Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 8

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 8
Desperate declamations
Globules of anguish strung together on memory

To consider the associations that are attached to the word Independence is to find a host of positive connotations. These come to mind: freedom; liberty; free will; self-government; emancipation; liberation; release; a breaking of bonds; or the absence of an imperative to call any man master. With the formal achievement of Independence by the new states of black Africa, a more specific (and, notionally, even more positive) connotation comes into play. Namely, the liberation of African peoples from decades of alien, colonial rule. One might think, then, that literary texts proceeding from such a situation would exhibit a predominantly optimistic (or, at least, partly optimistic) view of socio-political potentialities. The most remarkable feature of African writing in this period is that, with a very few significant exceptions,1 the texts have 'moved' in a diametrically opposite direction. Towards the end of Mphahlele's The Wanderers, Timi Tabane (the Wanderer) awakes from a dream:

I'm startled out of my reverie

when the doleful notes of the dancers'

music beat again at the threshold

of my consciousness. Defeat ... Why

does that music sound so plaintive?

Where's the roar of triumph, the triumph

of black rule?2

Where is the literary 'roar'? Rather than a roar of triumph, there is a pessimism that is all-pervasive.

This all-pervasive pessimism finds its origin in the particular ideological nature of the original hopes. More than that, in the world-view that defines the whole debate. In the case of many of these texts, the ideological discourse employed is that of liberal humanism. The central structuring assumptions can be readily identified: that, all other things being equal, the world is a positive and progressive human space; that Man is capable of unlimited achievements (particularly via education directed at 'awareness'); that there is a certain balance in the world that mitigates against 'extremes'; and - that most breath-taking of tautologies - normally the World is 'normal'. Clearly, in the face of post-Uhuru developments, this ideological discourse cannot cope when confronted with the bleakness of reality. It can, and does, react (particularly through the medium of the Realist novel). The reaction, though, is both desperate and fraught with anguish.

Kill Me Quick (not the most optimistic of titles) presents two young Kenyans, Meja and Maina, who come to Nairobi to find jobs and personal success.3 They are shown living in supermarket dustbins, grubbing for food among the rotting leftovers of the shops. Instead of secure places within an independent Kenyan society, they become (by force of circumstance) members of a gang of petty criminals. The narrative clearly projects their story as being a representative one. Meja Mwangi, the author, dedicates the novel to "... all those little Mejas still in the back streets of the city, destined to stay there until they come of age, when the green van will come and whisk them off to Number Nine." Number Nine is their habitual prison cell in the city gaol. Ironically, this cell is the only place where they feel safe and whole. Meja and Maina are shown to have been institutionalised by despair. It is not surprising, then, that Meja should see the world as "dark, cold, lonely and miserable" (p.22). A significant portion of modern African poetry also appears to have been written within a similar matrix of gloom and dejection. Wole Soyinka, for example, asks "... Where/Are all the flowers gone?".4 Instead of the flowers, his poetry is packed with images that stress the process of decay. The seeds of progress have been split and ruined. Rather than a fruitful growth, there is seen to be a macabre reality where


Beds of worms

Ivory towers uphold the charnel-house.

It is a world of empty slogans, the rattle of beggars' cups and the dance (to barrel organs) of monkeys in livery.5 The writing of poetry becomes not a pleasure, not a joyful thing, but a painful duty as part of an exercise in self-exorcism. In an introduction to a collection of his poems, Christopher Okigbo writes of a progression through his poetry that is "like telling the beads of a rosary; except that the beads are neither stone nor agate but globules of anguish strung together on memory."6 Several of Okigbo's poems, particularly those written in the years immediately preceding the Nigerian Civil War, express the poet's anguish and his fear of the disaster that was to come. It was, for Okigbo, a situation where "The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;"7 where "THE ROBBERS are back in black hidden steps of detonators" while "THE GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave".8 Okigbo's "globules of anguish", with Soyinka's question about the flowers, are indicative of the cheerless mood that informs the poetic vision. The humanist view confronts its nemesis.

