African literature has developed from sources and influences that originated both within and outside of the continent. One major source, Africa's rich tradition of oral stories and histories, is much older than the continent's written literature. Written scripts arose in Africa in Egyptian hieroglyphs, a complex system of picture-writing used by the ancient Egyptians. However, written scripts using alphabets and words did not appear in Africa until traders, missionaries, colonists, and armies from foreign lands brought them.

This process occurred in three waves, separated by time and location. In the first, which took place during the first thousand years B.C., scripts from the Semitic peoples of the Middle East and Arabia arrived in eastern Africa. In the second wave, which began in the A.D. 600s, the Arabic language and Islamic religion swept across North Africa. The third wave, which started with European trading posts on the western coast of Africa in the late 1400s and engulfed the whole continent by about 1900, brought European languages and the Roman alphabet.

The Arab and European invasions had far-reaching consequences for every aspect of African life, including its literature. Africans adopted and adapted the languages and scripts used by the invaders. Some Africans began writing in these foreign languages, while others used the alphabets to create written forms for indigenous languages. Africans wrote in these new forms to express their feelings about the profound social and psychological changes caused by conquest and colonization. Women writers in particular have turned to literature to consider their position in society and to struggle for their own liberation.


In A.D. 632, Muslim Arabs invaded EGYPT, and by 1000 they had conquered all of North Africa. Parts of East Africa and West Africa also came under Islamic influence, and several cities became centers of Islamic learning.

The Spread of Islam and Arabic

From the 1400s to the 1600s, the city of TIMBUKTU in MALI produced a rich body of literature in the form of historical chronicles and works of Muslim science, law, medicine, and theology. Over time, indigenous languages were written in Arabic script as well. This development made it easier to spread Islam among the African peoples and led to the beginnings of written literature in African languages such as FULANI, HAUSA, and WOLOF.

A second source of Arabic influence came by way of Arabia and Persia to East African coasts along the Indian Ocean. After A.D. 700, immigrants and merchants from those areas arrived in the region that is now KENYA and TANZANIA. There they interacted with local BANTU-speaking peoples and forged a common culture and tongue known as SWAHILI. At some point Swahili also began to be transcribed into Arabic script. The earliest known Swahili manuscripts date from the early 1700s and feature mainly religious and secular poetry.

Islam and the Written Word

Islamic culture holds the written word in high esteem, and where Islam appeared in Africa, African versions of Arabic script often followed. Many written works from East and West Africa are known as Afro-Islamic, based on indigenous tongues that have absorbed much Islamic expression and content. However, some cultures with Afro-Islamic literature, such as Somali and Mandingo, still favor oral over written literature.

Islamic literature made its greatest contribution in the area of poetry. A wide range of themes—from the life of the prophet Muhammad to works about society, religion, and politics—can be found in Islamic poetry. The period from about 500 to 1500 was a golden age of poetry among the educated aristocracy of North Africa and the Middle East.

Colonial North Africa

During the 1800s and 1900s, the role of Islamic prose expanded considerably in North Africa. Some authors revived forms and themes from classical Arabic literature while dealing with the people and politics of their own times. Novels and novellas appeared chapter by chapter in popular newspapers and magazines, often written by the publishers themselves. Authors began to use common forms of Arabic instead of the classical Arabic of high culture, and readers and writers from the lower classes began to take part in literature.

During the mid-1900s, literature played a crucial role in North Africans' struggles against French and British rule. Islamic associations and schools encouraged people to speak and write in Arabic rather than French or English, and writers responded with powerful portrayals of colonial society.

After independence, many writers turned their criticism on the new governments' corruption and incompetence. Both male and female authors have campaigned to free women from strict Islamic religion and culture. Modern Arabic literature has developed a wide range of fantasy and realism, tradition and innovation, culture and politics. Yet many writers continue to explore the relationship between Islam and modern Western culture, and fierce debates rage over the choice of language. Meanwhile, international fame has come to some, such as Egypt's Naguib MAHFOUZ, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988.


Many African cultures had oral traditions that formed the basis for indigenous literature after written scripts were created. For example, the arrival of Arabic script in East Africa in the A.D. 900s led to writing in the Swahili language and in time to Swahili literature. Other languages such as Somali, however, did not have a written form until quite recently.

