Literature Studies Site

Examples of Post Colonial Writing: African Prose


The following extracts from three African novels provide useful material for comparison. The novels are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, from Nigeria, A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi, from Kenya, and Martha Quest by the white writer Doris Lessing from Zimbabwe, Rhodesia at the taime of the novel. Things Fall Apart deals with the time of the first arrival of white Christian Missionaries in Iboland, or Nigeria, while A Grain of Wheat has at its centre the day of Uhuru, or Independence for Kenya. However, like many post colonial novels, its narrative chronology is disturbed and the narrative switches repeatedly between Independence Day and the difficult past that has led up to it. The central character in Martha Quest has English parents and the novel deals largely with the immigrant population, largely English, Dutch and Jewish. Martha is filled with political idealism, particularly on matters of race, and the novel deals with this and her failures of will.

For extracts from poetry, click here.

Things Fall Apart

Extract 1
This extract comes from an early part of the novel and introduces the central character. It also introduces some of the values and way of life of the Ibo people in Nigeria at the time the first white settlers arrived.

Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion — to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. He was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue. But his wives and young children were not as strong, and so they suffered. But they dared not complain openly. Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating. And so Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth.

Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the ‘medicine house’ or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children.

Things Fall Apart

Extract 2
This extract describes a funeral ceremony with great detail and care. It is noisy and frenzied. Note that Achebe makes no apology for the ceremony and no explanation of events and customs. The reader is invited to respond to the experience and gain what understanding (s)he might. The passage shows a vibrant culture with strong traditions and beliefs, all of which are under threat with the arrival of the white missionaries.
Note also Achebe's use of the Ibo word egwugwu, the goads or ancestral spirits. Though he is writing in English, this word has no direct translation, so he uses it, again without explanation or apology.

Ezeudu was a great man, and so all the clan was at his funeral. The ancient drums of death beat, guns and cannon were fired, and men dashed about in frenzy, cutting down every tree or animal they saw. jumping over walls and dancing on the roof. It was a warrior’s funeral, and from morning till night warriors came and went in their age-groups. They all wore smoked raffia skirts and their bodies were painted with chalk and charcoal. Now and again an ancestral spirit or egwugwu appeared from the underworld, speaking in a tremulous, unearthly voice and completely covered in raffia. Some of them were very violent, and there had been a mad rush for shelter earlier in the day when one appeared with a sharp matchet and was only prevented from doing serious harm by two men who restrained him with the help of a strong rope tied round his waist. Sometimes he turned round and chased those men, and they ran for their lives. But they always returned to the long rope he trailed behind. He sang, in a terrifying voice, that Ekwenzu, or Evil Spirit, had entered his eye.

But the most dreaded of all was yet to come. He was always alone and was shaped like a coffin. A sickly odour hung in the air wherever he went, and flies went with him. Even the greatest medicine-men took shelter when he was near. Many years ago another egwugwu had dared to stand his ground before him and had been transfixed to the spot for two days. This one had only one hand and with it carried a basket full of water.

But some of the egwugwu were quite harmless. One of them was so old and infirm that he leaned heavily on a stick. He walked unsteadily to the place where the corpse was laid, gazed at it a while and went away again — to the underworld.

The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.

Ezeudu had been the oldest man in the village, and at his death there were only three men in the whole clan who were older, and four or five others in his own age-group. Whenever one of these ancient men appeared in the crowd to dance unsteadily the funeral steps of the tribe, younger men gave way and the tumult subsided.

It was a great funeral, such as befitted a noble warrior. As the evening drew near, the shouting and the firing of guns, the beating of drums and the brandishing and clanging of matchets increased.

Ezeudu had taken three titles in his life. It was a rare achievement. There were only four titles in the clan, and only one or two men in any generation ever achieved the fourth and highest. When they did, they became the lords of the land. Because he had taken titles, Ezeudu was to be buried after dark with only a glowing brand to light the sacred ceremony.

But before this quiet and final rite, the tumult increased tenfold. Drums beat violently and men leaped up and down in a frenzy. Guns were fired on all sides and sparks flew out as matchets clanged together in warriors’ salutes. The air was full of dust and the smell of gunpowder. It was then that the one-handed spirit came, carrying a basket full of water. People made way for him on all sides and the noise subsided. Even the smell of gunpowder was swallowed in the sickly smell that now filled the air. He danced a few steps to the funeral drums and then went to see the corpse.

‘Ezeudu!’ he called in his gutteral voice. ‘If you had been poor in your last life I would have asked you to be rich when you come again. But you were rich. If you had been a coward, I would have asked you to bring courage. But you were a fearless warrior. If you had died young, I would have asked you to get life. But you lived long. So I shall ask you to come again the way you came before. If your death was the death of nature, go in peace. But if a man caused it, do not allow him a moment’s rest.’ He danced a few more steps and went away.

