The Oral Literary Tradition and Origins of African Literature

With the increase in written and published literature in the ex-colonial languages of Africa, the term ‘African literature’ has become a convenient label, giving the largely false impression of the existence of a partially homogenous body of works. Yet the size of the continent, home to more than 50 countries, means that literature in Africa has a complex history that is intrinsically interwoven with the history of translation in Africa; indeed, almost all African writing involves writing in, or through, more than one language. Thus literary translation is at the heart of any study of African literature, beginning with the long oral tradition stretching from antiquity to the present.

The first African literary translators, still the most prolific, are the storytellers, who disseminated oral literature across the continent (Bandia 2009b:3-4). This oral tradition forms the foundation of the creative and expressive language characteristic of African literature, especially drama (Diakate and Eyoh 2017). Occupying privileged positions in great African kingdoms such as Mali, Zimbabwe and Ghana, these ‘living anthologies’ embodied, and translated, their communities’ culture, history and values—Bourdieu’s (1993) ‘social capital’. Known by various names, the griot recreates the narrative prose (folktale) or poetry (such as praise songs) in a unique performance (Marivate 1973), using intonation, mime, body movements, gesture, song, dance and musical (rhythmic) accompaniment in the form of drums (Msimang 1980; Bandia 2009b). Rooted in ancient religious rituals and secular (often comic) theatre, the African oral tradition shares many similarities with heroic epic Greek drama and poetry (Traore 2010); for example, Zulu praise songs (izibonga) elevate the life events of the Zulu kings to almost mythological proportion. Audience participation (especially children) is encouraged, through appreciative, often ritualistic, ideophones (Msimang 1980:221). Featuring humans, animals and fantastic monsters in relatively simplistic plots, African sagas are episodic, with each episode containing its own resolution, forming a complex but coherent whole (Marivate 1973; Oosthuisen 1977; Msimang 1980), building up over time into complex networks of intertextuality. As Karin Barber (1984:502) comments in her study of Yoruba oriki (a form of praise poetry), texts are not single entities, but “are made up of other texts, swallow them, and are swallowed by them”.

The Language Issue

Africa’s 1.2 billion people speak approximately 2500 languages (depending on definitions of languages and dialects) belonging to five major language phyla: Afroasiatic, Niger-Congo, Indo-European, Nilo-Saharan and Austronesian (Eberhard et al. 2020). One cannot therefore speak of a single strand of ‘African translation theory’ or ‘African literature’, without considering the languages involved. Multilingualism is the norm, with translation playing a crucial role “in the construction of an African history over the ages” (Bandia 2009b:2). As Hung and Wakabayishi (2005) comment in relation to Asia, language issues in Africa are further complicated by artificially-constructed national boundaries that divided ethnic groups.

In current African literary debates, the language issue revolves around which languages to use as media of expression. Most African literary works were, and still are, published in colonial languages, particularly French and English, even though writers have shifted from focusing on an international audience to primarily addressing their fellow Africans. Writing in international languages, however, generally guarantees wider distribution, resulting in greater financial returns for both writers and publishers. The ‘brain drain’ of writers from Africa has also affected publication output. Historically regarded as a niche market, few publishers specialised in African literature. One notable exception is the Heinemann African Writers Series—its first publication was Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart in 1958—but even this laudable initiative terminated in 2003 (Nyamnjoh 2004:332).

Besides economic considerations, many African writers contend that by writing in the colonial languages, they are countering colonial hegemony and manipulating the colonial languages to assert their independence and difference (Bandia 2009b: 15). Often this is done by incorporating elements of their native languages into their works, highlighting the role of translation in their writing, which in some cases has been described as almost a literal translation (Gyasi 2003; Benabed 2017). Examples include Amos Tutuola’s The palm-wine drinkard (1952), Ahmadou Kourouma’s Les soleils des indépendances (1968) and Ben Okri’s The famished road (1991), which makes use of indigenous oral tradition to write about contemporary African society (Bandia 2009b:17).

In repressive societies where national literature is heavily censored, writing in international languages and publishing abroad presents a means of creating international awareness and support (Vericat 2014). Such was the case in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya before (and during) the ‘Arab Spring’, when many writers were killed (e.g. Farag Foda), jailed (e.g. Adil Mshaitil), exiled (e.g. Hisham Matar) or simply banned from publishing (e.g. Kamel Riahi). The unfavourable political circumstances at home meant that the greatest productivity of African writers often occurred abroad.

In contrast, Ngùgï wa Thiong’o’s (1986) Decolonising the mind and Tobias Warner’s (2019) The tongue-tied imagination argue for the need to write in indigenous African languages. Several prominent authors have answered this call, increasing publications in major African languages (Hamilton 1991). These include Ngûgî wa Thiong’o (Gikuyu), Thomas Mafolo (Sesotho), Boris Boubacar Diop (Wolof), Naguib Mahfouz (Arabic), Shabaan Robert bin Selemani (Swahili) and Penina Muhando (Swahili).

The language issue is also apparent in literary translation, with translations of African literature into world languages and vice versa, subject to unequal processes of appropriation similar to those experienced in other parts of the world (Niranjana 1992).

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