A New 'New' Jerusalem?
West African Writers and the
Dawn of the New Millennium


by

Abioseh Michael Porter

Drexel University, Philadelphia PA


Copyright © 2000 by Abioseh Michael Porter, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.


  1. The decades of the eighties and early nineties must be seen as some of the worst periods of economic, social, and cultural dislocations in contemporary West African history. The recent unsavory political and social events in Africa -- ranging from the tragedies of Somalia, Liberia, Algeria, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone through the bloodbath in Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and on to the potentially very explosive situation in Nigeria -- at times have created a sense of doom. One can say that, notwithstanding some qualified successes (South Africa, for example), the future of the continent seems apocalyptic. Such a situation has naturally led historians and political commentators to start asking some fundamental questions about the continent all over again. Problems such as the following, which seemed to have been addressed some time ago, are being raised afresh: "What went wrong?" "How did things come to such a pass?" "How could at least some of these tragedies have been avoided?" Of course, these are questions that many historians and several creative writers have asked during the past three decades. The creative writers have done this by, among other things, subverting traditional generic elements of the historical novel. Writers such as Ouloguem in Bound to Violence (Sphere 1968) and Armah in Two Thousand Seasons (Heinemann 1979) have used specific literary techniques (saitre, distortion, hyperbole) to continue and at the same time to subvert the conventions of the historical novel.
  2. In what follows, however, I would like to demonstrate how this exciting phenomenon has been taken a step farther in some relatively new works. Because in some of these recent works, the respective authors seem to confirm the belief that politics deserves something better than mere irony, we see in novels such as Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Syl Cheney-Coker's The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990), Ahmadou Kourouma's Monnè, outrages et défis (1990), and T. O. Echewa's I Saw the Sky Catch Fire (1992), that these authors have not only used irony but have also added some new thematic and stylistic permutations to the African novel. In addition, they have exploited resources of traditional African folk literature (tales, legends, myths, etc.) to raise new questions about Africa's current predicament and, perhaps more significantly, to offer some convincing solutions for the continent's problems
  3. And so, while it has often been argued that various ills -- colonialism, imperialism, tribalism, neocolonialism, the actions of rotten politicians, stupid soldiers, and those of uneducated intellectuals, and an indifferent electorate and some others -- have been responsible for the present state of affairs, the writers under discussion, using varying degrees of apocalyptic elements and subversion of the historical novel as key forms, seem to suggest that it would be simplistic and perhaps even dangerous to continue to look at previous solutions as the way out for Africa in this new millennium. Unlike much previous writing, these authors seem to be moving away from the positions of "look at what has been done," "what can we do?" to a combination of "this is what has been done and "this is what we should or must do."
  4. Apocalyptic writing, to be sure, does not always lend itself to one simple explanation. Nonetheless, a brief definition is necessary to help us understand its presence in some African fiction, and especially in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah. It is generally agreed that apocalyptic literature involves "a record of divine disclosure made known through the agency of angels, dreams, and visions. These may take different forms: an otherworldly journey in which the 'secrets' of the cosmos are made known . . . or a survey of history often leading to an eschatological crisis in which the cosmic powers of evil are destroyed, the cosmos is restored, and Israel is redeemed. [1] But though it has long been common to explain apocalyptic writing by linking it with biblical, hermeneutic interpretation, my present purposes would be better served, if I briefly elaborate on some statements by Maxine Lavon Montgomery about the apocalypse in African American literature. According to Montgomery, "[i]n an apocalyptic novel the author responds to the crisis of the times, whether it is world war or sociopolitical injustice. But he [re]writes the apocalypse from the self-conscious position of one who is outside of the bedlam." [2] In my view, this awareness of the "crisis of the times" -- often characterized by a lack of any seeming ironic detachment or neutral terseness of language -- also helps to make the theme of restorative power another major characteristic of apocalyptic writing. The battle lines between the besieged and their enemies (the offending majority) are not only clearly drawn but also often provide the location for the ethical, moral, and aesthetic values in this genre of writing.
  5. Achebe clearly does not seem content to be looking for divine intervention, apocalyptic as someone his (or even Cheney-Coker's) writing may seem. Achebe's fictional cosmos, like those of the other writers I discuss here, is fully grounded in the here-and-now material world of twentieth-century Africa. Thus it should not be surprising that the mood of political change in Anthills of the Savannah was immediately seen as another instance "of the phenomenon of military dictatorship. [3] Achebe, after all, can be said to express nearly all that is central to social upheaval and social turmoil in West African fiction. But this observation is true only up to a point because there is an essential and fundamental difference between Anthills of the Savannah and Achebe's previous novels. This vivid but also very poignant tale of oppression and redemption does not merely stand out because of a different technical complexity and verbal density; it stands out especially because of some of the solutions Achebe offers for the major problems in his fictional creation. His vision here, like those of Cheney-Coker and Kourouma, is clearly laced not only with apocalyptic elements but also some very credible and systematic socio-political solutions.
  6. As with other apocalyptic writings, Anthills of the Savannah is set in a period of tremendous social stress. Events in the novel take place about twenty years after those in Achebe's last major work of fiction, the equally political A Man of the People (Heinemann, 1966). And because Anthills chronicles the way in which a once fairly innocuous soldier descends to become a modern-day tyrant in the fictional West African country of Kangan, it might be tempting to see Anthills as just another work dealing with political corruption in Africa. It might likewise be tempting to see the work as Achebe's (long overdue?) nod to women, especially to their extraordinary, even if often unacknowledged, roles in the shaping of Africa. [4]
  7. Nonetheless, we may also read this work as one of the most striking interfusions of political trickery, unbounded ambition, betrayal, and exploitation on the one hand and as some of the most practical answers ever offered for contemporary problems in fiction on the other hand. Starkly put, Achebe does not shrink back from exposing and denouncing autocracy and corruption as well as some of the reasons for their continued existence. He shows us in Anthills that no matter how good "His Excellency's" original intentions might have been, from the moment we meet him barking orders and threatening members of his cabinet right up to the end of the novel, he is nothing but a tyrant. "The President-for Life" does not only treat his cabinet members with utter contempt and intimidation, but also demonstrates complete paranoia and pathological inferiority. It might seem appropriate that this is so because "His Excellency" knows that he is unqualified to lead. The narrator's sarcastic evaluation sums up "His Excellency's" character best:
  8. To say that Sam was never bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past or that he is one now. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness.
    When our headmaster, John Williams, told him that the Army was the career for gentlemen he immediately abandoned thoughts of becoming a doctor and became a soldier. (44-45).

