Njoroge, Kihika, & Kamiti: Epochs of African Literature, A Reader's Perspective

Though Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) is often cited and used as the beginning of the modern African novel written in English (the book being the first to receive critical global acclaim), it was not necessarily the first novel published in Africa. Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation, published in 1911, has been cited as, probably, the first African novel written in English. Similarly, Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo's (from South Africa) The Girl who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator published in 1935 is regarded as first African Play in English.

In any discussion of initiatory works, especially those in relation to literary works, a distinction should be made between writing and publication with the latter being usually the preferred index. And in so far as recognition could be a function of distribution and, consequently, acceptance, it possibly could be that there was an African novel, prior to this. However, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary - which we do not assume to be the evidence of absence - we shall assume that these books set the pace for the African Literary journey in non-native language.

A cursory comparison of today's literary outputs with these baselines shows clearly that African literature has gone (and is going) through a growth path similar to literature all over the world. There has been such unbounded growth - in terms of number, transformation, and subject - that today the continent could boast of several literary works. This growth has resulted, though this weakly reflects substance, in four Nobel Laureates in Literature - Mahfouz, Soyinka, Gordimer, and Coetzee; one Man Booker International Prize winner - Achebe; and three Man Booker Winners - Gordimer, Coetzee, and Okri.

A century of writing therefore presents an enough time period to allow an epochal studies of African Literature; for concomitant with this growth and transformation are changes, albeit unconsciously, in the collective objective of writers. If writers write from the environment they find themselves in and are influenced by or from the experiences that they go through, then the average theme of novels, plays, short-stories, essays - the gamut of literature, of an epoch will reflect the tidings of that period. Writers' imaginations feed on the environment and creativity is a solution-seeking path, largely.

Consequently, African literature could be put into three basic epochs: the Colonial Period, which represents works produced prior to independence (colonial) and into the first years of self-governance; the Independence Period, which covers the period after independence, and could stretch from 1965 (an arbitrary figure since independence staggered across the continent with Ghana gaining it in 1957 and South Africa coming out of apartheid in 1994) to somewhere in the early 1990s. It also includes the period after the first wave of leaders had failed in their bid to transform their countries, or were deemed to have failed, precipitating an almost-continent-wide coups; and the Democratic Period, covering the period of calm and wide-adoption of democracy. This latter period began in the late 1990s to the present. There possibly could be a fourth, The Exploratory Period, which is nascent.

The Colonial Period (The Identity Era): As expected, themes and subjects of literature in this era focused mainly on the behaviour of the colonists and on the need and importance of liberation or independence. Mixed with these is the fight against European culture which the people, the supposed elite and their followers, had imbued, consciously or unconsciously, into their systems. This epoch could be described as the Liberation and Cultural Struggle and could, thus, be further divided into two categories: the Pre-World War II Period and the Post-World War II Period.

The Pre-WW II Period, stretching from the early to the middle of the twentieth century focused on consolidating African culture that was fast becoming obsolete under the invasion of the European culture resulting from the opening up of provinces and homes to formal western education. Identity and community (Ubuntu) amongst blacks (or natives) were stressed in such literature and so too was the essence of African culture and blackness (or Africanness). Example in Kobina's Sekyi's play Blinkards (first performed circa 1915) and in The Anglo-Fante Short Story (1918) he satirised a typical Gold Coast lady blindly aping British culture. The typical educated, semi-educated, or aficionado of Western Culture, was more likely, in the case of British colonies, to be more British than the Queen. They would organise tea parties wearing of hats (both sexes), gloves (women) and monocles (both sexes) and holding parasols (women) and walking sticks (men). The use of wigs or hot-combs to curl and straighten the hair, and the rapid adoption of foreign names, or anglicisation (or Europeanisation) of local names were in vogue and the preserve of the elites. Literature in this period therefore served to shine the light on this wanton assimilation of the foreign culture by exaggerating profoundly (and even romanticising) the relevance and virtues of the local culture at the expense of the foreign culture. For instance, Eighteen Pence (1943) by R. E. Obeng, which was the first novel in English from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), was "widely admired and discussed, [was] an extended allegory extolling the virtues of a large family, honesty, and the rural life. The author draws attention to the relevance of customs and traditions to life, and to the conflicts and confusion created by the imposition of British colonialism and English law". This was also the period of the negritude movement, a literary and ideological movement developed by Francophone black intellectuals, writers and politicians including the Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guianan Léon Damas in the 1930s.

Though the writers were fighting against the obvious unrestrained assimilation of western culture, they would themselves be caught in the trap, subtly assimilating the stylistics and structures of the literary works of the colonising culture. The period was known for its conspicuous departure from pre-colonial literature, which was dominated by oral literature and depended on mouth-to-ear narration for survival. However, because contact with Europe had been going on and most Africans had picked up the western form of education and had began using those languages, their writings followed the western format. Poetry became formulaic, following the strict metric structure of the Shakespearean model. In the preface to Enoch Edusei's A Harp of Ghana (1959), he writes:
As will be observed, I have written simple, straightforward verse, in most cases with strict regard to the laws of Prosody, and with a minimum use of poetic license and graces. For a choice I have been partial to Iambic and Trochaic metres; I have been particular, in most cases, about the regularity of feet.

