Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
The rise of modern African literature

It was ‘from Ibadan that modern African literature rose’, John Otim writes in this week’s Pambazuka News. ‘There was a buzz, people sat up and took note. They examined the new thing, seeking out signs of deference to Empire, some acknowledgement, some appeal to European authority. Things Fall Apart showed none of that. It was Africa recreating Africa. The college and the city of Ibadan had found its voice’.

We are looking in at a dinner party at the home of the head of the department of English at the newly created University College of Ibadan in Nigeria. At the dinner table was the entire faculty. The year is 1948.

Ibadan was the lone university institution in the country, one of only a handful in all Africa. The men and women gathered, were as academics go a good bunch their subsequent careers showed. Their formal appearance despite the warm evening was a matter of pride and tradition. But their dress style was intended as well to fend off tropical night insects, especially the feared mosquito, the pest that after all had kept the entire region free of white settlement.

For the host and his wife and the guests, the dinner was an opportunity to think aloud without inhibitions, to talk shop in a homely, friendly milieu. They compared notes of their experiences in what was for them a strange, albeit enormously exciting and rewarding, environment. Africa was fun. But Africa was in 1948 for many white people a place out there on the fringes, teaming with the unknown. Joyce Carry’s novel Mr Johnson, set in Nigeria and published in 1948, presented the popular view of Africa championed by Joseph Conrad in the much acclaimed novella Heart of Darkness.

Dinner was over, the drinks session well underway. Life in the colonies was lavish. The dinner hall was a large colonial room with high ceilings and large low windows typical of the period. White clad black servants hurried about dispensing drinks and delicacies. The entire hall buzzed with small talk – naturally about Africa, about their own role as teachers, as pioneers in the heart of darkness. To be white in Africa was to be Lord. The novel Lord Jim was not set in Africa but Conrad may as well have set this story in Africa. The idea of the civilising mission, of the white man’s burden – though not now proclaimed – was never far from the mind. It was easy for these men and women, themselves mostly young people like Lord Jim before them, to feel that they were missionaries in the heart of darkness. The habit of forms of thoughts dies hard.

The conversation and the partying ate deep into the night. Beyond the gates, a parallel world buzzed, full of its own life, with its own habits, traditions and institutions. Barring Harlem, Ibadan was the largest black conglomerate there was. Chaotic, slummy even. But Ibadan was exploding, as few other places on the continent were, with what it meant to be African in the middle of the twentieth century. There were musicians, dancers, theatre groups, artists, and politicians, all struggling for social space. The cocoa economy ensured that there was in the city a degree of affluence.

From where they caroused, the guests could hear distinctly the beat of Yoruba talking drums, borne in the night air, irrepressible in its melodic force, recalling the days when the names of Oyo and Ife Ill Ife were synonymous with pomp and glory, the days when Timbuktu was a sought after centre of learning. The guests could feel the rhythm of the music of high-life throbbing like a torrent. High-life was the African jazz form that Nkrumah and his guests danced to while they celebrated independence a decade later. Ibadan was not Nairobi. Nairobi was known for its troupes of big game hunters that converged at the Norfolk Hotel, while lines of African carriers in rag tags waited outside in the severe highland chill. Ibadan was Ibadan but Ibadan was not alone. Much of the country was in those days teaming and alive.

The tie clad gentlemen and the long gowned ladies of the dinner party were entirely surrounded by the aroma and the sounds of Africa. African night birds serenaded, numerous night insects competed for attention. It was a night as could be had only in Africa. But at the dinner table guests and hosts were impervious, preoccupied, consumed with their own role in Africa. Africa as Africa was closed to them, barring one or two exceptions. Their Africa was the Africa of the textbook of the day.

Now the lady of the house made an announcement. All the ladies were to proceed to the ladies’ room to powder their noses. Merrily the women trooped away. Left on their own the men were invited to enter – as the host put it with a chuckle – darkest Africa. The men trooped to the garden outside. Facing the star-studded night, they lined up and began to pee into the darkness. With grins on their faces, the men dribbled through the heart of darkness, or thought they did.

Modern African literature got going at the University College of Ibadan in the years following the dinner party. Poetry and short stories were printed on the pages of crudely produced student magazines, supported and encouraged by the faculty. The academics were dedicated to their calling, but they had no great expectations of their students. ‘These are Africans, operating at most at the level of fifth formers’. These were the sentiments. Robert Wren captures the mood in his informative work, Ibadan, the early magic years.