  9. This lack of fiber -- moral or intellectual -- on "His Excellency's" part will later on be a contributing factor to the murder of two of Sam's closest friends, Ikem and Chris. Encouraged by obsequious courtiers such as the despicable "Professor" Okong and the other "disciples" -- the cabinet is made up of twelve members -- Sam uses the state apparatus to intimidate and silence opponents (real and imagined). Like all bullies, he grovels toward seemingly superior power while crushing those under his authority. Thus even though he is extremely high-handed and vindictive toward the native Kangans, especially the Abazonians who have the temerity to make claims for that which is truly theirs, and even though Sam shows nothing but discourtesy and loathing for his cabinet and senior civil servants such as Beatrice, he allows the young and inexperienced American journalist, Lou Cranford, to be as condescending and rude as she wants to be toward him and others. Given his misguided sense of leadership and authority and his being prodded on by a bunch of toadies from whose viewpoint he can do no wrong, it is not surprising that "His Excellency" is shown trying to 'govern' the ungovernable. Force soon becomes his only instrument of choice for ruling.
  10. But one might say that topics such as these have been dealt with in works such as The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Heinemann, 1968) and A Man of the People. Achebe's chief theme, then, is not so much political exploitation and human degradation but what can or should be done about such obstacles. Subverting perseverance -- a central feature of most apocalyptic literature -- for example, Achebe shows how the people of Abazon had endured their tribulations because they always believed, as the old man suggests, that at the end of the present crisis a new Jerusalem will emerge. What they and the other Kangans learn in the process, however, is that mere steadfastness and hope will not be enough. Some concrete steps will need to be taken to make the new millennium a better one for the Kangans.
  11. While we cannot, of course, claim that Achebe deliberately set out to write an apocalyptic novel, it can be said that the numerous sinister references and imagery of doom in Anthills give the work an apocalyptic quality. "His Excellency" and his cabinet seem to be linked pejoratively with Christ and his disciples as when, for example, the Attorney General, in the process of currying Sam's favor, says: "You know, Your Excellency it was the same trouble Jesus had to face with his people. Those who knew him and knew his background were saying: 'Is it not the same fellow who was born in a goat shed because his father had no money to pay for a chalet?'" (21-22). In the "Hymn to the Sun," Ikem the poet wonders what "hideous abomination forbidden and forbidden and forbidden again seven times have we committed?" (28). And what can be viewed as an even more fecund source for this line of interpretation is part of what Ikem says as he tries to explain to Beatrice (BB) the nature and purpose of revolutionary change:
  12. The sweeping, majestic visions of people rising victorious like a tidal wave against their oppressors and transforming their world with theories and slogans into a new heaven and a new earth of brotherhood, justice and freedom are at best grand illusions. The rising, conquering tide, yes; but the millennium afterwards, no! New oppressors will have been readying themselves secretly in the undertow long before the tidal wave got really going.
    Experience and intelligence warn us that man's progress in freedom will be piecemeal, slow and undramatic. Revolution may be necessary for taking a society out of an intractable stretch of quagmire but it does not confer freedom, and may indeed hinder it. . . . (90)

  13. Although no key can unlock all the doors to a writer's meaning, this passage provides a very good access to a convincing interpretation of Anthills of the Savannah. Ikem, for all his human flaws one of the most likable Achebe characters, seems to point out in word and action that there must be a new beginning, a new line of action, for the millennium. Unlike characters such as Odili in A Man of the People or the man who is the symbolically named protagonist in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Ikem is quite specific about what can and should be done. He rightly admits to BB that he had been wrong in adopting the macho, male chauvinistic attitude that he had so often displayed toward women and for such a long time; when addressing the university students, he proposes a line of action that would have been relevant and applicable to any segment of the community:
  14. I have no desire to belittle your role in putting this nation finally on the road to self-redemption. But you cannot do that unless you first set about to purge yourselves, to clean up your act. You must learn for a start to hold your own student leaders to responsible performance; only after you have done that can you have the moral authority to lecture the national leadership. You must develop the habit of scepticism, not swallow every piece of superstition you are told by witch doctors and professors. I see too much parroting, too much regurgitating of half-digested radical rhetoric. . . . When you have rid yourselves of these things your potentiality for assisting and directing this nation will be quadrupled. . . . (148)

  15. For characters such as the baby Ama (Ikem and Elewa's daughter), her mother Elewa, BB, Braimoh, and all of the other survivors of Chris and Ikem -- those who will most likely continue fighting for the ideals for which Ikem, Chris, and others fell -- Ikem's words are both an inspirational legacy and a call for action. The oppression described in this work is not new. What is truly innovative is the creation of a new breed of fighters for justice -- male, female, young, old, urban, rural, illiterate, literate, middle class, working class, etc. -- who are going to pool all of their resources and use all just weapons of war to overcome tyranny. Fittingly, the baptismal ceremony for Ama[echina], the daughter of Ikem and Elewa (two fierce warriors for justice if ever there were warriors) serves as the starting point for this new beginning:
  16. She [Beatrice] picked up the tiny bundle from its cot and, turning to Elewa, said: "Name this child."
    "Na you go name am."
    "OK. You just saved a false step, anyway. Thanks. I will start afresh. . . .
    There was an Old Testament prophet who named his son The remnant shall return. They must have lived in times like this. We have a different metaphor, though; we have our own version of hope that springs eternal. We shall call this child AMAECHINA: May-the-path-never-close. Ama for short."
    "But that's a boy's name."
    "No matter."
    "Girl fit answer am also."
    "It's a beautiful name. The Path of Ikem."
    "That's right! May it never close, never overgrow."
    "Das right!"
    "May it always shine! The Shining Path of Ikem."
    "Dat na wonderful name."
    "Na fine name so." (206)

  17. That Amaechina will grow up in a world different from that of her parents and grand-parents, a world, to quote her late Uncle Chris, "which belongs to the people of the world not to any little caucus, no matter how talented" (215), is not in doubt. In the concluding scenes of the novel, Achebe emphasizes the point that it will take not only various committed groups and classes of society -- especially people of goodwill and fierce commitment -- to bring about positive change but also a real struggle for justice on all fronts. In the words of Abdul, the soldier turned double agent:
  18. "I say there is too much fighting in Kangan, too much killing. But fighting will not begin unless there is first a thrusting of fingers into eyes. Anybody who wants to outlaw fights must first outlaw the provocation of fingers thrust into eyes." (212)

