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Linking Words: What has happened so far

Pepetual Mforbe (2018)

The Connection of African Literature to Berlin

Given that the African continent is a wide, heterogeneous geographical space in terms of its history, culture, language, and people, it is rather a challenging task to attempt to define African literature, talk less of which language these literatures are conveyed in, in twenty minutes. Further, I cannot pretend to be an expert on African literature emanating from the entire continent, and its diaspora; a statement made intentionally to comment on the diversity and wealth of Africa’s literary landscape. While the continent is home to innumerable African languages, it also has the privilege of employing English, French and Portuguese ( all colonial languages) as official languages, adding to a gamut of its national languages as useful resources to African literature. Also, I shall not make reference to literature from the Maghreb including Egypt simply because I am not yet an expert on the literature from these regions which of course contributes to the diversity and richness of literature from Africa. Therefore, as diverse as the continent is, clearly confirms the diversity of not only its literatures, but also of the languages in which these literatures are conveyed.  This statement is made bearing in mind the number of controversies that have emerged in order to define the continent, its people, its languages and most of its literatures, originating particularly from the continent’s contact with European traders, colonial administration, early anthropologists and ethnographers. It is worth mentioning that the specific annihilating consequences of these historical processes such as the transatlantic slaver trade and colonialization influenced, negatively, the peoples’ history and culture.  In order to justify slavery and colonialism mainly because of capitalistic gains, the African continent and it peoples were described as primitive and barbaric desperately needing civilisation via “enlightening” colonial interventions like western education and Christianisation. During these processes, sadly, Africa was described in colonial writing and early western anthropologists’ researches as having no literature, no history, no culture, which Ruth Finnegan perceives as popular assumptions from the west that “seems to convey on the one hand the idea of mystery,  and on the other that of crude and artistically underdeveloped formulations” (1970:1). Of course, you will agree with me that these formulations were early western assumptions and myths about important elements of the continent which clearly undermined its rich literary wealth that was and is embedded in the cultural heritage and history of the people.

My keynote address will attempt to trace African literature from the past to the present. References will be made to its characteristics in order to highlight those literary genres that have made their way to the diaspora and most especially to Germany, hereby creating the platform which has contributed immensely to what is known as African diaspora literature and Afro-German literature, to be precise. Simply put, I will be commenting on indigenous African literature. Secondly I will speak about literature written during the colonial times and will simultaneously comment on the representations of Africa in early European literature. Further, I will briefly comment on the process of decolonisation and how it was and is represented in African literature not leaving out African literature and nationhood. Finally, I will touch on postcolonial literature, and in doing so will make references to African diaspora literature, together with a concise look into the Afro-German literary landscape.

Indeed, there is an African literature before the arrival of the Europeans. That literature has been named by critics as African oral literature or African orature to differentiate it from written literature which was introduced with the coming of the Europeans. This introduction does not cancel out the fact that some communities in Africa were already introduced to forms of writing that can be traced back to the Arabic script. African orature embodies indigenous African forms mainly communicated orally and recorded in storytelling, myths, legends, riddles, proverbs, epic narratives to name just these few. It is indeed an old debate engaged by critics of African literature from the west and from Africa (See Chiangong 2012) questioning whether these elements actually constitute African literature in general and African theatre to be specific. It is important to mention that elements of African orature are mainly communicated via performances with emphasis placed on the performer, his costume, his style of delivering a specific performance, the literary elements embedded in dialogue, stage properties and most all the interaction with the audience. Of course, performance style vary from culture to culture. However, coming into contact with Europeans via slavery and colonialism, African literature was defined following the standards of European literatures against which it was measured, thereby denying its existence. During these European incursions, African Orature was not only denied its existence, but the performances of these forms were actually banned by colonial authorities and Christian missionaries, branding them as pagan and uncivilised.  These definitions were made following evolutionist thinking which placed what was European to be superior and what was emanating from Africa, inferior. Innumerable researches have placed indigenous African forms on the world’s literary landscape through performances, dramatic texts, the novel, the short story, poetry, film etc. in order to not only project the literary quality of indigenous material but also to highlight the wealth of African literature in its contact with western education and western forms of writing. Moreover, returning to indigenous forms was one of the strategies employed by African nationalists and authors to challenge colonial structures during the fight for independence aimed at dismantling those structures. The Negritude Movement and the literature and philosophical ideas produced from the movement by Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Leon Damas is just one of the examples. Besides, Frantz Fanon clearly articulates how necessary it was to return to indigenous forms as indispensable approach in Africa’s quest for independence as articulated in his The Wretched of the Earth first published in 1961.

