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LITERATURE OF AFRICA

Fiction

Although storytelling is a universal human activity, the term "African fiction" refers to a European genre
of storytelling—comprised of secular novels and short stories—that Africans have adopted and adapted to
represent continental African realities in the wake of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European
colonialism and post-colonialism. The genre will provide a unifying thread throughout the many oral and
written traditions in African as well as European languages.

African writers of fiction use the genre to enter into dialogue with African and European religious
traditions alike. Drawing on oral myths, epics and tales, these writers oppose representations of Africa
found in European fiction, as well as in European governmental, missionary, and commercial reports. In
the process African writers also rewrite and rework oral traditions.

African oral traditions reflect hierarchies of power in ways parallel to European fiction. At the top of the
hierarchy are such works as ceremonial ritual religious poems or the great Dogon cosmogonic myth,
according to which the universe originates from a single seed. Next are the great chanted epics such as the
Malian epic of Sundiata or the Mwindo epic, which feature shamanic heroes, founders of their society.
The great oral praise songs for outstanding men and women are formal lyrics that use epic materials. On a
more common level are occupational poems, sung to accompany an activity such as farming, fishing,
hunting or smithing. Even these lower forms recall religious functions of individuals or callings.

While French West African fiction is presented in the terms of concepts of universal pretensions such as
Islam, Marxism and Negritude, the novels of the Nigerian Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) and the
Cameroonian Mongo Beti (The Poor Christ of Bomba) and Ferdinand Oyono (Old Man and the Medal )
are more local in scope, in that theirs is a context of forest people such as the Ibo, who live in loose
federations or small chiefdoms. These novels denounce the abuses not so much of Christianity as the
Christian mission enterprise, which is seen as a source of European violence and conquest. Behind the
missionaries come the merchants and the military. Church, hospital, schools and prisons are seen as
European institutions in complicity with one another. In Things Fall Apart, the missionary prepares the
way for the colonial administrator.

In these novels Christian conversion is seen to be based on misunderstandings and to yield ludicrous
harmful results. In all of these works the narrative voice often plays against sliding conceptions of the
distinction between the secular and the sacred. In fiction such as this, even where there is an implied
criticism of African tradition, the overriding message is that the abuse of European colonialism must stop,
so that Africans may regroup and take charge of their own fate.

AFRICAN FICTION AUTHORS

Chinua Achebe

Achebe is a Nigerian writer whose role as a socially committed storyteller is drawn from his ethnic Igbo
traditions. He has written a number of novels, short stories, poems, essays, and articles, garnering
worldwide critical acclaim and popular success. In addition to his numerous awards for his writing,
including the 1972 Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Achebe has received more than twenty honorary
doctorates from universities around the world.
Through his works, Achebe expresses a powerful cry for an end to worldwide oppression. He described
himself as “a political writer.” He explained that his politics are “concerned with universal human
communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect.

Achebe’s international reputation was firmly established with his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958),
which has been translated into 45 languages, has sold over 8 million copies, and has been adapted for the
stage, screen, and television..

Born November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe was raised in what was then the Colony of Nigeria under
British rule. His father, Isaiah Okafo Achebe, had been one of his village’s earliest converts
to Christianity and taught the young Achebe to scorn those who held onto the traditional religion of the
Igbo people. (However, Chinua Achebe did have an uncle who was not Christian.) Achebe felt drawn to
the ways of his non-Christian neighbors and attended traditional village festivals despite prohibitions
from his father and mother. At the colonial government secondary school, he studied the works of Charles
Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and William Shakespeare, as well as a number of “African” books such as Heart
of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. While he enjoyed these works early in high school, by the time he
graduated in 1947 Achebe realized that he was forsaking his African roots by identifying with the white
man—not the African, who was portrayed in such literature as a savage. Achebe was thus inspired to
destroy such erroneous characterizations of Africa and Africans by writing his own fiction.

Achebe decided to become a writer while attending the University College in Ibadan. Although he entered
the university to study medicine, he soon shifted to the liberal arts, an area of greater interest to him. As
an undergraduate, Achebe wrote short stories about Nigeria and published a number of them in the
campus newspaper. He then began work as a journalist for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in
1954, one year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in literature. It was at this time that Achebe first
imagined the character Okonkwo, who would become the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart, which was
published four years later. In an interview with Patrick Samway for America, Achebe described his
understanding of Okonkwo: “Things Fall Apart’ needed a main character who saw things in terms of
either/or and thought he was a defender of his own culture. And he was. The only problem is that the
world was more complex than Okonkwo understood. Of course, this is the substance of tragedy.”

Things Fall Apart


Chinua Achebe

Its story chronicles pre-colonial life in the south-eastern part of Nigeria and the arrival of the Europeans
during the late nineteenth century. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, one of the
first to receive global critical acclaim.

The novel follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo ("Ibo" in the novel) man and local wrestling champion in
the fictional Nigerian clan of Umuofia. The work is split into three parts, with the first describing his
family, personal history, and the customs and society of the Igbo, and the second and third sections
introducing the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on Okonkwo, his family and
wider Igbo community.

