African Literature

by Elizabeth Ann Wynne Gunner, Harold Scheub

African literature, the body of traditional oral and written literatures in Afro-Asiatic and African languages together with works written by Africans in European languages. Traditional written literature, which is limited to a smaller geographic area than is oral literature, is most characteristic of those sub-Saharan cultures that have participated in the cultures of the Mediterranean.

Oral traditions

The nature of storytelling
The storyteller speaks, time collapses, and the members of the audience are in the presence of history. It is a time of masks. Reality, the present, is here, but with explosive emotional images giving it a context. This is the storyteller’s art: to mask the past, making it mysterious, seemingly inaccessible. But it is inaccessible only to one’s present intellect; it is always available to one’s heart and soul, one’s emotions. The storyteller combines the audience’s present waking state and its past condition of semiconsciousness, and so the audience walks again in history, joining its forebears. And history, always more than an academic subject, becomes for the audience a collapsing of time. History becomes the audience’s memory and a means of reliving of an indeterminate and deeply obscure past.
Storytelling is a sensory union of image and idea, a process of re-creating the past in terms of the present; the storyteller uses realistic images to describe the present and fantasy images to evoke and embody the substance of a culture’s experience of the past. These ancient fantasy images are the culture’s heritage and the storyteller’s bounty: they contain the emotional history of the culture, its most deeply felt yearnings and fears, and they therefore have the capacity to elicit strong emotional responses from members of audiences. During a performance, these envelop contemporary images—the most unstable parts of the oral tradition, because they are by their nature always in a state of flux—and thereby visit the past on the present.
It is the task of the storyteller to forge the fantasy images of the past into masks of the realistic images of the present, enabling the performer to pitch the present to the past, to visualize the present within a context of—and therefore in terms of—the past. Flowing through this potent emotional grid is a variety of ideas that have the look of antiquity and ancestral sanction. Story occurs under the mesmerizing influence of performance—the body of the performer, the music of her voice, the complex relationship between her and her audience. It is a world unto itself, whole, with its own set of laws. Images that are unlike are juxtaposed, and then the storyteller reveals—to the delight and instruction of the members of the audience—the linkages between them that render them homologous. In this way the past and the present are blended; ideas are thereby generated, forming a conception of the present. Performance gives the images their context and ensures the audience a ritual experience that bridges past and present and shapes contemporary life.
Storytelling is alive, ever in transition, never hardened in time. Stories are not meant to be temporally frozen; they are always responding to contemporary realities, but in a timeless fashion. Storytelling is therefore not a memorized art. The necessity for this continual transformation of the story has to do with the regular fusing of fantasy and images of the real, contemporary world. Performers take images from the present and wed them to the past, and in that way the past regularly shapes an audience’s experience of the present. Storytellers reveal connections between humans—within the world, within a society, within a family—emphasizing an interdependence and the disaster that occurs when obligations to one’s fellows are forsaken. The artist makes the linkages, the storyteller forges the bonds, tying past and present, joining humans to their gods, to their leaders, to their families, to those they love, to their deepest fears and hopes, and to the essential core of their societies and beliefs.
The language of storytelling includes, on the one hand, image, the patterning of image, and the manipulation of the body and voice of the storyteller and, on the other, the memory and present state of the audience. A storytelling performance involves memory: the recollection of each member of the audience of his experiences with respect to the story being performed, the memory of his real-life experiences, and the similar memories of the storyteller. It is the rhythm of storytelling that welds these disparate experiences, yearnings, and thoughts into the images of the story. And the images are known, familiar to the audience. That familiarity is a crucial part of storytelling. The storyteller does not craft a story out of whole cloth: she re-creates the ancient story within the context of the real, contemporary, known world. It is the metaphorical relationship between these memories of the past and the known images of the world of the present that constitutes the essence of storytelling. The story is never history; it is built of the shards of history. Images are removed from historical contexts, then reconstituted within the demanding and authoritative frame of the story. And it is always a sensory experience, an experience of the emotions. Storytellers know that the way to the mind is by way of the heart. The interpretative effects of the storytelling experience give the members of the audience a refreshed sense of reality, a context for their experiences that has no existence in reality. It is only when images of contemporary life are woven into the ancient familiar images that metaphor is born and experience becomes meaningful.
Stories deal with change: mythic transformations of the cosmos, heroic transformations of the culture, transformations of the lives of everyman. The storytelling experience is always ritual, always a rite of passage; one relives the past and, by so doing, comes to insight about present life. Myth is both a story and a fundamental structural device used by storytellers. As a story, it reveals change at the beginning of time, with gods as the central characters. As a storytelling tool for the creation of metaphor, it is both material and method. The heroic epic unfolds within the context of myth, as does the tale. At the heart of each of these genres is metaphor, and at the core of metaphor is riddle with its associate, proverb. Each of these oral forms is characterized by a metaphorical process, the result of patterned imagery. These universal art forms are rooted in the specificities of the African experience.
The riddle
A pot without an opening. (An egg.)
The silly man who drags his intestines. (A needle and thread.)
In the riddle, two unlike, and sometimes unlikely, things are compared. The obvious thing that happens during this comparison is that a problem is set, then solved. But there is something more important here, involving the riddle as a figurative form: the riddle is composed of two sets, and, during the process of riddling, the aspects of each of the sets are transferred to the other. On the surface it appears that the riddle is largely an intellectual rather than a poetic activity. But through its imagery and the tension between the two sets, the imagination of the audience is also engaged. As they seek the solution to the riddle, the audience itself becomes a part of the images and therefore—and most significantly—of the metaphorical transformation.
This may not seem a very complex activity on the level of the riddle, but in this deceptively simple activity can be found the essential core of all storytelling, including the interaction of imagery in lyric poetry, the tale, and the epic. In the same way as those oral forms, the riddle works in a literal and in a figurative mode. During the process of riddling, the literal mode interacts with the figurative in a vigorous and creative way. It is that play between the literal and the figurative, between reality and fantasy, that characterizes the riddle: in that relationship can be found metaphor, which explains why it is that the riddle underlies other oral forms. The images in metaphor by their nature evoke emotion; the dynamics of metaphor trap those emotions in the images, and meaning is caught up in that activity. So meaning, even in such seemingly simple operations as riddling, is more complex than it may appear.
The lyric
People were those who
Broke for me the string.
The place became like this to me,
On account of it,
Because the string was that which broke for me.
The place does not feel to me,
As the place used to feel to me,
On account of it.
The place feels as if it stood open before me,
Because the string has broken for me.
The place does not feel pleasant to me,
On account of it. 
—(a San poem, from W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd, Specimens of Bushman Folklore [1911])
The images in African lyric interact in dynamic fashion, establishing metaphorical relationships within the poem, and so it is that riddling is the motor of the lyric. And, as in riddles, so also in lyric: metaphor frequently involves and invokes paradox. In the lyric, it is as if the singer were stitching a set of riddles into a single richly textured poem, the series of riddling connections responsible for the ultimate experience of the poem. The singer organizes and controls the emotions of the audience as he systematically works his way through the levels of the poem, carefully establishing the connective threads that bring the separate metaphorical sets into the poem’s totality. None of the separate riddling relationships exists divorced from those others that compose the poem. As these riddling relationships interact and interweave, the poet brings the audience to a close, intense sense of the meaning of the poem. Each riddling relationship provides an emotional clue to the overall design of the poem. Further clues to meaning are discovered by the audience in the rhythmical aspects of the poem, the way the poet organizes the images, the riddling organization itself, and the sound of the singer’s voice as well as the movement of the singer’s body. As in the riddle, everything in the lyric is directed to the revelation of metaphor.
The proverb
Work the clay while it is fresh.
Wisdom killed the wise man.
The African proverb seems initially to be a hackneyed expression, a trite leftover repeated until it loses all force. But proverb is also performance, it is also metaphor, and it is in its performance and metaphorical aspects that it achieves its power. In one sense, the experience of a proverb is similar to that of a riddle and a lyric poem: different images are brought into a relationship that is novel, that provides insight. When one experiences proverbs in appropriate contexts, rather than in isolation, they come to life. In the riddle the poser provides the two sides of the metaphor. In lyric poetry the two sides are present in the poem but in a complex way; the members of the audience derive their aesthetic experience from comprehending that complexity. The words of the proverb are by themselves only one part of the metaphorical experience. The other side of the riddle is not to be found in the same way it is in the riddle and the lyric. The proverb establishes ties with its metaphorical equivalent in the real life of the members of the audience or with the wisdom of the past. The words of the proverb are a riddle waiting to happen. And when it happens, the African proverb ceases to be a grouping of tired words.
The tale
The riddle, lyric, and proverb are the materials that are at the dynamic centre of the tale. The riddle contains within it the possibilities of metaphor; and the proverb elaborates the metaphorical possibilities when the images of the tale are made lyrical—that is, when they are rhythmically organized. Such images are drawn chiefly from two repertories: from the contemporary world (these are the realistic images) and from the ancient tradition (these are the fantasy images). These diverse images are brought together during a storytelling performance by their rhythmic organization. Because the fantasy images have the capacity to elicit strong emotional reactions from members of the audience, these emotions are the raw material that is woven into the image organization by the patterning. The audience thereby becomes an integral part of the story by becoming a part of the metaphorical process that moves to meaning. And meaning, therefore, is much more complex than an obvious homily that may be readily available on the surface of the tale.
This patterning of imagery is the main instrument that shapes a tale. In the simplest of tales, a model is established, and then it is repeated in an almost identical way. In a Xhosa story an ogre chases a woman and her two children. With each part of the story, as the ogre moves closer and as the woman and her children are more intensely imperiled, a song organizes the emotions of helplessness, of menace, and of terror, even as it moves the story on its linear path:
Qwebethe, Qwebethe, what do you want?
I’m leaving my food behind on the prairie,
I’m leaving it behind,
I’m leaving it behind.
With little more than a brief introduction and a quick close, the storyteller develops this tale. There is an uninterrupted linear movement of a realistic single character fleeing from a fantasy ogre—from a conflict to a resolution. But that fantasy and that reality are controlled by the lyrical centre of the tale, and that seemingly simple mechanism provides the core for complexity. That linear movement, even in the simplest stories, is subverted by a cyclical movement—in this case, the song—and that is the engine of metaphor. It is the cyclical movement of the tale that makes it possible to experience linear details and images in such a way that they become equated one with the other. So it is that the simplest tale becomes a model for more-complex narratives. That lyrical centre gives the tale a potential for development.
In a more complex tale, the storyteller moves two characters through three worlds, each of those worlds seemingly different. But by means of that lyrical pulse, the rhythmical ordering of those worlds brings them into such alignment that the members of the audience experience them as the same. It is this discernment of different images as identical that results in complex structures, characters, events, and meanings. And what brings those different images into this alignment is poetry—more specifically, the metaphorical character of the lyrical poem. The very composition of tales makes it possible to link them and to order them metaphorically. The possibilities of epic are visible in the simplest of tales, and so also are the possibilities of the novel.
The trickster tale, as it does with so much of the oral tradition, provides insights into this matter of the construction of stories. Masks are the weapons of the trickster: he creates illusions, bringing the real world and the world of illusion into temporary, shimmering proximity, convincing his dupe of the reality of metaphor. That trickster and his antic activities are another way of describing the metaphorical motor of storytelling.
Heroic poetry
Hero who surpasses other heroes!
Swallow that disappears in the clouds,
Others disappearing into the heavens!
Son of Menzi!
Viper of Ndaba!
Erect, ready to strike,
It strikes the shields of men!
Father of the cock!
Why did it disappear over the mountains?
It annihilated men!
That is Shaka,
Son of Senzangakhona,
Of whom it is said, Bayede!
You are an elephant! 
—(from a heroic poem dedicated to the Zulu chief Shaka)
It is in heroic poetry, or panegyric, that lyric and image come into their most obvious union. As in the tale and as in the lyric, riddle, and proverb, the essence of panegyric is metaphor, although the metaphorical connections are sometimes somewhat obscure. History is more clearly evident in panegyric, but it remains fragmented history, rejoined according to the poetic intentions of the bard. Obvious metaphorical connections are frequently made between historical personages or events and images of animals, for example. The fantasy aspects of this kind of poetry are to be found in its construction, in the merging of the real and the animal in metaphorical ways. It is within this metaphorical context that the hero is described and assessed. As in other forms of oral tradition, emotions associated with both historical and nonhistorical images are at the heart of meaning in panegyric. It is the lyrical rhythm of panegyric that works such emotions into form. In the process, history is reprocessed and given new meaning within the context of contemporary experience. It is a dual activity: history is thereby redefined at the same time that it shapes experiences of the present.
Among the Tuareg of western Africa, a stringed instrument often accompanies the creation of such poetry, and the main composers are women. The Songhai have mabe, the professional bards; they are present at all rites of passage, celebrating, accompanying, and cushioning the transformation being experienced. In Mauritania it is the iggiw (plural iggawen) who creates heroic poetry and who plays the lute while singing the songs of the warriors. The diare (plural diarou) is the bard among the Soninke. He goes to battle with the soldiers, urging them, placing their martial activities within the context of history, building their acts within the genealogies of their family. Drums and trumpets sometimes accompany the maroka among the Hausa. When a king is praised, the accompaniment becomes orchestral. Yoruba bards chant the ijala, singing of lineage, and, with the oriki, saluting the notable. Among the Hima of Uganda, the bard is the omwevugi. In the evenings, he sings of the omugabe, the king, and of men in battle and of the cattle. The mbongi wa ku pfusha is the bard among the Tonga of Mozambique. He too sings of the glories of the past, creating poetry about chiefs and kings.
