How Historical And Political Events Shape African Literature Essays

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Modern African Poetry


Modern African Poetry did not grow or develop in vacuum; it was given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a particular society.

However, the inaugural of the scholarly engagement with Modern African Poetry is best seen as coinciding with efforts of making Modern African Literature a subject of academic enquiry in the 1960s.

In Modern African Poetry, writers (poets in particular) and their works are implicated in the larger struggles which define three phases in the development of African Literature: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Each of these periods is marked by peculiarities, i.e. issues they showcase (cultural, social, economic, intellectual and political issues). These three phases are marked by certain socio-political experiences and ideologies common to Modern African Poetry, namely: Slavery, Colonialism, Neo-colonialism/Post- colonial disillusionment, Cultural conflict, Apartheid and Economic exploitation.

It is also important to note that Modern African Poetry deals with collective destinies of the African within its own human and physical environment. Although a particular human living condition which the poet expresses is inserted in a time and space frame work, his creative imagination has a temporal and spatial forward and backward movement which unfolds the evolution of the society and the life lived in it. Since African Poetry takes “matter” from the realities of African living conditions and value systems in the past and present, one easily recognizes it in socio-historical events, names and environments.

Politics is usually integrated into a people’s culture and everybody is in one way or the other affected by politics. Political practices are part of a people’s culture; thus, politics forms an important thematic preoccupation for Modern African Writers.

Again, Modern African poetry helps us to better understand the historical and cultural events of Africa. Reading Okot P’ Bitek’s “Song of lawino and song of Ocol” or Gabriel Okara’s “The Fisherman’s Invocation” in one way or the other, provokes you to reassess the impact of colonialism on the African and your relationship-weather as a husband, public official or as a student; so there is no doubt that historical, political and indigenous cultural forces shape Modern African Poetry.

The poets of Modern African Poetry from the three literary regions of Africa- West, East and South Africa, inculcate these historical, cultural and socio-political experiences and ideologies to their poetry and their poems seeks to address and correct these experiences. This makes Modern African Poetry a Protest Poetry. In order to achieve their set goals, they inculcate ideas, values and feeling to their poetry.

Having said that, we will now embark on a careful analysis of selected poems of Modern African Poets from the three literary regions of Africa to ascertain to what extent the socio-economic, historical, indigenous cultural and socio-political situations in most African nations have shaped or influenced their poetry (i.e. Modern African Poetry). To carry out this analysis, we shall first visit West Africa.


From Western Africa, we shall study the works of David Diop who was born in July, 1927 at Bordeaux in France of a Cameroonian Mother and a Senegalese Father. An intimate reading of Diop’s poetry reveals that the content of his poetry is determined by the circumstances he found himself. His poetry can be referred to as “Poetry of Revolution.” He belonged to and was influenced by the ideological and literary movement in Africa that went by the name “NEGRITUDE.”

In other words, David Diop belonged to the period of protest poetry writing in Africa. Though he died young in a plane crash, his few surviving poems have placed him as a credible Modern African Poet. Like poets of his time who had undergone and experienced the humiliation of colonization, most of his poems are full of nostalgia for Africa’s glory past. The hypocritical and destructive influences of colonial rule and his dreams and vision for a free and independent Africa are all embedded in his poems. David Diop in his poems expresses his sincere faith that Africa will one day break the shackles of slavery and return to its former glory. He glorifies everything that is Africa and denigrates anything that is Europe in his poems. He did this because he was a Negritude poet and one of the hallmarks of Negritude poetry is the appraisal of Africa and her heritage.

In his poem, “The Vultures” which is an extended metaphor and signifies colonialism, we see how the colonial masters forcefully and violently made their way to Africa through “civilization” and “missionary” activities. This is evident in lines two and three of the poem:

When civilization kicked us in the face

When holy water slapped our cringing brows.

The above lines (2 & 3) also show the inhumanity of the white man and the humanity of the black man as civilization which represents the white man kicked the black man on his face. The whites are “The Vultures.”

The poem somehow opens with suspense by the use of “In those days” and “when” and tells us how the colonial masters used government, Christian religion and Indirect Rule System to subjugate Africans. The poet also showcases the evils or negative effects of colonialism on the Africans: the impoverishment of the people, the destruction of the cultural values and making slaves out of Africans. This is evident in lines 4 and 5 of the poem:

The Vultures built in the shadows of their talons

The bloodstained monument of tutelage.

