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Growth of African literature



The literature of the African continent has gone through a development that has been marked by clear stages. From the earliest days of the griots, the storytellers and folklorists (these are the days when the literature was more than less in its egg stage for it was contained within the shell of the ethnic, tribal and cultural shell and remained in more ways than one unseen and unheard by the rest of the world), drove the oral tradition or literature of the African continent and preserved this literature for the next stage in the metamorphosis – the advent of the outsider. This outsider came in with his literature and the periods of colonialism and slavery mark the pupal stage of the development of African literature both on the African mainland and the Diaspora. The post-independence period is an age that sees the literature of the African continent fully matured into an imago of literary diversity and, the fact that a century has not passed yet and the literature is still relatively young and is therefore still possessed of the curiosity of a child, it goes out to explore the myriad alleyways of expression literature offers. It does not matter whether the literature is Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone; the development has been the same and the themes explored are in more ways than one similar for, the experience of the peoples of the African continent has been more than less the same. The age of colonialism and slavery left the most prominent mark on the literature of the continent and, it had a profound effect on the method of expression in literary terms. There is a clearly marked shift from the indigenous oral tradition practised in most countries on the continent to the European literary writing style brought on by the advent of colonialism. The African has always had his writing but, the script was shelled within ethnic, tribal and cultural interests. The European script and language came in as some kind of confluence of the rivers of African literary expression; the gaps between the different ethnic groups and their languages could now be bridged by one European language of the colonist. The literature of the continent in European languages then began and, it remained bottled within the confines of Western literary rules and regulations until the post-independence era. After this period, the African literary writer, scholar or artist could explore the full span of expression and, this freedom saw the literature coming out as full blown. The age of colonialism brought with it a marked change in the mode of economic and literary production and, it also brought about a wider view of world culture on the part of the African individual. Where there had only been social communism as the primary mode of economic production, the European colonist brought in capitalism. Where there had been communal gatherings by villagers listening to the griot or folklorist reciting a tale, legend or a myth, the European put the book in the hand of the individual to read on their own. And, where the men of the community could sit at the village council the whole day discussing various community issues, the European introduced the concept of working the whole day for a living in the mines and factories in the city. In this manner the sedate life of the continent marked by periodical battles over grazing and habitual territory. The change in the mode of production meant that the literature of the African continent had to change or otherwise face imminent extinction. The change in the perspective of the African as an individual brought new ways of exploring the themes presented by his everyday life in the face of the new colonial phenomenon. The African individual who left the village to go work in the city eventually developed a spirit of individualism, a sense of personal independence from village traditions and a strong will towards self-government. Having been taught in the vocational skills of the mission schools of the colony, the universities overseas and those established by the missionaries in their quest to civilise the indigenous peoples, he had picked up the European concept of liberty and freewill. He in this manner became member of the educated African elite or advanced group. They through their elitist groups established urban voluntary associations where they discussed cultural, social and economic issues affecting them in the squalid conditions of the locations, shantytowns and townships where they had to live as second-class citizens. Out of these voluntary associations were formed religious groups, organisations, social clubs and literary discussion groups. Political parties and labour unions developed from these voluntary associations and the anti-system mentality of the liberated African was born. A new ideology of liberation, freedom and equality began in earnest and, the Africans returning to the village from the city carried the ideas of independence and nationalism that weakened the existing governing structures of the colonist. The village chiefs had become more than less just puppets to the ruling colonial elite and, the new wave of ideas from the city to the village served as the starting point in the development of the literatures of modern Africa. There was a larger demand for democracy and, the ideologies behind the movements had to have a voice; the writer naturally became the voice of the people. The literary school of writing in Africa was to perform its first primary role in the waning years of the colonial era: to stoke the fires of liberation, equality and freedom in the African. The two world wars disrupted the fervent demand for liberation, freedom and independence from the colonist, but after the Second World War had passed, a lower middle class comprising of mechanics, clerks, nurses, teachers and craftsmen appeared in Africa. This group absorbed members of its predecessor; the older group of elites. Political parties formed in this new group got the support of the village masses in their quest to free the continent from the clutches of the colonial governments. The independence that was the result of the fervent and relentless campaigns of the political and literary authors marked the first shade of African literature and was to form the core to most of the themes explored in the poems, the novels and plays of this period of new beginnings. The motifs and archetypes of the literature are more or less the same in the writings of the continent in this period. The shades of the literature do not change hue for the duration of the colonial and post-colonial periods. Rather, they scintillate in the brightness of the morning sun of the post independence era and the facets of the crystal