To all whom suffer from what I like to call ‘blind-spot-confused-face-syndrom’ when I mention the continent ‘Africa’, I will say: PICK UP A BOOK!
When I decided to live in South-Africa for six months, people thought I was insane and wondered why I would ever go there. The only thing they could imagine as a reason where the potential safari’s and wild animals to see. I did indeed see The Great Five, but spent a lot more time around libraries and computers than you might imagine.
As most cultures in the world, the African literary tradition has its base in oral stories. But the continent is riddled with more than just stories told before bedtime. Cave paintings several thousands years old cover the second largest, as it is believed to be the cradle of mankind. And mankind has left its marks, through paint and inscriptions that has outlasted the time. When it comes to writings, Africa again seems to be one of the first. Recent studies and discoveries show that the Egyptian hieroglyphs were first used over 5000 years, and it is known that through trade and conquest Northern Africa and Europe often intertwined in each other’s history.
And yet, little is know about the African literary traditions. Just as the rest of the world, oral storytelling was used to introduce everyone to the local folktales that held up cultural identity, and thought the listeners about tradtion, rituals, and history. They are to be respected as a form of education and entertainment alike. These tales show some comparison to the European versions, as many animals and creatures served the same purposes. Hares were cunning tricksters, ogres were cruel monsters, and birds served their purpose as messengers. Day-to-Day tales on the other hand told histories and were used for lessons about life. The stories were often told at a common meeting place, at the end of the day, and traditional music was added.
When it comes to written sources, however, relatively little is known. The limited sources that have survived a lenghty amount of time, are all from cultures that had some form of connection with Europe. Either through trade, through conquest, or through religious connections.
Whatever is left of ancient traditions, is mostly connected to the oral traditions. Over the decades, this ancient tradition evolved and folktale-rhytms have now formed the roots of several types of prose and poetry on the African continent.
However, when it comes to literature several researchers and writers argue that possibly the most influential event is not the older traditions and changes, such as the Nigerian market literature, the writings of the Amharic writings, or even the ancient Egyptian myths, but the traumatic encounter with Europe and colonialism. Several of the leading writers from the continent use postcolonialism in their books, to raise awareness about new identities, and what problems modern times might bring.
The books that take place on the African continent, that I have read at least, are often truly beautiful, but also rather heavy. Loaded with lessons about life and history, every single one is worth your time and some space on your bookshelves. So choose the country, and see where you can travel to from the comfort of your couch.
To read about other continents, and find out about different countries, return to Read Around the World.