In his poem, “Africa,” Diop recalls the days of slavery before colonization when Africans were carted away by Europeans to different parts of Europe to work in their plantations:

Your blood split over the fields

The blood of your sweat

            The sweat of your toil

The toil of slavery

The slavery of your children.

While identifying with this ancient continent with its rich agrarian past that he has come to know through folklore, he draws upon racial memory to recall its sad history of slavery and colonialism. Thus, in the next five angry and accusatory lines, the rhetorical question enumerates the sufferings of Africans under the domination of colonial rule and hints at a revolution that would lead to a glorious future for Africa:

Africa, tell me Africa

         Are you the back that bends

Lies down under the weight of humbleness?

The trembling back striped red

That says yes to the sjambok on the roads of noon?

The lines express the poem persona’s anger on the Europeans and express empathy to the injustices done to the Africans. They were humiliated by the colonial masters.

Also, Africans are dehumanized as the Europeans hypocritically try to make them forget their sufferings by preaching and reminding them about God and the blessings that await them in heaven in “The Vultures”

And the monotonous rhythm of the paternoster

Drowned the howling in the plantation

Recalling the evils done by the Europeans to Africans, Diop then goes on to lament the hypocrisy and inhumane treatment meted out to Africans. He tells that the colonial masters are hypocrites and at the same time inhuman because they force the African female slaves into sexual relations; discarded their initial promises of friendship to Africans as soon as they established themselves in Africa.

Colonialism denied Africans of their humanity, culture, language, labour (the reward of their labour as they could not eat the fruit of their labour) etc.


Arriving East Africa, Jared Angira’s poems portray these historical, cultural and socio-political experiences and ideologies. Angira is from Kenya; he writes about the new form of colonialism, “neo-colonialism” and its central theme is that of post-colonial disillusionment. This is the era where fellow black (of petty bourgeoisie class and intellectual class) oppress the majority blacks (of low class). He details the period after Africa’s independence.

In his poem “Obliggato from the Public gallery” present in his collection Cascades, we see the familiar theme of post-colonial disillusionment. The tone and mood of the poem is anger and bitterness as it satirizes and lashes out at the politicians who have betrayed the national ideal:

The public has no believe

In democracy

It has mocked his expectation

The public has no hope

In the party

The party partitioned himself

For the zombies are the particans

In the “nation”

(Cascades, p.88)

The attainment of independence has not resulted in true independence for all; rather, it has revealed the true ambition of few emancipated intellectuals which has always been to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the colonizers. The new political class is corrupt and demands the position of the colonizers. The emancipated African intellectuals intend to do the same.

Also, in “Noticeboard,” Angira portrays his disillusionment and disappointment on the emancipated African intellectuals:

When that passes

Transforming itself into

            Records of experience

We too pass

Into antiavity

Leaving, tightly bolted

Behind us

The door that we kept

Knocking so long

Angira is concerned with the suffering of the oppressed masses. He examines every aspect of the socio-economic and political life of his society and the suffering placed on the masses by the emancipated African intellectuals. Independence is not promising anything good; the politicians have betrayed the masses; they are not doing what they are supposed to do. This is also evident in “The Stage,” another poem of Angira, where he showcases the economic and political problems faced by Africans.

To him, present generation of Africa has no meaningful political ideology. This democracy is what obtains in many African countries.


South African literaturs are often times Literatures that protest against apartheid in South Africa. In other words, South African writers through their writings bring to limelight the conquest and humiliation of the indigenous people who came to be denied literally their rights in their own country. The poetry of Oswald Mtshali, Sounds of a Cowhide Drums, expresses the agony and sufferings of the Black in apartheid South Africa much as it dramatizes the political violence which apartheid elicited and unleashed. For apartheid is only sustained at great lost.

In his collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drums, his poems largely treat apartheid, poverty, suffering, fear and humiliation in Apartheid South Africa. It will not be out of place to call the poems of Mtshali “Protest poems of Alienation and Augment” or “Poems of Lamentation.” This is because his poems are informed by the agonized collective cries of a down trodden, repressed and oppressed people in their own land. The atmosphere of his poems is also characterized and dominated by ‘fear’ and ‘hostility.’ In his poem, “Detribalized,” he details the theme of survival and poverty in Apartheid South Africa.

