African History Through Literature



From:           Randall Powuels, University of Central Arkansas
Date sent:      10 Apr 95 14:56:24 CST6CDT

I'm going to be offering, as an experiment and variation on my usual introductory course on African History, a new course called African History through Literature. I've been strggling over what to require since students don't seem to like reading anymore. I'm sure there are others out there who teach something similar, and I'd be interested in finding out what you require students to read, especially how many novels to read. We have a sixteen week semester, so I'm planning on a book every other week -- i.e. eight novels. Does that seem like too much?

I'd appreciate any advice someone might render.

From:           Mel Page, East Tennessee State University
Date:           18 April 1995

Last week, Randy Powuels wrote about plans for a course on "African History through Literature" which, he said, would vary from his usual approach. Since my usual approach to "Survey History of Africa" is to teach much of it with African literature, I thought I would explain what I do. The result is a rather lengthy post, so if you aren't interested in this subject you may wish to delete now! :-)

My course is an option for history majors, who must take at least two lower level general surveys such as this and, in addition, must include two courses in world (ie, not US or European) history within those taken for their major. It is also a required course for students taking a minor in African and African-American Studies. (I also find there are a significant number--sometimes up to 40% of those enrolled--who are taking the course as an elective.)

In addition to a general text (I have used July and Khapoya, both without great satisfaction and am contemplating shifting to Davidson), I always assign four to six works of African literature. This semester students are reading

        Niane, *Sundiata*
        Balewa, *Shaihu Umar*
        Achebe, *Things Fall Apart*
        Ngugi, *Weep Not, Child*
        Zeleza, *Smouldering Charcoal*
        Zwi, *The Umbrella Tree*

and required to report on five of the six (although they may also do six reports with only the best five counted in their course grade.)

I have also used other works in the past, such as

        Mukasa, *Sir Appolo Kagwa Discovers Britain*
        Sepamla, *A Ride on the Whirlwind*
        Plaatje, *Mhudi*
        Mofolo, *Shaka*
        Samkanga, *Year of the Uprising*
        Beier (ed.), *Origins of Live and Death*
        Abrahams, *Mine Boy*

among others. (Comments on the usefulness of some of these on the teaching of world, rather than African, history can be found in a brief article by Charlotte Beahan and myself, "Some African and Asian Fiction for Teaching World History," in *Teaching History* [Great Britain, The Historical Association] 44 (Feb 1986):26-29.)

I make an effort to link the literature readings to the general text and to spread the literature out during the term. For the past two times I have taught the course, and for the next offering this summer, I ask students to make their reports in one of four different formats. Rather than explain them, I will copy that section from the syllabus:

                           HISTORY 3720-001
                           History of Africa
Spring 1994                                             Mr. Page

     You may select any of the following forms for each of your

reports. You must use at least two of these forms when completing your four reports, but you are encouraged to try as many as you feel comfortable with.

  1. You may write a traditional book review of about 500 words (about two, typed double-spaced pages). Your review should clearly focus on the main point (or thesis) of the book as you understand it. You should then relate that main point to the study of African history which you are currently undertaking; that is, you need to place the book--and the author's main idea-- in the context of what you are learning in this course. A book review must be submitted typed or printed in its final form.
  2. You may prepare a work of art which illuminates, illustrates, or symbolizes the main idea you learned about African history when reading the book. The work of art might be a small painting, a short musical composition, a drawing, a poem, a ceramic piece, a weaving, even a short story; these are example, not an exhaustive list of possibilities. Check with the instructor if you have ideas or questions. The artistic work must be intended to convey your interpretation of the book, and you should be prepared to discuss that aspect of your creation with the instructor.
  3. You may write a character study of one of the main characters in the book. This study should be about 500 to 700 words long (about 2-3 typed, double-spaced pages). It should briefly trace the development of the character, indicate how the character fits within the main theme of the book, and explain how the character helps you better understand African history. A character study must be submitted typed or printed in its final form.
  4. You may submit a reading diary for the book. This requires that you make a substantive entry for every reading session and for every chapter of the book. Your entries should not merely recount what you read. Rather, they should record your reactions as you read, including questions about the book. Your comments may be very personal; they may also be very academic, relating to how various episodes in the book relate to your study of African history. You may have a variety of entry types, but each should include the date, times, and duration of your reading and the page numbers you read. There is no specific length requirement, but as the purpose of the diary is to explain your ideas and reactions as you read, it will likely be considerably longer than either of the formal reports (formats 1 & 3). Since this is a record of your reactions as you read, it likely will be submitted handwritten.

