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Nigerian written literature since 1914 – Part 1


The year 1914 marks the founding of a potentially great country. A hundred years after, the adverb ‘potentially’ which modifies the adjective ‘great’ has refused to delete itself because of the long years of both poor leadership and bad followership. In spite of her occasional gestures of distinction combined with her size, population, affable climate, soil fertility and all kinds of resources within, including trained hands and brilliant minds, Nigeria has not been able to convert her endowments into lasting monuments of grandeur.

Instead we continue to be feckless and unpatriotic, leaving ourselves each time at the mercy of clay-footed potentates who think ethnically; who turn an endowed nation into a bastion of poverty, where corruption is king; and nepotism its fraternal twin. Yet this is a nation of writers, the home of laureates at varying levels, including one Nobel Prize in the kitty. A nation of ‘pen-pushers’ is a nation where the intellect prevails; it should be a nation of creativity, enlightenment and varying attainments.

Before 1914, there had flourished literatures in the various languages spoken in what is now Nigeria. In the North, Arabic literary scholarship was the vogue. Much poetry blossomed, whether in Arabic or Ajami (the Hausa version of the Arabic language), which is perhaps why poetry in the modern tongue of English has recently emanated from the North.


Before we proceed further, it is pertinent to cite Oseni’s inaugural address in which he remarks that “over eighty per cent of the literary works in Arabic by Nigerian writers are in verse, and many of them have been studied in detail in Nigeria, Egypt, Greece, Britain, United States, Germany etc.” This is not to say that the North did not have its own indigenous literature different from the Arabic or Ajami varieties. These literatures existed side by side, Arabic/Ajami being the exclusive pursuit of the local educated elite who were scant and limited in number.

According to E.N. Obiechina (1990), “… proficiency in the use of Arabic writing has remained at all times the prerogative of a small section of the population, the scribes and the learned men; it was never diffused among the entire population. The production of literature in the Arabic script as well as its use of communication purposes has remained largely the preserve of a tiny intelligentsia of religious and administrative dignitaries.”

This was perhaps those I.Y. Yahaya (1988) referred to as malamai (scholars, teachers) “who developed a unique system of learning, mainly in two phases: the first phase is the search for the mastery of Koran… and the second phase is the search for specialization in such branches of knowledge as jurisprudence, theology, syntax, logic, law prosody and the sciences of astrology and mathematics.”

In the South, before 1914, traditional literature held sway. Described in many ways as oral literature, orature, folk literature, oral tradition etc. indigenous literature is a survivalist art. By which is meant that this literature has always in Africa since immemorial times and surprisingly not waning; its impact is still felt, even as this piece is being written up. Oral transmission of the Nigerian experience is still popular in spite of the many decades of the introduction of literacy. Notwithstanding the mutual habitation of the ancient and the modern in recent folktale formulation, a sharing of abode popularized by Amos Tutuola in his ‘tall, devilish story’ – to use the haunting words of Dylan Thomas – new folklore is still being produced. Apart from the proverb, the formulation of folktales and fables, riddles, epigrams, myths and legends is a continuous loric activity.

There is no doubt that folktale telling, riddle games etc. are on the decline, their use in modern Nigerian literature is a cherished recipe for an eventful aesthetic experience. It is difficult to say when this cooperation between folklore and the modern literary art in Nigeria will end as this collaboration seems to serve the two well. This artistic collusion is not only noticeable in written literature, it is easily observed in proverbs, riddles, anecdotes and new songs, particularly when such songs relate to the various activities in the modern arena.

A writer whose deployment of folklore is so obvious is Amos Tutuola. A few critics had tried to depict him and his foray into folklore as no more different from what a stamp collector does with old postal stamps. Some of them deny him merit and originality and give the impression that he has simply brought folktales known to many people together and put them into semi-literate English.

Some West Africans were even unhappy with Tutuola’s publishers who they accuse of having shown that this was all the English the newly emancipated Africans would be writing. However, more recent local critics have shown more understanding. While they do not think that a work like The Palm-wine Drinkard (1952) will be Africa’s best use of English, they consider Tutuola’s censurers as hasty and self-restrictive.

As it is today, to write a piece of African literature without the injection of African traditional materials is like preparing a soup without thinking of salt. African oral materials found even in snippets confer authenticity on the modern African literary heritage. Thus Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo, Okara, Aluko, Clark, Ike, Amadi, etc. are today remembered among other reasons for what they have made of orature which they inherited from their different cultures.

