Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 10

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 10
Tune the melody to purpose
Life in the house of the fire-god

When Chinua Achebe likens his writing to palm-wine - "somewhat sweet when it is first brought down in the morning but harsher and more potent as the day advances"1 - his words can be taken as an analogy for the movement from an initial period of hope, to pessimism, and then to a stance of 'potent' revolt. While the vein of protest in the satiric attack (clearly evidenced by Achebe's work itself2) certainly becomes harsher and more potent, so too does the notion that the line of mere despair must finally be drawn. Such an attitude finds its most definitive expression in the words of Ocol, p'Bitek's pragmatic modern man, when he cries

Vex me no more

With your hollow wailings

And crocodile tears

Over uhuru!3

The motive force behind these words proceeds from a recognition that the constant 'wailings' are ultimately counter-productive in nature. It is necessary then, as the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile has written, to


When you get sickandtired

Of being sick and tired

To remind the living

That the dead cannot remember.4

Let dismay end here - that is the call.

A thought that lies at the heart of this turn from disillusionment has been succinctly expressed by Achebe when he said, "What is the point of suffering if it is to go on for ever?".5 It is an idea that implies an alternative to despair, an alternative that will suggest a point to the suffering and also, perhaps, ways of ending it. As Lenrie Peters puts it, let us "Tune the singing of despair/tune the melody to purpose." No amount of self-recrimination or racial self-criticism will alter the past, for "snowflakes in the night/won't bring the dead to life."6 Another of Peters' poems begins: "It is time for reckoning Africa/time for taking stock." For too long, writes the poet, we have dragged our feet through rank disorder, incompetence and self-defeat. Open your eyes and see the riot squads parading the avenues "like lion prides/testing their sinews,"7 he calls. Now is the time for taking stock. For Peters, and for Africa, the time for reckoning is seen to have arrived. It is a reckoning that stresses the need of a search for a way forward and a consideration of the human alternatives that this search will uncover. When Leonard Kibera ends Voices in the Dark with the question "Why end where the warriors return and come to the back alley?" (p.180), he provides a metaphor for this movement out of the 'back alley' and onto the straight way ahead.8 The songs of despair are now to be tuned to a purpose.

The pleas and suggestions of future directions are, as one would expect, many and varied. The search for alternatives takes on a multitude of forms. Lenrie Peters, in a poem headed "Plea to Mobutu", writes of the "vile contemptible game of politics." He accepts that this game must be played in all its gruesome haphazardness. But, he writes, "let it be mellowed with compassion, justice, effect."9 The use of the word effect indicates that his thought is akin to that of Achebe - let the suffering have some point, some eventual justice. Peters' acceptance of the necessity for such a game, however vile that game might be, clearly does not prevent him from looking for another way. He seeks a racial saviour

Who will look down from the Eagle's crater

Secured inside the solid rock

And bring us the Tablets yet again.

On which the promises and the Law stand out in gold.10

This figure, seen as a type of African Moses, is defined within a religious context. The future law-giver, who will lead the people to the true way, is at the centre of a plea that is essentially individual (rather than collective) in its vision. One notes, too, that the Tablets are to be brought "yet again". It would appear then that, for Peters, the way ahead depends on the resurrection of forgotten truths and moral codes. He asks for a hero to find them.11