Lawyer Amamu (in This Earth, My Brother ...) is one of those figures who carry with them a crippling load of melancholy. "All of us are sleepwalkers", he thinks, but "some walk a little faster than others" (p.164). While the long sleepwalk goes on and on, the grand hopes of Independence become a twisted parody of themselves and the nation (in this case, Ghana) is seen to be "dying on its knees, dying in its own defecation". Two refrains echo throughout Awoonor's novel, acting to emphasise the authorial thrust behind the train of thoughts and events that is gradually unfolded. One is the striking motto "Despair and die."9 The other, particularly significant because of the similarity with the poetic premonitions of Okigbo, is "Fear death by guns."10 We have seen that Awoonor makes use of passages from the work of Dante to direct his narrative (on the level of ideas). Amamu's Ghana is shown as a new 'inferno', a hellhole for the lost and for the damned. As "shit vans" rattle down the streets in broad daylight, Amamu recalls a passage from Dante that becomes part of his frustrated response to a sick society:

As my sight went lower on them

each seemed to be strangely twisted

between the chin and the beginning

of the chest, for the face was

turned towards the loins and they

had come backwards since SEEING


Dante's Inferno. Canto XX.11

On first sight, this passage could be taken to refer to a collective tragedy (with the people of Ghana represented as a legion of the lost). Their faces are turned towards the loins, in symbolic sexual-political repression, while the whole body of the damned goes backwards as a result of a denial of possibilities for forward-moving progress. Such a socio-political analogy is certainly posited. Yet the nature of the analogy is more specific than this interpretation would suggest. A study of the relevant context in the work of Dante,12 taken together with Awoonor's placing of the phrase "All of it is Nkrumah's fault - the rogue" (p.93) just before this extract, enforces the view that the passage particularly applies to the damnation of those African leaders (those diviners of the future) on whom the people trusted for the fruits of Independence. The strangely twisted bodies thus represent those of the soothsayers - men like Nkrumah - who are seen to have misused their great gifts of intelligence to beguile and corrupt their fellow Africans. Leaders and led, the politicians and the people (it would seem) are condemned to a continuing, perverted existence.

The figure of Amamu is not alone in his despair. Solo Nkonam, in Why Are We So Blest?, is shown thinking of what he can do in the 'new' Africa. It is made clear that the idea of sitting in front of a cafe, caressing drinks and chatting with his fellow-intellectuals, does not appeal to him:

What was there to talk about,





The only thing I was aware of these

days was despair, and it was not a

thing I wanted to sit and talk about,

not in this place. (p. 55)

For Solo, the battle-cries of the struggle are seen to have become the mere commonplaces of cafe gossip, trivial and sordid. Intellectual discussion has become a substitute for action, within a state of total inertia. The idea of existence being hollow, empty and meaningless is a recurring one. This is particularly true in those novels that are centred on a response to University life in Africa. One such novel is Austin Bukenya's work The People's Bachelor.13 The narrator, a young man named Mutwe, is a student at the University of Maalas (where 'Maalas' is an alternative version of the 'Salaam' of Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of Tanzania). Mutwe's scorn of the academic way of life - at least, as it is practised in East Africa - is clearly presented. At one point he interrupts his presentation to comment on what he calls "the void of human existence recounted in this narrative" (p.14). This sense of life in a void provides the basis for Bukenya's satirical approach. Nevertheless, while one recognises the potential for satire, it is a satire that feeds off the underlying mood of dejection. Mutwe, the people's bachelor, is totally disenchanted.

"The way to nowhere lies all around," writes Lenrie Peters, "the road to nowhere straight on ahead."14 With the African 'road' going nowhere, leading nowhere, another poet (Mbella Dipoko) sees the situation to be one

In which the poet is an outlaw

To be murdered for daring

To trace a path

To the stars

In the human soul.15

Outlaw or not, the poet Syl Cheyney - Coker (from Sierra Leone) does not appear to be concerned with any quest for "the stars". His concerns are more immediate. He turns his poetry toward thoughts of destruction and the ultimate release: suicide. One is struck by the projected disgust with himself and his "foul genealogy" that informs Cheyney-Coker's poems.16 The poet has seen certain horrible visions; visions of Africa and the "perpetual butchery of her womb."17 He writes, in his desperation, that "there is too much agony in me to want to live tomorrow" while "the stench of politics and love is lascivious in my belly."18 Frustrated by life, the poet asks (implicitly): What is the point of living any longer? As he puts it, what purpose is there in "my rage my tears, my groaning, my raving/to whom? for whom? to whom I ask?".19 Even his cries of protest are seen to be frustrated for want of a meaningful target.

These desperate declamations are not confined to the rough-and-tumble urban scenarios. Literature dealing with African village life has its equivalent expressions of gloom. Only the locale has changed. In Okello Oculi's work Orphan, an orphan-boy is imagined sitting cross-legged at the junction of paths through an East African village.20 Various passers-by stop and talk to him, including members of his immediate family. The boy is given all manner of advice. A village Elder, after asking the boy to wake up and be a man, partly concludes his advice with certain wise words:

Come to discover we are all impotent

Mourners on a bed-side,

Aware of the futility of understanding

The pains in the patient each of us is.

(p. 40)

Please realise, says the Elder, that we are destined

To remain perpetual tourists

To each other

Along life's pathways!


