Introduction to African Literature
In the dictionary ‘Le Petit Larousse 2003’ literature is defined as a field embracing written and oral works to which an aesthetic aim is acknowledged. This definition upholds the assertion that African literature has ever existed in the oral form. African forms of literature are interesting not only as far as anthropological perspectives are concerned, but also from an aesthetic view point. Africa is endowed with epics, folktales and praise poems that have gone through the centuries. It can never be too strongly emphasised or emphasised often enough that African poetry does not commence with the advent of colonial education in Africa; nor does African poetry, properly speaking, begin with the training of native speakers in the use of the European tongues. As in other parts of the world, poetry in Africa, its use and enjoyment by ordinary members of the community, is as old as organised society itself: the African languages, through the ‘oral literatures’, are repositories of some of the finest verse in epic form as well as in the shorter lyric which has survived to our own day under very testing conditions. A great deal of this oral poetry, whether it is the praise-poems of South Africa, the sacred songs of the Masai, the Odu corpus of the Yoruba, or the religious chants of the Igbos, or the funeral dirges of the Akan, has fertilised much of contemporary African verse in the European languages: even when it has not palpably done so it has sometimes created a healthy tension between traditional African modes and the acquired western techniques. Given that the media for communicating inside and outside Africa are the languages brought by the colonial powers, those literary forms can only be spread around the world when translated into French, English, Spanish or Portuguese. Since translating those literary works into English alters much the social context of their production, writers rarely tend to do so. Ethiopia Unbound (1911) is considered the first fictional text in English by an African writer: J.E. Casely-Hayford (1866-1930), a Gold Coast lawyer and politician. The anonymous author of Marita: or the Folly of Love, published in 1885-88, has yet to be identified, while Liberian writer Joseph J. Walter’s Guanya Pau, published in Lincoln (USA) in 1891, was discovered only recently. Ethiopia Unbound is a strange text, even incoherent to some; at any rate, it is difficult to follow as the plot unfolds on several levels. It tells the story of Kwamankra and his friend Whitely who, at the beginning of the novel, are busy having discussions in London and who meet again in Gold Coast at the end of the novel. One is a lawyer with nationalistic convictions and the other is a chaplain in the colonial government. The story does not play itself in a linear way: we are taken on an excursion to paradise where Kwamankra discovers his wife; we leave for the United States in the company of the hero, and we hear the speeches and debates that punctuate his travels there. The backdrop of the novel is an often sarcastic depiction of colonial society through the discourse of its principal representatives. The narration is livened up (and sometimes interrupted) by songs, fables and narratives. Songs in Fantia and poems written in Victorian English are also added to the at times confusing mix. The chief aim of the book is to defend the cause of the Ethiopians whose country, it is suggested, is the cradle of Christianity. However, this illustrious heritage does not lead the author to a didactic attitude or to proselytize: on the contrary, he is very critical of a religion dominated by whites although it originated with blacks. Being a lawyer and a politician, J.E. Caseley-Hayford can sustain a powerful rhetoric. Inspired by the masters of what was to become the Black Renaissance (E. Blyden, W.E.B. du Bois), the book is primarily demonstrative and polemical. And yet the strictly political intention of...
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