Revisiting Fictions on Pre-literate Africa

Imisioluwa Ogunsunlade
January 7, 2023

Disturbing the Paradise

The advent of the European world left Africa with little or no choice. It was indeed a brutal condition of either immediate adaptation or cultural annihilation. Therefore, the question that remained pertinent in the minds of early writers was the issue of African autonomy and cultural splendor. This was in line with Chinua Achebe’s assertion of African literature—irrespective of African dominance—as a tool for restoration of moral integrity and African ingenuity. According to Achebe (1975), African people did not hear of culture for the first time from the Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but had a philosophy of great depth, value and beauty; that they have poetry, dignity and it is this dignity that every African person lost during the colonial period and it is this they must regain.

Agreeing with Achebe, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana also saw the “history of Africa as presented by European scholars has malicious myths. It was even denied that we were a historical people…such disparaging account had been given of African societies and their culture as to justify slavery; slavery posed against these accounts served as positive deliverance of our ancestors (1957:18). As a result, there arose the need to either “implicit or expressed, correct the distortion of West Africa cultures, to recreate the past in the present in order to educate the West African reader and give him the confidence in his cultural heritage which had been eroded…and also in order to enlighten the foreign reader and helphim get rid of the false impressions about the West African cultures acquired from centuries of cultural misrepresentation.” (Obiechina, 1972: 244).

Of course, the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, also known as the Congo Conference, had ushered in a period of rampant colonial activity by European powers while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of self-governance and autonomy on the African continent. Many European countries including England, Germany, France and Portugal flooded the plains of Africa and by the early 1880’s, the European interest in Africa had increased profusely and drastically due to diplomatic maneuvers and the abundance of valuable, rare resources such as gold, timber, lands and labor power. By 1900, almost 90% of Africa was under European control with the arbitrary boundaries imposed by Europeans often dividing ethnic groups and also bringing enemies under the same government, causing strife that exists till today. Through the Berlin act, the European powers ‘shared’ a continent among themselves without considering the desires of the indigenous people and that marked an obvious extension of their imperialism and the feeling of racial superiority whose justificationwas baselessly anchored on the view of being the most advanced civilization and therefore saw it as their mission to “enlighten” and “civilize” the African people.

In fact, the misconceptions alleged that Africans had no language, no reasoning, no linguistic prowess, no culture and that they only reasoned within the bouts of food and shelter. However, contrary to these inaccuracies, Africa, before the coming of the white man, had a fully functioning structure in both the family, ruling system and social set ups; they had history and pluralism; they had a fully functioning traditional method of people, religion, music, architecture, medicine as well as a vast array of literary tradition which was in an oral form. Indeed, the Modern African Literary exposure as we know it today owes its antecedence to this oral expression, the earliest form of literature, which drew inspiration from the cultural background of autochthonous societies and which was essentially didactic, rhetoric, symbolic, reflexive and expressive in three broad genres of drama as seen in Festivals, ancestral worships, rituals; prose as in legends, fables, riddles, anecdotes and in poetry as in war poetry, heroic, panegyrics, dirges and so on.

This foregoing serves to not only justify Jonathan Peters claim on the akin datedness of African fiction and the peoples communication through spoken forms but also Chinwezu et al’s' who surmise that the pre-literate narrative forms are “Africa’s oral antecedents to the novel”. Nonetheless, it will be blatant, if not defiant, to totally deny the intervention of European influences in the development of fiction in Africa as the modern literature is markedly a legacy of the Europeans and differs reasonably from the oral narratives. Till today, the dialectics of the genesis of fiction in Africa itself is still ongoing with writers and critics taking disparate polls—Wellek and Warren particularly awarding little significance to the oral/written dichotomy. Amidst these, one thing though is sure: African writers—quite typically of the first wave of writers that are discussed in the course of this essay—in both indigenous languages where the importation is seamless and consummate, and in the imported languages where the employment arise from retention, contrivance or inevitable interference, still adopt the tropes, themes, patterns, motifs, characterization of the folks tales, employing it as their primary level of imaginative faculty.

At this juncture, in order to reclaim the place of Africans and the African culture in the courseof history, art stations as an instrument of aesthetics and an embellishment of worth, and cultural glorification, exploration of anthropological details, globalizing African cosmology and colonialism then became textualized in the expressions of early African writers who, left with no choice, adopted the European standard of expression as a veritable tool to communicate this concept of African cosmology.

