Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 1

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 1
African independence and before:
Telling the people where the rain began to beat them

History is a text. It is a text not of what has happened but of what is seen as having happened. Modern African literature responds to its historical context. However, through the very nature of the writing, that historical context is also selectively created and rhetorically produced. What is at stake here is a dialectics of response and literary significations. Given the vast geographical and socio-political areas involved, the really striking thing about this response and this literary production is the univocal nature of it all. Of course one finds differences. The main defining lines, though, are clear enough. So, too, is the definition of outstanding features.

The most outstanding feature of this modern historical context - the fulcrum of ideological debate - is the formal achievement of Independence, or Uhuru. 'Independence' is commonly used to denote the fact of independence, 'Uhuru' (Swahili: Freedom) to denote both the concept of independence and the expectations generated by the prospect of self-rule. It makes sense, first, to look at the portrayal of the pre-Independence era. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan writer, gives eloquent voice to this period.

In his collection of essays Homecoming, Ngugi provides a concise summary of what he sees as the main features of the modern period in Africa. 1 He divides it into four phases: the stage of colonial conquest, the years of colonial rebellion, Independence, and then the post-Independence phase. Ngugi's survey is, by definition, a personal one. It proceeds from the East African (specifically, the Kenyan) experience. It is also dependent for its lines of interpretation on particular political views of the author. These include, for example, the need to "build a socialist black power". 2 Nevertheless, Ngugi's survey in many ways represents a typical African commentary on the modern period. As for Ngugi himself, it is apparent that he can be tentatively regarded as a representative model for many of his fellow African writers. He was born during the 1930's, a decade that saw the birth of Kofi Awoonor, Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Christopher Okigbo, Lenrie Peters (in West Africa) and Taban lo Liyong, Peter Palangyo, Okot p'Bitek, David Rubadiri, Robert Serumaga (from East Africa) amongst others - authors who have been collectively responsible for a significant portion of modern African writing. Ngugi, like them, grew up within the colonial period. In common with the others (with the exception of Okigbo) Ngugi studied overseas before returning to Africa. He projects common authorial concerns within his works, in particular the fictional 'investigation' of colonialism and Uhuru.3 It is not surprising, then, that his summary of modern African history (working, as it does, from an acceptance of certain identifiable periods as focal points for change) has a representative status. Differences between various writers refer far more to possibilities for the future rather than to past 'history'.

The first phase of the modern period in Africa is, as Ngugi sees it, the stage of colonial conquest. He describes the central characteristics of this stage:

Economic and political institutions are moulded on those of the metropolitan power. The aim is to create the good docile native - a willing source of raw material and cheap labour. And if he is not willing? One can always rely on the police and the army to do a little pacification. So that through fear of the Bible or the sword the native at first acts as if he accepts the situation. The educational institutions - remember the Church - attempt to strengthen his faith in the status quo. The native is a clean slate on which anything can be scribbled. He is subjected to a constant barrage of suggestions that Western culture is all.4

Some of these weapons of conquest, education for instance, were double-edged. For, as Ngugi points out, the Africans watch "the institutions of the master" and note their weaknesses: "the disparity between religious ideals and practice, between the economic power of the white, often settler, minority and that of the black majority." It is a time when the "peasants and urban workers feel the pinch of taxation and appalling living conditions."5 It is clearly seen as a period of subjugation, a master and servant relationship enforced on a continental scale.