Ethiopian Literature

The earliest evidence of written African literature comes from the ancient kingdom of AKSUM, in what is now ETHIOPIA. Inscriptions there are written in a Semitic script native to southern Arabia. Around the 300s B.C., Egyptian monks converted Aksum to Christianity and eventually translated the Bible from Greek into the local Ge'ez language. Although Ge'ez died out as a spoken language and was replaced by Amharic, it has remained the language of Ethiopian Christianity, and the 1300s and 1400s marked the golden age of Ge'ez literature.

Ethiopian literature was largely religious in nature, and much of it came from the traditions of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church. But by writing in Ge'ez, the Ethiopians preserved their own independent culture. The first works in Ge'ez were the Gospels, followed by other religious books. Ethiopian literature went into a decline in the 900s, but it revived with the Solomonic dynasty of kings that took power in 1270. This period produced a work of national history and myth called the Kibre negest (Glory of the Kings), a version of the biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon of Israel. The story originally appeared in Arabic, which may mean that Ethiopian writers once used Arabic as well as Ge'ez.

The most productive author of traditional Ethiopian literature was the emperor ZARA YA'IQOB, who ruled from 1434 to 1468. He wrote many stories about miracles involving the Virgin Mary, as well as religious essays, prayer books, and hymn books. But by the end of the 1500s, civil wars and a Muslim invasion brought literary activity to an almost complete halt.

In response to these pressures, Ethiopian rulers moved their capital to the city of Gondar, where literature enjoyed another revival. This period produced many hymns, such as the ginie, individual poems composed for each particular day and sung only once. Though an old form, the ginie became newly popular at that time.

The end of the Gondarite period in 1755 also brought a decline in Ge'ez literature. Amharic rose to challenge Ge'ez as a literary language, helped along by Catholic missionaries who used it to communicate with local populations. Early Amharic authors focused on theology and Christian ethics, and they criticized tradition as an obstacle to progress. Modern Amharic literature deals mostly with universal themes such as love, death, and social problems. Meanwhile, civil unrest has driven many Ethiopians to live abroad, where they have produced a body of non-African Amharic literature. It includes not only creative writing but also several types of Amharic computer software created by Ethiopian engineers.

Swahili Literature

Swahili culture arose from interactions between Bantu-speaking East Africans and Arabs from Persia and Arabia. The main form of Swahili literature has been poetry, which reached a peak with warrior-hero Fumo Liyongo. The style of Liyongo, who may have lived as early as the 900s, shows so much polish and skill that scholars believe Swahili poetry was already highly developed by his time. Later Swahili poets based their work mainly on forms he used. Poems were generally passed on orally, although some religious poetry was written down.

In the 1800s and 1900s, colonial rule had a major impact on Swahili literature. The translation into Swahili of English novels such as Treasure Island and Gulliver's Travels led to the rise of Swahili novels. The bestknown early Swahili novelist was SHAABAN ROBERT, who drew heavily on traditional stories for inspiration. Later Swahili novels turned more to realistic portrayals of modern life. Modern Swahili literature deals mainly with the colonial experience and its effects on Africa. Novelists have also grappled with the conflict between rural and urban life.

Somali Literature

The East African nation of SOMALIA has produced some of the most experimental fiction on the continent. After the government adopted the Roman alphabet for the Somali language in 1972, works by a new group of writers appeared that combined traditional oral poetry and written forms. A more political group of novelists, including Nuruddin Farah, had novels published in installments in newspapers and journals until stopped by government censorship. During the Somali civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, many novels were written and published thanks to new desktop computers and the absence of a strong government to censor the works.

Hausa Literature

The written literature of the Hausa, an ethnic group in northern NIGERIA, blossomed shortly after 1800. Prior to that time, the Hausa oral tradition consisted mainly of praise songs. Among the aristocracy the songs praised traditional leaders and patrons, while common people sang of farmers, hunters, boxers, and wrestlers. This tradition continues today with popular singers who chant alongside music and choruses both to praise patrons and to address social issues such as poverty and drug abuse.

In 1804 an Islamic holy war produced much Hausa religious poetry written in both Arabic and the local Fulani language. After conquering the Hausa, the military leader Shehu UTHMAN DAN FODIO used poetry to win his new subjects over to Islam. He and his daughter Nana ASMA'U wrote poetry in Hausa that explained the principles of Islam and attacked non-Islamic ideas. Modern Hausa poets still use these forms to debate politics, economics, and culture.

Prose writing in Hausa began with a colonial competition in 1933 and has recently developed into a full social and political force. Novelists such as S. I. Katsina have focused on Nigeria's ruling class and the corruption of the oil industry and national elections.

