The literature of a ravished continent: Achebe, Sembène and Ngugi

Issue: 115

Ken Olende

During the late 1950s and early 1960s a wave of new literature emerged from a defiant Global South. Some of the best came from Africa, then caught up in a range of anti-colonial struggles and the promise of independence. The surge of hope that underpinned much of the writing turned to bitterness with the reality of independence. A flavour of the period can be gained by looking at novels by three of the leading writers of this period—Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène from Senegal and Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya. These books are not necessarily representative, but they are among the best examples and show how the literature developed.

Each novel fits with one of three roughly chronological stages in this generation of sub-Saharan writing. The first and most clearly defined stage tends to concentrate on the social rupture caused by early contact with white people. It explores what life was like before the imperialists arrived, and dignifies indigenous African culture.1 Novels from the second stage are more concerned with resistance to colonialism, often combined with the protagonist’s alienation from more traditional society.2 The third and most diverse stage grapples with disillusion at the experience of post_colonial society, often faced through satire.3 In an interview last year Ngugi commented on the influence of the 1960s generation of authors:

That literature created for the first time a genuine pan-African writing. Look at Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe. Those people are seen as our writers. People don’t think of Achebe as a writer who comes from Nigeria, although he does. He is welcomed not as someone who comes from outside, but as one of our own. Whatever other roles they play, they have played a very important role in a very complex form it has created a pan-African awareness.4

While these writers can’t be divorced from the anti-colonial movement, neither can they be reduced to it. Politically they are important because they look at Africa in a new and different way compared to European writers (even those sympathetic to the plight of Africa as a victim of imperialism). At the same time, though these writers are influenced by European traditions of writing or may draw on elements of native folklore, they transcend their sources.

First contact: Things Fall Apart

European capitalism’s first assault on Africa, through the Atlantic slave trade, required remarkably little European presence in Africa itself. This situation changed with the growth of imperial empires. The Berlin conference of 1884_5 had divided Africa between the imperial powers, at the least inconvenience to those powers. This was followed by direct European intervention. In 1897 Sir Arthur Hardinge, the first British governor for what would become Kenya, said, “These people must learn submission by bullets—it’s the only school; after that you may begin more modern and humane methods of education”.5

However, in the literature of empire resentment by Africans was represented as irrational. One verse of Rudyard Kipling’s notorious poem “The White Man’s Burden”—written in 1899 to encourage the US to take a role in colonialism—concentrates on the ingratitude of the colonised for the benefits of empire:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Though there were African responses in art to this kind of racist nonsense from the earliest days of colonialism, Things Fall Apart (1959) is often referred to as the first great African novel.6 It was the first novel from Chinua Achebe, born in Ogidi, Nigeria, in 1930. The main character is Okonkwo, a successful man in an Ibo village. He has overcome the shame of a father who remained a poor singer rather than concentrating on his farm and making his family wealthy:

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 weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.7

Okonkwo is renowned throughout the nine villages that make up his immediate society as a wrestler, a warrior and a farmer. Having earned high rank, he is chosen to be the guardian of a boy prisoner from a dispute with another village. The boy, Ikemefuna, ends up staying in Okonkwo’s home, and comes to be treated as one of the family. He impresses Okonkwo as more “manly” than his own son, Nwoye. After three years, when it is eventually decided that the boy should be killed, Okonkwo is advised to have nothing to do with it, but ever determined to prove he is not soft like his father he joins in the murder. This act marks the start of a period of bad luck that eventually sees Okonkwo and his family exiled for seven years.

Achebe neither creates an idyllic past nor presents his characters as simply defined in relation to traditional society or colonialism. The moral certainty in the village that, for instance, twins must be left to die in the “bad forest” is shocking, and it is intended to be. However, Okonkwo’s society is shown to make sense in its own terms. Okonkwo’s knowledge of his society’s norms allows him to advance through village life. He is unsettled by the run of bad luck—nothing seems to make sense any more. Later it is the behaviour of the whites that appears beyond understanding.

While Okonkwo’s family is exiled in another village, white people arrive and society changes rapidly. Missionaries try to convert the villagers and the colonial government makes its first appearance. Partly in response to the treatment of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo’s son Nwoye converts to the new religion. Okonkwo takes part in a violent attempt to restore traditional society and is imprisoned.

