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Fiction: African Fiction and Religion


Although storytelling is a universal human activity, the term "African fiction" refers to a European genre of storytellingcomprised of secular novels and short storiesthat Africans have adopted and adapted to represent continental African realities in the wake of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonialism and post-colonialism. The genre will provide a unifying thread throughout the many oral and written traditions in African as well as European languages.

Although an ancient practice in Africa, as witnessed in pharaonic Egypt, writing in African languages began in Muslim and Christian missionary activity, some of which dates back to pre-modern times, as is the case for Geez or Amharic in Ethiopia. Other African languages such as Sesuto, Xhosa, Zulu, and Yoruba, began in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Euro-Christian missionary schools and feature allegorical novels inspired by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. But the tension between Euro-Christianity and African tradition is apparent in the Yoruba novels of Fagunwa (Nigeria), such as The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, in which references to a Christian God are imposed on Yoruba mythology. Modern Muslim missionary activity gave rise to Arabic script literatures in languages such as Wolof, Swahili, and Hausa. European-language writing in French, English, and Portuguese is a result of modern colonialism.

African writers of fiction use the genre to enter into dialogue with African and European religious traditions alike. Drawing on oral myths, epics and tales, these writers oppose representations of Africa found in European fiction, as well as in European governmental, missionary, and commercial reports. In the process African writers also rewrite and rework oral traditions.

African oral traditions reflect hierarchies of power in ways parallel to European fiction. At the top of the hierarchy are such works as ceremonial ritual religious poems or the great Dogon cosmogonic myth, according to which the universe originates from a single seed. Next are the great chanted epics such as the Malian epic of Sundiata or the Mwindo epic, which feature shamanic heroes, founders of their society. The great oral praise songs for outstanding men and women are formal lyrics that use epic materials. On a more common level are occupational poems, sung to accompany an activity such as farming, fishing, hunting or smithing. Even these lower forms recall religious functions of individuals or callings.

Short narrative tales may use mythic and epic materials more informally to explain the origins of a people, the founding of a dynasty, or the nature of divine beings, as well as phenomena such as the behavior of certain animals or the origins of geographic details. However, the genre is derivative rather than authoritative, drawing on chanted epics and ceremonial ritual religious poems, praise and occupational poetry. The narrative tale has a more realistic bent. A prominent theme is that of the trickster-hero, who succeeds through cleverness rather than through morality. Recalling the Yoruba (Nigeria) god Eshu-Elegba, the hero may be human or an animal such as the hare (source of the African American Br'er Rabbit), the hyena or the spider. In such tales, might or cleverness makes right and the outcome is not always moral. Shorter forms that one finds frequently used in African fiction are proverbs ("the palm oil with which words are eaten"), epigrams and riddles.

Written African fiction draws on this tradition in many ways in terms of characters, themes, motifs, and formal structures. In terms of religion, most significant is a "vitalist" ontology according to which being is a dynamic vital force that pervades everything much like a fluid as opposed to a collection of static, discrete entities. Hence Western distinctions between human, animal and divine, or the living and the dead do not necessarily apply. Because of vital force human beings have totemic relationships with animals with which they share the force of being. For example, the epic hero Sundiata draws totemically on the power of the buffalo through his mother, Sogolon, and on the power of the lion, which bears a totemic relationship with his male ancestors. In this way, departed ancestors exercise their force through the living.

In the epic, such ontology is portrayed in an unproblematic synthesis with Islam. For example, Sundiata's male ancestors trace their lineage back to Bilali Bounama, a servant of the Prophet Muammad.

A second religiously important structure that pervades African literature, as Mohammadou Kane has observed, is the initiatory journey, usually presented in three stages: a hero leaves home as a child, goes on a series of adventures and returns as an adult. The epic of Sundiata is an example. The young Sundiata, who after a long period of lameness stands up to walk, must go into exile and face a series of trials, which he overcomes. Then he returns home to found the empire of Mali. This outcome is never in doubt from the day that Sundiata's father sacrifices a red bull and lets its blood soak into the ground. Yet, all is seen as in the hands of the "Almighty." As the family griot, Gnankouman Doua, observes, "The Almighty has his mysteries The silk-cotton tree emerges from a tiny seed" (Kane, p. 16).

