10 Prolific Writers from Africa
The African literal landscape has evolved rapidly over the years. Pre-colonial literature mostly constituted ‘campfire’ stories that were retold from generation to generation by the elderly. All this changed when western education entered the picture. Now, there are countless African writers that are educated and have access to the publishing world.
With the advancement of literature on the continent, even the motivating factors behind many of Africa’s writers have evolved. Once, literature used to be a simple way of educating and entertaining the local community. Then, with the advent of colonialism, it became a way of protest against forced rule and preserving traditional norms that were being suffocated by the growing influence of western culture. Finally, literature has been used to expose the many failings of post-colonial governments across Africa; a peaceful substitute to the very destructive option of armed resistance.
Africa has never been a safe place for the opinionated as seen by the tragic life of Ken Saro-Wiwa, but, a significant few have survived the persecution and infrastructure limitations to conceive of some of the best works world literature has to offer.
10 Bessie Head
One of Botswana’s most accomplished female writers, Bessie Head was actually born in a South African mental institute to a Scottish white mother. The reason behind this was that her mother had broken an Apartheid-era law that outlawed interracial relations. The state took her from her mother and handed her off to black foster family until she was thirteen. Bessie Head only found out about her multiracial background when she left her foster family. After graduating with a teaching certificate, Bessie taught for a short before venturing into Journalism. She wrote for Johannesburg’s Golden City Post and the famous Drummagazine.
She dropped journalism for politics; a dangerous choice at the time. Her marriage to fellow political activist, Harold Head, lasted as long as her brief venture into political activism. With her husband fleeing to England, Bessie ended up in Botswana. Fifteen years later, she would become a Botswana citizen.
It was in Botswana that she established herself as one of Africa’s most revered novelist. She used her own personal experiences as a multiracial refugee born in poverty to explore and protest against the discrimination of the black minority population in South Africa.
Her most notable works of fiction include ‘Maru’, ‘When Rain Clouds Gather’, and ‘A Question of Power’. They all involve plots set in her hometown of Serowe, Botswana.
Sadly, she died at the relatively young age of 49; but, is still considered as the most influential writer in Botswana’s history.
9 Elechi Amadi
Elechi Amadi is one a significant number of gifted Nigerian writers, and the author of one of Africa’s greatest literal tragedy, ‘The Concubine’. Like most renowned Nigerian writers, Amadi went the famous University College of Ibadan after attending the Government College, Umuahia.
Amadi was a veteran of the Nigerian civil war (retired as a captain) and a prominent civil servant in his home state of Rivers State.
The Concubine was his first and most successful novel. It would set precedence for most of his future work; most of his plots involved a village setting and explored themes involving traditional culture before the arrival of the white man.
Other notable works include ‘The Great Pond’ and ‘The Slave’. ‘Sunset in Biafra’ was his only nonfiction book and is seen as war diary exploring the events of Nigeria’s most tragic civil war: the Nigeria-Biafra conflict.
8 Nuruddin Farah
Even though born in Baidoa, southern Somalia, the novelist grew up in Ethiopia. Versed in multiple languages including Italian, English and Arabic, the novelist was the first to switch from the Somali oral tradition by writing his work in English.
His first novel was ‘From a Crooked Rib’ and earned him the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. A critic of the then Somali dictatorship of General Mohamed Said Barre, the novelist used the Somali leader as the antagonist in his subsequent work. The plot revolved around a clandestine group fighting against the Said Barre regime. The story evolved into a trilogy that was called "Variations on the Theme of An African Dictatorship." The trilogy includes ‘Sweet and Sour Milk’, ‘Sardines’ and ‘Close Sesame’.
He added a second trilogy to his collection called ‘Blood in the Sun’ that included the novels ‘Maps’, ‘Gifts’ and ‘Secrets’.
7 Tahar Ben Jelloun
The Moroccan writer and poet studied at a French-Arabic elementary school. He adapted well to French and made it his primary language of writing. He studied philosophy at Mohammed V University in Rabat and then became a philosophy professor.
He left his profession and joined the famous literal magazine, Souffles. Through the magazine, Ben Jelloun and his friends fought against the growing influence of imperialism and colonial culture. Eventually, the magazine was shut down by the Moroccan government and Ben Jelloun found himself in a military camp as his punishment. Five years later he moved to France to further his studies in psychology and ended up writing for the French magazine, Le Monde.
His first novel was ‘The Sand Child’ won him a lot of admirers. “The Sacred Night ", his second book, earned him the Prix Goncourt. He has followed this with more than a dozen novels that have established him as one of the best Francophone writers to ever emerge from Africa.
6 Ben Okri
A master of the short story, poetry and fictional drama, Ben Okri is one of Nigeria's most admired writers. A contemporary of the likes of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, he is one the most consistent African writers to date.
‘The Famished Road’ is his most influential novel and won him the Booker Prize in 1991. The novel is a fantastic example of an African literal fantasy and bridges the gap between reality and the African ‘spirit world’. He uses creative imagery to expose contemporary issues such as corruption in government and the failure of Africa in countering the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic.