that is African literature include Negritude, Pan-Africanism, heritage writings, and Black Consciousness and Identity writings. “Since the early 19th century writers from western Africa have used newspapers to air their views. Several founded newspapers that served as vehicles for expressing nascent nationalist feelings. French-speaking Africans in France, led by Léopold Senghor, were active in the Négritude movement from the 1930s, along with Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire, French speakers from French Guiana and Martinique. Their poetry not only denounced colonialism, it proudly asserted the validity of the cultures that the colonials had tried to crush,” as defined by Parry, B. Modern African literature had begun and its different shades would go on to shimmer with the passage of the sixty or so odd years of the post-independence era. The primary shade of African literature is the language used to produce the literary work and the issues or themes the work brings to light. The issue of language has been of debate for the duration African literature has been in existence. Inevitably, the discussion on African literature must lead to the question of the language or languages used in the production of a work and the issues the choice of such a language brings to light. There has been a marked shift in the discussion of the language issue; from the days of Negritude and Pan-Africanism to the days of Ngugi’s defence of the native language over the usage of English usage in African writing. The previous concern on the selection of the language to produce a work abated in the middle years of the post-independence era but, it has come back, full-force, in the recently liberated Republic of South Africa. The concerns on the selection of the language for the production of a literary work in the early days of independence are a topic for debate in South Africa as much as they were in the early post-independence days. This leads one to the conclusion that the choice of the medium of expression seems to tend towards the native language in the euphoria of early independence, but then the need to assert oneself as a writer in one’s native tongue soon fades out after the din of the newly independent voices of the masses. Heritage and cultural restoration in literary circles seem to be of concern only in the few years preceding independence and the few years following. Once the euphoria of liberation washes out, the African writer seems to go back to what he has to do as an observer of social trends; the concern with cultural heritage seems to ebb and the reality of the present has to have an observer of its trends. Language is the main carrier of the message and, most of the behavioural change of literature can be observed from the patterns it displays. The second shade in the metamorphosis of literature is the main issue that affects literature on the African in the first place; politics. Moore, G. (1962:119) states that, “The creation of literary history is a political act, and most of it is the preserve of the state. Until power is in the hands of the working masses and their allies and literary history can be liberated, sympathisers such as ourselves should keep the full heritage of peoples as visible as possible…” After World War II, as Africans began demanding their independence, more African writers were published. Such writers as, in western Africa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembene, Mongo Beti, Ben Okri, and, in eastern Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Okot p’Bitek. They produced poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and plays as their predecessors like Thomas Mofolo had done at the beginning of the twentieth century. Most of the writings were written in European languages, and often they shared the same themes: the clash between indigenous and colonial cultures, condemnation of European subjugation, pride in the African past, and hope for the continent’s independent future. However, other writers like Ayi Kwei Armah focused on the effects the liberation and independence from the colonist had on the socio-political scene. The main question here seems to be; Now what? The ‘now what’ echoes in most of the African literary and political writing and seems to carry an underlying statement and question: You have now gotten your independence from the European colonist, now what? Can you rule yourself? Has anything really changed or is it the same old play being acted out by a different cast? The disillusionment of the post-independence era is prominent in African writings. It paints a rather dark hue on the shades of the canvas that is African literature and economic socio-political conditions that have followed Africa’s independence. An example can be made of novels such Meja Mwangi’s Walking Down River Road and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. In South Africa, the horrors of apartheid have, until the present, dominated the literature. Es’kia Mphahlele, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Dennis Brutus, J. M. Coetzee, and Miriam Tlali all reflect in varying degrees in their writings the experience of living in a racially segregated society. The language in the novels is so angry and vulgar enough to be seen as caustic. There is anger within the psyche of the African writer as seen in this period that has him venting out his frustrations at the political system that promised so much but fails to deliver. Music has always been one of the mainstays of African literature and, as such, remains one of the pigments and shades of the portrait that is African literature. Throughout the metamorphosis and evolution of African literature the music has always been there either in the play or the political slogan. Music and poetry go hand in glove in the African play, novel or political manifesto and, as such, many writers incorporate these brother arts into their work and often weave oral conventions into their writing. For example, Okot p’Bitek structured Song of Lawino as an Acholi poem and, Chinua Achebe’s characters pepper their speech with proverbs in Things Fall Apart. Others, such as Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene, have moved into films to take their message to people who cannot read. The music or poetry is often highly critical of the ruling government’s policies and systems of governance. The music may seem offensive but African literary writing and performance makes the use of songs to emphasise its messages. It is a different shade in the metamorphosis of the literature and, it has seen the literature develop to the levels it is now reaching on the global literary scene. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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