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Article

Terri Ochiagha

Chinua Achebe, acclaimed as the “father of modern African literature,” came to canonical prominence thanks to the seismic impact of his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958)—the best-known work of African literature in the world—and his indictment of colonial discourse in the seminal essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1974. His influence and impact, however, far surpasses these two literary events. While Things Fall Apart was neither the first African novel nor the first to capture the trauma of the colonial encounter, Achebe’s transliteration of the Igbo language—its beauty, philosophy, and cadences of speech—in clear, eloquent prose, and his intimate knowledge and subversion of the Western literary tradition enthused literary critics around the world, inspired generations of African writers, and was key in instituting African literature as a field of scholarly inquiry. He further helped shape the direction of African writing in editorial roles—most notably as the founding editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series—and through his manifold critical and biographical essays, many of which preempt ideas at the core of postcolonial theory, albeit with a more accessible and mellifluous idiom. Over the course of his writing career, Achebe published five novels (Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease [1960], Arrow of God [1964], A Man of the People [1966], and Anthills of the Savannah [1987]), children’s books (Chike and the River [1966], How the Leopard Got His Claws [1972], The Flute [1977], and The Drum [1977]), two collections of short stories (The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories [1962] and Girls at War and Other Stories [1972]), two volumes of poetry (Beware, Soul Brother [1971] and Collected Poems [2004]), four collections of essays (Morning Yet on Creation Day [1975], Hopes and Impediments [1988], Home and Exile [2000], and The Education of a British-Protected Child [2008]), a political treatise (The Trouble with Nigeria [1983]), and his final work, There Was a Country (2012), a memoir on his experiences of the Nigerian Civil War.

Article

The Gambian archives, established in the 1960s, have rich and valuable resources for deeper study and teaching of the history of The Gambia and the subregion. The collections are representative of a substantial amount of The Gambia’s precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history on a range of subjects, including settlement patterns, migration, family histories, folktales, myths, legends, proverbs, songs, religion, early colonial trading in The Gambia, histories of the ethnic groups and their cultural ceremonies, history of individuals, nationalists politicians, postcolonial political parties, and World War II. Although these sources can be valuable to students, international researchers, and specialists, there is a great need for their care and maintenance.

Article

Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.

Article

Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.

Article

Muslim Sufi brotherhoods (ṭuruq, sing. ṭarīqa) are ubiquitous in contemporary Islamic West Africa. However, they are relative latecomers in the history of the region, making their appearance in the mid-18th century. Yet, Sufism has a longer presence in West Africa that predates the consolidation of ṭuruq. Early evidence of Sufi practices dates to the period between the 11th and the 17th centuries. By that time traces of the Shādhiliyya and the lesser-known Maḥmūdiyya are available between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Chad, but it was the activities of the Kunta of the Qādiriyya and of al-ḥājj ‘Umar of the Tijāniyya that led to the massive spread of Sufi brotherhoods in the region. The authority of leaders of ṭuruq did not disappear with the imposition of European colonialism. In fact, the power of those leaders who adjusted to the novel political situation further consolidated thanks to their role as mediators between their constituencies and the colonial government. Eventually, the end of the colonial period did not signal the decline of ṭuruq in West Africa. Conversely, during the postcolonial years, Sufi brotherhoods continued flourishing despite the secular nature of West African independent states and the increasing tension with a plethora of equally rising Salafi movements.

Article

The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.