European Influence On African Literature Essays

Early African Literature: An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE 

Collected and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher

In progress. The material below is extracted from the very rough draft of the introduction (with citations stripped out). I welcome comments!


Contrary to the general perception, the African literatures written before the twentieth century are substantial. Whatever limits can be imagined—in terms of geography, genre, language, audience, era—these literatures exceed them. Before the twentieth century, Africans wrote not just in Europe, but also on the African continent; they wrote not just in European languages, but in African languages; they wrote not just for European consumption, but for their own consumption; they wrote not just in northern Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa; they wrote not just orally, but textually; they wrote not just historical or religious texts, but poetry and epic and autobiography; and they wrote not just in the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century and long, long before.

Yet, the general public and even scholars of African literature are often unaware of these early literatures, believing that African literature starts in the late 1950s as the result of colonization. In this view, Africa is a savage Caliban who is introduced to writing by a European Prospero and Things Fall Apart is his first articulation. Westerns assume that whatever writing happened to be done on the continent was not done by Africans or in African languages and scripts until very recently. This lack of awareness of three thousand years of African writing is particularly surprising given the legions of pre-twentieth-century African texts that historians have uncovered and studied in the past fifty years. While historians labor to overturn long-held misconceptions about Africa as a place without history, literary critics have done little to overturn misconceptions of Africa as a place without literature. The extraordinarily rich trove of pre-twentieth century African continental literatures has yet to be written about in any depth by Euro-American literary critics. Certainly, no book addresses their work at length and almost no literary essays published outside of Africa address the continental works.

African literature written over the last millennia remains largely invisible for several significant reasons. One, many of the texts written more than two hundred years ago have not survived, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Scholars know they existed because travelers reported on them and extant texts make reference to now lost texts. Two, many were never published as print books and of those few manuscripts that were, most were published in obscure places. Three, very few of the texts written in an African language have been translated into any European language. For instance, the hundreds of Ethiopian indigenous texts remain obscure because only a handful have been translated into English. Indeed, in the dramatic cases of texts written in Meroitic or Libyco-Berber, the texts cannot be translated as the language and script is no longer understood. One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century will be archiving and translating the vast libraries of East and West Africa. Fourth, many continue to see sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa as geographic and literary domains separated by a gulf, rather than, as historians and archeologists continue to prove, having deep links to each other. As the origin of the human species, Africa is home to the most diverse peoples of any continent, one of its great strengths. That some of these Africans are lighter-skinned than others is an irrelevancy. All those born on the African continent, and whose forbearers were born on the continent, are Africans and have contributed to its vibrancy. The obsession with the race or region of African authors has resulting in obscuring the literature of the continent and prevented productive comparative work.

This lack of knowledge about early African literature torques the study of modern African literature. Analyses of contemporary writing in the United States, Britain, or Europe often take into account a centuries-old literary tradition rooted in different but related forms and themes. But research on African literature today tends to ignore the continent’s long literary history, with most scholars today focusing on African writing in European languages produced since 1950. For example, few situate later Nigerian experiments in English like Tutola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and Iweala’s Beast of No Nation in relation to the English of earlier West African texts, such as the eighteenth-century diary of Antera Duke, an Efik slave-trading chief in what is now Nigeria. Likewise, few lay Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart alongside the work of Nigerian authors of the nineteenth century who were also concerned about the interaction of Christianity and local beliefs—including Egba clergyman Joseph Wright (1839), the famous Yoruba Anglican bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1837), and the Hausa writer Madugu Mohamman Mai Gashin Baki . Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor’s work on the Queen of Sheba is not considered in the context of the thirteenth-century Ethiopian text about her, Kebra Nagast.

Selection of Texts

Whatever the reasons that these literatures do not get the attention they deserve, the time is well past to start giving them that attention. This book therefore seeks to introduce these literatures and provide excerpts from a few. Influenced by recent trends in literary theory, particularly new historicism, I have selected texts using broad definitions of the basic categories. By “written text,” I mean anything inscribed by human hand or machine on any surface—whether parchment, paper, or stone—that uses a system of signs (symbolic or orthographic) that can be read by many members of a particular cultural group. By “Africa,” I mean the entire African continent and the peoples who originated there. By “African author,” I mean anyone born on the African continent to someone born on the African continent. I do not exclude authors on the basis of race, although I do note the author’s national or ethnic background. In the case of North Africa, I have been more exclusionary, focusing on African texts by those whose families were not originally from Europe or the Middle East. Thus, I have not included North African Roman or Greek authors. Since African diasporic literature written in the Americas has been collected and published frequently elsewhere, I do not include African diasporic authors unless they were born on the African continent. By “literature,” I mean any original text with elevated language or an active “I”, but specifically poetry, epic, romance, hymns, fictional narrative, epistles and belles letters, personal manifestos or philosophy, diaries, biography, and autobiography. Although many African translations vary significantly from their Arabic or Greek originals, I have not included any translations of texts written outside of Africa. By “written African literature,” I mean a text composed and written down in any language by an African author (or, in some rare cases, his or her amanuensis). I do not exclude texts written in European languages. I do exclude oral texts—although Africa has always had a vast unwritten literature in the oral forms of drama, epic, and poetry, that is not the subject of this book. A desideratum remains studying oral and written African literature together; I hope this book will aid that process.

Our exclusion of certain authors or texts is never an argument about their importance or salience, but only due to such authors and texts finding adequate representation elsewhere. Thus, I do not generally include texts written by Europeans in Africa, although many Europeans who lived on the African continent for long periods had imbibed local thought and can be seen as part of a larger African literature. Such authors are generally represented well in travel anthologies.

Quite frequently, texts are omitted because no English translation is available, no translation is possible, or all copies of the text have been lost. It is quite clear that for every extant pre-twentieth century African text, a thousand others did exist but were destroyed by the elements or conquest.

Categories of Texts

In practice, this means that four general categories of written African literature are represented in this text. A prominent category of early written African literature is that written by Africans outside of Africa, in particular those who spent the majority of their lives in Europe or the Americas and were trained in Western educational systems. This includes not only the literature written by the millions of Africans taken to the new world as slaves, but also that written by the hundreds of African youths whom Europeans sent from the continent every year to study in England, France, Portugal, Italy, Holland and Germany from the 1400s on. While the genre of the slave narrative has been widely explored by literary scholars, this later type of the writing done by free Africans in Europe has received less attention, perhaps because much of it was not written in English. For instance, a rich but almost entirely unexplored body of early written African literature is African scholarship in Latin for European universities. I suspect that many discoveries of African literature will be made as more material from European universities is digitalized and the African authorship of some of these theses becomes known. Likewise for early written African literature in Portuguese.

Another category of early written African literature is texts written by Africans on the African continent in Arabic. These include medieval inscriptions in Arabic from eleventh-century gravestones in Mali; letters written by the Emperor of Morocco in the 1600s to various European heads of state; Tarikh el-Fettach, a fifteenth-century manuscript about Jews in Tendirma, near Timbuktu; Tarikh es-Soudan, a seventeenth-century manuscript written by Abd-al-Rahman al Sadi of Timbuktu about the lives and wars of the kings of Mali in the 1200s, Kitab Ghanja, a chronicle from the 1700s in modern Ghana, and so on. Various archival projects in West and East Africa are bringing to light even more African manuscripts dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately, a tendency to see Arabic as a language foreign to the African continent, despite being in use there for over a thousand years, leads to dismissing Arabic African literature as not indigenous. This would be tantamount to dismissing British literature as Italian because of the Roman invasion 2000 years ago. Misconceptions of Africa as a savage, untouched paradise do not square with the reality of Africa’s millennia of trading relationships with non-Africans and its long traditions of Islam and Christianity.

The final category of early written African literature is that written by Africans on the African continent in African languages, sometimes in African scripts. The African languages with the largest bodies of extant texts are Gəˁəz, Kiswahili, Hausa, Amharic, and Somali [more].

We do not want to suggest that these categories cannot be fruitfully read together. For instance, if I look at some of the early writing by just one ethnic group in West Africa over just one century I find it occurring in several languages and over several continents. There were at least half-a-dozen eighteenth-century Akan writers (Gonja Chronicles?) whose manuscripts have survived. These texts by these Akan authors must be seen as the result of a particular African discursive system, not just as tainted by the European languages in which they were sometimes written. All these  men were shaped by the same African culture and their texts should be read in light of each other.

