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Lars Eckstein (ed.

English Literatures
Across the G lobe
A Companion

Wilhelm Fink Verlag


IV. West Africa
Katrin Berndt

1. lnt roduct ion

The phrase 'West African Literature in English' is a general term introduced to categorise
literary traditions within an area covering five countries with a tradition in anglophone
writing: Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Together, these states have
a population of about 140 million. Each of the five countries is inhabited by a number of
peoples. Some of these, like the Ogoni in the Niger Delta, count only half a million mem-
bers, others, like the Igbo in South Eastern Nigeria, amount to 20 million. Their narrative
traditions are as manifold as their cultural heritages. In Gambia, oral literature is still much
more popular than written texts, and the number of published anglophone authors is
small. In contrast, Nigeria, whose population consists of more than 200 linguistically
heterogeneous peoples speaking about twice that many languages and dialects, has pro-
duced a highly diversified literary tradition.
A recurrent problem in any overview of African literature is that of structure and em-
phasis: Should a survey privilege general ideas and characteristics of the writing of the
region, thus perpetuating the notion of a fairly coherent body of West African writing?
Or should an account respect national boundaries and, consequently, treat the texts cho-
sen for analysis as representatives of their respective national literatures? All of the nations
in question are a product of colonialism - as is anglophone writing. Since the main body
of texts was published after the countries' political independence, and since many writers
specifically refer to and discuss problems of post-independent status, anational approach
would seem to be justified. Such an approach clearly stresses the heterogeneity of the
countries themselves and their literary traditions. But there are shared features as weil,
which will be dealt with at the beginning of each section.
A twofold strategy will thus be pursued: both historical context and literary overview
first discuss common aspects and comparable developments in these five countries. Then,
separate portrayals outline distinctive characteristics. As the majority of anglophone West
African writing was produced by Ghanaian and Nigerian authors, their work is given
greater prominence and will feature in the analyses of key texts.
Within the field of world literature written in English, West African writing as it exists
today has diversified into various genres and styles, and has yielded a number of accom-
plished, and acclaimed, writers - a fact, however, that needs to involve awareness of the
whole question of language (after all, given the nature of the present book, literatures in
vernacular languages are not discussed). In contrast to anglophone authors from settler
colonies such as Australia, or from countries with an established writing tradition in non-
European languages, such as India, African writers, when they write in their respective
mother tongues, face the problem that their work is hardly recognised, not even in their
own countries. The l 960s and 1970s witnessed an African debate, mainly between Chinua
Achebe (Nigeria) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya), about the appropriate mode of expres-
sion for an African writer. Achebe acknowledged anglophone literature as a consequence
of colonialism, which incorporates its ambiguous legacies, but is also fit to challenge them.
62 IV. West Africa

Ngugi, on the other band, criticised this attitude and has since advocated African writing
in African languages (somewhat inconsistently, as he himself keeps translating bis writing
from Kikuyu into English). Ngugi's and Achebe's varied approaches reflect the different
functions of English in Africa: While East African states use Swahili as a lingua franca,
pidginised English is the language of daily usage in anglophone West African countries.
Non-standardised versions of English were already introduced during colonial occupation
- e.g., for trading purposes (the contact pidgins), or, via the Bible, when West Indian and
African American missionaries spread the Christian gospel. Anglophone writing has thus
become a genuine mode of West African expression - a consequent complement to texts
both in the vernacular and in linguistically hybrid poetry and prose.

2. Historical and Political Contexts

The first contacts between European envoys and West African people took place as early
as the 15th century. In the 1440s, the Portuguese established a trading post on the West
African coast and began to traffic in slaves. Two hundred years later, the British built their
first trade fort on St. James Island in the Gambia River. Although they had initially
traded with gold and spices, the need for labourers in the Americas promised to become
a much more profitable business. During the era of the Atlantic slave trade (roughly 1500
to 1850) between 12 and 20 million people were either abducted or sold, and brought to
the Americas. Fragmented political conditions on the West African coast, as well as hos-
ti!ities between the then existing countries, worked in favour of the slave traders. Part of
the region of present-day Ghana, for example, was occupied by numerous chiefdoms,
each one an independent political unit. At the end of the 16th century, the kingdom of
Benin, situated in the south-western part of today's Nigeria, had risen to great political
power and was thus able to prevent slave traders from abducting its citizens. States such
as Asante and Dahomey played a more active role in the slave trade. In order to protect
their own population and to gain a share in the profits, they agreed to capture citizens of
other communities, and to sell them to slave traders. In return, they received firearms and
other goods, both to defend themselves and to guarantee the stability of their states (Mabe
2001, 557). From 1750 onwards, sub-Saharan Africa's partition in the world economy
consisted of the 'export' of human beings. As a centre of the slave trade, the West African
coast witnessed such consequences as the rise of warrior chiefs profiting from the trade,
the distribution of firearms, and an increasing influence of European powers on African
affairs - consequences that have shaped African politics until the present. Another, al-
beit indirect, result of the slave trade was the British abo!itionist movement, which pur-
sued the settlement ('re-settlement', in their view) of former African American slaves on
the African coast. These creolized 'repatriates' formed the first urban, literate elite of West
Africa. Anglophone literature has repeatedly taken up the issue of the slave trade: Authors
like Olaudah Equiano (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789;
see chapter 3, Britain), Ayi Kwei Armah (Two Thousand Seasons, 1973), and Syl Cheney-
Coker (The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, 1990) offer autobiographical, historical,
and subjective accounts of the era of the slave trade, thus introducing African perspectives
on its course and its effects.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain concentrated its efforts on profitable trade rela-
tions. In 1880, around 80% of the African continent was still ruled by African kings,
2. Historical and Political Contexts 63
queens, lineage rulers and community representatives. European influence was restricted
to a few trading posts on the coast. Political systems indigenous to the region covered
acephalous societies (e.g., Nigeria's Igbo communities), town and city states (e.g., those
founded by the Yoruba in Nigeria), people with tribal structures (e.g., the Ewe of Ghana),
and !arge empires, such as Asante and Dahomey. Missionary activities that entailed the
promotion of formal education, such as the founding of Fourah Bay College in 1827 in
Sierra Leone, and the establishment of elementary and secondary schools in Nigeria and
ehe Gold Coast, were welcomed by African rulers (Boahen 1985, 6). In the second half
of the 19th century, the new, formally educated elite began to send their children to Eu-
ropean universities; economic structures had started to recover after the abolition of the
slave trade, and Africans had successfully switched to an economy based on the export
of cash crops (Boahen 1985, 6). Between 1880 and 1930, however, European powers
conquered and divided the whole of Africa, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia.
Despite African peoples' often ferocious resistance, colonial powers appropriated politi-
cal rule to guarantee themselves the means to control and exploit the continent's rich
natural resources, which had become essential for the further technological advancement
of European nations. After three centuries dominated by trade relations with Europe,
Africans found themselves subjected to foreign rule.
Since the emergence of anglophone writing is closely connected to the introduction of
British institutions of formal education, it is remarkable to note that the British colonial
administration confined itself to the building of primary schools. The first secondary
school for African pupils was opened in 1927 in the Gold Coast. The gap between the
first appearance of anglophone writers at the end of the 19th century, who belonged to
the Creole elites of their respective countries and had access to singular institutions such
as Fourah Bay College, and the growing number of English publications in the years
prior to independence, thus becomes comprehensible.
During the few decades of occupation, traditional British aversion to centralised rule
led to the promotion of local and regional authorities, who collaborated with the colo-
nial power within the indirect-rule system. This method created loyalty towards the
Empire and helped to establish administrative structures - modelled, of course, on British
ideas - but also supported the emergence since the 1930s of autonomous organisations
such as trade unions and political parties. In Nigeria, the first parties were founded in the
1920s, and local institutions participated in government as early as 1922; Ghana's 'The
Gold Coast Youth Council', founded in 1937, was entirely devoted to the achievement
of political independence; in the famous 'women's war' of 1929, Igbo warnen protested
against the government's taxation plans and against the corrupt warrant chiefs appointed
by the indirect rule system. In the wake of World War II, more nationalist parties were
founded and independence movements flourished, boosted by African soldiers' contribu-
tion to their colonisers' freedom. In 1957, Ghana was the first African colony to gain
independence, soon to be followed by other former British colonies.
Although Britain's former West African territories share a number of similarities, their
distinctive features, which have also shaped their national literatures, should not be ne-
glected. The following passages give a brief survey of these nations' individual develop-
ments, including the post-independence period during which the majority of anglophone
West African writing was produced.
Founded by freed African American slaves in 1847, and a formally independent coun-
try since that time, Liberia is now one of the most prominent examples of what is called
A
IV. West Africa