Ngugi evokes the personal impact of colonial conquest. He writes of his own experience as a boy and of what it meant to live in a colonial situation. His description of evident socio-economic inequalities is an illuminating one. Ngugi begins:

I grew up in a small village. My father with his four wives had no land. They lived as tenants-at-will on somebody else's land. Harvests were often poor. Sweetened tea with milk at anytime of day was a luxury. We had one meal a day - late in the evening. Every day women would go to their scruffy little strips of shamba. But they had faith and they waited.6

Yet the scruffy little strips were not the only cultivated land in the district. The important land, the land that formed a basis for the exploitive colonial system, was the land that 'belonged' to the white settlers.7 Just opposite the ridge on which the young Ngugi's village was scattered were the sprawling green fields owned by the European colonisers. They grew coffee and tea and pyrethrum (all cash crops). Ngugi remembers those fields:

I worked there sometimes, digging the ground, tending the settlers' crops, and this for less than ten shillings. Every morning African workers would stream across the valley to sell their sweat for such a meagre sum of money, and at the end of the week or month they would give it all to the Indian trader who owned most of the shops in our area for a pound of sugar, maize flour, or grains, thankful that this would silence the children's clamour for a few days. These workers were the creators of wealth but they never benefited from it: the products of their collective sweat went to feed and clothe the children of the Indian trader, and those of the European settlers not only in our country but even those in England. I was living in a village and also in a colonial situation.8

The suggestion is that it was this situation, colonialism in action in the rural areas, that was to provide the impetus for the movement that became known (in some quarters) as Mau Mau.

It was not only the African rural worker who is seen to feel the thrust of colonial power. The colonial education system apparently brought real problems to the young Africans who managed to find a way into the schools. Ngugi's essays reflect his concern with the dangers of exposure to European 'knowledge'. "The colonial system", writes Ngugi, "produced the kind of education which nurtured subservience, self-hatred, and mutual suspicion." The result was that it produced "a people uprooted from the masses." Ngugi points to the presence of racial discrimination in the allocation of schools, of teachers, and of teaching facilities. The discriminatory system mirrors other features of colonial society:

There were even toilets for Europeans, for Asians and then for Africans. Society was a racial pyramid: the European minority at the top, the Asian in the middle, and the African forming the base. The educational system reflected this inequality. It encouraged a slave mentality, with a reverent awe for the achievements of Europe. Europe was the centre of the universe.9

So European-centred were the educational systems that in history, Ngugi claims, Africans learnt about the rise of the Anglo-Saxons as if "they were the true ancestors of the human race." A similar process is portrayed at work right through Britain's African territories. Kofi Awoonor, in his study of the cultures and literature of Africa entitled The Breast of the Earth, directs attention towards the alienation, confusion, and uncertainty that set in for the educated African. Awoonor sees the "fundamental erosion of the African's confidence in himself" as beginning "with the first Christian convert." The African, writes Awoonor, "was cast in the white man's image, a woeful caricature of this man, without focus or identity."10 It can be seen as significant that both men - Ngugi and Awoonor - explicitly rejected the Christian names that would infer an acceptance of that caricature of identity.11

Ngugi sees the years of colonial rebellion as constituting the second phase of the modern period. In this phase, challenge replaces acceptance. These are the immediate pre-Independence years:

The masses are restive. The nationalist leaders, usually from the ranks of the educated few, organize the discontent into a weapon aimed at the throat of the master. 'Go unto Pharoah and say to him, Let my people go.' Often the nationalist elite demands independence in terms of the very Western ideals it was taught at school and in colonial universities.12

Significantly, Ngugi points out, "the nationalist elite and the colonial administration quarrel in, and speak a language they both understand - using phrases such as 'the rights of man', 'the sanctity of private property', etc.- while all about them, the workers and peasants clamour simply for bread and clothes."13 Eventually the national elite groups gain power, either through violence (as in Kenya) or through 'peaceful' means (as in Nigeria). But power is formally transferred to the African elite only after it has promised to respect the values of the metropolitan state. Here we can notice Ngugi's use of an 'elite-masses'dichotomy that is to inform his subsequent historical summary. As to the nature of the emergent African leadership, Ngugi's views have received support from other African writers. Ayi Kwei Armah, for instance, in an article on African Socialism, points to the essentially isolated position of the men who sought leadership of the new political entities. As does Ngugi, Armah sees them coming from the ranks of the educated few:

The successful African leader is likely to have gone quite far up the ladder of assimilation set up for his benefit by the white man. The system is quite overtly one of the progressive isolation of the subject: a heroic adventure, in literary terms. The desire to excel in competition with one's peers in a colonial situation becomes enlisted in an incentive system that offers increasing rewards in proportion as the competing individual draws nearer the colonialist ideal.14

The transfer of power to such men is shown as being the ultimate reward for success in a European-controlled political examination. The search for Independence becomes a personal treasure hunt for the privileged elite groups.