African Scripts

As the table shows, ancient Africa had many indigenous scripts, including hieroglyphs and hieratic, both developed in Egypt around five thousand years ago to represent the ancient Egyptian language. Egyptians then invented Demotic, which was related to Hieratic, and Coptic, which was related to Greek and used to represent an African language. Nubians used all the Egyptian scripts, but also invented their own, Meroitic, to represent the African languages of Meroitic and Old Nubian. Meanwhile in North Africa and the Sahel, Africans invented the Libyco-Berber scripts to represent a variety of Berber languages, while East Africans invented Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) to represent the African language of Gəˁəz. In the medieval period, Africans in East, West, and North Africa used the Arabic script, but in the early modern period, Africans invented Ajami, which is related to the Arabic script, for their East and West African languages. It is only in the twentieth century that the Roman alphabet came to be used widely in Africa. By the late eighteenth century, Africans also invented the secret ideographic writing system of Nsibidi. That Nsibidi was “discovered” by Europeans only in the twentieth century suggests that other unknown African scripts may have been used during the early modern period. It is also worthwhile to mention Adinkra, a pictographic script invented by 1817 in what is now Ghana, and Vai, an alphabet invented in Liberia in the 1830s. In the twentieth century, Africans invented over a dozen scripts, but only a few are still used.


Indigenous African Scripts

Name of African script

Region where it was invented

Languages it is used for

Region where it is used

Century it was invented

Last century it was regularly used





Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic

Egypt and Nubia

3000-2700 BCE

394 CE



Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic

Egypt and Nubia

3000-2700 BCE

200 CE



Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic

Egypt and Nubia

600 BCE

400 CE




Egypt and Nubia

200 CE




Meroitic, Old Nubian


200 BCE

400+ CE

Old Nubian


Old Nubian


700- CE

1000 CE

Ethiopic or Gəˁəz


Ge’ez, Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo

Ethiopia and Eritrea

400 CE

still in use


North Africa

Tamazight, Tachelhit [Tashalit], Kabyle, Shawiya [Tashawit], Tamasheq [Taureg], Rif [Tarifit], Siwi, Zenaga

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger

800 or 200 BCE

700 CE and still in use


Early Modern and Modern


Ajami (adapted Arabic script)

West Africa

Swahili, Somali, Hausa, Kanuri, Manding, Susu, Wolof, Fulfulde, Bambara, etc..

West and North Africa

1600 CE?

still in use

Nsibidi (ideographs)





still in use

Adinkra (ideographs)





still in use






still in use









almost extinct






still in use


Sierra Leone


Sieraa Leone


still in use

Kpelle, Loma, N’ko, Begam, Somali, Wolof, Mandombe


1920 or later




African Languages

Before the 1960s, scholars mistakenly assumed that pre-human beings left Africa to evolve into human beings in Europe or Asia. Since the 1980s, archeological and genetic evidence has confirmed that homo sapiens evolved fully in Africa.

Likewise, it was long thought that the Middle East was unique in embarking on agriculture around 10,000 years ago, yet recent scholarship demonstrates that such innovations occurred independently in at least seven places around the globe, including four places in Africa. Between 8000 and 5000 BC, the peoples of East, West, and North Africa were among the first locales to domesticate plants and animals for food.

Finally, scholars used to think that the languages of East Africa evolved in the Middle East and then migrated to Africa. Yet, more recent scholarship suggests that the Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in East and North Africa as well as the Middle East and South Asia originate from a proto-language of East Africa. That is, from the eighth to the sixth millennium BCE, the ancient language of East African peoples began to differentiate, eventually evolving into hundreds of Afro-Asiatic languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian, Berber, and Hausa. Thus, as the biogeographer Jared Diamond expressed it, “Africa gave birth to the languages spoken by the authors of the Old and New Testament and the Koran, the moral pillars of Western civilization.”

Just as scholars are finding that Africans were among the earliest agricultural and linguistic innovators, so are scholars finding that they were among the earliest artistic innovators as well. It is also important to remember how many words in English are originally from African languages: such as canoe and tamboureen. Few of the texts in this volume were written originally in English; but in Arabic, Latin, Portuguese, Gəˁəz, Coptic, and even French, German (?), Italian (?),Dutch(?), and Afrikaans (?).

Early African Authors

Many African authors in this volume are anonymous. Many others I have almost no information about. Nevertheless, it seems useful to provide a chronological list of some of the authors named in this volume (See appendix A).

Structure of the Book

We have structured the book chronologically, into four broad periods: ancient (2000 BCE-700 CE, to around the beginning of Islam in Africa), medieval (700-1500 CE, to around when Africans began to escalate their contact with Europeans), early modern (1500-1800), and modern (1800-1918, to the end of World War I). Within each of these chronological sections, texts are arranged according to their age, region, and language.

For the ancient African texts section, the texts are arranged by region and script and then chronologically. These texts range from the most ancient known narratives, those depicted in rock art; to Egyptian texts written in the Egyptian scripts of hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic, or coptic; to Nubian texts written in Egyptian scripts as well as in Meroitic and Old Nubian scripts; to Ethiopian (Axumite) texts written in Ethiopic (Ge’ez) script; and North and West African texts written in Libyco-Berber scripts. I have also included a brief chapter on the many ancient African texts written by Africans in Latin and Greek—such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions—arguing for their return to the category of African literature.

For the medieval African texts, when extant texts are rare, I have arranged the texts geographically into those from North Africa, East Africa, and West Africa. The main text in this section is the thirteenth or fourteenth-century Ethiopian text Kebra Nagast, which must be seen as just one textual representative of the vast oral African tradition about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

For the early modern and modern African texts, when the number of texts proliferates, I have arranged the texts into separate sections for each region of the continent and within that by language. [Although the modern states of Mali, Nigeria, and Ghana did not exist then, I have yet use their names to give readers a sense for where they come from.]