a collapsed state. From the establishment of the state up until 1989, Liberian politics were
dominated by the descendants of the African American founders, called Americo-Libe-
rians, who controlled the country's resources and the profits gained from mining (iron
ore, diamonds, gold), extensive rubber plantations, and the export of tropical timbers. In
1980, a group of soldiers seized power in a coup d'etat and shot members of the govern-
ment and the Americo-Liberian elite on Monrovia beach. The new rulers redistributed
positions and wealth among the members of their people and transformed the militia into
an elite force that committed human rights abuses against Liberians of other ethnic groups.
Henceforth, the economy collapsed and state institutions were reduced to mere fa~ades.
In 1989, another attempted military coup turned into an atrocious civil war, which cost
200,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands to leave their country. A peace agreement
in 1996 and elections in 1997 brought only two years' rest, since the ruling army forces
and rivalling warlords continued to plunder Liberia. In 2003, another peace treaty brought
an armistice. However, after two decades of civil war, which left the country exploited
and devastated by military troops and warlords, the majority of the civil population has
left the country. At present, the census counts an estimated population of about 2.9 mil-
lion people (Mabe 2001, 347). The continuing outbreaks of violence, uprisings and loot-
ings, and the fact that most resources are still controlled by former warlords, have not
supported the development of a literary scene. 1
Gambia has a population of 1.3 million people (Mabe 2001, 206). Named the 'ground-
nut colony' in colonial days for its main export article, the land plays, compared to the
literary giant Nigeria, only a minor role in West African literature. The country became
a British crown colony in 1843, and a British protectorate in 1894. Subsequently, power
was transferred to local rulers. Following World War II, new political parties emerged,
and in 1965 Gambia was granted political independence. Between 1982 and 1989, the
country formed a confederation called Senegambia with its neighbour Senegal, which was
supposed to lead to a union of currency and of customs, but this broke apart due to diverse
political disagreements. Gambia's current president, Yayah Jammeh, was elected as both
Head of State and Head of Government in 1997 after he had successfully led a bloodless
coup against the former ruler. The elections saw no violent outbreaks or irregularities, yet
the present political situation can hardly be described as peaceful: During a student dem-
onstration in 2000, for instance, 16 people were shot by security forces. Opposition
party members and journalists were harassed, imprisoned, and tortured. In 2002, Presi-
dent Jammeh was re-elected and has since attempted to tackle corruption and to further
the country's economic development.
The founding of Freetown by former African American and Caribbean slaves and
British prostitutes in 17872 marked the first step towards the development of the state
Sierra Leone. The so-called 'repatriation' of freed slaves and the Black British proletari-
at was initiated by the abolitionist movement. The British government hoped to establish

In 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Liberia's new president and Africa's first elected female head of
state. She has promised to maintain peace and to fight corruption.
During the US-American war of independence, a considerable number of slaves had fled to Nova
Scotia to demonstrate their loyalty to the British crown. They were brought to England after the end
of the war, where their accommodation soon became a prob lern. U nder the influence of the Abolition-
ist movement, the government decided to settle these people on the West African coast. Together with
British prostitutes, who were meant to become their wives, the African Americans were brought to the
coast of today's Sierra Leone and occupied the Western Province in and around Freetown (Ki-Zerbo
1992, 247).
2. Historical and Political Contexts ~c

trading posts which, after the official abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807, would
further the shift from traffic in human beings to trade in goods. The region's various local
peoples, however, reacted with hostility to this arbitrary establishment of a new colony.
With British support, the descendants of the new settlers, now called Krio, soon gained
political dominance over the indigenous population. The colony was administered by the
Sierra Leone Company, founded in 1791, until the country became a crown colony in
1808. In 1896, the hinterland was also declared a British protectorate, but the main set-
tlement of industry was concentrated in the regions inhabited by the Krio, who also
controlled the profits gained from the trade with gold and diamonds. Following World
War II, the British government introduced an election system based on the Westminster
model and initiated the first elections for the legislative council. In 1961, Sierra Leone was
granted independence. Six years later, the country faced its first coup d'etat, which re-
sulted in military rule and, in 1978, was followed by the establishment of a one-party
state. Responding to the demands of the population, one-party rule was declared to be
abolished with free elections in 1992, yet the years of autocracy had already turned Si-
erra Leone into a failed state where mismanagement and corruption were rife. Taking
advantage of the deteriorating living conditions, army rebels seized power and overturned
the government. The 1990s were shaped by continual conflict, interrupted only by failed
peace negotiations and changes of government, all of which proved unable to stop the
violence. During the civil war, about one-third of the population fled the country, and
thousands of children were forced to join the militia. The year 2002 finally saw the official
end of the war and free elections. In the same year, a Truth and Reconciliation Commis-
sion was established to identify those responsible for the atrocities committed during the
civil war. Today, Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world- its 4.3 million
people have an average life-expectancy of only 38 years (Mabe 2001, 553).
Beginning in the late 15th century, several European powers, such as Portugal, Den-
mark, Germany, Sweden and France, built trading posts on the Gold Coast, later Ghana.
Slaves, cocoa and gold served as the main export 'goods', and states such as the Asante
kingdom were profitably involved in selling both prisoners of war and capturing citizens
of neighbouring chiefdoms. In 1874, however, the Asante kingdom was conquered by the
British, andin 1896, Britain integrated its territory into the Gold Coast colony. The resist-
ance of the educated middle dass, who had already developed their own political institu-
tions, to the 'indirect rulers' appointed by the colonisers was immense, because the rep-
resentatives installed by the colonial power were perceived as collaborators who had
profited from slave-trading. They were thus believed to be unfit to represent civil society
(Ki-Zerbo 1992, 486). In the first half of the 20th century, however, the Gold Coast wit-
nessed an economic upsurge. Living standards were comparatively high, attracting im-
migrants from both anglophone and francophone West African countries. Trade centres
like Kumasi were seen as an African EI Dorado. Nationalist movements arose soon after
World War II. A prominent figure was Ghana's later president Kwame Nkrumah, who
was mainly supported by youth and women's organisations and the urban population.
Nkrumah organised marches, demonstrations, and boycotts against European trade
goods to force price drops; he also sent music groups singing slogans and propaganda into
the remotest regions of the country. In 1957, the Gold Coast became independent and
re-christened itself Ghana. Nkrumah, who was elected prime minister, followed a social-
ist pan-Africanist policy, turned the country into a one-party state and declaring all op-
position activities illegal. He was overthrown in 1966 in a military coup. His downfall
-~--- ==~~=~---~= ~~=

~R IV. West Africa

marked the beginning of a period of alternating military and civil rule that was to last
three decades. In 1991, Ghana re-established both its multi-party system and its civil
government, which has since managed to build an extensive infrastructure and a function-
ing communications system for the country's 18.9 million citizens (Mabe 2001, 226,
228).
Because of its size and economic strength, Nigeria has become West Africa's leading
political power. The ethnic heterogeneity of its 110.8 million inhabitants (Mabe 2001,
449), however, has repeatedly displayed potential for self-destruction. Nigeria hosts about
200 different peoples, among whom the Igbo, the Yoruba, and the Hausa/Fulani are the
major nations. Nigeria was founded by the British colonisers as an administrative unit in
1914: The colony then comprised Lagos, the Southern Protectorates, and the Northern
Protectorate (whereby the Islamic feudalism of the Hausa/Fulani remained largely intact
during colonial occupation). This extremely heterogeneous combination has since been
responsible for a number of regional and religious conflicts, and for one of the numerous
African civil wars of the post-independent era.
The beginning of the Nigerian struggle for independence was shaped by two organisa-
tions: In the 1930s, Nnamdi Azikiwe founded the Igbo Nigerian Youth Movement, while
in 1945 Obafemi Awolowo established the Yoruba culture organisation Egbe Omou
Oduduwa. The latter fought for an autonomous Yoruba state within a Nigerian federa-
tion. The objective of these parties revealed the problem of culturally centred regionalism,
which was to become the reason for a number of attempts to re-structure the country
into an increasing number of federal states. At the time of its independence in 1960, Ni-
geria was still divided into three main regions: the Northern Region, inhabited by the
Islamic Hausa/Fulani, the South Western region of the Yoruba, who had a history of
self-reliant city states, and the Christianised South Eastern region of the Igbo. Since the
central government was dominated by the Islamic North, the Igbo declared themselves
and their region, rich in oil resources, independent, a step that caused the Biafra civil war
(1967-1970) and resulted in an estimated two million victims. After the defeat of the Igbo,
a fourth, so-called Mid Western region, was formed. Up until today, the number of coun-
ties has increased to thirty-six in order to prevent further secessionist attempts.
Since its independence, Nigeria has enjoyed only relatively brief periods of civil govern-
ment. Military coups have alternated with efforts to restore the republican system. In
1979, the military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo did a most extraordinary thing: he voluntar-
ily returned power to an elected civil government. The short period of civil rule was,
however, like others before, marked by corruption, mismanagement, and rigged elections.
In 1983, another military coup overthrew the government. In 1999, Obasanjo became
elected president of a civil government. At present, the country is still divided: ethnic and
religious conflicts between the wealthy southern and eastern regions and the poorer, Is-
lamic north continue to threaten the existence of the state.

