Interestingly, a lot of more contemporary literature (which with a few exceptions is what is included below) tackles the earliest moments of colonialism, decolonisation and the post-Independence era in Africa. This presumably reflects, in part, the widespread view of Africa as “a blot on the world’s conscience”, a “problem”, or as a place that is somewhat timeless. But also, perhaps, the greater stakes in literary interpretations of African history, and the attempts of many African writers to address contemporary issues. The work of many of these writers is highly politicised. Chinua Achebe has been working from the east coast for many years, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes from exile in California (Irvine).
The Epic of Sundiata Keita might make a good place to start, for though recounting the history of an old Malian lineage, it has been retold many times across the centuries, and therefore embodies some of the dilemmas faced by historians: how to deal with works that look in many respects like literature rather than history as such, and how to account for alterations that successive generations of griots have made to the real events (if, in fact, those are what we are most interested in). Maryse Conde’s Segu takes us centuries forward in Mali, offering an epic look into the same geographic world inhabited by Sundiata and his sons, but one transformed by new trading networks and wars.
Before there was formal colonialism, Africans were already dealing with the political, social and demographic effects of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Barry Unsworth’s quirky novel, Sacred Hunger, offers an interesting portrayal of the Europe in which such a trade flourished, and charts interactions between different parties in the slave trade.
I have encountered no better novel which captures both pre-colonial African livelihoods and the impact of colonialism on people in different sectors of society (here in what would become Nigeria) than Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart. Equally fascinating, if for different reasons, is Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers, an extraordinary attempt by the daughter of early settlers in Kenya to capture the experience of early colonialism by Kikuyu. Red Strangers is all the more interesting because it follows on the heels of Huxley’s two-part biography of Lord Delamere (White Man’s Country), a Kenyan pioneer, which sets out the merits of white African culture. For those of us who think that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is always an indispensable read, The River Between offers his own take on the early stages of colonialism in East Africa.
Few works can compete with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as it charts the journey by European traders into the centre of the African continent in search of material wealth and the harrowing depths of human nature in search of solace, though Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate all the brutes does a fine job of recounting the travels of a modern-day writer through the annals of what he characterises as the world’s first genocide. For another European perspective on colonialism, its wars, and the emotions those evoked in the men asked to fight them, A E W Mason’s The Four Feathers (published in 1902, and since the subject of several—mostly quite bad—film versions) makes an excellent read. H R Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, another period piece of literature, gives further insight into the motivations of early explorers and other parties interested in pushing into Africa.
For anyone interested in parallels between nineteenth century colonialism and the imperial exercises of the United States today, the Sudan seems a tantalising example. Jamal Mahjoub’s story of late-nineteenth century Sudan might not explicitly draw out these parallels, but In the Hour of Signs is nonetheless a thought-provoking and lyrical read. If you’re interested in venturing further into North Africa, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy is a nice place to start where Egypt is concerned.
Many historians have argued that racial anxieties held by Europeans led them to socially emasculate African men. Ferdinand Oyonyo’s wonderful novel Houseboy captures colonial relations in Cameroon by exploring this theme and providing a compelling illustration of how cultural and racial viewpoints translated into political and social structures which governed the lives of the colonised. Sembene Ousmane takes a look at African resistance to colonialism. His evocative account of the 1947 strike on the Dakar-Niger Railway examines the choices that confronted people when they chose to take on the inequalities that stemmed from colonialism. God’s Bits of Wood presents compelling characters who embody a range of views of colonialism from across French West Africa.
If colonialism wrought chaos on the lives of people across the continent, it took on a peculiarly pernicious form in South Africa, where apartheid structured the lives of all South Africans. The works of Alan Paton, a white, English-speaking Liberal who campaigned against the system of rule, seek to capture apartheid from a range of perspectives. His classic Cry, the Beloved Country recounts the journey of an African pastor between worlds defined by colour, urbanness and politics. Too Late the Phalarope illustrates the heartrending effects of apartheid laws on a Boer family ruled by a titan of Afrikaner respectability, and Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful serves as a description of liberal responses to apartheid.