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
    • Unknown Literature
    • Selection of Texts
    • Categories of Texts
    • African Scripts
    • African Languages
    • Early African Authors
    • Structure of the Book
  • Part I Ancient African Literature (3000 BCE to 700 CE)
    • Chapter 1 Art Narrative Texts
    • Chapter 2 Egyptian Written Texts in Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, or Demotic
    • Chapter 3 Nubian Written Texts in Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, Meroitic, and Old Nubian
      • Prayers for the Queen
      • The Victory of King Piye
      • Praise of Taharqo
      • Triumphs of Taharqo
      • King Aspelta Honors the Just Kingship of Khaliut, son of Piye
      • Obeisance of Paêse
      • Obeisance of Makaltami
      • Obeisance of Wayekiye
      • Obeisance of Hornakhtyotef
      • Obeisance of Pasan
      • The Conquests of King Kharamandoye
    • Chapter 4: Egyptian and Nubian Written Texts in Coptic
      • Woman’s Complaint
      • Isis Love Spell 40
      • Letters of Saint Anthony
      • Cambyses Romance
      • A Sermon of Shenute
      • The Life of Shenute
      • The Life of Saint Anthony
      • Chapter 5: Axumite Written Texts in Gəˁəz
      • Autobiography of Adulitana II
      • Autobiography of Aeizanas
      • Autobiography of Kaleb
      • Funerary Inscription for a Daughter
    • Chapter 6 North and West African Written Texts in Libyco-Berber
    • Chapter 7: North African Written Literature in Latin
      • On the Mantle
      • The Philsopher’s Defense
      • The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses
      • On Worldly versus Divine Patriotism
      • The Wisdom of the Egyptians
      • Confessions
      • Confessions
  • Part II Medieval African Literature (700 to 1500 CE)
    • Chapter 7 Medieval West African Literature
      • In Praise of the King
      • Prayers for the Dead
      • Prayers for the King Malik
      • Remember the Grave
      • Funeral Inscription
      • Refuge 87
      • Funeral Inscription of Faqlh al-Khayyir
      • Funeral Inscription
      • Funeral Inscription for the Daughter Shama
      • Prayers for
      • Prayers for Umar Beere
    • Chapter 8 Medieval East African Literaure
      • Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings)
      • Tarike Nagast(Royal Chronicles)
      • Zera Yaqob’s Sermons
      • Mashafa Mestira Samay Wamedr (The Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth)
      • Zena Eskender (The History of Alexander the Great).
      • Diggua (hymns)
      • Gedla Lalibela (Acts of Saint Lalibela)
      • Gedla Takla Haymanot (Acts of Saint Takla Haymanot)
      • Praise Songs of the Emperor
    • Chapter 9 Medieval North African Literature
      • Divan of a North African Poet
      • Palace
      • Ibn Battuta’s Journeys
      • Dala'il al-Khairat
      • History
      • Kitab al-zuhd
  • Part III Early Modern West African Literature (1500 to 1800)
    • Chapter 10 Early Modern West African Literatures in Portuguese and Spanish
      • The Leper King
      • Poem
      • Letters from the Congo Kings
      • Ge Cathecism
      • Poem
      • Letters
    • Chapter 11 Early Modern West African Literatures in Latin
      • Autobiography of a Slave
      • Poem
      • Elegy
      • Autobiography
      • Protten
      • Pedersen
      • Austriad
    • Chapter 12 Early Modern West African Literatures in English
      • The Royal African
      • Autobiography
      • An Interesting Narrative
      • Letters
      • Poems
      • Petition
      • An Ode
      • Some Black Poetry
      • Letters
    • Chapter 13 Early Modern West African Literatures in Other European Languages
    • Chapter 15 Early Modern West African Literatures in Arabic
      • Kitab Ghanja
      • Ta'rikh:Ghanja
    • Chapter 14 Early Modern West African Literatures in African Languages
      • Fulfulde
      • Ge
      • Kongo
      • Adinkra
      • Vai
      • Hausa
  • Part III Early Modern North African Literature (1500 to 1800)
    • Chapter 15 Early Modern North African Literature in Latin
    • Chapter 16 Early Modern North African Literature in Arabic
    • Chapter 17 Early Modern North African Literature in Berber
  • Part III Early Modern East African Literature (1500 to 1800)
    • Chapter 18 Early Modern East African Literature in Arabic
    • Chapter 19 Early Modern East African Literature in Latin
    • Chapter 20 Early Modern East African Literature in Somali
    • Chapter 21 Early Modern East African Literature in Kiswahili
    • Chapter 22 Early Modern East African Literature in Gəˁəz
  • Part III Early Modern Southern African Literature (1500 to 1800)
  • Part IV Nineteenth-Century West African Literature (1800-1900)
    • Chapter 23 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in English
    • Chapter 24 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Portuguese
    • Chapter 25 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in French
    • Chapter 26 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Arabic
    • Chapter 27 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Hausa
    • Chapter 28 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Nsibidi
    • Chapter 29 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Vai
    • Chapter 30 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Other African Languages
  • Part IV Nineteenth-Century East African Literature (1800-1900)
    • Chapter 31 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Gəˁəz and Amharic and Oromo
    • Chapter 32 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Kiswahili
    • Chapter 33 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Somali
    • Chapter 34 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Arabic
  • Part IV Nineteenth-Century Central African Literature (1800-1900)
    • Chapter 35 Nineteenth Century Central African Literature
  • Part IV Nineteenth-Century North African Literature (1800-1900)
    • Chapter 36 Nineteenth Century North African Literature in Arabic
    • Chapter 37 Nineteenth Century North African Literature in Berber
    • Chapter 38 Nineteenth Century North African Literature in European Languages
  • Part IV Nineteenth-Century Southern African Literature (1800-1900)
    • Chapter 39 Nineteenth Century Southern African Literature in African Languages
    • Chapter 40 Nineteenth Century Southern African Literature in European Languages
  • Appendix A: List of African Authors
  • Notes and Sources

Some Examples 

Some Medieval and Early Modern Abyssinian Texts in Ge'ez

Ge'ez writing in Ethiopia dates to at least the 300s CE. To see the Manuscripts Librarian of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa present and lecture on several such manuscripts, please go to my Youtube channel.

Kebra Nagast (the Glory of the Kings). Early versions may date to 1200 or earlier, late versions may date to the 1500s. Approximately 100 chapters. Describes the lives of biblical and Ethiopian kings and queens, including the sixth-century Ethiopian King Kaleb. Devotes forty chapters to the Queen of Sheba.

Tarike Nagast (Royal Chronicles). Written by official court scribes about the deeds of Ethiopian kings, the existing texts start in 1314 and continue into the 1800s. Just one of these chronicles is The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon: King of Ethiopia (1314-1344), written as a vivid eye-witness account.

Metshihafe (sermons). Orthodox priests wrote sermons, some of which were actually theological treatises on important questions of the day. A series of these have been attributed to Emperor Zera Yaqob (1434-1468) but may date to much earlier. Zera Yaqob elevates Mary to the status of a goddess in long poetic sections; sometimes he defends magical practices.

Mashafa Mestira Samay Wamedr ( The Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth). Dating to the 1400s, this text explains how everything was created.

Zena Eskender (The History of Alexander the Great). Although parts of this tale resemble ancient tales circulating throughout the middle east about Alexander the Great, in the Ethiopian versions, Alexander is a pious Christian.

Diggua (hymns). Many volumes of hymns exist, some dating to the 1600s, 1400s, and perhaps even the 500s. For instance, Igzi'abher Negse is attributed to Emperor Zera Yaqob.

Mezmure Kristos (Psalms of Christ) probably dates to the 1500s. Composed in imitation of the biblical psalms, each of the 151 Ge'ez poems is the exact length of each of the 151 biblical psalms, down to the number of lines and the number of letters in each line. This extraordinary feat is made even more extraordinary in that it rhymes, which the biblical psalms do not. The text carries sidenotes (rather than footnotes) and an extensive bibliography.

Gedlat (Acts of the Saints). There are over 200 original hagiographies in Ge'ez about Ethiopian saints. Among them are one about the Ethiopian saint Takla Haymanot and another about Emperor Lalibela (both of whom lived in the 1200s). Half a dozen are about Ethiopian women saints.

Qeddâsê (Liturgy). The Ethiopian liturgy was the first of the eastern Christian liturgies to be published in Europe—in Rome in 1548.

Confession of Faith. The Ethiopian emperor Galâudêwos (Claudius) wrote this defense of the Ethiopian faith in 1555, it was published in Europe not long after.

Some Early Modern West African Texts in Arabic

Arabic writing in Hausaland (northern Nigeria and Niger) dates to the end of the 1400s.

Mai Idris of Bornu (late 1500s). Written by Ahmad Ibn Fartuwa of Niger, imam of the warrior West African king Idris Alawma, about his reign.

Tarikh es-Soudan (early 1600s). Written by Abd-al-Rahman al Sadi of Timbuktu about the lives and wars of the kings of Mali in the 1200s.

Some Early Modern West African Texts in European Languages

West African texts written in European languages date to at least the early 1700s.

A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717-1747 (in Latin). Written in 1742 by Capitein (Akan), who was sold into slavery from the continent and went on to study in the Netherlands, it includes an autobiographical preface.

Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings (in English). Written in 1787 by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (Fanti), after being sold into slavery from the continent.

Letters of Philip Quaque, or Kweku, from Cape Coast Castle, 1765-1811 (in English). Written to his English missionary society after Quaque (Akan) returned to the Gold Coast from studying in England.

On the Rights of Africans in Europe (in Latin). A now lost treatise written by William Anton Amo (Akan) in 1729. He also wrote several other dissertations, one of which survived: The Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately.

The Diary of Antera Duke of Old Calabar (in pidgin English). Written by a slave-trading West African chief, Antera Duke (Efik), from 1785 to 1788.

Letters of Efik slave traders Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John to Charles Wesley, the Methodist hymnodist (in English). Late 1700s.

Geometry and Fortification (in Russian). Written by Abram Petrovich Ganibal (1697–1781), the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin. He was captured as a child near Chad and became the slave of Peter the Great. He wrote a two-volume, unpublished textbook on military fortification, which includes an autobiographical preface.

Literatures in European and European-derived languages


Afrikaans literature in South Africa can be viewed in the context of Dutch literary tradition or South African literary tradition. Within an African context, Afrikaans literature will be forever on the outside. As is the case with the language, it is caught in an identity crisis that was created irrevocably by the fiercely defended political and cultural identity of the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652 and whose descendants, together with English-speaking whites, took over the government in 1948, after which the notorious system of apartheid was enshrined in laws that would be demolished only in the early 1990s. The conservative branch of the Afrikaner people, always the most numerous and the most powerful, was in conflict throughout the 20th century with a talented and growing group of young poets and novelists, such as C. Louis Leipoldt and Breyten Breytenbach, who sought to broaden the confines of an increasingly limited people and literature. The history of Afrikaans literature is the history of the Afrikaners, an alien people whose literature is a testimony to that state of alienation.

