African fiction is the socio-political, historical and cultural documentation of the experiences of the African people; it reflects and refracts the goings-on in the society, as it is functional and committed to the course of liberation from the shackles of neo-colonialism. African writers cannot be separated from these realities and thus, they use the whole gamut of indigenous traditional aesthetics at their disposal to interrogate contemporary issues bedevilling the continent. This essay will therefore capture these indigenous traditions as conveyed in the aesthetics and thematic concerns of its fiction.
It is no news that Africa is beleaguered with a certain trend of commonality which cuts across its large geographical landscape, from the North to the South, and from East to the Western region. Indeed, the trait of identity crisis is a regrettable consequence of the peculiar colonial or imperial experience of these sub-regions. However, the literature emerging from these territories are pictures of a multicultural continent.
The North for instance is defined by its encounter with the Arab socio-cultural, political and religious experience which informs their worldview, mores, ethos as well as their language. For example Nawal El Saadawi’s works such as Women at Point Zero, dwells on the plight of women in a society that is driven by Islamic principles. It is even difficult to regard North African writing, just as other regions in Africa, as singular and homogeneous. It is more appropriate to speak of North African literatures rather than of one literature: a literature in Arabic which extends beyond the confines of North Africa (Talahite, 39).
The experience of the South is also unique especially South Africa. The apartheid system of government is responsible for their outlook and poise to life. So we see a lot of protest, violence and commitments to freedom occupying the thematic concerns of the works emanating from there.
The topic that circumscribes the Eastern region of Uganda and Kenya for example, besides the struggle for independence and other pseudo socio-cultural concern is the issue of land ownership. This is a constant item for conflict in their literature. In the West however, there is the overt expression of fiction about neo-colonial disillusionment from the Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone countries that make up the region. Attention is also given to writings which tap from resources such as myths, dance, songs, legends and festivals to address contemporary social realities.
However, there is a connecting factor between these four regions that gives it the African Literature designation. These are the traditions and culture of the people and the similarity of beliefs and socio-political experiences. The influence of colonialism is not enough to completely displace the African writer from expressing his world view, as such, the language of the colonial master is domesticated and indigenized to express the unique culture, philosophy and mannerisms of the African people. This is one of the peculiarities of African literature.
Thus, we see a lot of African proverbs, festivals, witty sayings, folklores and pithy sayings reflected in the literature. Even works of African writers in the Diaspora are replete with traditional African traits,distinguishing it from Western works. An example is Diana Evans’ 26a, a story about the twins Bessi and Georgia, the conflict between their African roots and the culture of the West. In explicating this thematic thrust, the writer explores the myth of twins within Africa and European context as well as the superstitions attached to the concept in contemporary Africa.
While engaging with the twins, Nne Nne, their grandmother, relays the uniqueness of twins in pidgin parlance: “It is very special to be twins you kno that? Your motha tell you about them…? (61)”. In this novel, Diana Evans brings to the fore the age long tradition of killing of twins because they were seen as bad omen, and how the idea was jettisoned in some part of the continent.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart also explores the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial experiences underpinned by traditional African markings. Achebe addresses the germane issue of identity and cultural nationalism by portraying in succinct terms that Africa has its own culture and no matter what, a man should not forget his roots. In achieving this, the novel features lots of proverbs and folklores to convey didactic nuances by which the society can correct itself. Also notable is the bride price concept, arguably an old tradition,but a key practice in contemporary African society. Akueke’s ceremony is a worthy example:
‘We had not thought to go below thirty. But as the dog said, “if I fall down for you and you fall down for me, it is play”. Marriage should be a play and not a fight; so we are falling down again.’ He then added ten sticks to the fifteen and gave the bundle to Ukegbu.
In this way Akueke’s bride-price was finally settle at twenty bags of cowries. It was already dusk when the two parties came to this agreement. (58)
This is also reflected in Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon (1995) where Mara’s bride-price consist “two white cows, for healthy goats, four lengths of cloth, beads, gold jewellery and two bottles of London Dry Gin…” (3). In the same vein, we find the issue of female genital mutilation in Ayaan Hirsi’s book Infidel (2007), where she recounts her experiences and how the practise is used to enforce the virtue of purity and virginity in Africa. Even though she campaigns for female liberation from the shackles of socio-religious tight ropes and portrays the risks associated with such cultural practise in the novel,it however does not take away the premium placed on virginity within the African socio-cultural sphere.
