African literature is literature of or from Africa and includes oral literature (or "orature", in the term coined by Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu).
As George Joseph notes in his chapter on African literature in Understanding Contemporary Africa, whereas European views of literature often stressed a separation of art and content, African awareness is inclusive:
- "Literature" can also imply an artistic use of words for the sake of art alone. [...T]raditionally, Africans do not radically separate art from teaching. Rather than write or sing for beauty in itself, African writers, taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate important truths and information to society. Indeed, an object is considered beautiful because of the truths it reveals and the communities it helps to build.
Oral literature (or orature) may be in prose or verse. The prose is often mythological or historical and can include tales of the trickster character. Storytellers in Africa sometimes use call-and-response techniques to tell their stories. Poetry, often sung, includes: narrative epic, occupational verse, ritual verse, praise poems of rulers and other prominent people. Praise singers, bards sometimes known as "griots", tell their stories with music. Also recited, often sung, are love songs, work songs, children's songs, along with epigrams, proverbs and riddles.
Examples of pre-colonial African literature are numerous. Oral literature of west Africa includes the "Epic of Sundiata" composed in medieval Mali, and the older "Epic of Dinga" from the old Ghana Empire. In Ethiopia, there is a substantial literature written in Ge'ez going back at least to the fourth century AD; the best-known work in this tradition is the Kebra Negast, or "Book of Kings." One popular form of traditional African folktale is the "trickster" story, in which a small animal uses its wits to survive encounters with larger creatures. Examples of animal tricksters include Anansi, a spider in the folklore of the Ashanti people of Ghana; Ijàpá, a tortoise in Yoruba folklore of Nigeria; and Sungura, a hare found in central and East African folklore. Other works in written form are abundant, namely in north Africa, the Sahel regions of west Africa and on the Swahili coast. From Timbuktu alone, there are an estimated 300,000 or more manuscripts tucked away in various libraries and private collections, mostly written in Arabic but some in the native languages (namely Fula and Songhai). Many were written at the famous University of Timbuktu. The material covers a wide array of topics, including astronomy, poetry, law, history, faith, politics, and philosophy.Swahili literature similarly, draws inspiration from Islamic teachings but developed under indigenous circumstances. One of the most renowned and earliest pieces of Swahili literature being Utendi wa Tambuka or "The Story of Tambuka".
In Islamic times, North Africans such as ibn Khaldun attained great distinction within Arabic literature. Medieval north Africa boasted universities such as those of Fes and Cairo, with copious amounts of literature to supplement them.
Colonial African literature
The African works best known in the West from the periods of colonization and the slave trade are primarily slave narratives, such as Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789).
In the colonial period, Africans exposed to Western languages began to write in those tongues. In 1911, Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford (also known as Ekra-Agiman) of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) published what is probably the first African novel written in English, Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation. Although the work moves between fiction and political advocacy, its publication and positive reviews in the Western press mark a watershed moment in African literature.
During this period, African plays written in English began to emerge. Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo of South Africa published the first English-language African play, The Girl Who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator in 1935. In 1962, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o of Kenya wrote the first East African drama, The Black Hermit, a cautionary tale about "tribalism" (discrimination between African tribes).
Among the first pieces of African literature to receive significant worldwide critical acclaim was Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Published in 1958, late in the colonial era, Things Fall Apart analyzed the effect of colonialism on traditional African society.
African literature in the late colonial period (between the end of World War I and independence) increasingly showed themes of liberation, independence, and (among Africans in French-controlled territories) négritude. One of the leaders of the négritude movement, the poet and eventual President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, published in 1948 the first anthology of French-language poetry written by Africans, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in the French Language), featuring a preface by the French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre.
For many writers this emphasis was not restricted to their publishing. Many, indeed, suffered deeply and directly: censured for casting aside his artistic responsibilities in order to participate actively in warfare, Christopher Okigbo was killed in battle for Biafra against the Nigerian movement of the 1960s' civil war; Mongane Wally Serote was detained under South Africa's Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 between 1969 and 1970, and subsequently released without ever having stood trial; in London in 1970, his countryman Arthur Norje committed suicide; Malawi's Jack Mapanje was incarcerated with neither charge nor trial because of an off-hand remark at a university pub; and, in 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian junta.
Postcolonial African literature
With liberation and increased literacy since most African nations gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, African literature has grown dramatically in quantity and in recognition, with numerous African works appearing in Western academic curricula and on "best of" lists compiled at the end of the 19th century. African writers in this period wrote both in Western languages (notably English, French, and Portuguese) and in traditional African languages such as Hausa.
Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa's past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity. Other themes in this period include social problems such as corruption, the economic disparities in newly independent countries, and the rights and roles of women. Female writers are today far better represented in published African literature than they were prior to independence.