Afrikaans, with its roots in Dutch, has been spoken in South Africa mainly by whites since the 18th century. The First Afrikaans Language Movement began in 1875, led by Stephanus Jacobus du Toit and others; it represented an effort to make Afrikaans a language separate from Dutch. The first newspaper in Afrikaans, Die Patriot (“The Patriot”), began publication in 1876. The linguistic shift from Dutch to Afrikaans did not occur without considerable dispute among the whites of Dutch descent. It was after the South African War (1899–1902)—which became a prominent subject of early Afrikaans literature—that Afrikaans became a significant written language. “Winternag” (1905; “Winter’s Night”), a poem by Eugène Marais, and “Die vlakte” (1906; “The Plain”), a poem by Jan Celliers, dramatically ushered in this new literary language, along with language organizations such as the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie (founded 1909). Die brandwag (“The Outpost”), a magazine, had a literary section from 1910. The Hertzog Prize for poetry, prose, and drama in Afrikaans was established in 1914. Publishing houses specializing in Afrikaans publications began in 1914 and 1915. In 1914 Cornelius Jakob Langenhoven fostered Afrikaans in schools, and the language was soon after studied at universities and used as a medium of instruction. Parliament recognized Afrikaans as an official language in 1925, six years after it was named the language of the Dutch Reformed Church. Earlier 19th-century writing had been heavily didactic; by the 1920s this had begun to change.

Poets became the most potent harbingers of the new language as the Second Afrikaans Language Movement began; they included Leipoldt, Marais, Celliers, Jakob Daniel du Toit (Totius), Daniel François Malherbe, and Toon van den Heever. Leipoldt, who would one day be condemned as a traitor to Afrikaners, was probably one of the greatest and most original poets of the early 20th century, while Marais in his poetry linked European tradition to the realities of life in South Africa. Prose also appeared during this period, moving away from such melodramatic works as Johannes van Wyk (1906), a novel by J.H.H. de Waal, to more rigorously realistic historical works, such as those by Gustav Preller. Realism began to dominate Afrikaans prose, especially in the work of Jochem van Bruggen, who wrote a trilogy, the first part of which was Ampie, die natuurkind (1931; “Ampie, the Child of Nature”), a study of a poor white in South Africa. A.A. Pienaar (pseudonym Sangiro) wrote popular books about animals. Drama also began to flourish through the writings of Leipoldt, Langenhoven, and H.A. Fagan. Langenhoven was also a popular poet, as was A.G. Visser.

Dramatic events in the 1930s—including a drought that caused many farmers to move to the cities, significant political changes, a sharpening of racial conflict, and the deepening of the Afrikaans-English conflict—isolated Afrikaners more dramatically in South Africa, and fiercely partisan organizations such as the Afrikaner-Broederbond and Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge gained new adherents. The Afrikaner poets known as the Dertigers (“Thirtyers,” or writers of the 1930s) infuriated conservative Afrikaners with a new type of poetry. The poetry of W.E.G. Louw, N.P. van Wyk Louw, and Elisabeth Eybers was at the heart of this fertile activity, which centred on experimentation with form. Van Wyk Louw’s Raka (1941) is a rhymed study of evil, with Raka as the incarnation of this evil taking over a community. Uys Krige wrote romantic poetry but is known for his war poetry and as a dramatist. There was prose written during this period by Abraham H. Jonker, C.M. van den Heever, and Johannes van Melle, whose Bart Nel (1936), dealing with the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914–15, is considered by some to be the finest novel in Afrikaans.

After World War II, literary magazines carried Afrikaans works. D.J. Opperman continued the experimentation with the Afrikaans language in his poetry, and he introduced decisively South African racial themes into his work. In 1954 Arthur Fula became one of the first black Africans to write a novel in Afrikaans. Audrey Blignault and Elise Muller wrote short stories and essays. Anna M. Louw wrote novels.

The Sestigers (“Sixtyers,” or writers of the 1960s) attempted to do for prose what the Dertigers had done for poetry. Jan Rabie, Etienne Leroux, Dolf van Niekerk, André P. Brink, Abraham de Vries, and Chris Barnard experimented with the novel and moved into areas largely forbidden until that time, such as sex and atheism. Brink’s Lobola vir die lewe (1962; “Pledge for Life”) and Orgie (1965; “Orgy”) caused sensations. Bartho Smit wrote Moeder Hanna (1959; “Mother Hanna”), an acclaimed drama about the South African War. He also wrote Putsonderwater (1962; “Well-Without-Water”), considered among the finest plays produced in Afrikaans; it could not be performed because of its political message. Elsa Joubert wrote a novel about a black woman, Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (1978; The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, or Poppie). Karel Schoeman’s ’n Ander land (1984; “Another Country”) moved into the sensitive political and social realities of South Africa. Adam Small wrote works, such as Kanna hy kô hystoe (1965; Kanna—He Is Coming Home), that revealed the realities of the lives of nonwhites in South Africa. Ingrid Jonker wrote intensely personal poetry. Breytenbach wrote surreal poetry, his work revealing his struggle with the Afrikaners’ political situation in South Africa. His Katastrofes (1964; Catastrophes) is a series of sketches that take racism, death, and madness as their subjects.

These themes persisted through the end of the 20th century. Riana Scheepers, in Die ding in die vuur (1990; “The Thing in the Fire”), a collection of short stories, blended Zulu oral tradition with the world of apartheid. Marlene van Niekerk wrote Triomf (1994; “Triumph”; Eng. trans. Triomf), a novel based on Sophiatown, a black settlement near Johannesburg that was replaced by the South African government in the 1950s and ’60s by a white working-class suburb dubbed Triomf. In Lettie Viljoen’s Klaaglied vir Koos (1984; “Lament for Koos”), a husband leaves his family to join the fight against apartheid. In his novels Toorberg (1986; Ancestral Voices) and Kikoejoe (1996; Kikuyu), Etienne van Heerden dealt with 20th-century South African history. (See also treatment of literature in Afrikaans in South African literature.)


Early works in English in western Africa include a Liberian novel, Love in Ebony: A West African Romance, published in 1932 by Charles Cooper (pseudonym Varfelli Karlee), as well as such works of Ghanaian pulp literature as J. Benibengor Blay’s Emelia’s Promise and Fulfilment (1944). R.E. Obeng, a Ghanaian, wrote Eighteenpence (1941), an early work on the conflict between African and European cultures. Other early popular writers in Ghana include Asare Konadu, Efua Sutherland, and Kwesi Brew. The Nigerian Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (1952), its construction revealing a clear linkage between the oral and literary traditions. In it the hero moves to Deads’ Town to bring his tapster back to the land of the living; the elixir that the hero brings back from the land of the dead, however, is an egg that is death-dealing as surely as it is life-giving. Tutuola is faithful to oral tradition, but he places the traditional journeying tale into a very contemporary framework.

Nigeria has been a font of creative writing in English, from the works of Chinua Achebe to those of Ben Okri. Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, is known for his drama, poetry, and prose. His The Interpreters (1965) weaves stories from the contemporary world to the mythic and historical past, manipulating time so that in the end the very structure of the story is a comment on the lives of the several protagonists. Soyinka was a contributor to and coeditor of the influential journal Black Orpheus, founded in 1957 and containing the early works of poets such as Christopher Okigbo of Nigeria, Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma of South Africa, and Tchicaya U Tam’si of Congo (Brazzaville). Another literary journal, The Horn, launched in 1958 by John Pepper Clark, provided additional opportunities for writers to have their works published. Transition, a literary journal begun in Uganda in 1960 by Rajat Neogi, was also a valuable outlet for many African writers.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) is perhaps the best-known African novel of the 20th century. Its main character is Okonkwo, whose tragic and fatal flaw, his overweening ambition, wounds him. His frenzied desire to be anything but what his father was causes him to develop a warped view of his society, so that in the end that view becomes (thanks to seven humiliating years in exile) reality to him. When he returns, he cannot accept seeing his people in the throes of adapting to the intruding whites, and things fall apart for him: it is not the society he envisioned, and he takes his life. Things Fall Apart is a precolonial novel that ends with the coming of colonialism, which triggers Okonkwo’s demise. Okonkwo is in any case doomed because of his skewed vision. Flora Nwapa wrote the novel Efuru (1966), the story of a talented, brilliant, and beautiful woman who, living in a small community, is confined by tradition. A woman’s fundamental role, childbearing, is prescribed for her, and if she does not fulfill that role she suffers the negative criticism of members of her society. Borrowing a technique from the oral tradition, Nwapa injects the dimension of fantasy through the character of the goddess Uhamiri, who is a mythic counterpart to the real-life Efuru. In The Slave Girl (1977) the novelist Buchi Emecheta tells the story of Ojebeta, who, as she journeys from childhood to adulthood, moves not to freedom and independence but from one form of slavery to another. Okri blends fantasy and reality in his novel The Famished Road (1991; part of a trilogy that also includes Songs of Enchantment [1993] and Infinite Riches [1998]). In the novel, which addresses the reality of postcolonial Nigeria, Okri uses myth, the Yorubaabiku (“spirit child”), and other fantasy images to shift between preindependence and postindependence settings. The spiritual and real worlds are linked in the novel, the one a dimension of the other, in a narrative mode that African storytellers have been using for centuries.