The images vary, their main organizing implement being the subject of the poem. It is the metrical ordering of images, including sound and motion, that holds the poem together, not the narrative of history.
The epic
In the epic can be found the merging of various frequently unrelated tales, the metaphorical apparatus, the controlling mechanism found in the riddle and lyric, the proverb, and heroic poetry to form a larger narrative. All of this centres on the character of the hero and a gradual revelation of his frailty, uncertainties, and torments; he often dies, or is deeply troubled, in the process of bringing the culture into a new dispensation often prefigured in his resurrection or his coming into knowledge. The mythical transformation caused by the creator gods and culture heroes is reproduced precisely in the acts and the cyclical, tortured movements of the hero.
An epic may be built around a genealogical system, with parts of it developed and embellished into a story. The epic, like the heroic poem, contains historical references such as place-names and events; in the heroic poem these are not greatly developed. When they are developed in an epic, they are built not around history but around a fictional tale. The fictional tale ties the historical episode, person, or place-name to the cultural history of the people. In an oral society, oral genres include history (the heroic poem) and imaginative story (the tale). The epic combines the two, linking the historical episode to the imaginative tale. Sometimes, myth is also a part of epic, with emphasis on origins. The tale, the heroic poem, history, and myth are combined in the epic. In an echo of the tale—where the emphasis is commonly on a central but always nonhistorical character—a single historical or nonhistorical character is the centre of the epic. And at the core of the epic is that same engine composed of the riddle, the lyric, and the proverb.
Much is frequently made of the psychology of this central character when he appears in the epic. He is given greater detail than the tale character, given deeper dimension. The epic performer remembers the great events and turning points of cultural history. These events change the culture. In the epic these elements are tied to the ancient images of the culture (in the form of tale and myth), an act that thereby gives these events cultural sanction. The tale and myth lend to the epic (and, by inference, to history) a magical, supernatural atmosphere: all of nature is touched in the Malagasy epic Ibonia; in the West African epic Sunjata, magic keeps Sumanguru in charge and enables Sunjata to take over. It is a time of momentous change in the society. In Ibonia there are major alterations in the relationship between men and women; in Sunjata and in the epic Mwindo of the Nyanga people of Congo there are major political changes.
But, in Mwindo, why was Mwindo such a trickster? He was, after all, a great hero. And why must he be taught by the gods after he has established his heroic credentials? Central to this question is the notion of the transitional phase—of the betwixt and between, of the someone or something that crosses yet exists between boundaries. There is a paradox in Mwindo’s vulnerability—how, after all, can a hero be vulnerable?—but more important is his nonmoral energy during a period of change. Mwindo is a liminal hero-trickster: he is liminal while he seeks his father, and then he becomes liminal again at the hands of the gods. “Out there” is where the learning, the transformation, occurs. The trickster energy befits and mirrors this in-between period, as no laws are in existence. There is change and transformation, but it is guided by a vision: in the myths, it is god’s vision for the cosmos; in the tales, it is the society’s vision for completeness; in the epics, it is the hero’s vision for a new social dispensation.
The heroic epic is a grand blending of tale and myth, heroic poetry and history. These separate genres are combined in the epic, and separate epics contain a greater or lesser degree of each—history (and, to a lesser extent, poetry) is dominant in Sunjata, heroic poetry and tale in Ibonia, and tale and myth (and, to a lesser extent, poetry) in Mwindo. Oral societies have these separate categories: history, the imaginative tale, heroic poetry, myth, and epic. Epic, therefore, is not simply history. History exists as a separate genre. The essential characteristic of epic is not that it is history but that it combines history and tale, fact and fancy, and worlds of reality and fantasy. The epic becomes the grand summation of the culture because it takes major turning points in history (always with towering historical or nonhistorical figures who symbolize these turning points) and links them to tradition, giving the changes their sanction. The epic hero may be revolutionary, but he does not signal a total break with the past. Continuity is stressed in epic—in fact, it is as if the shift in the direction of the society is a return to the paradigm envisioned by ancient cultural wisdom. The effect of the epic is to mythologize history, to bring history to the essence of the culture, to give history the resonance of the ancient roots of the culture as these are expressed in myth, imaginative tale (and motif), and metaphor. In heroic poetry, history is fragmented, made discontinuous. In epic these discontinuous images are given a new form, that of the imaginative tale. And the etiological aspects of history (that is, the historical alteration of the society) are tied to the etiology of mythology—in other words, the acts of the mortal hero are tied to the acts of the immortals.
History is not the significant genre involved in the epic. It is instead tale and myth that organize the images of history and give those images their meaning. History by itself has no significance: it achieves significance when it is juxtaposed to the images of a tradition grounded in tales and myths. This suggests the great value that oral societies place on the imaginative traditions: they are entertaining, certainly, but they are also major organizing devices. As the tales take routine, everyday experiences of reality and—by placing them in the fanciful context of conflict and resolution with the emotion-evoking motifs of the past—give them a meaning and a completeness that they do not actually have, so in epic is history given a form and a meaning that it does not possess. This imaginative environment revises history, takes historical experiences and places them into the context of the culture, and gives them cultural meaning. The epic is a blending, then, of the ancient culture as it is represented through imaginative tradition with historical events and personages. The divine trickster links heaven and earth, god and human; the epic hero does the same but also links fancy and reality, myth and history, and cultural continuity and historical disjunction.
What is graphically clear in the epics Ibonia and Sunjata is that heroic poetry, in the form of the praise name, provides a context for the evolution of a heroic story. In both of those epics, the panegyric forms a pattern, the effect of which is to tie the epic hero decisively and at the same time to history and to the gods. Those epics, as well as Mwindo, dramatize the rite of passage of a society or a culture: the hero’s movement through the familiar stages of the ritual becomes a poetic metaphor for a like movement of the society itself. The tale at the centre of the epic may be as straightforward as any tale in the oral tradition. But that tale is linked to a complex of other tales, the whole given an illusion of poetic unity by the heroic poetry, which in turn provides a lyrical rhythm.
Storytelling is the mythos of a society: at the same time that it is conservative, at the heart of nationalism, it is the propelling mechanism for change. The struggle between the individual and the group, between the traditions that support and defend the rights of the group and the sense of freedom that argues for undefined horizons of the individual—this is the contest that characterizes the hero’s dilemma, and the hero in turn is the personification of the quandary of the society itself and of its individual members.
Oral traditions and the written word
Oral and written storytelling traditions have had a parallel development, and in many ways they have influenced each other. Ancient Egyptian scribes, early Hausa and Swahili copyists and memorizers, and contemporary writers of popular novellas have been the obvious and crucial transitional figures in the movement from oral to literary traditions. What happened among the Hausa and Swahili was occurring elsewhere in Africa—among the Fulani, in northern Ghana among the Guang, in Senegal among the Tukulor and Wolof, and in Madagascar and Somalia.
The linkage between oral tradition and the written word is most obviously seen in pulp literature: the Onitsha market literature of Nigeria; the popular fiction of Accra, Ghana; the popular love and detective literature of Nairobi; the visualizing of story in the complex comic strips sold in shops in Cape Town. But the linkage is also a crucial characteristic of more-serious and more-complex fiction. One cannot fully appreciate the works of Chinua Achebe or Ousmane Sembene without placing them into the context of Africa’s classical period, its oral tradition. To be sure, the Arabic, English, French, and Portuguese literary traditions along with Christianity and Islam and other effects of colonialism in Africa also had a dynamic impact on African literature, but African writers adapted those alien traditions and made them their own by placing them into these African classical frames.
History and myth
As is the case with the oral tradition, written literature is a combination of the real and the fantastic. It combines, on the one hand, the real (the contemporary world) and history (the realistic world of the past) and, on the other, myth and hero, with metaphor being the agent of transformation. This is the alchemy of the literary experience. Literature is atomized, fragmented history. Transformation is the crucial activity of the story, its dynamic movement. The writer is examining the relationship of the reader with the world and with history. In the process of this examination, the writer invents characters and events that correspond to history but are not history. At the centre of the story is myth, the fantasy element, a character or event that moves beyond reality, though it is always rooted in the real. In the oral tale this is clearly the fantasy character; so it is, in a complex, refracted way, in written literature.
Myth, which is deeply, intensely emotional, has to do with the gods and creation, with the essence of a belief system; it is the imaged embodiment of a philosophical system, the giving of form to thought and emotion. It is the driving force of a people, that emotional force that defines a people; it is the everlasting form of a culture, hence its link to the gods, to the heavens, to the forever. In mythic imagery is the embodiment of significant emotions—the hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares—of a people. History—the story of a people, their institutions, and their community—is the way one likes to think things happened, in the real world. The hero is everyman, moving through a change, a transformation, and so moving into the myth, the essence, of his history. He thereby becomes a part of it, representative of it, embodying the culture. The hero is everyman with myth inside him. He has been mythicized; story does that. Metaphor is the transformational process, the movement from the real to the mythic and back again to the real—changed forever, because one has become mythicized, because one has moved into history and returned with the elixir.
In serious literary works, the mythic fantasy characters are often derived from the oral tradition; such characters include the Fool in Sheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure (1961), Kihika (and the mythicized Mugo) in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat (1967), Michael K in J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Dan and Sello in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1973), Mustapha in al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s Season of Migration to the North (1966), and Nedjma in Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma (1956). These are the ambiguous, charismatic shapers, those with connections to the essence of history. In each case, a real-life character moves into a relationship with a mythic character, and that movement is the movement of the hero’s becoming a part of history, of culture. The real-life character is the hero who is in the process of being created: Samba Diallo, Mugo, the doctor, Elizabeth, the narrator, or the four pilgrims. Myth is the stuff of which the hero is being created. History is the real, the past, the world against which this transformation is occurring and within which the hero will move. The real contemporary world is the place from which the hero comes and to which the hero will return. Metaphor is the hero’s transformation.
The image of Africa, then, is that rich combination of myth and history, with the hero embodying the essence of the history, or battling it, or somehow having a relationship with it by means of the fantasy mythic character. It is in this relationship between reality and fantasy, the shaped and the shaper, that the story has its power: Samba Diallo with the Fool, Mugo with Kihika (and the mythicized Mugo), the doctor with Michael K, Elizabeth with Dan and Sello, the narrator with Mustapha, the four pilgrims with Nedjma. This relationship, which is a harbinger of change, occurs against a historical backdrop of some kind, but that backdrop is not the image of Africa: that image is the relationship between the mythical character and African/European history.
The fantasy character provides access to history, to the essence of history. It is the explanation of the historical background of the novels. The hero is the person who is being brought into a new relationship with that history, be it the history of a certain area—Kenya or South Africa or Algeria, for example—or of a wider area—of Africa generally or, in the case of A Question of Power, the history of the world. These are the keys, then: the hero who is being shaped, the fantasy character who is the ideological and spiritual material being shaped and who is also the artist or shaper, and the larger issues, the historical panorama. The fantasy character is crucial: he is the artist’s palette, the mythic element of the story. This character is the heart and the spiritual essence of history. This is the Fool, Kihika, Michael K, Dan and Sello, Mustapha, Nedjma. Here is where reality and fantasy, history and fiction blend, the confluence that is at the heart of story. The real-life character, the hero, comes into a relationship with that mythic figure, and so the transformation begins, as the hero moves through an intermediary period into history. It is the hero’s identification with history that makes it possible for us to speak of the hero as a hero. This movement of a realistic character into myth is metaphor, the blending of two seemingly unlike images. It is the power of the story, the centre of the story, as Samba Diallo moves into the Fool, as Mugo moves into Kihika, as the doctor moves into Michael K, as Elizabeth moves into Dan and Sello, as the narrator moves into Mustapha, as the four pilgrims move into Nedjma. In this movement the oral tradition is revealed as alive and well in literary works. The kinds of imagery used by literary storytellers and the patterned way those reality and fantasy images are organized in their written works are not new. The materials of storytelling, whether in the oral or written tradition, are essentially the same.
The influence of oral traditions on modern writers
Themes in the literary traditions of contemporary Africa are worked out frequently within the strictures laid down by the imported religions Christianity and Islam and within the struggle between traditional and modern, between rural and newly urban, between genders, and between generations. The oral tradition is clearly evident in the popular literature of the marketplace and the major urban centres, created by literary storytellers who are manipulating the original materials much as oral storytellers do, at the same time remaining faithful to the tradition. Some of the early writers sharpened their writing abilities by translating works into African languages; others collected oral tradition; most experienced their apprenticeships in one way or another within the contexts of living oral traditions.
There was a clear interaction between the deeply rooted oral tradition and the developing literary traditions of the 20th century. That interaction is revealed in the placing of literary works into the forms of the oral tradition. The impact of the epic on the novel, for instance, continues to influence writers today. The oral tradition in the work of some of the early writers of the 20th century—Amos Tutuola of Nigeria, D.O. Fagunwa in Yoruba, Violet Dube in Zulu, S.E.K. Mqhayi in Xhosa, and Mario António in Portuguese—is readily evident. Some of these writings were merely imitations of the oral tradition and were therefore not influential. Such antiquarians did little more than retell, recast, or transcribe materials from the oral tradition. But the work of writers such as Tutuola had a dynamic effect on the developing literary tradition; such works went beyond mere imitation.
