Suncolor's Blog

the making of the african novel

Posted on: November 24, 2010

how ‘things fall apart’ was written
by john otim

If we seek to understand history, few events would illumine better the moments and the circumstances preceding and surrounding the rise of the modern African novel and by extension modern African literature. One seemingly mundane event was a dinner party at the campus home of Professor Molly Mahood, head of the department of English at the newly created University College Ibadan in colonial Nigeria. At table was the entire faculty. Among them was the German Ulli Beier. In the years to come Beier along with his wife Suzzane Wenger, a talented artist, would become central figures of the new literature.

"university of ibadan"

university of ibadan

        Ibadan was the lone university institution in the country; one of only a handful in all Africa. In 1947 Professor Kenneth Mellanby, a liberal British academic, had become the first Vice Chancellor of the new college. The college was affiliated to the University of London. That meant it awarded degrees and diplomas of the University of London. Mellanby’s declared intention was to create in Africa, a higher institution of learning comparable to any in the world. In pursuit of his dream Mellanby put together a crop of young and talented academics gathered mainly but not exclusively from Britain. Molly Mahood was one of the young pioneers.

            That evening at her home despite the tropical heat her guests all showed up in stuffy formal wear. Perhaps it was colonial pride, but the mode kept everyone free of such tropical pests as the feared mosquito. The mosquito had kept Nigeria free of white settlement. The country had avoided the severe form of oppression that came with settler dominion that one saw for instance in Kenya, which eventually resulted in a brutal war of liberation in that country.

            In the colonies among the white communities, who had few other options for entertainment, such evenings were rare and they were valued. They were invitations to drop all pretensions and become human again. Colonial situations forced everyone within it to act the part. At such party someone was sure to come with exotic tales about Africa, true or otherwise. The kind the author of the Last King of Scotland weaves about Africa in the award winning novel.

          Stories are important. The guests at the dinner party compared notes and told stories as they settled into the evening.  Africa was fun. But Africa was for many white people a place out there on the fringes teaming with the unknown. Stories were a way of mediating the unknown. They were a way of positioning one’s self where one wanted to be and putting others where you desired them to be.

          Joyce Carry’s novel Mister Johnson set in Nigeria, published in the year of the dinner party, was not unusual. It was a work that mocked the Nigerian character and by extension the African. In accordance with the times, Time Magazine declared Mister Johnson the best African novel published in the last fifty years. It was a sentiment most of the guests at the dinner party easily shared.

          By now dinner was over, the drink session well underway. For the expatriate community life in the colonies was good. The dinner hall was a large colonial room, high ceilings; large low windows set to catch the breeze. White clad black servants hurrying about dispensing drinks and delicacies. There was a romantic feel about the evening.

          The dinner hall buzzed with small talk about Africa. Guests discussed their role as teachers in the heart of darkness. They were the first university people in Africa. To be white in Africa was to be Lord. Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim, although located in South East Asia, read like it was set along the water fronts of Lagos. Lagos was the administrative capital of the colony. Ibadan was its intellectual center.

          Conversation and the partying ate deep into the night. But beyond gates of the colonial campus, a parallel world buzzed, full of its own life. Barring James Baldwin’s Harlem Ibadan was the largest black conglomerate there was. It was chaotic, slummy, and vibrant. A thing “monstrous and free”, Conrad would have said. Ibadan was exploding as few other places on the continent were, with what it meant to be African in the middle of the twentieth century. Ibadan was the future.

          Where in Africa, would you have come upon a joint like the Black Morocco? At Black Morocco, city crowds and campus hot heads rubbed shoulders. Whites and blacks came together. It is two in the morning, music still on, the drinks are flowing. The girls are doing a special show, something like this Yemaya and Oshun dance. There is hardly room inside. But the joint is still filling. In the years he lived in Ibadan as a young man about town Black Morocco was playwright Wole Soyinka’s favorite haunt.

"Yoruba Women"

yoruba women

          Dapo Adelugba, the actor and theater expert, who lived in Ibadan as a young man in those days remembers the time well. There were musicians; there were dancers, theater groups, artists, and politicians. Everyone was doing something. The city was an open space, a marketplace of ideas and activities. The coca economy, whose center was Ibadan, ensured there was a degree of affluence

"igbo women"

igbo women


          From where they caroused, party guests could hear distinctly the beat of Yoruba talking drums. Some of it came from the Black Morocco. The beats were irrepressible in their melodic force. They recalled the days when the names of Oyo and Ife Ile Ife were synonymous with pomp and glory. The rhythm of the music of high-life throbbed like a torrent. The music of Fela Kuti that flurished in the late sixties up to the eighties, came from here.