This search for hidden truths, a looking back for the future, runs as a constant thread through the work of Kofi Awoonor. Lawyer Amamu (in This Earth, My Brother ...) pleads "... let us return to the magic hour of our birth for which we mourn" (p.29). Desperately he wishes for a solution to his dilemma of alienation. As he sees it, a way out depends on a reunion with ancestral forces: "Return the miracle return the miracle return the miracle" (p.166). Amamu is shown to be a man who wants to go home; to go home and then return, replenished in spirit. "I shall run all the way home" (p.117), he thinks. The problem, for him, is where is home? For "Home is my desolation, home is my anguish, home is my drink of hysop and tears. Where is home?" (p.29). Although, superficially, such thoughts seem part of a barren nostalgia for some past golden age, the movement for a recovery of wholeness and purpose (presumed destroyed, at least in part, during colonial days) is no mere negative reflex. This point can be clarified by an examination of Awoonor's poems in Night of my Blood. Here, the poet appears to be constantly searching for a way of re-connecting with his ancestral truths, a connection that will lead to an individual spiritual cleansing. Let us, he writes, "pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers."12 In a situation where the poet sees his people as being "Caught between the anvil and the hammer/In the forging house of a new life," he asserts that the old ways were unified ways, purposeful ways. The solution, as he sees it, is to use the past for the present in a regeneration of spirit that will lead to a better life in the future: "Sew the old days for us, our fathers,/That we can wear them under our new garment."13 This new garment is to be worn at a celebration, not at a wake. The poet will wear it at "the feast that is coming/the feast of the new season that is coming."14 It is to be no individual feast but a collective banquet for those whose souls are no longer congealed by the bitterness of alien forms. In a poem "The New Warmth," Awoonor writes:

We seek a life in the house of the fire-god

So that the benumbed fingers of our souls can unclasp

And the new fire warm us all.15

The new fire will warm and liberate all who attend. The resurrected values of the African past are to be used in the service of the future. It is a future where "we can be one then, we can be one." Significantly, the poet sees this better world as being "a socialist world."16 Awoonor is thus defining a vision of both past and future within his poetry. While he is prepared to write of a socialist world, it is apparent that such a world rests upon (indeed, relies on) centuries of racial experience that predate any modern ideological discourses. With his stress on an individual cleansing that leads to a collective strength of purpose, he has managed to forge his own vision of the path that leads forward.

Awoonor's vision of what is needed to claim the future is an ambitious one, encompassing vast areas of cultural understanding. Taban lo Liyong, by contrast, is not so ambitious in his alternatives for the future.17 His view is more limited and, it would seem, a great deal less demanding:

do your thing and i will do my own

i rejoice in my existence afterall it is all ive got

learn to praise your own but dont make it a burden

for others to carry

mine is heavy enough i cant even stand up


So here the individual problem leads to an individual answer: rejoice in your own existence and shoulder your own burdens. A similar view can be detected in a poem that deals, in the idiosyncratic Liyong manner, with what is called "the marriage between negritude and debased whitetude ...".19 Two men meet in a wattle hut. The hut is "part and parcel" of one man's life. He has "grown up there eaten there fucked there and possibly died there." The other man, with his modern load of problems and guilt, asks "hey man how would like me to join you for a change for you know what im so tired and fed up of life in them storey houses." The first man (the "nigger" who lives in the hut) sees no problem in this arrangement. Good idea, he says, bring your woman too, for "... soul brother you are wonderful and please go ahead and fuck right here on my floor and damn them civilized people." The witty, erratic way in which Liyong frames the situation does not completely disguise the fact that what is being presented here is a case of problem-solving at the most basic level. The solution, a type of sexual comradeship that will wipe out the artificial values of "them civilised people," is no less interesting for the ironic manner in which it is approached. On the contrary, here is Taban lo Liyong's essentially optimistic idea of personal rejoicing in its clearest expression.

Mbella Sonne Dipoko is another poet whose work projects definite directions for the future. He proclaims, for example, "The Tenderness Manifesto".20 Let us all be poets, he writes, and declare certain places as "regional capitals of poetry":

Where we could meet to poetize on the affairs of the world

And relaunch those best dreams of mankind

Which the politicians have betrayed.

These capitals should be out in the country, so that all may be reminded "of the purity of the first days." People will assemble regardless of race and they shall be egalitarians, socialists. Such an assembly, dreams the poet, will be collectively opposed to racial, national, and individual exploitation:

In this way we shall make of the exercise of power

A sublime affair of tenderness

Mobilizing every conscience for the task of human


And the co-operation of peoples

Across the face of the earth.