  19. Abdul's analogy would most probably appeal to Syl Cheney-Coker of Sierra Leone. What Cheney-Coker seeks to do in his fiction and most of his poetry, as Achebe does in most of his novels, is to give not only a comprehensive and often bitter historical survey of his native Sierra Leone, thinly disguised in The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar as Malagueta, but also to show the need for genuine struggle as the true means for national liberation. In this latter work, Cheney-Coker documents how co-conspirators, indigenous and foreign to the country, gave rise to and even encouraged the savage exploitation of Sierra Leone's mineral and other resources. One can also surmise from the manner in which T. Obinkaram Echewa of Nigeria and Ahmadou Kourouma of the Ivory Coast depict the disastrous consequences of domestic and foreign exploitation of their respective countries, that they see history as a guide to understanding both the past and the present. What all four authors have in common, then, is a desire to serve as challengers both to the status quo of the present and to that of the past, a period often seen as once-glorious. The remaining three authors have chosen the historical novel as a major outlet to look back into the past in order to grapple with present realities. These writers also know, however, that using history as a guide to the present is a fairly commonplace procedure; they therefore have tried to include innovative strategies in their works. Above all, they have relied on the oral tradition as a major technical resource.
  20. The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar is an epic novel divided into four books, sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue, that spans the entire history of Sierra Leone.[5]. Using the familiar universe of realism and the chronological scope of the historical novel, it goes back to the time before the arrival of Pedro da Cintra, the Portuguese explorer who is supposed to have chosen the name Sera Lyoa (lion mountains) for what is now Sierra Leone and then combines elements of the fantastic and surreal plus actual historical details to show how the legendary Ausine Dunbar's dire predictions of the country's decline have come to pass. The world that Cheney-Coker creates is one in which we see verifiable historical forces at work, but it is also one that is not bound by regular notions of time and space. In parts, it seems like a combination of the worlds of Amos Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drinkard and Achebe's more 'realistic' worlds. Long before European intervention, for example, Alusine Dunbar (or Sulaiman the Nubian) accurately predicts, in very unflattering terms, the arrival of the Krios of Sierra Leone as well as the arrival of European colonialism:
  21. "One day a great disaster will take place here, and many years after that, black people from across the sea, who will be speaking a barbarous language, will come here with their wayward manners." He told them that although Almoravid diviners had come to Kasila [what is perhaps now Freetown, Sierra Leone] before him and had blessed the place and driven out all the djinns, there was nothing to save it from the plague of those people. But the citizens of Kasila were not to worry, because although the foreigners would control the place for one hundred and seventy-five years, and would establish a most spurious society with laughable manners, and would for a while live under the impression of being in control of their destinies, they would in the end be pushed aside by the 'tumultuous onslaught of the soapstone people.' Two hundred years later they would have become pieces in a museum, he concluded. (19)

    He is equally prescient and insulting about the coming of the Arabs:

    He revealed through the trembling looking glass at what time the scourge of the wandering Arabs would come, with their coral beads and Babylonian salt with which they would hypnotise the town and transmogrify the people. He announced with the incisiveness of a sabre that the town would grow lethargic again, and waking up would find the Arabs from the Shouf mountains, with their smell of garlic, their belch of onions, their parasitic breeding and pugnacious competitiveness, in charge of the town. (30)

  22. Dunbar also foresees the birth of "an emperor [Selassie] with a spurious claim to the lineage of the Queen of Sheba, who will feed meat to his lions" (21), the arrival of Jeanette Cromantine, the albino, and other characters. But the Nubian's predictions (right as they are) and his use of magic are only a small part of the fantastic world that Cheney-Coker creates. Readers are introduced very early to supernatural episodes such as the mysterious deaths of the guard dogs, the suicide-drowning of the hens, the disappearance of the "early warning" monkeys, and the actions of Fatmatta the bird-woman, the offspring of Sulaiman and his mistress, Mariatou.
  23. Fatmatta's genealogy, her supernatural powers, and the episode describing the aftermath of her wedding to Camara the "handsome man," who turns out to be an albino, help to hasten the pace of the narrative, but they also clearly demonstrate Cheney-Coker's indebtedness to the oral tradition. When he echoes a version of a story such as this one that is found not only in Tutuola's works but indeed in many West African folk tales, the author uses the well-known motif of the wedding of the 'complete gentleman' to make the supernatural seem quite natural. Soon he uses the extraordinary powers of the 'scorpion' in Fatmatta's eyes to wreak revenge on those who torment her and her people, both in and out of slavery. So instead of just discussing rape and other horrors of slavery (as Ouologuem does in Bound to Violence, for example), Cheney-Coker uses the 'scorpion' in her eyes as a weapon to fight back; it helps render Mr. McKinley, her rapist-owner, impotent.
  24. Related to the theme of personal exploitation (as is illustrated by the attempted rape episode of Fatmatta by Mr. McKinley) are larger issues such as the causes and consequences of subjugation and true human freedom. Because The Last Harmattan is about slavery and its effects on both sides of the Atlantic, Cheney-Coker furnishes the reader with vivid descriptions about the lives of former slaves as they try make a new home on the West African coast and those Africans who still try to keep their people in captivity. Led by the Martinses -- Gustavius and his African-born wife, Isatu -- and Jeanette Cromantine,the returnees very quickly establish a settlement in Malagueta. The bulk of the novel then focuses on this new beginning.
  25. Aided by new arrivals such as Rodrigo, the Brazilian, and (later on) by other characters such as the black civil war veteran, Thomas Bookerman, Louisa Turner, Phyllis Dundas, and the brothers Farmer -- Richard and Gabriel -- the settlers are able to create farms, set up shops, build schools and even escape from some of the hostile indigenous forces. The quasi-idyllic surroundings are soon disrupted, however, by British colonialism. Motivated by greed, a racial superiority complex, and a spirit of adventure, the British Captain Hammerstone invades Malagueta, leading to a prolonged stalemate between his forces and those of the nationalists led by Thomas Bookerman. The war between the colonialists and nationalists provides a good opportunity for Cheney-Coker not only to offer a running commentary on those Africans who, just as at the time of the slave trade, sided with the enemy, but also to demonstrate an effective use of the supernatural. In fact, we can say that it is in scenes such as this confrontation between Bookerman and Hammerstone that the writer makes some of his finest use of the fantastic. As Bookerman leads a funeral procession -- the largest crowd of black people that Hammerstone had seen since he had first encountered them during a stop in Louisiana -- to the cemetery, the captain imperiously tries to stop it:
  26. "Stop, or I shall shoot," warned Captain Hammerstone.
    A hawk circled in the sky looking for a chick. Somewhere in the distant quiet came the echo of a thousand feet marching like a trained army. Captain Hammerstone raised his revolver to shoot. He aimed at Thomas Bookerman with a hand that trembled with the anxiety of not wanting to do what it had been commanded to do, and he squeezed the trigger and waited for the resounding evidence of his action. But instead of Bookerman, he saw the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, looking straight at him with the deadly eyes of a scorpion. He heard the bullet ricochet against the shell of an animal that had swum in the deepest rivers, over the longest resources of time, before surfacing to the shore to torment men like him and others who had the temerity to interfere with the dance of the spirits on their journey to a different home. (169)