That such traditional African elements are portrayed in an unproblematic synthesis with Islam is a witness to the fact of the gradual infiltration of Islam, which was adapted by various groups of society, usually merchants first, then the ruling classes, and finally the people at large. Works such as Sundiata reveal ways in which ruling classes gradually combined Islamic and pre-Islamic elements to build the foundation of their power. A similar approach may be seen in the European Renaissance when the French rex christianissimus traced his lineage to Hector; the Catholic Hapsburg emperors, and to Jason and the Golden Fleece.

One also finds a relatively syncretistic harmony in autobiographical works such as the Guinean Camara Laye's The Dark Child or the Nigerian Wole Soyinka's Ake. Although not syncretistic, African language allegorical novels in the tradition of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are pre-modern in that they assume a classic religious orthodoxy.

Modern and post-modern African fiction tends to portray fault lines and conflict such as in the Nigerian Fagunwa's Yoruba novel mentioned above or the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiongo's bitingly satirical Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross.

Eschewing heroes, African fiction, like its European models, foregrounds main characters in what Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism ) calls the "low mimetic" and "ironic modes." Frye defines these modes not according to the morality of the main character but rather according to his or her "power of action" (Frye, p. 33). As opposed to a Sundiata, who is invincible, the "low mimetic" mode represents characters less powerful than other people or their environment. Characters in the "ironic mode" are inferior to the reader in either power or intelligence, and often the brunt of comedy.

The question of power is particularly pertinent to Africans, for whom colonialism created new and problematic conflicts between the ideal, moral, and practical aspects of religious experience, calling into question the traditional hierarchies and values implied in the oral tradition. For the most part, African fiction in which religion is a significant theme works out issues of colonial and post-colonial (dis)empowerment, and features not only inter-religious tensions but also conflicts between religion and secular forces often imperfectly understood. On the one hand is a traditional religious mentality according to which religion accounts for an approach to visible and invisible reality that does not observe the Western distinction between natural and supernatural. As Robin Horton observes in Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West, such traditional religion provided ways to explain, control and predict events in the visible universe as well as establish communion with an invisible being or beings. On the other hand is a purely secular mentality according to which events unfold due to impersonal political, social, and psychological forces unleashed by the European conquest and occupation.

Novels leading up to African independences in the 1960s underscore such tensions, but retain a faith in a possible future for the continent and for the world. In the Senegalese Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure the lure of European technology causes the complicity between Islam and traditional political power to break down. In another time the royal and spiritually gifted Samba Diallo may have been left to pursue a path of spiritual greatness in the hands of his ūfī spiritual director Tierno or become a kind of priest/king. His family decides instead to tear him away from the ascetic discipline of renunciation and send him to Europe on a kind of "initiatory journey" to learn how "better to join wood to wood" (Kane, p. 29), so as to bring his people into the modern world. The experiment fails, however. Once in Europe Samba Diallo decides to study philosophy, and on his return home is killed by his spiritual director. This death, however, brings Samba Diallo into a ūfī mystical communion with God. Even though Samba Diallo's death marks the failure of his initiation into the ways of secular Europe, this death may also be considered an extreme form of world renunciation, in which the young man's spiritual vocation is fulfilled.

Although renunciation of this world has always been commonplace in mystical traditions, the split between a European technological material world and Islamic spirituality reflects a limited orientalist view of Islam that overlooks medieval Muslim scientific and technological advances and prowess. It also plays into theses of Negritude that try to rehabilitate orientalist dichotomies in calling for a "universal civilization" that combines spiritual, intuitive and rhythmical "Black" culture in harmony with nature, on the one hand, with analytic and technological "White" culture, on the other.

In works such as the novel God's Bits of Wood and the short-story collection Tribal Scars, the Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène eschews the sentimentality of Negritude. Mystical Islam is portrayed as ineffective and its clergy accused of complicity with colonial rule and patriarchal exploitation of women. For Sembène, the only way out of the colonial impasse is through a Marxist-inspired collective political action of the working classes. In God's Bits of Wood, it is only in a railroad workers strike that dignity is regained. For example, learning to act collectively without hatred, the brutish, stammering Tiémoko is released to sing the epic of Sundiata. Formerly sacred royal power is now in the hands of secular working people.