In 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first post-independence African writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Previously, Algerian-born Albert Camus had been awarded the 1957 prize.
Literature published in Africa
Inaugurated in 1980 and running till 2009, the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was presented for the outstanding work of the year published in Africa.
Notable novels by African writers
- Peter Abrahams (South Africa): Mine Boy, This Island Now, A Wreath for Udomo
- Chinua Achebe (Nigeria): Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease, Things Fall Apart, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria): Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun
- Fadhy Mtanga (Tanzania): Kizungumkuti, Huba, Fungate
- José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola): Rainy Season, Creole, The Book of Chameleons, My Father's Wives
- Mohammed Naseehu Ali (Ghana): The Prophet of Zongo Street
- Germano Almeida (Cape Verde): O dia das calças roladas, The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo
- Elechi Amadi (Nigeria): The Concubine, The Great Ponds, Sunset in Biafra
- Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana): The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Two Thousand Seasons
- Sefi Atta (Nigeria): Everything Good Will Come
- Ayesha Harruna Attah (Ghana): Harmattan Rain
- Mariama Bâ (Senegal): Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter)
- Nadifa Mohamed(Somalia) Black Mamba Boy, The Orchard of Lost Souls
- Chris Barnard (South Africa): Bundu, Mahala
- Mongo Beti (Cameroon): The Poor Christ of Bomba
- Andre Brink (South Africa): 'n Droe Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season), Gerugte van Reen (Rumours of Rain)
- J. M. Coetzee (South Africa): Disgrace, Life & Times of Michael K
- Mia Couto (Mozambique): Terra Sonâmbula (A Sleepwalking Land)
- Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique): Ualalapi
- Luís Bernardo Honwana (Mozambique): Nós Matamos O Cão-Tinhoso e Outros Contos, We Killed Mangy Dog and Other Stories
- Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe): Nervous Conditions
- Mohammed Dib (Algeria): La grande maison
- E. K. M. Dido (South Africa): 'n Stringetjie Blou Krale (A String of Blue Beads), Die Storie van Monica Peters (The Story of Monica Peters)
- Assia Djebar (Algeria): Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde
- K. Sello Duiker (South Africa): Thirteen Cents, The Quiet Violence of Dreams
- Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria): The Bride Price, The Joys of Motherhood
- Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa (Nigeria): Ogboju odẹ ninu igbo irunmalẹ (The Forest of a Thousand Demons)
- Nuruddin Farah (Somalia): From a Crooked Rib, Maps, Sweet and Sour Milk
- Athol Fugard (South Africa): Tsotsi
- Nadine Gordimer (South Africa): Burger's Daughter, The Conservationist, July's People
- Alex La Guma (South Africa): In the Fog of the Seasons' End, The Stone-Country, Time of the Butcherbird, A Walk in the Night
- Bessie Head (Botswana): When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, A Question of Power
- Moses Isegawa (Uganda): Abyssinian Chronicles
- Rayda Jacobs (South Africa): The Slave Book, Eyes of the Sky, Confessions of a Gambler
- Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco): The Sacred Night, The Sand Child, This Blinding Absence of Light
- Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Senegal): L'Aventure Ambiguë
- Yasmina Khadra (Algeria): The Swallows of Kabul
- Camara Laye (Guinea): The African Child (L'Enfant noir), The Radiance of the King
- Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt): The Beginning and the End, Cairo Trilogy, Children of Gebelawi, Midaq Alley
- Charles Mangua (Kenya): A Tail in the Mouth
- Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Nigeria): In Dependence
- Dambudzo Marechera (Zimbabwe): The House of Hunger
- Dalene Matthee (South Africa): Kringe in 'n bos (Circles in a Forest)
- Zakes Mda (South Africa): Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness
- Thomas Mofolo (South Africa/Lesotho): Chaka
- Bai Tamia Moore (Liberia): Murder in the Cassava Patch
- Meja Mwangi (Kenya): Carcase for Hounds, Going Down River Road, Kill Me Quick
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenya): A Grain of Wheat, Matigari, Petals of Blood, Weep Not, Child, Wizard of the Crow
- Lewis Nkosi (South Africa): Mandela's Ego, Mating Birds, Underground People
- Flora Nwapa (Nigeria): Efuru, Idu, One is Enough, Never Again, Women are Different
- Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria): Zahrah the Windseeker
- Ben Okri (Nigeria): The Famished Road
- Deon Opperman (South Africa): Donkerland (Dark Land), Kruispad (Crossroad), Hartland (Heartland)
- Yambo Ouologuem (Mali): Le Devoir de Violence
- Alan Paton (South Africa): Cry, The Beloved Country
- Pepetela (Angola) : Muana Puó, Mayombe, A Gloriosa Família
- Sol Plaatje (South Africa): Mhudi
- Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) : Woman at Point Zero
- Tayeb Salih (Sudan): Season of Migration to the North
- Wilton Sankawulo (Liberia): Birds Are Singing
- Karel Schoeman (South Africa): n Ander Land (Another Country), Na die Geliefde Land (Promised Land)