The results have been generally good, although the most surprising have been the art. Poetry has generally not been impressive. But many of the drawings and watercolors have been great. I even have two on display in my office. What I find is that students, given these choices, are more likely to engage the material and display a greater understanding of the African voices involved. Foe the great variety of students who enroll, this is an important consideration. This, too, has allowed a greater sense that they can know Africa and Africans, at least to a limited extent, through the literature.

On the whole, I have been pleased with this approach. I wish Randy and others who may want to try it well!

From:           Randy Pouwels, University of Central Arkansas
Date sent:      19 Apr 95

Thanks, Mel, for the interesting post on using African novels in your courses. I, too, use some African lit. in my World History course. Usually one novel a semester.

Some of these I've never read, but am curious about. Could you tell me something about the Balewa book? Also Zaleza and Zwi? Also, how have students responded? I'm offering my course next Fall, and frankly I'm pessimistic. In a 16 week semester, I'm requiring eight novels. Students here are, I believe, exceptionally lazy, even by today's standards, so I probably will encounter difficulties getting enough in the class to make the minimum needed to offer it. However, I have to start somewhere....

Date sent:      Thu, 20 Apr 1995
From:           Cora Presley, Tulane University

Mel Page's description of his use of African literature in his course seemed to me to be excellent in many ways. I do however wonder why he doesn't include any novels by African women in the list. I do to good effect with the works of Egejuru, Head, Mba, Gordimer, Nwapa etc. Also of note is Echewa's novel on women and the Aba Women's War of 1929. Though written by a man, it assumes enough of a "female voice" to be of good use to our western students.

Date sent:      Fri, 21 Apr 1995
From:           James Newman

It's intersesting to see the issue of using novels in courses being the subject of so much discussion. I remember similar ones over a quarter century ago, although obviously they didn't filter through cyberspace and we didn't have as much to chose from. As time went by, though, I stopped using novels in my geography survey course. I was spending too much time contextualizing them for students whose historical, cultural, and geographical knowledge became less and less. And their exciting portions were what most students tended to remember. The mundane aspects of life and learning got overwhelmed. Today, I would only dare to use fiction in more advanced classes for honors and graduate students. And even then I would have some discomfort because I'm not trained in literature and literary analysis.

            Editor's Note:
            Some H-AFRICA subscribers may have more to add
            about the following story.  In light of recent
            discussion on the list of literature and history
            for teaching about Africa, this issue seemed to
            open another line of questioning.
            A number of African literary figures also have
            been important historic figures in their own
            right, and not just Senghor.  Achebe and Balewa
            come to mind from those already mentioned in
            list discussion.  Can the literature of such
            figures be used to teach history apart from
            the prominent roles of the authors themselves
            in African history?
                (This dispatch was reposted prior to
                misanet and ips issuing a restrictions
                notice on the reposting of their
                materials.  Origins and copyright of
                this material is acknowledged.)

From: Inter Press Service Harare <>

LITERATURE: Award to Senghor Triggers Debate

By Alexandra Bensaid and Andrew Whitehead

NEW YORK, APR 18 (IPS/GIN) - The choice of former Senegalese President Leopold Sedar Senghor as the winner of a 'Distinguished Africanist Award' is provoking both praise and criticism here.

The New York African Studies Association hands out the award to honour contributions to art, literature, science, anthropology, history and the humanities.

Many in New York's Senegalese community say Senghor deserves the recognition as one of Africa's great poets, but others say his actions as President of Senegal should disqualify him.

''Senghor helped reinforce neocolonialism,'' said Dame Babou, a Senegalese news correspondent here. ''He was one of the most adamant spokesmen for Europe.''

Malick Faye, a commentator for the New York based-radio programme 'African Time', says he considers Senghor to be ''a great poet,'' but in politics, ''Senghor wasn't a democrat.''

President of the [New York] African Studies Association Michael Mbabuikesays the award also honours those who have worked ''to make the world a better place for mankind.'' the award ''is not necessarily given every year, but (only) when we have a standing candidate who meets the criteria.''