5 Amos Tutuola
Another master of the African fantasy, Amos Tutuola has the distinction of writing the first internationally successful Nigerian novel: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town. This is in spite of the fact that he had only six years of formal education.
Influenced by such works as the famous ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, Amos Tutuola borrowed from his Yoruba culture to create epic tales that would later inspire the likes of Chinua Achebe.
4 J. M. Coetzee
Born in Cape Town, John Maxwell Coetzee became the fifth African writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He has won the Booker Prize twice with the novels, ‘Life & Times of Michael K’ and ‘Disgrace’. Consequently, he became the first man to win Britain’s most prestigious literary award twice. With countless more awards, he is considered to be one of the most celebrated English-language writers in the world.
His novel ‘Disgrace’ is his most controversial. It involves the rape of a white woman by three black men. This didn’t sit well with the South African government of Thabo Mbeki and Coetzee was accused of portraying the country as a place where rape is prevalent.
The South African writer is a known recluse and never even received his two Booker Prize awards in person. Upon retiring, he moved to Australia in 2002 and then attained citizenship four years later. Therefore, it is no surprise that any of his signed fictional is extremely valuable. If you can get your hands on it!
Alongside Nadine Gordimer and André Brink, they were considered to be the three most influential white South African writers in the Apartheid era.
3 Nadine Gordimer
Another accomplished female writer with a Nobel Prize in her locker, Nadine Gordimer started writing at the age of 15. Her writing is greatly influenced by the Apartheid culture she grew up in. She was born to a well-to-do Jewish family but had a lot of empathy for the poor and racially discriminated.
Her most notable work of fiction is the much-acclaimed ‘July’s People’ which was banned by the Apartheid regime. Fascinatingly, it tells of the overthrow of the Apartheid regime by the black majority. The story follows the lives of a white family as they flee Johannesburg and seek shelter in their black servant’s village. ‘Understandably’, the Apartheid regime didn’t take well to being overthrown, even in a fictional sense.
The novel didn’t fare any better in the post-Apartheid era. The book was banned in Gauteng province, South Africa most important province.
Nadine Gordimer has established herself as a well-renowned social and political activist. She even added the HIV/AIDS cause to her to-do list. Sadly, she died at the ripe old age of 90.
2 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
The well known writer and educator is arguably the most famous author that Kenya has ever produced. Ngugi was born in colonial-era Kenya and at the epicenter of the violent struggle for independence. His breakthrough moment came in 1962 when his first play, ‘The Black Hermit’, was performed at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda as part of the East African country’s independence celebration. He followed that success with his much acclaimed first novel, ‘Weep Not Child’.
With his star rising, Ngugi added to his CV with the publication of ‘The River Between’ and ‘A Grain of Wheat’. Ngugi took a 10 year hiatus to concentrate on teaching English literature at the University of Nairobi; Creative writing at Makerere University; and even accepted an invite to teach African Studies at Northwestern University in the US.
His critical view of post-colonial Kenya through his fourth novel, ‘Petals of Blood’ won him international acclaim, but also, placed him in the crosshairs of the ruling class. His image as a political and social activist rose further when he staged a highly controversial play called ‘I Will Mary When I Want’. By the end of the year, Ngugi was in a jail cell at the infamous Kamiti Maximum Security Prison with no official charges. It is here that Ngugi made the decision to write his subsequent novels in his native Gikuyu tongue. Interestingly, his next novel ‘Devil on a Cross’ was written on prison toilet paper.
After a full year, he was out of prison following the intervention of Amnesty International. However, the sitting dictatorship prevented him from getting any teaching job in the country and eventually forced him into exile in Britain and eventually, the US. His books were banned from bookstore shelves by the government and his exile only ended with the end of the Moi regime. His exile didn’t curb his prolific nature as he published many more books including ‘Matigari’ and his crowning jewel, ‘Wizard of the Crow’.
1 Chinua Achebe
He is, without a doubt, the most famous writer to ever come out of Africa. His most famous work of fiction, ‘Things Fall Apart’ provided the world with Africa’s most tragic fictional character – Okonkwo. The book candidly describes the conflict that emerges as African traditional culture faces extinction amid the influx of western missionaries and European imperialism. The novel has become a staple of literature classes all over the world.
Another of Achebe’s novels, ‘A Man of the People’, sparked controversy in Nigeria when it appeared to prophesy the attempted coup of 1966.
Achebe has never been one to mince his words as heard in his famous University of Massachusetts lecture of 1975, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness’. He controversially stated that Joseph Conrad ‘dehumanizes Africans’ in his famous novel, Heart of Darkness’.
His literal portfolio includes influential novels, short stories, poetry, political commentaries and even children’s fiction. He is, arguably, the most influential African writer in the English language. Some have even claimed that he is the ‘father of modern African literature’.