  27. As in several other episodes, this passage creates the impression that there is a Manichean struggle in which forces of good, beyond normal human control and for quite a while, outwit those of evil. Writing in a manner suggesting that realist or naturalist techniques may not always be the best ways to convey certain ideas, Cheney-Coker allows his fiction to respond more experimentally, more boldly to the world of the fantastic. The spirit of the dead Santigue Dambolla (Isatu Martins' father) thus provides disembodied protection for his living wife, Sawida, and family. The diviner, Modiba, prognosticates quite correctly that the Lebanese, derisively described as "a monstrous horde of coral-bead sellers" (191), would dominate the commercial interests of Malagueta. Santigue Dambolla also sends grotesque signals -- in the form of the identical twin dwarfs -- from the dead to provide an explanation for his daughter's miscarriages and then offers a remedy for Isatu's seeming barrenness. And like Alusine Dunbar years before him, Garbage Martins foresees the arrival of "Arab traders hawking coral beads" (258).
  28. But Cheney-Coker also stresses the point that even though the supernatural does help the Malaguetans to a certain extent, the self-destructive tendencies of these people is such that not even extraordinary forces could save them. They become extremely complacent and imitative, not innovative, and are concerned only with tyranny and "illusory development":
  29. [Thomas Bookerman] viewed with contempt the beginnings of the rise of an oligarchy: men who only yesterday were shopkeepers with bad teeth and could barely read now ordered evening jackets in black Venetians and hopsacks; women who only yesterday were content to wear hand-me-downs and keep clean houses had taken to buying gold and parading in silk and brocade at church services.
    "Dis is inevitable," he told Phyllis. "Dey over de hill, and now dey want to have balls and parties like their masters in de other place." Nor was he surprised by the awe and respect with which some of the Malaguetans were beginning to recall the place which only a few years ago they had been only to eager to escape. (213)

  30. What we see in passages such as this one is clearly a shift in authorial attitude. Instead of presenting a situation where the supernatural is used to protect the Malaguetans, the author provides us with realistic descriptions of some of the internal and external conflicts that contribute to the collapse of the settlement. With snobbery, lack of imagination, and masochism becoming the norm among the powerful, it is not surprising that this phase of the Malaguetans' life comes to a climax with the imposition of white rule. In spite of the best efforts of fighting men such as Gustavius Martins, Sebastian Cromantine, Gabriel Farmer, Bookerman, and the 'women without men' such as Isatu Martins, Phyllis Dundas, and Jeanette Cromantine, the country quickly becomes a colony. Indeed, we now begin to see Alusine Dunbar's predictions enacted. By the time the visionary Garbage Martins -- son of Isatu and Gustavius -- meets with Alusine Dunbar and learns some more about the country's history, personages and impending doom, it is already too late. We are told that "nothing in [Dunbar's] occult weaponry had prepared for the vandalism that greeted him" when he comes back back a hundred and fifty years later. "The destruction has started," he says (289). Significantly, for Cheney-Coker as an artist and a Krio of slave ancestry, the pain as well as the distortions of slavery and colonialism are major but not the exclusive causes of Sierra Leone's problems. Continually using battles that help to define apocalyptic writing, he documents some of the other reasons for the country's misery: treachery, avarice, superiority, and inferiority complexes, and so on.
  31. Cheney-Coker often evokes folk beliefs and mystical powers as a means of partially explaining this destruction. He makes it clear that, although the Malaguetans may have brought some of these upon themselves, there is still a possibility of temporal salvation if they can use some of the attributes of traditional society -- human warmth, a concern for the feeling of others, and so on -- to do the right thing [5]. That is why when the mantle of leadership is passed on to Garbage, Alusine Dunbar reappears as his mentor, and aided by the spirit of Fatmatta the bird woman, Garbage is finally able to get rid of the colonialist 'snake' Hammerstone. But the negative changes in Malagueta have already been too dominant and the rest of the novel focuses on the rapid decline that leads eventually to the attempted coup with which the work starts. Betrayal, greed, misplaced priorities, a strong sense of decadence, and cultural and moral sterility merely pave the way for the tyrannical state that marks the beginning of the novel.
  32. One of the most interesting and strangest debuts in African fiction, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar is probably the closest thing Sierra Leone has to a national epic. No author has set out more determinedly to capture in fiction the hopes, aspirations, false contributions, disappointments and despair of the Sierra Leonean people. The novel's scope, its inclusion of legendary heroes and heroines, its actions consisting of some acts of great valor, the presence of the supernatural, its myths of origins, the use of Alusine Dunbar as griot and the general use of elevated language, all help to emphasize the work's epic quality. This epic, however, is not a mere panegyric to the past: it is one that strains toward a vision of a genuinely new dawn. The author's sense of national history is one marked by revolutions in both thought and action, and by various struggles for liberation. The basic notion behind Cheney-Coker's prose seems to be a reminder to most Sierra Leoneans that their enemies are parts of the past and of the present; these enemies include both Sierrs Leoneans and their foreign allies. The will not only to survive but also to lead a better life, he suggests, should therefore push his compatriots to choose on which side of the battle lines they want to be.
  33. If we accept that the theme of Cheney-Coker's novel is a fictional history in epic form of the rise, fall, and possible resurrection of a potential paradise, we can see the literary affinities it shares with Ahmadou Kourouma's Monnè, outrages et défi. In this novel, Kourouma also uses elements of the folk tradition to focus on the transformation and systematic degradation of a country with immense natural and other resources, from the time before European colonialism to the neocolonial period of post-independence. Kourouma stresses that the seasons of Monnè (woes or pain) that are played out in this fictional country (Ivory Coast?) had been envisioned centuries before and could have been avoided. They had been foretold way back in the twelfth century and, in fact, several messages had been sent to confirm that prediction. Djigui, the king of Soba, rejects the first messenger, claiming that the Europeans "ne pourront la passer que s'ils réussissent la tache impossible de reconstituer tes effets. Ils resteront englués comme des oiseaux pris au piège sur Kouroufi" (19) [could only get through if they performed the impossible feat of putting your belongings together. They will be stuck to the Kouroufi like birds caught in a trap].[6] With the advice of his supporters, he also dismisses a total of eight other emissaries who announce defeats of kings such as N'Diaye of Djolof and Ahmadou of Segou. Djigui then swears allegiance to Samory Touré, the legendary West African warrior-leader, but even this action is not enough to save Djigui and his people:
  34. Sur le chemin de retour, trois nuits successivement, Djigui fut réveillé par le meme cauchemar. Il était l'Almamy, un homme seul, assis dans sa peau de pri're, qui chaque après-midi. . . . C'est un rêve qui toute la vie reviendrait chaque fois qu'il se
    souviendrait de Samory. Les devins avaient expliqué qu'il signifiait que l'Afrique, un jour, ne verrait pas pendant d'interminables saisons, de nuit tomber. . . . (27)
    [On the return trip home Djigui was awakened three nights in a row by the same nightmare. He was the Almamy, a man alone, seated in his prayer skin, which every day.... This is a dream that would come back to him all his life long whenever he thought of Samory. The diviners had explained that it meant that there would come a period of interminable seasons when Africa would never see nightfall. . . . ]

    This nightmare becomes a reality a few years later when Djigui's fortifications (both physical and metaphysical) are destroyed, marking the beginning of colonial rule. The novel ends with neocolonialism firmly in place.

