Eastern and Central Africa

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Eastern and Central Africa

Evan Mwangi

In discussions of modern African literature, the broad regional category of “Eastern and Central Africa” is most appropriately used only as a heuristic designation. In this sense, the category does not designate a homogenous tradition as it may be construed in traditional literary history, but rather moves between and beyond the confines of discrete national traditions. This entry will therefore use the term to cover countries—such as Zimbabwe or Malawi—that, geopolitically, could also be classified as part of southern Africa, and countries that belong to the Horn of Africa, such as Somalia and Ethiopia.

In terms of form and language of composition, novels by writers from the countries of Eastern and Central Africa are as diverse as the demographic and linguistic specificities which characterize the region. Novels from the region are impacted by, and in turn reflect, a wide range of aesthetic features and political contexts. Published both by small local firms and by multinational presses, the novels appear not only in the European languages of the regions' former colonial powers—English, Portuguese, and French—but also in “indigenous” or autochthonous languages. If there is a uniform historical and intellectual context running alongside the region's diversity of literary production, it would be the legacy of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonial presence and, thereafter, the pressures of modernity, the challenges of state formation, and the vicissitudes of intranational and international politics. East and Central African novels have over time explored themes that critique classical colonialism and its later manifestations. GENDER has also emerged as an important reference point in the novels published, especially since the 1980s. Stylistically, the novelists display varying degrees of sophistication in the way they exploit local forms of oral narration to locate their works within the cultural and political specificities of their diverse communities, while reaching out to a broader Pan-African and global readership. In light of the heterogeneity of linguistic, cultural, and sociohistorical contexts which form part of novel writing and its reception in the region, sweeping generalizations are unhelpful. Nonetheless, specific trends and thematic concerns can be identified to provide an overview of novel writing in the countries of the region.

The Language Issue

A useful starting point is the question of language itself: i.e., the familiar debate around the role of African languages vis-à-vis the European ones that came with colonialism (see TRANSLATION). In critical scholarship on the question of language in African literature, NgImagegImage wa Thiong'o is generally credited with arguing for the importance of African languages to the future of literary production and for their cultural-political relevance in the continent. With the publication of Decolonising the Mind (1986) and his own use of Gikuyu—the language of the majority Kikuyu people of Kenya—in his creative work, NgImagegImage's position is at once nationalist and internationalist, or pan-Africanist. In his view, for African literature broadly construed to move beyond colonial indoctrination and cultural elitism (perpetuated by neocolonial apologists, European as well as African), European languages should not be the primary or privileged language of literary production. Rather, writers should work with the languages spoken in Africa before the arrival of the major European languages as a consequence of colonial conquest. This issue continues to emerge in discussions of the future and continued relevance of literature, especially the novel, in the continent.

Even during colonialism's heyday, writing in African languages was not necessarily seen as a phenomenon that should be suppressed, still less one that would necessarily threaten European hegemony (see IDEOLOGY). Indeed, from 1910, African languages were promoted by Christian missionary organizations and colonial bureaucrats, even if this was not for the same set of reasons as those of NgImagegImage. As in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, “indigenous” languages were often promoted by colonial authorities in order to achieve the strict separation of African languages from European ones. This in turn served to ghettoize the writers, while presenting the idea that precolonial African cultures were being respected and kept “authentic.” What this complex history of the politics of language and culture in Africa suggests is that the non-European languages are not necessarily “authentic” simply because they are “native” to the regions, neither do they necessarily escape colonial or neocolonial appropriation and exploitation. The issue of language in the production of novels in East and Central Africa—as in the rest of black Africa—is large, and the debates surrounding it will surely continue to animate academic literary criticism. Meanwhile, novels in both the inherited European languages and the multiple African languages continue to be written.

The Early Writers

The early novels published in English by white writers in the settler colonies of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (now Malawi), and British East Africa (Kenya and Uganda) since 1910 signified the tensions within the colonial cultural and within the epistemic order. Some of these writings—fiction, travelogues, autobiographies—openly supported the imperial vision of occupying African lands and resettling the indigenous communities in infertile parts of the colonies; others cast a disapproving gaze at the colonial project, developing in the process powerful critiques of racialist and colonialist ideologies (see RACE). But these writings often tended to be shackled by a fundamentally patronizing attitude toward indigenous Africans, an attitude that later generations of black African writers were to debunk in their own literary response to racial stereotyping and patronage. By and large, the novels had an expatriate and non-African readership and did not appear, consistently and intensively, to be overly concerned by the economic dispossession, political subjugation, or cultural denigration of Africans. Early settler writers include Peter Armstrong and Arthur Shearly Cripps. While these writers were critical of the European occupation of Southern Rhodesia, exposing the crass materialism and racism of settler colonialism, they flattened out the complexity of the continent and elided African agency and indigenous customs from their stories.

