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Africa: African-Language Literature In Global Scholarship


Editor’s Note

“Broad early modern comparative projects often fail to address Africa at all. A search of the MLAIB [Modern Language Association International Bibliography] finds that the number of pieces published in the last thirty years on the subject of ‘globalization’ is in the thousands, and yet only 5 per cent of them address Africa or African countries. When it comes to eighteenth-century studies, the exclusion is total: not one of the pieces on globalization addresses Africa or African countries. Not one. … This is more than unfortunate. No arena of study can be successful that has Africa as a lacuna. ” — Wendy Laura Belcher

The systemic character of the global marginalization of Africa is a theme which appears often in AfricaFocus Bulletin, most often in relation to current issues of economic inequality, vulnerability to global crises, and the continued dominance of global governance by a minority of rich countries. That reality, however, is also deeply rooted in ingrained biases in cultural production and scholarship, where the challenge to Eurocentrism is in many cases only beginning to gain momentum.

That is why I am very pleased that AfricaFocus reader and comparative literature scholar Wendy Belcher consented to have Africafocus present a condensed version of her recently published essay in a scholarly journal on 18th century fiction, a location where few would expect to find a focus on literature in African languages.

The topic of the importance of African-language literature is not new, of course. Nor is the evidence of marginalization by “global” opinion-makers. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has repeatedly been among the leading contenders for the Nobel Prize in literature, has long been a passionate advocate of writing in African languages and has set an example himself with his own works. In the 120 years since the prize began, only a handful of African writers have won that prize. In the 1980s there were two (Nigerian Wole Soyinka and Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz) and in the last thirty years only two, both white South Africans (Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee).

Literary scholar Mukoma wa Ngugi’s The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership, published in 2018, critically analyzes use of African languages versus English by African writers over the period since the late 19th century.

But, notes Belcher, there is still only minimal scholarship devoted to African-language literature from before the mid-19th century. Partly this is based on the erroneous assumptions that there was little written in African languages before that time. But, Belcher notes, there are literally thousands of works written in African languages before that period, without even counting the many more written in Africa by Africans in Arabic over many centuries.

The much-shortened version below was condensed from the orignal by AfricaFocus Bulletin and the author. Original article with footnotes, figures, and full text, is available at Citation to the original article should be given as “Belcher, Wendy Laura. (2021). “Reflections. Are We Global Yet? Africa and the Future of Early Modern Studies”, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 33(3):413-446.”]

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on culture, education, and the media, visit

Of particular interest in relation to the Bulletin’s topic today is, in which Jacques Depelchin cites an ancient Egyptian poem called “The Eloquent Peasant” in relation to today’s issues of speaking out against injustice.

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African Language Literature and the Future of Early Modern Studies

Wendy Laura Belcher

Wendy Laura Belcher is Professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies.


Research on early (pre-1850) African-language literatures has declined since 2003 or has continued to flatline at nothing. A radical antiracist solution is needed, for no field can succeed with Africa as a lacuna. I call on all early modern scholars, regardless of their language knowledge, to cite at least one early modern African language text in their next publication. I describe five such in this article, a tiny sample of the thousands of written texts that Black Africans across the continent composed in African languages before 1830. Asking early modern scholars to embrace the uncomfortable practice of “token citation” will enable these texts to circulate in the realm of knowledge and further efforts to diversify and broaden the field.

Has the field of early modern studies become more attentive to the people and places outside of Europe and has it done so in productive ways? Further, have we attended to Africa specifically? And what does attention to Africa offer to eighteenth-century studies as a whole and for its future? I argue that we have seen an impressive increase in literary scholarship on non-European texts, but that research on African-language literatures has remained abysmal. As a part of broadening early modern studies, I describe five vital early modern African texts and propose the uncomfortable practice of their “token citation” to seed the field with possibilities for a more inclusive future.

