Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 9

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 9
Breaking the circle
When the show comes to an end

Cynicism may well suggest a misanthropic curse on all humanity. Yet, when you think about it, this is an inadequate conception. For while the expression of cynicism can be seen as an indication of total disillusionment, the cynic's attitude presupposes rather more than sheer negation. Behind the mask of sneers there is a hard core of something quite different: a realisation that one can descend no further. In these texts of the post-Uhuru period, that realisation is marked by the scathing, sarcastic tones of the satiric attack. Authorial disgust looks for (and finds) its targets. Now there is a way of coming to terms with an oppressive socio-political situation and the way is at least partly opened for transforming the portrayal of despair into a critique of the despair itself. A twin process emerges, a double-pronged attack. Satirical methods that are aimed at the criticism and correction of behaviour are deployed alongside the continuing significations of disgust. The rationale behind this twin process is clearly demonstrated in one episode of Eneriko Seruma's work The Experience (a novel that carries the frontispiece dedication: "... to my special friends: this expressionistic painting of confused contemporary Africa").1 Tom Miti - a Ugandan - confronts the criticism of his former friend and mentor, the Englishman Ian. Tom is accused of an unnecessary cynicism. His answer is an interesting one: "If I am a cynic, it's because the world is not perfect. Not perfect at all." Ian cannot see how such an attitude is going to help. For Miti, however, the position is clear. His rejoinder is the simple statement: "People will know I am displeased and change their behaviour" (p. 132). Similarly, the expressions of cynicism within these texts are directed towards the possibility of change, and a lever is created for breaking open the closed circle of gloom.

One of Taban lo Liyong's poems carries the self-explanatory title of "Student's Lament". This is a long work that concerns itself with a student's thoughts about independent Africa and the many problems associated with post-colonial progress (or lack of it). The poem closes with a prose passage that is both mocking and despairing: "(I thought we were supposed to be preparing ways; raising the ceiling higher for unhampered operations; and building large bases from which great monuments would stand.)",2 where the sardonic nature of the comment, with its nicely pointed echoes of sterile rhetorical cliches, typifies the tone of the lament. Much of the poem is in the form of sarcastically-directed questions such as "Why rake my brain/(if my thoughts are overlooked);" and "Is the uplifting ended/(with me unaware)?", or "Has the march stopped/(and I didn't hear 'halt')?". Given the student's unlikely attitude of innocence - the poem appears in that section of Liyong's work headed, significantly, "The Age of Innocence is Passed" - the questions tend to carry forward the poet's sardonic vein of protest. This dual point of view - with outraged innocence overlaid with an evident scepticism - works in a particularly effective manner when the questions take on mock-heroic proportions. The 'uplifting' and the 'march' are, of course, those of Uhuru. Liyong's student figure, vastly disappointed with the direction and speed of the march, makes a point of asking:

Is this the reward,

Assigned for us

We who sprained our shoulders,

Who broke our backs

Scarcely healed

From lugging Stanley along?

Shall we not be paid,

Not even get a beer

To restore our voices

So cracked with shouting 'Uhuru'

Beyond natural pitch

Or endurance?

The seemingly innocent questioning of the lament is moulded by Liyong's manipulation of tone and rhythm, into the poetry of satire.

Explicitly - stated questions fulfil an important function within modern African writing.3 It is not hard to see the relevance of Leslie Fiedler's remark (from No! in Thunder): "In a time when answers are the business of professional answer men ... we have been forced to learn that our humanity is dependent not on the answers we hope for but on the questions we are able to ask".4 The questions in these texts direct attention towards the ideological concerns at hand. How, specifically, does this function work? Representative questions from two novels (both by Ghanaians) provide a typical illustration. Lawyer Amamu, in Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother ..., asks "Aren't we all dreaming of our native land in this great city once more on the breast of women in negligees, snoring in patriotic rhythm our national anthems and waving our miniature national flags at shit trucks roaring away in dark tropical evenings when moons are tired? Aren't we all, my brother?" (p. 135). The manner in which the question is framed - in terms of women's breasts, patriotism, miniature national flags, shit trucks, moons that are tired - enforces a specific interpretation of a socio-political situation within the limits of the 'information' that is provided. The short, final question ("Aren't we all, my brother?") extends that function to include an implicit plea for understanding, an expression of the projected need for collective remedial action in the future. One also finds the more sarcastic type of question that gains its effectiveness by, for example, a bluntly-conveyed contempt for phony self-congratulation. Ayi Kwei Armah's third novel has such a question for its title: Why Are We So Blest?. Originally introduced into the narrative within the context of American Thanksgiving celebrations, Armah gradually widens the question's terms of reference to the extent that it becomes a mocking chorus line to the frantic monoeuvres of his young African figures, particularly those of Modin. The title is a question macabre in its irony, penetrating in its cynicism. When Modin is shown thinking about his future, it is within the tonal context of the title-question (carrying a full amount of bitter irony) that his comments are understood. Modin's thoughts themselves take the form of questions and answers:

My future - a continuation of this past nightmare? What work awaits me after this academic nonsense? No work. Just small privileges. Bungalow, car, salary, allowances. Creature comforts for a mediocre creature (p. 224).

