Western Africa

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Western Africa

Kwaku Larbi Korang

The first known novel from Western Africa was serialized in a Gold Coast (colonial Ghana) newspaper between 1885 and 1889. In the next half-century, writers—mostly from the Gold Coast and Senegal—published a handful of titles. It was in and since the 1950s that the novel in Western Africa acquired the breadth, depth, and intensity of authorial productivity, readerly reception, and publishing sponsorship that have made novel writing in the region a sustainable intellectual enterprise.

Western Africa has been a zone of long-lived cultural contact and exchange between groups arriving from Europe and the peoples of the region. Between 1884 and 1960, this region was divided up into the colonial territories of Britain, France, and Portugal. These historic relations of culture, commerce, and power have generated necessities wherein the Europeans have either imposed on, or gifted to, the Western African peoples cultural institutions and technologies of Western literacy. Education, the alphabet, the European language, and the printing press: these are cultural and institutional transfers that, having taken root in Western Africa, would guarantee the emergence, and elevation into social prominence, of a literary culture in the region. Pioneer institutions of higher education in the region—preeminent among them the École William Ponty (Senegal), Fourah Bay College (Sierra Leone), the Achimota School (Ghana), and the University of Ibadan (Nigeria)—as well as countless lower-echelon schools, have contributed seminally to Western Africa's modern literary acculturation. The products of these schools, as authors and readers, are responsible for the novel's domestication and popularization in the region.

One cannot overlook either the role of international and local publishing houses in facilitating the rise of the novel in Western Africa. Heinemann and Longman stand out among the former, having vigorously promoted the literary writings of West Africans through their African Writers' Series and Longman African Writers, respectively. Présence Africaine and Editorial Caminho, catering to a French-speaking and Portuguese-speaking readership, respectively, are other international publishing houses of note. Of the many local, nationally based publishers sustaining the novel's growth in the region, we can name an important extant few: First Dimension, Malthouse, and Spectrum (Nigeria); Sub-Saharan and Afram (Ghana); Nouvelles Éditions Africaines du Sénégal and Per Ankh (Senegal); Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes (Cote d'Ivoire); and Le Figuier (Mali).

The novel is, of course, a form of fictional narrative whose immediate sources and foremost elaboration is, by and large, European. It traveled to Western Africa as part of the institutional package of literacy transferred to the region's inhabitants as they came into cultural contact with, or fell under the colonial hegemony of, Europeans. In its formal European elaboration, as Bakhtin has noted, what emerges as a distinctive and defining feature of the novel is its “heteroglossia,” i.e., the novel definitively stands out in accommodating a (competing) heterogeneity of socio-ideological voices and expressive registers. A “dialogic imagination,” Bakhtin points out in this connection, informs the novel: agreeing to cohabit in disagreement is, as it were, the condition under which different registers and voices share the novel's formal space. As a dialogic given, therefore, the novel is predisposed not to produce some ultimate unisonance or closure.

One might plausibly argue, then, that, by virtue of its heteroglossic and dialogic predisposition, the novel, as it has fallen into the hands of West Africans in cultural transfer, has offered them a literary form that, its immediate European sources notwithstanding, is not in cultural “foreclosure.” The novel comes potentially “open,” then, to being added to; to its socio-cultural relevance being extended in space and time; and to being competitively remade according to post-European conceptions. As is the case in other parts of the world, therefore, one finds in the Western African novel voices and expressive registers of a non-European variety belatedly, but not unoriginally, negotiating an opening—and competing in that to be recognized—within a narrative mode whose prior formal elaboration is European.

In Western African negotiation and appropriation, the novel has provided a major representational and expressive outlet for authors to be responsive to, and be responsible for, existences, experiences, and problems that are comparatively similar in being shared across their region. What novelists take on and respond to have commonly arisen for West Africans (a) within and after their encounters with, and then colonial domination by, Europeans; and (b) within and after their transition to postcolonial self-rule. Encounter has thrown up for West Africans a problematic of culture-contact. West Africans commonly contend with a heritage of overlapping “polarities”: a “modern” heritage received via European acculturation and a “traditional” one of native provenance. In the circumstances, West African novelists have been recurrently compelled to imagine whether, and if so how, an alien modern may be “nativized” (Appiah, 1992); or nativity, for that matter, modernized. For other novelists, coming from a purist nativist perspective, it has been a matter of articulating the undesirability, if not the danger, of bringing into nativist reconciliation what for them must weigh, in Western Africa's shared contact experience, as an alienating and contaminating modern.

