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What is African literature? One may ask. Providing an answer to this question may seem too Herculean a task, reason being that there are over 50 nations that makes up African. Each of these countries has their own history, culture, tribes and traditions. Having said this, it is also worthy to note that, there are some similarities shared by literature which comes from African continent as a whole.
Then arises the questions: is African literature an adaptation of other literature? If no! What then are the peculiarities of African literature?
To enable us properly answer these questions, we shall be looking at the unique characteristics of African literature and contrasting it from other forms of literature using ‘Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka as a classic example.
Sasha Blakerley, History of African Literature, (2013) beliefs that African literature is literature composed in African languages and by African authors. Others believe that African literature can be composed in any language so long it is composed by authors from African.
A look at African literature’s broad scope of production reveals many of its characteristics:
African literature is based on oral tradition ‘The Art of Storytelling. Story telling is a sensory Union of image and ideas, a process of recreating the past in terms of the present. When the story teller speaks, time collapses and members of the audience are in the presence of history. Stories are told with explosive emotional images giving it a context, making it mysterious and seemingly inaccessible to one’s present intellect.
In the novel, Death and the King’s Horseman’ it is evident that the Yoruba’s are not estranged to the art of storytelling. This is rightly portrayed in the character of the praise singer, who effectively narrates to the delight of the audience past accomplishment of the Elesein Oba and talks about the land of the dead with much precision.
Myth is another characteristic of African literature, though not peculiar to African alone. But unlike the Ancient Greek and Western literature where myth was based solely on rituals of sacrifice, with the tragic hero resembling a ‘scapegoat’ of his own flaws.
African myth or rituals of sacrifice seeks to preserve and reinvigorate the connection between the world of deities and the mundane world. The play ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ clearly portrays this aspect of myth. The suicide of the Elesein Oba is meant to serve as the line between the dead and the living thus averting calamity.
Van Weyenberg Astird, The Politics of Adaptation, 2013. History of African literature was born in the educational systems imposed by colonialism, with models drawn from Europe rather than existing African traditions. This idea is largely support, reason being that most of African literature is written in English language – the language of the colonial masters.
Wole Soyinka, Myth and Tragedy in Yoruba Culture, 1996. However argues that, the writing of African literature in English language is to enable people from diverse places including Africans in Diaspora have access to African literature.
Personal observation has led me to the conclusion that African literature is indeed not an adaptation of other forms of literature. Thought it shares similarities but can on many grounds be contrasted from other forms.
In Western tragedy for instance, the tragic hero orient’s his/herself in his/her own world through a sense of time as past, present and future. In African tragedy however, specifically in the Yoruba world; as exemplified in’ Death And The King’s Horseman’. It is not the individual sense of time that counts but rather a community’s collective sense that has complex ties to the ancestral community and to the unborn community.
African literature seeks to cross the gulf between the gods and human beings. Ogun the god of iron and of metallurgic lore and artistry was the first to make efforts in conquering the transition. He crossed the gulf to the human world by extracting iron from the earth and thus providing the human race world with the source of weapon.
The concept of ‘ex- machina and kathersis’ depicted in Greek literature is a direct opposite of this.
Though colonization has affected African literature in some ways, I feel that African authors have been able to use it to their advantage. Thereby further enhancing and enriching African literature.


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