- Olive Schreiner (South Africa): The Story of an African Farm
- Benjamin Sehene (Rwanda): Le Feu sous la Soutane (Fire under the Cassock)
- Ousmane Sembène (Senegal): Xala, The Black Docker (Le Docker Noir), God's Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu), The Last of the Empire (Le dernier de l'Empire), Tribal Scars (Voltaïque)
- Wole Soyinka (Nigeria): The Interpreters, Seasons of Anomy,
- Amos Tutuola (Nigeria): The Palm Wine Drinkard, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle, Feather Woman of the Jungle, he Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, Ajaiyi and his Inherited Poverty
- Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa): Triomf (Triumph)
- Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe): Butterfly Burning
- José Luandino Vieira (Angola): Luanda
- Joseph Jeffrey Walters (Liberia): Guanya Pau: A Story of an African Princess (1891)
- Birhanu Zerihun (Ethiopia): Ye'imba debdabbéwoch ("Tearful Letters")
Notable African poets
- Werku, Dagnachew, The Thirteenth Sun, 1968.
- Berhanemariam, Sahlesillasse, The Warrior King, 1974.
- Alain Ricard (1987). "Museum, Mausoleum, or Market: The Concept of National Literature". Research in African Literatures. 18. JSTOR 4618186.
- Mineke Schipper (1987). "National Literatures and Literary History". Research in African Literatures. 18. JSTOR 4618185.
- Busby, Margaret (ed.), Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, Random House, 1992.
- Mazrui, Ali A. (ed.), General History of Africa, vol. VIII, UNESCO, 1993, ch. 19, Ali A. Mazrui et al., "The development of modern literature since 1935".
- Gordon, April A. and Gordon, Donald L., Understanding Contemporary Africa, London: Lynne Rienner, 1996, ch. 12, George Joseph, "African Literature".
- Gikandi, Simon (ed.), Encyclopedia of African Literature, London: Routledge, 2003.
- Irele, Abiola, and Simon Gikandi (eds),The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, 2 vols, Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Table of contents
- Shamim, Amna. Gynocentric Contours of the Male Imagination: A Study of the Novels of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. New Delhi: Idea Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9788193326978
- ^George, Joseph, "African Literature", in Gordon and Gordon, Understanding Contemporary Africa (1996), ch. 14, p. 303.
- ^Joseph (1996), p. 304.
- ^"African literature" at info-please.
- ^African Literature - MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on October 31, 2009. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- ^"Timbuktu Manuscripts Project Description"(PDF). uio.no. January 1, 2003. Archived from the original(PDF) on May 5, 2006. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- ^Matthias Schulz and Anwen Roberts (August 1, 2008). "The Rush to Save Timbuktu's Crumbling Manuscripts". spiegel.de. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- ^"Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu | Exhibitions - Library of Congress". Loc.gov. July 27, 2010. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
- ^Stephanie Newell, Literary Culture in Colonial Ghana: 'How to Play the Game of Life' , Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2002, p. 135, ch. 7, "Ethical Fiction: J.E. Casely Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound".
- ^Elizabeth, Marie (March 22, 2013). "Humble beginnings of Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart'". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
- ^Leopold Senghor - MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on October 31, 2009.
- ^Ali A. Mazrui et al. "The development of modern literature since 1935" as ch. 19 of UNESCO's General History of Africa, vol. VIII, pp. 564f. Collaborating with Ali A. Mazrui on this chapter were Mario Pinto de Andrade, M'hamed Alaoui Abdalaoui, Daniel P. Kunene and Jan Vansina.
- ^Mary Jay, "25 Years of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa: an historic overview", The African Book Publishing Record, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp. 116–118, ISSN (Print) 0306-0322, DOI: 10.1515/ABPR.2006.116, January 2008.
Early African Literature: An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE
Collected and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher
In progress. The material below is extracted from the very rough draft of the introduction (with citations stripped out). I welcome comments!
Contrary to the general perception, the African literatures written before the twentieth century are substantial. Whatever limits can be imagined—in terms of geography, genre, language, audience, era—these literatures exceed them. Before the twentieth century, Africans wrote not just in Europe, but also on the African continent; they wrote not just in European languages, but in African languages; they wrote not just for European consumption, but for their own consumption; they wrote not just in northern Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa; they wrote not just orally, but textually; they wrote not just historical or religious texts, but poetry and epic and autobiography; and they wrote not just in the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century and long, long before.