3. West African Literature in English

The emergence of an anglophone literature in various regions of West Africa is a direct


result of African peoples' colonisation by the British empire. Missionaries introduced
an education system modelled on British institutions in a region whose only contact with
literacy had been through Islam, and whose only literate elite were Muslim clerics. The
3. West African Literature in English fi7
Christian confessions mainly attracted African women and young men who had the most
to gain from this new belief; in the early colonial period, Christianity was associated with
a new generation, cultural change, and with a new way of acquiring knowledge (Iliffe
1995, 224). Subsequently, the English language was to become the medium of the edu-
cated, usually urban, elite who had concrete material interests in co-operating with the
coloniser's system of indirect rule. In the first half of the 20th century, however, English
was transformed into a means of furthering African nationalism beyond ethnic bounda-
ries. lt also established a pan-Africanist link between African American and West In-
dian intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and George Padmore, and African leaders such
as Kwame Nkrumah, Obafemi Awolowo, andJomo Kenyatta, who propagated a some-
what idealised vision of African unity. This idea inspired the struggle for independence.
Apart from its adaptation as a literary language, English has also always served a politi-
cal and cu!tural function. And while Africans found creative ways to integrate their
polytheistic past into Christian practise, they also used the coloniser's language to found
newspapers that supported their struggle for political se!f-determination; in a similar
way, African literature in English adopted European narrative genres and adapted them
to African needs.
African literature in English is largely a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th
century, a!though sporadic publications came out before the former colonies' independ-
ence. Literary criticism usually divides African literature into three phases: first, the pe-
riod of cultural nationalism, where publications support independence movements and
attempt to 'write back' to colonial misconceptions of African cultures. The second phase
is characterised by a rising post-independence disillusionment that criticises abounding
corruption and mismanagement. This period is further distinguished by the emergence
of women writers who complete the literary fabric with female perspectives. The third,
and present phase, comprises a growing variety, both of narrative styles - such as magical
realism, distorted plots, hybridised subjectivities, self-reflexivity, irony and satire - and
of thematic concerns, such as exile/immigration experiences, modernist individualism,
postmodern portrayals of the construction of history, values, and knowledge, intra-gen-
erational conflicts, and the critique of the neo-patrimonial state.
The following brief survey of anglophone publications from Gambia, Sierra Leone and
Liberia, is aimed at providing an integral account of West African literature in English.
In contrast to their smaller neighbours, Nigeria and Ghana have, since independence,
produced a considerable amount of anglophone writing, depicted in greater detail here.
Orature has long surpassed the cu!tural importance of written fiction in Gambia. Its
bards and storytellers, the griots/griottes, are highly respected members of their com-
munities, and function as living keepers of cultural memory. Since the break up of the
confederation of Senegambia in 1989, however, Gambia has been trying to stress its po-
litical independence from its !arger neighbour Senegal. While, in 1989, the Gambian au-
thor Lenrie Peters could still claim that the English language "isn't in the country to any
depth" (Peters 1989, n.p.), the past 15 years have seen a turn towards anglophone writing,
in contrast to Senegal's francophone orientation, as part of the creation of a national
identity. A!though the number of Gambian publications is small, and many texts have a
distinctively didactic character, the importance of English as a unifying lingua franca is
beyond question, and as long as it is "employed in the service of an African sensibility"
(Sallah 2005, n.p.), anglophone writing is perceived as a contribution to the Gambian
nation-building process.
IV. West Africa

The first author who can be called Gambian, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), gained a
reputation as an African American writer after she was abducted at the age of eight and
taken to North America as a slave. At a time when the intellectual capacities of Black
people were a subject of serious speculation (Sallah 1992, 27), Wheatley's wit and talent
triumphed over adverse circumstances. Her poems dwelled on religious piety, but also
recalled romantically memorialised notions of Gambia, which is evoked as a heavenly
place: "Charm'd with thy painting, how my bosom bums! / And pleasing Gambia on my
soul returns / With native grace in spring's luxurious reign / Smiles the gay mead, and
Eden blooms again [...]" (Wheatley 1786, 13). Although Wheatley never openly con-
demned slavery, an omission which has provoked sharp criticism of her work in recent
times, her artistic genius has always received critical acclaim. Permeated with Biblical and
Greek references, Wheatley's neoclassical poems are somewhat influenced by an attitude
of cultural superiority that is also often found among the Krio and Americo-Liberian
elite, who adapted colonial ideas of civilization and thus believed themselves to be more
advanced than the indigenous population of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Despite Wheat!ey's
devout acknowledgment of having being saved "from my Pagan land" (Wheatley 1786,
18), her implicit insistence on human equality proves to be extraordinary for an African
woman brought up in an era that hardly supported the development of Black self-confi-
dence (see eh. XII, United States of America).
Wheatley's success has lang remained a singular phenomenon in Gambian writing.
Subsequent publications did not appear until around the time of independence in 1965.
In 1960, William Conton published his semi-autobiographical novel The African, which
became a bestseller in many African countries. lt was among the first literary texts to deal
with the psychological impact of European colonialism. In 1971 Lenrie Peters, often re-
ferred to as the "paterfamilias of Gambian !iterature" (Brown 1992, 2), became founding
editor of the literary magazine Ndaanan, which provided a forum for Gambia's budding
writers. Gambia also featured indirectly on the literary and cultural scene in 1976, as the
setting of Alex Haley's novel Roots.
British culture has left a deep imprint on Gambia; its emerging national literature relies
heavily on English literary forms and genres, but enhances these epigones with local and
regional cultural allusions, references to Gambian history and typically Gambian con-
cerns. lt also uses the Gambian landscape as a !iterary setting. In a recently published
online article, Tijan M. Sallah Stresses the fact that anational literature "must of necessity
be [...] written in English" because "ethnic texts have not broken parochial boundaries to
permeate the understanding of other ethnic groups in the Gambian nation" and, thus,
"they cannot be called national literature" (Sallah 2005, n.p.). Historical novels like Ebou
Dibba's Chaff an the Wind (1986) and Nana Grey-Johnson's I of Ebony (1997) have laid
the foundations for a reinvention of history from a Gambian point of view, and collections
of poetry like The Repeal by Juka Fatou Jabang et al. (2005) discuss social imbalances
between the sexes. Lenrie Peters' poems (Katchikali, 1971) seek to explore the mysteries
of the country's spiritual legacy, thus paving the way for a distinctively national Gam-
bian !iterature.
An early representative of Sierra Leonean writing is Adelaide Casely-Hayford (1868-
1960). Born to English and Fanti parents, she belonged to the aforementioned Krio dass
and committed herself to the empowerment of African education in general, and that of
African warnen in particular. Her short story "Mista Courifer," published by Langston
Hughes in his collection An African Treasury (1960), portrays an African ' mimic man'
3. West African Literature in English 6
who is anxious to copy his English role models. Casely-Hayford's ironic distance from
Krio culture, which had always emphasised its British heritage, also becomes visible in
her autobiography Reminiscences (1953 ), which demonstrates an unusual degree of con-
fident self-awareness rooted in her role as an African woman.
The first decades of independence witnessed the emergence of national writing by
authors like Syl Cheney-Coker, Abioseh Nicol, Yulisa Amadu Maddy, Sarif Easmon,
Aminatta Forna, and Gladys May Casely-Hayford. The double heritage of the Krio, who
have always felt a strong attachment to the culture of the British colonisers and played
down their African roots, has significantly shaped post-independent writing, as has the
exile's point of view (Izevbaye 2004, 498). Another distinguishing feature of Krio writing
is its disapproval of ethnic loyalties. Compared to, for instance, Wole Soyinka's writing
- which is imbued with his Yoruba culture - and the novels of Chinua Achebe - which
are committed to a portrayal of the history and society of the Igbo - the descendants of
'repatriated' slaves usually distance themselves from ethnic engagement but stress a pan-
Africanist, cosmopolitan attitude. A typical example is Abioseh Nicol (1924-1994 ), who
also published under his pseudonym Davidson Nicol and was one of the most versatile
Sierra Leonean writers. The trained physician became the first Black person to be elected
a fellow at Cambridge U niversity. His writings consist of short stories (The Truly Married
Woman, 1965; Two African Tales, 1965), which draw a picture of the customs of Krio
society, and poems. Gladys May Casely-Hayford (1904-1950), the daughter of Adelaide
Casely-Hayford, published poems in both English and Krio (Take 'um So, 1948), while
Yulisa Amadu Maddy (born 1936), a critic, writer and playwright, uses pidgin English
and adapts African proverbs and ritualistic theatre forms to problematise corruption and
intricate social structures (Killam and Rowe 2005, n.p.). Another expatriate Krio poet and
critic was Lemuel A. Johnson (1941-2002), whose poems in Highlife for Caliban (1973)
follow the rhythm of traditional Krio songs in order to catch the spirit of Krio life in
Freetown. Aminatta Forna, born to a Sierra Leonean father and a Scottish mother in 1964,
belongs to the younger generation of writers. Her novel The Devil That Danced an the
Water (2002) is an autobiographic account of her country's transition from post-inde-
pendent democracy to dictatorship. By far the most accomplished Sierra Leonean writer
is Syl Cheney-Coker. Born in 1945, he belongs to the group of West African writers who
have made magical realism a central technique for telling stories of abduction and 'repa-
triation', for illuminating the connections between the spiritual and the mundane, and for
tracing subjective experience beyond chronologically narrated history. His Krio heritage
displays a recurrent motif in his poems; it provides access to European art and culture
and liberates him from local intricacies, but also prevents emotional attachment to his
roots, which causes an identity crisis: "Go on laugh / at my ancestry / which put the sick-
ness / in my head beautiful / like the sea / which vomited me out! / 1 think of Sierra
Leone / and my madness torments me / all my strange traditions / the plantation blood
in my veins / my foul genealogy!" (Cheney-Coker 1980, 7). Cheney-Coker has published
several collections of poetry, but his main literary work is the magical-realist novel The
Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990), in which he creates a mythical past for the
settler community of Sierra Leone. Spanning the era of slave trade, life on the American
plantations, and the return to African soil, where the estranged 'repatriates' soon find
themselves in conflict with the local population, the novel is set in a space in between the
realms of the ancestors and the living. The supernatural is employed to evoke contempo-
rary society's psychological complexities.
.., IV. West Africa