In July’s People (1981) we also see how Nadine Gordimer employs indigenous features to drive home some salient points in the novel. She predicts a South-Africa that witnesses black revolution and liberation from the chains of Apartheid. Nadine imagines anger and outrage at social injustice. She does this by incorporating code-mixing, which is a basic feature of African literature:
One of the girls was bold but respectful:- Tatani, I want to ask,I sit true you also had a room for bathing, like the one they had?…
He called back:- Exactly Mhani that one with the bad foot is a young one.(19)
Code mixing in African fiction perpetuates the reality of indigenous thoughts that are not captured by the White man’s language as expressed in the novel.
Ahmadou Korouma’s Allah is not Obliged is also another novel that reveals indigenous underpinnings. The story is told through the eyes of a 10 year old child-soldier who expresses African beliefs and myths as the narrative develops.
…Before I was crawling around on all fours, I was in Maman’s belly.And before that, I could have been the wind, or maybe a snake, or maybe water. You‘re always something like a snake or a tree or an animal or a person before you get born. It is called life before life. I lived life before life. (5)
This captures the African worldview that life is cyclic. That is, the world of the living, the dead (ancestors) and the unborn. As against the concept of the West that life ends after death.
However, Ben Okri brings a fascinating dimension to the traditional aesthetics peculiar to Africa. In Starbook (2007), just like The Famished Road, Okri reveals the world of the fantastic or magical realism, a feature of African belief system. The novel is characterized by magical enactments. It is a resource of myths and art, a nexus of reality and fantasy. Beyond magic, we see the animist concept once again emphasized. The main character, The Prince, gleans knowledge from nature and its adjuncts in his quest to win the damsel for which his heart beats:
…Slender frail, sensitive, he took himself to the forest and asked the animals and the birds to teach him how to fight, how to prevail, how to win without winning. And the crane taught him to balance on one leg. The lizard taught him elusiveness and the scuttle and how to abandon your tail if this would save your life. The spider taught him the art of ugliness and the web. The ant taught him the art of tenacity and the cunning of being small. The lion taught him the majesty of presence and how to intimidate through stillness…(385)
Perhaps one can learn from this and apply to ones everyday life while also learning to exist side by side with others without conflicts.
No doubt the African continent is plagued with leadership problems, writers take it upon themselves to protest and campaign for freedom from despotic administration usually to their own detriment. In doing this however, they adopt creative means of questioning these leaders by ridicule. Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow (2007) is a satire about the tyrant Ruler of the fictive Aburiria, a metaphor of postcolonial Kenya and Africa in general. In this novel, Ngugi presents a narrative that captures the oral tradition of Africa. His narrative style speaks volumes of this assertion. He adopts the collective evidence technique where everybody tells his or her own story. This is indeed in the spirit of the communal concept of Africa cultural existence.
Ngugi avers about his style:
… the multiple narrative voices, apart from helping me in coping with flexible time and space, also helped me in moving away from a single character novel… I also borrowed heavily from forms of oral narrative, particularly the conversational tone, the fable, proverbs, songs and the whole tradition of poetic self-praise or praise of others… (77-78)
This no doubt marks the novel as one that overtly adopts traits that distinguishes it from Western novel thereby situating it as a classical African novel.
From the afore examples, it is clear that no matter the traditional concept that is expressed in a novel, African writers are committed to making the society better. African literature is thus functional within its geographical space as to ensuring that the socio-cultural concepts that the people of the continent hold dear is not eclipsed by neo-colonial nuances. African literature is therefore significant in the contemporary society and postmodern world in general.
Ngugi wa Thiong’O. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey Ltd., 1986. Print.
Talahite, Anissa. “North African Writing”. African Literature: An Anthology of criticism and theory. Ed. Olaniyan, Tejumola and Quayson, Ato. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. 39-45.Print.
Diana, Evans. 26a. London: Vintage books, 2005. Print.
Darko, Amma. Beyond the Horizon. Harlow: Heinemann, 1995. Print.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Harlow: Heinemann, 1958. Print.
Kourouma, Ahmadou. Allah is Not Obliged. Lagos: Farafina, 2007. Print.
Okri, Ben. Starbook. Lagos: Farafina, 2007. Print.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Wizard of the Crow. Lagos: Farafina, 2007. Print.
El Saadawi, Nawal. Women at point Zero. London: Zed books, 1975. Print.