Yet, the general public and even scholars of African literature are often unaware of these early literatures, believing that African literature starts in the late 1950s as the result of colonization. In this view, Africa is a savage Caliban who is introduced to writing by a European Prospero and Things Fall Apart is his first articulation. Westerns assume that whatever writing happened to be done on the continent was not done by Africans or in African languages and scripts until very recently. This lack of awareness of three thousand years of African writing is particularly surprising given the legions of pre-twentieth-century African texts that historians have uncovered and studied in the past fifty years. While historians labor to overturn long-held misconceptions about Africa as a place without history, literary critics have done little to overturn misconceptions of Africa as a place without literature. The extraordinarily rich trove of pre-twentieth century African continental literatures has yet to be written about in any depth by Euro-American literary critics. Certainly, no book addresses their work at length and almost no literary essays published outside of Africa address the continental works.
African literature written over the last millennia remains largely invisible for several significant reasons. One, many of the texts written more than two hundred years ago have not survived, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Scholars know they existed because travelers reported on them and extant texts make reference to now lost texts. Two, many were never published as print books and of those few manuscripts that were, most were published in obscure places. Three, very few of the texts written in an African language have been translated into any European language. For instance, the hundreds of Ethiopian indigenous texts remain obscure because only a handful have been translated into English. Indeed, in the dramatic cases of texts written in Meroitic or Libyco-Berber, the texts cannot be translated as the language and script is no longer understood. One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century will be archiving and translating the vast libraries of East and West Africa. Fourth, many continue to see sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa as geographic and literary domains separated by a gulf, rather than, as historians and archeologists continue to prove, having deep links to each other. As the origin of the human species, Africa is home to the most diverse peoples of any continent, one of its great strengths. That some of these Africans are lighter-skinned than others is an irrelevancy. All those born on the African continent, and whose forbearers were born on the continent, are Africans and have contributed to its vibrancy. The obsession with the race or region of African authors has resulting in obscuring the literature of the continent and prevented productive comparative work.
This lack of knowledge about early African literature torques the study of modern African literature. Analyses of contemporary writing in the United States, Britain, or Europe often take into account a centuries-old literary tradition rooted in different but related forms and themes. But research on African literature today tends to ignore the continent’s long literary history, with most scholars today focusing on African writing in European languages produced since 1950. For example, few situate later Nigerian experiments in English like Tutola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and Iweala’s Beast of No Nation in relation to the English of earlier West African texts, such as the eighteenth-century diary of Antera Duke, an Efik slave-trading chief in what is now Nigeria. Likewise, few lay Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart alongside the work of Nigerian authors of the nineteenth century who were also concerned about the interaction of Christianity and local beliefs—including Egba clergyman Joseph Wright (1839), the famous Yoruba Anglican bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1837), and the Hausa writer Madugu Mohamman Mai Gashin Baki . Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor’s work on the Queen of Sheba is not considered in the context of the thirteenth-century Ethiopian text about her, Kebra Nagast.
Selection of Texts
Whatever the reasons that these literatures do not get the attention they deserve, the time is well past to start giving them that attention. This book therefore seeks to introduce these literatures and provide excerpts from a few. Influenced by recent trends in literary theory, particularly new historicism, I have selected texts using broad definitions of the basic categories. By “written text,” I mean anything inscribed by human hand or machine on any surface—whether parchment, paper, or stone—that uses a system of signs (symbolic or orthographic) that can be read by many members of a particular cultural group. By “Africa,” I mean the entire African continent and the peoples who originated there. By “African author,” I mean anyone born on the African continent to someone born on the African continent. I do not exclude authors on the basis of race, although I do note the author’s national or ethnic background. In the case of North Africa, I have been more exclusionary, focusing on African texts by those whose families were not originally from Europe or the Middle East. Thus, I have not included North African Roman or Greek authors. Since African diasporic literature written in the Americas has been collected and published frequently elsewhere, I do not include African diasporic authors unless they were born on the African continent. By “literature,” I mean any original text with elevated language or an active “I”, but specifically poetry, epic, romance, hymns, fictional narrative, epistles and belles letters, personal manifestos or philosophy, diaries, biography, and autobiography. Although many African translations vary significantly from their Arabic or Greek originals, I have not included any translations of texts written outside of Africa. By “written African literature,” I mean a text composed and written down in any language by an African author (or, in some rare cases, his or her amanuensis). I do not exclude texts written in European languages. I do exclude oral texts—although Africa has always had a vast unwritten literature in the oral forms of drama, epic, and poetry, that is not the subject of this book. A desideratum remains studying oral and written African literature together; I hope this book will aid that process.
