Nigerian Literary Traditions
Nigeria has rich literary traditions that include many genres and works in numerous languages. This activity will walk through several examples of these from contemporary and classic novels of the 20th century to oral traditions of women in the Hausa language.
Throughout this activity, vocabulary terms that may be unknown to you have been highlighted in bold type, as “genres” has been in the paragraph above. These are terms that you will be asked to define using the World Wide Web at the end of this activity. You may want to look them up as you go along. Terms in a foreign language are highlighted in red. You can find translations of these terms at the end of this activity.
20th Century Novels by Nigerian Writers
Perhaps the most well known writer from Nigeria is Chinua Achebe, who began writing in 1958 right at the end of Nigeria’s colonial period. Achebe’s novels grapple with the racist sentiments of Europeans towards Africa. For example, many Europeans believed that they had brought culture and civilization to Nigeria as well as the rest of Africa. This belief is also discussed in Module 7B: Colonial History 1500 to the Present, as well as other places throughout Exploring Africa. Achebe refutes this by showing the rich cultural traditions that exist in Nigeria independent of Europe. Nigerians have been creating poetry, stories, and art for thousands of years; have complex and dignified cultures and religious systems; and as we saw in Activity Two of this module, Nigerians have had a long history of states and kingdoms in many regions. Because Achebe wrote in English, many people around the world could and did read his novels. His ideas were debated widely, and he provided an important voice which critiqued racism and Eurocentrism in the 20th century. His novels include Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987).
Nigeria has produced many other world renowned writers in the 20th century. The first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was Wole Soyinka—another Nigerian—in 1986. Soyinka writes novels, plays, poetry, essays, theoretical commentary, and autobiography. Another famous Nigerian novelist and poet is Ben Okri, who uses magical realism to comment on social change and political events in Nigeria. Okri was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Famished Road (1991).
Achebe, Soyinka, Okri, and many other Nigerian writers, give us a glimpse into the everyday life of people in Africa, which Americans rarely get to see. Too often our ideas about Africa are based on stereotypes from American popular culture rather than a first-hand account from someone who is from there. Let’s use the following excerpt from the novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an up and coming author from Nigeria, to catch a glimpse into the everyday life and struggles of a Nigerian family through the eyes of the 15 year old daughter, Kambili. Kambili’s father is a wealthy and well-respected man in their community; however, at home he is a tyrant and abusive to his family. He is also strongly Catholic and extremely intolerant of indigenous Nigerian religious belief to the extent that he forbade his children from seeing his father because he was a “heathen.” Kambili and her brother have the opportunity, however, to spend time with their grandfather—Papa-Nnukwu—at their aunt’s home, unbeknownst to Kambili’s father. Kambili’s aunt wakes her up early one morning to help Kambili (who she affectionately calls “Nne”) see the sincere heart and love Papa-Nnukwu has for the family even though he is not a Catholic. Adichie writes:
When Aunty Ifeoma woke me up, the room was dim and the shrills of the night crickets were dying away. A rooster’s crow drifted through the window above my bed.
“Nne.” Aunty Ifeoma patted my shoulder. “Your Papa-Nnukwu is on the veranda. Go and watch him.”
I felt wide awake, although I had to pry my eyes open with my fingers. I remembered Aunty Ifeoma’s words from the day before, about Papa-Nnuwku being a traditionalist and not a heathen. Still, I was not sure why she wanted me to go and watch him on the verandah.
“Nne, remember to be quiet. Just watch him.” Aunty Ifeoma whispered to avoid waking Amaka.
I tied my wrapper around my chest, over my pink-and-white flowered nightgown, and padded out of the room. The door that led to the verandah was half open, and the purplish tinge of early dawn trickled into the living room. I did not want to turn the light on because Papa-Nnukwu would notice, so I stood by the door, against the wall.