The most successful of the early African writers knew what could be done with the oral tradition; they understood how its structures and images could be transposed to a literary mode, and they were able to distinguish mimicry from organic growth. Guybon Sinxo explored the relationship between oral tradition and writing in his popular Xhosa novels, and A.C. Jordan (in Xhosa), O.K. Matsepe (in Sotho), and R.R.R. Dhlomo (in Zulu) built on that kind of writing, establishing new relationships not only between oral and written materials but between the written and the written—that is, between the writers of popular fiction and those writers who wished to create a more serious form of literature. The threads that connect these three categories of artistic activity are many, they are reciprocal, and they are essentially African, though there is no doubt that there was also interaction with European traditions. Writers in Africa today owe much to African oral tradition and to those authors who have occupied the space between the two traditions, in an area of creative interaction.

Literatures in African languages

Ethiopian literatures are composed in several languages: Geʿez, Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigré, Oromo, and Harari. Most of the literature in Ethiopia has been in Geʿez and Amharic. The classical language is Geʿez, but over time Geʿez literature became the domain of a small portion of the population. The more common spoken language, Amharic, became widespread when it was used for political and religious purposes to reach a larger part of the population.
Geʿez was the literary language in Ethiopia from a very early period, most importantly from the 13th century. The Kebra nagast (Glory of Kings), written from 1314 to 1322, relates the birth of Menelik—the son of Solomon and Makada, the queen of Sheba—who became the king of Ethiopia. The work became a crucial part of the literature and culture of Ethiopia. Royal chronicles were written, and there was some secular poetry. But most of the writing was religious in nature and tone. Many translations of religious works were produced, as were works having to do with the lives of Zagwe kings. In the 15th century, Ta’amra Maryam (The Miracles of Mary) was written, and this was to become a major work in Ethiopia. There were also translations from Arabic.
At the end of the 19th century, missionaries brought the printing press to Ethiopia, and books were published in Amharic. Early Amharic works such as Mist’ire Sillase (1910–11; “The Mystery of the Trinity”) were rooted in traditional literary works. Newspapers in Amharic began to appear in 1924 and 1925, and there were translations of European literary works, including an Amharic translation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, by Gabra Giyorgis Terfe, that was to influence later Amharic literary work.
Two writers created the foundation for the Amharic literary tradition. The first novel written in Amharic was Libb-waled tarik (1908; “An Imagined Story”), by Afawark Gabra Iyasus. The oral storytelling tradition is clearly in evidence in this novel, in which a girl disguised as a boy becomes the centre of complex love involvements, the climax of which includes the conversion of a love-smitten king to Christianity. Heruy Walda Sellasse, an Ethiopian foreign minister who became the country’s first major writer, wrote two novels that are critical of child marriage and that extol Christianity and Western technology. But he was also critical of the Christian church and proposed in one of his novels its reform. In his second novel, Haddis alem (1924; “The New World”), he wrote of a youth who is educated in Europe and who, when he returns to Ethiopia, experiences clashes between his European education and the traditions of his past. Drama was also developed at this time. Playwrights included Tekle Hawaryat Tekle Maryam, who wrote a comedy in 1911, Yoftahe Niguse, and Menghistu Lemma, who wrote plays that satirized the conflict between tradition and the West. Poetry included works in praise of the Ethiopian emperor. Gabra Egzi’abeher frequently took an acerbic view of traditional life and attitudes in his poetry.
After World War II, important writers continued to compose works in Amharic. Mekonnin Indalkachew wrote Silsawi Dawit (1949–50; “David III”), Ye-dem zemen (1954–1955; “Era of Blood”), and T’aytu Bit’ul (1957–58), all historical novels. Girmachew Tekle Hawaryat wrote the novel Araya (1948–49), about the journeying of the peasant Araya to Europe to be educated and his struggle to decide whether to remain there or return to Africa. One of Ethiopia’s most popular novels, it explores generational conflict as well as the conflict between tradition and modernism. Kabbada Mika’el became a significant playwright, biographer, and historian. Other writers also dealt with the conflict between the old and the new, with issues of social justice, and with political problems. Central themes in post-World War II Amharic literature are the relationship between humans and God, the difficulties of life, and the importance of humility and acceptance. Kabbada Mika’el wrote drama reinforcing Christian values, attacking materialism, and exploring historical events. Taddasa Liban wrote short stories that examine the relationship between the old and the new in Ethiopian society. Asras Asfa Wasan wrote poetry and historical novels about political events, including the military coup attempted against Emperor Haile Selassie I in December 1960. Writers such as Mengistu Gedamu and P’awlos Nyonyo became more and more concerned in their works with social issues, and the widespread struggle between tradition and modernism was debated. Novelists looked further afield and wrote about apartheid in South Africa and the African nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba. At the turn of the 21st century there was also a concern with preserving traditional materials in Amharic.
The first novels written in Hausa were the result of a competition launched in 1933 by the Translation Bureau in northern Nigeria. One year later the bureau published Muhammadu Bello’s Gandoki, in which its hero, Gandoki, struggles against the British colonial regime. Bello does in Gandoki what many writers were doing in other parts of Africa during this period: he experiments with form and content. His novel blends the Hausa oral tradition and the novel, resulting in a story patterned on the heroic cycle; it also introduces a strong thread of Islamic history. Didactic elements, however, are awkwardly interposed and severely dilute Gandoki’s aesthetic content (as often happened in other similarly experimental African novels). But Bello’s efforts would eventually give rise to a more sophisticated tradition of novel writing in Hausa. His experimentation would also find its most successful expression in Amos Tutola’s English-language novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952).
It is possible that written Hausa goes back as far as the 14th or 15th century. Arabic writing among the Hausa dates from the end of the 15th century. Early poets included Ibn al-Ṣabbāgh and Muhammad al-Barnāwī. Other early writers in Arabic were Abdullahi Sikka and Sheikh Jibrīl ibn ʿUmar. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Hausa language was written in an Arabic script called ajami. In 1903, under the influence of the British, the Latin alphabet was added. Nana Asma’u wrote poetry, primarily religious, in Arabic, Hausa, and Fula in Arabic ajami script.
Islamic Hausa poetry was a continuation of Arabic classical poetry. There was also secular poetry, including the war song of Abdullahi dan Fodio. Usman dan Fodio, Abdullahi’s older brother and the founder of the Fulani empire in the first decade of the 19th century, wrote Wallahi Wallahi (“By God, By God”), which dealt with the clash between religion and contemporary political reality. Social problems were also considered by Alhaji Umaru in his poem Wakar talauci da wadata (1903; “Song of Poverty and of Wealth”). There was poetic reaction to the presence of British colonial forces: Malam Shi’itu’s Bakandamiya (“Hippo-Hide Whip”) and Alhaji Umaru’s Zuwan nasara (“Arrival of the Christians”). Much poetry dealt with the Prophet Muhammad and other Islamic leaders. There was mystical poetry as well, especially among the Sufi. Religious and secular poetry continued through the 20th century and included the work of Garba Affa, Sa’adu Zungur, Mudi Sipikin, Na’ibi Sulaimanu Wali, and Aliyu Na Mangi, a blind poet from Zaria. Salihu Kontagora and Garba Gwandu emphasized the need for an accumulation of knowledge in the contemporary world. Mu’azu Hadeja wrote didactic poetry. Religious and didactic poetry continue to be written among the Hausa.
The novel Shaihu Umar, by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a prime minister of the Federation of Nigeria, is set in a Hausa village and Egypt. Jiki magayi (1955; “You Will Pay for the Injustice You Caused”), also a Translation Bureau prizewinner, was written by Rupert East and J. Tafida Wusasa. It is a novel of love, and it moves from realism to fantasy. Idon matambayi (“The Eye of the Inquirer”), by Muhammadu Gwarzo, and Ruwan bagaja (1957; The Water of Cure), by Alhaji Abubakar Imam, mingle African and Western oral tradition with realism. Nagari na kowa (1959; “Good to Everyone”), by Jabiru Abdullahi, is the story of Salihi, who comes to represent traditional Islamic virtues in a world in which such virtues are endangered. Nuhu Bamali’s Bala da Babiya (1954; “Bala and Babiya”) deals with conflicts in an urban dwelling. Ahmadu Ingawa’s Iliya ʿdam Maikarfi (1959; The Story of Iliya Dam Maikarfi) has to do with Iliya, a sickly boy who is cured by angels and then embarks on a crusade of peace. Sa’idu Ahmed Daura’s Tauraruwar hamada (1959; “Star of the Desert”) centres on Zulkaratu, who is kidnapped and taken to a ruler; it is a story with folkloric elements. Da’u fataken dare (“Da’u, the Nocturnal Merchants”), by Tanko Zango, deals with robbers who live in a forest; the story is told with much fantasy imagery. In Umaru Dembo’s Tauraruwa mai wutsiya (1969; “The Comet”), Kilba, a boy, travels into space.
Hausa drama has been influenced by the oral tradition. Dramatists include Aminu Kano, Abubakar Tunau, Alhaji Muhammed Sada, Adamu dan Goggo, and Dauda Kano. In the 1980s there began to appear littattafan soyayya (“books of love”), popular romances by such writers as Bilkisu Ahmed Funtuwa (Allura cikin ruwa [1994; “Needle in a Haystack”], Wa ya san gobe? [1996; “Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring?”], and Ki yarda da ni [1997; “Agree with Me”]) and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu (Budurwar zuciya [1987; “Young at Heart”], Alhaki kuykuyo ne [1990; “Retribution Is Inescapable”], and Wa zai auri jahila? [1990; “Who Will Marry the Ignorant Woman?”]). These works deal with the experiences of Hausa women and address such subjects as polygamy, women and education, and forced marriages.
Feso (1956), a historical novel, was the first literary work to be published in Shona. An account of the invasion of the Rozwi kingdom and an expression of longing for the traditional past, it was written by Solomon M. Mutswairo. Another early novel, Nzvengamutsvairo (1957; “Dodge the Broom”), by Bernard T.G. Chidzero, has to do with themes that dominate prose writing in Shona: the attempt to remain true to Shona tradition, the breaking down of Shona culture, the ugly aspects of Western ideas, and the Christian who attempts to blend past and present. In 1959 Mutswairo’s novel Murambiwa Goredema (“Murambiwa, the Son of Goredema”; Eng. trans. Murambiwa Goredema) was published; it depicts the conflict between the African past and the urbanized, Westernized, and Christianized contemporary world, with an emphasis on the need to establish roots within the reality of the world as it is. Also in 1959 John Marangwanda published a novel, Kumazivandadzoka (“Who Goes There Never Comes Back”), which describes the effects of Western-style education and the consequent alienation from traditional society: Saraoga, a boy, is attracted to the city, becomes corrupted, changes his name, and is arrested and jailed. He again changes his name, having renounced his mother, who nevertheless continues to seek him. Education is also a danger in Xavier S. Marimazhira’s Ndakaziva haitungamiri (1962; “If I Had Known”): Kufakunesu is a wicked teacher, but in the end Christianity brings him to a new life. The loss of traditional values is treated in Kenneth S. Bepswa’s Ndakamuda dakara afa (1960; “I Loved Her unto Death”), with its emphasis on love and a desire to cultivate Christian ideals of love: Rujeko and Taremba embody Christian love, but evil in the form of the jealous Shingirai assaults that relationship. The conflict between Christianity and tradition is also the subject of L. Washington Chapavadza’s Wechitatu muzvinaguhwa (1963; “Two Is Company, Three Is None”), an attack on polygamy: Mazarandanda, married to two women, becomes angered as his wives compete with each other. Giles Kuimba’s Gehena harina moto (1965; “Hell Has No Fire”) depicts a woman who is wholly evil; the forces of good and evil struggle, revealing inner conflicts in other characters in the novel. Emmanuel F. Ribeiro’s Muchadura (1967; “You Shall Confess”) is a reassessment of traditional Shona views of the ancestral spirits.
The major Shona writer of novels during the 20th century was Patrick Chakaipa. His Karikoga gumiremiseve (1958; “Karikoga and His Ten Arrows”) is a blend of fantasy (it is based on a tale from the Shona oral tradition) and history, a love story focusing on conflicts between Shona and Ndebele peoples. Pfumo reropa (1961; “The Spear of Blood”) depicts the dangers of the misuse of power in traditional times: a chief, Ndyire, manipulates the traditional system to his own selfish advantage. This novel resembles the Nyanga epic Mwindo: a son of the chief, Tanganeropa, escapes his father’s murderous wrath to return later and overcome the tyrant. Christianity becomes a theme in Chakaipa’s third novel, Rudo ibofu (1962; “Love Is Blind”), having to do with the conflict between tradition and Christianity: Rowesai is beaten by her father when she decides to become a nun. She is later mauled by a leopard. At a dramatic and climactic movement, she returns home as a nun, and her father converts to Christianity. Garandichauya (1963; “I Shall Return”) and Dzasukwa mwana-asina-hembe (1967; “Dzasukwa Beer-for-Sale”) focus on contemporary urban life and its vicissitudes. In the former, Matamba, a boy from the country, falls into the clutches of a prostitute, Muchaneta. When he returns to his rural home, having been rendered moneyless by Muchaneta and blinded by her male friends, he finds his wife awaiting him. In the latter, the corrosive effects of colonialism on Shona tradition are dramatized.
In Nhoroondo dzokuwanana (1958; “The Way to Get Married”), Paul Chidyausiku attempts to bring into union traditional Shona beliefs and Christianity: using marriage as the focal point, it describes a modern African couple, Tadzimirwa and Chiwoniso, moving into their married life within the context of the two conflicting forces. Chidyausiku’s novel Nyadzi dzinokunda rufu (1962; “Dishonour Greater than Death”; Eng. trans. Nyadzi dzinokunda rufu) has its hero, Nyika, move from the traditional world into an urban setting where he is debased and disgraced. Chidyausiku wrote the first published Shona play, Ndakambokuyambira (1968; “I Warned You”), which also deals with the contest resulting when perceived notions of traditionalism are placed within an urban context. His novel Karumekangu (1970), which takes as its setting urban locales in Zimbabwe and South Africa, is an effort to blend tradition and urbanism.