At the novel’s end there is a dramatic shift in narrative voice. The viewpoint moves to the white district commissioner, who plans to write a book about the “primitive” Ibo. He is fascinated by Okonkwo’s actions: “One could almost write a whole chapter on him—perhaps not a whole chapter, but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details”.8

Things Fall Apart was already a historical novel when it was written. At one level it was addressed to white settlers, insisting on a different way of looking at African society, but it also addressed contemporary Africans, saying that the customs described may have irreversibly vanished, but they deserve serious study and respect.

No Longer at Ease (1960) was written as a sequel showing the problems faced by those who “accepted” the white’s ways. Obo Okonkwo tries to fit in with pre-independence Nigeria without being corrupt or abandoning his ideals. Obo is the grandson of the Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart—his tragedy partly develops as he tries to rebel against his father, Nwoye, who is still caught up in the consequences of rebelling against Okonkwo during the earlier novel. As with Okonkwo, Obo’s life ceases to make sense in his own terms. As in Greek tragedy there is no avenue of escape for the protagonist.

Achebe’s next novel Arrow of God (1964) was another tragedy of cultural misunderstanding, but the mood changes in A Man of the People (1966), a coruscating satire on post_colonial corruption. The measured, tragic tone is replaced with bleak, satirical comedy. The grotesque politician Mr Nanga shows the reality of the new political elite, as he corrupts the younger Odili, whose political outrage comes across as jealousy in contrast to Obo’s fruitless quest for a moral way to reconcile the old and the new.

Resisting colonialism: God’s Bits of Wood

At the end of the Second World War the colonial powers—-especially Britain and France—sought to return to imperial business as normal. It is true that the British had started talking about colonial independence, but this was seen as lying in the future and, in Africa’s case, a long way in the future. Two factors came together to frustrate these plans. On the one hand, there were changes in the world economy—the most important being that the US now demanded access to colonial markets. On the other hand, many Africans had seen a different side to Europeans during the war, both through the troops stationed in colonial countries and through direct experience of fighting. These people were not prepared to return to the pre-war situation.

The Second World War damaged the imperial economies, and often this meant that the level of oppression and exploitation faced by Africans was actually greater after the war. A series of resistance movements developed. They ranged from mass campaigning, including protests and strikes organised by Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party on the Gold Coast—which would become independent as Ghana in 1957—to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Kenya’s radical trade union movement was suppressed after the Second World War. However, the Mau Mau rebellion was not simply a military struggle or a “tribal uprising” by the Kikuyu people, as is often suggested; much of its early leadership came out of the ethnically mixed trade union movement in the capital, Nairobi, and main port, Mombasa. The methods used in different areas did not simply reflect regional characteristics. Britain was more willing to accept the changing status of West African countries, such as Ghana or Nigeria, than countries in Eastern or Southern Africa, with their large settler populations.

In French colonial West Africa a tradition of strikes by Africans employed on the railways stretched back to the 19th century. Ousmane Sembène’s novel God’s Bits of Wood is based on the 1947 strike—the longest and most significant. More people were more involved than in any other strike, and the strikers’ victory over the colonial administration boosted the movement for liberation with a strong dose of class struggle.

Sembène was born in Senegal in 1923, the son of a fisherman. He was conscripted and fought in the French army during the Second World War (this experience underlay his magnificent 1987 film, Camp de Thiaroye, which raised the issue of how returning soldiers were not prepared to accept the existing colonial situation). After the war he worked on the railways, and he himself took part in the epic rail strike that paralysed French West Africa in 1947 and 1948. Following the strike he moved to France, where he was an active trade unionist and member of the Communist Party. He worked in car plants and as a docker, an experience which inspired his first novel, Black Docker (1956). This novel follows an African who works on the docks in Marseille, while trying to establish himself as a writer. However, he is constantly on trial in a racist French society, eventually literally so, as he is accused of murder.

The magnificent God’s Bits of Wood (1960) is Sembène’s best known novel. It charts the great railway strike’s development across three cities, showing how collective activity educated and matured the participants. As with much of his work it has the vividness of lived experience. Sembène himself is vague about how closely the novel mirrors his own experiences, preferring to place the strike itself in a wider context:

The book is set in Africa, but look at the situation in Europe after the war. For us it was a period of awakening. War is always unfortunate. But for us in Africa the war was a real catalyst. Before the war we were colonised, we were on our knees. As youngsters we took part in the war and we saw that the colonisers we had idealised were as human as ourselves. They experienced fear. They had cowards and traitors. We went to war with a herd mentality like sheep, but we were transformed by the time we came back. As well as this, we had made contact with peasants and workers in the West. We learned a lot from that.9