Alex la Guma is but one of many chroniclers of the experience of apartheid, but Time of the Butcherbird does an exceptionally good job of bringing together many of the protagonists in apartheid-era South Africa, and demonstrating the extraordinary courage that it required for many to resist attempts to force Africans onto Bantustans. Henning Mankell’s murder mystery, The White Lioness, hints at the internationalisation of both resistance to apartheid and the draconian attempts of the National Government to break the backbone of that resistance. Malla Nunn continues work in that genre in her recent mystery, A Beautiful Place to Die, which takes on the fraught relations in a small rural community in 1950s South Africa. Amongst Nadine Gordimer’s many books dealing with South Africa during and after apartheid, The Conservationist stands out for its treatment of white and Zulu experiences of South Africa’s particular version of colonialism.
The end of apartheid did not herald the end of racial conflict in South Africa. In one of the most harrowing reads I’ve come across, J M Coetzee gives life to the tensions and violence which continue to plague South Africa in his novel Disgrace, which also captures more timeless moral themes. Many of Gordimer’s works, including July’s People and House Gun deal with both the imagined fallouts of apartheid and with the scale of social discontent that remained in its aftermath.
Zimbabwe’s experience of decolonisation was long and messy, for white Rhodesians declared Southern Rhodesia independent in 1965 and it wasn’t until 1981, after a bloody civil war, that Zimbabwe emerged as an independent nation. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is a brilliant recounting of how the material and structural conditions created by colonialism affect the psyche of a young African girl who is torn between different relatives’ sense of the possible, and is caught amidst the divide between rural and urban Zimbabweans as well as amidst the increasingly desperate liberation war (Dangarembga’s sequel, The Book of Not, is less powerful, but still worth reading). Shimmer Chindoya’s Harvest of Thorns moves between fighting in the bush during the liberation war and the troubled experiences of veterans after the conflict has ended. Alexandra Fuller’s two memoirs (Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight and Scribbling the Cat) give a flavour of life as experienced by members of the White Tribe of Africa across southern Africa in the years around and after independence. While the memoir’s recording of blatantly racist assumptions is often disconcerting, they are all the more compelling for their honesty. What they share with many other literary works on colonialism is the ability to complicate the simplistic narratives that often emerge from an uncritical and or simplistic examination of the centuries-long European interaction with Africa.
Colonialism did not end easily in Africa. But nor were nationalist struggles as clear cut as some of their chroniclers (literary and historical alike) would like us to believe. While Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A grain of wheat carefully parses the loyalties of and pressures faced by Kenyans at the heart of the Mau Mau war, his The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (co-authored with Micere Githae Mugo) makes no bones about his view that the real heroes of Kenya’s liberation struggle have been forgotten. More recently, Ngugi has written on his own experiences growing up in the dying days of Britain’s East African empire in Dreams in a Time of War.
Political strife did not end in Africa with Uhuru. Nigeria saw the eruption of a bloody civil war in the late 1960s, which witnessed the country break down along lines defined simultaneously by ethnicity and access to resources. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an up-and-coming Nigeria author, has penned an extremely compelling account of this war through the lens of several families in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, and Nina Newington’s Where Bones Dance is another story of the war from the perspective of the daughter of American spies.
Achebe is one of many authors who meditates on the effects of westernisation and neo-colonialism when he recounts the internal struggle of Obi Okonkwo to navigate between ‘traditional’ ways and the world that is ‘modern’ Nigeria, as well as between his shifting points of moral navigation (No Longer at Ease). Just as colonialism was experienced differently by people from various sectors of society, so too Independence came differently to different people. Amma Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes: A Love Story captures dilemmas of women that are both particular to the post-colonial Nigeria of which she writes, and universal. As the urban and rural, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ come into conflict, her characters seek to make their way in a post-independence world, the sands of which seem to be shifting beneath their feet.
Some of the most incisive and brilliant writing on neo-colonialism in Africa comes from a personal favourite, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The angriest and most direct of Ngugi’s works is Devil on the Cross, an incredible excoriation of Western powers, African political and economic leaders who do their bidding, and the system in which they flourish. Equally indispensable is Petals of Blood. More brooding is Nadine Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour, which recounts the travails of a liberal, nationalist-sympathising former colonial administrator who witnesses the nationalist project crumble in an imagined central African nation.
