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From Repair to Pessimism

From Brick 106

Brick 106

African unity is at present merely an emotion born of a history of colonialism and oppression.

— Julius K. Nyerere

When we studied Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine in high school, we relished the sound of the names—Ihuoma, Emenike, Ekwueme, Madume. We tasted their unfamiliarity with delight. We memorized the names of the deities: Amadioha, the god of thunder who’d strike those who opposed his will; Ojukwu, the dangerous god of smallpox; and the Sea God, a jealous husband who guarded Ihuoma, his wife incarnated as human. We mouthed “Chineke!”—the exclamation used throughout the book. We laughed at the character of the madman in the village who disliked Amadioha’s priest and would chase after him for no reason. And while much in the novel was unfamiliar—we don’t eat kola nuts in Kenya during ceremonial occasions, for instance—we relished the richly drawn world. The Igbo in the novel were not simply those who, like us, had been colonized by the British. They, like us, had joy and tragedy, feasts and funerals, a world that, like ours, had been disrupted but remained vibrant. We saw ourselves in that world, even as we enjoyed the flavour of its difference.

Our pleasure in difference was part of the important repair work of the ethnographic novel: to learn to see one another as interesting and delightful, as richly storied and deeply imaginative. We knew that The Concubine and similar works—including Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka and Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass—were as fictional as anything by Kenyan writers. Yet, just as we treated Kenyan literature as a deep reserve that we could draw on to imagine different futures for ourselves, we read work from across Africa to imagine relation with others, across difference.

The flush of African novels from the late 1950s to the early 1970s focused on repairing the damage of colonialism. Ethnographic novels including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, and Flora Nwapa’s Efuru (re)introduced Africans to one another across colonial boundaries. These novels described rituals and practices of diverse groups of people, insisting that Africans had history, philosophy, government, and pleasure. As these books circulated across Africa, often as textbooks in schools, they countered colonial ideas in education and cultural systems. Against the demeaning and simplistic language of “tribe” and “lacking structure,” these authors wrote Black (African) being in its richness and complexity. Cultural repair was understood to be as important as transforming colonial economic and political structures and practices to serve Africans, and perhaps more so.


Few of these novels end well. Okonkwo commits suicide in Things Fall Apart; all of Ihuoma’s suitors are murdered by her spiritual husband, the Sea God, in The Concubine; Waiyaki and Nyambura, the young lovers at the heart of The River Between, are condemned to die by a society that will not accept their love that bridges traditional and modern religious practices. Lives and possibilities are truncated by colonialism’s lives and afterlives.

Yet truncation was not the entire story, and certainly not the most important one.

The ethnographic novel is full of wounds and scars. Still, it hopes that reintroducing Africans to themselves and to one another across geohistories might mend the ethnic, regional, class, gender, and religious divisions sowed by colonialism. The repair attempted by the ethnographic novel was almost immediately countered by the pessimism of the postindependence novel. African literary historians have described the postindependence novel as the novel of disillusionment. Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Achebe’s A Man of the People, and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, as well as the plays Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga, and Mashetani by Ebrahim Hussein, lamented that independence had not brought any substantial changes to those who Frantz Fanon described as the wretched of the earth. The African bourgeoisie and political class had assumed the administrative and cultural positions once held by European colonizers, keeping intact structures of governance, exploitation, punishment, and knowledge. The promise of independence had not only been squandered—it had been betrayed.

Disillusionment looks backward. It assesses the present through the promises of the past. Disillusionment says, I thought it would turn out differently. These novels were not only disillusioned; they were deeply pessimistic. Pessimism, unlike disillusionment, gestures to an impossible future. It looks ahead and sees more of the same, and worse. It is where imagination is impeded by a resignation that takes present oppression as the inevitable future. Or as a forecast of worse to come.