Papa-Nnukwu was on a low wooden stool, his legs bent into a triangle. The loose knot of his wrapper had come undone, and the wrapper had slipped off his waist to cover the stool, its faded blue edges grazing the floor. A kerosene lamp, turned to its lowest, was right next to him. The flickering light cast a topaz glow over the narrow verandah, over the stubby gray hairs on Papa-Nnukwu’s chest, over the loose, soil-colored skin on his legs. He leaned down to draw a line on the floor with the nzu in his hand. He was speaking, his face down as if addressing the white chalk line, which now looked yellow. He was talking to the gods or the ancestors; I remembered Aunty Ifeoma saying that the two could be interchanged.
“Chineke! I thank you for this new morning! I thank you for the sun that rises.” His lower lip quivered as he spoke. Perhaps that was why his Igbo words flowed into each other, as if writing his speech would result in a single long word. He bent down to draw another line, quickly, with a fierce determination that shook the flesh on his arm, which was hanging low like a brown leather pouch. “Chineke! I have killed no one, I have taken no one’s land, I have not committed adultery.” He leaned over and drew the third line. The stool squeaked. “Chineke! I have wished others well. I have helped those who have nothing with the little that my hands can spare.”
A cock was crowing, a drawn-out, plaintive sound that seemed very close by.
“Chineke! Bless me. Let me find enough to fill my stomach. Bless my daughter, Ifeoma. Give her enough for her family.” He shifted the stool. His navel had once jutted out, I could tell, but now it looked like a wrinkled eggplant, drooping.
“Chineke! Bless my son, Eugene. Let the sun not set on his prosperity. Lift the curse they have put on him.” Papa-Nnukwu leaned over and drew one more line. I was surprised he prayed for Papa with the same earnestness that he prayed for himself and Aunty Ifeoma.
“Chineke! Bless the children of my children. Let your eyes follow them away from evil and towards good.” Papa-Nnukwu smiled as he spoke. His few front teeth seemed a deeper yellow in the light, like fresh corn kernels. The wide gaps in his gums were tinged a subtle tawny color. “Chineke! Those who wish others well, keep them well. Those who wish others ill, keep them ill.” Papa-Nnukwu drew the last line, longer than the rest, with a flourish. He was done.
(Taken from pp.166- 168 of The Purple Hibiscus. New York: Anchor Books, A division of Random House, Inc. 2003)
Response Questions for Adichie
- What had Aunty Ifeoma told Kambili the day before about her Papa-Nnukwu?
- What surprised Kambili as she watched her Papa-Nnukwu pray?
- What similarities do you think Kambili saw between her Papa-Nnukwu’s prayer and Christian prayers?
- After reading this short excerpt, what point do you think the author may be trying to make?
Women’s Oral Traditions in Hausa
The Hausa language has a wealth of literary works in many genres. Some are written and some are oral traditions. You may remember from Module Eleven: Activity Two: African Folktales the stories of the Gizo (spider) and the lioness that are part of oral traditions of stories in the Hausa language. Hausa is spoken mainly in Northern Nigeria and South-central Niger, although one can find communities of Hausa speakers throughout the world.
In this section, we will specifically look at some of the stories, songs, and poems told by Nigerian women in Hausa. Why look specifically at women’s stories, you may wonder? While both men and women have many stories, songs, and poems in Hausa—both written and oral—some of these are distinctly from women’s perspectives. In Northern Nigeria, there is a much greater separation of men and women in society than we are used to in the United States. Outside of family relations, men and women in general do not interact very frequently as adults. Of course, each person is different, and there are some settings such as in the professional world where more mingling of men and women takes place. But overall, women very much have their own social spaces of women and children only, which are often in the home. Sometimes this leads people to conclude that women would therefore be oppressed or subservient. However, even if women are not often interacting with men outside the home and may collectively have less power than men in some ways, they are certainly creative agents and have expressed their own experiences through stories, songs, and poems. Dr. Beverly Mack, who has studied gender and women’s literature in Nigeria for several decades, says:
Muslim Hausa women’s poetry and song demonstrate that women’s status in Northern Nigeria is neither subservient, static, not stoic. Women are their own agents, their roles are flexible and negotiable, and they insist on lives that incorporate creative activity into the demands of their primary domestic roles.