Yoruba Literature

The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria, neighbors of the Hausa, also have a rich oral tradition. Their chant poetry, called ewi, plays an important part in Yoruba life. Important public ceremonies almost always include a local poet performing ewi. Poets also chant ewi to make comments on modern society.

Written Yoruba literature did not appear until English missionaries collected and published a vocabulary of Yoruba words in 1828. The first collection of Yoruba poetry appeared 20 years later, and the first Yoruba newspapers began in 1859. The papers printed long stories in serial form. Daniel O. Fagunwa, the first major Yoruba novelist, wrote fantasy novels inspired by oral traditions. However, a call for more realistic works produced a generation of writers who have concentrated on modern life.

The Yoruba novel is growing, but traditional Yoruba THEATER is on the decline.

South African Literature

Southern Africa, and the nation of SOUTH AFRICA in particular, includes ethnic groups speaking languages such as ZULU, XHOSA, Nguni, Sotho, and Tswana. Several South African languages have strong oral traditions that include praise poetry, stories, proverbs, and riddles. A professional praiser was present at the ceremony that installed Nelson MANDELA as president of South Africa in 1994. Many of the oral traditions include human encounters with a trickster god, who often remains in disguise until the end of the story. Other common themes are meetings with monsters who seem half human and half ogre; the hero of the story must know the ogre's weakness in order to escape.

In the 1800s Protestant missionaries compiled written versions of many languages of southern Africa. Their main goal was to produce Bibles and other religious materials in local languages. However, their works determined which forms and dialects of each language eventually became standard. Later, English novels translated into Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho inspired indigenous writers to create novels on Christian themes. But since 1960, novels have tended to focus on themes of isolation, self-destruction, and the tension between tradition and modernity.

The apartheid policies of South Africa had a major impact on Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho literature. The government controlled many of the publishing houses and censored writing in African languages, aiming to prevent protest literature from reaching its audiences. Many indigenous authors had to use English or Afrikaans (a version of Dutch) to publish their message abroad. The end of apartheid in the 1990s has led to an explosion of South African literature in indigenous languages.


Literature in English—known as anglophone literature—has several sources in Africa. Some is the work of Christian missionaries and European colonists; other material is by indigenous writers. Some African authors wrote in English after they left the continent. A typical example is the autobiography of Olaudah EQUIANO, who was seized in what is now Nigeria and taken to England as a slave. Other African writers began using English while living in Africa. African anglophone literature only became established after 1900, as indigenous writers began to record their impressions and feelings about the colonial experience.

Western Africa

The first African work of anglophone fiction was Joseph Casely-Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound (1911), which dealt with the European belief in the superiority of Western over African cultures. No significant works of anglophone fiction appeared for the next 30 years. In 1952 Amos TUTUOLA caused a sensation with his novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town. It was a hit with Western readers, who mistook its unconventional style for a bold experiment in language. In fact, the writing reflected Tutuola's lack of familiarity with English.

African critics had harsh words for Tutuola's work, believing that his poor English reflected badly on Africa as a whole. However, his success inspired new authors such as Chinua ACHEBE, a Nigerian who became one of Africa's most celebrated novelists. In Things Fall Apart (1958) and other works, Achebe examines both the triumphs and failures of Nigerian history. Other authors have focused on personal lives, including Flora NWAPA in her novels about Nigerian women.

Anglophone poetry in West Africa closely followed Western traditions until the 1950s. At that time poets began to concern themselves with the kind of African experiences that motivated Achebe. In the 1960s, poets such as Lenrie Peters of GAMBIA and Kofi Awoonor of GHANA focused on the tensions between traditional and modern life in Africa.

Drama in West Africa achieved maturity in the late 1950s and early 1960s with playwrights such as Joe de Graft and Ama Ata Aidoo. Their plays deal with themes such as conflict and intermarriage between social groups and the influence of women on history and society. Wole SOYINKA of Nigeria gained fame as Africa's most successful dramatist and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. In A Dance of the Forests, written on the occasion of Nigeria's independence, Soyinka destroyed the myths of a glorious Nigerian past and predicted a bleak future for the new state. Since that time, many of Soyinka's plays have bitterly criticized Nigeria's leaders.

Eastern Africa

From the early 1900s, poetry, prose, and song were key weapons in the struggles against British colonialism in eastern Africa. Some political writing was published in code to avoid censorship. For example, one crucial work, Jomo KENYATTA's Facing Mount Kenya (1938), portrayed the GIKUYU culture of Kenya in opposition to the British, and the author later served as the first president of independent Kenya.

