African Writers: Broadening the Literature Curriculum

This blogpost consists of a description of a range of novels by African writers and gives suggestions for how teachers (in the UK and internationally) could incorporate them into their curriculum. This is a post for English teachers, school librarians or people who are interested in African literature.

A year and a half ago I left the UK and started teaching at an international school in Tanzania. Before moving to East Africa, the majority of texts I read and taught were by British or American writers. The texts I studied at university were overwhelmingly British, and GCSE texts in English schools now have to be by British writers. Since moving I have decided to redress this balance by only reading novels by African writers. I want to broaden my experience of literature and learn more about the continent on which I live.  I also want to be able to make informed choices about the kinds of books we should be stocking in our school libraries and teaching in our classes.

As the head of English at an international school in Dar es Salaam, it is important that the texts we teach reflect our local as well as our global context. It is ridiculous for a diverse (and largely African) student population to study predominantly British or American texts. Similarly, it is wrong that teachers in English schools don’t have more opportunities to teach texts from around the world, particularly given the UK’s diversity. Looking back at some of the classes I taught in the UK, where the overwhelming majority of students had West African heritage, I wish I had taught some Nigerian or Ghanaian writers alongside the usual Shakespeare and Steinbeck staples.

The following list is of thirteen books I have read over the past year that could be stocked in school libraries or taught in class. I give an outline of the book and some suggestions about how they could be taught.

A Man of the PeopleA Man of the People (1966) – Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

The Novel: Achebe is Nigeria, and probably Africa’s, most famous writer. Though best known for Things Fall Apart, a novel taught across Africa and around the world, A Man of the People seems particularly current. The story is told from the perspective of Odili, a young school teacher, who is invited to meet his old mentor, and now politician, Chief Nanga. Nanga is a populist who is loved by his base but is unashamedly corrupt. The themes of political apathy, idealism and populism in 1960s neocolonial West Africa resonate with modern politics and, in particular, the election of Donald Trump, America’s very own ‘man of the people’.

Teaching: Whereas Things Fall Apart is suitable for slightly younger students (14+), A Man of the People is better suited to more mature readers who will be able to make connections between events in the book and contemporary politics. It would work well as a companion to Things Fall Apart or other work on corruption and politics. I strongly recommend that school libraries invest in books by Achebe, and encourage students to read them.

The Fishermen (2015) – Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)The Fishermen

The Novel: Another Nigerian novel, this time set in the 1990s during the military rule of Sani Abacha. The Fishermen is a beautiful and devastating book that tells the story of four brothers: Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin. The novel starts in an upbeat tone and seemingly follows the conventions of a coming-of-age adventure story. This makes the sudden shift to tragedy all the more wrenching.

Teaching: This would be a great recommendation for wider reading/reading for pleasure (students aged around 15+) or even as a class text for grade 9 or 10s (Year 10/11). It is a fairly quick read despite its length and the language isn’t too challenging. However, the writing is beautiful and there is a lot of symbolism to explore with students. I’ve recently ordered a class set of these for grade 10 teaching.

Tram 83 (2014) – Fiston Mwanza Mujila (DRC)Tram 83

The Novel: This dark, comic, frenetic novel tells the story of a struggling writer, Lucien, in a war-torn, corruption-filled city-state. Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, Mujila’s novel centres around a debauched nightclub: Tram 83. A hotspot for struggling artists, prostitutes, mercenaries and shady foreign businessmen. The language is jazz-infused and postmodern. Think a Congolese mash-up of Naked LunchThe Great Gatsby and The Crying of Lot 49.

TeachingProbably one for your older students, not only due to the adult themes and language, but because it is a slightly more challenging read. This is a great text for pushing your keen readers and also for breaking stereotypes about what ‘African Literature’ is about.

Homegoing (2016) – Yaa Gyasi (Ghana/USA) Homegoing.jpeg

The Novel: Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel has rightly received a lot of attention. The story starts with the separation of two Asante sisters in the late 18th Century. One sister is kidnapped and sold into slavery while the other remains in, what is now, Ghana. Each chapter is told from the point of view of the next generation and by the end of the book the reader has been taken on a two hundred year journey that spans colonialism, slavery, Ghanaian independence and the US civil rights movement. Gyasi is a wonderful storyteller who deals well with the sweeping historical scope of the book.

