We open the final week of the Decade Project honoring the dead. This past decade has seen tremendous growth in African literary culture, but it has also seen the passing of many to the beyond.
Each individual on this list contributed in their own way towards building African literary culture as we know it today. We want to recognize fact that we are here today because of their hard work and sacrifices for the culture.
Let us remember them, treat them with the attentive regard worthy of an ancestor, and always be grateful for the foundations they laid and the paths they forged.
As Ben Okri writes: “The real literature of a people begins with the passing of writers into the realm of ancestors. Literature begins with the dead.”
(Note: The list is arranged chronologically according to day of passing. The list is not exhaustive. If you know of someone we are missing, provide the name and a link with more information in the comment section.)
Ferdinand Oyono was an author and diplomat from Cameroon, serving as the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Culture. His first novel, Une vie de boy was published in 1956 and translated as Houseboy by John Reed for the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1966.
Lewis Nkosi was a South African author whose works were banned under South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act. He was the first black South African to receive Harvard’s Nieman Fellowship and spent 30 years in exile abroad. His novel Mating Birds (1983), which examines an interracial affair, is perhaps his most notable work.
Margaret Ogola was a Kenyan author whose first novel, The River and the Source, won The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa region, in 1995. Get this: she was also a pediatrician and the medical director of a hospice for HIV and AIDS orphans! Google honored her with a Google Doodle on her 60th birthday.
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan activist best known for founding the Green Belt Movement, an environmental NGO that focused on environmental conservation and women’s rights. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and a total favorite of Barack Obama’s.
Does Chinua Achebe really need an introduction? Here’s a fun fact instead: Achebe was actually going to become a doctor, — he had won a scholarship to study medicine at University College in Ibadan. One year later, he decided, forget it, writing was his true calling instead. We think he made the right choice.
Kofi Awoonor was a Ghanian poet, novelist, and scholar whose works include translations of Ewe dirge singers. He was imprisoned in 1975 on the suspicion of being involved in a coup, but released in 1976. He served as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil and Cuba, and was tragically killed in the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya.
Mbulelo Mzamane was a South African author, poet, and academic who, like many anti-apartheid activists, spent a fair amount of time in exile. Among his awards are the African Literature Association’s Lifetime Award and the Mofolo-Plomer Prize for Literature. Nelson Mandela called him a “visionary leader and one of South Africa’s greatest intellectuals.”
Nadine Gordimer was a Nobel Literature Prize-winning South African author whose works were also once banned by the South African government. In interviews, she admitted that she never intended to be a writer whose works are considered political, but she came to realize that South African society didn’t allow for apolitical writing.
Chris van Wyk was a South African novelist, poet, and children’s books author. He’s most widely known for his poem “In Detention,” a poem which satirizes the bizarre reasons provided by the apartheid government for the deaths of political prisoners. His poetry collection It’s Time to Go Home (1979) won the Olive Schreiner Prize.
André Brink was a South African author who began writing in Afrikaans but turned to English when his works became censored by the South African government. He was part of Die Sestigers (“the Sixtyers”), a literary group that aimed to revolutionize Afrikaans literature. His novel A Dry White Season (1979) was adapted into a film starring Marlon Brando.
Grace Ogot was a Kenyan author who was a nurse by profession and who later became a member of Kenya’s National Assembly. She was the first woman whose fiction was published by the East African Publishing House and her numerous short stories offer insight into traditional Luo life and its conflict with colonialism and modernity.
Chenjerai Hove was a Zimbabwean novelist, poet, and essayist whose works shone light on the lives of his fellow citizens under colonialism and Robert Mugabe’s rule. Surveilled and harassed under Mugabe’s rule, Hove left Zimbabwe for exile in Norway in 2001, where he remained until his death.
Elechi Amadi was a Nigerian playwright and novelist renowned for his historical trilogy about traditional life in the villages: The Concubine (1966), The Great Ponds (1969), and The Slave (1978). His only nonfiction work, Sunset in Biafra (1973), recounts his experiences as a soldier and civilian during the Biafran War.
Isidore Okpewho was a Nigerian author and critic whose works won him the 1976 African Arts Prize for Literature and the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Africa Region). His scholarly work on African oral literature garnered him, among others, a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Peter Abrahams was a South African journalist and author whose writings addressed the intricacies of racial politics and the injustices of apartheid. In the introduction to his memoir, The Black Experience in the 20th Century: An Autobiography and Meditation (2001), Nadine Gordimer declared him “a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.”