What are the most significant features of Dipoko's poetic manifesto? Clearly, it asserts the universal nature and worth of values that can be expressed through the poetic sensibility. It is pastoral and anti-urban, collective rather than individual, in thrust. It stresses the value of tenderness and purity, rejects exploitation and the political betrayers. As in the poetry of Awoonor and Peters, the idea persists that the "best dreams" of mankind need to be rediscovered and relaunched. If Dipoko's manifesto images a romantic hippy-like utopia, here is a poet who still dares to dream.

Orphan, the work by Okello Oculi, presents a whole range of ideas that tend to suggest answers to the question - where do we go from here? The format of this "village opera" (as the author has called it) is calculated to provide a literary vehicle for the presentation of directional alternatives.21 The orphan's age-mate, for example, is shown as not being despondent about the future. "... I know,/The date of outburst and assertion will come," he tells the orphan (p.60). Endure, he says, and let us live out ourselves before the sun sets again. The age-mate speaks of refusing the lures and traps to the way of surrender

To the way of surrender into final

Disintegration and the petrification

Of our insides.

The refusal of this way, he says, will allow us to return with new vigour and with "Ammunitions for kicking out more,/Again!" (p.61). The hopeful implications of this advice are represented by the idea of a counter-attack against the modern African socio-cultural malaise. The subsequent advice given by the orphan's father can also be interpreted within this ideational framework of preservation and counter-attack; preservation of what is good in the traditional values for a struggle against those forces that would destroy the "manness" and the collective integrity of the new way forward. This communal father-figure22 points out that

Humanness and morals were known and practised

Before you began life;

Tenderness, humility and decency

By man to man in honour of manness.

He sees these values "burnt on the altars of Isolation" (p.98) and aggressive selfishness. The father tells the orphan to forget talk of revenge and to avoid the paths that lead to a corrosive self-pity. Instead, he advises "Give the injured manness in you a chance!" (p.99). The advice of Okello's age-mate, regarding the notion of 'living out yourself', is clarified and extended in this section (the final one of the work). Here the father talks of rising "to the struggle for your manness" and of enthroning "the spirit of your mother/In the new homestead", then "let the world feel/The arrogant boast of her milk" (p.101). This is a clear call for a rejuvenation of African values within each individual, a rejuvenation that will lead to a new society ("homestead") where the qualities of decency, self-respect and integrity - both personal and collective - will be actively in force as guides to right behaviour. Through their comments and advice, the orphan's advisors provide a composite glimpse of such a society. Although they all - the grandmother, the uncle, the village gossip, the age-mate, the stepmother, the father - are seen to have something different to say, their remarks are directed towards a common objective: to put the African orphan on the right road to the future, to make him a whole man, proud and strong and true. Do not be ashamed of the past, they say. Use it for learning the necessary lessons of modern life.

A representation of one form of personal assertion is found in Robert Serumaga's novel Return to the Shadows. It is manifested by a violent break from the pressures that demand subservience to patterns of destructive behaviour. A young Sandhurst-trained army officer is shown leading his squad on a punitive mission that involves a search for 'seditious' elements in the countryside. He has been ordered to bring back these people (dead or alive), and to crush all potential resistance to the recent political coup d'etat. His men begin to molest civilians on the road. Although Serumaga clearly shows the young officer at a crisis of conscience, there is little warning of the dramatic event that is to come. The lieutenant waits for his marauding soldiers to move on ahead. Suddenly he opens fire and mows down his whole platoon. He walks off, leaving the bodies on the roadside. Now he feels the earlier heaviness lift from his heart: "There was freedom where only minutes previous he had felt like a trapped animal." Despite the fact that he knows he will probably hang for his actions, there is shown to be the great consolation that "then they would be killing a free man. It was much better that way" (p.26). In this presented situation, personal freedom is being achieved through a violent act of renunciation and the whole concept of revolt (for this figure and for those in similar predicaments) is embedded within the narrative formation of the novel. In this instance, individual choice and individual integrity are shown to have been restored by the deliberate use of force. This, then, is one way of giving the injured manness a chance.