The first published poetry in Shona was Soko risina musoro (1958; “The Tale Without a Head”; Eng. trans. Soko risina musoro), by Herbert W. Chitepo, a somewhat allegorical poem about a wandering African who must make a decision whether to preserve custom or to move in new directions. Wilson Chivaura wrote poetry as well, some of which was published in Madetembedzo (1969). Shona poetry also appeared in such journals as Poet, Two Tone, and Chirimo.
Hikmad Soomaali (“Somali Wisdom”), a collection of traditional stories in the Somali language recorded by Muuse Xaaji Ismaaciil Galaal, was published in 1956. Shire Jaamac Axmed published materials from the Somali oral tradition as Gabayo, maahmaah, iyo sheekooyin yaryar (1965; “Poems, Proverbs, and Short Stories”). He also edited a literary journal, Iftiinka aqoonta (“Light of Education”), and published two short novels in 1973: Halgankiii nolosha (“Life Struggle”), dealing with the traditional past in negative terms, and Rooxaan (“The Spirits”). Further stories from the oral tradition were written down and published in Cabdulqaadir F. Bootaan’s Murti iyo sheekooyin (1973; “Traditional Wisdom and Stories”) and Muuse Cumar Islaam’s Sheekooyin Soomaaliyeed (1973; “Somali Stories”).
Poetry is a major form of expression in the Somali oral tradition. Its different types include the gabay, usually chanted, the jiifto, also chanted and usually moody, the geeraar, short and dealing with war, the buraambur, composed by women, the heello, or balwo, made up of short love poems and popular on the radio, and the hees, popular poetry. Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (Mohammed Abdullah Hassan) created poetry as a weapon, mainly in the oral tradition. Farah Nuur, Qamaan Bulhan, and Salaan Arrabey were also well-known poets. Abdillahi Muuse created didactic poems; Ismaaʿiil Mire and Sheikh Aqib Abdullah Jama composed religious poetry. Ilmi Bowndheri wrote love poetry.
Drama has also flourished in the Somali language, and here, as in the language’s other written forms, the oral tradition continues to have a dynamic influence. In 1968 Hassan Shekh Mumin wrote the play Shabeelnaagood (Leopard Among the Women), which has to do with marriage and the relations between men and women in contemporary contexts. Verse influenced by Somali oral tradition plays a major role in this drama. Ali Sugule, another playwright, wrote Kalahaab iyo kalahaad (1966; “Wide Apart and Flown Asunder”), a play concerning traditional and modern ideas about marriage and relations between the generations.
A story by Axmed Cartan Xaange Qawdhan iyo Qoran published in 1967 in the journal Horseed examined the situation of women in traditional society. He wrote the first play in Somali, Samawada (1968), depicting women’s role in the independence struggle after World War II. Somalia’s daily newspaper serialized stories as well, including works by Axmed Faarax Cali “Idaajaa” and Yuusuf Axmed “Hero.”
In his novel Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl (1974; Ignorance Is the Enemy of Love)—the first novel published in Somali—Faarax Maxamed Jaamac Cawl criticized the traditional past. He made use of documentary sources having to do with the struggle against colonialism in the early 20th century, when forces under the leadership of Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan fought, among others, the British colonial powers. The two central characters in the novel, Cali Maxamed Xasan and Cawrala Barre, were based on historical characters. The author also brings the oral poetry tradition into the novel, its characters speaking in poetic language. The novel launches an assault on ignorance, as the title suggests, born of, among other things, illiteracy. And it takes a positive view of Somali women. Customs having to do with marriage play an important role in the novel, especially the subverting of such customs for one’s own ends. Cawrala and Calimaax meet onboard a ship that has sailed from Aden, and they fall in love. But Cawrala has been promised by her father to another man. Because of a rough sea, the ship founders, and Calimaax rescues Cawrala from the water. 
Cawrala’s love for Calimaax intensifies, and her relations with her father are therefore strained. She sends a letter to Calimaax, who, because he cannot read, has Sugulle, his new father-in-law, read it to him, and this leads to difficulties with his wife’s family. When Cawrala learns of this, she is distressed. Then she learns that Calimaax died while at war. When Cawrala laments his death, her mother forces her to leave home. Then, at night, a voice comes to Cawrala, telling her that “a hero does not die.” And in fact, Calimaax did not die; he was wounded, but he survived. Alone and wounded, he must fight a leopard, and the words of Cawrala’s letter sustain him. In the meantime, Cawrala is miserable, and she debates with her parents and members of her community whether she should marry the man her father has selected for her. She is forced to marry the man, Geelbadane. But she becomes so ill that he sends her back to her family. Calimaax, learning of this, sends a message to her family, asking that she be allowed to marry him. Her family agrees, but she dies before the marriage can take place. Two years after that, still suffering from his wounds and his love for Cawrala, Calimaax dies. A later novel by Cawl, Garbaduubkii gumeysiga (1978; “The Shackles of Colonialism”), has to do with contemporary history.
Southern Sotho
The first writer in the Southern Sotho language was Azariele M. Sekese, who gathered Sotho oral traditions and published them in Mekhoa ea Basotho le maele le litsomo (1893; “Customs and Stories of the Sotho”). He also wrote a popular animal story, Bukana ea tsomo tsa pitso ea linonyana, le tseko ea Sefofu le Seritsa (1928; “The Book of Stories of the Meeting of the Birds, and the Lawsuit between Sefofu and Seritsa”). Historical events, a central focus in much early Sotho literature, are depicted, for example, in J.J. Machobane’s Mahaheng a matšo (1946; “In the Dark Caves”) and Senate, shoeshoe ’a Moshoeshoe (1954; “Senate, the Pride of Moshoeshoe”), both of which treat events during the reign of the Sotho chief Moshoeshoe. M. Damane wrote the historical novel Moorosi, morena oa Baphuthi (1948; “Moorosi, the King of the Baphuthi”), the story of Moorosi and his dealings with the British. S.M. Guma wrote historical novels about King Mohlomi (1960) and Queen Mmanthathisis (1962). The prolific B. Makalo Khaketla published a play in 1947, Moshoeshoe le baruti (“Moshoeshoe and the Missionaries”), and historical themes can be found in plays by E.A.S. Lesoro and B. Malefane, both of whom wrote dramas about the Zulu chief Shaka. Much of Sotho poetry is derived from the oral tradition; Zakea D. Mangoaela’s collection Lithoko tsa marena a Basotho (1921; Praise of the Sotho Kings) is the most outstanding example.
The giant figure in Southern Sotho literature is Thomas Mokopu Mofolo. His three novels were Moeti oa bochabela (1907; The Traveller of the East), Pitseng (1910; “In the Pot”; Eng. trans. Pitseng), and Chaka (1925; Eng. trans. Chaka: An Historical Romance). The Traveller of the East is clearly influenced by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (which had been translated into Southern Sotho in 1872): it is an allegorical work that views Christianity as light and Africa as darkness. Pitseng has to do with conflicting views of marriage, Christian and traditional. Chaka is a novel about Shaka; it is an effective blending of Sotho oral tradition and contemporary historical reality and, from the point of view of storytelling, a yoking of oral and literary forms. Mofolo depends on the oral tradition—more specifically, the traditional heroic cycle—for the formal structure of his work. But, like Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Chaka uses a stark element of realism to break with the romanticism and the circular ordering of oral tradition. By moving the novel’s central character, Chaka, out of the purely oral realm and into a more psychologically realistic mode, Mofolo is able to present his interpretation of the Zulu chief. Mofolo’s work is significant not only as a fictionalized historical biography but as a crucial work positioned confidently on the boundaries of—and revealing the clear connection between—the oral and the written. Mofolo effectively brings the historical Shaka into the context of a psychological Shaka, and it is the oral tradition that makes this complex layering process possible. In Mofolo’s novel the mythic being Isanusi, who serves as both an actor in the narrative and a commentator on it, enables Mofolo to generate this layering. The importance of Chaka, then, is not that it is history; it is not. It is a comment on history. Mofolo’s technique is derived from oral historians in Southern Africa, who interlaced history with commentary. Mofolo’s inclusion of a character such as Isanusi keeps the novel from becoming overly didactic and also sustains its status as a work of art.
Sotho tradition is a central concern of B.M. Khaketla in his novel Meokho ea thabo (1951; “Tears of Joy”). In it a young man, Moeketsi, falls in love, but his beloved’s parents want her to marry someone else. He meets another young woman, but she is engaged to a man she does not know, and by now Moeketsi’s parents have chosen a bride for him. It turns out that he is the man selected for the young woman, and she is the woman selected as his bride. Ramasoabi le Potso (1937; “Ramasoabi and Potso”), by M.L. Maile, and Sek’hona sa joala (“A Mug of Beer”), by T.M. Mofokeng—both didactic, moralizing stories—were among the earliest dramatic works in Southern Sotho.
The conflict between Sotho tradition and the West, including Christianity, can be found in a number of Sotho works. Everitt Lechesa Segoete wrote the novel Monono ke moholi ke mouoane (1910; “Riches Are Like Mist and Fog”), which in a heavily moralizing way treats the conflict between Sotho tradition and the world of the whites: Khitšane falls in with a criminal, Malebaleba, goes to jail, and then is converted to Christianity by Malebaleba, who has become an evangelist. Albert Nqheku’s novel Arola naheng ea Maburu (1942; “Arola Among the Boers”) deals with the conflicts between blacks and whites, between the rural and the urban, and between tradition and modernism. Playwrights such as Maile and Khaketla wrote of polygamy; others examined marriage (J.G. Mocoancoeng), love relationships (J.J. Moiloa, J.D. Koote, P.S. Motsieloa, V.G.L. Leutsoa, and J.S. Monare), and Christianity and tradition (Mofokeng).
Swahili literature is usually divided into classical and contemporary periods and genres. There were early historical works, such as Tarekhe ya Pate (“The Pate Chronicle”); reassembled by the 19th-century scholar Fumo Omar al-Nabhani, it describes events from the 13th to the 19th century. Another chronicle, Khabari za Lamu (“The Lamu Chronicle”), takes the 18th and 19th centuries as its subject. Both religious and secular poetry, showing the influence of Muslim Arabic literature and of the East African culture from which it arose, was a central vehicle of written literary expression. Al Inkishafi (The Soul’s Awakening), by Sayyid Abdallah bin Ali bin Nasir, has closer connections to historical reality, albeit still within an Islamic context. The didactic Utendi wa Mwana Kupona (1858; “Poem of Mwana Kupona”) was written by the first prominent Swahili female poet, Mwana Kupona binti Msham. Love poetry, like other poetry, was sung with or without musical accompaniment. The epic of the legendary figure Fumo Liyongo wa Bauri, who likely lived during the 12th century, was created by Muhammad Kijumwa (Utenzi wa Fumo Liyongo [1913; “The Epic of Fumo Liyongo”). Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy wrote much poetry, including works with nationalistic topics. There were also contemporary epics, including Utenzi wa vita vya Wadachi kutamalaki mrima, 1307 A.H. (1955; The German Conquest of the Swahili Coast, 1897 A.D.), by Hemedi bin Abdallah bin Said Masudi al-Buhriy, and Utenzi wa vita vya Maji Maji (1933; “The Epic of the Maji Maji Rebellion”), by Abdul Karim bin Jamaliddini. A novel, Habari za Wakilindi (“The Story of the Wakilindi Lineage”; Eng. trans. The Kilindi), published in three volumes between 1895 and 1907 by Abdallah bin Hemedi bin Ali Ajjemy, deals with the Kilindi, the rulers of the state of Usambara.
It was Shaaban Robert who had the most dynamic and long-lasting effect on contemporary Swahili literature. He wrote poetry, prose, and proverbs. Almasi za Afrika (1960; “African Diamonds”) is one of his famous books of poetry. Of his prose, his utopian novel trilogy is among his best-known works: Kusadikika, nchi iliyo angani (1951; Kusadikika, a Country in the Sky), Adili na nduguze (1952; “Adili and His Brothers”), and Kufikirika (written in 1946, published posthumously in 1967). Adili and His Brothers is told largely by means of flashbacks. In Kusadikika a fantasy land is created. This largely didactic novel is heavy with morals, as suggested by the allegorical names given to the characters. (In the succeeding works of his trilogy, Robert moves away from the homiletic somewhat.) By means of flashbacks and images of the future, Kusadikika tells the story of Karama, which occurs mainly in a courtroom. Like many other African authors of his time, he juxtaposes the oral and the written in this novel; it is his experimentation with narrative time that is unique. Robert also wrote essays and Utenzi wa vita vya uhuru, 1939 hata 1945 (1967; “The Epic of the Freedom War, 1939 to 1945”).