  35. As Kourouma takes readers on this historical journey, he indicates in very explicit ways the debt he owes to the African oral tradition. In fact, his deft manipulation of some of the various resources of oral communication helps to him convey his message as forcefully and as convincingly as he does. [7] We see this very early in his use of language. Speaking more in the manner of Achebe's narrators than, say, those of Laye, Oyono or most other francophone authors, Kourouma's narrator often uses the folk vernacular:
  36. Il les rappela ensuite.
    ---- Qui poss'de une mauvaise réputation ne ramasse pas de cadavre de chèvre derrière le village sans que naissent des soupçons. Sinon, qui sait ici l'intention réele du commandant? . . . Une chose cependant reste claire comme la paulme de la grenouille, et Bernier le savait bien. Yacouba n'est pas sans propriétaire et l'on ne frappe pas le chien dans les jambes de son maître sans frapper le maître. (175)
    [Then he reminded them.
    ---One who has a bad reputation can't pick up the corpse of a goat at the back of the village without giving rise to suspicions. Otherwise who here knows the commandant's real intentions? One thing remains clear, however, as the palm of a frog, and Bernier knew that. Yacouba is not without property and you don't hit a dog in his master's legs without hitting his master.]

  37. Kourouma's griots and interpreters commonly use the everyday language, proverbs, myths, and legends of their people because these interlocutors are aware of how such linguistic instruments can facilitate easy communication. But the author is also quite alert to the potentially manipulative uses of language. It is not surprising, then, that interpreters in this novel become mere mouthpieces, distorters and de facto enforcers of repressive laws and social customs. The interpreters scheme with colonialists, linguistically and otherwise, in the various forms of exploitation and degradation of the African people, especially women:
  38. "Le lieutenant sélectionna, parmi les filles peules vierges, les quatre ayant la peau la plus claire et le nez le plus droit; elles furent réservés aux deux Blancs. . . . L'interprète commanda qu'on les conduisit au marigot et les nettoyât dans tous les recoins et particulièrement sous les cache-sexe; elles étaient trop sales pour être consommées crues". (56)
    [The lieutenant selected, among the Peul virgin girls, the four who had the lightest skin and straightest nose; they were reserved for the two White men. . . . The interpreter ordered them to be taken to the stream and washed in every nook and cranny and especially under the panties; they were too filthy to be consumed raw.]

    The interpreters also use flattery to coopt traditional rulers (Djigui, for example) for the colonialist cause; and they refrain deliberately and in a self-serving manner from translating the truth about "le dénuement des villages . . . l'indigence des gens. . . . Les pays de Soba sont devenus exsangues" [the destitution of the villages . . . the indigence of the people. . . . The lands of the Soba have been bled to death] (110). Not surprisingly, the interpreters refuse to provide genuine information about World War ll, the French government's collaboration with Hitler, and especially about the large numbers of Africans being used as cannon fodder under Pétain's direction. In fact, Soumaré the interpreter, described as "la nocturne clabaud du commandant" [the commandant's nocturnal watchdog or gossipmonger] (115), confirms this linguistic conspiratorial role when he allows that his promotion to a civil service job is "une promotion que j'ai méritée pour mon rôle dans la pacification rapide, sans effusion de sang, des pays du Soba" ["a promotion that I earned for my role in the rapid, bloodless, pacification of Sobaland"] (70).

  39. The language manipulators, however, turn out to be just one of the many groups of exploiters. In scenes that eerily look like duplications and metaphorical representations of some contemporary events, the griot, who exaggeratedly comments that "Rien de plus méchant pour un Noir qu'un autre Noir" [Nothing is more spiteful for a black than another black], describes how some Africans have compounded the suffering and harsh treatment of their compatriots:
  40. Le pauvre diable capturé dans son village et descendu à Soba travaillait chez le sicaire, le représentant, le chef de canton et l'interprète gratuitement; l'interprète, le chef de canton, le représentant et le sicaire vendaient le travail du fatigué au plus offrant. Le système fonctionna si bien qu'on vit des hommes ayant quitté leurs villages effectuer six mois de travail au noir nègre (s'ils ne réussissaient pas à déserter) avant d'être présentés au Blanc complètement vides, maigres et maladies (les employeurs noirs nourrissaient très mal les manÏuvres à leur service (84).
    [The poor devil captured in his village and taken down to Soba would work for the hired assassin, the representative, the canton chief and the interpreter for free; the interpreter, the canton chief, the representative and the hired assassin would sell the labor of the worn-out soul to the highest bidder. The system worked so well that one saw men who had left their villages put in six months of black-market work (if they did not manage to run away) before being handed over to the White man, completely drained, skinny and ill (black employers provided very little food for laborers intheir service)].

    Anyone reading Monnè will quickly notice Kourouma's introduction of several sub-plots into the narrative, but the reader will also realize that the writer's overall concern is with freedom and the African's relationship to those evils that threaten freedom: tyranny, racism, bigotry, sexism, superstition, and dictatorship, among others. In fact, one can say that what manifests itseslf as a real kinship of artistic spirits between Kourouma and the other writers discussed in this essay is their call to people of good will to wage total, unrelenting war against the forces of domination and reaction. In discussing these seemingly intractable human problems, Kourouma allows us to see his need of the traditional resources of African story telling. This point needs some expansion.