Liberia has so far produced only a small number of anglophone writers, all of whom
presently live in exile. Among them is the novelist, poet and playwright Bai T. Moore, whose
poems (Ebony Dust, 1963) are informed by the rhythm of Gola folk songs. The former head
of state Wilton Sankawulo's novel Sundown at Dawn (2005) explores the devastating impact
of Liberian corruption, deceit and political self-service, and emphatically demands a return
to responsible leadership and ideals of public welfare. Sakui W.G. Malakpa's novel The
Village Boy (2002) uses social satire and elements of the Bildungsroman to discuss social
problems. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley's poems (Before the Palm Could Bloom, 1998; Becoming
Ebony, 2003) won her the Crab Orchard Award in Poetry in 2002, and are typical exile
writings inflected by reminiscences of a lost home. At the same time, they are blunt portraits
of the atrocities of war, telling of rape, murder, and loss. Wesley, however, confronts death:
her poems create lyrical spaces where suffering is turned into a strength that proclaims "to
be alive still is such a matter for dancing" (Wesley 2003, 54 ).
Ghanaian writing in English begins with the publication of Ottobah Cugoano's slave
narrative Thoughts (1787), a testimony reaching from the author's childhood experiences
to his eventual liberation and life in Britain. Much like the writings of Olaudah Equiano
and Harriet Jacobs, bis account represents an act of empowerment in a dehumanising
situation. Joseph Casely-Hayford's (1866-1930) novel Ethiopia Unbound (1911) is an-
other work that bears strong autobiographical inflections and presents a characteristic
piece of early African literature. Influenced by the writer's own experiences, the novel
subordinates narrative and aesthetic concerns to an urgent, emancipatory emphasis on
moral and political messages. Casely-Hayford propagates a syncretic African culture
which combines Western technological developments with African communal institu-
tions and a welfare system based on the extended family (Lodge 2003, 8). His didactic
impulse, however, represents another constant trait in African writing (and its vernacular,
proverbial discourse generally), while bis insistence on the equality of Africa's cultures
broke the ground for the most distinctive feature of bis country's literature.
Ghanaian writing has always been distinguished by strong cu!tural self-confidence. By
contrast, the first Nigerian texts were still mainly informed by the endeavour to re-write
the colonial past. lts paterfamilias, Chinua Achebe, once claimed that an African author
bad to write to "teach bis readers that [...] precolonial days were not one long night of
savagery" (Achebe 1975, 45). Prior to independence, Ghanaian authors bad already devel-
oped a somewhat casual attitude towards European influences, which they undogmati-
cally integrated into their idea of cultural identity. Ghanaian writing has been directed less
at convincing a Western readership of African qualities than at creating a literature for the
Ghanaian people that did not seek to provide comfort by way of recalling precolonial
glory. Thus, historical novels such as Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons (1973) are
entirely devoted to Ghanaian issues rather than offering an 'other' or 're-written' perspec-
tive on European colonialism for the sake of self-reassurance. The cause for Ghanaian
confidence probably lies in the early dissemination of pan-Africanist ideas, which sprout-
ed their "most tenacious roots" (lzevbaye 2004, 476) in the former Gold Coast. Africans'
active involvement in the Atlantic slave trade has mainly been challenged by Ghanaian
authors, who discuss the responsibility of states like Asante, which profited from traffic
in human beings. lt seems safe to assume that Ghana did not need to mature beyond a
colonised 'other' identity, since it has always been acting as a 'Seif'.
A prominent example of the uninhibited literary appropriation of various traditions is
the work of the grand dame of Ghanaian theatre, Efua Theodora Sutherland (1924-1996 ).
3. West African Literatu re in English 71
Sutherland co-founded the cultural journal Okeyame in 1951, set up the Drama Studio
in Accra in 1960, established diverse theatre groups and writers' workshops, and found-
ed the Ghanaian Society of Writers. Her most successful play, The Marriage ofAnansewa
(1967), features the trickster figure Ananse, the spider, a cultural hero of the Akan people
of Ghana. The morally ambiguous trickster inhabits folktales and proverbs of various
peoples, and also appears in several pieces of anglophone West African writing, such as
Nkem Nwankwo's Danda (1964), Martin Owusu's The Story Ananse Told (1971), and
Mohammed ben Abdallah's Ananse and the Golden Drum (1994). Embodying character
traits such as greed, cunning, and ambition, Ananse "appears to represent a kind of Every-
man, artistically exaggerated and distorted to serve society as a medium for self-examina-
tion" (Sutherland 1987, 3). His eventual failure affords the audience an opportunity for
cathartic laughter about human vices. Sutherland's artistry, however, lies in her modifica-
tion of oral techniques designed to provoke community participation: The Marriage of
Anansewa features a storyteller who stands outside of the dramatic plot and mediates
between the actors and the audience, as well as Mboguo songs initiated by the storyteller
and sung by people from the audience.
In Ghana, as well as in other African countries, the optimism that had inspired writers
in the years around independence soon gave way to postcolonial disillusionment. The
failure of the pan-Africanist vision to build a strong, independent state soon became evi-
dent within the first decade after independence. Kwame Nkrumah's attempt to establish
a socialist state resulted in the country's economic decline, and abetted corruption, brib-
ery, and mismanagement. Acclaimed Ghanaian writers such as Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi
Awoonor, and Ama Ata Aidoo denounce the incompetence of Ghana's political elite and
translate the broken dreams and disappointments of the post-independence period into
a literature both psychologically complex and stylistically innovative. One of the most
bitter texts about the post-independence climate of resignation was written by Ayi Kwei
Armah (born 1939). His novel The Beautyful Ones Are not yet Born (1968) presents a
main character, Teacher, who is a typical incarnation of the alienated African intellectual
(Booker 1998, 106). He suffers from his society's moral depravity and their political lead-
ers' deceit: "How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders? [...] We were ready here for
big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunch-
es scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them unto our backs" (Armah 1968, 89).
Teacher's contempt for contemporary Ghana, whose leaders simply mimic the rapacious
manners of their former colonial rulers, finds expression in a dystopian narrative style
similar to George Orwell's in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) (Gakwandi 1992, 102-3).
Armah's Ghana is painted in images of decay; it wastes away in a hypocritical climate of
oppression and sexual violence. The ramifications of a morally shattered society have
remained the dominating theme of Armah's fiction. Fragments (1970) contains parts of
scripts and diary entries and thus echoes the distorted perception of its 'been-to' pro-
tagonist. In Two Thousand Seasons (1973), Armah travels back into Ghana's past to learn
about the causes of its present desolation. Told by a communal we-narrator who privi-
leges collective experiences, the historical novel resists the 1970s trend in African writing
to idealise precolonial cultures in an attempt to counter colonial epistemologies. lnstead,
it critically investigates the mythical beginnings of the region's first kingdoms, the period
of Islamic intervention, and the slave trade. The novel is one of the few African texts to
deal with the active involvement of Africans in the trade that enslaved their fellow coun-
trymen and -women.
..,„ IV. West Africa

Ama Ata Aidoo (born 1942) is another leading figure of contemporary Ghanaian writ-
ing. One of the most prominent feminists of African literature, Aidoo has published
novels, plays, short stories and poetry that feature women's perspectives on various issues
of society, including the experimental novel Our Sister Killjoy (1977) (dealt with in more
detail later). Her play The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965) - in which she, like Sutherland,
adapts techniques of Greek drama as well as African oral forms, such as proverbs - dram-
atises the story of love between a Ghanaian and his African American wife, who fails to
understand the customs of an extended family. Anowa (1970), based on a folk legend, teils
the story of a young woman who refuses to marry the man chosen for her and runs away
with her lover. Her lover-husband, however, turns out to be an impotent, dominating,
and materially ambitious character. Aidoo's latest novel, Changes (1991), again portrays
a woman trying to establish an independent life. Her persistent refusal to accept help and
advice from her family results in despair. Aidoo's narratives do not deny the right to
personal fulfilment, but they also refuse to endorse uninhibited individualism.
Kofi Awoonor (born 1935) has gained a reputation as one of Africa's leading poets. As
versatile as many other African writers, and as experienced in living in exile, he has writ-
ten plays, novels, and works of literary criticism. He engaged in "early adaptations of
traditional dirges into the major poetic statements on the colonial experience and the
neocolonial condition of Africa" (Izevbaye 2004, 493), while his experiments with verse
forms of praise and abuse from his Ewe culture "bring the African experience of Amer-
ica into focus and heighten the sense of alienation and nostalgia that are inherent in the
condition of the exile" (Izevbaye 2004, 477). In his novel This Earth, My Brother (1972),
which can be situated among the texts lamenting post-independence disillusionment, the
central characters display a cynical fatalism in the face of the sorry state of the nation.
Nigeria has produced the vast majority of anglophone West African writers, and its
cultural variety is reflected in the works of such distinguished authors as Wole Soyinka,
Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Zaynab Alkali, Flora Nwapa, Biyi Bandele-Thomas,
Ben Okri, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Arnos Tutuola, to name but the most prominent. Its
anglophone tradition was also launched by a slave narrative: Olaudah Equiano's The
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published in London in 1789
and became a bestseller, going into eight British editions and translated into several Eu-
ropean languages. Equiano supported the abolitionist cause, giving speeches in which he
demanded the end of slavery throughout Britain. He belongs to the small but remarkable
group of anglophone African intellectuals of the 1Sth and 19th century whose personal
fate and engagement laid the foundations not only for their literary descendants, but for
a reversal of the image of Africa(ns) in Europe (see eh. III, Britain). 3
In all of the countries considered here, there is a noticeable gap between the earliest
publications and the emergence of an anglophone writing tradition in the years surround-
ing independence. The anglophone Nigerian work of fiction that followed Equiano's
narrative was Arnos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), a recounting of the trav-
els of a chronic drinker who tries to find his palm-wine tapster and, on his quest, meets
several fantastic characters and pays a visit to the underworld. The novel is rooted in