Colonialism furnishes a second regional problematic. Facing situations where their communities and peoples have been unethically deprived of a self-determining freedom, of human equality and dignity, West African novelists have felt compelled to express an allegiance to anticolonial resistance, to decolonization, and to ideals of nationhood. It has been a region-wide imperative to produce narratives that foreground acts of liberating the region's peoples from foreign control. Both during the era of decolonization and afterwards, West African novelists have tended to be literary nationalists (see NATIONAL LITERATURE) engaged ideologically—as negritudists, nativists, pan-Africanists, “cosmopolitan patriots” (Appiah, 1998)—in a search for the authentic bases and orientations to the world of national community in their region.

Finally, we can talk about Western African problematics that arise with the arrival of national independence and self-rule, and with concomitant projects of communal reformation and social transformation within the region after 1960. West Africans have confronted postcolonial tasks of fashioning equitable societies, viable communities, and ethical personal identities. In the face of obvious region-wide failures by national power elites to exercise state power responsibly, an enduring theme in Western Africa, recurrently submitted to novelistic exploration, has been degenerate power and its material and moral consequences for regional societies and subjects.

Beyond the power and people problematic, the internal relationships of Western African national societies—as societies of patriarchally structured inequality, of class exploitation, of rivalries between social factions, of different generational worldviews and orientations—have thrown up a number of postcolonial questions and ideological responses that have thematically fed the regional novel. Critiques of the social, and viewpoints on ethically reforming and materially transforming its internal relations, have emerged from various Western African perspectives: liberal-humanist, socialist, marxist, feminist, ethical-universalist, etc.

Over regional time and space, significant novelistic variety has emerged to allow literary critics to identify different Western African “traditions” or “tendencies.” Thus the novel is identified as either Anglophone, Francophone, or Lusophone in an acknowledgment of its production within distinct communities of transnationally shared language and culture in Western Africa. There are also a small number of novels in some of the region's vernacular languages, and regional writing is also identified by nation, gender, and generation. Furthermore, a typological distinction is made between the elite novel and the popular novel.

This brief entry cannot hope to effect anything but a partial representation of the regional trends. In what follows the focus will largely be on select examples of the elite and European-language novel, which has traditionally been where critics have derived a Western African canon.

The Colonial Era

The earliest known Western African novels are Marita (1885—89), by the Gold Coaster “A. Native,” and Guanya Pau: The Story of an African Princess (1891), by the Liberian Joseph J. Walters. The two authors offer Western African prototypes of the nativist (“A. Native”) and the cosmopolitan patriot (Walters). “Native,” in Marita, mounts a strong cultural relativist defense of homegrown Gold Coast customary law and practices, doing so in protest against the colony's British rulers who are bent on replacing indigenous traditions with Anglo-Christian norms. On the other hand, as he trains an abolitionist eye on tyrannical patriarchal customs that he finds injurious to ethnic Vai women's wellbeing in Liberia, Walters is a Christian, a liberal-humanist, and a cosmopolitan advocate of modernizing reform.

The defense of cultural authenticity returns in the second Gold Coast novel, J. E. Casely Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound (1911), whose protagonist is seen successfully embarking on an allegorical journey of return to the source of the native soul. Loss of this soul is the subject of Kobina Sekyi's serial The Anglo-Fanti (1918), which tells the tragic story of an intellectual whose authentic native self (Fanti) has been irretrievably despoiled by his English acculturation.

If at the outset of the Anglophone novel in Western Africa we find Gold Coast novelists critical of an unreconstructed modernity for their societies, the Senegalese originators of the regional Francophone novel in the 1920s start on a contrary note. In the French colonies, the policy was that natives, after being successfully subjected to modern forms of tutelage, discipline, and acculturation, became assimilated into a French “universality.” It is from within the ranks of the assimilés that the first Francophone novelists emerged, Senegalese pioneers betraying their intellectual, psychic, and affective conditioning as “French.” Accordingly, Ahmadou Mapate Diagne in Les Trois volontés de Malic (1920, The three wishes of Malic) eulogizes French colonial modernity for its beneficial civilizing effects. Similar attitudes are to be found in Bakary Diallo's Force-Bonté (1926, Much goodwill).

French assimilationist modernity is represented in a dual aspect of promise and peril for the first time by the Senegalese Ousmane Soce in Karim (1935) and Mirages de Paris (1937, Mirages of Paris). Soce originally deployed a motif that would be repeated in Francophone autobiographical novels (see LIFE WRITING) that followed: the hero, having discovered Frenchness to be more a peril to his soul than a blessing, and unable to recover the nativity from which his modern upbringing has distanced him, is left perplexingly suspended in an ambiguous no man's land. The classic of the genre is the Senegalese Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'Aventure ambiguë (1961, The Ambiguous Adventure). The Guinean (Conakry) Camara Laye's L'Enfant noir (1956, The African Child) offers a romantic variation on the motif. Even as he confronts the potential pitfall of modern alienation, the hero's nostalgic remembering is of sufficient power to keep his selfhood rooted in the idyllic native world of his childhood.