Our exclusion of certain authors or texts is never an argument about their importance or salience, but only due to such authors and texts finding adequate representation elsewhere. Thus, I do not generally include texts written by Europeans in Africa, although many Europeans who lived on the African continent for long periods had imbibed local thought and can be seen as part of a larger African literature. Such authors are generally represented well in travel anthologies.
Quite frequently, texts are omitted because no English translation is available, no translation is possible, or all copies of the text have been lost. It is quite clear that for every extant pre-twentieth century African text, a thousand others did exist but were destroyed by the elements or conquest.
Categories of Texts
In practice, this means that four general categories of written African literature are represented in this text. A prominent category of early written African literature is that written by Africans outside of Africa, in particular those who spent the majority of their lives in Europe or the Americas and were trained in Western educational systems. This includes not only the literature written by the millions of Africans taken to the new world as slaves, but also that written by the hundreds of African youths whom Europeans sent from the continent every year to study in England, France, Portugal, Italy, Holland and Germany from the 1400s on. While the genre of the slave narrative has been widely explored by literary scholars, this later type of the writing done by free Africans in Europe has received less attention, perhaps because much of it was not written in English. For instance, a rich but almost entirely unexplored body of early written African literature is African scholarship in Latin for European universities. I suspect that many discoveries of African literature will be made as more material from European universities is digitalized and the African authorship of some of these theses becomes known. Likewise for early written African literature in Portuguese.
Another category of early written African literature is texts written by Africans on the African continent in Arabic. These include medieval inscriptions in Arabic from eleventh-century gravestones in Mali; letters written by the Emperor of Morocco in the 1600s to various European heads of state; Tarikh el-Fettach, a fifteenth-century manuscript about Jews in Tendirma, near Timbuktu; Tarikh es-Soudan, a seventeenth-century manuscript written by Abd-al-Rahman al Sadi of Timbuktu about the lives and wars of the kings of Mali in the 1200s, Kitab Ghanja, a chronicle from the 1700s in modern Ghana, and so on. Various archival projects in West and East Africa are bringing to light even more African manuscripts dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately, a tendency to see Arabic as a language foreign to the African continent, despite being in use there for over a thousand years, leads to dismissing Arabic African literature as not indigenous. This would be tantamount to dismissing British literature as Italian because of the Roman invasion 2000 years ago. Misconceptions of Africa as a savage, untouched paradise do not square with the reality of Africa’s millennia of trading relationships with non-Africans and its long traditions of Islam and Christianity.
The final category of early written African literature is that written by Africans on the African continent in African languages, sometimes in African scripts. The African languages with the largest bodies of extant texts are Gəˁəz, Kiswahili, Hausa, Amharic, and Somali [more].
We do not want to suggest that these categories cannot be fruitfully read together. For instance, if I look at some of the early writing by just one ethnic group in West Africa over just one century I find it occurring in several languages and over several continents. There were at least half-a-dozen eighteenth-century Akan writers (Gonja Chronicles?) whose manuscripts have survived. These texts by these Akan authors must be seen as the result of a particular African discursive system, not just as tainted by the European languages in which they were sometimes written. All these men were shaped by the same African culture and their texts should be read in light of each other.
As the table shows, ancient Africa had many indigenous scripts, including hieroglyphs and hieratic, both developed in Egypt around five thousand years ago to represent the ancient Egyptian language. Egyptians then invented Demotic, which was related to Hieratic, and Coptic, which was related to Greek and used to represent an African language. Nubians used all the Egyptian scripts, but also invented their own, Meroitic, to represent the African languages of Meroitic and Old Nubian. Meanwhile in North Africa and the Sahel, Africans invented the Libyco-Berber scripts to represent a variety of Berber languages, while East Africans invented Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) to represent the African language of Gəˁəz. In the medieval period, Africans in East, West, and North Africa used the Arabic script, but in the early modern period, Africans invented Ajami, which is related to the Arabic script, for their East and West African languages. It is only in the twentieth century that the Roman alphabet came to be used widely in Africa. By the late eighteenth century, Africans also invented the secret ideographic writing system of Nsibidi. That Nsibidi was “discovered” by Europeans only in the twentieth century suggests that other unknown African scripts may have been used during the early modern period. It is also worthwhile to mention Adinkra, a pictographic script invented by 1817 in what is now Ghana, and Vai, an alphabet invented in Liberia in the 1830s. In the twentieth century, Africans invented over a dozen scripts, but only a few are still used.