  41. Clearly, Cheney-Coker and Kourouma want to elaborate on ideas expressed in novels such as Ouologuem's Bound to Violence and Armah's Two Thousand Seasons, two historical novels which stress that human exploitation is not merely skin- or color-based. Kourouma realizes that the sheer scope of the Monnè or woes (a perfectly acceptable -- and perhaps preferable term to monnew, which is used in the English translation of this novel -- in many West African languages) is such that he needs the kind of linguistic and cultural flexibility that will enable him to move rapidly between the distant historical past and a very modern present. This is why he does not rely on a single griot who remembers everything or a collective group of 'rememberers' to narrate the story. The character known as the Centenarian is, of course, the main repository of history and power; he is allowed to experience it all. Having arrived at age 125, when he seems to have stopped counting birthdays, he has not only experienced many forms of betrayal and treachery, famine, illness, death wars, in his own country, but also has visited his spiritual and cultural holy lands: Mecca and Paris. And being a wily old rascal purportedly armed even with some supernatural powers, he seems fully equipped to deliver information on legendary material, genealogy, historical data, and aspects of the future.
  42. But Kourouma makes it clear that problems such as senility, political instability, and so forth might prevent Djigui from paying attention to all of these details; so in accordance with an implied desire to give the reader the whole picture, the novelist allows other griot-narrators (Djeliba, Faudoua) to take over. The presence of these different voices -- and these are voices who for the most part want to be heard -- is one of Kourouma's most effective means of passing judgment on individual characters, on traditional Africa and its structures, on Europe and its colonial functionaries, and on all of those who simply want to bring in "les autres mythes: la lutte pour l'unité nationale, pour le développement, le socialisme, la paix, l'autosuffisance alimentaire, et les indépendances économiques; et aussi le combat contre la sécheresse et la famine, la guerre à la corruption, au tribalisme, au népotisme, à la déliquance, à l'exploitation de l'homme par l'homme" (287) [the new myths: the struggle for national unity, for development, for socialism, for peace, for nutritional self-sufficiency, and for economic independence; and also the fight against drought and famine, the battle against corruption, tribalism, nepotism, juvenile delinquency, exploitation of humans by their fellow humans] (287). Kourouma makes evident in statements such as these the types of cosmic battles between mighty opposites that must be fought if Africa is to become a genuinely free place. The confrontations between the perpetrators and their myths -- used in the derogatory sense of lies -- on the one hand, and the rest of the people on the other, must be understood by Africans if they are to know who is on the side of the enemy. Implied in all of this is a denial of all empty routines and false ethnic, racial, gender, or other essentialist solidarities. In other words, like Achebe, Cheney-Coker and Echewa, Kourouma disgards as solutions for his country's (and possibly Africa's) problems all comforting pieties devoid of meaningful action.
  43. My concern up to this point has been to show how Cheney-Coker and Kourouma use elements of traditional African oral communication to present events covering vast periods of time: events beginning in the thirteenth century in one work and in the fifteenth century in the other, and with both ending in the post-colonial period of the twentieth century. T. Obinkaram Echewa does not go that far back in I Saw the Sky Catch Fire, but his sense of history and the techniques he uses to make history his subject matter are no less significant or impressive. Using an actual war that had been fought between the Igbo women of Nigeria and British colonialists in 1929 as his focal point, Echewa makes expert use of the art of story-telling, of song and dance, and of conversational tone to convey his message. The powerful and important theme of how solidarity, fairness, and determination not only can stop tyranny but also can bring genuine liberation to all concerned forms the core of this novel. Thus, although the story is told primarily by and about women, Echewa wields the beauty and efficacy of African oral story-telling so that the work's ultimate meaning goes beyond the immediate experiences of the women. [8] His two-part narrative deals with several subjects: remembering, learning, forgiveness, understanding, courage, betrayal, determination, and so on. But what is underlined more than anything else is how the presence of solidarity, fairness, and determination will make a good home better, a loving family more loving, and a strong people more powerful. The appeal of such virtues should not mislead readers into thinking that Echewa is preaching an idealistic message about some lost paradise that is waiting to be regained. Rather, he seems to propose that a sensible solution to some of Africa's socio-cultural problems might lie in Africans reclaiming a way of life that had been present in many of their communities but that had also been traditionally gendered as female. No wonder he suggests, corollarily, that the absence of all of these virtues can lead only to slavery, in one form or the other, and ultimately to destruction.
  44. As the twenty-year-old Ajuziogu is preparing to leave his native village for Lagos en route to the States for higher education, he is given a thorough, tremendously enlightening and witty history lesson by his co-protagonist, his grandmother, Nne-nne. What starts off as a traditional valedictory speech by Nne-nne, Ajuziogu's only living relative, becomes a sustained monologue on several issues: Nne-nne's experiences in life (especially as a woman), male-female relationships in traditional African society, the disastrous consequences of domination of any kind (be it racial, sexual, or otherwise), cowardice, bravery, and a testimony about the solidarity of women, also known as "Oha-Ndom." Making the reader aware at every turn that the literary pedigree of this novel can be traced to the folk tradition of his people, Echewa allows the aged and experienced grandmother to exploit the full resources of oral tradition -- proverbs, riddles, fables, legends, myths, figures of speech dealing with nature, agriculture, etc. -- to teach her grandson about the long history of female abuse (physical and verbal). More significantly, she stresses the consequences of such behavior. Using an arsenal of rich and subtle techniques, Echewa works out various strategems that he thinks will help move Nigeria forward. One such strategy is his use of the theme of reconciliation.
  45. Reconciliation with both the beauties and the horrors of the past seems to be Nne-nne's watchword as she bids farewell to Ajuziogu, her grandson. This theme is sounded throughout the text. She jolts Ajuziogu and the reader into listening to her account of female oppression through distinctive techniques of narration and description. In rhetoric typical of her speaking style, this is how she describes the role of woman in the cycle of life:
  46. A woman is truly a hen. Every part of her body is demanded as sacrifice to one juju or another. No, less than a hen. A woman is nothing. Yet, a woman is everything! If a man is high like a tower, a woman is deep like a well! If a man is a mountain, a woman is the ocean! A woman is like a god! A woman's crotch is a juju shrine before which men always kneel and worship. It is their door into this world. That is why we always sing the Crotch Song whenever a baby is born. . . . Yet, men say, Nwanyi abugh ihie! A woman is nothing. (14)

  47. Nne-nne spends the bulk of the first part of the novel expounding four major issues for Ajuziogu: the bullying of women by men and its corollary, the cowardice often displayed by the men; the causes of the different war(s)-- anti-colonial, anti-tax, anti-male oppression, and anti-hostile traditions; the role of African co-conspirators in the exploitation of their motherland; the positive effects of solidarity and support on the individual or the group. We notice that whether she is describing the differences between the way the men fought their battles and the manner in which the women fought theirs or whether she is describing other events, the means chosen by Nne-nne to instruct her grandchild are totally in accord with her own personality: simple yet knowing, comprehensible but also uncompromisingly tough on principle, straight-forward, humorous (when necessary), and objective.
  48. You heard of the Enyimba War at Agalaba Uzo ten years ago, which started because a White man shot six men to death for refusing to dig coal for him at Elugwu. The men were imitating Ndom ("modern type of housewife," according to the book's glossary) then, but how long did they last. One week and no more. Yes, Ndom was like bush fire in the dry season. Ndom put down babies, market baskets, farm baskets, weeding hoes, and pounding pestles. Doused their cooking stands with water and asked their husbands to fend for themselves and feed the babies. . . . Nwa-D.C. [District Commissioner] thought he could buy peace by handing over the chieftaincy caps of all the Yellow Cap Chiefs that were the cause of the trouble. Ndom took the caps but continued fighting. The White man thought he could buy peace with Ndom by putting Chief Njoku Alaribe of Ikpatu Ala in prison. Ndom set the prison on fire, freed the prisoners, sat on the head warder, and captured Chief Alaribe. The White man took Ugbala hostage. Ndom took the White woman hostage.
    "Ala hentu!"
    The earth heaved! The earth heaved and heaved again in many places at once! (11)

    Her point in this and several other vignettes -- such as those dealing with Ufo-Aku and her brother-in-law, (11-13), the conflict between Chief Onyiri-Dike and Ndom (80-81), and Ahunze "the Impossible Wife" and the men of Ama-Nkwo (125-126) -- is the same. Instead of the men providing support (not necessarily protection) for their fellow citizens (the women) and defense of their land and traditions, they simply behave like bullies and cowards. They fight very hard to trample the rights of women while tolerating the worst forms of oppression from colonialists.