Going back to African Orature or African oral literature, a number of first generation African writers responded to the delimiting perceptions of early European researches and administrators on African literatures in particular and African Arts, in general. Amos Tutuola first published The Palm-wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town in 1954. The novel chronicles a protagonist who embarks on an excitingly dangerous journey to the land of the dead in search of his palm-wine tapper who had died. In the quest, the protagonist has to travel through bushes endangered wild animals, strange monsters, speaking trees, red people and creatures with several horns that may look both like an animal and a fish capable of devouring anything including humans. Besides conquering these creatures on this journey, the protagonist must fulfil request like arresting death in order for the road to death’s town to be indicated. In a fantastical world that Tutuola creates, all of this is of course, plausible. You might already guess from this short summary that the novel is made of interesting folktales that are not only known to Nigeria, Africa, but are familiar to some cultures of the globe.  Familiar folktales like the beautiful girl who rejected all her suitors, but fell for skull in borrowed robes and the origin of death are all embedded in the novel. One also encounters trickster characters, superheroes and scenes of magical realism. The language of the novel and style of narration are clearly inspired by African indigenous forms. Following the publication of Amos Tutuola’s Novel, Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Part was published in 1958. In my view, the novel was  published not only to portray an African, precisely Igbo, society before, during and after the community’s contact with Christian missionaries and British colonial administrations; events which impacted a great deal on the Igbo culture, history and most of all identity. It also depicted a society in its originality, which like any other is facing insurmountable challenges, yet also enjoying a normal way of life portrayed in its rituals, festivities, and sports. Achebe also wrote Things Fall of Apart as a response to how Africans where depicted, often pejoratively in the novels of western writers. Specific examples are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899?) and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939).

Written literature from West, central, East, Southern and Northern Africa has developed at different paces and at different times. These literatures–novel, drama, theatre, performance, poetry, the short story, film—cannot be divorced from the social, political, cultural and economic development in their various regions. While apartheid has influenced the form and content of literature coming from Southern and South Africa precisely, post-apartheid South African literature does not dwell so much on apartheid and resistance against apartheid, but has in many ways questioned the rhetoric of the rainbow nation. In this regard, one is looking at South Africa as a beautiful ethnically diverse society, yet with continuous economic frustrations, class/racial divide, xenophobia, homophobia and crime being highlighted in a good number of its literature. Some post- apartheid authors who have enaged with these themes are Grieg Coetzee in Happy Natives (2002) Zakes Mda in The Heart of Redness (2000) Sello Duiker in Thirteen Cents (2000), Phaswane Mpe in Welcome to our Hilbrow (2001), Masitha Hoeane in Mama Mudu’s Children (2017)etc. While Duiker’s novel explores the life of street children in Cape Town told from the perspective of the child narrator, the novel’s style is embedded in code mixing communication format that vividly describes the dangers that street children face especially in the hands of what the child narrator terms “grown-ups”. Mpe and Mda employ postmodernist narrative technics to capture the history of South Africa, language policy, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, of course the myths and legends of the communities in which the novels are set.

Eastern African literature in the western sense of course started a little later in the 1960s than literature from Western and Southern Africa. Song of Lawino (1966) by Okot B’tek, The African Child (1953) by Camara Laye from West Africa, are works in which these authors project African cultures in specific ways. Song of Lawino presents the Acoli culture of Northern Uganda in strict contrast with European ways which the author bitterly criticises through the eyes of the protagonist, Lawino.  Ngugi wa Thiongo in his early novels like The River Between (1965) also portrays the clash between Kikuyu traditional practices and how the circumstance is interpreted by indigenous characters who have been converted to Christianity. Deep conflict emerged from the interaction of different cultural perceptions in the setting of the novel that tragic deaths occur in the end, with some of the characters suffering a deep crisis of identity.

Postcolonial African literatures are as diverse as its continent. With the transformation of the society through awareness and empowerment projects from feminist movements, women’s voices were beginning to be heard. Their experiences vis-à-vis gender relations and forms of hegemonic masculinities were being echoed in their literature. This especially was captured from their perspective and not from a male gaze as had been the case in the writings of early male African authors. Some of the female African authors who can be listed in this category are Flora Mwapa, Bessie Head, Mariama Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo, , Buchi Emecheta, Aminata Sow Fall, Calixth Beyala, Tsitsi Dangeremgba etc.