It is interesting to note that while Oculi's work clearly has allegorical implications directed towards the modern African socio-political situation (with the orphan as a fragile traveller into an uncertain future), the mournful advice of the village Elder is given within a perceived framework of traditional village wisdom. Oculi's use of such a device reinforces the impression that what is being presented here is no recently-adopted state of temporary melancholy. Certainly, the hopes for a new life after Independence are seen to have been eroded. However, the advice of the Elder - coming, as it does, from one of the 'impotent mourners' - appears to represent the voice of the eternally poor, the perpetually hungry of rural Africa. It is the presentation of this continuing despair, compounded by post-Uhuru problems, that gives The Orphan depth and direction as dramatic poetry of a distinctive kind. The orphan, like the 'urban' figure of lawyer Amamu in This Earth, My Brother ..., does not stand alone. Nuruddin Farah's work From a Crooked Rib (the first Anglophone African novel to come from Somalia) recounts the story of Ebla, a young country girl who flees to the city.21 Her life is shown to be hard, brutally hard. Ebla thinks about her lot:

One is fed with suggestions all

through one's life, starting from the

time one comes into this world

and ending when one dies. 'Do this;

do that; don't do this; don't do that,' -

this is life. But it is a life that

has been poisoned, the potion has been

fed to us, like medicine. This is the

medicine we live on, the medicine we

eat and drink, but do we realize it?


Ebla, for one, does realize it - this is a life that has been poisoned. There is no consolation to be found as a result of her new knowledge.

Wole Soyinka has produced some memorable prison-poems that stem from his period of solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War. One poem, titled "To the madmen over the wall", is of particular interest here.22 While he was a prisoner, Soyinka's cell was (at one time) close to a gaol yard that housed lunatic inmates. In the poem, the gaoled poet imaginatively calls out to his fellow-prisoners from the depths of his own desolation. It appears that he even envies the madmen, for they can take refuge in a mad world of their own. Howl, howl away, he tells them:

But though I set my ears against

The tune of setting forth, yet howl

Upon the hour of sleep, tell these walls

The human heart may hold

Only so much despair.

Just as in Soyinka's poem where the claim is made that only so much despair can be 'held', so it can be seen that there are limits within this corpus of texts. When the limits of despair have been encompassed, what often remains is the mocking tone of the cynic. The writers move on to the satiric counter-attack.


1. Most notably, Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.

2. Ezekiel Mphahlele, The Wanderers, p.284.

3. Meja Mwangi, Kill Me Quick (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).

4. Soyinka, from "Flowers for my land", in A Shuttle in the Crypt. In "Flowers for my land," one finds the lines:

"Seeking: Truth

Seeds split and browse

In ordure, corruption ...".

5. One stanza from "Flowers for my land" reads:


Louder than empty barrels

And more barren, a rattle

In cups of beggary

Monkeys in livery dance to barrel organs."

6. Christopher Okigbo, Labyrinths with Path of Thunder (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971), p.xiv. This posthumous collection brings together Okigbo's verse collections Heavensgate (1962), Limits (1964), and Silences (1965) - originally published separately by Mbari - together with Distances (1964), and a postscript Path of Thunder. The introduction is dated October 1965.

7. Ibid., from Come Thunder.

8. Ibid., from "Elegy for Alto". Capitalisation in original.

9. Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother ... . The phrase appears first on p.29. It is found again on pp.115, 116 and 118.

10. Ibid. This refrain appears first on p.30. It is repeated on p.93. The same phrase occurs in Awoonor's poetry; see the poem "Hymn to my dead Earth", in Awoonor, Night of my Blood.

11. This Earth, My Brother ... , quoted on p.93. Capitalisation in Awoonor's text.

12. Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, ed. by C.H. Grandgent, revised by Charles S. Singleton (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972). See, particularly, Grandgent's summary of this portion of the poetic 'argument' (p.176).

13. Austin Bukenya, The People's Bachelor (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1972). For a West African view of University life, one can turn to the novels of Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike: Toads for Supper (1965; rpt. London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1970) and The Naked Gods (1970; rpt. London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1971).

14. Peters, from poem No.36, "The Way to nowhere lies all around," in Katchikali.

15. Dipoko, from "Persecution", in Black and White In Love.

16. Syl Cheney-Coker, from "Hydropathy", in Cheyney-Coker, Concerto for an Exile: Poems (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973). In the same poem, one finds these lines: "one summer's rape gave me life/the sperm in the grass stinks of my filth."

17. Concerto for an Exile, from "Analysis".

18. Ibid., from "The Crucified".

19. Ibid., from "Analysis".

20. Okello Oculi, Orphan (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1968).

21. Nuruddin Farah, From a Crooked Rib (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970).

22. Wole Soyinka, in A Shuttle in the Crypt.

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