Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 6

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 6
No sweetness here
The straight way lost

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fear! So bitter is it that death is hardly more.

Kofi Awoonor chooses this passage from Dante's Inferno (Canto I) as a frontispiece for his novel This Earth, My Brother ... . "Dark wood", "straight way ... lost", "savage and harsh and dense": within the framework of Awoonor's presentation of recent Ghanaian history, the analogous implications become clear. The dark wood and the straight way represent, respectively, the current state of affairs and the previously conceived path of hopeful African progress. Awoonor implies that it is a bitter thing to write of these divergent paths. He would appear to be suggesting that death is scarcely harder than the bitterness of self-defeat and, as the story of lawyer Amamu proceeds, it is seen that the agony of the 'dark wood' stems from the collapse of African expectations. Awoonor's selection of such a quotation stresses the extent to which the early post-Independence disenchantment has been intensified. Now it is no longer a matter of shock or dismay. The images, now, are of darkness and death. Their function is to signify a shattering realisation - things have fallen apart again, the straight way is lost.

When a poet asks "Is hope so bullet-ridden/as the wall of execution?" attention is focused on a painfully-sensed loss of meaningful socio-political directions, after Independence.1 Given the textual ideologies of these works, an affirmative answer to the question seems much the more appropriate reply. The poet's striking choice of imagery - hope on the bullet-ridden wall of execution (in the light of contemporary events, by no means a purely figurative expression) - emphasises the limits within which 'hope' is defined. A novel by Yulisa Amadu Maddy, from Sierra Leone, serves to reinforce that sense of limits even in the title of the work - No Past, No Present, No Future.2 Santigie Bombolai, one of the three hopeful young male characters in the novel, is an African student in England. He is presented giving the end-of-term lecture at his college, to a predominantly English audience. Maddy shows Santigie attempting to explain his notions of Africa and the modern Africans. He says, in part:

Oh, we are a forlorn people. Think of the greed of Macbeth, and you will understand African politics. Think of African education and you'll see why Africans have to run to Europe for further education. (p. 96)

Santigie then goes on to stress the overturning of normal social roles and functions within modern Africa. He maintains that "Our psychopaths are ambassadors; our medical practitioners are in jail; our lawyers are in mental homes, our religious ministers are busy making babies; our chiefs are fighting to get messenger jobs" (pp. 96-97). "Now", asks Santigie, "do you think that we are independent?". Allowing for a certain overstatement (consistent with Maddy's characterisation of a young man under great stress), Santigie's remarks indicate a total loss of hope for the future.3 How can one look forward to a future that proceeds from such a dismal present? We are reminded, again, of 'the dark wood' and the straight way that appears to have been lost. The choice of the adjective forlorn is, in this context, an exact one: desperate, abandoned and forsaken.

In the face of a proliferation of military coups in post-colonial Africa, the Ugandan poet Taban lo Liyong adopts an attitude of sarcastic scorn. One of his poems opens with the lines "bless the African coups/tragedy now means a thing to us" and it soon becomes clear that the poet's handling of the subject is working to ironically confuse conventional notions of progress and reaction, comedy and tragedy.4 At least, suggests the poet (with tongue in cheek), the coups have contributed something to our understanding. Now an African definition of tragedy can be constructed: is tragedy

when your friends are out to hang you

it is tragedy

when your brother betrays you for fun or fund

it is tragedy

when darkness descends and you know it will suffocate you

it is tragedy

when doom is all you are left with

it is tragedy

when your best ideas have no chance for life

it is tragedy

when you curse and hope it will stick ... .

Liyong's grim catalogue rolls on to a coldly sarcastic finale of death:

...objectively speaking tragedy is a child of our baser

and primal

instinct and impetuosity to evolution

those emancipated from feelings see transgressors

of natural

laws falling and remark


This chart of 'blessings' ends with a barrage of deliberately-flattened phrases (with the significant exception of "NIGGER") that serves to satirically emphasise - rather than disguise - the importance of these tragic events. It would seem that the rash of military coups can be accepted, as historical fact, only within such a bitterly ironic vision.