Indigenous African Scripts
Name of African script
Region where it was invented
Languages it is used for
Region where it is used
Century it was invented
Last century it was regularly used
Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic
Egypt and Nubia
Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic
Egypt and Nubia
Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic
Egypt and Nubia
Egypt and Nubia
Meroitic, Old Nubian
Ethiopic or Gəˁəz
Ge’ez, Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo
Ethiopia and Eritrea
still in use
Tamazight, Tachelhit [Tashalit], Kabyle, Shawiya [Tashawit], Tamasheq [Taureg], Rif [Tarifit], Siwi, Zenaga
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger
800 or 200 BCE
700 CE and still in use
Early Modern and Modern
Ajami (adapted Arabic script)
Swahili, Somali, Hausa, Kanuri, Manding, Susu, Wolof, Fulfulde, Bambara, etc..
West and North Africa
still in use
still in use
still in use
still in use
still in use
still in use
Kpelle, Loma, N’ko, Begam, Somali, Wolof, Mandombe
1920 or later
Before the 1960s, scholars mistakenly assumed that pre-human beings left Africa to evolve into human beings in Europe or Asia. Since the 1980s, archeological and genetic evidence has confirmed that homo sapiens evolved fully in Africa.
Likewise, it was long thought that the Middle East was unique in embarking on agriculture around 10,000 years ago, yet recent scholarship demonstrates that such innovations occurred independently in at least seven places around the globe, including four places in Africa. Between 8000 and 5000 BC, the peoples of East, West, and North Africa were among the first locales to domesticate plants and animals for food.
Finally, scholars used to think that the languages of East Africa evolved in the Middle East and then migrated to Africa. Yet, more recent scholarship suggests that the Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in East and North Africa as well as the Middle East and South Asia originate from a proto-language of East Africa. That is, from the eighth to the sixth millennium BCE, the ancient language of East African peoples began to differentiate, eventually evolving into hundreds of Afro-Asiatic languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian, Berber, and Hausa. Thus, as the biogeographer Jared Diamond expressed it, “Africa gave birth to the languages spoken by the authors of the Old and New Testament and the Koran, the moral pillars of Western civilization.”
Just as scholars are finding that Africans were among the earliest agricultural and linguistic innovators, so are scholars finding that they were among the earliest artistic innovators as well. It is also important to remember how many words in English are originally from African languages: such as canoe and tamboureen. Few of the texts in this volume were written originally in English; but in Arabic, Latin, Portuguese, Gəˁəz, Coptic, and even French, German (?), Italian (?),Dutch(?), and Afrikaans (?).
Early African Authors
Many African authors in this volume are anonymous. Many others I have almost no information about. Nevertheless, it seems useful to provide a chronological list of some of the authors named in this volume (See appendix A).
Structure of the Book
We have structured the book chronologically, into four broad periods: ancient (2000 BCE-700 CE, to around the beginning of Islam in Africa), medieval (700-1500 CE, to around when Africans began to escalate their contact with Europeans), early modern (1500-1800), and modern (1800-1918, to the end of World War I). Within each of these chronological sections, texts are arranged according to their age, region, and language.
For the ancient African texts section, the texts are arranged by region and script and then chronologically. These texts range from the most ancient known narratives, those depicted in rock art; to Egyptian texts written in the Egyptian scripts of hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic, or coptic; to Nubian texts written in Egyptian scripts as well as in Meroitic and Old Nubian scripts; to Ethiopian (Axumite) texts written in Ethiopic (Ge’ez) script; and North and West African texts written in Libyco-Berber scripts. I have also included a brief chapter on the many ancient African texts written by Africans in Latin and Greek—such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions—arguing for their return to the category of African literature.
For the medieval African texts, when extant texts are rare, I have arranged the texts geographically into those from North Africa, East Africa, and West Africa. The main text in this section is the thirteenth or fourteenth-century Ethiopian text Kebra Nagast, which must be seen as just one textual representative of the vast oral African tradition about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
For the early modern and modern African texts, when the number of texts proliferates, I have arranged the texts into separate sections for each region of the continent and within that by language. [Although the modern states of Mali, Nigeria, and Ghana did not exist then, I have yet use their names to give readers a sense for where they come from.]