Early in Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, a character says, “Hope? I am surprised that you still talk of hope.” Mosese, an ex-lecturer, says, “Words have lost meaning to me. Rehabilitation, nationalisation, africanisation. What do all these words mean?” In the same vein, he says, “It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to. We have killed our past and are busy killing the future.” Imbuga’s play was first produced at the Kenya National Theatre in May 1975, barely a decade after Kenya’s independence in 1963, and captured a mood prevalent across Africa.

This mood saturated everyday objects and situations. When an unnamed bus conductor in Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born smells a new banknote, he notices “a most unexpected smell for something so new to have: it was a very old smell, very strong, and so very rotten.” Later, the novel asks, “How could this have grown rotten with such obscene haste?”

Beyond a general mood of euphoria at independence, newly independent Africans committed themselves to building new systems. For instance, in a 1965 policy document, Kenya’s government identified three main problems: ignorance, which would be combatted by building new educational institutions and training teaching personnel; poverty, which would be addressed through what was optimistically termed African socialism; and disease, which would require not only simply investing in health institutions but also addressing the systemic problems with infrastructure, housing, and inequality that made Kenyans vulnerable to disease. Yet, as in Armah’s novel, rot set in early. Something poisonous had been left in the ground, embedded in the colonial institutions and laws that remained, installed as ambition in the minds and hearts of Africa’s new leaders. And the cruelty and unhumaning suffered under colonialism continued at the hands of police and prisons, petty government bureaucrats and exploitative employers. The new felt very old, and very exhausting.

Africanization, the idea that systems once run by European administrators would be better once Africans took over, failed to effect any substantive change. When the unnamed protagonist in Armah’s novel walks by a shop that used to belong to a rich Greek and is now owned by Africans, he notes, “In a way the thing was new. Yet the stories that were sometimes heard about it were not stories of something young and vigorous, but the same old stories of money changing hands and throats getting moistened and palms getting greased. Only this time if the old stories aroused any anger, there was nowhere for it to go. The sons of the nation were now in charge, after all.” It had been easier to unite against Europeans, to see the damage of colonial systems as externally imposed. It was startling to see Africans who’d claimed to champion independence take on the garb and manner of colonizers. Still-healing wounds from colonialism, briefly sutured by independence, split open. Rot set in.

Early in the 1980s in the essay “Africa in Exile,” South African writer Es’Kia Mphahlele lamented the loss of freedom dreams:

Almost overnight after independence, I witnessed the tragic unfolding of the imperial theme, as Shakespeare would have dramatized it. News filled the air of treachery, assassination, palace rebellions, preventive detention, corrupt government, neo-colonial plots to subvert independence, public executions involving rebels, of persons being liquidated by murder as members of the parliamentary opposition, and so on. Such news still hangs over the whole African landscape.

If the simultaneous publication of ethnographic novels alongside pessimistic novels in the 1960s and early 1970s had offered the possibility that repair might overcome pessimism and point toward a different way of practising freedom, this hope was gone by the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Instead, Africans had been exiled, as Mphahlele writes: “Exiles, and still more exiles were to be found in African states. Nyerere’s Tanzania, Nkrumah’s Ghana, Banda’s Malawi, Kenyatta’s Kenya, Touré’s Guinea, North Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Zaïre—all these were to see their sons and daughters join the Southern Africans, the Angolans, the Mozambiquans, in African capitals and those of the Western world.” With postindependence freedom dreams suppressed, the faith in repair was crushed by what African and Africanist scholars described as Afropessimism: “the belief that Africa is irredeemably doomed to backwardness and chaos.”

Paul Zeleza writes that Afropessimism “embodies two tendencies—vilification of African experiences and valorization of Euro-American engagements with Africa, that Africa is incapable by itself of historical progress and that any progress evident there is the result of Euro-American interventions.” Afropessimism believed the lie of colonialism: that Africa was ahistorical and that, left to their own devices, Africans were incapable of engaging and managing in the modern world. Afropessimism, wrote Thandika Mkandawire, was “a state of mind that simply projects past trends into the future and sees nothing but bleakness for Africa.” Or, as the title of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s short story has it, “Africa Kills Her Sun.” Certainly, these ideas about African incompetence saturate white-supremacist archives and the institutions built from those archives. What was striking about this Afropessimism was that Africans who had once resisted these ideas now agreed with them.