During the 1940s, Senghor and friends Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas undertook the exploration of black consciousness they called ''negritude'', with its political and artistic expressions and reassertion of African values.

Much of Senghor's poetry is compiled in 'Shadow Songs' (Chants d'Ombre, 1945), and they include 'Black Woman' (Femme Noire), 'Black Mask' (Masque Negre), and 'Ethiopiques', which praises being and thinking black.

In his latest book, 'What I Believe' (Ce Que Je Crois), published in 1988, Senghor continues his efforts to define ''negritude''.

Kandioura Drame, acting director of the Pan African Studies programme at Barnard College, contends that the concept changed the way Europeans thought of Africa. The continent had been viewed as ''almost entirely colonised and the Africans considered as savages and barbarians, in any case as sub-men.''

Drame says Senghor also changed the way Africans thought of themselves.

''With his works, he opened the way up for the next generation. He certainly reasserted to the eyes of his contemporary people the value of the African civilisation that was depreciated by colonialism,'' Drame said. ''I think this is a very important contribution.''

Senghor was elected in 1983 to the French Academy, which acknowledged him as one of the most important writers of the century and made him a guardian of the French language.

He became active in politics in the 1940s, and in 1949 was elected to the European Assembly at Strasbourg. He rose to the presidency of the new republic of Senegal in 1960 and voluntarily stepped down from the post in 1981.

''Without saying he was a democrat, he was maybe more of a democrat than other leaders of African countries,'' said Senegalese Professor Mohamed Mbodj, Associate Professor of History at Columbia University.

''The contradictions of the man were much deeper.'' he added. ''Senghor is an intellectual who got a little lost in politics.''

According to Mbabuike, the African Studies Association took these contradictions into account when they chose Senghor for the award.

''We consider them as not being consequential to the merits of the man, the poet, the politician, and the humanist,'' he said.

''Leopold Sedar Senghor satisfies all the criteria and beyond,'' Mbabuike said. ''Senghor is known for his universal mind and love, and his prayer for peace extends beyond all dimensions of race and color.''

Senghor is scheduled to pick up the award Friday at a ceremony at Hostos Community College in the New York borough of the Bronx.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe received the award in 1992. (end/ips/ab/aw/yjc/jm/95) |>

Date sent:      Sun, 23 Apr 1995
From:           Carol Summers, University of Richmond

I'd also recommend Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel *Nervous Conditions* and Buchi Emecheta's *Joys of Motherhood*. Both are compelling, easy to read, and students not only get insights into history, but actually enjoy them. Emecheta's work is excellent at provoking discussions of changing notions of marriage, family, and gender, as well as how these interact with education, urbanization and the newly intensive interactions with money. Dangarembga provokes discussion about the value of education, and how new mission and European ideals can provoke awkwardness between individuals and social institutions.

I've also had good luck working with Wole Soyinka's work, either *Ake* (which has a discussion of women's protest, and growing up on a mission station) or one of the plays, such as *Death and the King's Horseman*, which got used in my University's core curriculum, and worked to provoke discussions of what cultural change meant--culture as individual or interactive.

And there is always *Things Fall Apart*, which, while I admit to becoming tired of, nevertheless teaches well. And is short.

Date sent:      Mon, 24 Apr 1995
From:           Cheryl Wharry, East Central University

The course focusing on the interrelatedness of history and narrative sounds interesting. I am currently doing research on African American sermons and have read literature on oral tradition features which I am applying to my work on sermons. Which sources are you using for the oral tradition part of the course? Have they been effective? Please reply to the H-AFRICA list or to me directly.

From:           Randall Pouwels, University of Central Arkansas
Date sent:      28 Apr 95

I'm curious as to what Peter Rogers means by "the empty literacy/orality framework." I wasn't aware that the distinctions between literacy and orality were totally dead! My own sense of the debate is that researchers have encountered differing situations in their fieldwork, and modifications of the original position taken by Albert Lord (*The Singer of Tales*, Cambridge, Mass, 1960) have been made, but nothing "definitive" has turned up to totally abandon this framework.

Indeed, one oral informants I encountered in my own fieldwork in Pemba understood and articulated the distinctions, espedcially when asked to explain allusions he made to the problems the more literate generations of Swahili youth have experienced in carrying his art of extemporaneous oral composition. I wrote an article about this in the 1992 issue of IJAHS. [ed. note: "Swahili Literature and History in the Post-Structuralist Era," *International Journal of African Historical Studies*, 25 (1992): 261-283.]