While French West African fiction is presented in the terms of concepts of universal pretensions such as Islam, Marxism and Negritude, the novels of the Nigerian Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart ; Arrow of God) and the Cameroonian Mongo Beti (The Poor Christ of Bomba ; King Lazarus ) and Ferdinand Oyono (Houseboy ; Old Man and the Medal ) are more local in scope, in that theirs is a context of forest people such as the Ibo, who live in loose federations or small chiefdoms. These novels denounce the abuses not so much of Christianity as the Christian mission enterprise, which is seen as a source of European violence and conquest. Behind the missionaries come the merchants and the military. Church, hospital, schools and prisons are seen as European institutions in complicity with one another. In Things Fall Apart, the missionary prepares the way for the colonial administrator. In The Poor Christ of Bomba, the R. P. Drumont who cannot manage to reform the sexual mores of his converts sadly realizes that his efforts result in softening up his "faithful" for exploitation in the colonial labor force.

In these novels Christian conversion is seen to be based on misunderstandings and to yield ludicrous harmful results. King Lazarus converts on his deathbed only to get well and have to face a diplomatic crisis, as he must now choose only one among his many wives. In Old Man and the Medal, Meka, who has converted to Christianity and given up his lands to the Catholic mission, embarks on what turns out to be a mock initiatory journey from his community to the administrative center of the Whites. He finds himself standing in the middle of a stadium in a chalk-drawn circle under the hot sun, in ill-fitting shoes and having a strong urge to urinate as he waits for the French colonial administrator to pin a medal on him for his contributions to the community. In such a time of trial only the memory of the pain he endured at his circumcision gives him the courage to withstand heat and burning pain. The true meaning of this medal is revealed when later, Meka is brutally beaten and thrown into jail by the police, who do not recognize him. Here too he resorts to his totemic relations with panthers to muster up the necessary strength.

In both cases, the caricatural evocation of traditional religion is tragi-comic, revealing the comical ineffectiveness of the tradition in the new setting of colonialism. On his return home, Meka is chastened and cynical about his Christian faith and relation with the whites. But his "initiation" leaves him with little new knowledge except for a relief to be back among the grasses and animals of his home. Here unlike the West African novels, there is no faith in an overarching scheme of things. There is also an unremitting satirical criticism implied of African traditions. The indulgent humor of the narrator, who laughs with as well as at the characters, leaves the reader with the conviction of the inherent dignity and resilience of African people.

In all of these works the narrative voice often plays against sliding conceptions of the distinction between the secular and the sacred. In Things Fall Apart and in Houseboy, child converts whom Christians believe that God has touched are in fact fleeing abusive fathers. In Achebe's novels the fact that Europeans trample sacred forests and kill sacred animals with impunity is taken to be a sign of divine intervention. In fiction such as this, even where there is an implied criticism of African tradition, the overriding message is that the abuse of European colonialism must stop, so that Africans may regroup and take charge of their own fate.

Post-colonial fiction is marked by a turn toward an African audience to address African problems. The multiple consciousness of several sides to a story is taken to new heights with a dialogical representation of reality from an even more complex, pluralistic perspective. Fama, the last of the royal line of Doumbouya in the Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma's Suns of Independence also sets off on a tripartite journey. He leaves the capital for a funeral in Togobala, a seedy village that is all that remains of his family's ancient capital, and he returns home only to be thrown into prison. This tripartite structure, inspired by the initiatory journey is a failure, but can be seen from three equally valid perspectives. The Doumbouya decadence is (1) an eschatological sign of Muslim last days; (2) the result of disrespect for the ancient fetishes; (3) or a secular working out of post-colonial corruption. But no matter how the sequence of events is explained, there is an overriding angry irony at the corruption of contemporary society. Kourouma's novel, Allah n'est pas obligé, is even angrier, as he portrays an Africa sinking deeper into crisis under the eyes of an indifferent God. The latter is among what Lilyan Kesteloot calls novels of chaos, novels written in despair of a spectacle of an Africa racked by such corruption, famine and genocide that it seems to be without a God. One bears in mind the Rwanda writers' project, in which several African writers such as Boubacar Boris Diop (Senegal) or Véronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast) committed themselves to write about the genocide in that country. One can also contrast Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Devil on the Cross, which brutally satirizes Christianity, to his earlier novels such as The River Between, which portrays the protagonist Waiyake (Kenyatta) as a Christ figure.