Table of Contents
- Unknown Literature
- Selection of Texts
- Categories of Texts
- African Scripts
- African Languages
- Early African Authors
- Structure of the Book
- Part I Ancient African Literature (3000 BCE to 700 CE)
- Chapter 1 Art Narrative Texts
- Chapter 2 Egyptian Written Texts in Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, or Demotic
- Chapter 3 Nubian Written Texts in Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, Meroitic, and Old Nubian
- Prayers for the Queen
- The Victory of King Piye
- Praise of Taharqo
- Triumphs of Taharqo
- King Aspelta Honors the Just Kingship of Khaliut, son of Piye
- Obeisance of Paêse
- Obeisance of Makaltami
- Obeisance of Wayekiye
- Obeisance of Hornakhtyotef
- Obeisance of Pasan
- The Conquests of King Kharamandoye
- Chapter 4: Egyptian and Nubian Written Texts in Coptic
- Woman’s Complaint
- Isis Love Spell 40
- Letters of Saint Anthony
- Cambyses Romance
- A Sermon of Shenute
- The Life of Shenute
- The Life of Saint Anthony
- Chapter 5: Axumite Written Texts in Gəˁəz
- Autobiography of Adulitana II
- Autobiography of Aeizanas
- Autobiography of Kaleb
- Funerary Inscription for a Daughter
- Chapter 6 North and West African Written Texts in Libyco-Berber
- Chapter 7: North African Written Literature in Latin
- On the Mantle
- The Philsopher’s Defense
- The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses
- On Worldly versus Divine Patriotism
- The Wisdom of the Egyptians
- Part II Medieval African Literature (700 to 1500 CE)
- Chapter 7 Medieval West African Literature
- In Praise of the King
- Prayers for the Dead
- Prayers for the King Malik
- Remember the Grave
- Funeral Inscription
- Refuge 87
- Funeral Inscription of Faqlh al-Khayyir
- Funeral Inscription
- Funeral Inscription for the Daughter Shama
- Prayers for Y.gh.z.y
- Prayers for Umar Beere
- Chapter 8 Medieval East African Literaure
- Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings)
- Tarike Nagast(Royal Chronicles)
- Zera Yaqob’s Sermons
- Mashafa Mestira Samay Wamedr (The Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth)
- Zena Eskender (The History of Alexander the Great).
- Diggua (hymns)
- Gedla Lalibela (Acts of Saint Lalibela)
- Gedla Takla Haymanot (Acts of Saint Takla Haymanot)
- Praise Songs of the Emperor
- Chapter 9 Medieval North African Literature
- Divan of a North African Poet
- Ibn Battuta’s Journeys
- Dala'il al-Khairat
- Kitab al-zuhd
- Chapter 7 Medieval West African Literature
- Part III Early Modern West African Literature (1500 to 1800)
- Chapter 10 Early Modern West African Literatures in Portuguese and Spanish
- The Leper King
- Letters from the Congo Kings
- Ge Cathecism
- Chapter 11 Early Modern West African Literatures in Latin
- Autobiography of a Slave
- Chapter 12 Early Modern West African Literatures in English
- The Royal African
- An Interesting Narrative
- An Ode
- Some Black Poetry
- Chapter 13 Early Modern West African Literatures in Other European Languages
- Chapter 15 Early Modern West African Literatures in Arabic
- Kitab Ghanja
- Chapter 14 Early Modern West African Literatures in African Languages
- Chapter 10 Early Modern West African Literatures in Portuguese and Spanish
- Part III Early Modern North African Literature (1500 to 1800)
- Chapter 15 Early Modern North African Literature in Latin
- Chapter 16 Early Modern North African Literature in Arabic
- Chapter 17 Early Modern North African Literature in Berber
- Part III Early Modern East African Literature (1500 to 1800)
- Chapter 18 Early Modern East African Literature in Arabic
- Chapter 19 Early Modern East African Literature in Latin
- Chapter 20 Early Modern East African Literature in Somali
- Chapter 21 Early Modern East African Literature in Kiswahili
- Chapter 22 Early Modern East African Literature in Gəˁəz
- Part III Early Modern Southern African Literature (1500 to 1800)
- Part IV Nineteenth-Century West African Literature (1800-1900)
- Chapter 23 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in English
- Chapter 24 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Portuguese
- Chapter 25 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in French
- Chapter 26 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Arabic
- Chapter 27 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Hausa
- Chapter 28 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Nsibidi
- Chapter 29 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Vai
- Chapter 30 Nineteenth Century West African Literature in Other African Languages
- Part IV Nineteenth-Century East African Literature (1800-1900)
- Chapter 31 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Gəˁəz and Amharic and Oromo
- Chapter 32 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Kiswahili
- Chapter 33 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Somali
- Chapter 34 Nineteenth Century East African Literature in Arabic
- Part IV Nineteenth-Century Central African Literature (1800-1900)
- Chapter 35 Nineteenth Century Central African Literature
- Part IV Nineteenth-Century North African Literature (1800-1900)
- Chapter 36 Nineteenth Century North African Literature in Arabic
- Chapter 37 Nineteenth Century North African Literature in Berber
- Chapter 38 Nineteenth Century North African Literature in European Languages
- Part IV Nineteenth-Century Southern African Literature (1800-1900)
- Chapter 39 Nineteenth Century Southern African Literature in African Languages
- Chapter 40 Nineteenth Century Southern African Literature in European Languages
- Appendix A: List of African Authors
- Notes and Sources
Some Medieval and Early Modern Abyssinian Texts in Ge'ez
Ge'ez writing in Ethiopia dates to at least the 300s CE. To see the Manuscripts Librarian of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa present and lecture on several such manuscripts, please go to my Youtube channel.