In 1999, the critic Vincent Carretta claimed that Equiano was not born in Africa but, as a slave, in South
Carolina. He further suggested that Equiano's detailed descriptions of life in an African village were
inspired by his readings of European authors of his time who had visited the continent. Whether his
conclusions are true is still a matter of debate. However, Equiano's singular position as one of the first
African voices in European abolition discourse remains unchallenged.
3. West African Literature in English 7:-;t

Yoruba folk-tale traditions; Tutuola had directly transferred some popular Yoruba stories
into written English narrative form. A further early publication, the novel Things Fall
Apart by Chinua Achebe (born 1930), wem on, after its publication in 1958, to become
the most widely read work in African literature. lt is distinguished by its cultural nation-
alism and an attitude of 'writing back' to the colonial centre. The novels by Achebe that
followed, No langer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and Man of the People (1966),
depict subsequent periods of Igbo history, including the dramatic impact of colonisation
on political, economic, and social structures. His heroes are tragic figures who perceive
the transformation of their societies as a personal downfall. Throughout his writings,
Achebe's professed goal is to counter European representations of African cultures: The
chief impulse behind his fiction is to "give a voice to an African conception of history,
culture and humanity from a strictly African perspective, and [„.] to redress the miscon-
ceptions and distortions of the African image by colonial writers" (Breitinger 2002, 50).
Achebe's masterly translation of Igbo proverbs into English has inspired numerous Af-
rican writers, who adopted his mode in order to create a hybrid, modern, anglophone
African tradition.
With Wole Soyinka, Nigeria has produced the only Black African winner of the Nobel
Prize for Literature. A modern Renaissance man, Soyinka, born in 1934, has demon-
strated his versatile talents as poet, novelist, playwright, critic, actor, politician, publisher
and lecturer. His plays' "cyclical plots, sparse narrative content, !arge number of charac-
ters, characterisation that hardly elicits sympathy, cryptic language, symbolic music, [and]
oracular dance, sometimes by masked figures" (Ukala 2001, 135) derive from Yoruba
cosmology, which provides a fertile source for Soyinka's artistic explorations of both his
people's way of life and of global contexts. Born into a Christian family, but initiated into
Yoruba culture by his grandfather, Soyinka was raised in a climate that did not perceive
European and African concepts as dichotomous but as naturally integrated, and he re-
spected both traditions in a transcultural manner (Breitinger 1987, 69). Consequently, his
works are not determined by a 'writing back' attitude, nor do they seek consolation in
some romanticised African past. Also, the author is not interested in exploring the first
encounters between members of coloniser/colonised cultures: "Who remembers much
of these reactions now? I realise they were luxuries - the emotional responses I mean.
Who cares ultimately how those stupid master races reacted to you and me. The problem
now is to answer what is happening here" (Soyinka 1980, 233). Soyinka's heroes are lib-
eral individuals who struggle to uphold a humanist world-view. Their moral principles
are presented tacitly as inspiration for social change. The author does not believe in mass
movements, but in the responsibility - and in the capacities - of Africa's intellectual elite
(Stoll 2003, 209). Among his numerous publications are the plays Death and the King's
Horseman (1975), which fictionalises a historical event - the ritual suicide of the Oyo
king's horseman after the death of the king- and Opera Wonyosi (1977), an adaptation of
Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera; his autobiographical account Ake - Years of Child-
hood (1981), where Soyinka portrays the 'ideal fusion' of different Yoruba and Christian
traditions that have determined his life; and the novel The Interpreters (1965), which
features five young Nigerian intellectuals whose view of Nigerian society in the 1960s
presents a nation that still has to establish its prospective norms and values.
In terms of the total number of editions of her works, Buchi Emecheta, born in 1944,
is the most successful writer of sub-Saharan Africa. Married at an early age, Emecheta
accompanied her husband to London, where she gave birth to five children, and started
7 IV. West Africa

to write: The first manuscript, however, was burned by her husband. Emecheta left him
to raise her children alone, and has, to date, published twenty novels. Her seminal work,
The]oys of Motherhood (1979), echoes Achebe in dealing with the impact of colonialism
on African cultures. Her approach, however, bears no trace of a 'writing back' poetic:
her work is feminist in its emphasis on female perspectives and empowerment, and in
her successful exploration of women's roles and concerns in Nigerian history. Some of
her novels, including Kehinde (1994) and The New Tribe (2000), contribute to the emerg-
ing African-British literature and its focus on Black British identity, questions of belong-
ing, and cultural transgressions. The Joys of Motherhood nonetheless remains her most
popular work. The novel is a brilliant and subtle analysis of the slow but permanent
deterioration of the status of women in lgbo society during colonial occupation. lt is
somewhat representative for other African cultures in a period when women's eco-
nomic independence, and their familial and social means of exerting influence, were
eroded because the new economic system offered them no participation and thus ex-
cluded them from making profits. Women's economic role soon became perceived tobe
irrelevant, a change of perception that devalued their social Status. Emecheta demon-
strates this impact of economic and social transformations through the story of her
protagonist Nnu Ego. In rapidly changing conditions, she clings to the one thing in her
life that seems to have remained the same - her objective of devoted motherhood. Bur
the circumstances in which she is expected to live up to this task have changed, and she
fails to adapt the customs of her rural lgbo childhood to the dictates of a capitalist
economy.
Zaynab Alkali is, to date, the only female Nigerian writer with a Northern, Muslim
background. Born in 1955, she has published two novels (The Stillborn, 1984; The Virtu-
ous Women, 1987) and a book of short stories (The Cobwebs and Other Stories, 1990). A
mother of six children, she thematises the situation of women in lslamic society, yet
refuses to confirm Western notions of female oppression. Alkali's writing aims to dem-
onstrate women's means of empowerment and to emphasise and do justice to both female
objections and female objectives. As outlined in the collection of short stories Vultures
in the Air: Voices from Northern Nigeria (1996), which was edited by Zaynab Alkali, the
author has also committed herself to supporting the growth of a generation of writers
into narrators of the history and stories of Northern Nigeria (Ehling and Ripken 1997,
14-5 ). Her contribution complements the heterogeneous texture of Nigerian literature,
whose manifold themes, narrative modes, and artistic devices correspond to its various
cultural and religious roots.
A satirical mode of writing shapes the works of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer whose crea-
tive use of pidgin English earned him international repute. The author of novels, poems,
short stories, and scripts for TV shows, Saro-Wiwa was born in 1941 as a member of the
Ogoni people of the Niger Delta. Starting in the late 1980s, Saro-Wiwa was also politi-
cally engaged: He sought to draw attention to the environmental devastation of his peo-
ple's land, caused by reckless oil extraction, which destroyed the subsistence basis of
Ogoni life. The alliance of corrupt politicians and international oil companies feit threat-
ened by his non-violent protest: In 1995, Saro-Wiwa and several of his followers were
executed after a fake trial. Political consciousness also shapes his literary legacy, and his
anti-war novel Sozaboy (1985) gained him wide acclaim. Set in the Biafra war (1967-1970),
it explores the psychological impact of violence on an anti-hero protagonist, Mene, a
modern Simplicissimus who joins the army expecting an adventure, but finds himself
"7C
4. Readings of Key Texts

