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10-08-2015, 22:56

African Culture

Inevitably, the tension between traditional and modern, native and foreign, and individual and communal that has permeated contemporary African society has spilled over into culture. In general, in the visual arts and music, utility and ritual have given way to pleasure and decoration. In the process, Africans have been affected to a certain extent by foreign influences but have retained their distinctive characteristics. Wood carving, metalwork, painting, and sculpture, for example, have preserved their traditional forms but are now increasingly adapted to serve the tourist industry and the export market. No area of African culture has been so strongly affected by political and social events as literature. Except for Muslim areas in North and East Africa, precolonial Africans did not have a written literature, although their tradition of oral storytelling served as a rich repository of history, custom, and folk culture. The absence of written languages, of course, means a lack of a traditional African literature. The first written literature in the vernacular or in European languages emerged during the nineteenth century in the form of novels, poetry, and drama. Angry at the negative portrayal of Africa in Western literature (see the box on p. 251), African authors initially wrote primarily for a European audience as a means of establishing black dignity and purpose. Embracing the ideals of négritude, many glorified the emotional and communal aspects of the traditional African experience. One of the first was Guinean author Camara Laye (1928–1980), who in 1953 published The Dark Child, a touching and intimate initiation into village life in precolonial Africa. In the novel, which admitted the reader to the secret rituals and practices of daily life behind the protective hedges of an African village compound, the author openly regretted the lost ways of the African past while conceding that they were not appropriate to the Guinea of tomorrow. Chinua Achebe of Nigeria was the first major African novelist to write in the English language. In his writings, he attempts to interpret African history from a native perspective and to forge a new sense of African identity. In his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), he recounts the story of a Nigerian who refuses to submit to the new British order and eventually commits suicide. Criticizing those of his contemporaries who have accepted foreign rule, the protagonist laments that the white man “has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” After 1965, the African novel took a dramatic turn, shifting its focus from the brutality of the foreign oppressor to the shortcomings of the new native leadership. Having gained independence, African politicians were now portrayed as mimicking and even outdoing the injustices committed by their colonial predecessors. A prominent example of this genre is the work of Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (b. 1938). His first novel, A Grain of Wheat, takes place on the eve of Uhuru, or independence. Although it mocks local British society for its racism, snobbishness, and superficiality, its chief interest lies in its unsentimental and even unflattering portrayal of ordinary Kenyans in their daily struggle for survival. Whereas Ngugi initially wrote in English for elite African and foreign readers, he was determined to reach a broader audience and eventually decided to write in his native Kikuyu. For that reason, perhaps, in the late 1970s, he was placed under house arrest for writing subversive literature. From prison, he secretly wrote Devil on the Cross, which urged his compatriots to overthrow the government of Daniel arap Moi. Published in 1980, the book sold widely and was eventually read aloud by storytellers throughout Kenyan society. Fearing an attempt on his life, in recent years Ngugi has lived in exile. Many of Ngugi’s contemporaries have followed his lead and focused their frustration on the failure of the continent’s new leadership to carry out the goals of independence. One of the most outstanding is Nigerian Wole Soyinka (b. 1934). His novel The Interpreters (1965)