Africa, the biggest continent of the world. The Mercator-map does not do it justice, showing the continent much smaller than it is in reality due to the curvature of the earth. At 2022 it holds 54 sovereign nations where around a third of all languages on Earth are spoken. When you think of this, it is very clear that there are many stories that shaped Africa’s cultures and people and many more of those to come. So when I studied and worked in South-Africa for six months, people wondered why I would ever go there. The only thing they could imagine as a reason to go to any African country were the potential safari’s and wild animals to see. I did indeed see The Great Five, but spent much more time around libraries reading about the history of the country and its literature.
Africa is believed to be the cradle of mankind, and with that the cradle of human’s tendency to remember its past in stories. The oldest cave paintings of the world, dating back tens of thousands of years, can be found in several areas of Southern Africa as they outlasted time itself. Eventually evolving into the written word through hieroglyphs that studies show were first used in Egypt over 5000 years ago. Through trade and conquest these stories traveled from Northern Africa into Europe as the continents interacted with each other’s history early on.
And even though there is much academic studies regarding cave paintings and ancient Egyptian culture, little is know about the African literary traditions. Just as the rest of the world, early civilizations used the tradition of oral storytelling to introduce new generations to the local folktales that held up cultural identity. These tales thought the listeners about tradtion, rituals, and history. They are to be considered as a form of education and entertainment alike. This ritual and habit shows much comparison to the European oral tales, with overlapping use of animals, magic and monsters. Hares were cunning tricksters, ogres were cruel monsters, and birds served as messengers between the immortal gods and mortal men. Day-to-day tales on the other hand told histories and were used for lessons about life and would be either forgotten or changed over time depending on its purpose and the memory of the storyteller. Stories were often shared 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 very often from cultures that had some form of connection with Europe. Either through trade, through conquest, or through religious connections. The fact that these sources are the often the only ones remaining is not coincidental. While the historic loss of the Library of Alexandria in 48 BC and the recent loss of South Africa’s Jagger Library in a fire -which caused an even greater destruction of unique African manuscripts- were incidental, the destruction of the famous libraries of Timbuktu was done on purpose to destroy Africa’s unique literature and with it its identity.
Because of this active destruction, most that is left of ancient literary styles can be directly connected to the oral traditions. Over the decades, this practice 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 -the onesI 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.