The inception of the Lusophone novel in Western Africa—a Cape Verdean affair—is marked by Baltasar Lopes's Chiquinho (1947). Lopes was part of the Claridade (cultural) movement which espoused a nativist ideology, and emerged in reaction to the universalism of an earlier literary school on the island whose writings were fed by an impulse “to flee the restricted environment of the islands, and to plug into the wider context of Western culture” (Brookshaw, 180). Chiquinho follows its eponymous hero growing up and endorses his arriving at a native Cape Verdean consciousness. Manuel Lopes would reaffirm Claridade's nativist commitments in Chuva Braba (1956, Wild Rain) and Os Flagelados do Vento Leste (1960, The victims of the east wind).


In the 1940s, the call for decolonization was increasingly being sounded by the Western African intelligentsia: the region's peoples must cease to be colonial subjects and come into their own as citizens of nations. Decolonization also raised the question of the complementary role of culture in political struggle and in the imagining of the future (modern) community of the nation. In what modalities of expression was culture to appear if it was to inspire the march of West Africans toward the self-owned modernity of nationality and citizenship?

Literary representation would supply some inspirational answers by revisiting the times before imperial and colonial intervention, when West Africans independently created orderly, self-sustaining communities and ran self-determining polities. Such mythmaking is evident in two Francophone historical novels: Dahomeyan (Benin) Paul Hazoumé's Doguicimi (1938), which reconstructs the kingdom of Dahomey; and Nazi Boni's Crépuscule de temps anciens (1962, Twilight of ancient times), set in the past of his native Upper Volta (Burkina Faso). Nationalist vindicationism is also the purpose behind the Nigerian Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart (1958). The novel's documentation of the orderly institutions and dignified way of life of a small precolonial Igbo community modulates into a tragic swansong as colonial intrusion destroys this civilized community's well-wrought social order.

Achebe accomplishes an indigenizing of the language of the Anglophone novel, most notably in his Arrow of God (1964). The Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma's Les soleils des indépendances (1968, The Suns of Independence) is a comparable pioneer Francophone achievement. Achebe's compatriots Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1953), Gabriel Okara's The Voice (1964), and Flora Nwapa's Efuru (1966) are also notable Western African attempts at making an “oraliterature.”

If one Western African novelistic strategy, indigenization, is to “acculturate” what is European and modern in language and form by infusing it with elements of oral tradition, another regional strategy—a defining characteristic of the vernacular novel—has been “inculturation.” This has entailed infusing the region's indigenous languages with modern expressive modalities-such as the novel form affords—such that these languages will be expressively enriched, for their ethno-national community of speakers and readers, as producers of “literature.” Vernacular cultural nationalism of this kind is what is at work in the Yoruba-language novels of D. O. Fagunwa, including the famous Ògbójú Image Nínú Igbó Irúnmalè (1938, The Forest of a Thousand Demons). The Cape Verdean Manuel Veiga is able to use a “novelized” Creole to express complex literary ideas in his Oju d'Agu (1974, The wellspring).

Still on culture's role and place in decolonization, there were some in Western Africa for whom uncritical re-creations and nationalist endorsements of the feudal, tribal, or patriarchal glories of the region's distant pasts or surviving traditions were inadequate for the imagining of modern, progressive national communities. There were writers in the decolonizing era and its aftermath, then, who sought alternative imaginings of the basis of national culture, an important one being Senegal's Sembene Ousmane. His Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960, God's Bits of Wood) stands out in its Marxist insistence that the basis of national culture was to be sought in contemporary working people's resistance culture—i.e., those traditions of political and moral solidarity which emerge out of working people's struggles against a capitalism which has taken historic form in Africa as colonialism.

Women's Writing

Women's novelistic contribution to the culturalist discourse of a renascent Africa would not come until 1966, the year when Nwapa's Efuru, the first (non-serial) novel by a woman in Western Africa, was published. Typically, the female novel has moved between (anti-patriarchal) protest and (matriarchal) testimonial. As protest, the female novel portrays the tragedies inflicted on women characters by patriarchal traditions—indigenous, Islamic, Christian, and secular-modern. Cases in point are the Nigerian Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979) and the Senegalese Ken Bugul's Le Baobab fou (1991, The Abandoned Baobab).

