Nigeria has some similarities with India in terms of human diversity, art & literature and history.
While there are many communities/tribes in Nigeria, four of them dominate social, economic and political space – they are Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. Hausa and Fulani live in north and are predominantly Muslim, Yoruba, who live in west, has mix of followers of Islam and Christianity, while Igbo in South are predominantly Christians.
Like India, Nigeria was colony of British and gained independence in 1960. Colonial rule resulted in spread of Christianity, education, civil services and communal tensions.
Like partition of India, Igbo dominated regions seceded from Nigeria and formed Republic of Biafra, which was later, reunited with Nigeria after Nigerian Civil War.
By the way, just as we have Bollywood, Nigeria has Nollywood.
Nigeria is world’s largest producer of yam. Other important crops are palm and kola nut.
This brief background is necessary to understand certain themes in Nigerian literature.
Nigeria has produced many authors; prominent among them are Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Elechi Amadi, while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the rising stars.
Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda are Igbos; Elechi belongs to subsect of Igbo, while Wole Soyinka is a Yoruba.
Chinua Achebe is known for his African trilogy- Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God. It covers period from beginning of British colonialism to end of colonialism.
Things fall apart is about self-made, hardworking warrior called Okonowo. He hates his father Unoka, who was lazy, debt ridden and in Okonowo’s opinion effeminate. Okonowo is respected in his clan and to maintain his position he works hard and keep tight control over his three wives and children. His biggest worry is his son Nwoye should not become like Unoka, rather he should become a warrior like Okonowo.
“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.”
― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
But Nwoye is not interested in becoming like is father, and converts to Christianity and changes his name to Isaac.
Story of Isaac and his academically brilliant son Obi is theme of Chinua’s second novel- No Longer At Ease. Obi is educated in England and joins civil services; he hates the old boys network of civil services and wants to get rid of corruption. But due to economic circumstances is forced to accept bribe, gets caught and is brought for trial.
I am against people reaping where they have not sown. But we have a saying that if you want to eat a toad you should look for a fat and juicy one.
-Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease
Third novel of trilogy is about chief priest of Ulu god Ezeulu, who hates Christianity, but at the same time is curious to know more about it. He takes decision to punish his own people for betraying him, but his action boomerangs and whole village abandons him and embrace Christianity.
“Do you blame a vulture for perching over a carcass?”
-Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God
Being an Igbo, Nigerian civil war and atrocities on Igbos disturbed Chinua and this become theme of his novel There Was a Country.
Another Igbo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has written about civil war and sufferings of Igbo in her novel Half of Yellow Sun.
“…my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe…I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda rose to prominence with her first novel Purple Hibiscus, where she talks about a zealous Christian convert Eugene. Eugene has split personality, he is generous when it comes to donating money for charity but beats his children Jaja and Kambili and wife Beatrice for slightest faults. He also hates his father who follows pre Christian traditions.
Elechi Amadi, who belongs to Ikwerre tribe (a sub group of Igbo), too has written about civil war in his novel Sunset in Biafra. He felt war was forced upon his tribe by dominant Igbos, and war was unnecessary.
“An African writer who really wants to interpret the African scene has to write in three dimensions at once. There is the private life, the social life, and what you may call the supernatural.”
Elechi is famous for his novel Concubine. It is story of a beautiful lady called Ihuoma. It is believed that whoever marries her dies, reason being she is a concubine of sea god, and sea god being jealous of anyone who marries her, kills that person.
“Achebe is not father of African literature”
– Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka, a Yoruba novelist is known for his novels and plays. He won Noble prize for literature in 1986. His famous works are The Lion and the Jewel, Kongi’s Harvest, Death and King’s Horseman.
Lion and Jewel is about Baroka, chief of a Yoruba village (Lion) who is in his sixties, and how he manages to get married to a beautiful lady called Sidi (Jewel). Baroka has competitor in from of a village teacher called Lakunle. Lakunle, who is in his twenties, tries to win Sidi by telling her that Baroka is too old for her and she will rot in his harem. But crafty Baroka manages to win her.
Kongi’s harvest is about President Kongi, who is a dictator of African State, which he is trying to modernize after deposing King Oba Danlola, who is being held in detention. Kongi demands that Danlola present him with a ceremonial yam at a state dinner to indicate his abdication.
Wole has been harsh critic of dictators, and shows that dictators are only interested in their own welfare.
“Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist. All that remains is a fiefdom, a planet of slaves regimented by aliens from outer space.”
– Wole Soyinka
Death and King’s Horseman is about a ritual where horseman of a king has to follow king after his death i.e. he has to commit suicide. In this story the king’s horseman Elesin, has to commit suicide to follow his dead king in another world. The British rulers want to get rid of this ritual. They arrest Elesin to prevent him from committing suicide; Elesin tries to explain them that not committing suicide will bring disgrace to his family. The British refuse to listen to him, finally to save family honour his son Olunde commits suicide in Elesin’s place. Ironically Olunde is beneficiary of western education and a doctor.
In all novels certain themes stand out.
One of them is importance of yam, especially importance of Yam festival and food habits like consumption of kola nut, yam soup with bitter leaves, palm oil and palm wine.
Second theme is inspite of conversion to Christianity, the social norms of earlier religion still have grip on people.
Osu are people dedicated to god (just like devdasis), they are treated like untouchables and cannot marry normal people. Embracing Christianity helps them to get rid of stigma and provides them social mobility. Clara is an osu who is educated in Britain and is a trained nurse, Obi falls in love with her and is ready to marry her, but his father Isaac and mother Hannah though believe in equality are against marriage.
Lakunle is a teacher and feels that giving bride price is an outdated custom. But this fails to impress Sidi who feels that bride price is related to her self-esteem and not paying bride price is insult to her. She ends up marrying Baroka.
Thirdly there is liberal use of metaphors, proverbs and folktales.
I will be discussing more about these authors and their novels in my next articles.