Though he does not appear until the story is well under way, the central character is the charismatic union activist Bakayoko. The story unfolds through a large cast along the length of the railway, through Senegal and neighbouring Mali. Characters are both pro_ and anti_strike from different classes and perspectives, both Africans and colonialists. As the strike develops and difficulties are faced, and on the whole overcome, the characters go through a process of collective development. The biggest shift takes place among the female characters, who grow as the strike continues, and they are forced to become breadwinners for their families. This development climaxes in a cross_country women’s march, which is decisive in the strike’s outcome:

Ever since they left Thiès the women had not stopped singing. As soon as one group allowed the refrain to die, another picked it up, and new verses were born at the hazard of chance or inspiration, one word leading to another and each finding, in its turn, its rhythm and its place. No one was very sure any longer where the song began or if it had an ending. It rolled out over its own length, like the movement of a serpent. It was as long as life.10

It is the women who are prepared to physically fight with French forces. In the process they come to demand a place in decision making. The socialist nature of the novel at no point stops it being an “African” one. Most of the characters are from the Wolof people, and the background of colonial racist oppression is never far away. At several points the issue of language comes up. One of the women, N’Deye Touti, embarrasses a French constable by speaking French. He had assumed that, being black and female, she would not understand the language and is shamed after casually describing her to his companion in crude sexual terms.

The union activist Bakayoko puts the bosses in their place at one point during the negotiations when he says, “Since your ignorance of our language is a handicap for you, we will use French as a matter of courtesy.” He clarifies this by adding that this courtesy is one “that will not last forever”.11 Forcing equality between the African and French languages is a step in making clear the equality between African and French humanity. Language, both in terms of what is spoken and what authors should write in is a continuing theme in African literature. A recurring issue for Sembène, as for other African writers, has been how to reach a wide audience, particularly an African audience, other than through the medium of written language.

Sembène has continued to write, but his main concern since the mid_1960s has been film_making, and he has become probably Africa’s foremost film director. He has made films from his novels—The Money Order (1965) and Xala (1974)—and has produced an impressive body of films under difficult circumstances, including Black Girl (1966), Mandabi (1968), Xala (1975), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), Faat Kiné (2000), and Moolaadé (2004). These include urban and rural, modern and historical settings, realistic drama and satire. A few themes predominate—hatred for the brutal way in which capitalist and colonial society makes people behave, sympathy for the poor and dispossessed, and identification with and empowerment of women.

Independence and disillusion: Wizard of the Crow

From the independence of Ghana in 1957 through the 1960s there was a period of intense excitement about the potential of newly independent African countries. Leaders like Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah were seen as revolutionary icons on a par with Che Guevara. Through the 1970s this optimism turned to despair. Rather than pan-Africanist ideals spreading across the continent from vanguard states, the inertia and corruption that had dogged the more conservative countries became the norm. Activists and artists have been wrestling with the causes and solutions ever since.

There is not space here to go over the arguments, but the way states had been developed under colonialism was significant. Pan-African theorist Walter Rodney has argued, “It is typical of underdeveloped economies that they do not (or are not allowed to) concentrate on those sectors of the economy which in turn will generate growth and raise production to a new level altogether”.12

Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the novelist who has most consistently returned to this theme. Born in 1938, he published his first novel in 1964. At the time he was writing as James Ngugi. His later rejection of his “Christian” name was part of the deepening of his anti-imperialism. Weep Not Child follows a familiar pattern in recounting the early encounters between his own Kikuyu people and the white colonialists (as with Things Fall Apart, it takes its title from a poem by a Western poet, in this case Walt Whitman). As with his next novel, The River Between (1965), it tells of the impact of Western education, and the strengths and weaknesses this brings to the characters.

The protagonist in Weep Not Child, Njoroge, is shaped by both this education and the anti-colonial Mau Mau struggle, which his brothers participate in (as had Ngugi’s elder brother). The River Between looks at the foundation of independent Kikuyu schools, as its main character Waiyaki becomes caught up in the struggle between the missionary schools and the locally set up independent schools. The fact that the issue that broke many Kikuyu from missionary education and established the anti_establishment schools was female circumcision is not ducked and is a central issue in the book.