In other parts of western Africa, Lenrie Peters of The Gambia and Syl Cheyney-Coker of Sierra Leone were among the most important 20th-century writers. The novelist Ebou Dibba and the poet Tijan M. Sallah were also from The Gambia. Cameroonian authors writing in English during the second half of the 20th century include Ba’bila Mutia, John S. Dinga, and Jedida Asheri. Writers in Ghana during the same period include Amma Darko, B. Kojo Laing, Kofi Awoonor, and Ayi Kwei Armah. In Fragments (1970) Armah tells of a youth, Baako, who returns from the United States to his Ghanaian family and is torn between the new demands of his home and the consequent subversion of a traditional past represented by the mythic Naana, his blind grandmother, who establishes a context for the tragic story Baako is experiencing.

The dominant writer to emerge from East Africa is the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In A Grain of Wheat (1967) he tells the story of Mugo, alone and alienated, farming after having played a role in the Mau Mau rebellion; though he has considered himself the Moses of his people, he has a terrible secret. As Mugo’s story unfolds, the novelist works into his narrative other stories, including those of Gikonyo, Mumbi, and Karanja, each of whom has an unsavoury past as well. Ngugi constructs the story around the proverb “Kikulacho ki nguoni mwako” (“That which bites you is in your own clothing”). Later in his career Ngugi, who spent many years in exile from Kenya, engaged many writers in a debate as to whether African writers should compose their works in European or African languages.

Other East African novelists include Okello Oculi, Grace Ogot, Peter K. Palangyo, and W.E. Mkufya. In Timothy Wangusa’s novel Upon This Mountain (1989), the character Mwambu climbs a mountain and comes of age. In two novels from Uganda a boy moves to manhood: Abyssinian Chronicles (2000), by Moses Isegawa, and The Season of Thomas Tebo (1986), by John Nagenda, the latter an allegorical novel in which a boy’s loss of innocence is tied to politics in that country. One of Africa’s greatest novelists is the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, who wrote a trilogy composed of the novels Maps (1986), Gifts (1992), and Secrets (1998). Maps is the story of a youth, Askar, growing up in a Somalia divided by Ethiopia. With the mythic Misra, who becomes his surrogate mother, and by means of a geographical movement that occurs within a rich mixture of politics and sex, the boy seeks his identity, a quest that becomes linked to the identity of the land across which he moves.

From Malawi came such writers as Jack Mapanje, whose collection of poems Skipping Without Ropes (1998) reflects on his four years as a political prisoner, and David Rubadiri. Other writers from Southern Africa include Fwanyanga M. Mulikita and Dominic Mulaisho from Zambia and Berhane Mariam Sahle Sellassie, Daniachew Worku, and Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin from Ethiopia. Solomon M. Mutswairo, Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chinodya, Chenjerai Hove, Yvonne Vera, Alexander Kanengoni, J. Nozipo Maraire, and Batisai Parwada are among Zimbabwe’s writers in English. Tsitsi Dangarembga wrote Nervous Conditions (1988), a story of two Shona girls, Tambudzai and Nyasha, both attempting to find their place in contemporary Zimbabwe. Nyasha has been abroad and wonders about the effect that Westernization has had on her and her family, while Tambudzai is longing to break out of her traditional world. Looming in the background are mythic figures, including Lucia, Tambudzai’s aunt.

Doris Lessing is a British writer who spent her early years in what is today Zimbabwe. Her novel The Grass Is Singing (1950) centres on Dick Turner and Mary Turner, a white couple attempting to become a part of the rural African landscape. Lessing depicts a stereotyped African character, Moses, a black servant, whose name gives him historical and religious resonance. He becomes dominant over the European Mary, manipulating her fears and love of him until in the end he destroys her. Lessing finds mythic fantasy dimensions in the Europeans, much as Mustafa Sa’eed does in the women of England in al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s novel Season of Migration to the North (1966).

There is much writing in English by expatriates that is rooted in South Africa, from the poetry of Thomas Pringle to E.A. Kendall’s The English Boy at the Cape (1835), the novels of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan, and Turning Wheels (1937), by Stuart Cloete. Olive Schreiner was the first major South African-born writer. Her novel The Story of an African Farm (1883) continues to have an international resonance. Pauline Smith wrote powerful short stories; her novel The Beadle (1926) deals largely with the experiences of Afrikaners in the Eastern Cape region. Sarah Gertrude Millin had an international audience with such works as God’s Stepchildren (1924). The short-lived literary review Voorslag (“Whiplash”), begun in 1926, published for wider audiences work by such poets as Roy Campbell, William Plomer, and Laurens van der Post.

A common subject in the works of the many South African authors writing in English during the 20th century is the racial segregation, codified as apartheid in 1948, that dominated the country until the early 1990s. In two early novels, Mine Boy (1946), by Peter Abrahams, and Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), by Alan Paton, black Africans go to Johannesburg and experience the terror of apartheid. In To Every Birth Its Blood (1981), Mongane Wally Serote tells the stories of Tsi Molope and Oupa Molope. Tsi looks to his past and wonders, “Where does a river begin to take its journey to the sea?” The world in which Oupa—the son of Mary, Tsi’s sister—lives postdates the Soweto uprising of 1976, a time when resistance to apartheid took hold of a new generation and South Africa witnessed attacks and bombings. Because of their experiences with the police, the Molope family becomes more politicized. Serote wants the reader to see the human side of his characters—their vulnerabilities, their uncertainties—while he also wants to demonstrate that it is not an easy matter to make the revolutionary leap. A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981), by Sydney Sipho Sepamla, which is set in Soweto, exposes the fearful effects of apartheid.

The playwright Athol Fugard in 1982 produced his play “Master Harold”…and the Boys, the story of a white boy, Hally, in a restaurant in which two black African men, Willie Malopo and Sam Semela, are waiters. It is a story of a boy’s coming of age within the realities of the racist system of South Africa. As the story develops, Hally transfers his fear, love, and hate of his father to Sam, and in the end he treats Sam as he cannot treat his father. The result is to open anew the wounds of apartheid. The novel July’s People (1981), by Nadine Gordimer, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, takes place in an imagined postindependence South Africa. The story deals with the Smales, a white couple, and their relationship with July, their black servant. By means of flashbacks the Smales reconstruct their past, the world of a Johannesburg suburb during the apartheid period. There is a war, and Maureen Smale and Bamford Smale escape from their suburban home and go north, where these erstwhile liberals come to July’s rural home and learn, by their interactions with July and his family and friends, that they cannot move past their former relationship with their servant and cannot see him from any perspective but that of liberal, self-confident white overlords. That hopelessly compromised position is the impasse that Gordimer investigates in this novel. D.M. Zwelonke is the pseudonymous author of Robben Island (1973), a novel dealing with the political prison maintained by the South African government off the shores of Cape Town from the mid-1960s. It is the story of Bekimpi, an African political leader jailed at Robben Island, and it relates his dreams and fantasies, his despair and anger, and his torture and death.

J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, wrote Life and Times of Michael K (1983), a story with a blurred hero and an indistinct historical and geographical background. It describes a war that could be any war, a country that could be any country, a bureaucracy that could be any bureaucracy. Through it all, Michael K—a frail, nondescript, mute man of 30, born with a cleft lip—survives, not betraying his past, for he has no past, tied as he is to the unbroken continuity of history. So does Coetzee link apartheid to the ages. The novel becomes, in the end, an affirmation of humanity; the Earth is destroyed, a man is incarcerated, but he will return, crawling out of the dust of ruin, re-creating the Earth, making it grow and fructify.