While the episode of the lieutenant in Return to the Shadows incorporates a single act of violent personal revolt, Sammy's vision of the future in No Bride Price tends to raise the possibility of there being a more wide-ranging holocaust. The old, corrupt ways are to be destroyed in the cleansing furnace of a massive fire. Talking to his friend Jonathan Lombe, Sammy speaks of a time when "'the fire must burn the cinders to ashes, the totem poles, the new phony Gods, the lot must go into the bonfire. Then the frightening beauty of the new phoenix as it rises.'"23 "'Can you see it,'" he asks Lombe, "'as it spreads its wings, beautiful and glorious over Africa, buoyed by the values that were flung away to 'catch up'?'". In Sammy's view, a whole nation (even a continent) is to be redeemed by the force of this new fire, with an African phoenix arising from the ashes of self-defeat. Significantly, after this fire, the traditional values (lost in the rush towards 'modernisation') will be seen to support the new society. Again one notices the projected union of the best of the old ways and the new. Sammy speaks of the modern "festered wound" that is to be healed by such radical surgery. At the centre of this vision lies the idea of a large-scale, liberating drive towards the future. Within this drive, all the forces that are seen to have taken Africa from the 'straight way' will be rejected and eliminated. In terms of socio-political alternatives, Sammy's view (as it is presented by Rubadiri in the novel) can be succintly defined as that of an apocalyptic conflagration.

The poetry of Chinua Achebe projects yet another view of directional alternatives. "Remembrance Day" is a poem that deals with the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War (specifically, the mourning - by the military victors - of the dead).24 Do not mourn the innocent dead with

... your smart backward

step and salute at the flowered

foot of empty graves ...

Achebe writes. Do not pity the dead but fear them, for they will return to plague you. These sorrowing 'victors' need to fear the malice of their fallen kindred "wronged in death", slaughtered in a bloody internecine conflict. Clearly, for Achebe, this has been no cleansing fire. What is of interest here is the nature of the poet's advice to the mourners on Remembrance Day. From whom, for example, should they flee and seek "asylum in distant places ..."? It is seen that the mourners must flee from "a new generation of heroes" who will hopefully rise

in phalanges behind their purified

child-priest to inaugurate

a season of atonement and rescue

from fingers calloused by heavy deed

the tender rites of reconciliation.

Once more, as in the 'Tablets' poem of Lenrie Peters, here is the notion of a second coming, a season of purity and vindication. The image of the child-priest (as saviour) stands at the head of the renaissance. Achebe's emphasis on "rescue" and "reconciliation" stresses both the poet's concern for a return to forgotten values and his sense of a need for a movement towards tenderness ("tender rites") and away from recrimination. The possibility of some future season of atonement, when the rites of reconciliation will be effected, emerges as a central factor in Achebe's preservation of a positive view of the times to come. At the core of his poetic vision is that second chance: the chance of redemption.25

Achebe's thoughts of the way ahead can be usefully compared with those of another West African poet, Syl Cheyney-Coker. While Cheyney-Coker's poems are also shot through with references to a future reckoning, his view of the probable nature of the reckoning is rather different. The difference lies in Cheyney-Coker's paramount emphasis on violence. In the first part of his poetic "Preface" he writes that "It takes the savage language of a kick/to cure the heart of its persistent follies", a remark that is followed by the affirmation that "there is a beautiful splendour about violence."26 As part of the last stanza of "The Crucified", where the poet asks to be nailed to his cross of suffering, this advice is given to his African brothers: "prepare to burn your degrees and other academic shit/tomorrow will be rough-armed with the peasants' teeth." In "Analysis" the poet warns those who dance under the chandeliers (while others coax stubborn fires in village huts) that their sanity has been preserved by walking with one eye open and the other shut. These people of the privileged elite are, he writes, "... failing to curtain the storm which prepares the day!".27 It is evident that (as Cheyney-Coker sees it) the 'storm' will be an armed peasant uprising.28 He wants to know "when will it happen my Sierra" that "the voices of acacias the breaths of deserts the dams of rivers/the throats of savannahs the thighs of baobabs may cry REVOLT".29 The reference to features of the African landscape reinforces the idea of a natural revolt against physical (and, by extension, socio-political) disharmony. The influence of Fanonist thought - particularly regarding the respective roles of peasants and intellectuals, and the inevitability of violent struggle - is widespread in these poems. It follows, then, that the fire to come will be lit by those whom Frantz Fanon termed les damnes de la terre. Another poem, simply entitled "Peasants", reinforces this impression. Starting from the thought "The Agony: I say their agony!", he hammers home the sheer desperation of these people, their squalor, their "bartered souls," their long miserable nights, and their agony of watching the luxurious living of the few, while they starve in their hovels. Cheyney-Coker can see what is to come:


the agony of it all I say the agony of it all

but above all the damn agony of appealing to their patience

Africa beware! their patience is running out!30

The time of the future storm will be when that patience has run out. It would appear to be not merely a destructive storm, for it presages the dawn of a better day for Africa and her people. The ideological force sustaining and directing Cheyney-Coker's poetry is one that is committed to a future hopeful democracy of life on the continent.

I have mentioned earlier the Liyong poem "Student's Lament". There is one significant facet of the lament that demands further attention. Despite the essentially satirical thrust of the lament, Liyong's student figure certainly hints at a way out of the post-Uhuru dilemma. The point is made that the "routing of rulers" only to place others on their thrones "shows on effort vain/And blood shed for sport." What is the use, he asks, of one elite group being replaced by another? The 'student' attempts to isolate the necessary features of a more fruitful way forward. He suggests that the poor need to "be promoted"

And a release of energy

Come from cramped limbs,

Unused for generations unknown.

His call is for a society where the energy of the masses, channeled to a collective purpose, will be utilised for the common good. Clearly, too, that collective purpose should be directed by a leadership that cares for the collective. For, as Liyong puts it elsewhere, "what is leadership/If not the ability to care?".31

Two component notions of the directional debate - violent struggle to create new values, and education to preserve them - are neatly fused together in a section of Ayi Kwei Armah's novel Why Are We So Blest?. One of the entries in Modin's diary reads: "In the imperial situation the educational process is turned into an elitist ritual for selecting slave traders. The revolutionary ideal is an actual, working egalitarian society." Modin pushes on to articulate the positive conclusion of such an analysis when he writes that "War against the invader should be the educational process for creating new anti-European, anti-imperial, anti-elitist values" (p. 222). Writing from a framework of ideas like these (ideas that lie at the heart of his later novel Two Thousand Seasons), Armah places himself in the vanguard of the search for a valid racial direction in the post-Independence period.32 It is a search for a direction that is, as Bai Kisogie has pointed out, "not racial in the narrow, atavistic sense but ... a unifying, harmonising context for a distinctive humanity."33 It represents the vibrant, new voice of a changing African socio-political vision. When Wole Soyinka called (in 1974) for "an activity of total self-retrieval", for an intensification of a "commitment to giving form and currency to ideas which make the process of change meaningful and beneficial to the social collective",34 it can be seen that he was suggesting new directions for African literature. That call is being answered now.

So much for the general 'situation' of African texts in the post-Uhuru period. It is time now to turn towards a close formal appraisal of certain significant works. The works are grouped within six generic areas: the Historical Novel, the Novelistic Autobiography, the Realist Novel, the Allegory, the Polemical Poem, and the Satirical Play. These are the key sites of ideological debate for modern African literature.


1. Achebe, Girls At War and other stories, author's preface.

2. The increasing potency of socio-political reference can be seen in A Man of the People (published in 1966) compared with the earlier novel No Longer At Ease (1960). A Man of the People can also be compared with the more recent works: Beware, Soul Brother: Poems, and the later stories "Civil Peace" and "Girls at War" in Girls at War.