Plot
Part 1
The novel's protagonist Okonkwo is famous in the villages of Umuofia for being a wrestling champion,
defeating a wrestler nicknamed "Amalinze The Cat" (because he never lands on his back). Okonkwo is
strong, hard-working, and strives to show no weakness. He wants to dispel his father Unoka’s tainted
legacy of unpaid debts, a neglected wife and children, and cowardice at the sight of blood. Okonkwo
works to build his wealth entirely on his own, as Unoka died a shameful death and left many unpaid
debts. He is also obsessed with his masculinity, and any slight compromise on this is swiftly destroyed.
As a result, he often beats his wives and children, and is unkind to his neighbours. However, his drive to
escape the legacy of his father leads him to be wealthy, courageous, and powerful among the people of his
village. He is a leader of his village, and he has attained a position in his society for which he has striven
all his life.[1]
Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken by the clan as a peace
settlement between Umuofia and another clan after Ikemefuna's father killed an Umuofian woman. The
boy lives with Okonkwo's family and Okonkwo grows fond of him, although Okonkwo doesn't show his
fondness so as to not appear weak. The boy looks up to Okonkwo and considers him a second father. The
Oracle of Umuofia eventually pronounces that the boy must be killed. Ezeudu, the oldest man in the
village, warns Okonkwo that he should have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like
killing his own child – but to avoid seeming weak and feminine to the other men of the village, Okonkwo
disregards the warning from the old man, striking the killing blow himself even as Ikemefuna begs his
"father" for protection. For many days after killing Ikemefuna, Okonkwo feels guilty and saddened.
Shortly after Ikemefuna's death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. His sickly daughter Ezinma falls
unexpectedly ill and it is feared she may die; during a gun salute at Ezeudu's funeral, Okonkwo's gun
accidentally explodes and kills Ezeudu's son. He and his family are sent into exile for seven years to
appease the gods he has offended.
Part 2
While Okonkwo is away in Mbanta, he learns that white men are living in Umuofia with the intent of
introducing their religion, Christianity. As the number of converts increases, the foothold of the white
people grows and a new government is introduced. The village is forced to respond with either
appeasement or resistance to the imposition of the white people's nascent society.
Part 3
Returning from exile, Okonkwo finds his village changed by the presence of the white men. After a
convert commits a heinous act by unmasking an elder as he embodies an ancestral spirit of the clan, the
village retaliates by destroying a local Christian church. In response, the District Commissioner
representing the British government takes Okonkwo and several other native leaders prisoner pending
payment of a fine of two hundred cowries. Despite the District Commissioner's instructions to treat the
leaders of Umuofia with respect, the native 'court messengers' humiliate them, doing things such as
shaving their heads and whipping them. As a result, the people of Umuofia finally gather for what could
be a great uprising. Okonkwo, a warrior by nature and adamant about following Umuofian custom and
tradition, despises any form of cowardice and advocates war against the white men. When messengers of
the white government try to stop the meeting, Okonkwo beheads one of them. Because the crowd allows
the other messengers to escape, and does not fight alongside Okonkwo, he realizes with despair that the
people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves — his society's response to such a conflict,
which for so long had been predictable and dictated by tradition, is changing.
When the local leader of the white government, Gregory Irwin, comes to Okonkwo's house to take him to
court, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself to avoid being tried in a colonial court. Among his own
people, Okonkwo's actions have tarnished his reputation and status, as it is strictly against the teachings of
the Igbo to commit suicide. The District Commissioner reflects that the story of Okonkwo will make for a
good page in his book, or perhaps a "reasonable paragraph."
Mongo Beti

Born in June 30, 1932, Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, under the pen name of Alexandre Biyidi-Awala,
wrote several sharply satirical novels in French critical of colonial and post-colonial African politics. Beti
used his fiction as a vehicle to condemn the imposition of European culture on African peoples, but also
negatively portrayed those Africans who came to power—and then abused it—in nations like Cameroon.
His death prompted London’s Guardian newspaper to call him “one of the foremost African writers of the
independence generation,” journalist Kaye Whiteman declared. “His biting satires of the colonial period
still rank among the best African novels. He also acquired the status of an icon, as a brilliant political
polemicist who never gave up on his radicalism.”

Beti died in Douala, Cameroon on October 8, 2001, from renal complications. He was survived by his
wife and three children. He had been invited to read excerpts from his books at a Harvard
University Bookstore event on October 21st, along with Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat and Olive
Senior, the Jamaican writer. Instead, organizers decided to make the reading a memorial tribute to Beti.
“He was such an important figure in the development of African literature in French,” a scholar at
Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute of Afro-American Research, Andrew Horn,
told Africana.com writer Tanu T. Henry. “When his novels first came out they came as a shock to many
in Europe and as gratification to many in Africa.”