Maru (1971), a novel by Bessie Head, tells a story about the liberation of the San people from ethnic and racial oppression and about the liberation of the Tswana people of Dilepe from their prejudices and hatreds. It is a story of a flawed world and the attempts of two mythic people, Maru and Margaret Cadmore, to restore it to its former perfection. It is also a love story—Margaret, the loathed Masarwa, opens the hearts of Moleka and Dikeledi—as well as a political story—Margaret animates Maru’s political vision with love and art. In the end, Maru is a realistic story with a mythic overlay in which oral and literary traditions are brought together.


In the work of the earliest African writers in French can be found the themes that run through this literature to the present day. These themes have to do with African tradition, with French colonialism and the displacement of Africans both physically and spiritually from their native tradition, with attempts to blend the French and the African traditions, and with postindependence efforts to piece the shards of African tradition and the French colonial experience into a new reality.

In his novel Les Trois volontés de Malic (1920; “The Three Wishes of Malic”), the Senegalese writer Ahmadou Mapaté Diagne anticipates such later writers as Sheikh Hamidou Kane, also of Senegal. In Diagne’s novel, Malic, a Wolof boy, is embroiled in a struggle between Muslim tradition and the influence of the West. He goes to a French-run school to study; then, instead of going to Qurʾānic school as his parents wish, he becomes a blacksmith. Other early African works in French frequently deal with the tensions between country and city, between African and French culture, and between traditional religious practices and Islam. The novel Force-bonté (1926; “Much Good Will”), by Bakary Diallo of Senegal, deals with a youth caught in a conflict between his Muslim background and Western values and culture. The Beninese writer Paul Hazoumé wrote Doguicimi (1938; Eng. trans. Doguicimi), a historical novel depicting the time of the reign of the king Gezo in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey. Some writers focused solely on African tradition, with its positive and negative qualities; these writers include Félix Couchoro, whose novel L’Esclave (1929; “The Slave”) examines slavery in traditional Dahomey. The Senegalese writer Ousmane Socé wrote Karim (1935), a novel that depicts a young Wolof caught between traditional and Western values. He leaves the countryside for the Senegalese cities of Saint-Louis and Dakar but loses everything when he falls prey to the cities’ wiles; he returns, in the end, to traditional ways of living. The novel depicts the new society that was being born in early 20th-century Africa. Mirages de Paris (1937; “Mirages of Paris”) has to do with a Senegalese student in Paris who falls in love with a Frenchwoman. Abdoulaye Sadji of Senegal wrote Maïmouna (1958; Eng. trans. Maïmouna), about an African girl who leaves home and goes to Dakar, where she is seduced. She returns to her home and bears a child who dies; she becomes ill but then recovers her traditional roots.

Women’s place in Cameroonian society is the subject of Joseph Owono’s Tante Bella (1959; “Aunt Bella”), the first novel to be published in Cameroon. Paul Lomami-Tshibamba of Congo (Brazzaville) wrote Ngando le crocodile (1948; “Ngando the Crocodile”; Eng. trans. Ngando), a story rooted in African tradition. Faralako: roman d’un petit village africaine (1958; “Faralako: Novel of a Little African Village”), by Emile Cissé, is an early Guinean novel that examines African tradition and Western technology. Jean Malonga, born in Congo (Brazzaville), wrote Coeur d’Aryenne (1954; “Heart of Aryenne”), an anticolonial novel. Traditional African society is the primary concern of the novels Le Fils du fétiche (1955; “The Son of Charm”), by David Ananou of Togo, and Crépuscule des temps anciens (1962; “Twilight of the Ancient Days”), by Nazi Boni of Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso).

In Madagascar the journal La Revue de Madagascar (founded in 1933) encouraged writing by Malagasy writers and included the poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, whose La Coupe de cendres (1924; “Cutting the Ashes”) and Sylves (1927; “Forests”) were collections of poetry that sought to blend French and Malagasy cultural traditions and that shared many of the themes later taken up by the Negritude movement. Other early poets writing in French in Madagascar include Elie-Charles Abraham, E. Randriamarozaka, and Paul Razafimahazo. Édouard Bezoro produced one of the first Malagasy novels: La Soeur inconnue (1932; “The Unknown Sister”), a historical novel about the conflict between the French and the Merina (Hova) state in Madagascar at the turn of the 20th century. Michel-Francis Robinary founded the newspaper L’Éclair de l’Emyrne and wrote poetry collected in Les Fleurs défuntes (1927; “Dead Flowers”).

After World War I, many of the Africans who had served in the French army remained in France, bringing pressure on the country to end colonialism and political assimilation. They met with blacks from the United States, and the result was a new concern with and pride in African cultural identity. This acknowledgement of blackness—of black roots, black history, and black civilizations—became part of the struggle against colonialism and evolved, under the tutelage of Léopold Senghor of Senegal, Aimé Césaire of Martinique, and Léon-Gontran Damas of French Guiana, into the movement that became known as Negritude. Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939; Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, or Return to My Native Land) and Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948; “Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry of the French Language”) are among the important works of this movement, as is Senghor’s own poetry, including Chants d’ombre (1945; “Songs of the Shade”) and Éthiopiques (1956). The struggle had earlier been waged in such short-lived journals as Légitime défense (1932; “Legitimate Defense”) and L’Étudiant noir (1935; “The Black Student”). In 1947 the journal Présence africaine (“African Presence”) was inaugurated; it would play a significant role in the encouragement and development of Francophone writing.

Birago Diop of Senegal wrote poetry (e.g., Leurres et lueurs [1960; “Lures and Gleams”]), some of which emphasizes its connections with the ancestral African past. In Madagascar Jacques Rabemananjara wrote verse, collected in such volumes as Sur les marches du soir (1942; “On the Edges of the Evening”), and plays, including Les Dieux malgaches (1947; “The Malagasy Gods”), that were part of the Negritude movement. Bernard Binlin Dadié of Côte d’Ivoire wrote the autobiographical Climbié (1956; Eng. trans. Climbié), a novel dealing with traditional African society and the modern world, as well as drama and lyrical poetry. Fily Dabo Sissoko of Mali emphasized African tradition in such works as Harmakhis: poèmes du terroir africain (1955; “Harmakhis: Poems of the African Land”) and Poèmes de l’Afrique noire (1963; “Poems from Black Africa”). Lamine Diakhaté of Senegal wrote Negritude poetry, as did the Senegalese Lamine Niang in Négristique (1968). David Diop of Senegal was a poet of protest in his Coups de pilon (1956; Hammer Blows). The Congolese poet Antoine-Roger Bolamba wrote Esanzo: Chants pour mon pays (1955; Esanzo: Songs for My Country), a collection of Negritude poetry.

In Côte d’Ivoire Anoma Kanie wrote love poetry (Les Eaux du Comoë [1951; “The Waters of the Comoë”]), as did Maurice Kone (La Guirlande des verbes [1961; “A Garden of Words”]). From Benin came such poets as Richard G. Dogbeh-David and Paulin Joachim. In Cameroon, Elolongué Epanya Yondo wrote Kamerun! Kamerun! (1960; “Cameroon! Cameroon!”), François Sengat-Kuo wrote Collier de cauris (1970; “Necklace of Cowry Shells”), and Jean-Paul Nyunaï wrote La Nuit de ma vie (1961; “The Darkness of My Life”). In Guinea prominent poets of the 20th century include Keita Fodeba, Mamadou Traoré (Ray Autra), and Condetto Nenekhaly-Camara. Other poets of the period include William J.F. Syad of Somalia and Toussaint Viderot Mensah of Togo. The novelist and poet Pierre Bamboté is among the Central African Republic’s most important writers of the 20th century. The Congolese writer Tchicaya U Tam’si published poetry dealing with colonialism (e.g., Epitomé [1962; “Epitome”] and Le Ventre [1964; “The Belly”]).