Among this class of writers include Sol-Plaatje, Amos Tutola, Peter Abraham, Chinua Achebe, Anthony Mafolo, Camara Laye, and Cyprian Ekwensi whose outpouring of arts marked the first phase of the changing voices—documented voices—of history in African fiction. Their voice marked the pre-colonial phase which was pristine and undisturbed; an African space that was autonomous and a period of paradise on earth. Expediently, it is worth noting that Africans had started writing from the diaspora before this first phase of prose fiction writers. After the abolition of slavery, writers outside had started documenting their experiences as ex-slaves, revealing the corrupting influences of white supremacy, glorifying the African and blackness as a whole, situating themselves into a particular functioning identity or consciousness as well as responding to the truncated images of the African person.

Among these writers are the works of Olaudah Equino, The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equino or Gustavus Vassa, The African which gives a graphical detail of the encounter between Europeans undue insurgence and the African world while also lending Africans an opportunity to tell their own side of the story and ensure Africans disposition to creativity as well as a sense of awareness. Also, that of Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford, Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation which moves between fiction and political advocacy. However, this category of writings wouldn’t be considered African prose fiction as the experience of the black people inside the curl of the African continent itself is markedly unlike those of the forcefully displaced blacks and this in itself becomes a major problem in the polemics of the definition of African fiction. Similarly, many older oral epics such as thoseof Sunjata and Sundiata of Mali, the Dinga epic and Mwindo epic as well as other more recent writings that had been produced in indigenous languages such as Thomas Mafolo’s Chaka (1909) translated in 1931 and D.O Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole (Forest of a Thousand Demons) had been in existence but it wasn’t until 1952 that the New African Literature found its dawn with the rudimentary writing of Amos Tutola.

In any case, this precolonial phase of writers fostered cultural rehabilitation, presented the African space as idyllic and publicized the African culture and signifiers by using the African environment as a classroom template and an, as Abiola Irele describes it, “extra-territorial” language as a means of expression.

The Drinkard Who was not Drunk

Amos Tutola, in his book, The Palm-wine Drinkard regardless of teeming criticisms is considered a seminal writing in African Prose Fiction. Published in 1952, a significant period in many colonized African states and a period of significant transition from Africans bleak experience to autonomous continent, the novel, irrespective of the European stance which best describes the level of intellectual competence of Africans, is a quintessential reflection of the New African Literature that is to blossom in that very decade. Today, it serves as perhaps the masterpiece of hybrid African Literature; an attempt at celebrating African culture, showcasing African indigenous world and cosmos while using a foreign language as a medium of expression.

To begin with, as quickly as one may criticize the protagonist who calls himself “father of gods”, this character however is a representative of human frailties. His action portrays the extent to which human beings go to attain insignificant purposes. Therefore, this character isa reflection of the ego character of everyman. Interestingly though, the protagonist of this novel is perhaps an archetype of the supremacy of man in his environment. Tutola lends credence to the autonomy of man as a result of his intelligence, resilience and imagination. The main character goes out to fetch his dear tapster, a resilience induced by his addiction to the recreational usage of palm-wine which the author has purposefully used to suggest the loss of an item of cultural significance considering the symbol of palm-wine in the Africanlore, and an expedition also made possible by autonomy and independence which is underplayed by the journey trope: a journey filled with obstacles and tests. This underplays the liberal, idyllic, free and relaxed state of the African person before the burden of “civilization”. Also, the imaginative intensity of the text, albeit presented in questionable butoriginal language, shows the depth and rich traditions of the African before foreign interference.

Perhaps the most important function of Tutola’s text is the appropriation of oral narratives, traditions and resources in order to appreciate and globalize the rich and vast array of literary tradition in preliterate societies. With the use of folktales which are probably the most important and popular forms of oral literature drawn heavily from the imaginations of narrators in the past and are as old as the culture of the people, myths which function as rudimentary narratives and protect the history, customs and traditions of the people and even legends that are historical replicas which are functional, Tutola is able to create a work that is truly an embodiment of African orature in written form. These oral materials are drawnheavily from the Yoruba cosmic world and an example of one of these myriads of materials isthe myth of the skull as well as that of The Curious Creature who is, at first sight, charming but is actually a monster that adorns himself with borrowed body parts. With this orature therefore, Tutola transmits the cultural values and operative belief system of Africans, showing that Africans did not hear of literature for the first time from the Europeans.

The Palm-wine Drinkard goes a long way to glorify the African belief in three metaphysical planes which suggest that death is not termination but transition. The drunkard faces death multiple times and in many ways but lives through these experiences. In fact, at the onset, the protagonist visits death itself and tricks it into failing into a net, so that death becomes powerless. As a result, “since that day that I had brought Death out from the house, he has no permanent place to dwell or stay, and we are hearing his name about in the world…”(199). Also, when the drinkard and his wife have their ugly, horrible baby, they decide to kill itby burning down the building where the son dwells. However, this death is not permanent, such that the wife insists on going back to get him. This goes on to globalize the African concept of time and space: a space that comprises of the living, dead and the unborn which are not constrained but interconnected and fluid, just as there is communication and connection between the physical and the subconscious, spiritual and supersensitive spaces.

