What stories were African audiences enjoying before the novel came to the continent in the late 19th century?
We did a little digging in the archives and put together this introductory list of pre-modern African literature. If you’re not familiar with African literary texts before the 20th century, here is your chance to explore 17th century Ethiopian writing, central African epics, Yoruba divination literature, and more.
These texts open up a whole new world of African life and literary artistry. They are entertaining, uplifting, and feature inspiring characters.
The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros
Recorded in 1672 by an Ethiopian scribe named Galawdewos, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Wallata-Petros is the first-known biography of an African woman. Wallata-Petros was a Habasha woman of highland Ethiopia and devoted nun of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The story documents her resistance against conversion to the Roman Catholic Church by the Europeans and Ethiopian king, her subsequent exile, and revolutionary establishment of her own monastery on Lake Tana and establishment of multiple religious communities thereafter. Galawdewos collected and weaved together oral stories from Wallata-Petros’s followers, many of them women. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Wallata-Petros is also known as a hagiography, or biography of a saint.
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali
This oral epic is performed by the griot, Mamadou Kouyaté, and transcribed by historian and writer, Djibril Tamsir Niane in 1960. Inspired by the life of Sundiata Keita (c. 1217 – c. 1255), the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali is as much a tale about griots and the recording of history itself as it is about the hero’s journey. Sundiata overcomes the adversity of not only a stolen empire but more importantly, a stolen griot, Balla Fasséké. Sundiata makes the circular journey of destiny from exile to growth to the triumphant return and repossession of his griot and the future of the Mali Empire. In the words of Mamadou Kouoyaté who provides us with this rendition, “I teach kings the history of their ancestors so that the lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but the future springs from the past.”
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Ifá Divination Stories
The Ifá Divination Stories derive from the literary corpus of Odù Ifá, a sacred text containing verses of divination poetry. Ifá is at once a Yoruba god and a system of divination that is consulted for many occasions such as the birth of a child, an illness, a voyage, or a disruption to the order of society and natural life. People consult Ifá through the babaláwo, the Ifá diviner or priest, who connects the seeker of knowledge to Ifá by casting the divination chain and chanting relevant poems or stories. There are thousands of Ifa stories and poetry, the recitation of which requires the active participation of a babaláwo. Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa by William Bascom is a good place to start.
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The Ozidi Saga
The Ozidi Saga is an oral performance of an ancient Ijaw play by O̲kabou Ojobolo. This version was recorded by Nigerian poet-playwright J.P. Clark-Bekederemo in 1977. In his introduction to the play, Isidore Okpewho writes of Ozidi’s status as an epic hero: “whether he has come to bless it or blast it, Ozidi has been fashioned from the same mystical essence that constitutes the cosmology of his people.” Like his fellow African epic heroes, Sundiata and Chaka, Ozidi’s story is one of a hero’s destiny. Whereas Sundiata did not walk until the age of seven, Ozidi emerged from the womb standing upright. Ozidi develops his physical and supernatural strength through the guidance and expertise of his grandmother, Oreame. Oreame is a sorceress who fortifies Ozidi with herbal concoctions and tests of both strength and spirit so that Ozidi can avenge the assassination of his father and the house of Ozidi.
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The Mwindo Epic
The Mwindo Epic, recorded and translated by Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene in 1956, comprises of a series of oral stories performed by the Nyanga people. It tells the story of Mwindo, born to Chief Shemwindo who forbade his wives to give birth to a male child. In true epic hero fashion, Mwindo is born through his mother’s middle finger already wielding weapons. Shemwindo, after several failed murder attempts, throws his son into a river inside a sealed drum. Mwindo journeys through the earth, the sky, the atmosphere, and the underworld, the four spheres of the Nyanga universe, gaining power and support from his maternal aunt and uncles in order to return home and defeat Shemwindo.