          Ibadan was not Nairobi. Nairobi was famous for its troupes of big game hunters that converged at the Norfolk Hotel. Then as now Nairobi was the place of royal adventure. Here Queen Elizabeth first became the Queen.

          Ibadan was not Kampala, the city on seven hills where young Africans mindlessly flaunted Oxford street gear. Where young Indians drove the latest American models and sampled the music of Elvis Presley. Ibadan was not alone. Much of Nigeria was in a state of ferment, the run up to independence. Ghana got there first but it was a close call. The three year differential doesn’t tell the story.

          In Nairobi on the white highlands in lavish whites only clubs, local whites told visiting whites. This is not Africa, Kenya is Europe. There will be no change here.

          In Kampala the Kabaka of Buganda got into trouble for opposing colonial policies. His efforts led him to exile in cold London. This and the emergency that was upon Kenya dampened the mood at Makerere University College, the equivalent of the University College at Ibadan where the new literature was brewing. At Makerere Kikuyu students suspected of links to Mau Mau, the movement that was fighting the war of Kenyan independence, were spirited by the night. Makerere was not Ibadan; East Africa was not West Africa!    

          At Ibadan guests at the dinner party were surrounded by the aroma and feel of Africa. The carousing lasted deep into the night. The sky was filled with stars. It was a night as could be had only in Africa.      

          A moment came and there was an announcement. All the ladies please to proceed at once to the ladies’ room. Left on their own the men were invited to enter as the host put it, darkest Africa. The men trooped to the spacious garden outside. Facing the late-night moon the men line up, unzip and shot straight at the heart of darkness. Uli Bleier writes about this somewhere. A few kilometers away were the shrines to the great Oduduwa, the ancient Yoruba deity.

"duduwa diety"


          Modern African literature got going at the University College Ibadan. Poetry, short stories, printed on the pages of crudely produced student magazines, supported and encouraged by the kindly men and women at the dinner party. Robert Wren captured the period in his book, Those Magical years, the University College of Ibadan during the period 1948-1966.

          And so the time came, it was early in 1958, the new literature had grown and matured within the rich culture mix that the Ibadan offered. Now from nearby Lagos where many of the graduates of Ibadan now worked and lived, the new literature erupted. Some critics sought out flaws they might point at.  Things Fall Apart seemingly had no flaws. This was Africa unbound, English words, African idioms skillfully crafted by a master craftsman to create the African story. Modern African literature would blossom around this single work. The novel would rise to become a classic of world literature.

          Chinua Achebe, the young author of Things Fall Apart was in those days part of a group of young people centered on the new University College. People who had graduated from, or were still students at the University College. Among them, the poet and dramatist J.P. Clerk, the poet Christopher Okigbo, the dramatist Wole Soyinka who later would win the Nobel prize, and Mabel Segun who was one of the few women in the group, and others.

"young achebe"

the author of things fall apart

          Robert Wren asked the question. How come modern African literature got its start at Ibadan and in no other place in Africa?  University colleges of equal merit existed in other places. Why Ibadan? To ask this question is to ignore for a moment those who would argue that the modern African novel did not begin at Ibadan at all.

          In our analysis we demonstrate how the political situation in East Africa: a fully fledge war in Kenya, a political crisis in Uganda, had put a hold on things there.  We show that in Nigeria, the cultural and political environment were favorable. Ibadan was the locale where all the forces needed to make the new literature were coming together forcefully and adding up.

          Intellectually Ibadan was at the core of a countrywide movement that sought to define the African experience and to live the African essence in the modern world. Out of this came the new literature.

          It helped that the faculty at Ibadan was what it was, men and women of talent who were at the same time creatures of their time. In their perception of the literature they taught, in their dealings with the students they taught, they were defined by empire. Their endorsement of the crude stereotypes of Africa and Africans purveyed by Joyce Carry in Mister Jonson was the tipping point. It was the catalyst the colonial students needed to set them free. Where before they hesitated or even shied away from things African, now in rejecting colonial stereotyping, they embraced their African heritage. In the process they created a new mode of African self representation. Things Fall Apart is the enduring symbol of what they achieved.


11 Responses to "the making of the african novel"

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to return from a field trip and read your comments is a delightful experience. in the article you read i try to distill the sensations i felt on walking the same grounds the poineers of the african novel traversed in ibadan and in lagos. though the landscape is much altered now

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ever so delighted to return form field work and be rewarded by your perspectives on my “the making of the african novel”. i was in ibadan five years ago in a bid to capture the lives chinua achebe and his contemporaries lived. both the campus and the city are much expanded now. but the aroma is still there. the talking drums still beat at street parties. i am grateful for your comments

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