But it was from here, from Ibadan that modern African literature rose. Suddenly like a space bound rocket it shot up. There was a buzz, people sat up and took note. They examined the new thing, seeking out signs of deference to Empire, some acknowledgement, some appeal to European authority. Things Fall Apart showed none of that. It was Africa recreating Africa. The college and the city of Ibadan had found its voice. Easily effortlessly Chinua Achebe had launched the African novel and with it the movement that became modern African literature. For a young man of 27, it was a remarkable feat. Achebe had found a way into the heart of that throbbing life that was the country called Nigeria and drawn energy out of it.

Chinua Achebe was not alone. In Ibadan, Achebe was part of a group of young people centred on the new University College. People who had graduated from, or passed through, or were still students at the University College. Among them, were the poet and dramatist J.P. Clerk, the poet Christopher Okigbo, the dramatist Wole Soyinka who later won the Nobel prize, the novelist Elchi Ahmadi and the critic Leslie Ogundipe.

Robert Wren pursues the question. How come modern African literature first got going in Ibadan and in no other places in Africa or the Caribbean? University colleges existed in other places, including Makerere in Uganda, Lagon in Accra – then capital of the Gold Coast, and Furah Bay in Sire Leon. Why Ibadan alone?

For an answer, Robert Wren interviewed the people who made the history, or played a part, or were generally around when it happened. When Wren was making his investigation, many of the expatriate teachers who taught at Ibadan were still living and still active in academia. First Wren talked to them. Next Wren talked to the students they taught, the writers (including Achebe, J.P Clerk and Elchi Ahmadi) along with their school fellows.

Lastly Wren talked to the people who handled or published those early works, especially the London publishers of Achebe’s great novel. Wren allows history to talk for itself. Reading Wren’s work, we hear the voices of the people he interacted with. But Wren’s method in the end could not go all the way. We long for the final authorial voice. But by then Robert Wren had tragically died in a plane crash.

What we learn from Wren we may summarise as follows. The new University College at Ibadan permitted for the first time in Nigerian history a sizeable group of young people who had reached a certain level of literacy, had attained a certain degree of knowledge and who came from all parts of the country, to gather together and freely interact with one another. This, plus the guidance of the expatriate academics, provided the stimulus. Thus was the new literature born?

Wren explains. Ibadan was able to accomplish this because the young men and women assembled were self-made people, ‘just emerged out of the bush’, relatively free of the colonial thing. This was not the case at the University College of Lagon in Accra, where the process of Anglicisation had gone deeper, Wren explains. In Wren’s analysis this was also the situation at Furah Bay, and presumably, although Wren does not say so, at Makerere University College in Uganda.

No, Mr. Johnson did not make me a writer,’ Chinua Achebe had asserted when asked if he wrote because of Joyce Carry’s novel on Nigeria. ‘I was born that way,’ Achebe said. We know of course that if ever a writer was a natural, Chinua Achebe is. Nevertheless the significance of the arrival of the novel Mr. Johnson at the University College of Ibadan, at the point of its London publication, amidst the critical uproar the work generated in Europe and America, cannot be dismissed. Time Magazine had it on the cover, calling it the best novel about Africa for the last fifty years. To heat up things even more, the faculty at the English the department at Ibadan joined in the celebration.

Years later Achebe would testify how reading Mr Johnson made them realise how hopeless the situation was. It brought home to them the fact of the absolute dictatorial powers a writer had. If he were bent on it, a writer could marshal together any figment of fantasy and pass them off as authentic. Heart of Darkness was a fine example of the display of such powers. Of course Achebe and his colleagues realised that such powers were potent because a tradition existed that had vilified Africa. Here now was Joyce Carry taking a potshot, and now specifically at Nigeria. The lecturers at the University College were saying, what a wonderful work.‘Hey, wait a minute. This is not us; it is not us at all.’ It was a rare unanimity among the disparate body of students, always at loggerheads with one another. From that point on, it was just a matter of time before one of them or any number of them told their own story. When Things Fall Apart appeared in 1958, people recognised it at once. And so was modern African literature born.

In the late 1960s while they both taught at Makerere University in Uganda, Paul Theroux and his mentor V.S Naipaul enjoyed mocking others, especially Africans. ‘What do you think of African literature?’ Theroux knowingly provoked the Master. ‘Is there any?’ The great writer rose to the occasion: ‘Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo,’ said Theroux. His patience tried and now feeling thoroughly disgusted, the master said, ‘You cannot write a national literature by beating on a drum.’ The national Heartbeat Dance Troupe was that week thrilling audiences at the national theatre in downtown Kampala.

Modern African literature rose out of the drum beats of the city of Ibadan. The talking drums were the incarnation of that pulsating life that was within earshot of the faculty of the department of English of the new university college, even as faculty ritualistically entered the heart of darkness, or thought they did. The new literature as it emerged asserted against all negations the validity of the African world.


* John Otim is a Ugandan teaching at Nigeria's Ahmadu Bello University.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.