An Examination of the thematic and structural form of African Literature

Using “Olokun”, “Casualties”, “Night rain”, “The Sun on this Rubble” and “In the friendly dark”

African literature with its themes and structural form has evolved over the years from its oral form of moonlight stories, folktales, legends and myths to being written in black and white conveying its rich experiences. It is therefore not out of place to maintain that African literature got its thematic and structural form from the dynamics of the society; the sociological framework which ranges from colonial, political, economic, ethics and religious experiences.

With a fusion of Western style and language learned, African writers have been able to express their cultures and traditions inherited to a large heterogeneous audience constituted by the Europeans and other peoples of the world. This has earned it a pride of place in the comity of world Literature. According to Ogunyemi Christopher, African Literature especially the poetry genre has expressed many thematic concerns which make them unique to the understanding of African ethos and traditions. Wole Soyinka states that these poems “embrace most of the experience of the African world-modern and historic”.

They have used their poetry either as a protest or as warning to caution on the need to solve the militating problems ravaging the African society. That is why African Literature has been perceived by critics as “weeping literature”. The literature of “lachrymal” as Charles Nnolim would rightly put it.

Although most of them use melancholic tone, the purpose of this is to show how sorrowful black poets have been. Ogunyemi is of the view that from the discourse of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, these poets have shown their grievances through their poems because it is the only medium by which they can easily communicate their feelings. When we read African Literature, we should, by obligation remember that colonization was its harshest in Africa. As history stands proof, it was highly exploited and savaged by the ambitious ‘white man’. This is on the minds of all thinking poets. Despite getting independence, the bitterness returns angrily alive in their poems.

For instance, the love poems of Dennis Brutus are not just centred on the theme of love, but it is an indictment on the brutish environment from which such emotions are painfully wrenched. They speak of the integral refuge and outer defiance, hope and resolve of the African people. Soyinka notes concerning Dennis Brutus that “even when (his) poems emerge as essentially tender, its poignancy remains a yet more lacerating accusation.”

Though African countries share peculiar experiences such as colonialism, there however remain some experiences common to some regions. For instance South Africa battles with Apartheid which reflects in the works that emanates from that region. Theodore sheckels notes that a great deal of contemporary South African Literature deals with sufferings in the mines and particularly the prisons. Dennis Brutus uses his poems not only to denote his prison ordeals but to capture the phenomenon of love, betrayal and torment.

In his poem “In the friendly dark” and “The sun on this rubble”, Dennis Brutus explores the limitations blacks suffer in their daily activities especially forced labour in the hands of the whites. He therefore longs for relief and hopes for freedom which seems unreachable. In “The Sun on this Rubble”, Dennis Brutus asserts;
The sun on this rubble after rain
Bruised though we must be
Some easement we require
Unarguably, though we argue against desire

He however expresses integral refuge and mental resolve in his poem “In the Friendly Dark”
As a bird checks in flight
To glide down streams
And flames of slanting air…
But my heart soars and wheels

Other themes which African poetry discusses include ethics, indictment, mortality and prayer. African poets are of the opinion that literature mirrors life and it portends the historical evolution of the African people. While some dwell on self assertion, others struggle for identity. Yet some examine the powerlessness of man in the face of uncontrollable phenomenon.

J.P Clark’s poetry for example, strives for the place of man in the face of natural and uncontrollable phenomenon. In his poem “Casualties”, J.P Clark informs us about the reality that /The casualties are not only those who are dead / (line 1) but every one in the society. He structures the language in such a way that it addresses socio-political issues. Clark tries to capture the state of the down trodden in the society. A lot of problems hover round man as he moves in time and space.

Even in his poem “Night rain”, Clark hints on the extent of poverty prevalent in the African society; a direct reference to the sociological experience of Africans in the hinterland and villages. Lines 10-24 clearly brings this to fore as they battle to survive the surging rain on their thatch roof house made from rafters.
Droning with insistent ardour upon
Our roof thatch and shed
And thro’ sheaves slit open
To lightning and rafters
I cannot quite make out overhead
Great drops are dribbling
Falling like mango…
In wooden bowls and earthen ware
Mother is busy now deploying…

He further outlines the theme of religious belief of Africans in his poem “Olokun”. Here the poet expresses his affection to the River Goddess Olokun, the divinity of the sea and an emblem of the material prosperity worshipped by the Edo people and indeed the Niger Delta region in Nigeria. This Goddess is personified in several human characteristics such as endurance, sternness, and appreciation for history, future visions and royalty. Thus the Goddess is symbolic of African spiritual essence.

In lines 17-20 Clark implies that the Goddess is responsible for the prosperity of the land and like a mother she protects the people.

We crumble in heaps at your feet
And as the good maid of the sea
Full of rich bounties for men
You lift us all beggars to your breast

J.P Clark demonstrates more ancestral phenomenon with this poem to show that Africans belief in ancestors, though dead are not asleep. They watch over their children and they protect them from the enemies.

