The Work Must be African, Not Just the Writer


Literature in Africa remains a war zone for conflicting ideas on what makes the very term- literature- African. Often, writers are torn between two contradicting views that have dominated the discourse since independence. There is a cross-section of writers that believes African literature to be just works written in African languages, and another that believes literature can be written in any language-English inclusive - and still be regarded as African. Essay by Beaton Galafa.


As early as the 1960s, writers in Africa had already immersed themselves in tedious debates over what constitutes African literature. Reflecting on one such conference, Chinua Achebe in one of his essays ascertained challenges faced by members of the 1962 Makerere gathering dabbed A Conference of African Writers of English expression to define African literature satisfactorily (Achebe, 1975).

Questions that are persistent in debates on African literature largely relate to issues of language, theme and identity. Should a language count in the categorisation of literary works as African? Must works focus on the African experience in their themes for them to be regarded as African? Is the racial or ethnic identity of an author key to staining a particular work African? Attempts to address these questions generate fierce arguments with everyone standing by their own perception of African literature. Because African literature is still not conspicuous to date, there is always room for additions to the discourse. This is why decades after the disagreements on what constitutes African literature started, those questions still stand and the attempts to address them remain relevant. The failure to reach a conclusion results from what Binebai (2013) points out as the essence of literature. “Literature functions as the embodiment and interpreter of a peoples’ culture, a conveyor of a people’s language as well as their philosophy, politics, psychology and national character. Furthermore, literature, whether cast in the mode of agitation, negotiation or based on historical reconstruction or mythological recreation, has a touch of identity” (Binebai, 2013).

For a starter, the language debate is very crucial in drawing conclusions on writing in Africa because of the nature of literature itself. Apart from aesthetics, there are sections that believe art is activism. In both aesthetics and activism, language matters because for the earlier, beauty of a language must use as its vehicle of expression, a language that will be understood by the target audience. For the latter, any true service to the community must not alienate those claiming to do the service in a certain locality from the locals they are serving.

Activism, which literature is proudly married to, is what we see in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari. The novel was written in Kikuyu and many Kenyans did not struggle to grasp the concepts. Translators wouldn’t help – they had to share the muse of the work with the rest of the world as is always the case with all appetising literary works. Its impact felt, we can safely posit that it was a result of its authorship in a language understood by most Kenyans – for which the novel was primarily written. There is a Malawian novel worth citing in the language debate as well – Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe – by John Gwengwe (1975). Though I am yet to come across an English translation, written in Chichewa, it became so popular that as kids in the village we grew up believing it to have happened because it had even perpetrated Malawi’s oral culture in literature. The instances of Matigari in Kenya and Sikusinja

The instances of Matigari in Kenya and Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe in Malawi are a few among many other works of literature written in African languages that have enjoyed unrivalled fame. Such works, written in African languages, by African authors, on African themes, qualify without doubt to be African literature.

So, where would Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Tsitsi Dangarembwa’s Nervous Condition, and Levi Zeleza Manda’s Smouldering Charcoal fall under since they were all written in English by authors who are without doubt African? A reader will not even have to think over it to categorise them under African literature. This is because of their clear historical and African themes. This is aided further by the style deployed in writing such works, where there’s a recurrence of the use of some local terms -untranslated- into English. Ola Rotimi’s bilingualism and what Dapo Adelugba designated as “Yorubaenglish” and all styles of writing aimed at inventing and imposing African stamp of identity on writing African literature in English are part of the key components glued to language: style (Binebai, 2013).

Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (2002) view the use of non-standard English in writing by non-English societies as the wrestling away of the language from dominant European culture. This implies that the literal translation of Igbo proverbs into English in most of Chinua Achebe’s works is a deliberate ploy to divorce the English he uses from an accompanying European culture. This style appears in a lot of other writings by Africans, with a fusion of local expressions where local language used is maintained, while ensuring that it doesn’t alter meaning in the text. Here, it is apparent that theme is the other very important aspect in helping us categorise literature as African because everything -setting, style, character, language – is built around it.

Also, a work set in Tripoli, Bangui, Antananarivo or Lilongwe will be African. But the setting will have to help in the development of the story; something a writer must be cognizant of. If a story is set in Europe, with European characters and a Eurocentric theme, there is no way it must be considered African literature. Siyanda Mohutsiwa, in her rejection of African immigrant literature, expresses the same sentiment. “African Literature cannot move forward with the most celebrated authors writing about Europe” (Mohutsina, 2016).

A Malawian writer and author of Azotus the Kingdom, Shadreck Chikoti, in his response to Mohutsiwa, laments on prescriptions to African writers. He had a publisher reject the notion of selling a book of his set in Europe with no Africans in it under the banner of African literature (Chikoti, 2016).

I find it literary delusive to classify a work that is set in Europe, with non-African characters in it to be African. African literature must not be narrowed down to literature written by Africans. One can be an African and a writer. That makes you an African writer in a political sense. But, if your writing does not in any way reflect the African experience through theme, setting or style, should it fall under African literature simply because you are an African? This would dilute the Africanness of the continent’s literary life – and its history. According to Irele (1981), the point at issue is whether the work that a writer produces can have a meaning for his African audience. If it does, it must be regarded as African literature with the author appropriately referred to as an African writer in the literary sense.

To sum up, it must be pointed out that being of African descent has nothing to do with African literature. It is the work that must be African, not just the writer. African writers, who experiment with stories that are alienated from the continent’s experience, remain African writers through their other works reflecting Africanness but such specific works are not African, hence cannot fall under African literature. The African in literature must be the voice behind the experience, theme, setting, style and many other literary elements that are deployed to aid in the development of the story and help connect the continent’s diverse cultures, history and politics.Beaton

[Beaton Galafa is a blogger and poet. He is based in Malawi and also writes fiction and nonfiction. In 2014, he participated in the Commonwealth Creative Nonfiction Writers Workshop for East African emerging writers that took place in Uganda. In 2016, he won the Free Expression Institute-Malawi Essay Writing Competition. He is one of the mentees in the 2017 Writivism Literary Initiative Mentorship program for Nonfiction writing]

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Binebai, B. (2013) Literature and identity: Africa and the diasporic experience. The Dawn
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Chikoti,S. (2016, February 18). I am not done with African immigrant literature. Retrieved from
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Educational Books Ltd.
Mohutsina, S. (2016). I’m done with African immigrant literature. Retrieved from
Ngugi, W.N. (1987). Matigari. London: Heinemann.


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