While acknowledging the following terms’ limited and problematic nature, I use (to avoid lengthy phrases for period and place) “early modern” and “the eighteenth century” as interchangeable for the period from the late 1600s through the early 1800s CE (that is, as describing a set of years not asynchronous temporalities); “global” for the whole world and its relationships; “we” for all living scholars of this period, regardless of nationality; “Africa” for all the complexities of the whole continent (and not just sub- Saharan Africa); and “Africans” as shorthand for all the Indigenous Black peoples of the continent and the genius of their thousands of languages and cultures.

Broad early modern comparative projects often fail to address Africa at all. A search of the MLAIB finds that the number of pieces published in the last thirty years on the subject of “globalization” is in the thousands, and yet only 5 per cent of them address Africa or African countries. When it comes to eighteenth-century studies, the exclusion is total: not one of the pieces on globalization addresses Africa or African countries. Not one. That is, many scholars discuss the “globe” and manage never to mention Africa, a fifth of the world’s land mass and population. This is precisely why academics’ use of the term “global” has been so widely castigated. As Gayatri Spivak lamented in 2003, for comparative literature Africa “does not exist at all.” This is more than unfortunate. No arena of study can be successful that has Africa as a lacuna.

Research on so-called “minor” languages of the early modern period is slim and citation of them is slimmer. This is not for any lack of warning— Mauritian scholar and former American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) president Françoise Lionnet fired across the bow of literary studies in 2013, arguing that the MLA needed to “rise to the challenge of language diversity” and rise above “readers’ lack of linguistic or cultural competence and their inability to recognize exogamous influences.” Unfortunately, literary scholarship has remained focused predominantly on literatures in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. In an article also using MLAIB as a source, three scholars show that scholarship on “minor” European language literatures has been declining every decade since the 1970s.

This lamentable trend is doubly true for African-language literatures. Depressingly, research on them has declined since 2003 or remained flatlined at zero—even though many of these languages are not remotely “minor.” Over a dozen African languages have between 10 million and 100 million native speakers each and have attested early modern writing, including West African languages (Fulah, Fulfude, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo); East African languages (Swahili, Ge’ez, Amharic, and Somali); southern African languages (Zulu and Xhosa); North African languages (like Tamazight); and Malagasy. Given the expanding population in Africa, none of these languages with tens of millions of speakers is disappearing any time soon; most have vibrant print cultures today.

Despite the richness of these early modern literary cultures, the MLA African literature forums, set up by scholars of African literature, reflect the general assumption of the field itself that no written early African literature exists, being divided into “Pre-1990” and “Post-1990.” That is, the field pairs a forum on thirty years of literature with a forum on thirty centuries of literature. In terms of numbers of scholars, this division is not wrong—the pre-1990 forum is not very populated, with the few scholars in it focusing almost entirely on the 1950s and 1960s—but, in terms of texts, it represents a failure of the field of African literary studies.

Further, few scholars focus on Afrophone literatures, which “remain a neglected component not only of comparative literature, postcolonial studies, and world literature, but also of African literary studies at large.” I am not offering this critique at some remove. The fact of early African-language written literature came as a shock to me when I began to study the issue about twenty years ago, even though I, a white American woman, had grown up in Ethiopia and Ghana and should have known better.

To overcome my own biases, I decided to assume that all African languages have always been written. Assuming such is the only way to overcome a predisposition not to see Africa as the home of writing. (As an aside, I think the primary reason we believe this myth is because libraries, not writing, were rare in Africa. Centuries of the slave trade and colonialism extracted the local wealth required for the mechanisms of preservation—archives. That is why “relying entirely on the availability of written documents to trace the beginnings of a writing tradition” in African languages will get you nowhere fast.) For me, this assumption about presence not absence has yielded many findings. I continue to find more and more written texts in more and more African languages. Others have assumed it fruitfully as well: Mariana Candido’s research on Angolan slave ports is a terrific example of the ground-breaking scholarship that can happen when a scholar assumes there are early African primary sources and does not stop until she finds them.

Early Modern Studies Needs to Cite African-Language Written Literature

To solve this lack, I demand that all early modern scholars, regardless of their language knowledge, cite at least one early modern African-language written text in their next publication. A scholarly paragraph about one of these texts would be splendid, but a sentence or even a footnote would be great. If twenty early modern scholars cited one of these texts in their next publication, we would take an important step toward broadening the future of early modern studies. I will address possible objections to such “token citation” later; for now, let me explain how you could actually do this.