From:           Mel Page, East Tennessee State University
Date:           Sat 29 Apr 95

A little over a week ago Randy Pouwels and Cora Presley raised some issues and questions concerning my description of teaching African history with African literature. Martin Klein's comments on texts also raises some issues relevant to this discussion as well. One of Randy's questions was about student reactions, which I am better able to give now that the semester's classes are finished and only finals remain.

I have usually tied my choice of literature to the texts I have chosen. Here is where Marty's thoughts seem relevant. In my one semester (15 teaching weeks) survey of all of African history, most students like the organizing guidance a text can provide. My teaching style (and here I guess I admit one of my own weaknesses) does not do much to provide that same kind of structure.

So, having chosen a text, I look for literature--African voices-- which can be spaced out over the semester, coincide with balanced reading of the text, address important themes and issues the text and/or I emphasize, and offer some regional balance. This is important, because (I hope) the assignments I give my students (which were included in my previous post) stress tying the literature to the course--text, class lecture and discussion--and African history more generally.

This is a certainly a limiting way to approach my choices. And that helps to explain why Cora is concerned about African women authors on the list. I have had great success with one book by a woman, however: Rose Zwi's *The Umbrella Tree.* Its key characters are women, black and white, caught up in struggles of their menfolk against apartheid. It is short (104 pages) and students respond well to its symbolism and description of the effects of apartheid and resistance against that system. (It also has a good glossary which helps students.)

I have thought about using Bessie Head's *Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind* on occasion. While not fiction, the oral history in it is strengthened by Head's skill in handling words and her introductions to the testimonies. I have thought it would be good to contrast it as oral history with *Sundiata*. But given all my other choice considerations, I have not assigned it to a class as yet.

I have also thought about replacing Achebe with Flora Nwapa's *Efuru* which can be used to teach some of the same themes. But I have not done so. The main reason is that my course is required for our African and African-American Studies minor and the only one where students are likely to be exposed to Achebe. Given the widespread acclaim for his work, I feel an obligation to ensure that those students have read *Things Fall Apart*. Maybe not the best of reasons for making such a choice, but I think an understandable and reasonable one.

This semester I found my students themselves wanting to draw out issues of women's roles and voices from all the books I assigned. They were struck by role of mothers in both *Sundiata* and *Shaihu Umar*; some of them wanted to consider the women's roles in *Things Fall Apart* and did so very intelligently; in both the *Smouldering Charcoal* and *The Umbrella Tree* they were able to question the place of some women in contemporary and near-contemporary Africa.

Randy asks for more about Zwi, Zeleza, and Balewa. I have mentioned some things about Zwi above. Balewa's novella (the story itself is very short, and the good introductory material adds enough to make this a small book) concerns slavery, the trans-Saharan slave trade, and the importance of Islam in 19th century west Africa. There are some parallels to *Sundiata* which are useful. (Students also find it interesting that this was written by one of Africa's independence era politicans.)

Zeleza's book, an oh so slimly disguised consideration of Malawi under Banda, is very good on the political troubles of some independent African countries. Fairly new (pub. 1992), this semester was the first time I used it in class. My students found the characters very engaging, their stories engrossing, but the net effect sometimes depressing. Understandable, I guess, since it involves imprisonment, torture, death and exile for some of the characters.

[In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Zeleza was a student of mine at the University of Malawi in the early 1970s and that I believe I am the "history lecturer...writing a doctoral thesis" he refers to in the opening of his short story, "The Soldier without an Ear" (in P.A. Scanlon, ed., *Stories from Central & Southern Africa*, 1983, pp. 141-149).]

I had thought that when I moved up to six works of literature in addition to a text this semester I would get student complaints and perhaps lower enrollments. In fact, neither have occurred. While I do insist on reports about each of the books, the fact that allow students to count only their best five report grades toward their final course grades seems to defuse that aspect of my expectations somewhat. End of semester comments I have had seem to indicate that the literature is considered a high point of the course.

Sorry to go on so long. I am, however, very positive on this approach and wanted to share my enthusiasm (as well as my thinking and reservations about my approach.)

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