The inculcation of traditional literature did not stop with the older artists, recent writers are even more aggressively adept at appropriating folk materials. Osofisan, Okri, Osundare, Fatoba, Sowande, Ofeimun, Enekwe, Nwabueze, Ezenwa-Ohaeto have in various proportions incorporated folk elements in their writings such that their rootedness is not in doubt.

Literature in local languages
Literature in indigenous languages is a literary afflatus that is hardly given attention. Yet this is the mainstay of our claims to having a buoyant literary tradition. At best, educated members of the different Nigerian ethnic groups knew indigenous writers of their expression, and at worst those even within the ethnic territory who have readily encountered these writers in their works are few and far between. Often, writings in English were encouraged while those in the local languages were not given the same impetus. However, the curriculum change of the 1980s has made it imperative for secondary school students to offer at least one Nigerian language in their School Certificate examinations, thus compelling them to be more familiar with their indigenous literature and language. This is commendable but it could be better.

Literature in Hausa
It has been pointed out that literature in Northern Nigeria is traceable to the Ajami writers who were essentially elitist and religious. Moreover, they largely wrote poems while showing no real interest in the novel and drama traditions. The reason was that poetry was used to convey their religious bent while prose and drama are by their nature – given to secularism and entertainment. Christian missionary societies played a role in instigating Hausa literature. However, their outputs were focused on proselytising literature written in both Ajami and Boko scripts. Similarly, a newspaper like Gaskiya Ta Fi Kwabo, first printed in 1939, published in Hausa has played a strident role in advancing literature in Northern Nigeria.


No mention of poetry writing in the North is complete without reference to Shehu Usman Dan Fodio who lived in the 19th century. He is said to have composed 480 poems, some of them short, ranging from 11 lines to 450 stanzas. He also wrote books in Arabic. While his poems were written in Arabic, Fulfulde and Hausa, “some 25 poems (out of the lot) are composed in Hausa by him in either Arabic or Fulfulde and later translated in similar poetic form into Hausa” (Yahaya 1988). Dan Fodio did not write alone, members of his family wrote poems as well. His daughter, brother and his son wrote varying number of poems. There were also the scholars who wrote poems in Hausa, in addition to their outputs in Arabic and Fulfulde. As there was virtually no print media in the Hausaland of the 19th century, the scholars had their poems written on plain sheets of paper in local ink and published by being re-copied by their disciples and students. Yahaya further remarks, “koranic, blind beggars recited them after congregational prayers in mosques, in market places where they found keen listeners”.

The establishment of the Translation Bureau (and later Literature Bureau) in the 1930s, first headed by R.M. East, saw to the production of the first set of Hausa novels. Writers like Abubakar Iman, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Bello Kagara, Mohammadu Gwarzo, etc. published novels. The writings freely made use of the oral traditions in their narrative technique. Similarly, Dr. East was to edit and publish in 1930 Six Hausa Plays in which five of the plays were folktales made into drama and the sixth one, the dramatization of the Bayijida legend.

In 1953, the North Regional Literature Agency (NORLA) was established to augment the exertions of the Literature Bureau. NORLA saw to the compilation of the anthology of the poems of some important 20th century Hausa poets such as Sa’adu Zungur, Mu’azu Hadeja, Mudi Sipikin Alhaji Aliyu Namangi, etc. After a seven-year period in 1959, NORLA was disbanded and its role later taken up by Gaskiya Corporation, and much later by Northern Nigerian Publishing Company Limited (NNPC) which was responsible for the flourishing of Northern writings between 1960 and 1967. Not only did NNPC re-publish NORLA titles, it published new Hausa novels like those by Umaru Dembo, A. Katsina, Garba Funtua, Abdulkadir Dangambo, etc.

In 1980, NNPC ran a creative writing contest which saw to the publication of the three of the submissions, adjudged as the best. In 1980 too, the Triumph Publishing Company was established by the Kano State Government which not only published two Hausa newspapers but brought out assorted books of various interests.

