Literary tradition can also be referred to the passing down of stories which give meaning to human experience, according to literary articles. It may be also a sharing of stories between generations. Every linguistic group has a literary tradition which is transmitted either orally or through writing.
Therefore, literary texts from one literary tradition will have themes and features, which distinguish it from texts of a different literary tradition. This means that literary traditions differ from one place to another and they keep changing across time. For example, ancient Greek literature is different thematically and stylistically from medieval European literature. Similarly, African and American literary traditions are different from Asian literary traditions.
AFRICAN LITERARY TRADITIONS
It is not very easy to define African literary traditions. This is because Africa is a very diverse continent. Scholars of African literature do not always agree on when written literature first appeared in Africa. Even the real meaning of the term ‘African literature’ is controversial: questions about this term are many. Does it mean literature written by Africans living on the continent? What about the literature of Africans living outside the continent? Is it literature written about Africa or produced in Africa? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? What about language? Even though the answers to these questions are not clear, some people tried to define it.
African literature refers literary works of the African continent which consist of a body of works in different languages and various genres, ranging from oral literature to literature written in colonial languages.
African literature is the body of traditional oral and written literatures in Afro-Asiatic and African languages together with works written by Africans in European languages.
African literature is a body of literary works of African people concerned about their culture, language as well as about their way of life.African literature is literature of or from Africa and includes oral literature.
African literature deals with literary works of the African continent written in diverse African languages and deeply enriched by genres such as oral literature.
Nevertheless, African literary traditions can generally be divided into three. These are the pre-colonial, the colonial and post-colonial traditions.
The pre-colonial literature is the literary works done before the coming of the white men to the African continent. Before the colonisation of Africa, the continent had a long history of literature. Most of the literature of this period was oral in nature. It was unwritten literature, which was passed down from generation to generation through memory and word of mouth. The literature of this period includes folk tales, myths, legends, epics, animal stories, songs, oral poems, proverbs, riddles and tongue twisters.This literature was very interesting to children, and the youths were entertained as well as educated by them.
The epic is a good example of popular oral forms of literature in Africa. Some of the best known African epics include the Mwindo and Sundiata epics. In Rwanda, the Ubwiiru is a popular form of praise poetry.
The following is quoted from a praise poem to Shaka, the Zulu warrior and king:
Shaka went and erected temporary huts
Between the Nsuze and the Thukela,
In the country of Nyanya son of Manzawane;
He ate up Mantondo son of Tazi,
He felt him tasteless and spat him out,
He devoured Sihayo.
He who came dancing on the hillside of the Phuthiles,
And he overcame Msikazi among the Ndimoshes.
He met a long line of hah-de-dahs [ibis birds]
When he was going to destroy the foolish Pondos;
Shaka did not raid herds of cattle,
He raided herds of buck.
Although the oral literature tradition belongs to the pre-colonial times, it must be remembered that oral literary forms continue to flourish in Africa today. For example, performances of oral tales are featured on radio, television, and in films. African schools continue to teach oral literature, and students often engage in storytelling and oral performances in their schools.
In addition, the oral literature tradition has been carried over into contemporary written African literature. Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o rely heavily on oral forms of literary expression in their novels and short stories.
Different forms of oral literature play the role of educating and entertaining the children of the African descent through learning the heroic deeds of the founding fathers (ancestors) of their community. This also acted as a reminder of their origin thereby aiding the sustenance of their cultural heritage.
The colonial literature
Colonial African Literature is that which is written during the colonial period or that speaks about the colonial period in Africa. It is usually from the point of view of Africans. This could be written by the Africans or the colonialists. When it is written by the colonialists, it focuses more on placing the African in the inferior position and projects justification for the West’s colonial enterprise. On the other hand, when this Literature is written by Africans, it sets out to respond to the colonial master. Its tries as much to show the colonialists that the African too can write.
The colonial period in African literature is often associated with literacy. However, you must note that written literature existed in parts of Africa before colonialism. For example, written works of literature discovered in Ethiopia are older than medieval European literature. The spread of Islam in North and West Africa also established a written tradition in these regions.
Along the East African Coast, narrative poetry in Swahili has been recovered from as early as the Eighteenth Century. In West Africa, literature in Arabic verse has been dated to the Fourteenth Century.
In addition, in the 18th Century Olaudah Equiano, who was a slave published his book titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. This was one of the earliest forms of African written literature to be known in Europe.
With increased literacy in Africa during the colonial period, many writers emerged on the continent. These include Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Sembene Ousmane, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, Ferdinand Oyono and Amos Tutuola.