Contemporary African literature engages with a wide variety of themes and approaches. Colonial discourses, postcolonial criticism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonial ecocriticism, feminisms, intertextuality, intermediality etc. are some critical approaches  that can be employed to analyse  African literatures. Memoirs, autobiographies and testimonies also form part of African literature. Some of the authors whose works could be analysed following some of the listed theories are Bole Butake, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Nuruddin Farah, Alain Mabanckou, Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Uzodinma Iweala, Makuchi Abbenyi Nfah, Fatou Diome, Petina Gappah, Helon Habila, Patrice Nganang, Chris Abani, E.E. Sule, Leonora Miano, Jack Mapanje,  etc…in their respective works. Their works explore topics around the postcolonial nation state which is fractured by senseless wars, ethnic and religious conflicts, environmental pollution, fragmented political states, migration, culture and traditions of African communities in their interaction with other cultures of the world. Some of the works of these authors, like Farah’s Maps (1986) for instance, explore the concept of war and of the Somali Identity, the consequences of migration on gender relations and national identity. A beautiful piece of writing that is conveyed in existential and psychoanalytical language. The novel is also enriched with magical realism and an incredible thought- construction of the child narrator, Askar. In fact, contemporary African literature is an amalgamation of African and European forms, this way making its literature richer.

A recent development that has impacted on African literature is the issue of voluntary and involuntary migration. However the recent political discourses on migration has inspired authors to focus on the impact of contemporary mobility, which in some works are traced to the transatlantic slave trade asking interesting questions about the unitary self which is always in contact with other cultural symbols. These authors therefore highlight identity crisis in their works. The works of Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi in Americana and The Thing Around your Neck, Teju Cole in Open City, Ghana must Go by Taiye Selasi echo these themes. Further, the works of John Eichler, Clementine Burnley, Sara Ladipo Manyika, Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chike Unigwe, Sharon Dodua Otoo continue to engage with similar themes of  identity reflected via incredible characters, themes, and images which the authors have created in their works. Moreover, the topic of sexuality which is still a contentious topic on the African continent is also being expressed in African and African diaspora literatures. Queer identity and other relevant topics are expressed in the writing of Olumide Popoola, Chinelo Okparanta, Jude Dibia, Aveenarh Mohammed et al, etc.

Berlin in particular and Germany in general, as an African diaspora space has been home to what one, arguably, might call African Diaspora and Afro German writings. The writings and specifically the poetry of May Opitz Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye etc. examine the pain and trauma these authors and others experience simply because their ancestries are connected to both Africa and Germany. They articulate in their works how one’s identity could be fragmented and in extreme scenario discontinued because the German society, which they consider their own, denied their ancestral connection to it simply because they are not “white”. Moreover, gender bias makes the authors’ experience of racism cumbersome: truths that have motivated their writing and activism. More about these authors and their works can be accessed in Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den spuren ihre Geschichte (1986) edited by Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz Ayim and Dagmar Schutz.  After the publication of this work, Afro German authors still and have continued to produce a good number of literature that reflect the concept of identity and the endless search for belonging.

Besides, what exists as Afro German literature, Berlin to be precise is home to the works of authors who are, in one way or the other, connected to the African continent.  First of all, Humboldt University where I teach has a Department of African Studies where incredible amount of teaching and research on African Studies is being done. Students who graduate in Bachelor, Masters, PhD and postdoctoral researches produced informative and rich material on African literatures and their authors who are based on and out of the continent. The Department also host international conferences on African literatures which aim to create platforms for African literatures to be investigated and in this way, adding more strength to its theoretical constructions. The Department of course collaborates with Berlin based institutions such as  AfricAvenir ( and others), to co-host book readings on known and less known African authors, who write in English, French, Portuguese and other African languages who are being invited to engage in critical discussions about their works with both students and the berlin public. It is worthy to mention Elnathan’s#BOAT which invites African authors in a literary conversation about their works. The body of what is called African literature is growing and continuous grow. Rather than being bothered with the question that ask what African Literature is and who is an African writer, let us rather continue to savour African literature as part of world literature that is being produced on a daily basis. The recent festival on African literature entitled “Writing in Migration” which took place in Berlin from March 26th -28th, 2018 and which engaged over sixty writers invited from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Ghana, bore witness to that growth.


Afroberlin. Parataxe Symposium III, May 24th 2018

Dr. Pepetual Mforbe Chiangong for © PARATAXE 2018

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