exposed to death, torture, disdain, and despair. The novel is completely written in what
the author himself called 'rotten English' - a creative fusion of Pidgin, indigenous Nige-
rian vocabulary and metaphors, and Standard English. Saro-Wiwa's experiments with
English have predecessors in Nigerian literature: Arnos Tutuola (The Palm-Wine Drink-
ard, 1954) and Gabriel Okara (The Voice, 1964) also incorporate pidginised English, yet
only partially apply dialect in their novels. Saro-Wiwa's innovation employs linguistic
variation as a mimesis of his young protagonist's naivety: He invites his readers to laugh
about 'sozaboy', but also with him. Mene's often simple-minded observations neither
gloss over the atrocities of war, nor place them in an intellectual perspective. Thus, his
experiences provoke immediate emotional response.
This section concludes with abrief survey of the works of Ben Okri, certainly one of
the most innovative of contemporary Nigerian story-tellers. Along with the Ghanaian
Kojo Laing and the Sierra Leonean Syl Cheney-Coker, the British-based Okri belongs
among those writers who have made prominent a distinctively West African version of
magical realism. In his Booker prize winning novel, The Famished Raad (1991), Okri teils
the story of a so-called abiku child- a child, according to Yoruba belief, who is born only
to die again. Representing an unfulfilled destiny, this spirit child follows an eternal circu-
lar path of birth and death. In his novel, Okri creates an individualised abiku named Azaro
who decides to break the cycle: "But this time, somewhere in the interspace between the
spirit world and the Living, 1 chose to stay. [... S]ometimes [I] think it was a face that made
me want to stay. 1 wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would
become my mother" (Okri 1992, 5). Okri's mythopoetic approach connects the world of
the living to that of the spirits. He weaves a tapestry of Nigerian past and present, thus
creating "a reality in its own right, a fantastical actuality where the dead are still alive, the
marvellous takes place in the ordinary, and the supernatural is an accepted part of every-
day life" (Wright 1997, 182). This spiritually enhanced reality is set in the time around
Nigeria's political independence. In multifarious tableaux, the sparse plot describes the
onset of modernity, a population suffering from poverty, and politicians whose ambitions,
directed entirely at increasing their own power and wealth, fail dramatically to contribute
to the construction of an independent nation. Eventually, Azaro realises that his nation
shares his abiku-state: it also inhabits an interspace, being "a spirit-child nation, one that
keeps being reborn and after each birth come blood and betrayals, and the child of our
will refuses to stay till we have made propitious sacrifice and displayed our serious intent
to bear the weight of a unique destiny" (Okri 1992, 494).

4. Readings of Key Texts

Colonial Legacies: ]oyce Cary, Mister Johnson (1939) and Chinua Achebe,
Things Fall Apart (1958)
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), one of the first West African novels in English,
not only enjoys classic status - it is still one of the most widely read texts of African lit-
erature - it also encompasses the dominant themes of the first phase of West African
writing. Achebe's novels accompany Nigeria's political independence in 1960, an attempt
to build a country on a preposterously heterogeneous foundation, to forge over 200 dif-
ferent peoples and twice as many languages and dialects into one postcolonial nation. In
7 IV. West Africa

Europe, the rise of the novel was closely connected with the birth of the nation-state and,
concomitantly, with the creation of national identity. As a literary genre, the novel is
perhaps the most foreign to African oral narrative traditions. Here, we find one of the
reasons for Achebe's persistent predominance: his seminal status in African !iterature
lies precisely in his ability to have realized that the novel provided a new way of reorganizing
African cultures, especially in the crucial juncture of transition from colonialism to national
independence, and his fundamental belief that narrative can indeed propose an alternative world
beyond the realities imprisoned in colonial and postcolonial relations of power. (Gikandi 1991,
3)

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe not only dramatised the first encounter between Igbo and
British missionaries - he wrote an Igbo version of these events which centred on the impact
of foreign domination on social, legal, political, and economic structures. Furthermore,
Things Fall Apart is a direct response to the British writer Joyce Cary's novel Mister John-
son (1939), whose African characters stand in the long tradition of European travel writing
and colonial reports drawing on misconceptions of the 'exotic' and 'other' (read odd)
Africans. Cary's four "foreign novels of Africa" (Echeruo 1973, 1) reflect to a certain extent
the ambivalences and paradoxes of colonial conquest, but fail to challenge the condescend-
ing and decidedly arrogant persuasion that lurks behind such benevo!ent phrases as "the
white man's burden" and "civilizing mission". In Mister Johnson, Cary portrays a young
African clerk who is employed in the colonial administration and builds his hopes for the
future on imaginative interpretations of artefacts of colonial culture such as "store cata-
logues, their fashion notes" and trashy romance novels. The "savage girl" whom Bama
Johnson marries and tries to introduce into a Europeanised mode of life belongs to this
naive vision, which the omniscient narrator mocks as being "a compound of romantic
sentiment and embroidered underclothes" (Cary 1975, 13). Fada, the northern Nigerian
district where the story is set, provides the location for both British attempts at moderni-
sation - exemplified in the construction of a railway- and Mr. Johnson's delusive ambi-
tions. To achieve a prominent position among his people, he runs into debt, embezzles the
railway company's money, and betrays those whom he had called his friends. Eventually
caught in the act of stealing, he kills a colonial officer, and is sentenced to death.
Mister Johnson illustrates the tragic impact of a colonisation that fails to keep the
promises of social and material promotion it made to those who were willing to adapt to
colonial ideology, and who thus participated in the degradation of their cu!ture. The
protagonist is depicted as a somewhat childish character who is unfit to absorb foreign
ideas and customs. While Johnson and his tragic death epitomise a schizophrenic colo-
nial reality that claims to pursue a civilising mission but is actually occupied with the
brutal exploitation of both colonised peoples and their natural resources, the general im-
age of Nigerians created in the novel has provoked much criticism. Africans are depicted
as lethargic, fatalistic, and driven by their attempt to fulfil transient desires which Jack the
ostensible moral depth of European aspirations. The text is rife with pejorative descrip-
tions employed to create an image of the colonised which purports to justify European
conquest; "a dirty child with a !arge sore on its chin is sitting on the largest rubbish heap
and holding a goat," for example, while two African men "are dawdling towards the shore,
holding themselves with crooked languor as if just out of hospital. Infinite boredom and
disgusted resignation are expressed in their languid, crippled progress" (Cary 1975, 25).
The attitude of the British officers toward their subjects reads as follows:
4. Readings of Key Texts 77
lt is the bush pagans who have never been outside the village before who are most eager to
show off their feats of acrobatic dancing and to drink the most beer. They have already, in five
hours, forgotten their dread and contempt of the stranger and their resolve to keep themselves
to themselves. In one afternoon they have taken the first essential step out of the world of the
tribe into the world of men. (Cary 1975, 160)

lt is thus - according to the observation of the 'lenient' British officer Rudbeck - contact
with European colonisation that introduces African people to humanity. lt is this dehu-
manising attitude, and the arbitrary construction of African peoples as inferior 'Others'
to Europeans, that Chinua Achebe angrily challenges. Through the main character of his
novel Things Fall Apart, an lgbo elder named Okonkwo, as weil as through the novel's
minor figures, Achebe unfolds the cosmology of his people. His figures personify the
various aspects of lgbo society, hence lending both an individual and a communal voice
to their culture, as weil as an insider perspective on the events inaugurating its final de-
struction. Achebe's novels have always had an underlying didactic purpose, which the
author manages to combine with impressive literary quality. He seeks to perform a 'de-
colonisation of the mind' as demanded by the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a
process intended essentially to erase the distorted images of Africa and its people im-
planted in African minds through missionary education. The 'things' that 'fall apart'4 are
therefore not only the precolonial legal and political structures of the lgbo; the reader also
witnesses how the alleged superiority of the British Empire and its moral concepts slow-
ly dissolve, even becoming manifestations of ignorance, when confronted with the subjec-
tive perceptions of the 'Others'.
The novel is set in the lgbo community of Umuofia around 1900 - at a time when the
British Empire was about to consolidate domination over its colonies of occupation. The
Empire enforced administrative and legal power over the lgbo, and installed colonial of-
ficers and local representatives according to their 'indirect-rule' policy. Since these local
leaders were not necessarily congruent with those actually responsible within the com-
munities, British policy relied both on those willing to collaborate, and on those eager to
adapt to the new way of life. Okonkwo, a village elder, belongs to neither of these catego-
ries. He is a traditionalist whose qualities - physical and mental strength, industriousness,
pride, and the will to succeed - correspond to lgbo notions of masculine virtue. While
his father was a poor musician who never cared for his family, Okonkwo has become one
of the wealthiest and most respected men of his community, thanks solely to his own
efforts. Achebe employs his story to demonstrate the flexibility of lgbo hierarchies.
Okonkwo's son Nwoye, a contemplative and sensitive boy, represents the other side of
acephalous community life: strict rules of behaviour. Nwoye suffers under the intransi-
gence of lgbo rules, best revealed when his friend lkemefuna, a war hostage, is killed by
Umuofia's village elders, among them his father. Nwoye becomes one of the first to con-
vert to Christianity, a decision which only reinforces Okonkwo's fierce resistance to the
intruders.
Achebe uses storylines such as the exchange of war hostages to present the values of
lgbo culture: Reparation, not confrontation, is the preferred means of settling conflict;
lgbo judiciary consists of several branches, such as the council of the elders and the Ora-
cle of the Hills and Caves; and religion is founded on a deep respect for the earth, whose

The title of the novel alludes to prophetic lines in the poem "The Second Coming" (1920), by W.B.
Yeats: "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold: / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
7 IV. West Africa

well-being, in an agricultural economy, guarantees survival. After Okonkwo acciden-


tally kills a village member, he is forced into exile and only returns after seven years. Upon
his arrival, he finds conditions in Umuofia dramatically changed: The community now
possesses a church, and has accepted the new laws of the colonisers. Okonkwo cannot
understand the ease with which the new order has been established, while his friend
Obierika has realised that fighting back would be futile:
lt is already too late [...] Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the stranger. They
have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government. If we should try to drive out
the white men in Umuofia we should find it easy. There are only two of them. But what of our
own people who are following their way and have been given power? (Achebe 1994, 176)