Again, the universe depicted by Tutola reflects the intermingling of pleasure and work, affluence and poverty, nature and culture and the inclusivity of humanity which underplay thephilosophies, personhood and agency of the African people. Collective success is emphasized and individuals can only be considered successful after they have actively intimated others: friends, fellow villagers, family members and even total strangers. In fact, the African philosophy of “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” is highly explicated as seen in the relationships that the drinkard makes. The drinkard meets the woman he will later marry when, in one of his tests, he successfully rescues her from the clutches of a creature in the bush holding her captive. As a sign of loyalty, she then accompanies him on the gruesome journey, sometimes having to use her magic of prophesy. Likewise, the agency of work and play, industry and laziness also come to the fore as it becomes apparent that the drinkard would not have his way of endless winery if he sits down doing nothing. Hence, he takes his destiny into his hand by hard work, industry and determination which quite typically reflect the ethical and moral nature of African civilization or as wrongly supposed, “uncivilization”.

The Father of Modern African Literature

Another novel that quickly established itself as a classic, Things Fall Apart, plays the role of reminding us of what we once had and what we are gradually losing. It set to right the one-sided portrayals of Africa and Africans that had stereotyped the continent and its inhabitantsin the colonial writing of not only British but other Europeans, notably the French. Achebe’s aim is to teach his fellow Africans the truth about the colonial experience and he, in his response, validates the little sense of literacy that Tutola portrayed in his text and of course debunk various notions about Africa, entrenching its ethics, values, cosmic world and identity.

Firstly, the novel uses oral elements to serve his purpose of telling the true story about Africa. The elaborate use of folktales, myths, proverbs and songs engender a distinction in the writing. For the author, African proverbs have great literary value, their use authenticates the language, making non-Africans realize the appealing linguistic patterns of African people. Among them are proverbs like “when the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk” (7). As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others” (87) and “whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, then know that something is after its life” (143). Through these proverbs, Achebe manages to capture and convey the rhythms, structures, cadences and beauty of the Igbo language. Also, in any case, the myths and folktales depict the cultural background of the people and are essentially didactic and very much entertaining; they are witty embedded literary structures in African Philosophy which help show the vast literary tradition and cultural grandeur.

Again, Things Fall Apart defends the African culture to reaffirm its validity. Achebe shows that the emergence of the white people, more than anything, diluted the eminence of the mystical and philosophical epochs of the Africans. Here, the Ani goddess was depicted as saddled with punishing any depravities and offenders towards the land and therefore, when Okonkwo’s gun goes off and accidentally kills one of Ezeudu’s sons during the traditional African farewell for the departed Ezeudu, the law reveals that “the only course to Okonkwo was to exile himself …he could return to the clan after seven years” (99). Similarly, when Okonkwo beats Ojugo, one of his wives, during the week of peace which was against tradition, Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess pays him a visit for desecrating the sacred week. In an effort to grease his palm, Okonkwo offers kolanuts but sticking to the venerated concept of tradition, Ezeani refuses, saying; I shall not eat in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors (94). Interestingly, the latter also underlies and point towards the existence of an operational law and order in the African continent before European influence.

Defying the opinion of Europeans that Africans lacked no culture and as a result, no law and order, Achebe explicates the different strata of jurisdictions that was in charge of maintaininglaw and order, restoring peace and tranquil in the society. For instance, the council of nine Masquerades headed by the chief masquerade, Evil Forest, sees to the hearing and adjudication of both familial and filial conflicts in Umofia and its neighborhood and this is illustrated when Uzoulu and his wife’s family were wittily made to reconcile their differences. To Uzoulu, the masquerades advised: “go to your in-laws with a pot of wine and beg your wife to return to you. it is not bravery when a man fights with a woman” (75) and to Odukwe, the representative of the wife’s family, they implore: if your in-law brings wine to you, let yoursister go with him…” (75).

Things Fall Apart entrenches the social cohesion and communal values, unity and togetherness that has always been the armrest of the African people thereby showcasing theflourishing way of life before external influence. Despite Okonkwo’s exile and the torching of his former compound by his best friend Obierika, the latter and the former still continue theirundying friendship, underplaying the spirit of brotherhood that is the core of Africans. Again,through the wrestling matches—notably between Amalinze the cat and Okonkwo—and festivals, unity is fostered and the entertaining, recreational, and ‘sporty’ qualities of the African setting before the coming of the whites are celebrated.