A Grain of Wheat

Extract 1
In this extract, Thompson, the central English character, disillusioned with the end of British rule in Kenya and the forthcoming independence of the country, considers the idealism with which he considered imperialism. The extracts from his diary, quotations and his own musings, demonstrate a number of important aspects of imperial thought towards the colonised country and its inhabitants.

His faith in British Imperialism had once made him declare: To administer a people is to administer a soul. He was then talking with a group of officers at the New Stanley Hotel. After dinner, he had written the words in his diary — no, not a diary but a mass of notes he scribbled at various times and places in his career, hoping to incorporate them into a coherent philosophy in Prospero in Africa. These were the notes that were now in front of Thompson; he went through them, lingering over the entries that struck his mind.

Nyeri is full of mountains, hills and deep valleys covered with impenetrable forests. These primordial trees have always awed primitive minds. The darkness and mystery of the forest, have led him (the primitive man) to magic and ritual.

What’s this thing called Mau Mau?

Dr Albert Schweitzer says ‘The Negro is a child, and with children, nothing can be done without the use of authority.’ I’ve now worked in Nyeri, Githima , Kisumu, Ngong. I agree.

l am back in Nyeri. People are moving into villages to cut the connection between them and the terrorists. Burning houses in the old village, suddenly I felt my life was coming to a cul-de-sac.

Colonel Robson, a Senior District Officer in Rung’ei, Kiambu, was savagely murdered. l am replacing him at Rung’ei. One must use a stick. No government can tolerate anarchy, no civilization can be built on this violence and savagery. Mau Mau is evil: a movement which if not checked will mean complete destruction of all the values on which our civilisation has thriven.

‘Every whiteman is continually in danger of gradual moral ruin in this daily and hourly contest with the African.’ Dr Albert Schweitzer.

In dealing with the African you are often compelled to do the unexpected. A man came into my office yesterday. He told me about a wanted terrorist leader. From the beginning, I was convinced the man was lying, was really acting, perhaps to trap me or hide his own part in the movement. He seemed to be laughing at me. Remember the African is a born actor, that’s why he finds it so easy to lie. Suddenly I spat into his face. I don’t know why, but I did it.

Thompson woke to the present. He stared at the manuscript without seeing anything. Before Rira, his way to the top had been so clear, so open. Now at Githima he felt the irony of the words he had written, the irony accentuated by the fact that the Queen’s husband would be the guest of honour at the Uhuru ceremony. His vision, vividly resurrected by his wife’s touch, mocked him: what even if he had gone to the top, a D.C., P.C., or a Governor? All these would now go, like this house, the office, Githima, the country. Let silly fools like Dr Lynd stay. But eventually they would all be thrown out without ceremony. That is why Thompson had resigned, to get away before Uhuru. For why should people wait and go through the indignity of being ejected from their seats by their houseboys?

A Grain of Wheat

Extract 2
You should recognise the connection between this extract and the previous one. Note that this section occurs later in the novel, so we see one of the effects of Ngugi's dislocation of the narrative chronology. It is only at this point in the novel that we can identify the target of his spitting.
Mugo tells the truth throughout this extract; he is 'indifferent to his fate' because of personal feelings of guilt and betrayal. Note how his status as hero emerges as a result of his guilt - his fellow prisoners misunderstand him as much as Thompson does.
Consider Ngugi's portrayal of the behaviour of Thompson here, and compare it with the idealism, and the disillusionment, above. There are shades of Heart of Darkness here.
Note also Ngugi's sudden shift to a detached historical perspective at the end of the section; this is where his fiction meets fact.

When he considered the moment ripe, Thompson started calling them in singly into his office. His theory which had matured into a conviction over the years in administering Africans was: Do the unexpected. But here he met different men; men who would not even open their mouths, men who only stared at him. After two weeks he was driven by the men’s truculence to the edge of his patience. He went home and cried to Margery: These men are sick.

He hoped the third week would prove different. He leaned back in his chair and waited for the African warders to usher in the first man. Beside Thompson sat two other officers.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Mugo.’

‘Where do you come from?’

‘Thabai.’

Thompson was relieved to find a man who at least agreed to answer questions. This was a good beginning. If one man confessed the oath, others would follow. He knew Thabai. He had been a District Officer in Rung’ei area twice; the last time being when he went to replace the murdered Robson. So for a few seconds he tried a friendly chat about Thabai: how green the landscape was, how nice and friendly its inhabitants. Then he resumed the questioning.

‘How many oaths have you taken?’

‘None.’