Significant poetry collections include Amri Abedi’s Sheria za kutunga mashairi na diwani ya Amri (1954; “The Principles of Poetics Together with a Collection of Poems by Amri”). Ahmad Nassir and Abdilatif Abdalla also wrote poetry. Abdalla’s Sauti ya dhiki (1973; “The Voice of Agony”) contains poems composed between 1969 and 1972, when he was a political prisoner. Euphrase Kezilahabi wrote poetry (as in Karibu ndani [1988; “Come In”]) that led the way to the establishment of free verse in Swahili. Other experimenters with poetry included Mugyabuso M. Mulokozi and Kulikoyela K. Kahigi, who together published Malenga wa bara (1976). Ebrahim N. Hussein and Penina Muhando produced innovative dramatic forms through a synthesis of Western drama and traditional storytelling and verse. A play by Hussein, Kinjeketile (1969; Eng. trans. Kinjeketile), deals with the Maji Maji uprising, and Muhando wrote such plays as Hatia (1972; “Guilt”), Tambueni haki zetu (1973; “Reveal Our Rights”), Heshima yangu (1974; “My Honour”), and Pambo (1975; “Decoration”). The Paukwa Theatre Association of Tanzania produced Ayubu, published in 1984. Henry Kuria experimented with drama with such plays as Nakupenda, lakini… (1957; “I Love You, But…”).
Muhammad Saleh Abdulla Farsy wrote the novel Kurwa and Doto: maelezo ya makazi katika kijiji cha Unguja yaani Zanzibar (1960; “Kurwa and Doto: A Novel Depicting Community Life in a Zanzibari Village”). Another utopian novel was written by Paul O. Ugula, Ufunguo wenye hazina (1969; “The Key to the Treasure”). There were also novels about contemporary society, including Kuishi kwingi ni kuona mengi (1968; “Living Long Is to Experience Much”) and Alipanda upepo kuvuna tufani (1969; “He Who Sows the Wind Reaps the Storm”), by J.N. Somba. Christianity is a strong influence in these novels. The Mau Mau uprising is treated in a novel by P.M. Kareithi, Kaburi bila msalaba (1969; “Grave Without a Cross”). Muhammad Said Abdulla wrote the first Swahili detective novel, Mzimu wa watu wa kale (1960; “Graveyard of the Ancestors”), and with the appearance of Faraji Katalambulla’s Simu ya kifo (1965; “Phone Call of Death”), the genre hit its stride. G.C. Mkangi’s novel Ukiwa (1975; “Loneliness”) and Ndyanao Balisidya’s novel Shida (1975; “Hardship”) focus on contemporary social conflicts.
Popular newspaper fiction was a major source of literary storytelling during the 20th century. It appeared in such newspapers as Baraza and Taifa Weekly and included writing by A.T. Banzi (Lazima nimwoe nitulize moyo [1970; “I Have to Marry Her to Calm My Heart”]) and Bob N. Okoth (Rashidi akasikia busu kali lamvuta ulimi [1969; “Rashidi Felt a Wild Kiss Pulling His Tongue”]). In the 1980s this genre flourished with works by such authors as the prolific Ben R. Mtobwa and Rashidi Ali Akwilombe.
In addition to pushing the boundaries of verse, Kezilahabi also experimented with the novel form; Nagona (1990) is an example. He had a major influence on the contemporary novel. In his Rosa Mistika (1971) the effects of alien cultures on indigenous cultures are measured. In Kichwamaji (1974; “Waterhead”) he treats the conflict between the generations, and in Dunia uwanja wa fujo (1975; “The World Is a Field of Chaos”) he emphasizes the effects of foreign cultures on indigenous cultures. His critical stand on Tanzania’s socialism is reflected in Gamba la nyoka (1979; “The Snake’s Skin”). In Kwaheri Iselamagazi (1992; “Goodbye, Iselamagazi”), Bernard Mapalala explores critically the rule of the Nyamwezi warlord Mirambo during the 19th century. The topic of AIDS emerged in the 1980s in novels such as Kifo cha AIDS (1988; “An AIDS Death”), by Clemence Merinyo.
The first piece of Xhosa writing was a hymn written in the early 19th century by Ntsikana. The Bible was translated between the 1820s and 1859. Lovedale Press was established in the 19th century by the London Missionary Society. In 1837 the Wesleyans published a journal, Umshumayeli Indaba (“The Preacher’s News”), which ran to 1841. Lovedale, the Scots mission, was the centre of early Xhosa writing. Ikhwezi was produced during the years 1844 and 1845. The Wesleyan missionaries started a magazine in 1850, Isitunywa Senyanga (“The Monthly Messenger”); its publication was interrupted by one of the frontier wars. A monthly in both Xhosa and English, Indaba (“The News”), edited by William Govan, ran from 1862 until 1865; it was succeeded by The Kaffir Express in 1876, to be replaced by Isigidimi samaXhosa (“The Xhosa Messenger”), in Xhosa only. John Tengo Jabavu and William Gqoba were its editors. It ceased publication with Gqoba’s death in 1888. Imvo Zabantsundu (“Opinions of the Africans”) was a newspaper edited by Jabavu, who was assisted by John Knox Bokwe. Izwi Labantu (“The Voice of the People”) began publication in 1897 with Nathaniel Cyril Mhala as its editor; it was financially assisted by Cecil Rhodes, who had resigned as prime minister of Cape Colony in 1896. Much early Xhosa prose and poetry appeared in these periodicals.
African protest, which was not allowed in works published by the mission presses, was heard in the journals. In fact, Imvo Zabantsundu was suppressed by military authorities during the South African War. Gqoba and William Wawuchope Citashe published politically potent poetry in the newspapers. Jonas Ntsiko (pseudonym uHadi Waseluhlangeni [“Harp of the Nation”]) in 1877 urged Isigidimi samaXhosa to speak out on political issues. Poets such as Henry Masila Ndawo and S.E.K. Mqhayi assailed white South Africans for creating an increasingly repressive atmosphere for blacks. James J.R. Jolobe attempted in his poetry to blend nostalgia for the Xhosa past with an acceptance of the Christian present. (Indeed, many early writers of prose and verse had Christian backgrounds that were the result of their having attended missionary schools, and so shared Jolobe’s thematic concerns.) Mqhayi was called "the father of Xhosa poetry" by the Zulu poet and novelist Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, but Jolobe was the innovator who experimented aggressively with form.
Some of the first prose writers, such as Gqoba and W.B. Rubusana, were concerned with putting into print materials from the Xhosa oral traditions. Tiyo Soga and his son, John Henderson Soga, translated Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into Xhosa as uHambo lomhambi (1866 and 1926). Henry Masila Ndawo’s first novel, uHambo lukaGqoboka (1909; “The Journey of a Convert”), was heavily influenced by the first half of that translation. The Xhosa oral tradition also had an effect on Ndawo’s work, including the novel uNolishwa (1931), about a woman whose name means "Misfortune." Brought up in an urban environment, she is the cause of difficulties among her people and between the races. In uNomathamsanqa noSigebenga (1937; “Nomathamsanqa and Sigebenga”)—the name Nomathamsanqa meaning "Good Fortune" and the name Sigebenga meaning "Criminal" or "Ogre"—the son of a traditional chief provides sustenance for his people. Enoch S. Guma, in his novel uNomalizo; okanye, izinto zalomhlaba ngamajingiqiwu (1918; Nomalizo; or, The Things of This Life Are Sheer Vanity), wrote a somewhat allegorical study of two boys, borrowing the structure of the story from the Xhosa oral tradition.
Guybon Sinxo’s novels describe city life in a way similar to those of Alex La Guma, a South African writer, and those of the Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi. In Sinxo’s uNomsa (1922), the main character, Nomsa, becomes aware of the dangers of urban living, learning "that the very people who most pride themselves on their civilization" act against those ideals. In the end, Nomsa marries the village drunk and reforms him; she then returns with him to the country, where she creates a loving home, albeit a Christian one. In Sinxo’s second novel, Umfundisi waseMthuqwasi (1927; “The Priest of Mthuqwasi”), Thamsanqa, a businessman, has a dream that inspires him to become a Christian minister, but in so doing he severs his connections with his traditional past and soon after dies, exhausted. His brother-in-law, however, combines Christianity and Xhosa tradition in his life, and he survives. Sinxo’s third novel, published in 1939, was Umzali wolahleko (“The Prodigal Parent”), the story of a boy, Ndopho, and his brother, Ndimeni. Ndopho is spoiled; Ndimeni does all the work in the household. Ndimeni’s labours bring him success, while Ndopho’s self-involvement leads him steadily down. Sinxo moralizes, "No Xhosa will flourish if he continues to drink!"
The greatest achievement in Xhosa writing, and one of Africa’s finest novels, is Ingqumbo yeminyanya (1940; The Wrath of the Ancestors), written by A.C. Jordan. In this novel Jordan explores the central issue that concerned most of the writers who came before him—the relationship between African tradition and the intrusion of the West into African societies—and in the process he moves the novel form into greater complexity and nuance. In an unsparingly realistic way, Zwelinzima, the novel’s central character, is confronted with the demands of Mpondomise tradition and Western Christianity, of past and present. What dooms Zwelinzima is that he is unable to bring these warring sides into harmony. Like Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chaka in Mofolo’s Chaka, Zwelinzima is given the opportunity to assume a heroic role, but, because of an essential flaw, he is brought down in a starkly realistic manner by an internal psychological struggle. That struggle is the conflict within his society writ small.
Other novelists after Jordan continued in various ways and with varied degrees of success to deal with these same issues, including P.M. Lutshete in Unyana wolahleko (1965; “The Prodigal Son”) and Peter M. Mtuze in uDingezweni (1966). In E.B. Ndovela’s Sikondini (1966), the character Zwilakhe cuts himself off from Xhosa customs and lives an unhappy life, while Jongikhaya, who has steadily followed Xhosa customs, is happily married and has become a successful businessman. Westernized Africans and uncompromising Xhosa traditionalists are at cross-purposes in Z.S. Qangule’s Izagweba (1972; “Weapons”). In K.S. Bongela’s Alitshoni lingenandaba (1971; “The Sun Does Not Set Without News”), the reader is led to a revelation of the corruption that results when traditional ties are broken. Christianity and urban corruption are at the centre of Witness K. Tamsanqa’s Inzala kaMlungisi (1954; “The Progeny of Mlungisi”). Tradition and modernism are a theme in D.Z. Dyafta’s Ikamva lethu (1953; “Our Ancestry”) and E.S.M. Dlova’s Umvuzo wesono (1954; “The Wages of Sin”). Other authors—such as Aaron Mazambana Mmango, Marcus A.P. Ngani, Bertrand Bomela, Godfrey Mzamane, D.M. Lupuwana, and Minazana Dana—confronted very similar issues. These writers tried to come to terms with the world that so enthralled 19th-century Xhosa intellectuals but that lost its appeal as the marginalized role of the African in it became more and more evident.
In a story from the Yoruba oral tradition, a boy moves farther and farther away from home. With the assistance of a fantasy character, a fox, the boy is able to meet the challenges set by ominous oba (kings) in three kingdoms, each a greater distance from the boy’s home. The fox becomes the storyteller’s means of revealing the developing wisdom of the boy, who steadily loses his innocence and moves to manhood. This oral tale is the framework for the best-known work in Yoruba and the most significant contribution of the Yoruba language to fiction: D.O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju ode ninu igbo irunmale (1938; The Forest of a Thousand Daemons), which contains fantasy and realistic images along with religious didacticism and Bunyanesque allegory, all placed within a frame story that echoes that of The Thousand and One Nights. The novel very effectively combines the literary and oral forces at work among Yoruba artists of the time. Its central character is Akara-ogun. He moves into a forest three times, each time confronting fantasy characters and each time involved in a difficult task. In the end, he and his followers go to a wise man who reveals to them the accumulated wisdom of their adventures. The work was successful and was followed by others, all written in a similar way: Igbo olodumare (1949; “The Jungle of the Almighty”), Ireke-Onibudo (1949), and Irinkerindo ninu Igbo Elegbeje (1954; “Irinkerindo the Hunter in the Town of Igbo Elegbeje”; Eng. trans. Expedition to the Mount of Thought), all rich combinations of Yoruba and Western images and influences. Fagunwa’s final novel, Adiitu olodumare (1961; “God’s Mystery-Knot”), placed a more contemporary story into the familiar fantasy framework: so as to help his poverty-stricken parents, the central character, Adiitu, journeys into a forest, struggles with creatures of the forest, and finds his parents dead when he returns home. He moves into heaven in a dream, where he encounters his parents. He falls in love with Iyunade, and they are marooned on an island, where he saves her. When they get to their home, a friend of Adiitu attempts to destroy the relationship, but in the end they are married. Realism is faced with fantasy in the structure of the story, in the characters, and in the events. This combination of a folktale with a realistic frame revealed new possibilities to Yoruba writers.
There are two competing strands in Yoruba literature, one influenced by the rich Yoruba oral tradition, the other receiving its impetus from the West. The history of Yoruba literature moves between these forces. The earliest literary works were translations of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, published as Ilosiwaju ero-mimo in 1866, and of the Bible, published as Bibeli mimo in 1900. There was an early series of Yoruba school readers, Iwe kika Yoruba (1909–15), containing prose and poetry. The first written poetry, by such poets as J. Sobowale Sowande and A. Kolawole Ajisafe, dealt with personal and historical experiences. These poems combined traditional poetic structures and contemporary events as well as religious influences. At about the same time, Denrele Adetimkan Obasa published, in 1927, a volume of materials from the Yoruba oral tradition (other volumes followed in 1934 and 1945).
A realistic treatment of the Yoruba past was attempted by Adekanmi Oyedele, whose novel Aiye re! (1947; “What People Do!”) deals with traditional Yoruba life. Isaac Oluwole Delano’s Aiye d’aiye oyinbo (1955; “Changing Times: The White Man Among Us”) is another novel in this realistic vein; it deals with the coming of the Europeans. His second novel, Lojo ojo un (1963; “In Olden Times”), is also a historical novel. Joseph Folahan Odunjo also wrote two novels, Omo oku orun (1964; “The Deceased Woman’s Daughter”) and Kuye (1964), the latter about a Cinderella-type boy who moves from misery to happiness.