With a rich use of imagery, metaphors and irony, African poetry is an embodiment of creativity. It is with these elements that its structural form is achieved. It is expedient to state here that these poets use distinct imagery which set them out from their contemporaries in Europe. It is also paramount to state that new metaphors were created to illuminate the various themes based on the poet’s divergence of cultures.

Finally, African literature is universal for its artistry and descriptive power, and singular for the attention that it draws to its own locality for its imagery and ideology. It is an enriching combination of rich oral literature, native experiences and the cultural heritage naturally inherited by the poets with the acquired Western tradition gotten through Western education.

Soyinka, Wole ed. Poems of Black Africa. London: Heinemann. New Edition 1999

Ogunyemi, Christopher. Various Voices in African Poetry: Analysis of Poems of Black Africa.Falun 2007

Bright Hub.

33 thoughts on “An Examination of the thematic and structural form of African Literature” by sambright (@sambrightomo)

  1. I love all those poems. Thanks for posting this up. I have some reservations on some points, but, there is absolutely no reason to make this wonderful work a debate.

    1. @Kaycee, I had some reservations as well, and I guess that the only type of people that can begin this debate are those somewhat grounded in the subject @Sambrightomo is talking about. I say ‘somewhat’ because the topic of African Literature is hugely varied, and in my very personal opinion, Nigerian universities haven’t thoroughly trashed out the African Literature concept, especially when it keeps updating itself.

      1. very true @ Emmanuella Nigerian universities have not been able to define African Literature and even Nigerian literature.All we have is just thesis and papers presented here and there…God help us.

  2. I’m not that into the classical type of poetry, but this is a very well articulated thesis. I learnt a lot from it.

    1. Well, @Myne, I personally really wouldn’t want you to leave the genre of romance writing for literary writing, especially the one coming from Africa. But if you’re still very much interested in doing so, then you would need a lot more than just this ‘well articulated thesis’. Essays like this one are coughed out right after graduation and also when one undergoes further studies like a graduate course or so. For a half-baked English graduate like myself, I really appreciated African Literature when I graduated and got enough money to buy those books I couldn’t buy when I was still in school, and there are plenty more to get sef. So, mi dear, this essay isn’t really enough, for there’s more. Shebi u no dat wan? :)

      1. Continue calling me Myne and we’ll remain friends, lol. Thank you Emmanuella, when I’m ready to switch, I’ll let you know.

      2. You couldn’t have said it better

      3. I agree with you. You couldn’t have said it better

    2. @ Whitman thank you and Happy Birthday to you.May you be the best in your field of writing in Jesus name,Amen

    3. @ Myne Whitman, I believe in this project called Naija got my first income in creative writing @ Terra Kulture on November 12 just because I recited my poem.Believe me,I was greatly encouraged,I am encouraged!!

  3. @Sambrightomo, ‘well articulated thesis’, according to Nkem, but u no say dis ting get part 2, abi? I have no beef at all about the thematic and structural forms here illustrated from the examples you used, even though I think there’s more to it. My only little, tiny beef here is you used only poetry. In my opinion, poetry is the most powerful genre of literature, prose fiction (and probably non-fiction) is the most profitable genre of literature and drama/theatre is the most communicative genre of literature, but what can be so powerful, so profitable and so communicative could be intertwined. The true theme and structure of African Literature is not only expressed via poetry. I think there was a time when I was still in school, in my final year, when I was given the opportunity to create my own project topics. I found myself creating eight of them when lying on my bed and out of those eight, I tried to make one of them encompass African Literature by picking out a famous work from each genre of literature that best depicts Africa of the past, present and future. So, there’s more to African Literature that meets more than just the eye, and I heard that it is a concept that’s losing its tiny grip on the grid of other literatures simply because there are more of literary reviews than literary criticisms.

    1. Now, I’m not so happy. Anyway, as you will notice, this writer made very clear where his discussion will be coming from right from the first so there’s no confusion. For a more balanced view for some of us non-English and Literature graduates, maybe you can write a rejoinder to this? :)

      1. @Myne, if I were to do a rejoinder to this ‘well articulated thesis’, I would need to go back to school again, ‘face book’ and my absence from NS and anything Internet would be great. I knew this was some sort of a school assignment the minute I read the first sentence. But I am so glad I saw this, for it was like a reminder for me. I am more than sure that there are better poems to illustrate the theme and structure of African Literature than the ones @Sambrightomo showed here. The future is quite bright for literary writers like us.

        I don’t know, em, for non-English and Literature graduates, @Myne, terminologies that might arise from the rejoinder may impede understanding. But that’s left for you guys and gals to decide, right? :)

    2. Love the articulation of your response.

      “In my opinion, poetry is the most powerful genre of literature, prose fiction (and probably non-fiction) is the most profitable genre of literature and drama/theatre is the most communicative genre of literature, but what can be so powerful, so profitable and so communicative could be intertwined.”

      Beautiful. I am taking this with me.