Whatever the nature of the groups who were to grasp the power seemingly relinquished by the colonial authorities, the movements that ensured that transfer of power (particularly Mau Mau) occupy a central position in Ngugi's historical analysis. He is clearly concerned to correct what he terms "the popular image of the Mau Mau as something purely and simply evil, atavistic and completely unrelated to the mainstream of African nationalism or any decent political sentiments."15 This view, a European-centred travesty of historical truth (as Ngugi sees it), is shown to overlook the particular historical circumstances of the period. It is a view based on the concept of violence as a separate, abstract entity rather than a necessary, liberating act. In terms that one must inevitably contrast with his rather scornful descriptions of the African elite, Ngugi describes Mau Mau as "a cultural, political and economic expression of the aspirations of the African peasant masses."16 Here, Ngugi refers to the specifically Kenyan experience. Yet, despite the relative absence of armed struggles for Independence in British West Africa, the concept of 'Freedom by force of arms' is likewise emphasised (as a generally applicable feature of the period) by Kofi Awoonor from Ghana. Awoonor, however, refers to an armed struggle that took place within a wider context. He sees Independence as having come as a result of post-Second World War agitation "and the confrontation between a newly awakened African proletariat and soldiers returning from the Far East and elsewhere where they shed their blood to save the world from Nazi dictatorship."17 However the period is viewed, the years of colonial rebellion led to the emergence of nation-states under the guidance of the educated elite. These nation-states were to take on a variety of forms and policies, reflecting what has been succinctly described as "the vigour with which the educated few had grasped their opportunities."18

How does the African writer (and his writing) stand in relation to the colonial situation? Ngugi makes the point that in traditional African societies "art was functional." It was not severed from the physical, social and religious needs of the community. "Song, dance and music," writes Ngugi, "were an integral part of a community's wrestling with its environment, part and parcel of the needs and aspirations of the ordinary man." He maintains that there was never, in any African society, "the cult of the artist with its bohemian priests along the banks of Seine or Thames."19 Another African writer, Lewis Nkosi, notes a drastic reversal in the role of the poet or artist within the community following what he calls "the destruction of traditional African values by European imperialism and the concomitant Christianisation of Africans." Nkosi points to the radical nature of the change:

First there has been a change in the social organisation which has resulted in more emphasis being placed on the individual rather than the communal. Hence the art of communal celebration is being replaced by lonely artistic creation - by an individual vision, so to speak. For the first time the African artist is confronting the community as an individual (even an alienate individual) whose vision may not conform to that of the statesman, the political or the religious leader.20

In the light of these changes, the position of the modern African writer can be seen as one fraught with apparent contradictions. An examination of biographical details regarding these writers will show that many of them can be placed in the ranks of "the highly-educated few."21 Their work, in its very making, stand close to that group. Additionally the fact that they are writing in the English language tends to divorce their reception from the total community towards which their works are addressed, thus inhibiting the possibility of their art being seen as part of a process of communal celebration. On the other hand, the nature of the writers' socio-political concerns (often being directed, at least notionally, against elitist values) similarly tends to alienate their work from the leaders of the community who may hold differing views.22 Nevertheless, many writers (alienated or not) tend to stress the communal vision and purpose of their writing. Chinua Achebe, from Nigeria, is a striking instance of this trend.