This sent Thompson to his feet. He paced up and down the room. Suddenly he faced Mugo. The man’s face seemed vaguely familiar. But then it was difficult to tell one black face from another: they looked so much alike, masks.

‘How many oaths have you taken?’

‘None.’

‘Liar!’ he shouted, sweating.

As for Mugo, he was indifferent to his fate. He was in that state of despair when a man perceives that all struggle is useless. You are condemned to die. Let the sword come quickly.
One of the officers whispered something to Thompson. He studied the man’s face for a while. Light dawned on him. He sent Mugo out of the room and carefully dived into the man’s record.

Thereafter things went from bad to worse. Many detainees never spoke. In fact, Mugo was the only one who consented to answer questions. But he only opened to repeat what he had said in all the camps. Thompson, like a tick, stuck to Mugo. He questioned him daily, perhaps because he seemed the likeliest to give in. He picked him up for punishment. Sometimes he would have the warders whip Mugo before the other detainees. Sometimes, in naked fury, he would snatch the whip from the warders and apply it himself. If Mugo had cried or asked for mercy Thompson might have relented. But now it seemed to him that all the detainees mocked and despised him for his failure to extort a cry from Mugo.

And that was how Mugo gained prestige among the other detainees. Beyond despair, there was no moaning; the feeling that he deserved all this numbed Mugo to the pain. But the other detainees saw his resignation to pain in a different light; it gave them courage; they came together and wrote a collective letter listing complaints. Among other things they wanted to he treated as political prisoners not criminals. Food rations should be raised. Unless these things were done, they would go on hunger-strike. And indeed on the third day, all the detainees, to a man, sat down on strike.

Thompson was on the edge of madness. Eliminate the vermin, he would grind his teeth at night. He set the white officers and warders on the men. Yes — eliminate the vermin.

But the thing that sparked off the now famous deaths, was a near-riot act that took place on the third day of the strike. As some of the warders brought food to the detainees, a stone was hurled at them and struck one of them on the head. They let go the food and ran away howling murder! Riot! The detainees laughed and let fly more stones.

What occurred next is known to the world. The men were rounded up and locked in their cells. The now famous beating went on day and night. Eleven men died.

Martha Quest

Extract 1
It is interesting to compare the extracts from Achebe and Ngugi with a white perspective, and here we have a white author and a white character. Both are therefore part of the colonising population, but both are opposed to the racist values and mistreatment of the indigenous population. As we see in this extract, though, Martha lacks to strength and the will the act on her political ideals.

For there was no doubt that the root of all this dissatisfaction was that she deserved something life had not offered her. The daydream locked not only her mind, but her limbs; soon she was cramped and stiff, and she had to get up and move about the room, till the blood flowed back, and she went to the door to receive the flood of now soft and hotly welcoming sunlight. It was as if the night had never been; for the light was heavy and rich and yellow, the sky was as thick with rain clouds as it had been yesterday, there was still the oppressive atmosphere of coming storm. There was the ringing of hard boots on tarmac, and the soft padding of bare feet. She stood quite still while past her moved a file of men. First, two policemen in the boots, their crisp khaki tunics belted tight, their buttons shining, their little hats cocked at an angle. Then perhaps twenty black men and women, in various clothing, barefooted and shabby. Then, following these, two more policemen. The prisoners were handcuffed together, and it was these hands that caught Martha’s attention: the working hands, clasped together by broad and gleaming steel, held carefully at waist level, steady against the natural movement of swinging arms — tender dark flesh cautious against the bite of the metal. These people were being taken to the magistrate for being caught at night after curfew, or forgetting to carry one of the passes which were obligatory, or — but there were a dozen reasons, each as flimsy. Now, Martha had seen this sight so often that she was not dulled to it so much as patiently angry. She marched, in imagination, down the street, one of the file, feeling the oppression of a police state as if it were heavy on her; and at the same time was conscious of the same moral exhaustion which had settled on her earlier. She was thinking, It’s all so dreadful, not because it exists, merely, but because it exists now.

She was thinking — since she had been formed by literature, she could think of no other way — that all this had been described in Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo, Dostoevsky, and a dozen others. All that noble and terrific indignation had done nothing, achieved nothing, the shout of anger from the nineteenth century might as well have been silent — for here came the file of prisoners, handcuffed two by two, and on their faces was that same immemorial look of patient, sardonic understanding. The faces of the policemen, however, were the faces of those doing what they were paid to do.

And what now? demanded that sarcastic voice inside Martha; and it answered itself, Go out and join the Prisoners’ Aid Society. Here she sank into self-derisory impotence, and, leaving the door, returned to her room. A clock was chiming hurriedly from the back veranda. Seven o’clock, time to dress for the office. But first she lifted the books from the floor, and looked through them as if she were looking for a kind of deliverance.