It would be idle, however, to claim that these poems are far from faults or imperfection, and that to the beauty, dignity and vivacity of verse by British and American poets their qualities are any near.
The Post WW II literature concerned itself with the quest for independence, after Africans were forced into a war they saw were not theirs to fight to free the colonialist only to be denied of such freedom at home. When the veterans were refused their due compensation the struggle for freedom increased. Having understood the essence of independence, a general struggle towards freedom ensued across the continent. Ngugi's Weep Not Child (1964) is one of those novels which focused on the discriminatory attitude of the colonisers, signified by the Howlands, and of the dehumanising conditions of the natives, represented by the Ngothos. Prior to Ngugi's publication, Peter Abrahams in Mine Boy (1946), Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), Ferdinand Oyono in Houseboy (1956), had all highlighted the plight of natives in their various countries. Thus, such writers through their writings posited the need and necessity for independence.

For some countries this period was longer. In South Africa, Pre-Apartheid and Apartheid literature are both geared towards the struggle for the elimination of racial discrimination. It could, aptly, therefore be described as the fight for independence. Nadine Gordimer, the Nobelist, represent this era fully with her range of stories geared towards an assessment of the situation of blacks (or natives) and the need for independence. Such writings include, but not limited to, The Conservationist, Burger's Daughter, and July's People. In Zimbabwe, the Bush War which led to independence was fought for fourteen years (from 1965 to 1979). Shimmer Chinodya's Harvest of Thorns, captures the moment prior to, during, and immediately after the war.

The Independence Period (The Bubble Burst Era): From the late 1950s to the late 1960s, several African countries gained independence. The euphoria that greeted this long-fought independence was high. The expectation was great and the romanticisation deep. Independence, to some, translates directly into economic development and prosperity. This direct linkage, its impossibility, was clouded by the euphoria that met attainment of independence.

A few years into the independence era, the reality dawned on the people. Economic struggle, political agitations and labour unrest and upheavals ensued. The role of the colonialists and of Western countries could not be ignored. Whereas some of these leaders were overthrown in coups like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, some transformed themselves into autocrats and solidified their grasp on power, others were forcefully removed from office and killed, like Patrice Lumumba of former Zaire. Literature emanating from this period was fraught with decay, corruption, rampant arrests and imprisonment of the people. Thus, writers were forced to examine the character of their leaders and their people independent of the colonialists. They - the colonialists - were reprieved. But not entirely. The new leaders were compared with the Lords of the colonial era.

No one symbolises this era more than the Kenyan writer - Ngugi wa Thiong'o. A Grain of Wheat (1967) was written around the period just before Kenya gained its independence and was therefore portentous in its contents. It predicted how the beneficiaries of independence were not the same as those who suffered and died for it. In fact, the problem began on the eve of independence when an elected Member of Parliament swindled a group of farmers. However, the ultimate realisation of this tragedy, the betrayal of the people, when independence became a mere rhetoric, is seen in Matigari (1986). In this novel, written almost two decades after A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi showed how the new rulers of Africa fell deeply in bed with the colonialists - who had transformed themselves and their relationships into an insidious form of colonialism, neo-colonialism. Thus, during this period, the struggle was not against a visible White folk, but a homogeneous black leader who, with his family, lived amongst the people. This was a black-on-black oppression. This new leadership, having won power, became that which they had fought against. This behaviour of greed, self-aggrandisement, smacks of what Ngugi said:
Blackness is not all that makes a man ... There are some people, be they black or white, who don't want others to rise above them. They want to be the source of all knowledge and share it piecemeal to other less endowed. That is what's wrong with all these carpenters and men who have a certain knowledge. It is the same with rich people. A rich man does not want others to get rich because he wants to be the only man with wealth ... Some Europeans are better than Africans ... That's why you at times hear father say that he would rather work for a white man. A white man is a white man. But a black man trying to be a white man is bad and harsh. (Weep Not Child, Heinemann Publications, Page 22)
Bessie Head also made a similar statement:
When someone says 'my people' with a specific stress on the blackness of those people, they are after kingdoms and permanently child-like slaves. 'The people' are never going to rise above the status of 'the people'. They are going to be told what is good for them by the 'mother' and the 'father'. (A Question of Power, Heinemann Publications Page 63)
The frustration of this period is symbolised by Kihika in Ngugi's AGoW. Consequently, writings of the period were fraught with these frustrations. Corruption and decay - sometimes symbolised by scatology - became the major theme. The following authors: Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born (1968), Chinua Achebe in A Man of the People (1966), and Kojo Laing in Search Sweet Country (1986), discussed the bursting of the independence bubble and the problem that came with it.