Buchi Emecheta: another author who really needs no introduction. Here’s this instead: did you know that after Buchi Emecheta’s death, her son Sylvester Onwordi launched The Buchi Emecheta Foundation? The Foundation promotes literary and educational projects in the UK and in Africa.
Miriam Tlali was the first black South African woman to publish a novel in English in South Africa itself in 1975. Originally titled Muriel at Metropolitan and reissued in 2004 under the title Between Two Worlds, the novel depicts daily life under apartheid, particularly how it hinders black women’s employment opportunities. For her writing, Tlali was persecuted by the apartheid government and brutally beaten at her home in Soweto several times, but she bravely refused exile.
Abiola Irele was a Nigerian scholar perhaps best known for his work on the concept of Négritude. His books include The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1990) and The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2011). Upon his death, Wole Soyinka wrote a poem titled “Olohun-Iyo” as a tribute to him.
Keorapetse Kgositsile was a South African poet and essayist whose writing explored the idea of Pan-African liberation. His verse distinctively combines South African and Black American structural and rhetorical traditions. He was named South Africa’s poet laureate in 2006.
Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was one of the few Egyptian authors to publish extensively in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. A doctor by profession, Tawfik once said that “[his] English was not good enough to read horror literature, so [he] started writing it [himself].” He has published over 100 books.
David Rubadiri was a widely-anthologized poet and diplomat who served as Malawi’s first ambassador to the US and the UN. He left government service in 1965 following disagreements with then-president Hastings Banda and subsequently taught at Makerere University, the University of Nairobi, and the University of Ibadan.
Seydou Badian Kouyaté was a Malian politician and writer who composed the lyrics for Mali’s national anthem. He won the 1965 Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire for his book, Les dirigeants africains face à leur peuple. He was exiled to Senegal following the 1968 coup.
Charles Mungoshi was a Zimbabwean author who wrote novels and short stories about colonial and post-colonial struggles in both Shona and English. His works have won him the Noma Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and International PEN Awards.
Pius Adesanmi was a Nigerian scholar and columnist whose satirical writings for Premium Times and Sahara Reporters took for their target various aspects of Nigerian society and politics. His works include a poetry collection and several essay collections. He was, unfortunately, a victim of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash.
Bernard Dadié was an Ivorian poet, dramatist, and novelist whose works explored African oral traditions. He was the founder of the National Drama Studio in Côte d’Ivoire and served as the country’s Minister of Culture between 1977 to 1986. In case you didn’t notice from the dates above, he lived till the grand old age of 103!
Gabriel Okara was a Nigerian poet and novelist often dubbed the “first Modernist poet of Anglophone Africa.” He is perhaps best known for his novel The Voice (1964), which distinctively imposes Ijo syntax onto English. He was also the director of Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt from 1972 to 1980.
Dear Binyavanga Wainaina. Caine Prize winner. A TIME 100 Most Influential Person. Founding editor of Kwani?. Author of “How To Write About Africa.” Champion of gay rights. You left us too soon.
Molara Ogundipe was a Nigerian poet, critic, and editor perhaps best known for the concept “Stiwanism” (Social Transformation in Africa Including Women) which refers to, among other ideas, a resistance of Western feminism and the foregrounding of an indigenous feminism that has always already existed in Africa.
Tejumola Olaniyan was a Nigerian academic who held the position of Louise Durham Mead Professor of English and Wole Soyinka Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books includeTaking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture (2018) and Arrest the Music!: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (2004). He was a dear friend of Brittle Paper. We miss him dearly.
Harry Garuba was a Nigerian poet and professor who served as the Director of African Studies, among other positions, at the University of Cape Town. His books include the poetry collections Shadow and Dream & Other Poems (1982) and Animist Chants and Memorials (2017) and the academic monograph Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora (1988).
Elsa Joubert was a South African author who was also a member of “Die Sestigers” and was known for her anti-apartheid novels. Her novel, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena (1978) was adapted into a film in 2019. She passed away from Covid-19-related complications.
John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, more popularly known as J.P. Clark, was a renowned poet, playwright, and professor. His work focused on themes such as insittutional corruption, violence, and colonialism, and he was also an outspoken activist for the rights of the Ijaw ethnic group. He received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for literary excellence in 1991.