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Africa: Literature vs Social and Political Activism

Updated on March 19, 2015
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Denis is a freelancer addicted to football (yeah...it's not soccer!). He thinks POLITICS and REALITY TV were invited to dumb us down.

The best of Africa’s literary geniuses have had the ability to create compelling storylines, filled with great humor. Many of the famous characters created tend to leave a lasting impression on the reader. The best examples being ‘Okonkwo’ from Chinua Achebe’s tragedy, Things Fall Apart and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s ill-fated protagonist in Africa Kills Her Son.

One factor that greatly influenced many of these writers in their storytelling was the unstable political landscape left by the retreating colonial powers. Many states were thrust into a situation of self-governance without having the qualified personnel that could guarantee a smooth and efficient transition. A corrupt and power-hungry few took the opportunity to exploit their ignorant and helpless compatriots. This meant that African writers (who were part of the few literate Africans at the time) had to step up for their fellow countrymen. They ended up as critics of corrupt regimes and instigators of political awareness among the local masses. A choice that made them into enemies of the state, and in the process turned some into martyrs of the post-colonial struggle for democracy.

List of Five

Five examples of authors who stood out for their ability as writers coupled with their need to fight for the rights of their fellow citizens include:

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1) Chinua Achebe

The late Nigerian professor was a prolific novelist and poet whose main focus was on themes involving the effect of colonialism and western culture on African traditional society. His writing style clearly betrayed his Igbo roots. His notable novels include Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1957) followed by the sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960). He never failed to voice his own opinions in his numerous publications. He famously ruffled a great many literary feathers by criticizing the great Anglo-Polish writer, Joseph Conrad in his 1975 lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”. A Man of the People, a veiled criticism of the corrupt ruling élite, made him a target of the Nigerian government. The book ended with a successful coup; a fact that didn’t escape the Nigerian military after a real life coup was attempted soon after. Achebe had to flee Lagos with his family.

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2) Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The Kenyan writer and playwright came into prominence with his 1962 play, The Black Hermit; but is best known for being the first East African to have an English novel published - Weep, Not Child (1964). His other famous novels include The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and Devil on the Cross (1982). He was an active critic of the dictatorial Kenyan government through his many local theatrical projects. He criticized the social injustices that were still prevalent even after the country had gained independence. This didn’t sit well with the regime as he was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for a whole year. Devil on the Cross was written while he was in prison, and on toilet rolls. After his release, he was barred from employment locally and had to flee the country with his family.

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3) Wole Soyinka

The first African to be
honored with a Nobel Prize in literature (1986). He was better known for his
many plays. His first major play was The Swamp Dwellers (1958) followed by The
Lion and the Jewel (1959). Royal Theatre County hired him to work as a play
reader in the late 50s. He wasn’t a prolific novelist as deduced from the fact
that his most notable novels were: Season of Anomie and The Interpreters. His
1960 play A Dance of Forests was performed during Nigeria’s celebration of
independence, even though it was highly critical of the political élite. His
open criticism of the different regimes of the time made him an easy target for
political persecution. They finally managed to put him behind bars for nearly
two years on the charge of siding with the Biafrans during the country’s famous
Nigerian civil war. He went into exile after his release and only returning
after his name had been taken off the country’s traitor list



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4) Nadine Gordimer

She was a daughter of Jewish immigrants and born in Apartheid-era South Africa. She published her first novel at the tender age of fifteen and which culminated in her winning the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her first notable work was a collection of short stories, Face to Face in 1949. These short stories revealed her negative views on the growing influence of the white minority; a view that would be the basis for most of her future work. She then published her first novel, The Lying Days which was loosely based on her own life growing up. Even though she considers herself a slow writer, her bibliography shows how prolific she has been. Other famous works include the novels: Six Feet of the Country (1956), Friday's Footprint and Other Stories (1960), The Conservationist (1974), A Soldier's Embrace (1980), July’s People (1981), None to Accompany Me (1994), and Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories (2007). Her anti-Apartheid sentiments didn’t just stop at her writing as she was an active member of the African National Congress. She hid fleeing ANC leaders in her home and even testified on behalf of 22 anti-apartheid activists in the Delmas Treason Trial (1986). She has had her work banned during and after apartheid.

Cry Freedom: A view into the cruelty of Apartheid

5) Ken Saro-Wiwa

A Nigerian writer and activist whose acclaimed novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1986) highlighted the rampant corruption in the military government of the time. He was from the Ogonni tribe whose land was oil-rich and therefore, of great interest to the ruling regime. He chose to dedicate his efforts in fighting for the rights of his people in Ogonniland. He wanted his people to get a fair share of the oil extraction proceeds, and for his homeland to be protected from environmental degradation. This didn’t sit well with the regime and their accomplices - Royal Dutch Shell. They conspired to arrest Saro-Wiwa and his companions who were falsely accused of incitement and sentenced to death in a specially convened tribunal. He was hanged in 1995 – a death eerily familiar to the protagonist’s in his 1989 short story, Africa Kills Her Son. To readers of the piece, it certainly feels like he had foreseen his own death.

Great African Titles

There are a great many books in African literature that can be considered inspiring. Here are 5 titles that deal with political and social injustice in Africa.

1) Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

13 yr old Ugwu is employed by an idealistic university professor just as the Biafran war is about to beak out. A journey of survival as a nation goes into conflict. This modern novel takes the reader back to a grim part in Nigerian history that left a lot of scars on its survivors.

2) July's People by Nadine Gordimer

This novel provides us a glimpse into what might have been one of the worst case scenarios of the consequences of Aparthied rule in South Afrca. A white South African family flees from the chaos-filled streets of Johannesburg as cities in the African state become battlegrounds. They end up being sheltered by one of their black servants.

3) Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

A story set in Racist South Africa that revolves around a Zulu pastor who braves the hostile urban setting of Johannesburg as he goes in search of his family. Church minister Steven Kumalo is summoned from his village to Johannesburg oly to find that his son Absolom has been jailed in connection with a robbery in which a white man was killed. James Jarvis,father of the victim, is a staunch supporter of apartheid. As the minister and James Jarvis confront each other, they come to achieve a new understanding of the situation their nation finds its self in. This novel enlightens one on the deep levels of racism and injustice during the Apartheid era of South African history.

4) A Man ot the People by Chinua Achebe

Odili's idealistic view on politics and power is turned over its head when he comes to realize just corrupt his leaders are. Odili is befriended by the popular local leader, Chief Nanga - known as being 'A man of the people'. However, their friendship turns sour when Odili realizes just how corrupt the leader is. Chief Nanga turns out to be a representation of the corrupt sitting government.

5) Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa

A young naïve boy is recruited into the Nigerian army during the civil war. His real motivation in joining the army is in order to marry a girl who will only accept a sodier as her husband. Unfortunately, he realizes that there is a big difference between real war and his romanticized vesion of it. The novel is unique in that it is written in Nigerian Pidgin English, Broken English, and Idiomatic English.

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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for this wonderful Hub and summary of the best of African political and social literature. It is indeed rich and brilliant. Wonderful Hub, underthedome.

    • underthedome profile image
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      denis nasila 3 years ago from Mombasa

      Thanks, HSchneider.

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