African history in fiction: The novels that add flesh to historical bones

One of the best things about studying Africa is that so much of the continent’s post-colonial literature is imbued with personal, perceptive and challenging insights into some of the unavoidable themes of African history. Fictional accounts, often fused with local traditions, can vividly capture the roles, trials and tribulations of individuals  enveloped by the wider processes with which historians are so often concerned; the impact of colonialism, identity alteration, state patronage, corruption, development, and the role of Africa’s ‘Big Men’ to name just a few. It can also often better show the ingenuity of African responses to these nineteenth and twentieth century challenges. And, of course, apart from anything else these numerous novels are, more often than not, vivid, sharp, funny and an all round engrossing read. So, here is a personal top-five selection to get you started.

1. Things Fall Apart– Chinua Achebe (1958)- The classic. Newsweek ranked Things Fall Apart #14 in its 2009 list of Tope 100 Books while Time Magazine included it on its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It tells the story of Okonkwo a leader and wrestling champion in the Igbo village of Umuofia in Nigeria in the late nineteenth century. Banished from his village for an act of violence Okonkwo returns eight years later to discover the arrival of christian missionaries and colonial rule. Achebe superbly illustrates the complexities of a pre-colonial Igbo environment and the arrogance and ignorance of the colonial system. The ultimately tragic interaction between Okonkwo and the colonial authorities is a powerful indictment of the forced imposition of political and cultural relativism.

2. Petals of Blood– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1977)- A fantastic novel set in post-colonial Kenya in which fictional narrative and political insights are blended to great effect. Centred around the questioning of four main characters following a fatal fire in the village of llmorog, Ngugi uses flashbacks and different narrators to piece together events in Kenya from the late nineteenth century to Mau Mau and beyond. Engaging in itself as a kind of complicated murder mystery the novel’s most important insights lie in offering a blistering critique of the corruption and western capitalist fervour of both colonialism and Kenya’s new post-colonial elites.

3. Abyssinian Chronicles– Moses Isegawa (2000)- Abyssinian Chronicles follows the life of its narrator, Mugezi, from his childhood and formative adult years in Uganda to his experiences as an economic migrant in Holland.  Semi-autobiographical, the story charts Mugezi’s path through the chaotic despotism of Idi Amin and the violent chaos of the 1980’s civil war. Isegawa’s writing vividly captures the humour, richness and irony of everyday Ugandan life in the central region; while simultaneously exposing the extreme brutality of Amin, Obote and the country’s internal conflicts.

4. The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born– Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)- A book which The New York Times recorded as being, ‘in the first rank of recent novels anywhere,’ following its initial publication in 1968. Armah captures the cynicism and disillusionment in Ghana in the final years of Kwama Nkrumah’s pos-independence state. The novel’s unnamed protagonist, referred to only as ‘the man,’ drifts through the narrative in a vague existential ennui  struggling in a society in which honesty and morality garner nothing but scorn. This is a scathing satire of post-colonial corruption and greed but also an attempt to understand those whom weakness propels to a pursuit of power.

5. Waiting for the Wild Beasts To Vote– Ahmadou Kourouma (2003)- First published in English in 2003, the same year as Kourouma died, this is a poetic, funny and at times savage analogy of the post-independence ‘Big Man’. Set in the fictional ‘Gulf Coast’ (Kourouma himself was Ivorian) the narrative follows the life story of Koyaga, President and Dictator from his childhood to his despotic years. Told in the style of a West African Sora-storyteller and king’s fool- the narrative interweaves magic and history into a vividly acerbic account of Africa’s dictatorships and the role of the West in perpetuating their existence.


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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