Similarly, female settler writers in their novels exposed the masculinist underpinning of empire but were sometimes supportive of colonialism. Like Karen Blixen's (Kenya) memoir Out of Africa (1933), the novels were praised in Western venues for the same reasons they were found to be offensive in Africa. This group includes Cynthia Stockley and Gertrude Page from Southern Rhodesia, and Joy Adamson and Elspeth Huxley from Kenya. Doris Lessing's novels are much more complex in their form and treatment of colonial themes. Born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, Lessing left Rhodesia in 1949. The Grass is Singing (1950), her novel set in colonial Rhodesia, sensitively portrays the mistreatment of black people by white settlers and was mentioned when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. In the same vein, Kenyan Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who came to Africa as a missionary in 1954, used African culture and landscape to depict the plight of women under colonialism and neocolonialism, and to treat the interplay of the scourge of HIV/AIDS and the neocolonial dissolution of African institutions. Deeply sensitive to African cultures, Macgoye consistently rejected the privileges that go along with being white in Kenya, to the extent that critics find it hard to classify her as a “settler” novelist. Nonetheless, her writing demonstrates a weakness in that it almost always places the European figure above the indigenous African, as a savior of black female victims.

National Independence and Post-Independence Disillusionment

A key theme in the central and eastern African novel after 1970 is precolonial African cultures and their place in contemporary Africa. The writers attempted to correct the images of Africa by celebrating the precolonial cultures that the colonial archive sought to erase. As in his seminal academic studies, The Invention of Africa (1988) and The Idea of Africa (1994), Valentin Yves Mudimbe (Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo), in his novel L'Écart (1979, The Rift), portrayed the need to wrest domination away from the colonial archive and undo the violence in Europe's claim-to-truth about Africa. Pierre Sammy Mackfoy, Cyriaque Robert Yavoucko, and Pierre Makombo Bamboté from the Central African Republic conducted a similar project in their novels. They sought to explore African realities from the perspective of African characters as a way of undermining colonial historiography, even when describing corruption and violence in the post-independence nation. Novelists who valorized the precolonial past and early resistance to colonialism include Stanlake Samkange and Solomon Mutswairo (Zimbabwe) and NgImagegImage wa Thiong'o.

Of all these writers, the novels of NgImagegImage wa Thiong'o contain the most sustained and influential critique of colonialism and neocolonialism. NgImagegImage's debut novel was the first English-language East African novel by a black writer. The novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), employs an adolescent's perspective to portray, the violence and anxiety of the fight for Kenyan independence in the 1950s. The River Between (1965) uses the conventions of realism to depict the conflict between Africa's precolonial traditions and modernity, covering such themes as individual alienation, the 1930s controversy surrounding female circumcision in central Kenya, and the centrality of Western education in the fight for independence. NgImagegImage's later novels capture, in graphic terms, a disillusionment with the post-independence situation in Africa, but the solution they offer to the continent's problems is more focused. Influenced by the Martinican theorist Frantz Fanon (1925—61), NgImagegImage's A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977) demonstrate disappointment with a constitutional independence unaccompanied by any improvement in the material condition of the peasantry and working class. His novels since the 1980s have been written in his Gikuyu language. They borrow heavily from oral methods of narration to portray injustice in modern Kenya, such as gender violence and exploitation.

With the exception of Tanzania, where the Kiswahili-language novel remained nationalist and tacitly supportive of the ujamaa (African socialist) policies of the founding president, Julius K. Nyerere (1922—99), East African novels around the late 1960s tended to focus on the disappointment with nationalism. The novels abandoned linear plots and adopted a more complex psychological examination of perspectives from sympathetically drawn (even if unreliable) characters. The writers portrayed the disjunction between the euphoria of independence and the reality a few years later. Nuruddin Farah's (Somalia) novels in the trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (1979—83) explore the corruption and abuse of office by the authoritarian military regime of Siad Barre, revealing parallels between the new governments and their European colonialist predecessors. As in his earlier fiction, Farah explores gender issues, including the practice of female circumcision, but without the ambivalence with which NgImagegImage treats the practice in his novels. Farah is best known for his sophisticated Maps (1986), a postmodern novel that express disillusionment with Somali nationalism. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (Malawi) also captured the hollowness of political independence in the 1990s, especially in Smouldering Charcoal (1992), which represents the corruption eating at the vitals of Malawian society. Abyssinian Chronicles (1998) and Snake Pit (2005) by Moses Isegawa capture in stark prose the horrors of Idi Amin's dictatorship in Uganda.

