Post-colonialism and the Creation of a new African Literature:
Myth, Oral traditions and Realism
The new post-colonial African literature owes its birth to the colonization of the continent, and all the effects and implications that came with that colonization. This era-the era preceding the colonization of the continent- has been marked by the rise of African literary giants whose works have left no area of life untouched- from social issues to politics, through oppressive regimes and even back in time into the colonial period and as well as the time before the arrival of the white man, during when African literature was stored in human memories and delivered by and passed on through oral traditions. The white man’s introduction of education into the continent saw to the putting on paper of the traditional African oral literature. The ability to write and read was to go on to do more than just record the preexisting African literature; it was to go on to succeed the old literature by a new form of literature, a form that looked at the world from a perspective different from that of the old times.
Modern African literature, or rather Post-colonialism African literature is shaped by the events that took place during the colonization of the continent, the effects and implications of those events and the changes in the African social and political structure that happen after colonization.
The Whiteman’s Views
The white man visits the African continent with his views of what civilization is or whatever he uses as his justification for his invasion of the continent, as most Africans would put it. He finds a society that is different from his. He is not impressed by the African way of life. He thinks that these people (the Africans) are trailing too far behind. He does not lack words to describe it. He puts them down in novels, to which he assigns titles such as the Heart of Darkness in which its author, Joseph Conrad, finds his description of Africa as “a wild, ‘dark’ and uncivilized continent” (Sickels 1) satisfactory. In another of the white man’s more innocent sounding novel, Mister Johnson, Joyce Cary portrays her novel’s protagonist as “a childish semi-educated African who reinforces colonialist stereotypes about Africa” (Sickels 1). What the white man thinks in his heart is that these people need civilization. While he thinks of himself as helping the local people, instigated by his belief that what he has is what is best and if it is good for him it is good for everybody else, he sets forth instilling his ‘civilization’ into the natives; the locals are actually inflamed by his dismantling of their social fabric. The events are destined to form a major and common theme in the later stages of African literature.
Towards the end (and after the end) of the colonization of Africa, there have arisen a number of African writers who have been motivated by the feeling that a distorted picture of the continent has been projected to the rest of the world, and that it is their role to restore Africa’s correct image. Most of African literature, and in particular novels, have adopted, among other avenues, the approach of countering what they think of as a misrepresentation and the inaccurate depiction of Africa by such novels as Heart of Darkness and Mister Johnson. The sentiment is not only attributed to the misrepresentation of the continent, but the feeling the continent has been humiliated.
Post Colonialism and African Literature
To understand the term post-colonialism in the context of African literature, it is important to start with an explanation of what colonialism is. Colonialism refers to the act of exercising political control, either fully or partially, over a foreign country, occupying it and exploiting it for the invader’s economic benefit (Jones 27). Page and Penny refer to colonialism as “a historical phenomenon supported by the notion that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with the domination” (496). Both definitions, and many others, point to the disruption of societies of the colonized, and imposition of foreign ‘ideals’ on the locals. It is this interference that has gradually changed the trajectory of the traditional African literature to the modern form of African literature as its known today.
Post-Colonialism therefore is a term used to describe the period that started at the end of colonization of African countries (and other countries around the world). The term is also a description of the vast cultural, political and social events that resulted from the decline and collapse of West’s colonialism after the Second World War ended. Post-Colonialism is an expression of the disapproval of and a reaction to colonialism.
Hence, the literature of the post colonial period can be thought of as arising from colonialism. The literature gives us an insight into the pre-colonialism era in African societies, the intervention of Europeans in the continent, the disruption of those societies, as well as the effects and implications of those disruptions in the post colonial period. One particular world acclaimed piece of literature that has arguably accomplished that role the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Achebe grew up during the period of the colonization of Africa. He therefore had a first hand experience of what Africa is (or was) and the effects the colonization of Africa had on African societies, in particular his Igbo community in Nigeria. As an expression of his exasperation at the misrepresentation of Africa by Western writers, Achebe writes back in response in a way that he believes portrays the accurate image of Africa and the injustices of colonialism. Colonized people have the culture of their colonizers reinforced on them regardless of whether or not it is too out of place for the people being colonized. African post colonialism literature often writes about the dismantling of the native African cultures by imperialist powers-the cultures that were satisfactorily rich to the natives.