"A Novel of Classic Simplicity" - Alastair Niven

Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, also passes as one of the novels to explore the cultural setting of the African before the advent of the white man. Depicting the values of Africans in their natural state with their laws, codes and values at work, the story depicts the love life of Ihuoma, a young woman whom all the men who indicate signs of interests towards die mysteriously. Her first husband, Emenike dies of ‘locked chest’ from Madume over a piece ofland. Madume himself dies after being spat on by a cobra after making advances towards Ihuoma. All these point to, on the one hand, the essential place of land and on the other, theefficacy of justice and order in the undisturbed African setting. Even Ekwueme, the stubborn lover who would go any length, even having to betray his betrothed, eventually dies after all preparations to bind the troubling ‘sea king’ was made. Just like Umofia at the onset in Things Fall Apart, Omokachi village here had not been invaded by colonial masters and therefore had an intact, idyllic, paradisiac precept. The belief systems, justice and values were as operative as ever.

Furthermore, the novel establishes the exceptional bond created out of communal co-existence. The life in Omokachi and neighboring villages is replete with deep love and respect for one another. Though the inhabitants of these villages are not related by blood, they care about one another and therefore look out for one another in times of travails and sorrow. After Emenike’s death, Ihuoma is not abandoned when the raining season starts as Ekwueme and others feel the sense of responsibility to help her thatch her leaking roof. Hutsand houses are also built close to each other to the extent that one person cannot overlook the other in case of trouble or any invasion. This enables the people to be their brother’s keeper and this in turn underlies the idyllic, beautiful world that characterized the African life before the intrusion of the shortsighted white colonialists.

Again, Elechi Amadi explicates that humans are inextricable from their destiny. The more we try to run away from our destiny the more we get closer to it and this is seen in the case of Ekwueme who, despite all efforts made to escape the grip of his fate, is unable to not only marry Ihueme but also plunges to his eventual fall. This suggests that there is a supernatural touch to everything that happens in the African space and that whether we like it or not, what will be will be. This moral essence seems to be a major thrusts of the African society before any interference. Moreover, the choice of language is filled with local color expressions like idioms, proverbs, songs, and other African ways of expressing aesthetics where a philosophic and artistic world fuse to produce a discipline that aims at affirming the social purpose of all expressions of human life. In short, the idea of Africa’s rich rhetoric is projected.


Again, since the “whole psychic atmosphere of African village life is filled with belief in…mystical power” (Mbiti, 1969: 197), Thomas Mafolo’s Chaka, albeit being written in an indigenous language only to be translated later, also speaks to the mysticism, cultural glorification and anthropological essence of the African people in pre-colonial times. Here, Thomas Mafolo thoroughly blends traditional oral history with European literary tradition to create a unique work. It explores African concepts of time and space and their beliefs in mystical life as seen in the interventions of super-sensitive beings in the sojourn of man. It reflects the moral and ethical nature of African civilization; the rightness and wrongness of issues as the domineering protagonist, because of his overboard ambitions and lust for endless power, plunges into a tragic fall. It is safe to say that this novel is utilitarian and functional, it documents the experiences, entertain, teach and therefore lends credence to the “alive” traditions of Africans before European interference.

Thomas Mafolo uses African story telling narrative style in Chaka, with its attendant use of repetition of statements and ideas, directly or indirectly, for emphasis. The effect of the narrator’s reference to the audience, inviting them to be part of the storytelling and the use of the omniscient “we” reflects an identification with the audience that forms an intricate part of the African oral story telling technique in African folkloric drama and literature. Similarly, the call and response pattern which is integral to oral renditions is perpetually usedto depict the existing system of literature and narration in the African space. Also, we see multiple adoptions of praise poetry, proverbs, praise-proverbs, story within stories, and otherrhetorically structured narratives that glorify the culture and highlight the beauty of Africans. With these patterns, the novel becomes alive, robust and showcases the flourishing system of literary tradition that was in existence before intrusion.

Finally, the high imaginative intensity, psychological and narrative complexity of the work cannot be overlooked as it lends credence to the creativity of the African person. The illegitimate conception of the hero, his rise to power and his subsequent moral decline underlined by numerous crimes and an eventual fratricidal death, coupled with myriads of possible analysis of the elusive character Isanusi, who could either be evaluated as a physicalbeing, a metaphysical double, or as an extension of Chaka’s own psyche, makes the work an epic masterpiece. In fact, the novel ended on an epic note with a proverb in praise of the formidable Zulu nation “in the days of Chaka” (168) as well as a traditional moral that all evil gets punished. Therefore, Mafolo is able to show his intellect in stringing together a historical and cultural diagnosis, entrenching the sophistication and knowledge of the African person.


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