African literature of the 1950s was characterized by its focus on the disruptive effects of European colonialism on traditional African society. As African nations began to emerge from centuries of colonial rule, writers reflected on the imposition of Western values on the African people and examined the new conflicts that accompanied independence.
A number of Nigerian authors writing in English achieved international fame during the 1950s and early 1960s. The first was Amos Tutuola, in The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952). In his powerful first novel,Things Fall Apart (1958), Chinua Achebe depicted the clash of cultures resulting from the appearance of European missionaries in an Ibo community at the turn of the 20th century. The Nobel prizewinning playwright Wole Soyinka wrote the cautionary drama A Dance of the Forests (1963), first performed in 1960, for celebrations of Nigeria’s independence. Using his characteristic satirical style, Soyinka suggested that the nation still faced difficult problems even after the end of colonial rule.
White South Africans also made significant literary contributions dealing with the plight of blacks during the late colonial era. Alan Paton wrote lyrically about apartheid in his novels Cry the Beloved Country (1948) and Too Late the Phalarope (1953). Nadine Gordimer,winner of the 1991 Nobel prize for literature, began writing of the injustice of apartheid in the 1950s as well.
African literature during this late colonial era diverted slightly by dealing with themes of liberation,independence, Negritude (rejection of the white man’s imposition of his culture on the black man through the policy of total assimilation by the French in areas of Africa they colonized) the writers of this era suffered directly and deeply even at the hands of their own governments.
Characteristics of literature of the colonial period
- The texts reacted against colonial oppression and expressed African nationalism.
- The texts sought to praise and glorify Africa’s past.
- The texts depicted the clash between African cultures and Western/European cultures.
- The texts expressed optimism in Africa’s future.
- Stylistically, the texts incorporated African forms of expression; that is, they used oral literature features.
The postcolonial literature
After the end of colonialism in Africa, many African writers continued to write about the issues that concerned the continent. As explained earlier, most African writers continued to use oral forms of literature in their texts. Thematically, most post-independent African writing expresses disillusionment with African countries and leadership. Their writing expresses the betrayal of the dreams that African people had at independence.
Postcolonial literature, then, refers to:
- literature written in a postcolonial period, generally by members of the colonized community.
- writings produced after the political independence of various African states which were formerly subject to European colonial rule.
- literature by people from formerly colonized countries.
- African literature written in the postcolonial era by authors of African descent.
Postcolonial literature often addresses the problems and consequences of the decolonization of a country, especially questions relating to the political and cultural independence of formerly subjugated people, and themes such as racialism and colonialism. This literature is also a reaction to colonization. Often, postcolonial literature turns established narratives upside down by responding to or reinterpreting popular colonial texts. The literature of this era also dealt with the endemic corruption in government circles, conflicts and economic disparities as well as the rights and roles of women. Feminist movements also became rampant and more female writers emerged and gained more recognition. Some of them are Buchi Emecheta, Nadine Gordimer, Ama Ata Aidoo, Aminata Sow Fall and Flora Nwapa etc.
Most of this literature written by African authors in their home countries or in diaspora deals with issues of colonial experience or decolonization. They are really interested in nationhood and nationalism, and a lot of these writers are very patriotic. They write books on behalf of their nations. Their work is often nationalist, because postcolonial writers like to highlight and valorize their nation’s cultural, political and social identity.
Many authors writing during this time, and even during colonial times, saw themselves as both artists and political activists, and their works reflected their concerns regarding the political and social conditions of their countries. As nation after nation gained independence from their colonial rulers, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a sense of euphoria swept through Africa as each country celebrated its independence from years of political and cultural domination. Much of early postcolonial writing reflects this sense of freedom and hope. In the years that followed, as many African nations struggled to reinvigorate long-subservient societies and culture, writers of postcolonial Africa began reflecting the horrors their countries suffered following decolonization, and their writing is often imbued with a sense of despair and anger, at both the state of their nations and the leaders who replaced former colonial oppressors.
With liberation and increased literacy since most African nations gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, African literature has grown dramatically in quantity and in recognition, with numerous African works appearing in Western academic curricula and on “best of” lists compiled at the end of the 20th century. African writers in this period wrote both in Western languages (notably English, French, and Portuguese) and in traditional African languages such as Hausa.
Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa’s past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity. Other themes in this period include social problems such as corruption, the economic disparities in newly independent countries, and the rights and roles of women. Female writers are today far better represented in published African literature than they were prior to independence. In 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first post-independence African writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Previously, Algerian-born Albert Camus had been awarded the prize in 1957.
Other famous writers of this period include Chinua Achebe, Kofi Awoonor, Camara Laye, Francis Imbuga, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ferdinand Oyono, Alan Paton, Okot p’bitek, Léopold Sédar Senghor…