  49. The contemporary quality of the anguish expressed in I Saw the Sky Catch Fire is highlighted and reinforced by Nne-nne's chatty, even conspiratorial tone. Because her rhetoric suggests not only her closeness to Ajuziogu but also her credibility as a narrator with axes to grind only for genuine offenses, the reader is drawn quite easily to 'witness' the events and personalities being presented. Nne-nne's ability to provide concrete, at times repetitive, but also convincing evidence in non-convoluted ways -- a technique crucial for story-telling in oral societies -- makes her stories of abuse, ignoble behavior, and regressive traditions sound quite convincing. In fact, the college-educated ethnologist, Mrs. Elizabeth Ashby-Jones, completely misinterprets this manner of narration and interpretation of phenomena when she conjectures (that's the kind of language Ashbury-Jones would use) that perhaps the African cannot think logically because they observed and were able to translate their observations into witticisms and proverbs, but never went beyond discrete proverbial observation. No abstraction or series of abstractions linked by some rule of logical formulation into hypotheses and theories. Thinking (cogitation), in other words. How did they think? she wondered. (98-99)
  50. By making Nne-nne describe and emphasize her world in terms she knows best rather than in modes valorized by official Western discourse, Echewa enables the reader to move with ease from the grand issues of the society to very personal ones, such as the incongruous demands of society on the individual. The themes of subjugation and liberation (female or otherwise) are not presented through pretentious or detached theories and discussions but through simple stories and analogies. The story of the encounter between the fanatical census-taker Sam-el, or of the 'unstoppable counter' who kicks a defenseless pregnant woman and the women who take their revenge on him, seem more convincing, and have the potential of generating more empathy from the reader, than documents produced by 'cogitators' would have been. Correspondingly, the benefits of solidarity and a united front are stressed not by political doctrines or scholarly documents but by several fine descriptions and reenactments of actions taken by women. Nne-nne and her colleagues do not only tell Ashby-Jones about solidarity; they act it out and extend it to her during her captivity. It is also in this vein that Nne-nne handles other subjects such as the arrogance of colonialism, the real danger of domestic violence, and clitoridectomy.
  51. But Echewa's manipulation of Igbo oral traditions does not end with the use of a female griot and her expertise in the verbal arts, masterful as those are. Group performance, which traditional society encourages as much as solo performance, also takes center stage: "Back in 1929, Ndom had decided that the best way to fight the seemingly invincible White man was not with guns or strong talk, but with Ebube Ndom, the awesomeness of the Solidarity of All Womanhood, the Mother and Nurturer of all humankind, kneaded together by Mgbara Ala, the Goddess of the Unity of All Land" (204). In addition, traditional metaphysical explanations are provided to account for certain occurrences. Nne-nne attributes supernatural power -- Ebube -- to the old man, Nwa-Agwu, who inflicts chills on a school teacher, Mr. Ukah, when the latter unwittingly insults him; she also attributes them to another villager, Koon-Tiri, whose Ebube allowed him to pin "Fada [Father] Getz, the R.C.M. (Roman Catholic Mission) priest at Agalaba Uzo, as he was saying Mass, and the priest could not recite the words he supposed to say at Consecration, but kept repeating Hoc est enim . . . Hoc est enim . . . like a scratched record" (196). Adding an ironic twist by making some role reversals in the use of the spiritual, commonly found in apocalyptic writing, Echewa exploits episodes such as these to show how the battle in this millennium will also include revaluations of academic as well as spiritual leaders in society.
  52. As I stated previously, Echewa shares with Cheney-Coker and Kourouma not only a common interest in the oral culture of Africa but also an interest in the manner in which such folk wisdom can be used for human liberation. This position is made quite evident in the closing scenes of I Saw the Sky Catch Fire. In these final pages, the same set of issues that had confronted men and women are magnified because they become very personal and immediate for one of the co-protagonists, Ajuziogu. When he returns from the United States he has come full circle in the process of acquiring traditional as well as non-traditional wisdom. Nne-nne has been waiting for him not only because she wants to see him one last time and bequeath the land to him but, especially, because she wants to give him a final lesson on two of her favorite subjects: solidarity and fairness.
  53. This lesson is necessitated by the problem Ajuziogu is confronted with upon his return. His wife Stella, whom he had left for five years while studying abroad, is now pregnant for another man. As with many humans whose egos and pride are often hurt for being subjected to the same kinds of experiences they would most likely subject other people to, Ajuziogu's instinctive reaction (although unstated) is to abandon Stella. It is at this stage that the three most important women in Ajuziogu's life -- Nne-nne, Mama-Stella, and Stella herself -- help him understand and come to terms with the fact that where there is unity and fairness even the most intractable problems can be resolved. This is a lesson from which the society at large can benefit. Undoubtedly, Echewa's sense of regeneration is reflected in the strength and power he places in the female community. Urging the men, both implicitly and explicitly, to respond to the interests, values, and assumptions of a changing world, he provides us with situations in which all individuals -- and especially men -- must make a determined effort to heal rifts cuaserd by evils such as traditional patriarchy, colonialism, neocolonialism, and diasporic misunderstandings and tensions. One method he recommends is for society to learn, quite frankly, from its female members. The beginning of this healing and learning process is unmistakably underscored at the very end of I Saw the Sky Catch Fire. The novel concludes with a new side of Ajuziogu beginning to emerge. Rebuffing the counsel of De-Odermelanem, a potent symbol of the old ways of thinking, and one of his late father's friends, Ajuziogu begins to show that the true manhood is not a battle of men against women, but a fight of men with women against all that is unjust. In fact, the reader is left with the distinct impression that it is in Stella's yet to be born child (and whohas also now become Ajuziogu's child), representing progressive man and woman (like Achebe's Amaechina in Anthills), that Africa's future lies.
  54. * * *

  55. In Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, Chinweizu, Jemie and Madubuike launch some angry, vituperative and, at times, even unjustified attacks on those writers and critics of African literatures whom they deem to be Eurocentric. One of the biggest and most positive contributions this "troika," as Soyinka derisively calls them, has made, however, is in calling attention to and stressing the need for exploring the full range of devices available for making African novels not only more flexible but also more authentic to local experience:
  56. If a flavor of African life is therefore to be captured in novels written in English , the English [or any other] language has to be flexed and bent to allow those idiomatic and rhetorical usages to be presented. . . .
    If the stylistic features of African oral narrative are to be captured, it is necessary that the full range of linguistic resources of African prose traditions be rendered in English. Proverbs, legends, fables, puns, jokes, similes, metaphors, allusions, declamatory speech, rhetorical devices of conversation and public oratory -- these are just some of the resources that need to be marshaled and so rendered that their flavor comes out in English. (262-63)

  57. In fact, Achebe, Cheney-Coker, Echewa, and Kourouma seem to have heeded their advice. These authors have capitalized on resources such as apocalyptic imagery and aspects of the oral tradition to make very convincing points about what should be done about West Africa's future. [9] Indeed if, as is often the case, it is agreed that a literary genre is like a family composed of mutable members who nonetheless exhibit essential likenesses, we can say that these new historical novels are testimony to the living nature of genre. By using some elements of apocalyptic writing and by employing rhetorical devices from the African oral tradition, Achebe, Cheney-Coker, Echewa, and Kourouma indicate ways in which readers of West African literature might approach the new millennium with revaluedcultural weapons. Because, in essence, these authors see the genuine liberation of the West Africans they are depicting as central to their craft. The battle, they seem to suggest, is far from being won, and it will not be won merely by using empty moral jeremiads, as some previous protagonists of West African fiction seemed to think. These authors point to concrete ways in which the new century might become better than most of the preceding ones have been for West Africa.