On the other hand, as testimonial, the female-authored novel demonstrates and validates an altruistic female ethic—a set of “womanist” attributes often operating in the interests of communal creation, cohesion, and survival. This ethic stands out in the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy (1977) and in the Senegalese Mariama Ba's Une si longue lettre (1979, So Long a Letter). In the portrayals of historic and contemporary heroines by Nwapa, Aidoo, Ba, Emecheta, and others who follow them, we see a womanist projection of the audacious, headstrong woman—at once fiercely defensive of her rights and fiercely committed to building sustainable community—as the iconic “new woman” of national culture. Heroines and women characters in the Nigerian Zaynab Alkali's The Stillborn (1984); the Ivorian Véronique Tadjo's Le Royaume aveugle (1991, The Blind Kingdom) and Reine Pokou (2005, Queen Pokou); and the Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) continue this womanist projection.

The Post-Independence Era

As an article of faith, West Africans leading the charge for decolonization had projected the imaginary, affective, purposive, and moral integrity of a collective self of decolonization—“the people.” It had become apparent shortly after independence, however, that the national-popular idealism of decolonization had been betrayed by the emergent power elites. What had succeeded colonialism was degenerate power, now wielded by the governing classes in the emergent nation-states. Western Africa had entered the troubled postcolonial times that will generate the literary reflex called “the literature of disillusionment.”

The titles of a number of Anglophone Western African novels written by the first generation of post-independence writers convey how dispiriting the new times had become: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and Fragments (1970), both by the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah; This Earth, My Brother (1971), by the Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor; Season of Anomy (1973), by the Nigerian Wole Soyinka. Francophone contributions include Kourouma's Les Soleils des indépendances; Malian Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence (1968, Bound to Violence); and Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop's Le Temps de Tamango (1981, The time of the Tamango). Germano Almeida's O meu Poeta (1991, My poet) also portrays Cape Verde from a disenchanted perspective. These novels of disenchantment are notable for their outrage at hopes betrayed; their inclination toward tragic, absurdist, or baroque expression; their scatological imagery; and their pessimistic tone.

After pessimistically diagnosing the postcolonial condition, however, West African writers would also make monumental efforts to revive and re-enchant the mythology of nation and belonging. What we might group together as “novels of revival” include Armah's Two Thousand Seasons (1973) and Abdulai Sila's Eterna Paixão (1994, Eternal passion), Guinea Bissau's pioneer contribution to the Lusophone novel. Other novelists would re-enchant the mythology of nation and community by reaching for a visionary magic realism: Ghana's Kojo Laing in Search, Sweet Country (1986); Sierra Leone's Syl Cheney Coker in The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990); Nigeria's Ben Okri in The Famished Road (1991).

The “Third Generation”

More recently, a third (post-independence) generation of West African novelists, spearheaded by Nigerian writers, is said to have arrived. For the most part, the novelists of this third generation, like those of the first two, have retained the nation as their focus as they conduct communal and social stocktaking in the variety of ways outlined above. Nevertheless these recent novels, often produced by expatriates and migrants, look beyond the nation, bringing to bear “cosmopolitan” norms and sensibilities and “transnational” forms of ethical critique. These “postnationalist” novels thus tend to uphold ways of self-fashioning, ways of knowing and judging that the nationalist discourse of an earlier period has more or less dismissed as “un-African”—hence incompatible with authentic national culture and national belonging. Thus, in Chris Abani's Graceland (2005), Sefi Atta's Everything Good will Come (2005), Unoma Azuah's Sky High Flames (2005), and Jude Dibia's Walking with Shadows (2006), we have some of the latest varieties of regional voice and expression exemplarily showing how, and the extent to which, novelistic heteroglossia and dialogism continue to be turned to Western African account.


1. Adesanmi, P. and C. Dunton, eds. (2008), “ Nigeria's Third Generation Novel,” Research in African Literatures 39(2): vii—xii.

2. Anderson, B. (1991), Imagined Communities.

3. Appiah, K.A. (1992), In My Father's House.

4. Appiah, K.A. (1998), Cosmopolitan Patriots,” in Cosmopolitics, ed. P. Cheah and B. Robbins.

5. Bakhtin., M.M. (1981), Dialogic Imagination.

6. Brookshaw, D. (1996), “Cape Verde,” in P. Chabal, et al., Postcolonial Literature of Lusophone Africa.

7. Gerrard, A., ed. (1986), European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, 2 vols.

8. Michelman, F. (1976), “ The West African Novel Since 1911,” Yale French Studies 53: 29—44.

9. Newell, S. (2006), West African Literatures.

10. Padilha, L.C. (2007), “ Tradition and the Effects of the New in Modern African Fictional Cartography,” Research in African Literatures 38(1): 106—118.

11. Porter, A.M. (2000), “ New ’New’ Jerusalem?” Jouvert 4(2), http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v4i2/porter.htm

12. Wehrs, D.R. (2001), African Feminist Fiction and Indigenous Values.

13. Wilson-Tagoe, N. (2003), “ Representing Culture and Identity,” Feminist Africa 2 http://wwWestfeministafrica.org/index.php/representing-culture-and-identity