He skipped school

during play time

to hock sweets

pilfered in town/peanuts, shoe laces

caddied at the golf course

Here, Mtshali gives a rich image of deep poverty and subsequently that of survival. Stealing and skipping school to sell his pilfered goods is the only way the boy can think of surviving. He comes out of school half -baked in his academics:

He can write

only his name;

He can read

the world:

our own and only paper

The Golden city post-murder, rape and robbery

The above lines reveal that the boy can only write his name and can only read- not literally- “the Golden post.” It means that he is familiar with what the newspaper writes. It also reveals that the boy is a typical apartheid South African. “Murder, rape and robbery” are the iniquities of apartheid South Africa and the boy has been at the ‘fore’ (a main prison in Johannesburg) doing prison terms for these crimes:

Just as unavoidable

and unpleasant

as going to desists

The entire poem attacks and undermines the value system of apartheid.

Another of Mtshali’s poems, “Just a Passerby” evokes images of helplessness of the black South African under apartheid who witnesses white ‘clobber’ to death a fellow black:

I heard him scream with pain

Like a victim of slaughter

This is a very ironic and sarcastic piece of poetry through which the poet expresses the helpless condition of many blacks in apartheid South Africa. The poem incorporates a number of themes besides describing the gruesome incident of a brother being ‘clobbered’ while he (poet) passes by without rendering any help. The poet draws an ironic parallel with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The religion of the whites (Christianity) that preaches to be your brother’s keeper is in itself, the root cause of violence. But the irony of what the poet considers an escapist religion is that the poet instead of helping his brother from ticklers, goes instead to the church to pray for the brother’s soul. The denial in the last line of the poem:

“O! No! I heard nothing. I’ve been to church.”

The denial reveals that the poem’s persona is unwilling to acknowledge the brutal killing of his brother for the reason that he may be ‘clobber’ too.

The poem is indicative of the height of violence and the helplessness of the people in the society the poet lives in. 


In sum, from the aforementioned points, it is obvious and glaring that historical, indigenous culture, socio-economic and socio-political forces influence Modern African Poetry as Modern African Poets inculcate these ideas to their works in order to correct them; thereby making Modern African Poetry a Protest poetry.

Dr Emma Hunter(History, Gonville and Cauis College)

Dr Ruth Watson(History, Clare College)

Contact Hours: 10 x two-hour seminars (7 classes in Michaelmas; 3 classes in Lent)

From the late nineteenth century onwards, Africa was witness to a proliferation of various forms of print and writing, produced for eager, locally grown audiences. All sorts of texts, including serialised novels, newspapers, pamphlets, tracts, local histories, self-help booklets and vernacular literature became available for public consumption. While many of the men and women producing and engaging with this material were well educated and high-status, others were non-elites such as wage labourers, clerks, traders and artisans. In varied and usually contested ways, these people generated active public and social spheres of political and cultural debate that were defined and framed by their lively print cultures. Some participants experimented with literary genres and developed new forms of writing, others assumed roles of defining and claiming power and citizenship, while a few simply sought access to a social world defined by literacy, without ever feeling fully entitled to its status. Apart from publishing and printing material, Africans also penned a prolific amount of handwritten documents, especially diaries and letters. Across the colonial/postcolonial divide, the capacity of print and writing to enhance personal and social existence was revered. Many people genuinely believed that through print, one could create a particular kind of civilised and civic community.

Taking these printed and written sources as its starting point, this MPhil option course reclaims African print cultures as a domain of historical study. It uses print culture as an entry point through which to explore the dynamic worlds of intellectual and cultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. Offering a window into processes of rapid social and political change during the colonial and postcolonial eras, African print cultures can also reveal historical continuities often overlooked in academic literature, which tends to emphasise the more radical transformations unleashed by colonialism. We will interrogate the commonly assumed distinction between oral and written forms of cultural production by exploring the textual forms, new vocabularies, and political narratives that people in Africa constructed through their engagement with literacy and print. Significantly, this engagement was not only focused within and across local communities, it also occasionally reached out to transnational and global networks. To this end, we consider African print cultures in a comparative global framework and critically analyse the usefulness of theoretical tools developed with reference to historical contexts outside of Africa.