The Post-Independence (or Democratic) Period: This period is marked, politically, by the return to democracy of most countries, and socially, by the rise in rights activism, which in itself results directly from the liberty and freedom emanating from the former. On the literary front, it is marked by the discussion of gender (or women) issues and alternative routes to development. Issues of corruption could be seen in this form of literature; however, the insidious participation and encouragement of the neo-colonialists, now correctly identified by writers, are mentioned, alluded to, or fully developed. One classic work which expands on all these themes is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow (and its characters of Kamiti and Nyawira). Works during this period also questioned the changed value-system from such intrinsic qualities as togetherness to our avaricious, red-eye quest for wealth; or Materialism. So that one will meet such authors as Ayi kwei Armah questioning what the true-end of education has come to mean in Fragments (1969); and Chinua Achebe wondering how corruption has become one with the educated and political elite in No Longer at Ease (1960) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) respectively.

The women in this period wrote mostly about the growing disparity between men and women or about their supposedly marginalised role in society. The quest first is to expose the wound and, then following it, find the cure. This could be seen in works of such authors as Buchi Emecheta (Joys of Motherhood, 1979), Tsitsi Dangarembga (Nervous Conditions, 1988), Mariama Ba (So Long a Letter, 1979), Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, 2003), Neshani Andreas (Purple Violet of Oshaantu, 1988), Ama Ata Aidoo (Changes, 1991). This was the period of marked awareness and of the fight for gender equality through affirmative actions and the development of social consciousness. Sexual orientation has also become part of the debate. Probably, the first of which, dealing exclusively with homosexuality, is by the Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu in his book The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). Another that could also be mentioned is the 2012 Caine Prize shortlisted story, Love on Trial, by S. O. Kenani.

Another key literature within this period is the migration-literature of Africans who emigrated out of their home countries to Europe and America for further and better education or economic opportunities. These folks usually write about the cultural shock they encountered, the racism they had to face, and their longing for home. Some romanticise home; others morbidly describe why they had to leave. One can mention Brian Chikwava's Harare North (2009) and Benjamin Kwakye's The Other Crucifix (2010), as examples. The generations after the emigre parents also do sometimes tend to wish to discover their roots; they search for a home to belong to; for one has to belong somewhere. Unlike their parents, they may face little racism and discrimination. But they are the ones who usually question the essence of home and where it really is, for they are first Europeans or Americans before they are anything else. Their mannerisms, far different from their parents make them unique and conspicuous when they make that journey to their parents' home. Works in this category could include Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond's Powder Necklace (2010) and Sophia Acheampong's Growing Yams in London (2006).

Exploratory Period: There possibly could be another period, not fully fledged out yet but which could be all the same isolated. This period is marked by the expansion of themes. It may not necessarily be a conscious act to redefine what the African novel should be but that is what these writers are doing. They have moved away from the idea of poverty and disease being the sole African theme. They have ventured to take on the entire universe. It is their motif. They won't be confined by labels or boundaries. They explore the universe with their writings. Perhaps influenced by such writers as Kafka, Mann, Nietzsche, and others, they go beyond the physical environment into the mind. For instance, Martin Egblewogbe's Mr Happy and the Hammer of God and Other Stories (2008 & 2012) is an anthology that deals exclusively with man's place on earth, exploring the psyche and the metaphysical. Another author of this mould is Alain Mabanckou (in African Psycho, 2003). Kojo Laing's writing do question world events in a similar psychological way. The author throws away novelistic requirements and writes about life in a unique way. His novel Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006) covers several issues including genetic engineering and religion; his short story Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ is difficult to place. Another writer whose work is beyond classification is Ben Okri. In The Famished Road (1991) and Incidence at the Shrine (1993), Okri shuffles reality to the point of nonrecognition. He mixes realism with surrealism and makes magic with his characters. However for such Lusophonic writers as Mia Couto (Every Man is a Race (1991), and Voices Made Night (1990)) and Jose Eduardo Agualusa (The Book of Chameleons (2004)) such magical descriptions is their second nature.

Regardless, there are still other writers whose works would be very difficult to place. The above therefore is an arbitrary placement of works. Any reader could argue with it. But it provides a starting point to analysing African literature.
[Caveat: In order not to confuse students of literature it must be stated clearly that the writer has acquired no formal learning in literature and so is incapable of using such academic jargon that speak to the learned ones in this field. What he has done here is purely based on observations from his reading.]

Updated: August 27, 2016: I wrongly stated that there has been two Man Booker Prize Winners instead of three (3). I left out Nadine Gordimer.


  1. Nana, I think I might just agree with you here. Certainly, these periods are broad enough to fight a wide range of books. I like your term for the current, Exploratory, for this period is going to be just as exciting as any of the past periods. Actually, I like this post. Okay. Goodbye

    1. Thanks Kinna. I was somewhat scared writing this because I knew it's a technical area and I don't have it. I agree that the current is going to spurn some very beautiful and audacious novels.

  2. What an interesting and informative overview- I like how you've connected authors/works to what was happening politically and culturally - excellent.

  3. Very good work there. I can't help but agree with you. You analysis of African literature is flawless.


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