Modin's counterpart in the narrative, Solo Nkonam, also implicitly responds to the title-question. He, however, is shown as having already come to an answer. His solution is a reluctant retreat into phony ways, a retreat that is enforced by an acceptance of the fact that "Our time demands from us just one great observance: that we should pretend" (p. 14). The projected implication is clear: develop the ability to do one thing while saying (and preferably also thinking) another thing entirely. To be a dreamer, a searcher after better ways, is to be (as Solo puts it) one of "the losers, life's failures." Such is the nature of Armah's uncompromising vision of the future for Africa's educated elite. It is a vision that directly proceeds from a title-question that begs an answer. The answer for Modin and Solo is to be found within a context not of 'blessings' but of death and defeat.

A similar answer awaits Joe, Stephen and Matthew in Robert Serumaga's Return to the Shadows. The novel is centred on a situation that corresponds (in a general sense) to the time of violence and bloodshed often described as the Uganda Crisis of 1966.5 The three young men are shown as becoming increasingly disillusioned with developments in Adnagu (a transposed version of Uganda). As the narrator tells it, "a creeping sense of disillusion set in, and it grew into a cancerous cynicism as they got older." They look for a way out of their dilemma:

But what can a man do about it? As Chinua Achebe once put it, you are like a dog trying to put out a bush-fire with his tiny fart. In the end, even a fart clears the conscience. So they bought a few guns (p. 43).

Joe Musizi, however, decides to avoid any involvement with a token armed struggle. He makes a decision to let things run their course, to insulate himself as best as possible from "the macabre orchestrations of a band of inherently imperfect men" (p. 7). Joe sees his duty as not to be sacrificed on the altar of idealism. In this regard, he adopts a similar position to that of Armah's Solo Nkonam: retreat from ideals, self-preservation above all. Return to the Shadows closes, significantly, with the silence of retreat typified. Joe Musizi's hand goes to his thigh to take a note, but he finds "that he had nothing to say" (p. 171). Serumaga's narrative strongly suggests that there is little that could be said in the face of such total frustration. The sense of a malignant, circular play of forces (particularly in the political sphere) is also at the thematic heart of The Wanderers. Mphahlele's wanderer (Timi Tabane) and a friend named Awoonor are shown discussing local politics in Iboyoru. Having remarked that his people are generally not interested in the processes of government but only in the drama of voting,6 Awoonor ventures the opinion that "We just seem to need a dictator, one who'll take us in hand, tell us what to do and what not to do, arrange for his own comfort and surround himself with sycophants and stooges who are his immediate protection" (p. 153). Then this dictator, points out Awoonor, can only be removed by the army because they are the only group who possess the "visible instruments" of power. So a military regime is seen to be the logical alternative to civilian dictatorship, and the tight circle of political control goes on and on. The fate of Mphahlele's wanderer, as he travels across the continent unsuccessfully looking for a place to call home, mirrors (on a larger scale) the more particular comments of the man from Iboyoru. Mphahlele's presentation of this fruitless search tends to confirm the local political diagnosis.

Particularly traumatic historical events such as the fighting in the Congo and the Nigerian Civil War provide much of the motivation, and the focus, for the poetry of Ifeanyi Menkiti. His poetry, readily identifiable by a distinctive sardonic tone, provides a striking example of the process wherein the expression of disgust is transmuted into the biting thrust of satire. These are lines addressed to an African general:

Bombing in a time of war

to rid Biafra of rebel bugs

led by the arch-bug Ojukwu

you killed a thousand children ... .

The single line stands out. The accusation is clear: you are a murderer! However, the poet does not rest with that accusation. Instead, in the following stanza, he constructs what amounts to a mock apologetic:

but you really didn't mean to do so

you only intended to rid

the children of rebel bugs

led by the arch-bug Ojukwu ... .