Teaching: The book tackles some challenging themes (early in the novel there is a scene set in a British slave dungeon that is claustrophobic and terrifying). However, it is extremely readable and suitable for more mature students in grade 8 (Year 9) and up. It would work well as a class text for grade 9 (Year 10); there is a lot of contextual information to study, though generally it’s a bit lighter on the stylistic devices. Moreover, due to the structure of the book, there is little in the way of sustained character development. It’s another excellent recommendation for reading for pleasure; a must for school libraries.

ParadiseParadise (1994) – Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)

The Novel: Paradise, set in Tanzania at the start of the 20th Century, follows a boy named Yusuf who is given to a rich trader, ‘Uncle Aziz’, in order to clear his father’s debts. Yusuf accompanies Aziz on long trading missions to the interior in search of ivory and other precious commodities. Gurnah, originally from Zanzibar, writes with elegance and remarkable technical accomplishment. The novel depicts the cultural and political complexity of pre-colonial Tanzania, exploring the tensions between the the coastal, Arab-influenced Swahili traders and the political machinations of the interior. The spectre of German colonialism lurks at the periphery of the story until the very end of the novel (and the start of the First World War), when Yusuf is confronted with the burned, cadaverous face of German imperialism.

TeachingWe have a class set of these at our school and I think it would work well as a text for grade 10 (Year 11) or for the IB Diploma (or A-Level). It is a great antidote to the Conrad’s Eurocentric Heart of Darkness. Paradise is almost as dark, but much more nuanced and human in its approach to East/Central Africa, Africans and colonialism.

Americanah

Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)

The Novel: Adichie is probably the most famous living African writer and I know that her 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus is already taught fairly widely in the UK and beyond. However, her other works are also great for schools. Americanah is a sharp, powerful love story about Ifemelu, a woman who moves to the US for several years before returning to Nigeria and her old love, Obinze. Adichie observes ideas of race, gender, immigration and identity in the US, UK and Nigeria incredibly keenly. This is a novel that frequently made me uncomfortable and made me question some of my own attitudes, which, as a white, British man, is surely a good thing.

Teaching: Adichie’s books are fantastic for the classroom. I have taught Purple HibiscusAmericanah and her 2009 collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck. Students really enjoy reading and discussing these works and there is so much to talk about. Purple Hibiscus and the short stories are good from around grade 8 and up (Year 9+) while Americanah is more suited to older students. That said, I have a keen reader in grade 9 who loved it. One of the great things about teaching Adichie’s books is making connections with her speeches (such as her Ted talks ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ and ‘We Should All be Feminists’) and her shorter, non-fiction works such as Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.

A Grain of WheatA Grain of Wheat (1967) – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)

The Novel: This masterpiece is set in the days leading up to Kenyan Independence or Uhuru. Ngũgĩ weaves together the stories of Mugo, a reluctant hero of the resistance; Gikonyo, who confesses to taking Mau Mau oaths in order to secure early release from a British concentration camp; and Mumbi, Gikonyo’s wife who sleeps with Karanja, a British collaborator and traitor. It is a novel that explores the brutality of colonial rule and the uncertain excitement of independence. It is extraordinarily well written and offers an empathetic portrayal of human frailty.

Teaching: This is one for the older students. Ngũgĩ’s books are well suited to the IB Diploma (A-level equivalent). The language is well crafted, characters well developed and the historical and political context is fascinating. It is also worth reading his collection of essays and lectures, Decolonising the Mind, which explores the way in which colonial powers used education and language as a tool of oppression. To quote Ngũgĩ: ‘the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard’. Currently, I teach one of his later works, Devil on the Cross, in the translated works section of the IB Diploma literature course. The novel was originally written on toilet paper in Ngũgĩ’s mother tongue Gĩkũyũ while he was in prison for a year on the orders of the ‘neo-colonial’ Kenyatta government (his reflections on this experience are recorded in his autobiographical work, Detained).

Baho!Baho! (2016) – Roland Rugero (Burundi)

The Novel: Baho! is a short novel by Burundian author Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer. Set in a rural village, Nyamuragi, a mute, has his desperate attempts to relieve himself mistakenly interpreted as an attempt to rape a woman. Rugero focuses on both the injustice faced by Nyamuragi, but also the violence that has been committed against women. The all-pervasive atmosphere of fear and mistrust leads to the false accusation against the protagonist. Rugero explores themes of justice and miscommunication in this punchy novel.