The virulent tone of much modern African writing represents an explicit criticism of earlier, euphoric ideas regarding a distinctive African personality. These ideas pointed to the presence of a magnificent racial personality that would somehow surmount all difficulties by the sheer beauty and poetry of the African 'soul'. Tending to stress the uniqueness of a distinctive African 'self', they found expression in the poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire and other writers in French, as part of a movement loosely termed negritude.5 Compared with the fundamental impact of the negritude philosophy on writing from the former French colonies in West Africa, it appears to have had an essentially minor influence on literary production in English. Nevertheless, to the extent that the ideas of negritude have been commonly received and understood, they continue to operate as a focal point of debate. This is not to say that they are, to any great extent, affirmed. On the contrary, the negritude philosophy functions as a readily accessible target for the expression of disillusionment. Within the context of post-Independence socio-political failures, the ideas of negritude appear as an exercise in mockery and self-deceit. The idea that 'black' is necessarily 'beautiful' (while being seen as having made a positive contribution to the African's pride in his racial identity) begins to be forcibly undermined. Lenrie Peters puts the point effectively in a poem where he juxtaposes the negritude concept of the African 'self' with the harsh reality of life in the villages. The poet writes:

You talk to me of 'self'

- the African self. The inner

workings of a man, his caste

the meaning of his life


Go arrow-flight two hundred miles

and ask for 'self', but

when you find him, send

me word that I may see

Go into villages, not palaces;

look among goats and sheep

under pyramids of squalor

degradation, the moon's eclipse


There is your 'Self' crushed

between the grinding wheel

of ignorance and the centuries;

the blood congealed in the baking sun.6

Grinding poverty, ignorance, squalor - this (implies the poem) is the real face of Africa. The poet rejects the vague and seemingly bankrupt ideas of black beatitude. For him, there is no solace to be found in self-congratulatory notions that ignore the real suffering, the continued suffering, of the people who live under that baking sun.

Neither (many of these texts suggest) is there any solace to be found in an urban-centred, capitalist ethos of economic development and financial accumulation. Filia, the central figure of Cyprian Ekwensi's novel Iska, attempts to sum up her feelings about life in the Nigerian capital of Lagos. "Life as a whole was one big joke," she decides. As for Lagos, it "was a place as artificial as plastic dishes, as treacherous as the eroding hillsides of Milikan Hill." The city, for Filia, appears to be "a circus, a cinema show put on by some ambitious ass simply to have pages of history written for him by clowns." It is, quite simply, a "home of bastards ... and phony characters all searching for their own identity."7 For a similar textual commentary from East Africa, one can turn to a passage from the short story "The Tailor" and find this type of summation:

Today there were only two kinds of humans in the money-grabbing Nairobi society: those who continuously stepped on other people's toes and those who had theirs continuously stepped upon. Both were unanimous on the evils of having theirs stepped upon. But given a fair chance, each would still readily raise their feet.8

People treading on people, pages of history written by clowns: these are exemplary instances of the presented urban scenario that is the new capitalism. Here is no paean of praise to the natural dignity of the African people. One finds, instead, quite the reverse. In the city environment of social and political intrigues, even the concept of natural behaviour (what is natural behaviour?) undergoes an ideational transfiguration. This process is demonstrably at work in "Two Views from the Window", a poem by Joe de Graft centred on the period in Ghana after the downfall of Kwame Nkrumah. The poem begins with an account (by the poetic "I") of the crowd who watch a procession of the new rulers. It is, outwardly at least, a happy show of support where "... everybody is happy, today being anniversary,/And that's all that matters, come to think of it." The promise of a new regime is contemplated with a seeming equanimity. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is a poetic 'front' for the author's ironic vision. What the reader is being presented with is, in effect, a scornful critique of the various elite groups and their cynical manoeuvring for personal security. After noting the civil servants, the intellectuals, the chiefs, and all those others who have managed to ride the waves of socio-political turmoil, the poet concludes with a reference to "those remaining" of whom

Some are gone stark mad,

While the final few, though sane,

Admit that they are impotent;

Which, in a situation like the present,

Would be natural

Even if they carried cannon between their legs!9

It is precisely that "situation like the present" which engages the attention of the writers. In de Graft's poem, one notes projected (albiet ironical) acceptance of a new state of 'normality' where impotence and madness are included in a travesty of human behaviour patterns.