Notes

  1. Metzger and Coogan; for more definitions of the apocalypse and fine reviews of apocalyptic writing, see Ahearn, Keller, Montgomery, and Weber. Back
  2. Montgomery 4-5. Despite minor qualms about Montgomery's unreserved acceptance of some essentialist statements John Mbiti makes about futurity and the hereafter among Africans, I still find her study quite interesting and relevant to aspects of my essay. Back
  3. Enekwe 35. Immediately following the publication of Anthills of the Savannah, many of the essays written on that novel, like Enekwe's, tended to focus on the theme of dictatorships (military and civilian). Some more recent essays, such as Leonard A. Podis and Yakubu Saaka's "Anthills of the Savannah and Petals of Blood: The Creation of a Usable Past," tend to contrast the corrupt present with a much more bearable, perhaps even magnificent, past. Thus, Podis and Saaka, comparing Anthills with Ngugi's Petals of Blood, suggest that: "Thematically, too, both novels express, and attempt to resolve, a complex ambivalence towards sociocultural modernization, recognizing its powerful appeal, but criticizing it for its association with corruption and for its ill fit with traditional values and contemporary cultural needs" (294-295). While the idealization of the past is certainly not as strong as they seem to suggest in any of the novels I am discussing here, Podis and Saaka are quite correct when they hint of a new Jerusalem in the person of Ama Amechina, Elewa and Ikem's daughter, and her generation (297). Back
  4. Although I first read Obioma Nnaemeka's essay (137-160) only after my essay had been accepted for publication, I found her piece to be quite stimulating. Not only is it enlightening in its treatment of gender relations, it is also quite effective in its presentation of the combination of both the African oral and the Judaeo-Christian traditions in Achebe's works. Back
  5. A fine critical analysis of Syl Cheney-Coker's The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar is Brenda Cooper's chapter "The Plantation Blood in his Veins: Syl Cheney-Coker and The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar" (115-155). I may not always agree with Cooper's analysis of the novel (for example, I think she seems to have missed Cheney-Coker's ironic treatment of aspects of traditional African life when she refers to the "novel's politically conservative urge towards the myth of past origins -- the base of national reconstruction"(154). But even if one takes issue with a few specifics of Cooper's reading, one cannot help but recognize the considerable power of her fundamental arguments. Back
  6. The translations into English from Monnè are mine, although I also read Nidra Polleer's translation, entitled Monnew. Back
  7. Critics have often, and quite rightly, highlighted Kourouma's indebtedness to the African oral tradition. Ahmadou Koné provides careful documentation and ample discussion of such use in his work. As an example of Koné's efforts, let us look at what he says of Kourouma and the latter's use of African oral culture, especially his native Malinke language: " La réussite de Kourouma vient de l'adéquation heureuse entre la langue française adaptée judicieusement à l'imaginaire malinké. . . . La volonté de Kourouma de décrire de l'intérieur son imaginaire africain l'a amené à écrire deux langues à la fois. Kourouma écrit une langue française mue par la langue malinké. La réalisation de cette langue double qui a déjà surpris, charmé, ou choqué, n'a été possible que grâce à un système qui montre toute sa fiabilité dans Monnè, outrages et défis. . . . Au delà des mots, on peut en effet remarquer dans la langue du roman des tournures d'esprit africaine, des proverbs, bref, ce qu'on peut appeler les formes conventionnelles" (156-158). [Kourouma's success comes from the pleasant appropriateness between the French language adapted judiciously to the imaginary Malinké. . . . Kourouma's desire to describe his imaginary African from the inside led him to write two languages at the same time. Kourouma writes a French language transformed by the Malinké language. The fulfillment of this double language which already surprised, charmed, or shocked, was only made possible thanks to a system which shows all its reliability in Monnè, outrages et défi. . . . Beyond words, one can indeed notice in the language of the novel turns of phrase with an African bent, proverbs, in short, what one calls conventional forms.] Back
  8. Combining and applying theories of translation, linguistics, genre criticism, ethnography, and semiotics, Bella Brodzki provides a rich and rewarding analysis of this Echewa novel. Her statement that "Echewa's ensemble of narrative strategies in this richly textured novel, in particular its foregrounding of the complicity between translation and ethnography, is a version of resistant translation" (218) is right on target. Back
  9. All four writers discussed here also seem mindful of a most important point made by Eileen Julien about the relationship between orality and the written literatures of Africa. While these authors recognize and celebrate the significant role of their respective oral cultures, they do not deify those cultures. As Julien remarks, "To exalt orality and oral traditions, then, is as ultimately sterile and blinding as to malign them. The exaggerated dichotomy between the orality of Africa and the writing of Europe took in the past a different form (orality as primitive/writing as evolved) which we have long dismissed. But it nevertheless reproduces itself as the object of literary criticism in the propensity to elevate the oral mode and world above the literate/technological one" (23). Back


Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor, 1987.

---. A Man of the People. London: Heinemann, 1969.

---. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1968

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. London: Heinemann, 1968.

___. Two Thousand Seasons. London: Heinemann, 1979.

Ahearn, Edward J. Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1996.

Brodzki, Bella. "History, Cultural Memory, and the Tasks of Translation in T. Obinkaram Echewa's I Saw the Sky Catch Fire." PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 2 (March 1999): 207-220.

Cheney Coker, Syl. The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, Vol. l. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1983.

Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing With a Third Eye. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Echewa, T. Obinkaram. I Saw the Sky Catch Fire. New York: Plume, 1992.

Enekwe, Onuora Ossie. "Chinua Achebe's Novels." In Perspectives on Nigerian Literature 1700 to the Present, Vol. Two. Ed. Yemi Ogunbiyi. Lagos: Guardian Books, 1988. 31-37.

Julien, Eileen. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.

Keller, Catherine. Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Koné, Ahmadou. Des Textes oraux au roman moderne: Étude sur les avatars de la tradition orale dans le roman ouest-africain. Frankfurt: Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 1993.

Kourouma, Ahmadou. Monnè, outrages et défi. Paris: Seuil, 1990.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993: 34-36.

Montgomery, Maxin Lavon. The Apocalypse in African-American Fiction. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996.

Nnaemeka, Obioma. "Gender Relations and Critical Mediation: From Things Fall Apart to Anthills of the Savannah." In Challenging Hierachies: Issues and Themes in Postcolonial African Literature,. Ed. Leonard A. Podis and Yakubu Saaka. New York, Washington, D.C: Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 137-160.

Ouologuem, Yambo. Bound to Violence. London: Sphere, 1973.

Podis, Leonard A.and Yakubu Saaka. "Anthills of the Savannah and Petals of Blood: The Creation of a Usable Past." In Challenging Hierachies: Issues and Themes in Postcolonial African Literature. Ed. Leonard A. Podis and Yakubu Saaka. New York, Washington, D.C: Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 294-309.

Weber, Eugen. Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1999.


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