  4. yea i must say i like the article though it looks to academic for me giving that contemporary African literature has evolved far beyond the mentioned concepts. hence, there is no point to argue here considering the works used as “case study”.

    1. i so feel like back in a class room

      1. Yes, @Coshincozor, it sure does. I’m so happy to miss class when I read this, I tell you, but I yearn for true professors this time. :)

  5. As I no study English, wetin I go do na? Hehehe. Articulate. Nice.

  6. wow, i want to really thank everybody who read this thesis and commented.I must say I am not shocked at the response generated so far.Literature exist for this purpose,you cannot always agree with what any writer pens.We are all unique and finds fulfillment in our peculiarity.@ Emmanuella, I say a big merci to your thoughts expressed herein.

    i must say however that the subject of African Literature is still an ongoing debate and will continue till kingdom come.@ Myne thanks for your solidarity.Like you said, I already set the pace of what i want to talk about before I started.let’s keep the good work , as Africans we will get there.@ Raymond thanks for reading,na people like una dey make us wey dey study English sit up.i appreciate.@ Adam and Kaycee you guys just inspired me to continue writing.

    Finally, this write up is an assignment in class, just thought I should post it and get comments,I must say I am challenged to write more.Chao

  7. well, interesting ‘thesis’ (as they called it…)

    i beg to differ though although u made the job easy for me…African Poetry, mostly melancholic? even Dennis Brutus whom u quoted is far from melancholic. Our poetry is angry, bitter and very bold…not melancholic(although some are!).

    J. P Clark’s Casualties…? well, that poem has raised ,more controversy than what you pointed out. Read Odia Ofeimun’s, The Poet Lied and u’d understand that Clark wasn’t readily writing about the plights of the down-trodden…

    good-luck though

    1. @ sam bright, I wouldn’t give u an A, in this, and I know your lecturers wouldn’t either, because I think I think Emmauella is right.
      @Adaobiokwy, I agree with Sam on the melancholic tone of African poetry,

      1. @ Kaycee you just sounded like my lecturers especially those taking Literature…….Stay blessed though, and I really appreciate your comments.

      2. Em, @Kaycee, actually, @Adaoiokwy is more right than @Sambrightomo, for even some of the poems she mentioned to buttress her point is minimal. There are more. Really, you can’t tell me that even all the poems showcased here in NS are purely melancholic. I know some are, sha. Or are all the poems here not from African descent, hm?

  8. @emmanuella I see what you mean. But I had a feeling he wasn’t talking about ALL african poetry. I think the melancholy is more noticeable when we consider Brutus, and his contemporaries at that era.
    I think sam over generalized. I see more flaws now.
    Sam this is good for a test or assignment or even exam. But if you try this as your project, omo, those old lecturers will tear you apart.

  9. @Kaycee: I beg to differ about the grade you think he should or would get even though I agree with your view point absolutely (paradoxical right?). I believe sambright put his points across articulately and if I might add, brilliantly. That is really what should matter when it comes to awarding marks even if one’s view point is not totally right. Really, that’s the problem with most of our lecturers. They place mathematical objectivity over philosophical subjectivity. Sambright, I like the way you wove the sayings of the famous poets within your write-up.

    That said, I must emphatically state that I don’t agree with the mainstream view and acceptance of African literature as “weeping literature”. It is a fact that African literature has been tagged with such words and concepts as protest, struggle, activism, liberation etc. It is not wrong to create literature that advances these concepts or even specializes in the writing of such poetry, prose or drama. However, when society, the media and critics begin to see literature written along these lines as the only ones deserving of greatness, it then brings to question what we value as Africans. Traditional (or would I say ancient?) African oral tradition valued the elements, cuisine, animals, clothing, festivals and what have you. But all these seem to have been overtaking by “struggle” literature. Gloss through African proverbs and study their character; they are full of analogies with the things around them that constitute their culture.

    This is why i will forever love late Cyprian Ekwensi. His novels were rich with imagery that flew you to the the past while rooting you in the present, teaching you about Nigerian cultures within the context of contemporary times.

    My two cents.

    1. Your two cents are quite much.
      Objectivity should always supersede subjectivity.
      Are you saying articulation should be scored instead of content and credibility?
      Na wao!
      There is something called “beautiful nonsesnse”.
      Facts are more important that articulation.

      1. oga Kaycee so this work na beautiful nonsense? ehmnnnn, i see the beef.

    2. @ Samuel thanks for your observation, i really appreciate.The idea of African poetry been tagged as weeping poetry is quite clear,in my view.It is because when we write we infuse all of our being into it.This is because of the cry for freedom from the pangs of colonialism and slavery in the midst of the knowledge that we can rule ourselves as against the belief of the whites when they came with the concept of colonialism.
      However , what we have now is flair,creativity at its best, no more the weeping poetry as many as classified it to be.Check out the works of Niyi Osundare,Jumoke Verrisimo,Charles Ayo Dada et al.shalom


  10. b4 nko you wan collect two kobo?@sambright

    1. na so my big bro. But u know say na dollars for pay pass?

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