Other works, perhaps influenced by Fagunwa, melded fantasy and realism: Olorun esan (1952; “God’s Vengeance”), by Gabriel Ibitoye Ojo, and Ogun Kiriji (1961; “The Kiriji War”), by Olaiya Fagbamigbe, also have oral roots. J. Ogunsina Ogundele wrote novels, including Ibu-Olokun (1956; “The Deeps of Olokun”) and Ejigbede lona isalu-orun (1956; “Ejigbede Going to Heaven”), that move characters into realms of fantasy. D.J. Fatanmi wrote K’orimale ninu igbo Adimula (1967; “Korimale in the Forest of Adimula”), which also shows the influence of Fagunwa. Femi Jeboda wrote Olowolaiyemo (1964), a realistic novel having to do with life in a Yoruba city. Adebayo Faleti’s works, such as the short novel Ogun awitele (1965; “A War Foreseen”) and the narrative poem Eda ko l’aropin (1956; “Don’t Underrate”), display fantasy roots. Faleti also published a historical novel, Omo olokun-esin (1970; “Son of the Horse’s Master”). Afolabi Olabimtan wrote a realistic novel, Kekere ekun (1967; “Leopard Boy”), a heavily Christian work. Akinwunmi Isola wrote O le ku (1974; “Fearful Incidents”), a realistic novel.
Drama was also being developed in the middle of the 20th century. Olanipekun Esan’s plays based on Greek tragedies were produced in 1965 and 1966. Other significant playwrights include Faleti, Olabimtan, Hubert Ogunde, and Duro Ladipo.
Like most other African literatures, Zulu literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries falls into two distinct categories, one concerned with traditional (Zulu) life and customs, the other with Christianity. These two broad areas of early literary activity combined in the 1930s in an imaginative literature that focused on a conflict that profoundly preoccupied southern African writers for decades—the conflict between the urban, Christian, Westernized milieu and the traditional, largely rural African past.
There were early translations of the Christian scriptures in the mid-19th century. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was also translated and published in two parts (1868 and 1895). Magema kaMagwaza Fuze’s Abantu abamnyama lapha bavela ngakhona (“Where the Black People Came From”) was published in 1922. Written works on Zulu customs also appeared, including Petros Lamula’s Isabelo sikaZulu (1936; “Zulu Heritage”) and T.Z. Masondo’s Amasiko esiZulu (1940; “Zulu Customs”). R.H. Thembu’s story uMamazane (1947) includes references to Zulu tradition. Cyril Lincoln Sibusiso Nyembezi and Otty Ezrom Howard Mandlakayise Nxumalo compiled Zulu customs, as did Leonhard L.J. Mncwango, Moses John Ngcobo, and M.A. Xaba. Violet Dube’s Woza nazo (1935; “Come with Stories”), Alan Hamilton S. Mbata and Garland Clement S. Mdhladhla’s uChakijana bogcololo umphephethi wezinduku zabafo (1927; “Chakijana the Clever One, the Medicator of the Men’s Fighting Sticks”), and F.L.A. Ntuli’s Izinganekwane nezindaba ezindala (1939; “Oral Narratives and Ancient Traditions”) are compilations of oral stories. Nyembezi gathered and annotated Zulu and Swati heroic poems in Izibongo zamakhosi (1958; “Heroic Poems of the Chiefs”), and E.I.S. Mdhladhla’s uMgcogcoma (1947; “Here and There”) contains Zulu narratives.
These early Zulu writers were amassing the raw materials with which the modern Zulu novel would be built. Christian influence from abroad would combine with the techniques of traditional Zulu oral traditions to create this new form. There would also be one additional ingredient: the events that constituted Zulu history. Two outstanding early writers dealt with historical figures and events. One, John Langalibalele Dube, became the first Zulu to write a novel in his native language with Insila kaShaka (1933; “Shaka’s Servant”; Eng. trans. Jeqe, the Bodyservant of King Shaka). The second, R.R.R. Dhlomo, published a popular series of five novels on Zulu kings: uDingane (1936), uShaka (1937), uMpande (1938), uCetshwayo (1952), and uDinuzulu (1968). Other historical novels include Lamula’s uZulu kaMalandela (1924). 
S.B.L. Mbatha’s Nawe Mbopha kaSithayi (1971; “You Too, Mbopha, Son of Sithayi”) is built on the drama of Shaka’s assassination, as is Elliot Zondi’s drama Ukufa kukaShaka (1966; “The Death of Shaka”); and Benedict Wallet Vilakazi’s uDingiswayo kaJobe (1939; “Dingiswayo, Son of Jobe”) is a study of Shaka’s mentor, the Mtetwa leader Dingiswayo. Among other written works based on Zulu history are Muntu ’s uSimpofu (1969); L.S. Luthango’s uMohlomi (1938), a biography of Mohlomi, the adviser of the Sotho chief Moshoeshoe; and Imithi ephundliwe (1968; “Barked Trees”), an imaginative work by Moses Hlela and Christopher Nkosi based on the Zulu War. The historical trickster Chakijana, who became famous during the Bambatha Rebellion, is depicted in A.Z. Zungu’s uSukabekhuluma (1933), and Bethuel Blose Ndelu composed a drama, Mageba lazihlonza (1962; “I Swear by Mageba, the Dream Has Materialized”), set during the reign of the Zulu king Cetshwayo.
At the heart of Zulu literature of the 20th century is oral tradition. The magical aura of the oral is present but disguised in the written tradition of the Zulu people. The movement from the oral to the written was achieved without difficulty: in the beginning, some Zulu authors utilized written forms as venues for sermonizing; others simply reproduced the oral in writing. But more adventurous and creative writers quickly saw the connections between the two and fashioned written works using the looms of the oral. Zulu literature owes something to influences from the West, but the indigenous oral tradition is dominant. Stories of the contemporary world are constructed over the old oral stories; the space of the eternal, an aspect of the ancient tradition, gives way to the space of the immediate, and the values expressed in the oral stories continue to influence the written ones.
In a number of novels, Zulu writers contend with the conflict between tradition and Christianity. In James N. Gumbi’s Baba ngixolele (1966; “Father, Forgive Me”), a girl, Fikile, struggles with what she perceives as a gap between those two worlds. S.V.H. Mdluli explores the same theme in uBhekizwe namadodana akhe (1966; “Bhekizwe and His Young Sons”): a good son retains his ties with his parents (i.e., tradition) and becomes a successful teacher. A bad son goes wrong and is on the edge of destruction until he recovers his roots. J.M. Zama’s novel Nigabe ngani? (1948; “On What Do You Pride Yourself?”) is similarly constructed around positive and negative characters. A stepmother, Mamathunjwa, spoils her own children, Simangaliso and Nomacala, but despises her two stepchildren, Msweli and Hluphekile. Christianity is not the villain; instead it is the relaxation of Zulu values that is the problem. Msweli and Hluphekile succeed, while the pampered children die in shame. This insistence on retaining a connection with the African past produced a literature interwoven with Negritude, or black consciousness, a theme that would become a dominant one in South African politics in the 1960s and ’70s.
Dhlomo’s novel Indlela yababi (1946; “The Bad Path”) investigates the polarity between urbanized life and traditional practices and concludes that the former is unstable. A similar theme is developed in a novel by Jordan Kush Ngubane, Uvalo lwezinhlonzi (1956; “Fear of Authority”). Gumbi’s novel Wayesezofika ekhaya (1966; “He Was About to Go Home”) shows a country boy turning to crime as a result of urbanization. There is much of the Zulu oral tradition and of Pilgrim’s Progress in such novels, both in content and in form. The influence of Jordan’s The Wrath of the Ancestors can be seen in Kenneth Bhengu’s Umbuso weZembe nenkinga kaBhekifa (1959; “The Government of Zembe and Bhekifa’s Problem”): a chief and his wife, both educated in schools influenced by the West, come into conflict with Zulu tradition. A city trickster cons country people out of their savings in Nyembezi’s Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu (1961; “The Man from Mgungundlovu”). That theme persists in Nyembezi’s most successful novel, Mntanami! Mntanami! (1950; “My Child! My Child!”; Eng. trans. Mntanami! Mntanami!): the character Jabulani loves the city, but, unprepared to deal with it, he becomes a criminal. In Nxumalo’s Ngisinga empumalanga (1969; “I Look to the East”), a man loses his children when Zulu tradition is compromised. In Ikusasa alaziwa (1961; “Tomorrow Is Not Known”), Nxumalo shows that the urban environment need not be fatal and that Christianity and Zulu values can together act as guides.
Zulu poetry varies widely, from imitating ancient Zulu poetic forms to analyzing the system of apartheid that dominated life in South Africa during the 20th century. Some of the finest Zulu poetry can be found in two collections by Nxumalo, Ikhwezi (1965; “The Morning Star”) and Umzwangedwa (1968; Self-Consciousness). In Hayani maZulu (1969; “Sing, Zulu People”), P. Myeni sought to adapt ancient forms to modern literary Zulu. Other Zulu poets who wrote during the second half of the 20th century include Deuteronomy Bhekinkosi Z. Ntuli (Amangwevu [1969; “Uppercuts”]), J.C. Dlamini (Inzululwane [1957; “Giddiness”; Eng. trans. Inzululwane]), N.J. Makhaye (Isoka lakwaZulu [1972; “The Young Man of kwaZulu”]), M.T. Mazibuko (Ithongwane [1969; “Snuffbox”]), and Elliot Alphas Nsizwane kaTimothy Mkize (Kuyokoma Amathe [1970; “Until the Mouth Dries Up”]).

Literatures in European and European-derived languages

Afrikaans literature in South Africa can be viewed in the context of Dutch literary tradition or South African literary tradition. Within an African context, Afrikaans literature will be forever on the outside. As is the case with the language, it is caught in an identity crisis that was created irrevocably by the fiercely defended political and cultural identity of the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652 and whose descendants, together with English-speaking whites, took over the government in 1948, after which the notorious system of apartheid was enshrined in laws that would be demolished only in the early 1990s. The conservative branch of the Afrikaner people, always the most numerous and the most powerful, was in conflict throughout the 20th century with a talented and growing group of young poets and novelists, such as C. Louis Leipoldt and Breyten Breytenbach, who sought to broaden the confines of an increasingly limited people and literature. The history of Afrikaans literature is the history of the Afrikaners, an alien people whose literature is a testimony to that state of alienation.
Afrikaans, with its roots in Dutch, has been spoken in South Africa mainly by whites since the 18th century. The First Afrikaans Language Movement began in 1875, led by Stephanus Jacobus du Toit and others; it represented an effort to make Afrikaans a language separate from Dutch. The first newspaper in Afrikaans, Die Patriot (“The Patriot”), began publication in 1876. The linguistic shift from Dutch to Afrikaans did not occur without considerable dispute among the whites of Dutch descent. It was after the South African War (1899–1902)—which became a prominent subject of early Afrikaans literature—that Afrikaans became a significant written language. Winternag (1905; “Winter’s Night”), a poem by Eugène Marais, and Die vlakte (1906; “The Plain”), a poem by Jan Celliers, dramatically ushered in this new literary language, along with language organizations such as the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie (founded 1909). Die brandwag (“The Outpost”), a magazine, had a literary section from 1910. The Hertzog Prize for poetry, prose, and drama in Afrikaans was established in 1914. Publishing houses specializing in Afrikaans publications began in 1914 and 1915. In 1914 Cornelius Jakob Langenhoven fostered Afrikaans in schools, and the language was soon after studied at universities and used as a medium of instruction. Parliament recognized Afrikaans as an official language in 1925, six years after it was named the language of the Dutch Reformed Church. Earlier 19th-century writing had been heavily didactic; by the 1920s this had begun to change.
Poets became the most potent harbingers of the new language as the Second Afrikaans Language Movement began; they included Leipoldt, Marais, Celliers, Jakob Daniel du Toit (Totius), Daniel François Malherbe, and Toon van den Heever. Leipoldt, who would one day be condemned as a traitor to Afrikaners, was probably one of the greatest and most original poets of the early 20th century, while Marais in his poetry linked European tradition to the realities of life in South Africa. Prose also appeared during this period, moving away from such melodramatic works as Johannes van Wyk (1906), a novel by J.H.H. de Waal, to more rigorously realistic historical works, such as those by Gustav Preller. Realism began to dominate Afrikaans prose, especially in the work of Jochem van Bruggen, who wrote a trilogy, the first part of which was Ampie, die natuurkind (1931; “Ampie, the Child of Nature”), a study of a poor white in South Africa. A.A. Pienaar (pseudonym Sangiro) wrote popular books about animals. Drama also began to flourish through the writings of Leipoldt, Langenhoven, and H.A. Fagan. Langenhoven was also a popular poet, as was A.G. Visser.
Dramatic events in the 1930s—including a drought that caused many farmers to move to the cities, significant political changes, a sharpening of racial conflict, and the deepening of the Afrikaans-English conflict—isolated Afrikaners more dramatically in South Africa, and fiercely partisan organizations such as the Afrikaner-Broederbond and Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge gained new adherents. The Afrikaner poets known as the Dertigers (“Thirtyers,” or writers of the 1930s) infuriated conservative Afrikaners with a new type of poetry. The poetry of W.E.G. Louw, N.P. van Wyk Louw, and Elisabeth Eybers was at the heart of this fertile activity, which centred on experimentation with form. Van Wyk Louw’s Raka (1941) is a rhymed study of evil, with Raka as the incarnation of this evil taking over a community. Uys Krige wrote romantic poetry but is known for his war poetry and as a dramatist. There was prose written during this period by Abraham H. Jonker, C.M. van den Heever, and Johannes van Melle, whose Bart Nel (1936), dealing with the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914–15, is considered by some to be the finest novel in Afrikaans.
