writers have had to live with throughout the history of modern Africa. During the colonial period, they experienced exile as students, including in the mother countries and the United States, and during the liberation struggle they often had to go into exile to avoid imprisonment. After independence, many have had to spend years in land volatility because they have embarked on authoritarian regimes at home. One of the authors who has many times been in conflict with the authorities is Nigerian Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature (1986), who has always been an uncompromising defender of human rights. He was imprisoned during the civil war in Nigeria in 1967–1969, and in 1994 he fled the country after the authorities put him in a kind of house arrest.
These problems have been particularly present for black South African writers, who are in a unique position with their large white minority and apartheid history. Many of them were able to write novels only after they were forced into exile and had suffered the suffocating repression a bit from a distance. This was the case, for example, of Peter Abrahams, William Bloke Modisane (1923-1986) and Alex La Guma. The “white” literature has also been strongly influenced by the extreme political conditions, and many white writers, both African and English-speaking, have been clear critics of apartheid, including Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer(who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991) and André Brink.
JM Coetzee, who received the Nobel Prize in 2003, has less directly addressed political and social problems. His novels are to a greater extent characterized by an allegorical form, especially the books he wrote during apartheid. However, the 1999 novel Disgrace is a critical, psychological and socially profound study of post-apartheid South Africa.
The Women of African Literature
Female writers in Africa, like many other places in the world, have encountered a number of problems that their male counterparts have not faced. Among other things, the requirement to take care of the family has often come into conflict with the desire to devote to writing. They have also been prejudiced that they do not address the important problems of society, but “only” address issues that concern women’s lives. Examples of this are the importance of polygamy, the role of the bride price, what it means to have children and the tragedy it can entail to be childless. They emphasize the fact that women have experienced double oppression, as women and as Africans, but in their poetry there are also many strong women who are just bearers of society’s central values.
It is especially from the second half of the 1970s that the female writers have begun to play a central literary role. One of the most productive is Buchi Emecheta from Nigeria. In 1981, Mariama Bâ from Senegal received the Noma Award for Best African Literary Works for the novel Une si longue Lettre, in which she specifically addresses the role of women in the Muslim community. Born in South Africa, Bessie Head lived much of her life in exile and worked especially in Botswana, where she largely collected material for her books. One of the most interesting female writers in Africa is Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana. One of the strengths of her writing, which encompasses all genres, is that she shows how political and psychological themes are interconnected.
The situation today
African writers are in an ambivalent position in several ways. They seek to find ways of expressing the heritage of the past, combined with expressions of a modern Western culture. They write for both African and Western audiences. They belong to a small and privileged elite in communities characterized by poverty and underdevelopment. They write for the small strata of society that, like themselves, have higher education, while at the same time seeing it as their task to reach beyond the boundaries of this group. They also write about what it is like to be part of the leadership layer in society and at the same time to be critical of the way of life and the development that this elite represents. Among other things, this raises the question of what language they should use to express the experiences of modern Africa – an African or a European. Because the European languages carry with them the legacy of the colonial era, many have thought that it is important to develop modern poetry in African languages. One of those who has most strongly argued this view is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has used both English and Kikuyu.
However, such an attitude raises many problems. There are several languages in almost all African countries, some have hundreds within their borders. Writing on one of them makes you different from other groups of people. Linguistic oppression is something that occurs not only between the colonial and African languages, but also between the African languages. In this context, the former colonial language will have a kind of unifying effect. Moreover, the European languages communicate across national borders to a much greater extent than the African ones.
Some authors seek to resolve some of these dilemmas by writing in multiple languages, while others have sought to express themselves through media that does not require the public to be literate. Soyinka, Aidoo and others have written significant plays. Ousmane Sembene from Senegal has become one of Africa’s most famous filmmakers, while Francis Bebey from Cameroon has gained a large audience with his songs, conveyed both through concerts and record releases. In this way, the connection is again tied back to the living oral tradition.