Sidiki Dembele of Mali wrote a novel, Les Inutiles (1960; “The Useless Ones”), urging African intellectuals to return to their traditional homes. Denis Oussou-Essui of Côte d’Ivoire published a novel in 1965 that also dealt with the strains between African tradition and urban life. Guinean Camara Laye wrote an autobiographical novel, L’Enfant noir (1953; The African Child). His most important publication was the novel Le Regard du roi (1954; The Radiance of the King), the story of Clarence, a white man, who, as he moves deeper and deeper into an African forest, is progressively shorn of his Western ways and pride. At his nadir, he begins anew, when, naked and alone, he embraces an ambiguous African king. Mongo Beti (a pseudonym of Alexandre Biyidi-Awala) of Cameroon wrote Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba), a story that deals with the complex relationship between Christianity and colonialism in Africa. His Mission terminée (1957; “The Finished Mission”; Eng. trans. Mission to Kala) treats the uneasy fit of traditional Africa and Western colonialism, and Le Roi miraculé (1958; Eng. trans. King Lazarus) depicts a generational struggle within the context of a quixotic view of African tradition. Another novelist from Cameroon, Benjamin Matip, wrote Afrique, nous t’ignorons (1956; “Africa, We Don’t Pay Attention to You”), which shows young people caught between the white man’s world and the traditional African world. Ferdinand Léopold Oyono, also a Cameroonian novelist, wrote Une Vie de boy (1956; “A Life of a Boy”; Eng. trans. Houseboy), the story of a boy, Toundi, who leaves his rural home and goes to the town of Dangan, where he becomes the servant for a French commandant and his wife. Toundi undergoes a type of puberty rite of passage as his experiences among the whites slowly reveal to him the masks that cover their religion, their justice system, and their family ideals. Oyono also wrote Le Vieux nègre et la médaille (1956; The Old Man and the Medal) and Chemin d’Europe (1960; The Road to Europe). The novels of Francis Bebey—Le Fils d’Agatha Moudio (1967; Agatha Moudio’s Son), La Poupée ashanti (1973; The Ashanti Doll), and Le Roi Albert d’Effidi (1976; King Albert)—show the influence of African oral tradition in their style and themes. In the earliest of those novels, a man falls in love, but his society clings to a tradition that will not allow him to marry the woman of his choice.

Ousmane Sembène was a major film director and a significant novelist. Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God’s Bits of Wood), his greatest novel, describes the last gasp of colonialism through the story of a railroad strike. In it Bakayoko is the spokesman for a future that will combine African humanism and European technology. The characters Fa Keïta, Penda, and Ramatoulaye are all committed to change; each one is involved in the strike, and each also demonstrates dignity and eloquence. Fa Keïta retains his nobility in the face of torture, Penda in the face of ostracism, and Ramatoulaye in the face of enormous want and deprivation. Through it all stands Bakayoko, who single-mindedly pursues change, although he understands that change cannot be abrupt; it must be anchored in the past. Hence his concern for tradition, of which the novel’s women are symbols. Seydou Badian Kouyaté of Mali wrote a play about the Zulu leader Shaka: La Mort de Chaka (1962; The Death of Shaka). Aké Loba of Côte d’Ivoire wrote Kocoumbo, l’étudiant noir (1960; “Kocoumbo, the Black Student”), which treats the negative efforts of France on traditional African values. His Les Fils de Kouretcha (1970; “The Sons of Kouretcha”) is a study of the effects of industrialization on traditional societies. Olympe Bhêly-Quénum of Benin wrote the novel Un Piège sans fin (1960; Snares Without End), which focuses on the African traditional past. The Senegalese writer Sheikh Hamidou Kane wrote L’Aventure ambiguë (1961; Ambiguous Adventure), a novel that considers the African and Muslim identity of its main character, Samba, within the context of Western philosophical thought. In his novel Le Soleil noir point (1962; “The Sun a Black Dot”), Charles Nokan of Côte d’Ivoire deals with efforts to bring a nation to freedom.

In Africa’s postindependence period, similar themes persisted but were readjusted to conform to worlds in which new societies were being forged. Many French-language novels of the last decades of the 20th century deal with familial struggles within a traditional society that can never again be the same. Maimouna Abdoulaye of Senegal wrote Un Cri du coeur (1986; “A Cry from the Heart”), a novel dealing with women living in an indifferent male society. Josette Abondio of Côte d’Ivoire is the author of Kouassi Koko…ma mère (1993; “Kouassi Koko…My Mother”), a novel about a woman whose existence narrows with the death of her male partner. Marie Thérèse Assiga-Ahanda of Cameroon wrote the novel Sociétés africaines et “High Society” (1978; “African Societies and ‘High Society’”), a story about two people returning to their country after colonialism, only to find a new kind of colonialism—an internal kind. Marie-Gisèle Aka of Côte d’Ivoire wrote Les Haillons de l’amour (1994; “The Remnants of Love”), a novel having to do with a girl’s difficulties with her father. A novel written in 1990 by Philomène Bassek of Cameroon deals with the plight of a mother of 11 children who has a harsh husband. Poverty and the upper classes preoccupy Aminata Sow Fall of Senegal in Le Jujubier du patriarche (1993; “The Patriarch’s Jujube”). The Gabonese writer Justine Mintsa writes of tragic life in a contemporary African village in a novel published in 2000.

The relationship between Africa and Europe remained a theme through the end of the 20th century. Aïssatou Cissokho, a Senegalese writer, in Dakar, la touriste autochtone (1986; “Dakar, the Native Tourist”), depicts a character returning from Europe and finding things much the same in Dakar. In a 1999 novel, the Cameroonian novelist Nathalie Etoké tells the story of an African who is an illegal immigrant in Paris. A young African woman in Paris is the focus of Gisèle Hountondji in Une Citronnelle dans la neige (1986; “Lemongrass in the Snow”). Henri Lopes is a Congolese novelist, as is Maguy Kabamba, who wrote La Dette coloniale (1995; “The Colonial Debt”), depicting Africa and Europe as seen through the eyes of a young African student.


The literature in Portuguese of Cape Verde often focuses on the affinities and the strains between Portugal and Cape Verde. Escapism is a theme in some of the poetry. In the classical phase of Cape Verdean literature, from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th, poets such as José Lopes da Silva (Saudades da pátria [1952; “Homesickness”]) emphasized Europe. Januário Leite (Poesias [1952]) and Mário Pinto (Ensaios poéticos [1911; “Poetic Essays”]) wrote nationalistic poetry. Other early poets include Pedro Monteiro Cardoso, who published Jardim das Hespérides in 1926, and Eugénio Tavares, who was among the first Cape Verdean writers to publish in Crioulo, the Portuguese creole language widely used on the islands. António Pedro wrote a book of exotic poems published in 1929. These early classical poets struggled with the tension between Europe and Africa and between the Portuguese language and Crioulo, the Portuguese creole used on the islands. Brazil was also to become a crucial theme.

In 1936 there was a literary revolution when Claridade (“Clarity”), a literary review, appeared. It was published nine times between 1936 and 1960 and had a considerable influence. A number of so-called Claridade poets emerged, deepening the tension between Africa and Europe; Jorge Barbosa, who was among the founders of Claridade, was one of them. His first collection of poetry, published in 1935, was nostalgic and romantic and placed its emphasis on the everyday person.

Baltazar Lopes (pseudonym Oswaldo Alcântara) wrote of the suffering of Cape Verdeans. His Chiquinho (1947) was a Portuguese-language novel, and it fell into precisely the same pattern as works composed elsewhere in Africa, such as Pita Nwana’s Igbo-language Omenuko (1935), Samuel Yosia Ntara’s Nyanja novel Nthondo (1933), and Stephen Andrea Mpashi’s Bemba story Cekesoni Aingila Ubusoja (1950); in typical heroic fashion, Chiquinho leaves the home of his birth, journeys to the Brazilian city of São Vicente, where he is educated, then returns to his home. While Lopes follows the traditional movement of the oral tradition, he does so with grim realism. When Chiquinho goes to São Vicente, his experience is anything but glorious: he is out of work and alienated from his surroundings. And his return home is not an improvement; there he finds poverty and suffering. Lopes plays with the form of his story here. In the first part, Chiquinho’s home world is romanticized, which is a dynamic contrast with the second part of the story: São Vicente and the experience of aloneness and sadness. But, using irony as his device, Lopes brings those two worlds into metaphorical union: the world of Chiquinho’s past is actually revealed in the world of São Vicente. In the third part of the novel, when he returns to the world of his childhood, Chiquinho discovers that it is no different from the alien world from which he has just departed. So it is that the child has come of age and has moved through his puberty rite of passage: the fantasy world of his childhood has been jarred into reality by his experiences in São Vicente. Realism and fantasy thus come into union in this story, the fantasy world of childhood juxtaposed with the real world of adulthood, and the two are experienced now as the same. Materials from the oral tradition are the stuff of Lopes’s literary storytelling: he makes critical alterations as he moves from the romance of the tale to the realism of the novel.