After World War II, literary magazines carried Afrikaans works. D.J. Opperman continued the experimentation with the Afrikaans language in his poetry, and he introduced decisively South African racial themes into his work. In 1954 Arthur Fula became one of the first black Africans to write a novel in Afrikaans. Audrey Blignault and Elise Muller wrote short stories and essays. Anna M. Louw wrote novels.
The Sestigers (“Sixtyers,” or writers of the 1960s) attempted to do for prose what the Dertigers had done for poetry. Jan Rabie, Etienne Leroux, Dolf van Niekerk, André P. Brink, Abraham de Vries, and Chris Barnard experimented with the novel and moved into areas largely forbidden until that time, such as sex and atheism. Brink’s Lobola vir die lewe (1962; “Pledge for Life”) and Orgie (1965; “Orgy”) caused sensations. Bartho Smit wrote Moeder Hanna (1959; “Mother Hanna”), an acclaimed drama about the South African War. He also wrote Putsonderwater (1962; “Well-Without-Water”), considered among the finest plays produced in Afrikaans; it could not be performed because of its political message. Elsa Joubert wrote a novel about a black woman, Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (1978; The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, or Poppie). Karel Schoeman’s ’n Ander land (1984; “Another Country”) moved into the sensitive political and social realities of South Africa. Adam Small wrote works, such as Kanna hy kô hystoe (1965; Kanna—He Is Coming Home), that revealed the realities of the lives of nonwhites in South Africa. Ingrid Jonker wrote intensely personal poetry. Breytenbach wrote surreal poetry, his work revealing his struggle with the Afrikaners’ political situation in South Africa. His Katastrofes (1964; Catastrophes) is a series of sketches that take racism, death, and madness as their subjects.
These themes persisted through the end of the 20th century. Riana Scheepers, in Die ding in die vuur (1990; “The Thing in the Fire”), a collection of short stories, blended Zulu oral tradition with the world of apartheid. Marlene van Niekerk wrote Triomf (1994; “Triumph”; Eng. trans. Triomf), a novel based on Sophiatown, a black settlement near Johannesburg that was replaced by the South African government in the 1950s and ’60s by a white working-class suburb dubbed Triomf. In Lettie Viljoen’s Klaaglied vir Koos (1984; “Lament for Koos”), a husband leaves his family to join the fight against apartheid. In his novels Toorberg (1986; Ancestral Voices) and Kikoejoe (1996; Kikuyu), Etienne van Heerden dealt with 20th-century South African history. (See also treatment of literature in Afrikaans in South African literature.)
Early works in English in western Africa include a Liberian novel, Love in Ebony: A West African Romance, published in 1932 by Charles Cooper (pseudonym Varfelli Karlee), as well as such works of Ghanaian pulp literature as J. Benibengor Blay’s Emelia’s Promise and Fulfilment (1944). R.E. Obeng, a Ghanaian, wrote Eighteenpence (1941), an early work on the conflict between African and European cultures. Other early popular writers in Ghana include Asare Konadu, Efua Sutherland, and Kwesi Brew. The Nigerian Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (1952), its construction revealing a clear linkage between the oral and literary traditions. In it the hero moves to Deads’ Town to bring his tapster back to the land of the living; the elixir that the hero brings back from the land of the dead, however, is an egg that is death-dealing as surely as it is life-giving. Tutuola is faithful to oral tradition, but he places the traditional journeying tale into a very contemporary framework.
Nigeria has been a font of creative writing in English, from the works of Chinua Achebe to those of Ben Okri. Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, is known for his drama, poetry, and prose. His The Interpreters (1965) weaves stories from the contemporary world to the mythic and historical past, manipulating time so that in the end the very structure of the story is a comment on the lives of the several protagonists. Soyinka was a contributor to and coeditor of the influential journal Black Orpheus, founded in 1957 and containing the early works of poets such as Christopher Okigbo of Nigeria, Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma of South Africa, and Tchicaya U Tam’si of Congo (Brazzaville). Another literary journal, The Horn, launched in 1958 by John Pepper Clark, provided additional opportunities for writers to have their works published. Transition, a literary journal begun in Uganda in 1960 by Rajat Neogi, was also a valuable outlet for many African writers.
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) is perhaps the best-known African novel of the 20th century. Its main character is Okonkwo, whose tragic and fatal flaw, his overweening ambition, wounds him. His frenzied desire to be anything but what his father was causes him to develop a warped view of his society, so that in the end that view becomes (thanks to seven humiliating years in exile) reality to him. When he returns, he cannot accept seeing his people in the throes of adapting to the intruding whites, and things fall apart for him: it is not the society he envisioned, and he takes his life. Things Fall Apart is a precolonial novel that ends with the coming of colonialism, which triggers Okonkwo’s demise. Okonkwo is in any case doomed because of his skewed vision. Flora Nwapa wrote the novel Efuru (1966), the story of a talented, brilliant, and beautiful woman who, living in a small community, is confined by tradition. A woman’s fundamental role, childbearing, is prescribed for her, and if she does not fulfill that role she suffers the negative criticism of members of her society. Borrowing a technique from the oral tradition, Nwapa injects the dimension of fantasy through the character of the goddess Uhamiri, who is a mythic counterpart to the real-life Efuru. In The Slave Girl (1977) the novelist Buchi Emecheta tells the story of Ojebeta, who, as she journeys from childhood to adulthood, moves not to freedom and independence but from one form of slavery to another. Okri blends fantasy and reality in his novel The Famished Road (1991; part of a trilogy that also includes Songs of Enchantment [1993] and Infinite Riches [1998]). In the novel, which addresses the reality of postcolonial Nigeria, Okri uses myth, the Yoruba abiku (“spirit child”), and other fantasy images to shift between preindependence and postindependence settings. The spiritual and real worlds are linked in the novel, the one a dimension of the other, in a narrative mode that African storytellers have been using for centuries.
In other parts of western Africa, Lenrie Peters of The Gambia and Syl Cheyney-Coker of Sierra Leone were among the most important 20th-century writers. The novelist Ebou Dibba and the poet Tijan M. Sallah were also from The Gambia. Cameroonian authors writing in English during the second half of the 20th century include Ba’bila Mutia, John S. Dinga, and Jedida Asheri. Writers in Ghana during the same period include Amma Darko, B. Kojo Laing, Kofi Awoonor, and Ayi Kwei Armah. In Fragments (1970) Armah tells of a youth, Baako, who returns from the United States to his Ghanaian family and is torn between the new demands of his home and the consequent subversion of a traditional past represented by the mythic Naana, his blind grandmother, who establishes a context for the tragic story Baako is experiencing.
The dominant writer to emerge from East Africa is the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In A Grain of Wheat (1967) he tells the story of Mugo, alone and alienated, farming after having played a role in the Mau Mau rebellion; though he has considered himself the Moses of his people, he has a terrible secret. As Mugo’s story unfolds, the novelist works into his narrative other stories, including those of Gikonyo, Mumbi, and Karanja, each of whom has an unsavoury past as well. Ngugi constructs the story around the proverb “Kikulacho ki nguoni mwako” (“That which bites you is in your own clothing”). Later in his career Ngugi, who spent many years in exile from Kenya, engaged many writers in a debate as to whether African writers should compose their works in European or African languages.
Other East African novelists include Okello Oculi, Grace Ogot, Peter K. Palangyo, and W.E. Mkufya. In Timothy Wangusa’s novel Upon This Mountain (1989), the character Mwambu climbs a mountain and comes of age. In two novels from Uganda a boy moves to manhood: Abyssinian Chronicles (2000), by Moses Isegawa, and The Season of Thomas Tebo (1986), by John Nagenda, the latter an allegorical novel in which a boy’s loss of innocence is tied to politics in that country. One of Africa’s greatest novelists is the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, who wrote a trilogy composed of the novels Maps (1986), Gifts (1992), and Secrets (1998). Maps is the story of a youth, Askar, growing up in a Somalia divided by Ethiopia. With the mythic Misra, who becomes his surrogate mother, and by means of a geographical movement that occurs within a rich mixture of politics and sex, the boy seeks his identity, a quest that becomes linked to the identity of the land across which he moves.
From Malawi came such writers as Jack Mapanje, whose collection of poems Skipping Without Ropes (1998) reflects on his four years as a political prisoner, and David Rubadiri. Other writers from Southern Africa include Fwanyanga M. Mulikita and Dominic Mulaisho from Zambia and Berhane Mariam Sahle Sellassie, Daniachew Worku, and Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin from Ethiopia. Solomon M. Mutswairo, Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chinodya, Chenjerai Hove, Yvonne Vera, Alexander Kanengoni, J. Nozipo Maraire, and Batisai Parwada are among Zimbabwe’s writers in English. Tsitsi Dangarembga wrote Nervous Conditions (1988), a story of two Shona girls, Tambudzai and Nyasha, both attempting to find their place in contemporary Zimbabwe. Nyasha has been abroad and wonders about the effect that Westernization has had on her and her family, while Tambudzai is longing to break out of her traditional world. Looming in the background are mythic figures, including Lucia, Tambudzai’s aunt.
Doris Lessing is a British writer who spent her early years in what is today Zimbabwe. Her novel The Grass Is Singing (1950) centres on Dick Turner and Mary Turner, a white couple attempting to become a part of the rural African landscape. Lessing depicts a stereotyped African character, Moses, a black servant, whose name gives him historical and religious resonance. He becomes dominant over the European Mary, manipulating her fears and love of him until in the end he destroys her. Lessing finds mythic fantasy dimensions in the Europeans, much as Mustafa Sa’eed does in the women of England in al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s novel Season of Migration to the North (1966).
There is much writing in English by expatriates that is rooted in South Africa, from the poetry of Thomas Pringle to E.A. Kendall’s The English Boy at the Cape (1835), the novels of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan, and Turning Wheels (1937), by Stuart Cloete. Olive Schreiner was the first major South African-born writer. Her novel The Story of an African Farm (1883) continues to have an international resonance. Pauline Smith wrote powerful short stories; her novel The Beadle (1926) deals largely with the experiences of Afrikaners in the Eastern Cape region. Sarah Gertrude Millin had an international audience with such works as God’s Stepchildren (1924). The short-lived literary review Voorslag (“Whiplash”), begun in 1926, published for wider audiences work by such poets as Roy Campbell, William Plomer, and Laurens van der Post.
A common subject in the works of the many South African authors writing in English during the 20th century is the racial segregation, codified as apartheid in 1948, that dominated the country until the early 1990s. In two early novels, Mine Boy (1946), by Peter Abrahams, and Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), by Alan Paton, black Africans go to Johannesburg and experience the terror of apartheid. In To Every Birth Its Blood (1981), Mongane Wally Serote tells the stories of Tsi Molope and Oupa Molope. Tsi looks to his past and wonders, “Where does a river begin to take its journey to the sea?” The world in which Oupa—the son of Mary, Tsi’s sister—lives postdates the Soweto uprising of 1976, a time when resistance to apartheid took hold of a new generation and South Africa witnessed attacks and bombings. Because of their experiences with the police, the Molope family becomes more politicized. Serote wants the reader to see the human side of his characters—their vulnerabilities, their uncertainties—while he also wants to demonstrate that it is not an easy matter to make the revolutionary leap. A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981), by Sydney Sipho Sepamla, which is set in Soweto, exposes the fearful effects of apartheid.
The playwright Athol Fugard in 1982 produced his play “Master Harold”…and the Boys, the story of a white boy, Hally, in a restaurant in which two black African men, Willie Malopo and Sam Semela, are waiters. It is a story of a boy’s coming of age within the realities of the racist system of South Africa. As the story develops, Hally transfers his fear, love, and hate of his father to Sam, and in the end he treats Sam as he cannot treat his father. The result is to open anew the wounds of apartheid. The novel July’s People (1981), by Nadine Gordimer, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, takes place in an imagined postindependence South Africa. The story deals with the Smales, a white couple, and their relationship with July, their black servant. By means of flashbacks the Smales reconstruct their past, the world of a Johannesburg suburb during the apartheid period. There is a war, and Maureen Smale and Bamford Smale escape from their suburban home and go north, where these erstwhile liberals come to July’s rural home and learn, by their interactions with July and his family and friends, that they cannot move past their former relationship with their servant and cannot see him from any perspective but that of liberal, self-confident white overlords. That hopelessly compromised position is the impasse that Gordimer investigates in this novel. D.M. Zwelonke is the pseudonymous author of Robben Island (1973), a novel dealing with the political prison maintained by the South African government off the shores of Cape Town from the mid-1960s. It is the story of Bekimpi, an African political leader jailed at Robben Island, and it relates his dreams and fantasies, his despair and anger, and his torture and death.
J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, wrote Life and Times of Michael K (1983), a story with a blurred hero and an indistinct historical and geographical background. It describes a war that could be any war, a country that could be any country, a bureaucracy that could be any bureaucracy. Through it all, Michael K—a frail, nondescript, mute man of 30, born with a cleft lip—survives, not betraying his past, for he has no past, tied as he is to the unbroken continuity of history. So does Coetzee link apartheid to the ages. The novel becomes, in the end, an affirmation of humanity; the Earth is destroyed, a man is incarcerated, but he will return, crawling out of the dust of ruin, re-creating the Earth, making it grow and fructify.