Literature in Igbo
Literature in the Igbo language was first encouraged by the Christian missionaries who needed a handle to spread Christianity. The church in 1840 directed Rev. J.F. Schon (German) and the Yoruba ex-slave-turned missionary, Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther to study certain African languages which could assist their evangelistic missions on the Niger. They selected Hausa and Igbo. Igbo was found by Rev. Schon to be difficult while preferring Hausa although he hid under the claim that Hausa was more widely spoken, for his recommendation. Schon managed to publish A Grammar of the Ibo Language in 1890 but a greater work on the Igbo language was done by Rev. Crowther and his fellow missionaries. The cooperative efforts of a Baptist missionary named Clark and an African American called Merrick saw to the second collection of Igbo vocabulary in 1848. S.W. Koelle’s Polyglotta was published in 1854. In it, there were 300 Igbo words “given in five different dialects” (E.N. Emenyonu 22).

Dr. William Baikie published his self-account of his expedition into Igbo land, named the Niger Expedition in the year Koelle’s book was published. Crowther’s Isoama-Ibo Primer, first published in 1857, later republished in 1927, and known to us today as Azundu could be said to be the foundation of Igbo literary origins in the modern sphere.

In 1933, Pita Nwana from Ndizogu in Imo State published the first Igbo novel entitled, Omenuko. According to E.N. Emenyonu, Omenuko soon superseded Azundu in its educational function. “Generations of school children (as well as learners at Adult Education Centres) read it for its wit, volatile humour and its insistent moral over-tones. The sayings of Omenuko became something like the John Ploughman’s talks.” The next Igbo novel was to emerge thirty years later, precisely in 1963, Ije Odumodu Jere (The Trip made by Odumodu) written by Leopold Bell-Gam. In the same year D.N. Achara published Ala Bingo (Bingo Land). However, none of these two matched Omenuko in terms of its popularity, suavity and extent of acceptability.

In the last 30 years, many Igbo plays and poems have been issued by well known publishing companies, including the Igbo plays of A.B. Chukuezi and the Igbo poetry collections edited by R.N. Ekechukwu and E.N. Emenanjo in the 1970s and 1980s. One writer whose Igbo novels have helped to shape Igbo literature is Tony Ubesie. Written in fluid and enjoyable Igbo, his novels are memorable and touch at the base of human social and environmental psychology. His interesting novels in Igbo, largely titled in proverbs include, Ukwa Ruo Oge Ya O Daa (When a breadfruit ripens it falls), Isi Akwu Dara n’Ala (A palm nut which falls on the ground), Juo Obinna (Ask Obinna), Miri Oku E Ji Egbu Mbe (The hot water with which the tortoise is killed), Ukpaka Miiri Onye Ubiam (The oil bean which has fruited for the poor man). By the time he died in 1994, Ubesie still had several unpublished Igbo titles which reveal how prolific he would have been had death allowed him.

Any narration of the development of Igbo literature without a mention of the singular effort of the late Maazi F.C. Ogbalu is faulty. He devoted over forty years of his life to the promotion of Igbo studies. Incidentall, he had no formal training in Igbo, nor was he a linguist before enthusiastically plunging into Igbo studies. Using his press in Onitsha, he published his own books on the Igbo proverbs, Igbo idioms, riddles, customs and traditions, etiquette, stories, poetry collections, fiction (four novels) and several books in Igbo for primary and secondary school students.

Initially trained as an economist and political scientist, he devoted much of his teaching career at DMGS, Onitsha (also his alma mater) and St. Augustine’s Nkwerre to the promotion of the Igbo language. He was the first Head of the Department of Igbo Language and Culture at both the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri and later at the defunct Anambra State College of Education, Awka. He was a very energetic man who expended his efforts largely on the promotion of Igbo language and culture; he did not just publish his own works on and in Igbo, he also published many important books by fellow Igbo in the Igbo language, not excluding the re-publication of pioneer books on the Igbo such as those by G.T. Basden, an early white missionary who worked in the Onitsha area.

Literature in Yoruba
If Ajayi Crowther, the Yoruba ex-slave, played such a prominent role in the founding of Igbo literature, one imagines that by the time he took on Igbo, much development had taken place in his Yoruba language. This was largely due to the influx of the liberated slaves – many of who were literate – into Yoruba land a little before the middle of the 19th century. There was also the influence of the establishment of Christian missions’ primary and secondary schools whose products soon acquired the art of reading and writing. Although the Yoruba renaissance which was stirred by the ex-slaves started in the 1880s, the book on Yoruba history by Rev. Samuel Johnson, completed in 1897 and published in 1921, could be said to be the proper take-off point. The year 1921 is a crucial year for both Yoruba and Igbo studies, being also the year G.T. Basden’s book on the Igbo was published; the Yoruba ‘crusade’ was effected by a Yoruba while a white man published the first meaningful book on the Igbo. According to Toyin Falola, “most people who now claim to be knowledgeable in Yoruba history only narrate Johnson.” Basden’s book on the Igbo may not have been historical like Johnson’s on the Yoruba, what is now known about Igbo culture and tradition was first mooted in that book.