When an Igbo convert dares to unmask an elder during a public ceremony, he provokes
mayhem in the community, which finally results in a visit of the village elders to the
district commissioner's office. lt is at this location of victorious British occupation that
the elders finally face their fading authority: the commissioner insults and imprisons them,
and they are whipped and treated like animals. At their return to Umuofia, an assembly
is held, which is interrupted by messengers from the commissioner: In an act of desperate
determination, Okonkwo kills one of them. He has expected the villagers to follow his
example and, finally, begin to resist foreign domination. When they let the other mes-
sengers escape, he realises that the old days are over. He hangs himself, thus committing
a terrible crime against the earth, and against the beliefs he strove to protect.
While the story development leads towards a final confrontation between the colonis-
ers and Igbo society's most fundamental defender, Okonkwo, the actual plot revolves
around Umuofia's economy, culture, and legal system. The community is the real hero of
the novel, a collective protagonist (Breitinger 2002, 51) whose values are directed at the
maintenance of the status quo - thus serving as a contrast to Britain's policy of exploration
and conquest. The final paragraphs of the novel repeat the inner monologue of the colo-
nial commissioner, whose ideas on "the pacification of the primitive tribes" (Achebe 1994,
209) demonstrate a colonialist discourse which invents 'savage others' to justify its own
policy of conquest. Achebe, however, has enabled his readers to decide for themselves
who acts in a civilised way, and who does not.

Postcolonial (Re)visions: Ama Ata Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy or Reflections


from a Black-Eyed Squint (1977)

Quite a few postcolonial African authors discuss the condition of post-independence


nation-states, denounce neo-patrimonial corruption and mismanagement, place female
issues at the centre of literary inquiry, or critically revise the relationship between former
colonisers and the former colonised in a situation of exile. Ama Ata Aidoo's experimen-
tal novel Our Sister Killjoy or Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint (1977) manages to
problematise all these issues in one comparatively small volume. What the author terms
an "African prose poem" is a satirical exploration of the hearts and minds of both Euro-
peans and Africans in Europe in the early 1960s, the first decade of independence. Con-
sisting of four separate parts, the novel combines pamphlet components, lyrical reflec-
tions, verse, a novella, a letter, stylised use of language, and passages of prose narrative.
The works of Ama Ata Aidoo display a strong historical and political consciousness,
yet the author does not describe political actions but, rather, the psychological conse-
4. Readings of Key Texts ,q
quences of colonial legacies and postcolonial realities. Her heroines struggle to find love,
female solidarity and meaning in a chaotic and contradictory world. Aidoo submits these
conditions to close scrutiny, and her observations are sometimes honest beyond endur-
ance. Her writing is suffused with what 1 earlier called a distinctively Ghanaian self-con-
fidence. Aidoo belongs to the Fanti people, who were, in her words, judged by the Brit-
ish to be "ungovernable," while "the Fanti unashamedly boasted of their recalcitrance,
their rudeness, their contempt for the imperial set-up, and for the white man" (Aidoo
1998, 88), a characterisation which offers another explanation for Ghanaians' persistent
refusal to act as a colonial 'Other'. Aidoo's feminism, however, is strengthened by her
people's matrilinearity and their legal structures, which recognise female property and
women's economic independence.
Aidoo's heroine Sissie, who is sent as an angry young woman to Germany and Britain
as an exchange student, embodies the blunt scepticism of Fanti culture. Sissie's visits are
labelled as a reverse journey into Europe's 'heart of darkness' - a Bavarian provincial
town. Here, the protagonist is confronted with Europe's gaze at the 'Other'; she feels
categorised and misjudged because of racial (mis)conceptions. She returns these looks by
'squinting': although her gaze is directed straight into the former colonisers' eyes, her
view maintains a focus on her African identity.
During her stay in Germany, Sissie's observations are inflected by sarcastic overstate-
ments and polemic exaggerations, which the author recites from an ironic distance. These
narrative strategies not only enable the postcolonial resistance mode of 'squinting', they
underscore the fact that, although Sissie accepts her position as 'Other' in European so-
ciety, she also refuses to sub mit to this concept's degrading and marginalising implications.
Sissie separates both her self-perception and her assessment of Ghanaian culture from
European acknowledgment. Through her biased look at European culture, she acts with-
in the colonially constructed limits of the 'Seif' /'Other' dichotomy but, concomitantly,
escapes from the condescending patronage of Europe's racial stereotypes. She "becomes
the eye of her community in the land of the exiles" (Wilentz 1999, 164).
The novella "The Plums" forms the major part of the book. Its central motif is the
friendship between Sissie and Marija, a German housewife who feels attracted to Sissie
because she is a "crowd-getter" (43), the "African miss" (44) who is seen as a showpiece
in Lower Bavaria. Through their friendship, inconspicuous Marija does not only achieve
the status of a local celebrity, it also offers her an exotic escape from ordinary life. Sissie,
however, remains distant. Her entire surroundings remind her of Europe's colonial past
and of the Third Reich, and her conversations with Marija are suffused with misunder-
standings and Sissie's reflections on Marija's psychological condition. They never actu-
ally develop intimacy; on the contrary, provoked by Marija's obvious solitude, Sissie
fantasises about being a man, a position which would entitle her to have an affair with her
German aquaintance. Marija, however, eventually approaches Sissie:
Sissie felt Marija's cold fingers on her breast. The fingers of Marija's hand touched the skin of
Sissie's breast while her other hand groped round and round Sissie's midriff, searching for
something to hold on to.
lt was the left hand that woke her up to the reality of Marija's embrace. The warmth of her
tears on her neck. The hotness of her lips against hers. (Aidoo 2003, 64)
Marija's attempt to seduce Sissie has been read as a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of
lesbianism, nevertheless condemned as a perversion caused by isolation arising from love-
less Western family life (Wilentz 1999, 167). Although Marija's move to overcome her
80 IV. West Africa

isolation is described in sexual terms, 1 would hesitate to call her desire lesbian. lt repre-
sents a helpless translation of her !anging for tenderness into terms she is familiar with,
rather than actual erotic passion. In the prudish German culture of the early 1960s, ca-
resses, hugs, and cuddling were restricted to either parent-child relationships or romantic
involvements. Tenderness that bore no sexual connotations, whether among warnen, men,
or between the two sexes, did not conform to either of these categories. Marija certainly
behaves according to the norms within which she has been socialised. Although Sissie
shakes herself free of Marija's embrace, she realises the underlying motive of Marija's
desperate advance. Recalling childhood memories, she remembers her mother's warmth,
and, given their intertwined histories of domination and racial hatred, develops an am-
biguous mixture of compassion for the German woman, and rage.
The third and fourth part of the book include cynical and bitter observations about
African intellectuals who have decided to stay in Europe and have thus, according to
Sissie, become traitors to their native countries. Acting like a true 'killjoy', she denounc-
es them as "[o]ppressed multitudes from the provinces [who] rush to the imperial seat
because that is where they know all salvation comes from" (87). Here, the programmatic
nature of Sissie's name once more becomes obvious: She is 'our sister', the 'eye' and the
'voice' of all those who have remained in Africa, waiting for a return of their investments
in the 'been-tos' who were to become the hope of their independent nations.
Our Sister Killjoy investigates issues of migration, dislocation, cultural estrangement,
and the question of the exile's loyalty to her/his culture of origin. Through ironic over-
statements, Sissie angrily distances herself from both postwar German society and Britain,
Ghana's former coloniser. She portrays cultural contact zones as minefields contami-
nated by racist and patriarchal stereotypes that also permeate more intimate interper-
sonal relations. Her 'squinted' look at European culture passionately attends to the in-
terests of her Ghanaian community and separates her from other exiles who have turned
their backs on postcolonial African problems.