Chinua Achebe writes of "a fundamental theme [that] must first be disposed of."23 He refers, here, to an attitude that arose from the colonial situation - the view that African people heard of culture for the first time from Europeans. Stressing that African societies were "not mindless", Achebe concentrates on the idea that these societies "frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity." He considers that it is this dignity that many African people "all but lost" during the colonial period and, significantly, that it is this dignity that they must regain:

The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer's duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can't tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them.24

Achebe's stress on 'telling the people' points to both the polemical and communal nature of the undertaking. Clearly, his art (albeit in different circumstances) shares a common feature - social function - with traditional literature. Things Fall Apart, Achebe's first novel, proceeds directly from the stated authorial intention and fulfils, explicitly, the educational function that its author has outlined.25 Achebe has also discussed a point that is central to any general analysis of African literature (and, equally, of African history) - the evident differences between the various regions. He illustrates the point by reference to Things Fall Apart. While travelling in East Africa (before Independence), he was told by many colonial administrators who had left West Africa that "these people are different from yourselves." Achebe says:

Well that is not true because I soon found Africans telling me that my story is a Kikuyu story ... they are talking about Things Fall Apart. I remember somebody said, 'If you change the names of this book to Kikuyu names, this would be our story.'26

His point is that, while there are obvious differences, the similarities are even more striking than the differences. As I have mentioned, the same could be said for the response by African writers to the colonial situation and, indeed, for the generally didactic function of their works. For an illustration of the remarkably close relationship between personal authorial experience, the literary production arising from that experience, and the concomitant process of historical explanation, one can turn to some remarks by Ngugi wa Thiong'o that form part of the preface to Secret Lives. Ngugi explains that "in a sense the stories in this collection form my creative autobiography over the last twelve years and touch on ideas and moods affecting me over the same period" and he continues:

My writing is really an attempt to understand myself and my situation in society and in history. As I write I remember the nights of fighting in my father's house; my mother's struggle with the soil so that we might eat, have decent clothes and get some schooling; my elder brother, Wallace Mwangi, running to the cover and security of the forest under a hail of bullets from Colonial policemen; his messages from the forest urging me to continue with education at any cost; my cousin, Gichini wa Ngugi, just escaping the hangman's rope because he had been caught with live bullets; uncles and other villagers murdered because they had taken the oath; the beautiful courage or ordinary men and women in Kenya who stood up to the might of British imperialism and indiscriminate terrorism. I remember too some relatives and fellow villagers who carried the gun for the whiteman and often became his messengers of blood. I remember the fears, the betrayals, Rachael's tears, the moments of despair and love and kinship in struggle and I try to find the meaning of it all through my pen.27

While he tries to find the meaning of it all through his pen, most noticeably in the novel A Grain of Wheat,28 Ngugi contributes his personal response to a general process of understanding where African history is seen as having been forged by the Africans themselves in the light of their own experience within the modern historical matrix.

One facet of modern African history that can be noted as an undisputed fact is the formal achievement of Independence. The end of direct colonial rule in Ghana (l957) set the pattern of apparent imperial retreat. Ghana was followed by Nigeria (in 1960), Tanganyika and Sierra Leone (196l), Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963), Zambia and Malawi (1964) and by the tiny river state of Gambia (in 1965). The hopes of African freedom appeared to have been significantly realised. The long-suppressed calls of African idealism blazed out their hopeful message. Yet, even then, one can find the voice of caution. Speaking at Kenya's Republic Celebrations, Jomo Kenyatta spoke of images and reality:

But it is not enough to have simply an image in our minds. We cannot be satisfied just with a design, or take refuge in dreams ... from all citizens of Kenya we need the vigour of practical initiative, the fire of a new patriotism, to turn image into reality.29

Despite that cautionary reminder, Kenyatta went on to articulate the euphoric claims of Uhuru. He spoke of African objectives for the new nation-states:

I say to you this: in freedom and with unity, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish ... Our objective here in Africa is justice, after long years of desolation, exploitation and neglect. Africa is fast awakening, not for conquest or disruption or revenge, but to contribute to the world a new philosophy. All men are equal. All men are equally entitled to respect ... All that is needed is a new social conscience in human relations.30

There is the ambition and optimism of Uhuru - "there is nothing we cannot accomplish." Ngugi's reaction to Uhuru appears to have been far more cautious. He saw that an educated group had gained not only political power but also economic power as well. "Will this class use their political power to entrench their economic position?" he asks.31 African literature, after Independence, is centrally concerned with an answer to that question.


1. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (London: Heinemann Educational Books, l972),pp. 55-57. There is no intention to suggest that African history began with the incursion of Western powers into the continent - the emphasis is on the modern period in Africa.

2. Ibid., p. xix.

3. See Ngugi, Secret Lives (London: Heinemann, Educational Books, 1975) where the short stories represent a response to all four phases outlined in the survey.

4 Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 55. He goes on to point out differences between French and British methods of colonisation: "France went further than Britain: she wanted so to scribble on the slate that all the black surface would be covered with the white chalk of French culture."

5. Ibid., pp. 55-56.

6. Ibid., p. 48.

7. By contrast, in British West Africa (where land expropriation, by white settlers, was not encouraged) the colonial system evidenced differing methods of socio-economic control.

8. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 48.

9. Ibid., p. 14.

10. Kofi Awoonor, The Breast of the Earth: A study of the cultures and literature of Africa (New York: Doubleday, 1971), p. 30.

11. Ngugi rejected James Ngugi in favour of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Awoonor is known as Kofi Awoonor rather than George Awoonor-Williams.

12. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 56.

13. Ibid.

14. Ayi Kwei Armah, "African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?", Presence Africaine, no. 64 (1967), p. 16.

15. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 28.

16. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

17. Awoonor, The Breast of the Earth, p. 31.

18. Basil Davidson, The African: An Entry to Cultural History (1969; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 313.

19. Homecoming, p. 6.

20. Lewis Nkosi, Home and Exile (London: Longmans, 1965), p. 104.

21. See, for example, Hans Zell and Helene Silver, eds., A Reader's Guide to African Literature (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), pp. 114-99. A writer such as Wole Soyinka, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife, clearly stands closer (in terms of educational background) to the 'select' group than, for example, Amos Tutuola who reached Std. VI at high school.

22. A process that leads to antagonism between the politicians of the elite groups and the writers who criticise their activities (particularly after Independence). See Oyekan Owomoyela, "Western Humanism and African Usage: A Critical Survey of Non-African Responses to African Literature," Issue, IV, No. 4 (1974): "They [the politicians] see the writers as upstarts who played no part in the struggle and who claim now to know best how the results of victory must be administered" (p. 11).

23. Chinua Achebe, "The Novelist as Teacher," in African Writers on African Writing, ed. G.D. Killam (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973), p. 8. The article first appeared in New Statesman, January 29, 1965.

24. Ibid.

25. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1962).

26. Achebe, Televised Discussion (April 6, 1973), in In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka, ed. Karen L. Morell (Seattle: Institute for Comparative and Foreign Area Studies, University of Washington, 1975), p. 32.

27. Ngugi, Secret Lives, author's preface.

28. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat (1967; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).

29. Jomo Kenyatta, Suffering Without Bitterness: The founding of the Kenya nation (1968; rpt. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973), p. 256.

30. Ibid., pp. 256-57.

31. Ngugi, "Kenya: the Two Rifts," Homecoming, p. 24. This essay first appeared in The New African, I, no. 9 (September 1962). In any historical summary that projects Independence as a central point of division ('before' Independence and 'after' Independence) Ruth Finnegan's comment on African societies is an appropriate one: "There is a tendency to think of two distinct and incompatible types of society ... and to assume that the individual must pass from one to the other by some sort of revolutionary leap. But individuals do not necessarily feel torn between two separate worlds; they exploit the situations in which they find themselves as best they can". [Oral Literature in Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp 53-54].

New: 13 May, 1996 | Now 2 April, 2015