Ngugi’s third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), is transitional. It bridges the gap between discussing resistance to colonialism and the experience of independence. It tells the story of Mugo, a morally compromised character, who has a reputation as a hero of the resistance. It is symbolically set on the eve of independence. Ngugi patterned the novel on Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911), which is about revolutionaries in Russia, though Ngugi differs from Conrad in seeing a possibility of revolutionary success and redemption. Some critics have argued—wrongly in my opinion—that patterning the novel on Conrad’s weakens it. To a Western audience this is certainly his most sophisticated, developed and satisfying book. However, Ngugi himself was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his reception and his audience. He saw himself as a radical, who should be relating to the workers and peasants, developing a national culture in the way that Frantz Fanon had argued:

We must work and fight with the same rhythm as the people to construct the future and to prepare the ground where vigorous shoots are already springing up. A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover a people’s true nature… A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which a people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.13

However, his audience was largely Western; his novels were reviewed and well received in the Western press, and were starting to be put on university syllabuses, but they were not known by workers and peasants in Kenya. In his writing he shifted to a more straightforward didactic style for the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976), which he co-wrote with Micere Githae Mugo, recreating the 1956 trial of one of the leaders of the Mau Mau rebellion. The novel Petals of Blood (1977) concerns resistance to oppression in post-colonial Kenya. It is written in a simpler style, with less morally complex characters, though its scope is similar to earlier pieces. Both these works are implicitly opposed to the post_colonial Kenyan government.

What finally put Ngugi in trouble with the authorities was the play Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii (which was translated as I Will Marry When I Want). The play was workshopped in Gikuyu—the Kikuyu language—with peasants and workers in Limuru. It was banned and Ngugi was detained for a year by the government. He has written a powerful memoir of this time, Detained (1981), and while imprisoned he also wrote his first novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross (1981).

Devil on the Cross was very popular in Gikuyu, going into a second printing by popular demand.14 It uses satire, combined with folkloric structures. Characters and plot are less complex (even Petals of Blood, by contrast, contained complex flashback sequences). A range of characters converge on the Devil’s feast, where capitalists give presentations boasting of how they defraud and rob the poor and occasionally each other, leading to arguments and threats of violence.

The novel’s method had precedents. Nigerian Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954) in a surreal folkloric style that foreshadowed later more sophisticated works like Ngugi’s. Ngugi has said, “I think he is incredible. The way he could move from a modern technological image and somehow change it until it becomes part of the life beyond. Borrowing from the folkloric he managed to collapse the barriers of time and space”.15 A similar “dreamtime” from folklore has appeared in other books such as Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991).

Further state repression forced Ngugi to leave Kenya. He went on to write another novel, Matigari (1986), using the same techniques. In this a semi-mythical guerrilla fighter returns from the forest and tries to find his family and justice in modern Kenya.

From this period on Ngugi has forcefully argued for writers to write in their mother tongue partly to fit themselves into existing artistic traditions, as he has with the folkloric, and partly as a liberation from imperialism.16 This issue has been the subject of an ongoing dispute, with Chinua Achebe championing English as a tool that is available and, despite its origins, non-divisive: “If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English; and the ethnic literatures are in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc, etc”.17 The issue is not as divisive as may first appear. Ngugi has ensured that his novels also appear in English (translating his latest himself).

Though he has continued to write on both literature and politics, it was not until 2006 that another novel was published in English, the epic Wizard of the Crow. The book is a satire on neo-colonialism and the attitudes of the black ruling class. The Free Republic of Aburiria—a surrealistically exaggerated Kenya—is governed by a dictator known only as the Ruler. His three fawning ministers have each undergone plastic surgery to enlarge respectively their eyes, ears and tongue, the better to see, hear and denounce dissent. In a luxurious world separated from the suffering poor, the ministers compete to flatter the Ruler. To celebrate his birthday one suggests that they build a tower to heaven, so that the Ruler will be able to pop in on god.

Out in the city the impoverished Kamiti accidentally gains a reputation as a powerful sorcerer, the Wizard of the Crow. Along with the radical political activist and feminist Nyawira he uses his notoriety to help the poor and cure the rich of their various sicknesses with his “magic” mirror. The most debilitating of these illnesses is “whiteache”, which incapacitates sufferers through a burning desire to be white, like their old colonial masters.