The term post-colonialism also encapsulates the idea of the post-independence indirect continuation of colonialism, in the form of the use of political, economic, cultural and other methods by former colonial powers to influence and control their former colonies. This can be seen in the rise of new African elite leaders who are thought to be marionettes of the west controlled by the strings of the support of Western governments and institutions. Neocolonialism is suggested by the existence of such support as foreign aid from the West and the existence of the lines of division in African societies along tribes, ethnic groups, race and religion among others.
In mixed societies, Post-colonial African literatures tends to revive communities, societies or groups that have been not been appreciated by the rest of the society. The literature’s approach is usually to assign the groups new cultural and ethnic meanings. The literature also encourages the collective working together of the colonized as a means of enabling them focus on the ways of preserving the aspects of their culture that managed to survive the cultural erosion that colonialism is responsible for.
However, rather than pop the colonized out of the pages as victims of colonialism, African post-colonial literature tends to paint them as confused people, in terms of their sense of belonging. Most of the colonized people find themselves in a dilemma, at the line between their culture and western culture. The confusion about a sense of belonging manifests in their incorporation of the elements of either culture into the others, or their swinging between the two cultural extremes. The to and fro motion can be a source of misinformation that can be of some level of significance.
The Background of Things Fall Apart
To understand the completeness with which Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart outstandingly represents post-colonial African literature, it is important to examine the historical path that the novel owes its publication. Achebe was born a year short of a quarter of a century since Britain made Nigeria its colony, the time at which his parents had been converted to Christianity, though his parents’ parents were still staunch believers in the Igbo traditional culture.
Under the circumstances, Achebe witnessed both the imposition of western ‘ideals’ and institutions in his country by the British and the contrast in beliefs and practices between his parents and his grandparents. His exposure to the conflict between British and Nigerian cultures, coupled with the refusal of either party to adopt the other’s culture, gave him a special insight into both cultures. The result was the conception and the eventual birth of his acclaimed literary piece of work, Things Fall Apart.
Cultural and Religious Conflict
The central issues in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and another of his novels, The Arrow of God) are the replacement of the Igbo community’s traditional cultural practices with a western religion and the dismantlement of his community’s social structure in the name of civilizing it (Alimi 121). The missionaries’ arrival is followed by the religious and cultural polarization of the Igbo community: one group remains loyal to the cultural and religious traditions of the Igbo community; the other group aligns itself with the white missionaries, whose religion and practices the Igbo’s adoption requires that the Igbo abandon their traditional cultural and religious practices. The outcome is the “collapse, breaking into pieces, chaos, and confusion” (Alimi 121) of the Igbo society that had been stable prior to the missionaries’ arrival-that is the falling apart of things.
Overcome by their notion of what an ideal society is supposed to be like, the missionaries are rushed by their feeling that certain aspects of Igbo culture need changing. They are so overwhelmed by the urge that they don’t even notice that they are eclipsed from the fact that it is the “improper and inappropriate” aspects of the community’s culture that is responsible for the peaceful coexistence among the Igbo people.
For example, polygamy is allowed in traditional Igbo culture. In fact, a ‘real’ man is one who is married to more than one wife. Women are aware of this ritual. The first wife can even recommended the marriage of a second wife or more for as reasons as mere as wanting the husband to enjoy the youth other women, as she has lost hers. It is also a custom that the younger wives respect the older ones. Such families have lived together in peace and harmony. However, the missionaries disapproved such polygamous marriages because the Christian scriptures don’t advocate it.
Another instance is that the killing of children and people is an ordinary practice in Igbo culture. That is, if the reasons for which the killings are done do not violate the practices of the traditional Igbo religion. The Igbo religion dictates that all twins be killed because they are a result of the works of evil spirits; that little boys be sacrificed as a sign of peace offering to the gods; and so on. However, in the missionaries’ scripture, the sixth commandment forbids killing.
Things Fall Apart depicts the obvious cultural conflict between the Igbo community and the white missionaries. The people of Umuofia are divided by the cultural conflict that is caused by the introduction foreign practices and religions into the land of the Igbo by the white missionaries. However, in another of Achebe’s novels, The Arrow of God, the people of Umuaro are divided not as a result of the influence of the white missionaries, but because of economic reasons like the slave trade and the need for more land to save the community from famine (Booker 33).
Achebe seems to show that although the white missionaries can be held accountable for the disruption caused to the Igbo society by their introduction of Christianity into the society, divisions among African communities can also arise from with the communities, that is, without external influence.
