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A brief History Of Nigerian Literature in English: The preamble

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A brief History Of Nigerian Literature in English: The preamble

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work than to drink palm wine in my life. In those days, we did not know other money except cowries, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town. 

That passage is what is is now regarded as the first paragraph in Nigerian Literature. But is it really? To do justice to the question, one needs to first differentiate between Nigerian literature and Nigerian Literature in English.

Nigerian literature is ANY body of imaginative work by a Nigerian, made for Nigerians, while Nigerian literature in English is any piece of imaginative work written in English. The palm wine drinkard might have been the first Nigerian literature in English, but definitely not the first piece of literature in the country.

Imperialism no doubt was behind the notion that Nigerian societies before the colonial masters were primitive and lacked sensibilities. The European on stepping on the shores of the continent wrote about its inhabitants lacking artistic talents, or any ability to create arts even though the opposite was staring them in the face. To them, Nigerians only got engaged in making literature after the 1882 ordinance that mandated English to be taught in Nigerian schools.

Literature, therefore, is more than an imaginative epistle

African literature as a whole and Nigerian literature in particular was not birthed by the presence of the colonial masters, but rather, existed in myths, folktales, legends, songs and other various forms centuries before Europeans invaded the continent. That period is what is known as the classical period of Nigerian literature. Literature is a vehicle of ideologies; a composition of language that serves as a cultural representation of a people. Literature, therefore, is more than an imaginative epistle.

Nigerian literature before the 19th centuries was in form of orature. And as is the case in any society, literature comes first in orality, and only much later did it metamorphosize into written form, and Nigeria is no different. Although it has to be said that recording Nigerian oral literature is a tad difficult as its practitioners were, more often than not, members of a cult who jealously guarded certain knowledge.

Ruth Finnegan’s book Oral literature in Africa (1970) is an eye opener, and states, without mincing words, that African and Nigerian literature were in vibrant stages before the whites arrived, and that Africans had organised, and developed replacements for the written form. Songs were sung at weddings; poetry were read to praise gods; tales were performed at town gatherings; each family had their own peculiar poetry, and stories were told to praise legends. Nigerian Oral literature were a source of entertainment, philosophies, and beliefs, and involved verbal storytelling perfected to an art form.

Folktales were dramatic replacements for the novel. They are an imaginative form of narrative literature woven around well liked characters, sometimes even animals, as they relate with the physical world, or sometimes, the supernatural world. In the Eastern and Western part of the country, the tortoise is a star of many such tales. These stories, maybe not written, nonetheless have characters, plot, beginning and end, and even epiphanies. The same applied to myths – which were tales about death, afterlife, or creation and the supernatural. Sometimes, it looks like an earlier version of today’s science fiction.

The Europeans brought their own literature, written in books, and that, combined with the return of Samuel Ajayi Crowther made Nigerians see the need to record their stories and culture, and thus the beginning of Nigerian literature in a written format. And even as a written form, Nigerian literature didn’t start in 1952 when Amos Tutuola published the Palmwine Drinkard.

By the 1930’s, the Hausas already had a writing competition in place, and winning entries, including Shehu Umar by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa were published.

Hausa literature dates back centuries before the palm wine Drinkard. Infact, it got to a peak after Usman Dan Fodio and Islamic scholars brought Arabic into Hausa territory. By the 1930’s, the Hausas already had a writing competition in place, and winning entries, including Shehu Umar by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa were published. The stories were written in Ajami – a mixture of Arabic and Hausa.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther translated the Bible into Igbo (He also translated the Bible into Yoruba), and that was the first body of written work in the Igbo language. It took until 1933 before the first novel in Igbo – Umenuko, by Pita Uwana, was published. The population boom in the 40’s also saw a rise in publishing houses in the East. Cypwian Ekwensi was one of many writers of the Onitsha literary scene with stories like When love whispers; a love story, and Ikolo the wrestlers and other Igbo tales. Another popular work was Chika Okonyia’s Tragic Niger Tales. The Onitsha literary scene will eventually produce over 200 works.

In the mid to late 1800’s, Itan Segilola Eleyinjuege by Isaac B. Thomas was written, but wasn’t published until 1930. It is actually regarded by many to be the first piece of written literature in the country.

In the mid to late 1800’s, Itan Segilola Eleyinjuege by Isaac B. Thomas was written, but wasn’t published until 1930. It is actually regarded by many to be the first piece of written literature in the country. It preceded D.O Fagunwa’s Ogboju-ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole(1930) by at least nine years. Fagunwa’s story would later be translated to Yoruba by Wole Soyinka (The forest of A Thousand Daemons)

Although The Palmwine Drinkard might well be the first Nigerian literature in English, it still had it roots in Oral literature. It was written in a vernacular style that made it look as if it was meant to be performed and not read, and the story borrowed from orasure, as it was already a popular one passed down for generations. It must be said though that the former reason no doubt was connected to Fagunwa’s limited education.

Although The Palmwine Drinkard might well be the first Nigerian literature in English, it still had it roots totally meshed in Oral literature.

The story became a bit controversial for the above reasons, as some Nigerian critics failed to see it as a body of imaginative work, and others were ashamed of the grammar and use-of English. The book was accepted overseas, receiving numerous rave reviews and was subsequently heralded, quite wrongly, as the first piece of literature in Nigeria.

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