Another Claridade poet was Manuel Lopes, who was also among the journal’s founders; he was a novelist and short-story writer as well. His poetry is suffused with a personal lyricism and with social themes, which reflect his concern with the problems and the cultural values of Cape Verde. His novel Chuva braba (1956; Wild Rain) addresses some of the same themes. Cape Verdean folklore is woven into his short stories, including “O galo que cantou na baía” (1959; “The Cock that Crowed in the Bay”).

The literary magazine Presença (“Presence”), founded in 1927, was a revolutionary Portuguese publication, urging a break with the Portuguese past and encouraging ties to Cape Verde. Claridade led in 1944 to the founding of a new review, Certeza (“Certainty”), and with it came a new generation of poets, including António Aurélio Gonçalves, Aguinaldo Fonseca, António Nunes, Sérgio Frusoni, and Djunga, who infused Cape Verdean literature with a new, youthful spirit that retained a continued emphasis on life in the islands. This generation also represented a new political voice, demanding change and reform.

São Tomé and Príncipe also produced writing in Portuguese during the first half of the 20th century. Caetano da Costa Alegre wrote poetry, published posthumously as Versos in 1916, that deals with the tension between Africa and Portugal. João Maria de Fonseca Viana de Almeida’s Maiá Pòçon: contos africanos (1937; “Maiá Pòçon: African Stories”) centres on racial prejudice and self-awareness. Francisco José Tenreiro, influenced by Aimé Césaire, was an early Negritude poet; his poetry appears in Ilha de nome santo (1942; “Island of the Holy Name”).

African literature in Portuguese in Angola has its origins in a book of poetry written by José da Silva Maia Ferreira, Espontaneidades da minha alma (1849; “My Soul’s Spontaneous Outpourings”). But the most significant early figure was Joaquim Dias Cordeiro da Matta, whose book of poetry Delírios (“Delirium”) was published in 1887. A number of newspapers and journals provided possibilities for authors to publish their work in these early years, but this was not a cultivated practice. A novel was serialized in 1929: António de Assis Júnior’s O segredo da morte (“The Dead Girl’s Secret”), a story of racial conflict and acculturation. Óscar Ribas wrote novels and poetry; his novel Uango-feitiço (1951; “The Evil Spell”) incorporates local oral tradition. The poetry and prose of Geraldo Bessa Victor reveal the struggle of a writer caught between Portuguese and African traditions. Fernando Monteiro de Castro Soromenho wrote novels, including Terra morta (1949; Dying Land) and Viragem (1957; “The Turn”), that depict the impact of colonialism on the Angolan people. Born in Portugal, the poet Tomaz Vieira da Cruz both struggled with and embraced a sense of exile during the decades he spent in Angola. The Movimento dos Jovens Intelectuais (Movement of Young Intellectuals) in 1947 and 1948 emphasized Angolan traditions and folklore, influencing such writers as Agostinho Neto, Mário Pinto de Andrade, and Viriato da Cruz.

Angolan poets often dealt with relations between blacks and whites, as Ernesto Lara Filho did in his Picada de Marimbondo (1961; “The Sting of Marimbondo”). The publisher Imbondeiro encouraged the publication of works by Angolan authors, who continued to struggle with racial conflicts and the plight of the assimilado (those assimilated to Portuguese culture and Roman Catholicism). Mário António wrote of the loss of the African past, and Luandino Vieira (pseudonym of José Vieira Mateus da Graça) described life in the Angolan city of Luanda (Luuanda [1963]). In 1961 he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. From the middle of the 20th century the writing of poetry was encouraged by the Sociedade Cultural de Angola (Angolan Cultural Society).

Pepetela (Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos) wrote novels, such as Mayombe (1980; Eng. trans. Mayombe), about the civil war that followed Angola’s independence in 1975. He also looked to the more distant past: Yaka (1984; Eng. trans. Yaka) deals with 19th-century Angola, and Lueji (1989) is a story of an African princess of the 17th century. His A geração da utopia (1992; “A Generation of Utopia”) takes the country’s anticolonial struggle as its theme. In 1997 he won the Camões Prize, the most important prize in Lusophone literature. Manuel Pedro Pacavira’s novel Nzinga Mbandi (1975) depicts an African queen, Nzinga, of the 16th and 17th centuries and describes relations between Angolans and Portuguese. History is also the context for José Eduardo Agualusa’s novels A Conjura (1989), which focuses on the city of Luanda, with fictional characters that espouse nationalistic views worked into a context of historical figures, and Nação crioula (1997; Creole), a 19th-century adventure set in Angola, Brazil, and Portugal.

In Mozambique, João Albasini was, in 1918, one of the founders of O Brado Africano (“The African Roar”), a bilingual weekly in Portuguese and Ronga in which many of Mozambique’s writers had their work first published. Albasini’s collection of short stories O livro da dor (“The Book of Sorrow”) was published in 1925. Rui de Noronha composed poetry, collected in Sonetos (1943; “Sonnets”), addressed to his patria do misterio (“mysterious homeland”). Caetano Campo, a Portuguese journalist, wrote stories and poetry; one of his books of poetry, Nyaka (1942), is a nostalgic view of Africa. Clima (1959; “Climate”) is a collection of poetry by Orlando Mendes, a Portuguese born in Mozambique. João Dias wrote Godido e outros contos (1952; “Godido and Other Stories”); he was Mozambique’s first African-born writer of modern prose. The works of poet Augusto de Conrado include Fibras d’um coração (1931; “Fibres of a Heart”) and Divagações (1938). In 1941 the periodical Itinerário was founded, and numerous new writers published their first works in this journal.

Nationalist and political literature was important to writers in Mozambique during the second half of the 20th century. In 1952 another journal, Msaho, began publication; it included works by such poets as Alberto Lacerda and Noémia de Sousa. Marcelino dos Santos (Kalungano) wrote poetry steeped in African tradition, while Rui Nogar’s poetry captured the atmosphere of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. José Craveirinha consciously evolved new poetic forms at a time when attempts were being made to create a distinctively Mozambican literature (Moçambicanidade). He had a major role to play in these efforts. In his poetry can be found realism, folklore, and Negritude. Another journal appeared in 1957, Paralelo 20 (“The 20th Parallel”), that emphasized Mozambican prose and verse. The newspaper Notícias (“News”) in 1958 and 1959 encouraged creative Mozambican writing. O amor diurno (1962; “Love Day by Day”) is a collection of poetry by Fernando Couto. Important poets during the second half of the 20th century include Virgílio de Lemos, whose work was banned (he was also imprisoned), and Rui Knopfli, whose work includes O país dos outros (1959; “The Country Belonging to Others”). Heliodoro Baptista’s poetry in A Filha de Thandi (1991) is poetry of intensity, with its emphasis on form and image. Luís Carlos Patraquim’s Vinte e tal novas formulações e uma elegia carnívora (1991) is of the same quality. Vieira Simões and Ilídio Rocha wrote short stories.

Luís Bernardo Honwana, a Frelimo militant who was jailed for several years in the 1960s, wrote short stories collected in Nós matámos o Cão-Tinhoso (1964; We Killed Mangy-Dog & Other Stories). Mia Couto wrote Terra sonâmbula (1992; Sleepwalking Land); its publication was a major event in prose writing in Mozambique. Couto moves between reality and fantasy in his writing. In A varanda de frangipani (1996; Under the Frangipani), for instance, a man returns from the dead to become a spirit that moves into the mind of a Mozambican police inspector. Couto blends folklore and historical events, such as Mozambique’s civil war, into this tale. Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa wrote the novel Ualalapi (1987), which deals with an African king who struggled against Portuguese colonialism. Paulina Chiziane wrote Balada de amor ao vento (1990), a novel that looks more realistically and less romantically at the African past and that blends the fantasy of folklore with realism. Short-story writers of the late 20th century include Macelo Panguana (As vozes que falam de verdade [1987], A balada dos deuses [1991]) and Suleiman Cassamo. Lília Momplé published the short-story collection Ninguèm mataou Suhura (1988; “Nobody Killed Suhura”) and the novels Neighbours (1995; Eng. trans. Neighbours: The Story of Murder) and Os olhos da cobra verde (1997; “The Eyes of the Green Cobra”).

Harold Scheub

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