Following an introductory session, the course begins by exploring how new forms of textual production - such as the serialised novel - provided a space for innovation and creativity in colonial Africa. For example, possibly the first West African novel written in English, Marita: or the Folly of Love, was published in instalments by a local Gold Coast newspaper from 1886 to 1888. We situate this text in its political and social context, considering issues such as the colonial marriage legislation it sought to critique, as well as questions of anonymity and the material constraints that shaped the development of Ghanaian print culture. A few decades on in the late 1920s, a Nigerian newspaper published a series of letters titled The Life Story of Me, Segilola. Now recognised as the first Yoruba language novel, the narrative presents the autobiography of a repentant courtesan, regaling the reader with risqué escapades, pious moralising and vivid evocations of urban popular culture in interwar Lagos. Elsewhere, in more personal colonial settings, people like the Yoruba gentleman Akinpelu Obisesan, and so-called ‘unschooled’ migrant workers in South Africa, appropriated handwritten textual forms such as diaries and letter-writing. Articulating new forms of self-expression and identity, they negotiated the boundaries between their private and public worlds, and often generated complex social networks in the process.

Early twentieth-century South Africa presents another, more cosmopolitan type of printing experiment – a multilingual and transnational newspaper called Indian Opinion. Produced by the ‘International Printing Press’ (of which Gandhi was a sometime proprietor) the publication came into circulation in 1903, followed by numerous pamphlets, including most famously, Gandhi’s nationalist text Hind Swaraj.In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta founded his Kikuyu newspaper Muigwithania in 1928, and experimented with yet another model of print culture – a vernacular language publication that strived to reconcile moral ethnicity with nationalist thought. Two decades later in the late 1940s, the journalist Henry Muoria began producing another paper, Mumenyereri, which offers important insights into the gendered dimensions of nationalist politics in pre-Mau Mau Kenya. Our penultimate session moves into the post-independence era, taking as its focus a particular genre of postcolonial African print culture – the prison memoir. The last case study explores the popular fiction of postcolonial Anglophone West Africa, namely Onitsha Market Literature and Ghanaian romance novels. Published primarily in the 1960s by local presses in a lively town in southeastern Nigeria, Onitsha Market Literature consists of English-language stories, plays and self-help pamphlets couched in moral discourses, many of them offering marriage advice. Comparing this material with Ghanaian romance novels published from the 1960s onwards, we return to how African print cultures constructed ideas of conjugality, love, femininity and masculinity, themes explored in the early part of the course.

Select bibliography

K. Barber, ‘Translation, Publics and the Vernacular Press in 1920s Lagos’ in Christianity and Social Change in Africa: Essays in Honor of J.D.Y. Peel ed. T. Falola, (Durham NC, 2005).

K. Barber, Africa’sHidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self (Bloomington IN, 2006).

K. Barber, Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel: I.B. Thomas’s “Life Story of Me, Segilola” and Other Texts (Leiden, 2012).

B. Berman and J. Lonsdale, ‘The Labors of Muigwithania: Jomo Kenyatta as Author, 1928-45’ Research in African Literatures 29 (1998), pp. 16-42.

K. Breckenridge, ‘Love Letters and Amanuenses: Beginning the Cultural History of the Working Class Private Sphere in Southern Africa, 1900-1933’ Journal of Southern African Studies 26 (2000), pp. 337-348.

I. Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge MA, 2013).

W. Muoria-Sal, B. Folke Frederiksen, J. Lonsdale & D. Peterson (eds.), Writing for Kenya: The Life and Works of Henry Muoria (Leiden, 2009).

S. Newell, Literary Culture in Colonial Ghana: “How to Play the Game of Life” (Bloomington IN, 2002).

S. Newell, Readings in African Popular Fiction (Oxford, 2002).

S. Newell (ed.), Marita, or the Folly of Love A Novel by A Native (Leiden, 2002).

S. Newell, The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa (Athens OH, 2013).

R. Watson, ‘Literacy as a Style of Life: Garveyism and Gentlemen in Colonial Ibadan’ African Studies 73 (2014), pp. 1-21.

Class outline

  1. Introduction: Print, power and publics in African history
  2. The birth of the English novel in West Africa – Marita: or the Folly of Love
  3. The Lagos press and the Yoruba novel in 1920s Nigeria: The Life Story of Me, Segilola
  4. Private writing, public personae: the diary of Akinpelu Obisesan, a Yoruba gentleman in Colonial Nigeria
  5. Labour migrants, letter writing and the depression years on South Africa’s mines
  6. Making transnational publics: Gandhi’s printing press in early twentieth-century South Africa
  7. Print culture and the remaking of political identities: Jomo Kenyatta and Muigwithania
  8. Nationalism and domestic life: Henry Muoria and Mumenyereri
  9. Print and protest: prison memoirs in Postcolonial Africa
  10. Self-help and romance: popular literature in postcolonial anglophone West Africa

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