All through the book the Aburirian government try to get the Global Bank to fund Marching to Heaven, but are set back again and again by the activity of the poor, and particularly a group of militant women. Ngugi says of the book:

I was very much influenced by the trickster tradition. The trickster character appears in tales all over the world. In West Africa it is Anansi the spider. Elsewhere it is Hare or Tortoise. The trickster is very interesting because he is always changing. He always questions the stability of a word or a narrative or an event. He is continually inventing and reinventing himself. He challenges the prevailing wisdom of who is strong and who is weak.18

The main characters Kamiti (“of the trees”) and Nyawira (“she of work”) are archetypal figures, and appear to represent a number of things, including the rural/urban division, and black pride versus class struggle. However, there is a price to pay for making the characters archetypes. One of the strengths of God’s Bits of Wood is in the subtle complexity of the portrayal of the strike and its participants. In Ngugi’s books Devil on the Cross and Wizard of the Crow most of the struggle takes place off stage.

In Literature and Revolution Leon Trotsky criticised some of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry, writing that Mayakovsky “speaks of the most intimate thing, such as love, as if he were speaking about the migration of nations”.19 The same could be said of some of Ngugi’s passages, about both political organisation and love. This should not detract from the achievements of the novel and how his technique have been honed over time—and Wizard of the Crow is an advance on his earlier work, subtler and more assured.


At the time Things Fall Apart was published another Nigerian, Cyprian Ekwensi, was already writing popular novels such as People of the City (1954) and Jagua Nana (1961) about the contradictions of colonial society. Similarly, another Kenyan writer, Meja Mwangi, has approached the problems of the post_colonial state from a different angle. His novels of modern Kenya also range from dealing with the Mau Mau in Carcase for Hounds (1974) to life in contemporary Nairobi in Going Down River Road (1976) or Aids in The Last Plague (2000). His thrillers reach a popular audience in Kenya. Such writers are relevant here, as the writers I have been discussing are consciously trying to relate to a popular audience themselves. Since the 1960s the amount and range of African writing available has increased—notably the number of women writers.

Still, the authors I have discussed fought for their alternative view to be seen and accepted. Achebe was one of the editors of the Heinemann African Writers series, which helped popularise African writers. There is an ongoing fight to defend resistance to empire against romanticisation of empire, whether in the Iraq war or Niall Ferguson’s attempts to rehabilitate the British Empire. Writers such as Achebe, Sembène and Ngugi remind us that alternatives are possible, and give us an idea of what artistic masterpieces will emerge from the current anti-globalisation movement.


1: As well as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, examples from this period include Ngugi’s Weep Not Child, Camara Laye’s The Dark Child and Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass.

2: Examples include Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood and Ngugi’s The River Between.

3: Examples include Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross, Matigari and Wizard of the Crow, Sembène’s Xala, Achebe’s A Man of the People, and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

4: Olende, 2006.

5: Berman and Lonsdale, 1992, p19.

6: Things Fall Apart was far from the first African novel. Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, a novel telling the story of Chaka Zulu written in the Sesotho language, was published in South Africa in 1925. It had been written earlier, in 1909 or 1910.

7: Achebe, 1994, p13.

8: Achebe, 1994, p208.

9: Kimber and Olende, 2005.

10: Ousmane, 1995, p192.

11: Ousmane, 1995, p180.

12: Rodney, 1973.

13: Fanon, 1967, p188,

14: Cook and Okenimkpe, 1983, p123.

15: Olende, 2006.

16: See in particular Ngugi, 1993.

17: Achebe, 1993, p429.

18: Olende, 2006.

19: Trotsky, 1991, p180.


Achebe, Chinua, 1993, “The African Writer and the English Language”, in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and PostColonial Theory: a Reader (Longman).

Achebe, Chinua, 1994, Things Fall Apart (Anchor).

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe, 1983, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: an exploration of his writings (Heinemann).

Berman, Bruce, and John Lonsdale, 1992, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa books 1 and 2 (James Currey).

Fanon, Frantz, 1967, Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth).

Kimber, Charlie, and Ken Olende, 2005, interview with Ousmane Sembène, 1 June 2005. An edited version of this interview appeared as “Ousmane Sembène—Father Of African Film”, Socialist Worker, 11 June 2005.

Olende, Ken, 2006, interview with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 10 August 2006. An edited version of this interview appeared as “Ngugi Wa Thiong’o Interviewed On His New Novel, Wizard Of The Crow”, Socialist Worker, 4 November 2006.

Ousmane, Sembène, 1995, God’s Bits of Wood (Heinemann). Note that in some editions, including this one, Ousmane appears as the author’s second name.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1993, Moving the Centre (Heinemann).

Rodney, Walter, 1973, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Bogle-L’Ouverture).

Trotsky, Leon, 1991, Literature and Revolution (Redwords).