A dialogical pluralism similar to Kourouma's may be found in the Nigerian Buchi Emechetta's Joys of Motherhood. In this book the protagonist, Nnu Ego, lives out a miserable existence that may be seen as the result of a combination of traditional patriarchy and European colonial exploitation which leave women particularly vulnerable. On the other hand, Nnu Ego's sorry fate may be consistently explained down to its smallest details as the unremitting curse of her chi, who in a previous life was forced to be buried alive at her husband's funeral.

Dialogical pluralism of Kourouma and Emechetta is but an extreme example of the tendency of African fiction to call into question constructions, not only of Christianity and Islam, but also of anthropological accounts of local religions. Through devices of irony and comedy the main characters belong yet do not belong to European and African religious traditions. In this respect, one should mention V. Y. Mudimbe's Entre les Eaux, in which the priest, Pierre Landu fails to bring together Christianity and Marxism. He is an example of what Wim van Binsbergen calls "Central African clerical intellectualism," an intellectualism of a certain category of Catholic clerics who have little to do with traditional African religion.

Other fiction of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s continues this trend toward pluralism, emphasizing intrareligious more than interreligious difference, especially with reference to Islam. In response to Islamic fundamentalism, postmodern fiction from Northern Africa (always a cross-roads of many cultures and religions) reaches back to Islamic traditional means of interpretation in the adīth to reveal the suppressed voices of the religion. Novelists such as the Moroccans Driss Chraïbi (La Mère du Printemps ), and Fatima Mernissi (Le Harem politique ), the Algerian Assia Djebar (Loin de la Médine ), and the Egyptian Nawal El Sadaawi (God Dies by the Nile ) question Islamic patriarchy and oppose such concepts as jihad (holy war, but also self-discipline) and itjihād (interpretation).

The Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah goes even further than most of the fiction writers here. In Maps he criticizes not Islamic practices or traditions but the internal morality of the religion itself and its nefarious effects on Somalian society, although he falls more into the main line in his Close Sesame, which emphasizes the gap between ideal Islam and the way it is played out in society.

One sees a similar process in South Africa, where a novel such as Rayda Jacob's Confessions of a Gambler portrays a freer, postmodern Islam in the person of the protagonist, an emancipated Capetonian Islamic woman who gambles. Writers such as Zoë Wicomb (You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town ; and David's Story ) and Zakes Mda (The Madonna of Excelsior ), on the other hand, criticize hypocrisy of the abusive Christianity brought by the Dutch Calvinist settlers. These settlers claim South Africa as a land promised to them by God, and are portrayed in Afrikaner novels such as André Brink's A Dry White Season.


Primary Sources

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London, 1958.

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London, 1964.

Beti, Mongo. Le Roi miraculé: chronique des Essazam Paris, 1958. Translated by Peter Green under the title King Lazarus. London, 1960.

Beti, Mongo. Le Pauvre Chris de Bomba. Paris, 1976. Translated by Gerald Moore under the title The Poor Christ of Bomba. London, 1971.

Brink, André. A Dry White Season. New York, 1980.

Chraïbi, Driss. La Mère du Printemps (L'Oum-er-Bia ). Paris, 1982. Translated by Hugh A. Harter under the title Mother Spring. Washington D.C., 1989.

Diebuyck, Daniel, and Kahombo C. Mateene, trans. and eds. The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic). Berkeley, Calif., 1969.

Djebar, Assia. Loin de la Médine. Paris, 1991.

Emechetta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. London, 1979.

Fagunwa, D.O. The Forest of a Thousand Daemons. Translated by Wole Soyinka. London, 1968.

Farah, Nuruddin. Maps. New York, 1986.