The Christian God does not escape the angry lash of criticism. A growing loss of faith in the concept of a benevolent deity is apparent in the works of several writers from the predominantly Christian Ibo group of Eastern Nigeria, for example. I.N.C. Aniebo, who himself fought in the Nigerian Civil War, has produced The Anonymity of Sacrifice, a novel centred on the Biafra war period.10 One of the two central protagonists is the figure of Captain Benjamin Onwura, a career officer in the Army of Biafra and a Catholic. Onwura is shown wanting desperately "to convince himself that God not only existed but also did not connive at what the enemy - who professed to worship Him too - had done." He asks himself: "Was it really God's design that pregnant women should be dissected with a matchet, and unborn, innocent, babes torn out of their wombs and tossed to the dogs? Was it God's intention that women and children should ..." (p. 83). Onwura's questioning is interrupted, significantly, by a resumption of fighting that leads to yet more senseless killing of Africans by Africans. A similar line of questioning (regarding the massive discrepancy between faith and reality) is implicit in Chinua Achebe's poignant little poem about Christmas in Biafra. The figure of a shrunken, famine-stricken child is seen against a traditional Christian tableau that contains a "Jesus plump wise-looking and rose-cheeked....".11 The juxtaposition of Jesus ("the Child") and the starving Biafran child shows Achebe enforcing a view wherein the manger-tableau is seen as little more than an exercise in destructive irrelevance. The questioning continues. In some lines from a poem by Mbella Sonne Dipoko, one can detect the voice of Africa's disenchanted congregations.12 The poet asks God:

What kind of a parent are you then

Who cannot force your reality

On your children ... .

While young girls lament their lovers killed on the battle-line, where are you, God? Of course, there can be no answer. Yet the asking of the question points to the presence of an underlying anguish, an awakened state of bitter perceptions.

Wole Soyinka concludes his intricate story of a group of frustrated young Nigerian intellectuals (The Interpreters) with the phrase " ... only like a choice of drowning".13 Within a framework that comprises only rubble from the dreams of Independence, this is often presented as the only choice - like a choice of poisoned weapons for the condemned man. Without doubt, one of the most singularly vitriolic works in the corpus of modern African literature is Ayi Kwei Armah's sardonically-titled Why Are We So Blest?. Modin and Solo figure as twin narrators in this novel, with Solo also acting as a commentator on Modin's progress through what emerge as various stages of disenchantment.14 Modin, who earlier in the narrative is seen as an African scholarship student at an American university, throws up his studies and goes (after various sexual adventures) to join an armed liberation movement in Africa. He ends, with the tip of his penis torn off, dying in the desert. Earlier, thinking of the purpose of his education, he comes to the bitter realisation that all his studies are preparing him for an oppressive role as a privileged elite figure (part of an elite that he sees as heir to the African groups who sold their brothers to the white slavers): "What a farce, scholarships! That blood money never went to any of us for our intelligence. It was always payment for obedience ..." . "Our history continues the same", thinks Modin, "Horrible thought. I am here because I am a factor. A factor in our history. A factor in our destruction" (p. 160). He attempts to reject such an historical role:

Factors then, scholarship holders, B.A.s, M.A.s, Ph.D. now, the privileged servants of white empire, factors then, factors now ... The educated Africans, the Westernized African successes are contemptible worms ... The end of a Western education is not work but self-indulgence. An education for worms and slugs. (p. 161)

