An Analysis of Themes in African Literature, the Case of Nigerian Literature


An Analysis of Themes in African Literature, the Case of Nigerian Literature

Themes of Colonialism, Liberation, Nationalism, Tradition, Displacement and Rootlessness in African Literature

This paper deals with some of the themes in African literature such as colonialism, liberation, nationalism, tradition, displacement and rootlessness. First of all, it is necessary to have an idea about what constitutes the African literature. African literature comes from West Africa, East Africa, South Africa and its suburb Rhodesia. These literatures are quite naturally, different from each other. But they have in common the fact that they are written by young and middle-aged authors, most of them born after 1930.

African literature means different things to different people. Some consider it a new world literature, a new genre with new messages. Others regard it as a political document, characterised by the protest against colonialism’s downgrading of the blacks. For some it is simply an appendage to English and French literature. However, African literature is didactic and instructive; it is a documentary literature.

African writers who wrote in English were often accused of addressing themselves to a Western audience and to some extent, they were engaged in a debate with the West about the Western interpretation of Africa and in a sense they were directing a message both at the colonizer and the colonized. They were trying to reform African ideas about African experience but they were also trying to reform European ideas about the African experience by using the colonizer’s language to express his ideas.

This happened during the Negritude movement in Africa- Francophone Africa- which was an attempt also to place positive value on African culture and to make Europeans aware that Africa has a culture, local traditions, that Africa was capable of high-quality literature often based on the same premises as the Europeans were using. It was addressed to Africans themselves; who through reading their literature could change their own minds about the experience they have been through and today most of the African writing is addressed to a local audience.

The experience of certain areas of Africa of colonialism has been very different from the others. In certain rural areas, the consciousness of being dominated by an alien culture was minimal. Their existence went on regardless of who were on their soil. In that way, parts of Africa never really felt the impact of colonisation like the people along the coastline or in the metropolitan cities. However, the impact of colonialism was more severe in African countries than in the other Commonwealth countries. Most of the African writers- Olive Schriner, Sembene Ousmane, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Laurens Vander Post, Ferdinand Oyono, Camara Laye, Ayi Kwei Armah, Cyprian Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, all of them have powerfully presented the impact of colonialism and neocolonialism to the downtrodden masses of their country in their works.

Most African literature is an expression of its country’s social change. The writers are concerned about the past and present history of their country and this concern is reflected in their works. The social change that Africa had been subjected to since the colonisation of the country- the cultural, political and missionary influences and its present state of achieved independence with a growing awareness of both national identity and modern problems.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a worthy archetype of the novel which shows the tragic consequences of Africa’s encounter with Europe. The village Umofia is a representative of traditional Igbo society. A similarity can be drawn between the changes in the protagonist Okonkwo’s life and the social change that Nigeria under went before and after its encounter with European culture. Having examined the strains and stresses in Igbo society in the wake of colonialist’s advance in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, and the problems facing the educated classes in modern Nigeria in No Longer at Ease, in A Man of the People Achebe shows what Nigerians made of their country consequent to the departure of the imperialists. Michal Ondaatje’s renowned work, The English Patient too deals with the theme of colonial presence.

Liberation in literature challenges people, community and the continent to identify the positive elements in their heritage and inspires them to find solutions to their problems. Along with the Yoruba culture, Wole Soyinka also advocates the theme of liberation in his works. In his prison notes, The Man Died, he says that the second phase of self-liberation is the creation of a continental language as an instrument of continuing continental struggle. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo’ regarded the revision of Kenyan history as essential to liberation from colonial legacy. In his novel, Petals of Blood, he explains through the characters of Karega and Joseph, that the spirit of liberation is a continuous process which is indicative of the social consciousness of the people.

Similarly, Ayi Kwei Armah’s novels, apart from their aesthetic beauty, are deliberately crafted as tools of resistance and liberation. His novels Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers are regarded as novels of liberation. Both these works are revolutionary in their perspectives. In these novels Africa becomes the plot, character, theme and the situation, and Armah’s novelistic vision is to emancipate the continent from the forces of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism.

Two Thousand Seasons provides a survey of the history of Africa from the past to the future. It chronicles the life of the African people confronted with cultural, religious, economic and social enslavement. It calls for a struggle for their liberation. The novel is a fight not only to rehabilitate Africa’s battered image but also to liberate it from slavery, disintegration, distortion and dislocation of its unique African cultural identity.

