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The Origins of a Species.

In the beginning of Africa's cultures was the word--the spoken word--and its traditions resonate even in today's written literature

Because of the association of literature with writing, the heritage of the oral tradition, whose expressive range and reflective depth have been chronicled in the first part of this series (May-June 2000), has not always been recognized as an integral part of African cultural and literary achievement. Due partly to this, and to western prejudices about African capacities, it has been assumed that imaginative expression could only have emerged in Africa with the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of writing. Rather, the essential meaning of the term "classic" has to do with the quality of texts, and their ability to endure as products of the imagination.

It is important to view African literature in the panoramic perspective defined by the three categories that comprise the field: oral tradition, written literature in indigenous languages, and literature written in European languages. Any examination of "classic" literature must take account of the immediate situation in which speech acts take place, an essential consideration where oral forms are concerned, for they are often elaborate compositions that rely on metaphor for effect. Moreover, they are constantly transmitted through the griots, and sustained as a significant dimension of the collective cultural capital. Currently, technology also makes these forms recoverable through recordings that can be transcribed into written form. In traditional African societies and cultures, oral texts have a reality and significance as artistic creations just as vital as written texts do in literate cultures.

The Sundiata epic is certainly the best known instance in the African oral tradition of a classic text. The epic celebrates the exploits and final triumph of Sundiata Keita, 13th Century founder of the ancient Mall empire in West Africa. Its historic significance and aesthetic appeal have ensured its status as the national epic of the Manding people, who, though spread widely across western Africa, acknowledge a common identity embodied by Sundiata, their founding hero.

The Ozidi saga of the Ijaw people in the Niger Delta has a comparable status to the Sundiata epic, for it also recounts the life and career of a founding hero, Ozidi. The epic is performed every seven years, over a period of seven days, accompanied by elaborate rituals that indicate the veneration in which the Ijaw people continue to hold their national hero. Closely related to these oral tradition classics are the heroic poems addressed to Southern African historical legends-- powerful images sustained by elaborate verbal patterns. These poems, like those in praise of the first Sotho king, Mosheoshoe, and of his descendants, or those inspired by the Zulu hero, Shaka, constitute the basic repertoire of oral poets. They remain central to the historical memory of the various peoples in the region, and have made a profound impact upon African consciousness. The praise poem tradition lives on today in Southern Africa, exemplified recently by the poems composed in honor of Nelson Mandela.

The increased attention now paid to African oral texts is justified by their importance as the foundation of the African imagination. But there has long existed a tradition of written literature in African languages, beginning with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, one of the oldest texts in the world. Ethiopian literature, written in the ancient language of Geez, provides another illustration of the early development of written literature in Africa. The introduction of Arabic in the middle ages, along with the Islamic religion with which it has been closely associated, was later to foster another literary tradition, comprising mainly devotional works written not only in Arabic but also in African languages using Arabic script. This tradition is maintained today in Senegal and the Sahel region, as well as in Northern Nigeria and along the eastern coast of Africa.

The introduction of the Latin alphabet by Christian missionaries in Africa was instrumental to the reduction into writing of many African languages and the development of a written literature in many areas. Shaka, written in the Sotho language by Thomas Mfolo, incorporates the praise poem tradition within the framework of the western novel. Similarly, Yoruba novelist D.O. Fagunwa employs the folk tale tradition as the narrative framework for the quest theme around which the various episodes in his masterpiece translated by Wole Soyinka as Forest of a Thousand Demons, are constructed. Fagunwa's approach set the precedent for Amos Tutuola's highly acclaimed novel, The Palmwine Drinkard, written in English (1970).

The classics of African literature written in the European languages, go back to the eighteenth century narratives of slave experience's which were first written by Africans as testimony to the tragic consequences of the European encounter. Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative, stands out as the work perched at the head of both African and African American literature. Martinican poet Aime Cesaire's long poem, "Notebook of a Return to My Native Land", contains the most vibrant expression in literature of black racial affirmation. He coined the term "Negritude" and has been associated with the intense revaluation of African culture that informs the poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor, whose celebration of ancestral heritage lends a grave and sumptuous quality to his verses in French.

Senghor's poetry, as well as the anticolonial novels of other French-speaking writers such as Sembene Ousmane (God's Bits of Wood), Ferdinand Oyono (Houseboy), and Mongo Beti (The Poor Christ of Bomba) demonstrate a passion for African redemption. Their work and the poetry of Agonstinho Neto and other Portuguese-speaking writers, including Noemie de Sousa and Marcelllino dos Santos, represents a significant shift in the current of African literature. But the classic text of modern African literature is, without question, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Achebe's novel is distinguished by its sensitive reconstruction of life in pre-colonial Africa, and by a narrative style in which standard English is enlivened by the rich cadences of African orality.

The functional relation between theme and language in Achebe's work set the standard henceforth for African literature. This applies not only to the work directly inspired by Achebe's example, but also to classic written texts such as Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat, Amadou Hampate Ba's The Fortunes of Wangrin and especially Wole Soyinka's celebrated play, Death and the King's Horseman, which draws directly on Yoruba myth for its meditation on human destiny. In fact, this play was singled out in the citation awarding the Nobel Prize to Soyinka in 1986. Through Soyinka, in his roles both as author and translator, the heritage of African literature established over the centuries in both oral and written forms may be said to have received its ultimate consecration.

Francis Abiola Irele is Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature at Ohio State University. Dr. Irele is an expert in African Literature, and the author of the critically acclaimed collection of essays, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (Indiana University Press, 1981); a second volume, The African Imagination, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Dr. Irele is also the editor of the journal Research in African Literatures. Mr. Irele examines the works which created the African literary canon in the second installment to our African Writers' Series on page 60.
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Title Annotation:African literature
Author:Irele, F. Abiola
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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