It’s easy to dismiss Africa’s creative writers as the first people to think about what came to be called Afropessimism by African scholars two decades later, and to claim that creative writers are generally pessimistic merely for aesthetic effect. Yet we should not be too quick to dismiss how aesthetic works sense the weather as it approaches and changes, the soil as it absorbs poisons and loses potency, the water as the euphoria of independence turns into the sourness of disillusionment and the bitterness of pessimism. How quickly everything had soured. How impossible it seemed that it could ever be different.

In Kenya, Afropessimism manifested as everyday sayings: Shauri ya mungu and This is Kenya. I heard shauri ya mungu more often in the 1980s and 1990s. Shauri translates as “cause,” as in political cause, and also as “fault,” as in it is someone else’s fault. When homes and farms flooded because the state had not constructed adequate infrastructure, we’d say “shauri ya mungu”: God was responsible. When an overloaded ferry capsized, we’d say “shauri ya mungu.” When prolonged drought led to famine because the government had failed to store enough food or, more likely, because farmers were hoarding food so they could profit from increased demand, we’d say “shauri ya mungu.” Shauri ya mungu registered resignation: so badly had those in charge messed up that only something divine could explain it. Shauri ya mungu did not simply displace responsibility from state agents; it named our deep sense of vulnerability to the state’s capriciousness. Especially during the 1980s and 1990s when state critics were disappeared and detained, it seemed that something more than human was at work. Like the biblical Job, we calibrated ourselves to expect the worst, and to leave it all in God’s hands. Perhaps, at some point, things might change. It was out of our hands.

I first heard This is Kenya in the early 2000s. I was seated in my mother’s office, having returned from the United States, and was wondering why the service at the local bank was so disappointing. My mother’s younger sister looked at me and said, “This is Kenya.” While her comment was meant to be comparative, to remind me that I was back in Kenya and no longer in the United States, I was soon to discover that This is Kenya was a new, widely shared declaration that both named and unnamed massive state failures and described our relation to them. Those responsible for Kenya’s state remained nameless and faceless, hidden by that “is.” This is Kenya removed Kenya from history and the future. It named an ahistorical entity, caught in an endless loop of disappointment and failure. The unending present tense meant that it was silly to expect or demand anything else. Pessimism had seeped into our bones and dreams, into our ideas and experiences of time. The best we could do was to sit with the is, to resign ourselves to whatever Kenya might do to and for us. Even when the dictator Daniel arap Moi was removed from power in 2002, a time when Kenyans were described as the most optimistic people in the world, This is Kenya remained as a vernacular. If it inoculated us from the inevitable failures of the administrations that followed Moi’s, largely comprised of people who had once served under him, it also impeded our abilities to imagine a different kind of Kenya. This is Kenya kept us tethered to pessimism, anchored in a deep belief that if we didn’t expect better, we would never be disappointed.

Wave is not quite the right word to describe how pessimism has transferred and morphed across different African generations, but we use imprecise words all the time. Those who lived through colonialism and welcomed independence, writers including Achebe and Armah, had their freedom dreams soured as they experienced not the dismantling of colonial systems and practices but the consolidation of those systems and practices at the hands of African leaders. Those born after independence drank bitterness from the previous generation and had their own imaginations impeded by state violence against government critics, including students who were trying to demand better worlds. This second generation was also trapped by neoliberal nightmares dreamed up by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that diminished public services across Africa, making social mobility more difficult and social welfare unthinkable. Those caught in subsequent waves, the children and grandchildren of the first two eras, have absorbed cynicism and treat it as wisdom. They are weary of the exhaustion from earlier waves and impatient with the caution demonstrated by the traumatized, unwilling to grasp how and why trauma impedes other ways of being in the world. Perhaps when they say “This is Kenya,” they mean it need not be. I’m not sure.