Achebe’s Arrow of God is a study of an African man struggling to come to terms with his identity when a nationalizing colonial force undermines the structures of his community and destroys his sense of security. The novel shows that two issues central to the protagonist’s identity crisis remain, a problem to Nigerians today. If Nigeria is a nation, are the Igbo or Yoruba just tribes? African writers warn that until the people of Africa understand their pre-colonial foundations and restructure their society accordingly, they cannot hope to build nations with harmonious ethnic co-existence. Moreover the writers are often divided over the use of colonial languages as national languages. Achebe’s Arrow of God is an example of a narrative that probes the post- colonial identity by seeking to identify the moment of transition of a society with a pre-colonial identity to one with a national identity.

Africa is known for its rich tradition. In the novel, Things Fall Apart, the social harmony of the village is evoked vividly through Achebe’s presentation of the customs and traditions extending from birth, through marriage to death and of the educational, religious and hierarchical systems. Achebe also takes a strongly satiric stand in A Man of the People, to show how the local traditions and customs are exploited by the modern politicians to meet their selfish needs.

In all his novels, Ngugi wa Thiongo’ tries to uplift the cultural heritage of Africa by explaining the colonial subjugation to the Kenyans, by presenting before every Kenyan what he was, what he is and where he is being led into. His novel, Petals of Blood gives the picture of a traditional Gikuyu society and how the peaceful life of the Gikuyus was spoiled with the intrusion of the Europeans. In this novel he presents the life of a young man, Waiyaki, who fails in bringing about reconciliation between traditionalism and Christianity. This was not the problem of Waiyaki alone but it was a social problem which affected many societies and tribes during the 1920s. The social life of the traditional societies which aimed at communal consciousness has been disturbed by the entrance of the Europeans. Ngugi seems to suggest that the dilemma of the masses to make a choice between traditionalism and Christianity has resulted in utter confusion. He suggests that a blend of the good qualities of the both traditions or a reconciliation between the two would have been a better choice. But the lack of social awareness among the people had created chaos in the society which ultimately led to the destruction of traditional values.

Africa is also well known for its rich oral tradition. The Ghanian poet, Kofi Awoonor researched into the poetic forms of the Ewe ethnic group, which resulted in the publication of his Guardians of the Sacred Wood: Ewe Poetry, a collection containing Awoonor’s English translations of the oral recitations. A similar thread which links the traditional and the modern is seen in the poetry of Okot p’ Bitek.

Place and experience of displacement are both important features of African literature. It originated against the background of a complex history of colonization and decolonization. Displacement caused by colonization can take on several forms- physical displacements, figurative displacement. The figurative displacement is visible in the relationship of black African writers writing to African literary canon which has been mostly dominated by white African writing. The other forms of displacements include the displacement brought about by the appropriation of land by European colonizers, the displacements resulting from the forced removals under certain apartheid laws as well as the displacement caused by imprisonment or resulting from hostile political policies. Soyinka’s Season of Anomy is basically about processes of displacement, elimination and substitution.

A Man of the People by Achebe depicts the post-colonial situation in a modern African state which is on its way to sever its ties with the traditional past. Achebe exposes the inadequacies in a society which is losing its traditional moorings and also the opportunistic tendencies of the local, newly emerging politicians. This causes dislocation from one’s native land and results in a sense of rootlessness. It is also caused by either displacement, exile or other similar factors. The juxtaposition of the native tradition with the alien tradition of the colonizers played a significant role in creating a sense of rootlessness- the clash between tradition and modernity, between the real and the occult are some among them. This sense of rootlessness has been depicted mainly in African poetry, such as ‘The Cathedral’ by Kofi Awoonor.

Apart from these, there are several other themes peculiar to African literature. Apartheid, Negritude, Assimilation, Racism, lack of education, dual identity of the mixed people etc. are some of them dealt with, in the powerful writing from the African Continent.

However, every African writer is “two people”. He is born to a worldview which is mythopoeic, ritualistic, hierarchical, authoritarian, folk-oriented, oral and tribal. But by a historical accident he has become aware of a culture that is rational; actuality oriented techno-scientific, pragmatics and endowed with an established discourse. The given tradition, its past and present relevance, its juxtaposition with the alien tradition has to find a place. This is achieved by the literary geniuses from the Continent, making the Eurocentric world look at them in a new light.


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Kakraba, Alexander Dakubo. “Ayi Kwei Armah’s Novels of Liberation” African Nebula 3 (2011): 48-59. Web. 20 November 2014.

Viljoen, Louise. “Displacement in the literary texts of black Afrikaans writers in South Africa.” Journal of Literary Studies 21. 1-2 (2005): 93-118. Web. 20 November 2014.

Sakhsi. “Colonial Conflicts leads to Alienation and Rootlessness in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease.” IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science 8.6 (2013): 26-30. Web. 20 November 2014.


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