After the late 1970s, Tanzanian novels in Kiswahili began to express disillusionment with the ujamaa one-party state. Novelists in this category include Gabriel Ruhumbika, Euphrase Kezilahabi, William Mkufya, Emmanuel Mbogo, and Said A. K. Mohamed. In his novels, especially in Makuadi wa Soko Huria (2005, Pimps of The Free Market) Chachage Seithy L. Chachage satirized not only the failure of ujamaa but also the runaway greed of the liberalism that succeeded it. In Kenya, the anti-establishment stance in the Swahili novel had already been established by the works of Katama Mkangi and accentuated by Kyallo Wamitila; like Chachage, they criticized both the Kenyan dictatorships and short-term Western-sponsored policies such as globalization.

In Zimbabwe, Charles Mungoshi's novel in English, Waiting for the Rain (1975), was preceded by three Shona novels, expressing the fragmentation of Shona culture under colonial onslaught. Stylistically, Mungoshi is one of the first Zimbabwean writers to abandon the classical realist mode. His novels in English and Shona experiment with modernist forms to signify the physical and psychic disintegration of families under the pressure of colonial rule and modernity. His compatriot Dambudzo Marechera's The House of Hunger (1978) and Black Sunlight (1980) explore unrelenting individual disintegration and collective stasis through a distinctive formal technique that owes much to European modernism. Equally important Zimbabwean novelists include Chenjerai Hove and Shimmer Chinodya.

The novel about colonialism and the struggle for independence tended to idealize women by representing African nations figuratively as an ahistorical woman needing to be rescued from rapacious colonialists. At the same time, the urban novel represented the modern African woman as a degenerate prostitute. Gender became a major theme in the 1980s, with women writers such as Rebeka Njau, Grace Ogot, and Margaret Ogola (Kenya), Tsitsi Dangarembga and Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe), Mary Okurut and Goretti Kyomuhendo (Uganda), Asenath Bole Odaga (Kenya), and Eliesh Lema (Tanzania) focusing on discrimination against women in post-independence Africa, despite their involvement in the fight for independence. Rather than condemning the prostitute as a symbol of urban decrepitude, women's novels such as those by Okurut, Njau and F.M. Genga-Idowu attempted to redeem the prostitute as a figure of possible feminist agency. Unlike novels by male writers, these works are largely directed through female characters and focus on women's struggles to reclaim their humanity in a male-dominated society. While addressing larger political themes such as corruption, women's novels focus on feminist themes and the role of women in fighting poverty and HIV/AIDS.

The novel in East and Central Africa is largely realist, but postmodern narration based on phantasmatic oral literature and magical realism has emerged since the mid-1980s, to help the writers evade censorship and to address traumatic topics such as state-sponsored violence. Writers in indigenous languages like Said A. K. Mohamed (Zanzibar), Kyalo Wamitila and Katama Mkangi (Kenya), and Euphrase Kezilahabi (Tanzania) have produced novels in indigenous languages, playfully challenging the conventions of realism while grounding their novels in the material circumstances of the region. The trend is also visible in the work of Congolese Sony Labou Tansi. Mia Couto (António Emílio Leite Couto), born to white settler parents in 1955, is considered Mozambique's foremost creative writer. His novels in Portuguese have been widely appreciated for their magical realist technique and treatment of the memory. Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique) joins Couto in producing Portuguese post-realist novels that draw on folklore (see MYTHOLOGY). Another leading writer from Mozambique is Lília Momplé, whose novel Neighbours: The Story of A Murder (1995) mixes memory with present-day conditions to examine the fraught relationship between Mozambique and apartheid South Africa.

SEE ALSO: Dialect, Realism, Translation Theory.


1. Gikandi, S. and E. Mwangi, eds. (2007), Columbia Guide to East African Literature in English since 1945.

2. Irele, A. and S. Gikandi, eds. (2004), Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, 2 vols.

3. Kahari, G.P. (1990), Rise of the Shona Novel.

4. Killam, G.D., ed. (1984), Writing of East and Central Africa.

5. Owomoyela, O., ed. (1993), History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures.

6. Roscoe, A., ed. (2008), Columbia Guide to Central African Literature in English since 1945.