(Taken from page 3-4 of Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Popular Song (2004) by Beverly B. Mack. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)
Women poets and song writers in Hausaland talk about politics, religion, daily life, death, birth, history, and many other subjects in their creative works. Let’s look at a portion of one Hausa song by Binta Katsina in 1980 that Beverly Mack has written down in English translation.
Song for the Women of Nigeria
God, our Lord, our Prophet, God’s messenger,
Help the women of Nigeria,
God, our Lord, our Prophet, God’s messenger,
Assist the women of Nigeria,
Women of Nigeria,
Women of Nigeria,
You will do every kind of work,
Women of Nigeria,
Women of Nigeria,
You should try to understand,
You could do every kind of work.
I’m giving you an office, women—you can do office work,
Women of Nigeria, you will do every kind of work,
You should be given the chance to take charge,
You can do the office work,
You can do the administrative work,
You should be given the chance to take charge, to try, women of Nigeria…
(Taken from Pp. 157 of Muslim Women Sing by Beverly Mack. )
Here is a portion of a second song called Dare Allah Magani (Allah is the Light in the Darkness) by Barmani Choge. In it, she describes the feelings a woman has when her husband decides to take a second wife. Polygamy or a man having more than one wife is practiced by some Nigerians. This song by Choge is recorded in Hausa and English in the book Poetry, Prose and Popular Culture in Hausa by Graham Fourniss. Here is the English translation.
Allah is the Light in the Darkness
My sisters, women, relations of Fatima,
Who wants to have a co-wife?
Allah is the light in the darkness.
Wait a little, sankira, I will tell you.
I was living happily with malam,
Without rancor or falling out.
When I was a very young girl
I asked him to take a second wife,
And he said, ‘You are enough for me!’
But when he saw old age approaching,
Bearing down upon me fast,
That’s when he said he wanted a second wife.
I had never so much as insulted him,
But on that day I said, ‘Look at this hypocrite!’
Allah is the light in the darkness.
Whoever causes a second wife to be brought to your house,
Don’t even greet them for a full nine months!
May God deal with them in his own way, day and night.
Allah is the light in the darkness…
(Taken from P. 143 of Poetry, Prose and Popular Culture in Hausa by Graham Fourniss)
Response Questions for Katsina and Choge:
- What kinds of problems are the women writing these two songs struggling with?
- What similarities and differences do you see between the problems these women face and the problems women in the U.S. face?
- Why do you think Choge repeats the phrase “Allah is the light in the darkness” throughout her song?
For more reading on Hausa oral and other literary traditions, try the following books:
- Poetry, Prose and Popular Culture in Hausa (1996) by Graham Fourniss. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Popular Song (2004) by Beverly B. Mack. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Hausa Folktakes from Niger (1993) by Robert Glew and Chaibou Babale. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies.
Sometimes when talking about a new subject, unfamiliar terms arise. In this activity, we have used several terms to talk about literature and Africa that you may not be familiar with. Use the World Wide Web to find a definition for the following terms that are highlighted in bold in this activity:
Are there other terms that you read and did not fully understand? Write them in the space below and find a definition for them:
Foreign Language and Other Unfamiliar Terms in Activity Four
The following terms were used in this activity. Below are translations and/or brief explanations of what each means.
Wrapper: While this is an English word, it has a specific meaning in Nigeria that is not used in the United States. A wrapper is an all-purpose piece of cloth worn on the body. It can be tied around the waist as a skirt, shoulders as a shawl, body as a towel, or head as a headscarf.
Nzu: A word for white chalk in the Igbo language.
Fatima: This is a woman’s name. Here, however, the song writer is referring to the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.
Sankira: A person who performs publicly as a praise singer or town crier.
Malam: A Hausa word meaning teacher. Often this term is used for someone who has been trained as a Muslim scholar. In the song, the woman may be using it simply as a term of respect for her husband, or he may indeed literally be a Muslim scholar.
- Activity One: An Introduction to the Geography of Nigeria
- Activity Two: Nigeria’s History of Politics and Global Relations: The Pre-colonial Period
- Activity Three: Nigeria’s History of Politics and Global Relations: The Colonial and Post-colonial Period
- Activity Four: Nigerian Literary Traditions