3. Okot p' Bitek, Song of Ocol, p. 71. It is necessary to keep in mind p' Bitek's use of irony in the presentation of Ocol's views here.

4. Keorapetse Kgositsile, from "My People No Longer Sing," in Kgositsile, My Name is Afrika (New York: Doubleday, 1971).

5. The remark is quoted by Kofi Awoonor during an interview in 1971. See Bernth Lindfors, et al., eds., Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas (Austin, Texas: African and Afro-American Research Institute, 1972), p. 56.

6. Peters, from poem no. 30, in Katchikali.

7. Ibid., from poem no. 64.

8. Kibera, Voices in the Dark, p. 180.

9. Peters, from poem no. 45, in Katchikali. The title of the poem refers to Joseph Mobutu (successor to Patrice Lumumba and Moise Tshombe), the President of the Republic of Zaire.

10. Peters, from poem no. 50, in Satellites.

11. A hero, perhaps, like young Okolo in Gabriel Okara, The Voice (1964; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970).

12. Awoonor, from "We Have Found A New Land," in Night of my Blood.

13. Ibid., from "The Anvil And The Hammer."

14. Ibid., from "The Years Behind."

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., from "March, Kind Comrade, Abreast Him."

17. At least, that is, in his poetry. See, however, Taban lo Liyong, Thirteen Offensives Against Our Enemies (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1973). The book is "Dedicated to MARCUS GARVEY 'the Greatest Dreamer of Africa's Greatness' and KIPCHOGE KEINO 'He Does what we Mean'."

18. Liyong, from "when some people dig with hoes and others with tractors", in Another Nigger Dead.

19. Ibid., from "heres something ive always wanted to talk about".

20. Dipoko, in Black and White In Love. The poem is dated "December 1970 - March 1971."

21. See the "Prologue" to Orphan: "You are going to watch a village opera performed."

22. This is clearly no individual father, but a communal father-figure for the modern African who is roaming in strange surroundings. Similarly, with regard to the identity of 'the orphan', see the comments by Okello Oculi in African Writers on African Writing, ed. G.D. Killam (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973) that begin:

"How many people are orphans in Africa?

Lots of people are orphans ..." (p. 132).

23. David Rubadiri, No Bride Price, p. 170. Regarding the use of the fire/phoenix motif in No Bride Price, it is appropriate to note this reference in Colin Legum, ed., Africa Handbook (1961; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969) concerning the origin of the name Malawi:

"The earliest arrivals, coming from the north upon Lake Nyasa, saw its surface glowing 'like fire', for which their word was malawi. They became known as the 'people of the flames' - the aMaravi. There are several versions of the origins of Malawi but they all turn on 'fire' or 'flames'" (p. 237). David Rubadiri, the author, was born in Malawi.

24. Achebe, "Remembrance Day", in Beware, Soul Brother.

25. A point that can be substantiated by reference to the following poems: "Love Song (for Anna)," "Answer", "Beware, Soul Brother," and "Generation Gap", in Beware, Soul Brother.

26. Cheyney-Coker, from "Preface", in Concerto for an Exile.

27. Ibid., from "Storm".

28. See these lines from the important poem "Toilers" (the emphasis is mine):

"... my peasant my sins are too visible and at the end of your/uprising/dangle my head on your sword the fraternal oppressor!" (Concerto for an Exile).

29. Ibid., from "Lotus-Eater". The emphasis on 'revolt' is that of the poet.

30. Cheyney-Coker, from "Peasants", in Concerto for an Exile.

31. Liyong, from "The Marriage of Black and White", in Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs.

32. At the end of Two Thousand Seasons there is the note:

"Dar es Salaam

October 1971 - August 1972."

(p. 321).

Tanzania is regarded as being a nation of socialist experiment.

33. Bai Kisogie, "A Plague On Both Your Houses," review of Two Thousand Seasons, by Ayi Kwei Armah, in Transition, 9 (ii), No. 45 (1974), 75.

34. Editorial in Transition, 9 (ii), No. 45 (1974).

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