Pessimism was a deeply gendered and gendering affair. To tell this story, I need to return to the ethnographic novel and, specifically, to Flora Nwapa’s Efuru. Efuru, the eponymous character, chooses how to live and love. When she falls in love as the novel opens, she declares that she would prefer to die if she cannot marry her beloved. Because her beloved is poor and cannot afford to pay the dowry that would make their marriage official, Efuru develops a plan that will defer traditional obligations while allowing her to marry him; as a married woman, she refuses to farm alongside her husband, insisting that she will trade instead, and her trading ends up being more economically rewarding than his farming. As the novel ends, Efuru decides that she would rather build a life alone:

Efuru slept soundly that night. She dreamt of the woman of the lake, her beauty, her long hair and her riches. She had lived for ages at the bottom of the lake. She was as old as the lake itself. She was happy, she was wealthy. She was beautiful. She gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did the women worship her?

Efuru finds a question that allows her to create a future distinct from what tradition would dictate. Nwapa repairs the harm of colonialism’s gendered dictates by imagining a different world for women, rooted in women’s ritual practices. Perhaps Nwapa’s hopeful closing, a closing not marked by truncation, indicates that African women writers provide guides to other futures beyond traditional duty and colonialism’s damage.

This turn to the alternative economy of women’s rituals drives Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed. The main character, a teacher, is sexually violated by the head of an unnamed country. Frightened for her life, she seeks refuge in a remote women’s collective. As she immerses herself in the slow patterns of the community, from gardening to mystical rites, she finds healing. As with Nwapa’s Efuru, Njau’s The Sacred Seed imagines an alternative world not bound to the promises and betrayals of independence, not tied to the inevitability of disappointment and pessimism. It is only through this leap of invention that Njau can imagine toward freedom.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust takes on most fully the legacy of pessimism in Kenyan—and African—writing. In the story, a young woman investigates her brother’s death, a death that seems inevitable given his impossible life. Both their parents carry the trauma of colonialism, and the children are raised in colonialism’s unhealed scars, in the silence of betrayal and fear. Kenya’s official languages, writes Owuor, are English, Kiswahili, and Silence. English is a language imposed by colonialism, a language that can only be spoken with anguish, as M. NourbeSe Philip has it. While Kiswahili originates along the East African Coast and draws its music from the wind and the water, from religion and trade, from cultural exchange and cultural innovation, the Kiswahili taught as Kenya’s official language is the language of instruction and discipline, of rules written in government offices and orders barked by corrupt police officers. If official English was the original wound, official Kiswahili is the botched suture. And Silence? Silence allows people to survive, if not to thrive.

At the end of Owuor’s novel, the murdered brother’s partner gives birth to twins. Performance scholar Mshai Mwangola has told me this birth points to a hopeful future, a sense that something like hope might emerge. I would like to agree with her, but I think the novel defers hope. As it sweeps across Kenya’s history and landscapes, Dust tells a story about those whom Kenya has thrown away, those unimagined by Kenya’s shauri ya mungu and This is Kenya. But where Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed turns to mystical ritual to find healing, Dust insists on brutal realism, on facing the Kenya that is violent and destructive. Is this pessimism? Is it Afropessimism?

While Dust tells the story about postindependent Kenya, about the Kenya that was inherited from colonialism and the Kenya that could have been, it does not agree with colonial assessments of Kenyans. It does not believe the lies about us. I find myself suspended by Dust, grazed by its truth-telling grit, frightened by its demand that we be honest about what we have done to ourselves.

If there is truth beyond official languages and silences, what are we to make of ourselves? If there is truth beyond betrayal and disappointment, how are we to imagine ourselves? If we can no longer use pessimism to excuse our impeded imaginations, how are we to remake the world?

Keguro Macharia is from Nairobi, Kenya. He blogs at

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