Maru (1971), a novel by Bessie Head, tells a story about the liberation of the San people from ethnic and racial oppression and about the liberation of the Tswana people of Dilepe from their prejudices and hatreds. It is a story of a flawed world and the attempts of two mythic people, Maru and Margaret Cadmore, to restore it to its former perfection. It is also a love story—Margaret, the loathed Masarwa, opens the hearts of Moleka and Dikeledi—as well as a political story—Margaret animates Maru’s political vision with love and art. In the end, Maru is a realistic story with a mythic overlay in which oral and literary traditions are brought together.
In the work of the earliest African writers in French can be found the themes that run through this literature to the present day. These themes have to do with African tradition, with French colonialism and the displacement of Africans both physically and spiritually from their native tradition, with attempts to blend the French and the African traditions, and with postindependence efforts to piece the shards of African tradition and the French colonial experience into a new reality.
In his novel Les Trois volontés de Malic (1920; “The Three Wishes of Malic”), the Senegalese writer Ahmadou Mapaté Diagne anticipates such later writers as Sheikh Hamidou Kane, also of Senegal. In Diagne’s novel, Malic, a Wolof boy, is embroiled in a struggle between Muslim tradition and the influence of the West. He goes to a French-run school to study; then, instead of going to Qurʾānic school as his parents wish, he becomes a blacksmith. Other early African works in French frequently deal with the tensions between country and city, between African and French culture, and between traditional religious practices and Islam. The novel Force-bonté (1926; “Much Good Will”), by Bakary Diallo of Senegal, deals with a youth caught in a conflict between his Muslim background and Western values and culture. The Beninese writer Paul Hazoumé wrote Doguicimi (1938; Eng. trans. Doguicimi), a historical novel depicting the time of the reign of the king Gezo in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey. Some writers focused solely on African tradition, with its positive and negative qualities; these writers include Félix Couchoro, whose novel L’Esclave (1929; “The Slave”) examines slavery in traditional Dahomey. The Senegalese writer Ousmane Socé wrote Karim (1935), a novel that depicts a young Wolof caught between traditional and Western values. He leaves the countryside for the Senegalese cities of Saint-Louis and Dakar but loses everything when he falls prey to the cities’ wiles; he returns, in the end, to traditional ways of living. The novel depicts the new society that was being born in early 20th-century Africa. Mirages de Paris (1937; “Mirages of Paris”) has to do with a Senegalese student in Paris who falls in love with a Frenchwoman. Abdoulaye Sadji of Senegal wrote Maïmouna (1958; Eng. trans. Maïmouna), about an African girl who leaves home and goes to Dakar, where she is seduced. She returns to her home and bears a child who dies; she becomes ill but then recovers her traditional roots.
Women’s place in Cameroonian society is the subject of Joseph Owono’s Tante Bella (1959; “Aunt Bella”), the first novel to be published in Cameroon. Paul Lomami-Tshibamba of Congo (Brazzaville) wrote Ngando le crocodile (1948; “Ngando the Crocodile”; Eng. trans. Ngando), a story rooted in African tradition. Faralako: roman d’un petit village africaine (1958; “Faralako: Novel of a Little African Village”), by Emile Cissé, is an early Guinean novel that examines African tradition and Western technology. Jean Malonga, born in Congo (Brazzaville), wrote Coeur d’Aryenne (1954; “Heart of Aryenne”), an anticolonial novel. Traditional African society is the primary concern of the novels Le Fils du fétiche (1955; “The Son of Charm”), by David Ananou of Togo, and Crépuscule des temps anciens (1962; “Twilight of the Ancient Days”), by Nazi Boni of Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso).
In Madagascar the journal La Revue de Madagascar (founded in 1933) encouraged writing by Malagasy writers and included the poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, whose La Coupe de cendres (1924; “Cutting the Ashes”) and Sylves (1927; “Forests”) were collections of poetry that sought to blend French and Malagasy cultural traditions and that shared many of the themes later taken up by the Negritude movement. Other early poets writing in French in Madagascar include Elie-Charles Abraham, E. Randriamarozaka, and Paul Razafimahazo. Édouard Bezoro produced one of the first Malagasy novels: La Soeur inconnue (1932; “The Unknown Sister”), a historical novel about the conflict between the French and the Merina (Hova) state in Madagascar at the turn of the 20th century. Michel-Francis Robinary founded the newspaper L’Éclair de l’Emyrne and wrote poetry collected in Les Fleurs défuntes (1927; “Dead Flowers”).
After World War I, many of the Africans who had served in the French army remained in France, bringing pressure on the country to end colonialism and political assimilation. They met with blacks from the United States, and the result was a new concern with and pride in African cultural identity. This acknowledgement of blackness—of black roots, black history, and black civilizations—became part of the struggle against colonialism and evolved, under the tutelage of Léopold Senghor of Senegal, Aimé Césaire of Martinique, and Léon-Gontran Damas of French Guiana, into the movement that became known as Negritude. Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939; Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, or Return to My Native Land) and Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948; “Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry of the French Language”) are among the important works of this movement, as is Senghor’s own poetry, including Chants d’ombre (1945; “Songs of the Shade”) and Éthiopiques (1956). The struggle had earlier been waged in such short-lived journals as Légitime défense (1932; “Legitimate Defense”) and L’Étudiant noir (1935; “The Black Student”). In 1947 the journal Présence africaine (“African Presence”) was inaugurated; it would play a significant role in the encouragement and development of Francophone writing.
Birago Diop of Senegal wrote poetry (e.g., Leurres et lueurs [1960; “Lures and Gleams”]), some of which emphasizes its connections with the ancestral African past. In Madagascar Jacques Rabemananjara wrote verse, collected in such volumes as Sur les marches du soir (1942; “On the Edges of the Evening”), and plays, including Les Dieux malgaches (1947; “The Malagasy Gods”), that were part of the Negritude movement. Bernard Binlin Dadié of Côte d’Ivoire wrote the autobiographical Climbié (1956; Eng. trans. Climbié), a novel dealing with traditional African society and the modern world, as well as drama and lyrical poetry. Fily Dabo Sissoko of Mali emphasized African tradition in such works as Harmakhis: poèmes du terroir africain (1955; “Harmakhis: Poems of the African Land”) and Poèmes de l’Afrique noire (1963; “Poems from Black Africa”). Lamine Diakhaté of Senegal wrote Negritude poetry, as did the Senegalese Lamine Niang in Négristique (1968). David Diop of Senegal was a poet of protest in his Coups de pilon (1956; Hammer Blows). The Congolese poet Antoine-Roger Bolamba wrote Esanzo: Chants pour mon pays (1955; Esanzo: Songs for My Country), a collection of Negritude poetry.
In Côte d’Ivoire Anoma Kanie wrote love poetry (Les Eaux du Comoë [1951; “The Waters of the Comoë”]), as did Maurice Kone (La Guirlande des verbes [1961; “A Garden of Words”]). From Benin came such poets as Richard G. Dogbeh-David and Paulin Joachim. In Cameroon, Elolongué Epanya Yondo wrote Kamerun! Kamerun! (1960; “Cameroon! Cameroon!”), François Sengat-Kuo wrote Collier de cauris (1970; “Necklace of Cowry Shells”), and Jean-Paul Nyunaï wrote La Nuit de ma vie (1961; “The Darkness of My Life”). In Guinea prominent poets of the 20th century include Keita Fodeba, Mamadou Traoré (Ray Autra), and Condetto Nenekhaly-Camara. Other poets of the period include William J.F. Syad of Somalia and Toussaint Viderot Mensah of Togo. The novelist and poet Pierre Bamboté is among the Central African Republic’s most important writers of the 20th century. The Congolese writer Tchicaya U Tam’si published poetry dealing with colonialism (e.g., Epitomé [1962; “Epitome”] and Le Ventre [1964; “The Belly”]).
Sidiki Dembele of Mali wrote a novel, Les Inutiles (1960; “The Useless Ones”), urging African intellectuals to return to their traditional homes. Denis Oussou-Essui of Côte d’Ivoire published a novel in 1965 that also dealt with the strains between African tradition and urban life. Guinean Camara Laye wrote an autobiographical novel, L’Enfant noir (1953; The African Child). His most important publication was the novel Le Regard du roi (1954; The Radiance of the King), the story of Clarence, a white man, who, as he moves deeper and deeper into an African forest, is progressively shorn of his Western ways and pride. At his nadir, he begins anew, when, naked and alone, he embraces an ambiguous African king. Mongo Beti (a pseudonym of Alexandre Biyidi-Awala) of Cameroon wrote Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba), a story that deals with the complex relationship between Christianity and colonialism in Africa. His Mission terminée (1957; “The Finished Mission”; Eng. trans. Mission to Kala) treats the uneasy fit of traditional Africa and Western colonialism, and Le Roi miraculé (1958; Eng. trans. King Lazarus) depicts a generational struggle within the context of a quixotic view of African tradition. Another novelist from Cameroon, Benjamin Matip, wrote Afrique, nous t’ignorons (1956; “Africa, We Don’t Pay Attention to You”), which shows young people caught between the white man’s world and the traditional African world. Ferdinand Léopold Oyono, also a Cameroonian novelist, wrote Une Vie de boy (1956; “A Life of a Boy”; Eng. trans. Houseboy), the story of a boy, Toundi, who leaves his rural home and goes to the town of Dangan, where he becomes the servant for a French commandant and his wife. Toundi undergoes a type of puberty rite of passage as his experiences among the whites slowly reveal to him the masks that cover their religion, their justice system, and their family ideals. Oyono also wrote Le Vieux nègre et la médaille (1956; The Old Man and the Medal) and Chemin d’Europe (1960; The Road to Europe). The novels of Francis Bebey—Le Fils d’Agatha Moudio (1967; Agatha Moudio’s Son), La Poupée ashanti (1973; The Ashanti Doll), and Le Roi Albert d’Effidi (1976; King Albert)—show the influence of African oral tradition in their style and themes. In the earliest of those novels, a man falls in love, but his society clings to a tradition that will not allow him to marry the woman of his choice.
Ousmane Sembène was a major film director and a significant novelist. Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God’s Bits of Wood), his greatest novel, describes the last gasp of colonialism through the story of a railroad strike. In it Bakayoko is the spokesman for a future that will combine African humanism and European technology. The characters Fa Keïta, Penda, and Ramatoulaye are all committed to change; each one is involved in the strike, and each also demonstrates dignity and eloquence. Fa Keïta retains his nobility in the face of torture, Penda in the face of ostracism, and Ramatoulaye in the face of enormous want and deprivation. Through it all stands Bakayoko, who single-mindedly pursues change, although he understands that change cannot be abrupt; it must be anchored in the past. Hence his concern for tradition, of which the novel’s women are symbols. Seydou Badian Kouyaté of Mali wrote a play about the Zulu leader Shaka: La Mort de Chaka (1962; The Death of Shaka). Aké Loba of Côte d’Ivoire wrote Kocoumbo, l’étudiant noir (1960; “Kocoumbo, the Black Student”), which treats the negative efforts of France on traditional African values. His Les Fils de Kouretcha (1970; “The Sons of Kouretcha”) is a study of the effects of industrialization on traditional societies. Olympe Bhêly-Quénum of Benin wrote the novel Un Piège sans fin (1960; Snares Without End), which focuses on the African traditional past. The Senegalese writer Sheikh Hamidou Kane wrote L’Aventure ambiguë (1961; Ambiguous Adventure), a novel that considers the African and Muslim identity of its main character, Samba, within the context of Western philosophical thought. In his novel Le Soleil noir point (1962; “The Sun a Black Dot”), Charles Nokan of Côte d’Ivoire deals with efforts to bring a nation to freedom.
In Africa’s postindependence period, similar themes persisted but were readjusted to conform to worlds in which new societies were being forged. Many French-language novels of the last decades of the 20th century deal with familial struggles within a traditional society that can never again be the same. Maimouna Abdoulaye of Senegal wrote Un Cri du coeur (1986; “A Cry from the Heart”), a novel dealing with women living in an indifferent male society. Josette Abondio of Côte d’Ivoire is the author of Kouassi Koko…ma mère (1993; “Kouassi Koko…My Mother”), a novel about a woman whose existence narrows with the death of her male partner. Marie Thérèse Assiga-Ahanda of Cameroon wrote the novel Sociétés africaines et “High Society” (1978; “African Societies and ‘High Society’”), a story about two people returning to their country after colonialism, only to find a new kind of colonialism—an internal kind. Marie-Gisèle Aka of Côte d’Ivoire wrote Les Haillons de l’amour (1994; “The Remnants of Love”), a novel having to do with a girl’s difficulties with her father. A novel written in 1990 by Philomène Bassek of Cameroon deals with the plight of a mother of 11 children who has a harsh husband. Poverty and the upper classes preoccupy Aminata Sow Fall of Senegal in Le Jujubier du patriarche (1993; “The Patriarch’s Jujube”). The Gabonese writer Justine Mintsa writes of tragic life in a contemporary African village in a novel published in 2000.
The relationship between Africa and Europe remained a theme through the end of the 20th century. Aïssatou Cissokho, a Senegalese writer, in Dakar, la touriste autochtone (1986; “Dakar, the Native Tourist”), depicts a character returning from Europe and finding things much the same in Dakar. In a 1999 novel, the Cameroonian novelist Nathalie Etoké tells the story of an African who is an illegal immigrant in Paris. A young African woman in Paris is the focus of Gisèle Hountondji in Une Citronnelle dans la neige (1986; “Lemongrass in the Snow”). Henri Lopes is a Congolese novelist, as is Maguy Kabamba, who wrote La Dette coloniale (1995; “The Colonial Debt”), depicting Africa and Europe as seen through the eyes of a young African student.
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