Kebra Nagast (the Glory of the Kings). Early versions may date to 1200 or earlier, late versions may date to the 1500s. Approximately 100 chapters. Describes the lives of biblical and Ethiopian kings and queens, including the sixth-century Ethiopian King Kaleb. Devotes forty chapters to the Queen of Sheba.
Tarike Nagast (Royal Chronicles). Written by official court scribes about the deeds of Ethiopian kings, the existing texts start in 1314 and continue into the 1800s. Just one of these chronicles is The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon: King of Ethiopia (1314-1344), written as a vivid eye-witness account.
Metshihafe (sermons). Orthodox priests wrote sermons, some of which were actually theological treatises on important questions of the day. A series of these have been attributed to Emperor Zera Yaqob (1434-1468) but may date to much earlier. Zera Yaqob elevates Mary to the status of a goddess in long poetic sections; sometimes he defends magical practices.
Mashafa Mestira Samay Wamedr ( The Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth). Dating to the 1400s, this text explains how everything was created.
Zena Eskender (The History of Alexander the Great). Although parts of this tale resemble ancient tales circulating throughout the middle east about Alexander the Great, in the Ethiopian versions, Alexander is a pious Christian.
Diggua (hymns). Many volumes of hymns exist, some dating to the 1600s, 1400s, and perhaps even the 500s. For instance, Igzi'abher Negse is attributed to Emperor Zera Yaqob.
Mezmure Kristos (Psalms of Christ) probably dates to the 1500s. Composed in imitation of the biblical psalms, each of the 151 Ge'ez poems is the exact length of each of the 151 biblical psalms, down to the number of lines and the number of letters in each line. This extraordinary feat is made even more extraordinary in that it rhymes, which the biblical psalms do not. The text carries sidenotes (rather than footnotes) and an extensive bibliography.
Gedlat (Acts of the Saints). There are over 200 original hagiographies in Ge'ez about Ethiopian saints. Among them are one about the Ethiopian saint Takla Haymanot and another about Emperor Lalibela (both of whom lived in the 1200s). Half a dozen are about Ethiopian women saints.
Qeddâsê (Liturgy). The Ethiopian liturgy was the first of the eastern Christian liturgies to be published in Europe—in Rome in 1548.
Confession of Faith. The Ethiopian emperor Galâudêwos (Claudius) wrote this defense of the Ethiopian faith in 1555, it was published in Europe not long after.
Some Early Modern West African Texts in Arabic
Arabic writing in Hausaland (northern Nigeria and Niger) dates to the end of the 1400s.
Mai Idris of Bornu (late 1500s). Written by Ahmad Ibn Fartuwa of Niger, imam of the warrior West African king Idris Alawma, about his reign.
Tarikh es-Soudan (early 1600s). Written by Abd-al-Rahman al Sadi of Timbuktu about the lives and wars of the kings of Mali in the 1200s.
Some Early Modern West African Texts in European Languages
West African texts written in European languages date to at least the early 1700s.
A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717-1747 (in Latin). Written in 1742 by Capitein (Akan), who was sold into slavery from the continent and went on to study in the Netherlands, it includes an autobiographical preface.
Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings (in English). Written in 1787 by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (Fanti), after being sold into slavery from the continent.
Letters of Philip Quaque, or Kweku, from Cape Coast Castle, 1765-1811 (in English). Written to his English missionary society after Quaque (Akan) returned to the Gold Coast from studying in England.
On the Rights of Africans in Europe (in Latin). A now lost treatise written by William Anton Amo (Akan) in 1729. He also wrote several other dissertations, one of which survived: The Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately.
The Diary of Antera Duke of Old Calabar (in pidgin English). Written by a slave-trading West African chief, Antera Duke (Efik), from 1785 to 1788.
Letters of Efik slave traders Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John to Charles Wesley, the Methodist hymnodist (in English). Late 1700s.
Geometry and Fortification (in Russian). Written by Abram Petrovich Ganibal (1697–1781), the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin. He was captured as a child near Chad and became the slave of Peter the Great. He wrote a two-volume, unpublished textbook on military fortification, which includes an autobiographical preface.