Poets, including Julius NYERERE, helped found the political party known as TANU that fought for Tanganyikan independence. Nyerere became the first president of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Since independence, East African writers such as Abdilatif Abdalla and NGUGI WA THIONG'O have continued to explore colonial history and its impact on Africa.

In their works East African authors have expressed their disappointment with the corruption and violence of their own governments. Both Abdilatif and Ngugi have worked with human rights organizations to document abuses in Kenya, and Ngugi was imprisoned for his efforts. In Somalia, the government responded to the novels of Nuruddin Farah by sending him into exile on threat of death. A number of East African writers such as Thiong'o have published novels or diaries set in prison.

Following independence, many students and teachers pushed for more works by Africans in college literature courses. This movement also spurred a call for more work in East African languages. A new generation of Kenyan and Tanzanian authors began to write in the Swahili tongue, KiSwahili. Another important development has been the study of spoken compositions known as orature.

Southern Africa

The earliest literary works from southern Africa were written by white settlers such as the poet Thomas Pringle, who described his feelings about the land alongside his unease about being part of a brutal colonial society. In the 1880s, Olive SCHREINER received wide attention for her The Story of an African Farm, a complex novel expressing critical views of colonialism. However, adventure stories, such as H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, were also popular at this time. These stories often told of heroic white men exploring and taming the wilderness and conquering the black people who lived there.

The first recognized black writer from southern Africa was Sol PLAATJE. His 1917 novel Mhudi attempted to preserve indigenous versions of the region's history. At about the same time, several black literary journals emerged. After 1948, however, apartheid policies drove a wedge into the developing black literary scene. The state of South Africa persecuted talented black writers and censored their work. Many fled the country and published from exile. Meanwhile, some white writers continued to protest the policies of apartheid in their works. Among this group were Nadine GORDIMER, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, and Alan PATON, whose novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) may be the most widely read work of South African fiction. Other well-known writers, both black and white, include J. M. COETZEE, Bessie HEAD, and Athol FUGARD.


African literature in French, known as francophone literature, appeared later than African anglophone literature, even though the French arrived on the continent before the British. One possible explanation is that the French discouraged the expression of indigenous cultures and tried harder than the British to impose French culture on their African subjects. In addition, French Catholic missionaries did not share the interest of English Protestant missionaries in compiling written vocabularies of indigenous languages. As a result, francophone literature in Africa began only in the early 1900s.

Western Africa

Apart from a few early novels, the rise of francophone literature can be traced to the NEGRITUDE movement of the 1930s. Negritude developed into the French colonies in the Caribbean as a revolutionary celebration of black African heritage and a reaction to French colonial policies. The movement spread to Paris, where it was adopted by African students such as Leopold SENGHOR and Alioune DIOP of SENEGAL. The movement's main contribution came in the area of poetry, hailed by some critics as the finest in modern Africa.

During the 1950s novels moved to the forefront of francophone literary activity, while poetry declined. Also inspired by Negritude, the novels of this period portrayed French colonial power as corrupt and violent. The works of Mongo BETI, one of the leading novelists, explored how Africans from traditional cultures felt alienated in the world created by colonization. Beti was sharply critical of Guinean novelist CAMARA LAYE, who offered a more positive view of Africans' lives under the French.

Sembene Ousmane of Senegal remains one of the best-known francophone novelists. He has paid little attention to the damage of colonialism, seeing it as a temporary enemy to be defeated. He has focused instead on elements of society, such as traditional religions and the oppression of women, that he feels held Senegal back. Influenced by Karl Marx, Sembene believes that the truly universal struggle is between the haves and the have-nots, regardless of color or ethnic identity.

As elsewhere in Africa, francophone authors have incorporated the African tradition of spoken works known as orature. They have borrowed techniques from orature, such as the use of shifting viewpoints to tell a story from many different angles. The novelist Ahmadou KOUROUMA from Ivory Coast used this method in his early novels The Suns of Independence and Monnew. More recent writers have worked with other features of orature such as proverbs, family histories, and recurring images. The main goal is to use language to create a mood and stir the emotions; the plot is secondary.

North Africa

North African countries such as MOROCCO, Tunisia, and Algeria benefited from religious and political efforts to preserve Islamic culture and the Arabic language. Even so, many North African authors chose to write in French, sometimes as a way of expressing the clash of African and European culture. Some of the best-known include Morocco's Driss Chraibi, Algeria's Moulaoud Mammeri, and Tunisia's Albert Memmi. Memmi wrote from the unusual position of a North African Jew caught between tradition, colonialism, and Nazism.