One of the critical sources of Yoruba interest in literature is Deniga’s West African Biographies (1914). Adeoye Deniga organised a series of lectures over later years centred on African leaders of West Africa. Each lecture was published as a pamphlet; he was to bring together these lectures to form a book. His second volume of these series was published in 1934. It was not until 1939 that D.O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju-ode ninu igbo irunmale (The skilful hunter in the forest of spirits), a long prose narrative in the tradition of Yoruba folklore, was published. Those who could not read Yoruba had to wait for Wole Soyinka’s translation of the story under the title, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1968). Some thirteen years later, precisely in 1952, Amos Tutuola, writing in ‘quaint English’ published The Palm-wine Drinkard. It was hailed in Europe and America but distrusted in his country. He wrote just as Fagunwa did except that his linguistic medium was not Yoruba; his tales which were linked artistically to yield The Palm-wine Drinkard were essentially Yoruba stories. Since Fagunwa, other writers who write like him in the Yoruba language include Ogundele, Omoyajowo, Fatanmi, etc. Others who wrote in the realistic tradition were I.O. Delano who published his first Yoruba novel in 1955 and his second work of fiction in 1963. Since then there have emerged the novels of J.F. Odunjo, Afolabi Olabimtan, Adebayo Faleti, T.A. Ladele, Ola Owolabi, Kola Akinlade, A. Oyedele, Yamitan, Awoniyi, etc. Novels of detection have also made an impact. Thus the works of Oladejo Okediji and Kola Akinlade are well known in this artistic sub-genre.

Notable trajectories in the development of Nigerian literature since 1914
• The Ogunde Tradition

Ebun Clark informs that about March 1945, Hubert Ogunde, a police constable resigned from his job and modelled his African Music Research Party after the Alarinjo. Alarinjo was a local Yoruba theatre of masked strolling players which existed from the 16th century. This theatre itself took its own roots from the Egungun (masquerade) as “ancestor worship and during the reign of Alaafin Ogbolu who ascended to the throne at Oyo Ighoho about 1590 as a court entertainer” (Adedeji 1981).

Thus before Ogunde, Alarinjo professional actors, usually masked, performed largely for the nobility, and later for the church. However, when Ogunde took it outside of the royal courts, he stripped it of its Egungun origination meant only for the enjoyment of the monarchy; he allowed it to metamorphose from flattering the court and the nobility for their amusement, to casting satirical butts at both the nobility or any other important figure for that matter.


Unlike the Alarinjo of the nobility, Ogunde’s actors wore no masks. Rather than rely on the patronage of the monarchy, Ogunde’s Alarinjo re-creation relied on the patronage of the public through gate-takings. Ogunde introduced Yoruba commercial drama by “taking indoors what was traditionally an open-air theatre”.

Members of Ogunde’s cast were largely made up of himself and members of his immediate and extended families. He did so in order not to suffer from the attrition of actors normally associated with such artistic enterprise which saw people leave a little after making their fame. In his dramatic productions, oral tradition was very critical. Although his theatre is often linked to the Ghana concert party – a largely Western variety style – his theatrical performances were unique because they were folk-based.

His operas include, “The Garden of Eden and the Throne of God” (1944); “Worse than Crime” (1945), “Tiger’s Empire” (1946); “Strike and Hunger” (1946), “King Solomon” (1948), “Bread and Bullet” (1950), “My Darling Fatima” (1951), “Song of Unity” (1960), “Yoruba Ronu” and “Otito Koro” (1964) etc. “Bread and Bullet” (1950) attracted the ire of the white colonial overlords for which he was arrested and charged for sedition. He was later released but fined 125 pounds for “Strike and Hunger” and £6 for “Bread and Bullet” (1950). Those who followed after Ogunde were Kola Ogunmola, Oyin Adejobi, Duro Ladipo, Ade Afolayan, Obotunde Ijimere (who wrote a play in English), Baba Sala etc.

• Nwachukwu-Agbada, distinguished critic, is a professor of literature at the Abia State University, Uturu

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