The Poor Christ of Bomba (1956)


Mongo Beti

Mongo Beti's major novel depicts the effects of French colonial infringement on the Cameroon landscape
and consciousness. The novel charts the story of Father Superior Drumont, a Catholic priest assigned to
the rainforest region of Cameroon around the 1930s. His professed task is to convert the indigenes of a
six-tribe region to Catholicism. Despite Father Drumont's seeming piety, he is not what he seems.
Governed by the French colonial ideology of assimilation, he is bent on forcing his Christian converts to
forsake their African traditions and cultural ways as a condition for Christianity. The sixa, a church
establishment aimed at grooming young female converts in preparation for Christian marriage, is Father
Drumont's signature project during his twenty-year tenure at the Bomba Mission. In practice, however,
the sixa is a complete mockery of Catholicism and a subversion of African traditional marriages. Father
Drumont's increasingly rebellious converts come into a full awareness of his complicity with French
colonial administrators like Vidal. Unable to re-establish a strong foothold in a resistant parish, a
disillusioned Father Drumont returns to France. The novel depicts an awakening of a growing "national"
consciousness similar to the Harlem Renaissance that occurred in the United States in the early twentieth
century. Just as slave narratives exposed the brutality of slavery as a means to promote abolition, this
essay explores The Poor Christ of Bomba as a fictional slave narrative that exposes French imperialism
by constructing a discourse of resistance that is bound to serve as a path to decolonization.

Ferdinand Leopold Oyono

Oyono was born on September 14, 1929, in N’Goulé-makong, near Ebolowa. He was raised by his
mother, a devout Catholic, who left her husband when he would not give up his polygamous lifestyle.
Oyono was active in the Catholic church as a choirboy and studied with a priest. After earning his
diploma from the local school in Ebolowa, he worked as a servant for missionaries before studying at a
high school in France. He continued his education at French universities, writing his first novels at the
same time.
In the year 1956 saw the publication of Oyono’s Le vieux nègre et la médaille, which was later translated
as The Old Man and the Medal. In this work he not only criticized the colonial oppressors, but the black
Africans who let themselves be controlled.

In the early 1960s, he took up a low level position in the Cameroon government, working his way up to
the position of ambassador by 1963. From 1963 to 1965, he was the Cameroonian ambassador to Liberia,
and then from 1965 to 1968, he was the ambassador to Belgium. Finally, in 1968, Oyono’s position was
stepped up a notch as he became the ambassador to France, one of the previous countries that had
oppressed Cameroon. Oyono worked hard at his post to ensure good relations between the countries and
to bring to light his people’s wants and needs in major European countries.

In 1974 Oyono left France to take a seat as a permanent representative for Cameroon at the United
Nations (UN). During his time at the UN, Oyono broadened his experience by taking over the general-
director position for the UNICEF program. Oyono would remain with the UN for eight years before
returning to Cameroon to once again work as an ambassador, this time to theUnited Kingdom. This did
not last long though, for in 1985, Oyono was appointed as the secretary general to the Presidency of
Cameroon. He would hold this position for two years before being transferred to another high ranking
government position, minister in charge of town planning and housing. In 1992 Oyono went abroad
again, this time as the minister of external relations for the Cameroon government, a position he would
hold until 1997. Finally, in 1997, Oyono settled down in Cameroon once again, this time as the minister
of culture, a powerful yet plush position. Oyono has never taken up writing again, and many critics feel
that after being so ingrained in politics, his writing would no longer be the same, but none can deny the
power of his early writing, nor the immense contributions he has made over his lifetime to his country.

Old Man and the Medal


Ferdinand Leopold Oyono

This novel fiercely satirizes the false pretenses of European colonial rule in Africa.

Meka, who has converted to Christianity and given up his lands to the Catholic mission, embarks on what
turns out to be a mock initiatory journey from his community to the administrative center of the Whites.
He finds himself standing in the middle of a stadium in a chalk-drawn circle under the hot sun, in ill-
fitting shoes and having a strong urge to urinate as he waits for the French colonial administrator to pin a
medal on him for his contributions to the community. In such a time of trial only the memory of the pain
he endured at his circumcision gives him the courage to withstand heat and burning pain. The true
meaning of this medal is revealed when later, Meka is brutally beaten and thrown into jail by the police,
who do not recognize him. Here too he resorts to his totemic relations with panthers to muster up the
necessary strength.

In both cases, the caricatural evocation of traditional religion is tragi-comic, revealing the comical
ineffectiveness of the tradition in the new setting of colonialism. On his return home, Meka is chastened
and cynical about his Christian faith and relation with the whites. But his "initiation" leaves him with little
new knowledge except for a relief to be back among the grasses and animals of his home. Here unlike the
West African novels, there is no faith in an overarching scheme of things. There is also an unremitting
satirical criticism implied of African traditions. The indulgent humor of the narrator, who laughs with as
well as at the characters, leaves the reader with the conviction of the inherent dignity and resilience of
African people.
LITERATURE OF AFRICA
FICTION

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