Omens and Superstitions
Post-colonial African literature still features omens and superstitions as they were believed in before the arrival of the white missionaries. (An omen is and event or something that is regarded as a sign or warning that something, either good or bad, is likely to happen in the near future, while superstitions are beliefs that consequences of certain actions or events are caused by supernatural beings .) Things Fall Apart, like other post-colonial African literature has several depictions of omens and superstitions. In fact, omens, beliefs and superstitions are used in Achebe’s Things Tall Apart to predict the future (among other uses), and that the plot of the novel is such that it conforms to those predictions. The characters are not only oriented by supernatural beings such as witches, ghosts, spirits or gods; the supernatural beings also appear to dictate the pace of their actions. In fact, in most cases, events seem to have been preordained by certain occurrences, signs, or symbols.
In Things Fall Apart, the people of Umuofia have fear for the dark and for that reason they associate it with some mysteries. The warning given to children against whistling in the dark it that doing so may incite the spirits. Animals that are dangerous to human beings become more dangerous in the dark. For example, at night, a snake is not supposed to be called a snake because the snake may hear. In stead, it is to be called a string.
In other superstitions, it is not allowed to eat new yams before an offering of yams is made to Ani, an Igbo goddess, for her role in making the soil fertile. The offering is done in a yam festival to which extended relatives are invited. People like Okonkwo use the opportunity to make their offering of palm oil and new yams as a way of soliciting for the protection of his family in the next year. Again, on the ilo of Umuofia grows a sacred cotton tree under which the drum players of the yam festival beat their drums, and in which unborn good children’s spirits reside before the children’s birth; if barren women sit under the tree, they can be able to bear children. The drummers are believed to be under the possession of the spirits of the drums.
Achebe’s work also covers the Igbo’s superstitious interpretation of gestures. Ekwefi’s explanation of the twitching of one’s eyelids to her daughter is that it means that one is about to cry; and if it is the upper eyelid that is twitching, then one there is something waiting to be seen by one.
As to the prediction of events, little Ikemefuna sings a song regularly, keeping the beat with his feet. The prediction depends on where the beat falls. If it does fall on the right leg, it is a sign that good news is on the way. However, if the beat falls on the other leg, it is a warning that evil is about to strike. Ikemefuna uses this method to find out if his mother is still alive. The beat falls on the right leg, assuring him that his mother is still alive.
Past evil events can also be felt, as written in Things Fall Apart. For instance, a strange feeling engulfs Nwoye when Okonkwo returns home. It turns out that Okonkwo has killed Ikemefuna, Nwoye’s friend, just before his return.
Ezeudu’s funeral celebration is marked by the appearance and talking of ancestral spirits in shaking human voices. People run away to escape the violence of one of the spirits since the violence spirit is too powerful to be tethered by the two men trying to control it.
Post-Colonialism African literature and African Politics
The departure of the colonial powers meant the takeover of power by the new African elites, for which among whom there have been fights and struggles. There have been overthrows of governments by militaries as well as civil wars and post election violence across the continent. All these violence and conflicts can be traced back to the arrival of the European colonizers and their consequent disruption of the continents social and political structures. All the struggle for power and the emergence of political regimes are a result of the continuation of the administrative and political structures of the colonizers. This has also found itself under the coverage of post-colonial African literature.
One of the many peaces of African post-colonialism literature that covers the subject is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun. The novel is set in Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970. The events are narrated through the interaction between a British citizen, a houseboy, a professor and twin daughters of a prominent business man.
The colonization of Africa has transformed peoples’ view and consequently led to the birth of a new form of literature, post colonialism African literature. This modern African literature has not just disapproved the intrusions and injustices of the colonial system and its effects and implications; it has also gone as far as covering the many different issues that affect Africa as a whole.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print.
Booker, M K, and Chinua Achebe. The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2003. Print.
Jones, Rachel B. Postcolonial Representations of Women: Critical Issues for Education. Dordrecht [etc.: Springer, 2011. Print.
Mabura, Lily. “Breaking Gods: An African Postcolonial Gothic Reading of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun.” Research in African Literatures 39.1 (2008): 203-222.
Page, Melvin E, and Penny M. Sonnenburg. Colonialism: An International Social, Cultural, and Political Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA [etc.: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.
Sickels, Amy. Critical insights: things fall apart (Kindle Edition). Critical Reception of Things Fall Apart. Salem Press. Web. 15 Jun.2012.