Of the North African nations, Algeria endured the most violent and traumatic colonization, including a bitter war for independence from 1954 to 1962. Many Algerian writers, such as Mohammed Dib in his Algeria trilogy, turned to documentary styles to express the tragedy of this struggle.

Central Africa

Francophone literature developed later in central Africa, often stimulated by the rise of local literary journals. The most influential, Liaison and La Voix du Congolais, were actually sponsored by colonial governments. However, they provided a place for black African writers to comment on social and cultural issues. Nevertheless, few francophone authors of the region are well known outside their homelands. The two Congolese republics—one a former colony of France, the other of Belgium—have produced the most prominent writers.

Congolese poetry blossomed in the late 1960s and 1970s, stimulated by both the Negritude movement and the increasing contact between black writers across the continent. One of its leading figures, Valentin Mudimbe, founded a publishing house to promote Congolese literature. He has since emerged as a prominent novelist and scholar, who lives in the United States.

Congolese literature may be best represented by the comic novels of Jean Malonga and the poetry of Gerard Felix Tchicaya U Tam'si. Beginning his career as a poet, Tchicaya turned to novels and theater in the 1980s. While his poetry is mysterious and religious, his plays and novels face hard realities such as Africa's past and the abuse of power in modern society. Henri Lopes, another Congolese writer, is known for novels that explore serious topics with humor and satire.


The development of African literature during the 1800s and early 1900s was largely restricted to male writers. Sexism made it difficult for women to write and to be recognized, both at home and in Europe. But as the movements for African liberation gained strength after World War II, women writers joined the struggle and made significant contributions to African literature and politics. They wrote from their special experience as victims of both colonialism and sexism, and they did not spare their home countries from criticism. Especially since the appearance of Flora Nwapa's famous novel Efuru in 1966, women writers have become leading literary voices on the continent and outspoken voices for change.

Issues in Women's Literature

The late development of female literature in Africa has its roots in the attitude of African cultures toward women. Women in traditional societies are often excluded from decision making and are limited to defined roles as wives and mothers, despite significant contributions in farming, housework, and child rearing. Practices such as polygyny, in which a man has more than one wife, also serve to emphasize the power of males over females in such societies. Motherhood is considered the greatest achievement for a woman, and women are often judged on their ability to produce offspring. These bounds on the world of traditional African women severely limit their ability to express their identities, experiences, and hopes.

The work of many male African authors has focused on the conflict between traditional and colonial society, the destruction of indigenous ways of life, the abuses of colonialism, and the corruption of modern Africa's rulers. Many look back on Africa's precolonial past as a kind of glorious golden age. Many women writers, however, have taken a less romantic view of traditional society. For them, the fight for independence meant not only freedom from European domination, but also from a male-dominated world that did not allow them to have a voice of their own.

Meanwhile, in criticizing African society after independence, women have typically been less concerned with political change at the high levels of government and more concerned with the individual's role in society. Many male authors blame corrupt political leaders for the moral breakdown in African society. Women writers, however, often point out that the average person bears much of the blame—and much of the responsibility for progress.

Attitudes Toward Men and Society

Much writing by African women has focused on male behavior—not only on traditional male practices such as polygamy, but also on the sexist attitudes of modern African men. Female writers accuse African men of allowing the corrupt social structure to continue because it preserves male advantages. This theme runs through Maraima Ba's novel So Long a Letter (1979). It tells the tale of Ramatoulaye, an African woman whose husband takes a very young second wife after 20 years of marriage. He dies, leaving Ramatoulaye to raise 12 children by herself. The book explores her growth as an independent person.

Female writers examine other aspects of the tension between modern and traditional society. Many do not seek to destroy or abandon African culture; they often emphasize that they are African women. But in trying to change their society for the better, they do not disregard all Western influence. For example, many male authors portray Westernstyle education as a form of colonial domination, but female authors tend to see it as a liberating force for women. Books such as Ba's Scarlet Song (1981) explore the dilemma of educated women in traditional African society, women who find themselves valued by their husbands mainly as wives and mothers.

African women writers see the modern Africa as neither a paradise nor a land without hope. Instead they see a continent still struggling to throw off the oppressions of colonialism and sexism. They work for social change that will allow all Africans, men and women, to reach their potential. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Literacy, Missions and Missionaries, Oral Tradition, Publishing, Theater, Women in AfricaWriting Systems.)