Modin searches for a personal "exit" from the contemptible system. Solo, projected as being a Portuguese-educated African, has already come to a similar conclusion. "Our disease is ordained," Solo maintains, "With that resented suddenness, recurring in each of us waking from mystification, our eyes are forced open and we see ourselves, competitors in the debilitating struggle to climb into easier stations in a world built on injustice" (p. 83). Solo and Modin, waking from that mystification, do 'see' themselves and they do not like what they see. With Modin offering his services to the African guerilla fighters, Armah (as omniscient author) gives the narrative a brutally ironic twist. For Modin's services are rejected by the Africans. Solo explains the reason to Modin:

"You don't make sense to them.

Your desire to join. You're not a

failure ... They think you're a

romantic." (p. 260)

With that, there is nowhere left for Modin to go. Inevitably alienated by his status as a 'been-to' research student, Modin meets his end in an orgy of sexual savagery. He goes to his death as the protesting victim of what is presented as being both an individual and general dilemma.

In one section of a later novel by Ayi Kwei Armah, the narrator refers to the ubiquitous fly-whisk so beloved by East African political figures.15 It is pungently described as the "indispensible tool of all flyblown leadership" - a phrase that points to the potential utility of such a power-token as a literary device, as an enabling focal point for expression of the bitterness at the centre of these texts. Indeed, a concise and hard-hitting example of precisely this procedure is to be found in a poem by John Ruganda:

Fling it sharply, and growl:

Rebels hide their heads

Wave it gently, and smile:

Flies flit from pus drooping eyes

Sling it on the arm, finally:

Empty stomachs will drum for you.16

Flyblown leadership. The drumming of empty stomachs. As it is put in another of Armah's novels: "So much time has gone by, and still there is no sweetness here."17


1. Lenrie Peters, from poem No. 12, "We have lived as if in vacuum cylinders", in Katchikali (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971).

2. Yulisa Amadu Maddy, No Past, No Present, No Future (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).

3. The remarks of Joe Bengoh, another of Maddy's young men in this novel, are of interest here: "'Frustration, depression, loneliness, failure. Money failure. Friendship failure. Education failure. That is what is wrong, not only with Santigie, but with me also. It is the cancer that is slowly eating us away'" (p. 172).

4. Taban lo Liyong, "bless the african coups", in Another Nigger Dead (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972).

5. Among many general surveys of the negritude movement in African literature, see: Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, eds., Modern Poetry from Africa (1963; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), introduction; Mercer Cook and Stephen E. Henderson, The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), pp. 3-64; and Wilfred Cartey, Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa (1969; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971), pp. 217-314.

6. Lenrie Peters, from poem No. 63, "You talk to me of 'self'," in Katchikali.

7. Cyprian Ekwensi, Iska (1966; rpt. London: Panther Books, 1968), pp. 116-17.

8. "The Tailor", in L. Kibera and S. Kahiga, Potent Ash (1968; rpt.Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1972), p. 117. The story is by Leonard Kibera.

9. Joe de Graft, "Two Views from the Window", in Beneath the Jazz and Brass (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975).

10. I.N.C. Aniebo, The Anonymity of Sacrifice (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974).

11. Chinua Achebe, "Christmas In Biafra (1969)," in Beware, Soul Brother: Poems (1971; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972). See, also Achebe's poem "Refugee Mother and Child", in this collection.

12. Mbella Sonne Dipoko, from "On God", in Black and White In Love.

13. Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters (1965; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970), p. 251.

14. Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest? (1972; rpt. New York: Anchor Press and Doubleday, 1973). 'Progress' is, perhaps, rather too optimistic a description (even used in a formal sense).

15. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973), p. 254.

16. A poem from Uka, I, No. 1; subsequently quoted by Ngugi in Homecoming, p. 77.

17. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p. 78. See, also, Ama Ata Aidoo, No Sweetness Here: A collection of short stories (London: Longman, 1970).

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