Teaching: Though this text is a little too short for a class novel, it is readable and interesting, making it a good recommendation for independent reading. It would also make a good companion text to other books in this list that look at disability, marginalisation or the violence of civil war such as The Fishermen and A Long Way Gone. There are also connections to works from the Western canon, such as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or even, Frankenstein.

MapsMaps (1986) – Nuruddin Farah (Somalia)

The Novel: Set in 1977 during the Ogaden conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, Maps is a dark, dream-like coming of age novel about a boy named Askar. The novel is poetic and, at times, quite challenging. Farah explores themes of cultural identity, education and the relationship between maternity and male sexuality.

Teaching: This would be a very good text for A-level or IB Diploma students, either as a core text or suggested additional reading. The language is beautiful and it would be really rewarding for students (and teachers) to delve into it. Thematically, the novel raises some interesting and quite challenging ideas that would be a lot of fun to pick apart in class. I also think that Ethiopia and Somalia are two countries that particularly suffer from Western stereotypes and misunderstanding – giving students a chance to learn more through Farah’s literature would be a fantastic opportunity.

A Long Way GoneA Long Way Gone (2007) – Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone)

The Book: In the 1990s, Beah fought as a child Soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone. This memoir recounts his experiences of being separated from his family, his dependency on drugs and the unemotional and dehumanising violence of a horrific war. The second half of the book describes his subsequent rehabilitation and eventual escape to neighbouring Guinea. The matter-of-fact tone of the memoir makes it all the more disturbing. It is most moving in its second half as Beah painfully rediscovers his humanity in a UNICEF facility with the help of Nurse Esther and rap music.

Teaching: As you might expect, there are some harrowing scenes in this memoir. That said, the language is relatively accessible due to Beah’s matter-of-fact style and so younger students could study this in class. I’ve used it as a class text with grade 9 students (Year 10), and it was very popular. The exploration of masculinity and the deadening of emotion could be interesting to look at in class.

BoyhoodBoyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) – JM Coetzee (South Africa)

The Book: Boyhood was given to me as a leaving gift by my former (South African) Head of Department, who said it was his favourite book. It is a semi-fictionalised memoir about Coetzee’s childhood in Worcester and Cape Town. There is a melancholy nostalgia to the memoir as Coetzee captures the anxiety, violence and pleasure of childhood. It is a superb book.

Teaching: The Nobel Prize winning Coetzee is perhaps best known for his novels Disgrace and Life & Times of Michael K, both of which would be excellent choices for class study at IB Diploma and A-Level or as a recommendation for wider reading. Boyhood would be a great choice for an honest (sometimes searing) account of childhood memory. It would be a good companion to Roald Dahl’s Boy or, for older students, Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye.

The CombatThe Combat (1972) – Kole Omotoso (Nigeria)

The Novel: Omotoso’s short novel is a disorientating allegory set in 1960s post-colonial Nigeria. Chuku Debe and Ojo Dada are two friends torn apart by a legal battle to win the paternity rights of a child they both seem to have fathered. The feud turns into an organised duel as neo-colonial powers step in to back either side in a cold war proxy conflict. Written in 1972, the novel is, in part, a response to the Nigerian Civil War (or Biafran War) as well as a satire of political power struggles.

Teaching: This is not an easy text to teach due to the allegorical threads and satirical tone that run through the novel. However, it is would be good for students who are interested in the period or would benefit from a more challenging text.

Black MosesBlack Moses (2015) – Alain Mabanckou (Republic of the Congo/France)

The Novel: The Guardian calls this Man Booker prize finalist a ‘picaresque tour-de-force’ which is an excellent way of describing Mabanckou’s postmodern-inflected Bildungsroman about an orphan named Tokumis Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko; or as he becomes known as, Moses. The narrative starts in a decrepit and corrupt orphanage and moves to the city as Moses runs and steals with a gang of young thieves before being semi-adopted by Zairian prostitutes.

Teaching: Like The Combat, this probably isn’t for everyone. It’s a pacy, fragmented and, at times, alienating read. However, I can’t recall anything I’ve read that is similar, and reviewers’ frequent comparison between Mabanckou and Samuel Beckett seem to do a disservice to the former’s originality.

On my reading list:

Dying in the Sun (1968) – Peter Palangyo (Tanzania)

Kintu (2014) – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda)

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) – Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia)

Dance of the Jakaranda (2017) – Peter Kimani (Kenya)

Dust (2014) – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

The Famished Road (1991) – Ben Okri (Nigeria)

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