Transcultural Perspectives: Biyi Bandele-Thomas, The Sympathetic U ndertaker


and Other Dreams (1991)

Biyi Bandele-Thomas' novel The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams (1991) is
an outstanding example of postmodernist African fiction. The author, born in 1967 in
Kafanchan, belongs to the younger generation of Nigerian writers, who are often based
abroad. He has written four novels, a collection of poetry, TV scripts, and diverse plays.
Since 1990, he has been living in Britain, where he received several prizes both for his own
plays and for his stage adaptations (among others, he has staged Aphra Behn's Oronooko
and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart). His first two novels, The Man Who Came in
from the Back of Beyond (1991) and The Sympathetic Undertaker, are set in contemporary
Nigeria and depict a chaotic and insane society whose "morbid symptoms" not only
indicate an interregnum, but a constant state of flux devoid of direction, meaning, and
morality.
The Sympathetic Undertaker is a self-conscious, reflexive, and satirical trip into the
absurdities of neo-patrimonial Nigeria. A parable of the state of the nation, the story
exposes greedy and unscrupulous politicians, depicts brutal actions of the military against
civilians, and draws a picture of a country in which every would-be dictator has the chance
to live up to his greed for power. To call this 'Nigerian condition' neurotic would imply
4. Readings of Key Texts 8
the existence of a eure. Bandele-Thomas, however, seems to suggest that there is no such
thing: his conclusion is both angry and sad, his 'remedy' a retreat into the world of dreams,
fantasy, sex, and hallucinations. His protagonist Rayo is a rebel who mimics the behaviour
of a school vice-principal, and, after a failed attempt to convince the headmaster to grant
the school's old night-soil man his deserved pension, attacks him on the toilet with a
broomstick. While at university, Rayo leads a group of students in a protest against the
policy of the government. At an assembly, he openly condemns the hypocrisy of Niger-
ia's leaders, denounces his country's incredibly high external debts, and criticises the
growing tendency to reduce the state's institutions to mere fai;ades. He also, however,
insists on his disapproval of violent measures: His weapon is the word, and he calls up
prominent precursors, from Aristarchos to Galileo, to support his idea of civil disobedi-
ence:
'We've got neither [guns nor the economy to back us up]. All we've got on our side is truth,
history, suffering. All we've got on our side is the bitterness, the anger in our hearts.
'Now, what shall we do?
'I propose, not that we go into the streets to face armed soldiers and policemen with stones and
bottles. That would be mere suicide. The Chinese would educate you on the folly of that.
'What I propose is that through peaceful means we should render this country ungovernable
.. .' (Bandele-Thomas 1991, 92)

lt is this last sentence that causes his imprisonment. Tortured for weeks by the State Se-
curity Service, whose fear of a sponsored conspiracy reveals their paranoia, Rayo is re-
leased as a broken man. He moves to Lagos, where he manages to make a living as a
freelance writer.
The second half of the book consists mainly of passages titled "Rayo's Notes," and
stories of the confrontation of minor characters with the injustice of the state, to!d by his
brother Kayo, the narrator of the novel. The protagonist's notes, written in the stream-
of-consciousness mode, disclose his growing schizophrenic tendencies: He imagines his
penis has been cut off, and he sees only holes where his eyes should be. Another night,
he wakes up to realise that his mind,
stuck in a groove like the stylus of a cracked record, was suddenly stuck mid-thought, to one
sentence: I am. Try as I did, I found, to my horror, that I could think no further than that: I am.
At first I tried to think it was a joke [...] All that I could see, in the halogen lucidness of my
brain, were the two words I am scribbled in a million colours on my cells. I feit like a human
lavatory wall [.] (Bandele-Thomas 1991, 94)

Rayo's panic attacks announce the increasing fragmentation of his mind and body. His
just idealism has to face an anomic society in which "illusion is preferred to reality" (Ke-
hinde 2003, 179). Whereas Rayo's satirical parodies start out as funny tricks, his growing
despair at the meaninglessness and moral corruption of his society eventually drives him
into madness. His notebook writings contain a story within the story, about the "dream
land of dream people" (Bandele-Thomas 1991, 143) of Zowabia, whose dictator Babagee
is obviously modelled on Nigeria's dictator Babangida, and whose social manners are
conspicuously similar to those reigning in Nigeria's climate of corruption and bribery.
Zowabia is a mirror world in which righteous behaviour is considered obscene, and where
bribery, oppression, and murder are regarded as sound means of governing a country. The
dictator sings "I wish I were Idi Amin" to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching
in," critical journalists are thrown through glass doors, political prisoners are used for
? IV. West Africa

target practice, and when the First Lady suffers a stillbirth, Babagee calls out a week's
holiday to mourn "the greatest leader this country never had" (Bandele-Thomas 1991,
162). The more the reader learns about the 'dream land' of Zowabia, the more obvious its
nightmarish character becomes. The "deeper Thomas's fable ventures into 'dream' terri-
tory, the more preposterously real its world becomes; the more the reader has to swallow,
the more sickeningly true it is" (Wright 1997, 192).
Bandele-Thomas wrote the novel when he was only twenty-four years old. His text
thus creates an image of contemporary Nigeria as perceived by young people who have
neither experienced colonialism nor are stuck in 'precolonial traditions'. Linguistic, cul-
tural, and religious hybridity, even syncretism, are what they perceive as normal. This
merged and multi-layered postmodern reality is not, however, as one might imagine, made
responsible for the moral decay denounced by the author. lt is not the optional variety
of value systems and social customs that leads to indifference towards righteous behav-
iour, but the ruling elite's disrespect for every value system available. Bandele-Thomas
expresses a political message: There's something rotten in the state of Nigeria. The author
has written a dystopian novel which recalls the post-independence disillusionment of
African writing in the 1960s and 1970s. This disenchantment was caused by political lead-
ers whose behaviour mimicked, and even outdid, the disdain towards ordinary people's
concerns displayed by the former colonisers. Authors like Ayi Kwei Armah and Chinua
Achebe have empathically criticised this attitude, which gave way to unrelieved exploita-
tion of the country's resources to the detriment of the majority of the population. The
Sympathetic Undertaker, however, lacks the disappointment that still permeated earlier
texts of disillusionment. The novel presents a society that has matured beyond expecta-
tions of righteous behaviour. Its characters' reactions are neither irritated nor disen-
chanted when confronted with everyday corruption, bribery, and brutality. What remains
is Rayo's angry righteousness, which eventually turns out to be a mere projection of a
fearful and disturbed mind.
Realist narrative modes are defamiliarised through an innovative use of "stylistic
promiscuity" (Kehinde 2003, 185): The author allows introspective explorations into
Rayo's mind, employing dreams and nightmares, hallucinations, scatology, pornograph-
ic language, pidgin English as well as vocabulary from Igbo and Yoruba, and intertex-
tual references, such as a quotation from Camara Laye's novel The African Child (Ban-
dele-Thomas 1991, 7). While his use of scatological imagery serves "as an artistic
weapon used for satirizing the filthy nature of Nigerian cities" (Kehinde 2003, 187), his
pornographic passages fulfil an ambivalent function. When applied to characterise a
petty tyrant like Toshiba, the boy who terrorises younger pupils at school, obscene im-
ages indicate his moral decay, and the way human beings, especially women, are objec-
tified. When used in the description of Kayo's affair with Tere, a student who makes her
living as a habitual prostitute entertaining 'sugar daddies', Bandele-Thomas' sexual lan-
guage displays a tenor of desperate tenderness. The relationship provides Kayo with a
place of refuge. He actually refers to their intercourse as "making love" (Bandele-Thomas
1991, 24), a surprisingly sentimental Statement given the usually cynical mode of narra-
tion, and the existence of Tere's sugar daddy, who also has claims on her body. Tere
symbolises Kayo's hope for intimacy, his yearning for emotional fulfilment. In between
moral corruption, growing unease about a government looting the country, the senseless
brutality of soldiers, and administrative arbitrariness, their encounters are peaceful, se-
cluded moments.
~
5. Conclusion
When Tere dies after an illegal abortion, the boundaries between Kayo's and Rayo's
worlds break down: At the end of the novel, the reader is shocked to learn that rebellious
Rayo never actually existed: He is neither Kayo's brother, nor does Kayo exist. The 'real'
Rayo - who calls himself, in his function as (an unreliable) narrator, Kayo - has created
a schizophrenic other self: the protagonist, the fearless Rayo, who demonstrates the cour-
age and intrepidity the real Rayo was never able to summon up. All events recounted were
part of an act of imagination which hesitates to reveal who is the dreamer and who the
dream. Rayo diminished his real seif, and re-invented himself as a more confident per-
sonality. Through this outcome, madness is again emphasised as Bandele-Thomas' leit-
motif. According to the moral of the novel, only the madman can survive in a society in
which insanity is the norm. The author's Nigeria is "a society devoid of purpose, a soci-
ety cut off from its religious metaphysical and transcendental roots. In this society, man
is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd and useless" (Kehinde 2003, 180). Nige-
rian society breeds a reality that is intelligible neither emotionally nor rationally. lt is thus
portrayed through surreal and absurd images, an inconsistent story development, digres-
sions, fragmented character portrayals, and fictitious intertextualities. The Sympathetic
Undertaker employs postmodernist narrative techniques to create a disturbingly realistic
representation of modern Nigeria.

5. Conclusion

The close reading of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy, and Bandele-
Thomas' The Sympathetic Undertaker ranges from the periods of anticolonial 'writing
back' attitude and post-independence disillusionment to postmodernist parables of the
condition of the nation-state. The stylistic features and thematic concerns of these novels
give testimony to the heterogeneous nature of contemporary West African literature in
English, which will continue to prevail. lt seems safe to assume that Bandele-Thomas'
characters, who do not stand for a specific culture but act as individual subjects and thus
echo postmodern processes of dissolution as well as transcultural loyalties, embody a
persistent feature of English writing in Ghana and Nigeria, both countries with an estab-
1.ished literary tradition in English writing. Authors from Liberia and Sierra Leone, after
decades of civil war, as well as Gambian writers, who wish to stress their cultural and
linguistic independence from Senegal, will possibly continue to prefer a more mimetic
representation of political and social processes.

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Further Recommended Reading


Irele, F. Abiola, and Simon Gikandi, ed. (2004 ). The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean
Literature. Vois. 1 & 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.