Kiswahili Translation of the Introductory Chapter

Writing on the Soil: Land & Landscape in Literature from Eastern Africa

Ng'ang'a Wahu-Mũchiri

Chapter Abstracts

Introduction  top

Writing on the Soil examines the metaphorical labor that land performs in novels, short stories, and drama from East Africa. This website complements my monograph.

In the book, I argue that the region’s linguistic heritage (approximately several hundred languages) directly contributes to the allegorical variety with which land is dealt with in literature. In other words, although I focus on texts written in English, many of these authors are steeped in particular indigenous ways of knowing the land and of experiencing landscape. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for instance, writes in Gĩkũyũ, Kiswahili, and English. Yvonne Owuor has incorporated Turkana land aesthetics into her 2014 novel, Dust. Okot P’Bitek’s lyrical poetry in Song of Lawino (1966) and Song of Ocol (1967) borrowed heavily from the Acholi language and the community’s interaction with its ecological surroundings. Because of this history, I situate the question of producing African scholarship in African languages as central. This is a debate that was best captured by the 1962 Makerere Conference which welcomed writers of English literature, but disinvited authors and poets publishing in Yoruba, Xhosa, Kiswahili, Amharic, Pidgin, etc. In the twenty-first century, what does it look like to use African languages in creating knowledge about the African continent?.

My overall argument in this monograph—that representations of land and landscape perform significant metaphorical labor in African literatures—evolves across several geographical spaces. Each chapter’s analysis is grounded in a particular locale: western Kenya, colonial Tanganyika, post-independence Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Anam Ka’alakol (Lake Turkana), Kampala, and Kitgum in Northern Uganda. Moreover, each section contributes to a deeper understanding of the aesthetic choices that authors make when deploying tropes revolving around land, landscape, and the environment.

Chapter One  top

In Chapter One, I demonstrate the aesthetic contradictions in fiction by Grace Ogot and Margaret Ogola. I juxtapose Grace Ogot’s The Promised Land (1966) to Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source (1994). This reading of the two novels foregrounds their rejection of the assumptions on which settler productivity is premised. Ogot’s and Ogola’s novels straddle folklore—and its foregrounding of animal, plant, and supernatural life forms—as well as social realism—and its magnifying of human activity on land and landscape.

Chapter Two  top

Chapter Two offers a contrapuntal reading of Yvonne Vera’s poetic fiction against a backdrop of Zimbabwean novelists who are simultaneously steeped in both realism and nationalism. While Vera privileges a polyphonic and metaphoric narrative style in her writing, her fellow countrymen foreground linearly-driven plots. I examine the incorporation of mysticism and realism into a first-principles challenge of the very ontologies on which imperialism was founded. I further pursue the aesthetic use of nonhuman life in Yvonne Vera’s and Alex Kanengoni’s non-linear narratives. Vera’s poetics in The Stone Virgins (2002) incorporate the consciousness of an entire community. To depict the heroism of her female protagonists, Vera weaves a tapestry of narrative positions that includes parents, lovers, peasants, wildlife, trees, and veterans of the Chimurenga resistance.

Chapter Three  top

Chapter Three focuses on the urban landscapes of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. I investigate how cit(y)zens strategically trespass and transgress. These self-conscious acts of disobedience are important substitutes for belonging—especially in colonial urban spaces that are singularly hostile towards their African residents. My investigation differs from earlier discussions of African urban literature in that it examines the city as a cultural space and, simultaneously, as a geographic space. Town dwellers respond to these two aspects of the postcolonial African metropolis with a particular kind of political resistance: the performativity of agential power—often manifested as trespassing and transgression. Finally, by focusing on the plight of East Africa’s Indian diaspora, Vassanji brings to fore questions of ethnicity and demonstrates how cultural and political struggles could also potentially shape physical spaces.

Chapter Four  top

In Chapter Four, I expound on the fraught relationship between artists and ruling regimes, especially in regards to use of literary tropes derived from landscapes. I examine writing by Ethiopia’s Berhane M. Sahle Sellassie and Tanzania’s Ebrahim Hussein to demonstrate how the politics of African languages and literature influence representations of lands and landscapes. Ebrahim Hussein’s Arusi (1980) documents the transformation of Tanzania’s colonial-era dependence into neo-colonial subservience. B. M. Sahle Sellassie’s The Afersata (1968) demonstrates communal benevolence. Sahle Sellassie’s text, like Hussein’s, indicts the state for its autocracy and inability to entrench bottom-up socio-economic reform. Like Hussein, Sahle Sellassie has delved into the language question—to the point of publishing in Gurage, a Southern Ethiopia vernacular with minimal readership.

Chapter Five  top

Finally, Chapter Five on Yvonne Owuor and Monica Arac de Nyeko explores how ecology and humanity influence each other. Owuor and Nyeko transform topographical features into allegories of their characters’ psychological landscapes. Owuor’s Dust (2014) depicts the unfolding cycles of life and death in Northern Kenya’s spaces. The second half of this chapter performs close readings of M. Arac de Nyeko’s short stories. Nyeko’s oeuvre anchors the female subject in depictions of land and landscape, while also inviting an exploration of why claims of territoriality are often laced with ethnic prejudice. Hence, her short fiction is a powerful cultural artifact and analytical tool for discussions regarding narrative and its potential for resistance, and the pastoral as a literary genre.