For a return from high politics to daily life, pick up Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which does an amazing job of interweaving complex beliefs about spirituality, economic fortune, and ‘tradition’ in Nigeria. Equally compelling is Ahmadou Kourouma’s final work, Allah is Not Obliged, which tells the heart-rending story of child soldiers in West Africa from the point of view of one such youth.
One harrowing account of contemporary Sudan, the culture and politics of and crushing moral dilemmas faced by aid agencies comes from Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith, a novel which some might argue does for Sudan’s wars what Caputo’s A Rumour of War did for Vietnam.
For those feeling depressed by the weight of history measured in these literary scales, Alexander McCall Smith’s light-hearted series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency offers a look into one of Africa’s supposed ‘success stories’—Botswana, and gives readers a passing impression of gender relations, politics, and the ‘dailyness of life’.
An enduring theme of African literature is the ambiguous legacies of post-independence governments. Robert Mugabe may be vilified in the West, but many Africans, the protagonist of Brian Chikwava’s Harare North amongst them, continue to see Mugabe as a hero of liberation, and a victim of Western smears. Harare North’s other contribution is to portrayals of the lives of the growing African diaspora. Chikwava deals with the Zimbabwean community in London, but an equally compelling story comes from Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale (which might be a particularly interesting version of the immigrant experience given that it’s protagonist makes his home-away-from-Nigeria in Oakland). Nigerian Biyi Bandele’s The Street uses a magical realist style to capture an immigrant culture that is all its own in its tragic-comic unfolding in the by-ways of Brixton.
Africa’s leadership has repeatedly come in for a drubbing from some of the continent’s most prominent and powerful writers. Ahmadou Kourouma weighed in with his complicated novel Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, which chronicles the slow descent of an African liberation hero who won his spurs fighting for the colonial government in one of its imperial wars, returned to lead his country after Independence, and became a master in the dark arts of nepotism, brutality and corruption. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s full-throated assault on kleptocracy in the enormous Wizard of the Crow (perhaps his finest novel) might take place in an imagined East African nation, but you don’t have to stretch your imagination far—whilst enjoying brilliant satire and many a comic turn—to conjure up images of Nairobi and the Kenyan elite who have perfected the art of speaking out several sides of their mouths.
Of course, thinking about African history through literature is complex and potentially problematic. When reading we should ask ourselves in what way these works of literature allow us insight into African history. Unlike an exhaustively-researched and –cited historical monograph, it can be difficult to discern the sources of information upon which authors draw. More often than not, there is little way of telling to what degree personal or familial experience, archival research, perusal of newspapers or other forms of more easily accessible records informed the construction of historically-informed narratives and characters.
Nonetheless, I have heard many people maintain that there is something particularly compelling about the impressions conveyed by novels, plays and short stories echoed by many others. This should make historians think hard about what attributes of fiction can be successfully and productively imitated in their own writing in order to get through to a public (if this is part of what academics see as their role) which might have a big appetite for history, yet is put off by turgid prose or a style which makes no effort to address diverse audiences.
A few other books that might be of interest (in no particular order):
Half a life—V.S. Naipaul
Anthills of the savannah—Chinua Achebe
A bend in the river—V.S. Naipaul
Age of Iron—J. M. Coetzee
House gun—Nadine Gordimer
A sport of nature—Nadine Gordimer
The dogs of war—Frederick Forsyth
The constant gardener—John Le Carre
The mission song—John Le Carre
A good man in Africa—William Boyd
The power of one—Bryce Courtenay
She—H. Rider Haggard
The other side of silence—Andre Brink
The eye of the leopard—Henning Mankell
Memory of a departure—Abdulrazak Gurnah
Everything good will come—Sefi Atta
The ice-cream war—William Boyd
Waiting for the barbarians—J M Coetzee
I will marry when I want—Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii
Flame Trees of Thika—Elspeth Huxley
Coming to birth--Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Weep Not, Child--Ngugi wa Thiong'o
The Radiance of the King--Camara Laye
Kicking Tongues--Karen King-Aribisala