Then, widening and concluding his indictment, the poet lashes out at "the great white fathers/who love us their little black children", those fathers who have provided the bombs and expertise "for us to kill ourselves."7 The use of the word love, in such a context, points to the sarcastic nature of the general observation regarding neo-colonialist involvement in a civil war situation. The poet's token display of apology - "you really didn't mean ..." - is the measure not just of his anger but of his utter contempt. The urbane flow of Menkiti's language is, here, the artistic camouflage for the satiric attack.8

Kimura and Irungu, the two crippled beggars in Voices in the Dark, reminisce about the good old days of the struggle for Uhuru, when they knocked the settlers' teeth into the river with their homemade guns. Still, says Kimura to Irungu, you have to face the cold, hard facts. He implies that nothing has changed for them since Uhuru. "When will you learn neighbour," he says, "that what was promised in the gospel according to the homemade gun yesterday will be promised again tomorrow in a new version ... ." Rid yourself of illusions, pleads Kimura, and realise "that just because your navel sinks in with hunger does not mean it will not sink even farther when your brother now shares out the food?" (p. 19). Again, in Kibera's novel, one notices that the strongly cynical thrust of the analysis appears to be overshadowed by an explicit plea for understanding. Kimura is shown as having come to terms with a dismal reality. It is the end-result of a process of learning, the distillation of wisdom from one of the wretched of the earth, that is represented here. Now face the truth, he says. In Son of Woman, the novel by Charles Mangua, Dodge Kiunyu is presented as being another figure who has found 'the truth'. Dodge, as narrator, mentions a friend named Zick who is now Deputy Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Housing. Zick and his outgoing expatriate boss "are the tops in that ministry and are drawing handsome dough." Dodge (an orphan from the slums of Nairobi) realises that there is nothing odd at all in the fact that Zick's knowledge of housing "is practically nil." The main thing, thinks Dodge, is not to "forget the dough" for that "makes everything else immaterial" (p. 141). It is interesting to note that Dodge is not shown as being contemptuous of such a situation. He accepts it, as a realist, in order to stay alive.

The view that life in the modern African states is a macabre joke, a travesty that must be stoically endured, is expressed by Ekwensi's young journalist figure (Dapo Ladele) in Iska. Talking to his girlfriend Filia, Dapo explains: "'Life is one big joke. In Yorubaland we call is Saka-Jojo - pure cinema. Look! All this quest for power, all this intrigue and conquest by intrigue - it will soon pass into history. When the show comes to the end, that's all! ... So why worry?'" (p. 186). Elsewhere in the novel there appears a conversation about election-time disturbances that serves to clarify the connection between the views of Dapo Ladele and the socio-political phenomena that lead to their adoption. The following dialogue, between Filia and a young political activist, is self-explanatory:

[Filia] 'Why do you wreck people's cars?'

[Rayimi] 'Is the instruction.'

[Filia] 'Why?'

[Rayimi] 'People have done nothing for us, that's why. We have independence. They just leave us to suffer and they get all the big money and everything' (p. 100).

"They [the politicians] just leave us to suffer ..." - with such a view of post-Independence developments an element of revenge is clearly predominant. However, if one adopts Dapo Ladele's position that life is "one big joke", then one must perfect the ability to smile, at the right time. Okot p' Bitek's prostitute, in Song of Malaya, develops a whole range of suitable smiles for her customers.9 In one portion of her 'song', she is shown exacting revenge on her absurdly pretentious clients by explaining her technique of differing, adjustable smiles. She describes some of them:

The open simple smile

For the egg-headed scholars,

The hot devil smile

For the priests and their kind,

The cool confident smile

For the faint-hearted and the unsure ... .

(p. 155)

There are more, many more, of these masks of her contempt - for the fatherly and the senile, for the thieves and the diseased, for "the dark-suited simpleton" and "the middle-aged nit-wit", for the "poor white bastards" and "the opportunist get-rich-quick." Okot's Malaya reserves her "poverty-stricken smile" for "the pot-bellied rich" and, one notes, a special "haughty deceitful smile" for "the politicians and robbers." The yoking of these two vocations - politics and robbers - implies, of course, a similarity of function and (on Malaya's part) a qualitative social judgement. Okot p' Bitek's use of a prostitute/narrator who is, after all, in a unique position as an observer, enables him to gain the maximum scope for both cynical commentary and incisive, witty satire.

Wole Soyinka makes full use of his undoubted expertise as a satirist in The Interpreters. He shows, here, a small group of young Nigerian intellectuals who feel themselves to be surrounded by an oppressive miasma of corruption, social climbing and (most of all) phoniness. It soon becomes apparent that the main thrust of the novel is directed towards the deflation of pomposity and artificiality. Soyinka's treatment of the figure of Professor Oguazor (a stuffy hypocrite) provides a striking illustration of his overall approach. Oguazor is characterised by his use of affected speech patterns - "we mesn't keep the ladies wetting" (p. 143), or his remarks about "the meral terpitude of irresponsible young men" (p. 250) - as the archetypal poseur, the crystallisation of those features of Nigerian society that Soyinka is clearly most anxious to castigate. The Interpreters includes a particularly effective scene where Sagoe (one of 'the interpreters') attends a party at the Oguazor residence. Personally offended by the presence of a bowl of plastic fruit in the living-room, Sagoe gains immense satisfaction from throwing this artificial cornucopia, piece by piece, out of the window. Upbraided by his hosts, Sagoe then manages to sniff the plastic rose that decorates Mrs. Oguazor's navel, springing up again "holding his nose to heaven in aromatic bliss" (p. 151). The sheer exhuberance of Soyinka's satirical approach proceeds directly from the author's clear insight into the nature of pomposity. The callous, destructive behaviour of such figures as the Oguazors is the target for his sarcastic contempt. This blend of contempt and indignation also informs Bukenya's novel The People's Bachelor. One can see it working in a passage that deals with the People's University. The narrator describes the reaction of the populace to this strange new phenomenon. They cannot understand the function of such a place:

Well, there had been no universities in Tchweza since the beginning of time. In four years a university shot up, turned into a gigantic city, inhabited by white men and black men who spoke a language which no one but themselves understood, and who did not build houses, did not construct roads, did not repair cars, did not buy cotton or sell clothes, did not treat patients or preach religion, were not ministers or district commissioners, but were paid, one heard, for reading books.10

The passage, with its careful pacing and control of repetition, serves to raise the question - what is the purpose of this academic structure? Bukenya's method of approach to this question, a subtle mixture of pointed irony and disdain, is calculated to both expose and counteract what is shown to be the existing state of frustrated activity. As with Soyinka's approach in The Interpreters, that of Bukenya is not confined to hitting the satirical butts provided by African universities. This becomes clear when one considers, for example, a passage in The People's Bachelor that deals with the changing accommodation of African "houseboys and ayahs" after the coming of Uhuru. Two of the academic protagonists, the delectable Virgin and the lecherous lecturer John O'Goat, take a drive through the European housing area (shown as the smartest and most exclusive residential section of the city). Bukenya's narrator takes the opportunity to point out that, although the African elite now occupy some of the palace-like bungalows, the ayahs and houseboys still live in their circular grass-thatched huts at the rear of the main buildings. This fact does not appear to worry the new African experts who are described as sitting in their air-conditioned offices and bedrooms "forging the African revolution." In any case, the narrator informs us, the huts are not as hot as they had been before. The reason: "now the walls were full of cracks, and the thatch was rotten, so that the roofs leaked for weeks after a shower of rain, keeping the inside relatively cool if a little damp" (pp. 55-56). The carefully-withheld sardonic phrase ("if a little damp") - an evident and palpable understatement - serves to emphasise the enormity of the injustice involved. Here, then, is satire in the service of protest, a description transformed into a socio-political critique. Soyinka and Bukenya, from West and East Africa, attack on a common front with common literary weapons.

In Chinua Achebe's sarcastic poetic tribute to the non-committed African,11 one can sense the positive movement towards revolt that can be provided (nurtured) by an apparently cynical view of people and events. When Achebe writes:

Hurrah! to them who do nothing

see nothing feel nothing whose

hearts are fitted with prudence

like a diaphragm across

womb's beckoning doorway to bar

the scandal of seminal rage ...

his choice of the sexual simile projects more than sheer condemnation. The implied suggestion is clear: do something, see something, and feel something. Therein lies the thought that leads away from cynicism. It is a call for action, a plea for an alternative way forward.


1. Eneriko Seruma [Henry S. Kimbugwe], The Experience (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1970).

2. Liyong, from "Student's Lament", in Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs.

3. See Hugh Webb, "Political Disillusionment and Modern African Fiction: The Questions of Despair", African Studies Working Papers, No.1, Murdoch University (May 1975).

4. Fiedler, No! in Thunder (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), rpt. in The Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Robert Murray Davis (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969), pp.319-20.

5. The crisis came to a head in May 1966 when forces representing Milton Obote's central government stormed the Kabaka's Palace in Buganda. See the blank-verse narration of these events in Akena Adoko, Uganda Crisis (Kampala: African Publishers, n.d.).

6. For a striking illustration of this 'drama of voting', see the short story by Chinua Achebe, "The Voter", in Girls at War and other stories (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972).

7. Ifeanyi Menkiti, from "To an African General", in Affirmations (Chicago: Third World Press, 1971).

8. While the sardonic tone is always present, Menkiti's poems are not exclusively centred on African events. See, for example, the poem "War Bulletin" that begins:

"American forces

swept through

the Central Highlands today


as many as 2 1/2 Vietcong." (Affirmations)

9. Okot p'Bitek, in Two Songs: Song of Prisoner, Song of Malaya (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1971).

10. Austin Bukenya, The People's Bachelor, p.137. The emphasis is mine.

11. Achebe, "Non-commitment", in Beware, Soul Brother. The poem is dated September 1970 (i.e. the year that saw the end of the Nigerian Civil War).

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