The City in African Literature: The Rural-Urban Contradiction and the Individual vs. the Communal Ethic
Siga Fatima Jagne
Henry L. Gates, Jr.
Thesis DT 3.5 1989 J24
vi, 101 leaves; 29 cm.
"The City in African Literature: The Rural-Urban Contradiction and the Individual vs. The Communal Ethic" explores the social, economic and cultural phenomena. It discusses the effects of urbanization and its impact on African society, through the novels of four African authors. It treats particular issues related to conflict and cultural values, corruption in society and the predicament of women. These issues are looked at through selected works of four authors.
My first chapter, "Peter Abraham's City: Cauldron of Oppression," focuses on the oppression of Peter Abrahams' characters in a multi-racial city, where life is depicted in tragic overtones. Abrahams not only discusses the issue of oppression, but also the issue of the rural-urban contradiction. He sees Malay camp, an African ghetto of Johannesburg, as a place where the individual ethic and communal ethic are dominating areas of strain for both individual and society. Peter Abrahams, the only writer I chose who portrays the industrialized city in Africa, is vocal about the plight of workers and African people in general under an oppressive white regime. He contrasts Malay Camp to Johannesburg (or more particularly, its white suburbs). He shows that in Malay Camp people are always destroyed by the system that exists in the city, a system characterized by oppression, police brutality, and discrimination. Abrahams chronicles the transformation of a rural character, Xuma, who comes to the city for work, and who finds himself in dynamic interaction with the life of the city. It is clear that Abrahams sees the city as vice, as a place of misery where people at night down their sorrows in music, song, and alcohol.
My second chapter, titled "Ooze, Clamminess, Slime, Lubricity: Corruption of the City in Ayi Kwei Armah's "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born," focuses on Armah's use of symbolism to portray political and cultural decay in Accra. But this city can be any post-colonial city in Africa. Interestingly, Armah reverses the original concept of the individual versus the communal ethic. In his view of the city, he sees the individual as more progressive than the community, whose ethic is corruption. Armah also gives the perfect presentation of the overcrowded African city, where corruption is as rampant as dirt. Dirt and cleanliness are not used merely as decorative motifs, but as symbols that reinforce his theme of corruption. Armah, like most city writers, measures corruption in terms of speed. Koomson, the corrupt politician in the novel, learns to drive, an indication that he is corrupt, and leaps to success. His fall from grace, in the reverse, is just as precipitous. Not only is it a reverse leap, but the corrupt politician must learn to crawl.
My third chapter focuses on "The African Woman in the City: the Whore and the Victim." In this chapter, using both thematic and feminist criticism, I decided to do a study of the city and how men portray women in the city and how women portray themselves. Cyprian Ekwensi, concerns himelf, with the political and social episodes that center around his protagonist, Jagua Nana. Jagua is seen as a blend of Moll Flanders and Emile Zola's Nana. To this male writer the African woman in the city is "loose and immoral." To him the city is a male entity and women only come to it to play a sexual role.
In The Joys of Motherhood, Buchi Emecheta gives the reader a female writers point of view. Her treatment of women parallels that of Paule Marshall's Browngirl, Brownstones. Actually, there is a distinctive role reversal in both books. The men are not weak, the women are just overpowering. Both must assume the responsibility of heading their households. These role reversals are ultimately blamed on the city. Nnu Ego is the only character in the novels I use who lives in the city, but who does not adopt city values and the fact that there was an organization in the city that guarded her village customs helped her even more. It is these values that make her suffer at the hands of her husband Nnaife. But she believes that by working for her children she will have an easier life in the future. She does not anticipate, however, that because her children grow up in the city, they will, adopt city values rather than the village values that guide her own beliefs and behavior. Her children, in whom she has invested all hopes for a comfortable future, alienate themselves from her by choosing to live their lives independently of her. They choose to lead their lives in such a way that she is left all alone.
These are the kinds of contradictions that the African writers address in their writings about the city.