Farah, Nuruddin. Close Sesame. Saint Paul, Minn., 1992.

Jacob, Rayda. Confessions of a Gambler. Cape Town, South Africa, 2003.

Kane, Cheikh Hamidou. Aventure Ambiguë. Paris, 1961. Translated by Katherine Woods under the title Ambiguous Adventure. 1962. New York, 1969.

Kourouma, Ahmadou. Les Soleils des Indépendance. Montréal, 1968. Translated by Adrian Adams under the title The Suns of Independence. London, 1981.

Kourouma, Ahmadou. Allah n'est pas oblige. Paris, 2000.

Laye, Camara. L'Enfant noir. Paris, 1953. Translated by James Kirkup and Ernest Jones under the title, The Dark Child. Introduction by Philippe Thoby-Marcellin. New York, 1954.

Mda, Zakes. The Madonna of Excelsior. Oxford, 2002.

Mernissi, Fatima. Le Harem politique : Le Prophète et les Femmes. Paris, 1987.

Mudimbe, V. Y. Entre les Eaux. Paris, 1973.

Niane, D. T. Soundjata ou L'épopée mandingue. Paris, 1960. Translated by G. D. Pickett under the title Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. London, 1965.

Ngugi wa Thiong. The River Between. London, 1965.

Ngugi wa Thiong. Devil on the Cross. London, 1982.

Oyono, Ferdinand. Une Vie de Boy. Paris, 1956. Translated by John Reed under the title Houseboy. London 1966.

Oyono, Ferdinand. Le vieux nègre et la médaille. Paris, 1956. Translated by John Reed under the title Old Man and the Medal. London, 1969.

El Sadaawi, Nawal. God Dies by the Nile. 1974. London, 1985.

Sembène, Ousmane. Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu. Paris, 1960. Translated by Francis Price under the title God's Bits of Wood. New York, 1962.

Sembène, Ousmane. Voltaïque. La noire denouvelles. Paris, 1971. Translated by Len Ortzen under the title Tribal Scars and Other Stories. London, 1973.

Soyinka, Wole. Ake: The Years of Childhood. London, 1981.

Wicomb, Zoë. You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town. London, 1987.

Wicomb, Zoë. David's Story. New York, 2000.

Criticism and General Studies

Bâ, Hampaté. Aspects de la civilization africaine. Paris, 1972.

Battestini, Simon P. X. "Muslim Influences on West African Literature and Culture." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 7 (July 1986): 2, 476502.

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. Oxford, 1970.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J., 1957.

Gérard, Albert. African Language Literatures: An Introduction to the Literary History of Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, D.C, 1980.

Gérard, Albert. European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa. 2 vols. Budapest, Hungary, 1986.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli. London, 1948.

Harrow, Ken, ed. Faces of Islam in African Literature. Studies in African Literature: New Series. Portsmouth, N.H., 1991.

Harrow, Ken, ed. The Marabout and the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Literature. Portsmouth, N.H., 1996. These two books edited by Ken Harrow constitute an indispensable introduction to the relation between Islam and African literature. The more than thirty individual articles cannot be listed here.

Horton, Robin. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West : Essays on Magic, Religion and Science. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London, 1988.

Johnson, Lemuel A. "Cross and Consciousness: The Failure of Orthodoxy in African and Afro-Hispanic Literature." Studies in Afro-Hispanic Literature 2 (1978): 5389.

Kane, Mohammadou. Roman et traditions. Dakar, Senegal, 1984.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. Histoire de la Littérature Négro-Africaine. Paris, 2001.

Killam, Douglas, and Ruth Rowe. The Companion to African Literatures. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.

Mazrui, Ali. The Africans: A Triple Heritage. London, 1986.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel. New York, 1975.

Okpewho, Isidore. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. London, 1976.

Tempels, Placide. La Philosophie bantoue. Paris, 1949. Translated into English under the title Bantu Philosophy. Paris, 1969. A good presentation of the ontological concept of "vital force," in spite of its missionary intentions.

Zell, Hans M., Carol Bundy and Virginia Coulon, eds. A New Reader's Guide to African Literature. New York, 1983.

George Joseph (2005)

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