One way to cite early modern African-language texts is time consuming: actually reading and studying them. Excellent work has been done translating and anthologizing early writing by Africans in African languages. To name a few here, consider Jan Knappert’s Four Centuries of Swahili Verse; Albert S. Gérard’s Four African Literatures: Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, Amharic; B. W. Andrzejewski, Stanislaw Pilaszewicz, and Witold Tyloch’s Literatures in African Languages: Theoretical Issues and Sample Surveys; Karin Barber and Stephan F. Miescher’s Africa’s Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self; Abena Busia’s extraordinary four volume Women Writing Africa from the Feminist Press; and any number of works from Markus Weiner Publishers, including John F. P. Hopkins and Nehemia Levtzion’s Land of Enchanters: Egyptian Short Stories from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.

The easier way, but still radically helpful, is to cite one of the five African-language texts which I will now introduce, all of which have English translations. While thousands of unique, early modern African language written texts exist, almost none have English translations. (And yes, this essay is against the move by some comparatists to quarantine works in translation—they are not a disease but a gateway, however limited, to what the theorist of translation Lawrence Venuti calls the “utopia” of connection.)

Let me repeat this point, so it is clear—these five are not the only extant early African-language written texts. There are thousands. I have selected these five from among those thousands as a tiny sample of what Black Africans across the continent have written in African languages before 1830. This sample—drastically limited by what is available in English—is importantly specific (texts from specific districts and authors), evading the trap of representing “Africa” as if it were a whole. … In case it is unclear how easy citing these texts can be, here are two invented examples using the first text below. (Yes, the first text I recommend is a co- translation that I did; but I chose to translate it precisely because, out of thousands of possible texts, I thought it could do the most to persuade people of the value of early African literature.)

One possibility might be having a sentence like this in your next article: “Female religious leadership in the eighteenth century is not, of course, a solely English phenomenon, as demonstrated by the African-language biography of 1672 about the Ethiopian Orthodox abbess Walatta Petros (Gälawdewos).” Or, perhaps, “Queer identities in a range of European and non-European eighteenth- century texts is a burgeoning area of scholarship; for instance, see work on the Ethiopian Orthodox abbess Walatta Petros (Gälawdewos).”

Adding seventy words, as each of these examples would do (including the citation), will not always be possible. Yet I urge you to consider it. By doing so, you will prove that these texts exist and provide a paper trail for another scholar. Most of what I know about early African literature I found out by following up on a footnote. The aim of my edict is to ensure that these texts circulate in the realm of collective knowledge.

Ge’ez: The Life of Walatta-Petros

The first early modern African-language written text I recommend for citation is the Gädlä Wälättä Petros. An Ethiopian monk named Gälawdewos (fl. 1670s) wrote it in the African language of Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic) in 1672. The translation of it into English came out in 2015, and the student edition came out in late 2018. This extraordinary book is about an Ethiopian woman—a female religious leader and monastic founder with hundreds of followers, both men and women. She was an early anticolonial resister, refusing to convert to Catholicism when the Jesuits came to Ethiopia in the 1600s. She also had a life-long female partner, and the text contains an anecdote about nuns being lustful with each other.

The text is a masterpiece of Ge’ez literature, which has thousands of original creations written from the 1300s into the 1900s (this biography is only one of over a hundred early book-length biographies that Ethiopians wrote in Ge’ez). This book includes fascinating human animal encounters, beautiful embodied poems, and a radical theology. The translation does not assume the reader has any knowledge of Ethiopia or Ge’ez and provides a robust contextual framework to help readers cite it or teach it: thousands of substantive and philological notes and a massive glossary of people, places, rituals, and things. Instructors are teaching it to great effect in medieval courses, early modern history and literature courses, and gender and sexuality studies courses.

If you want to do more than token citation, check out the excellent work on early modern Ge’ez literature done by a range of Ethiopian scholars, most of all the prolific MacArthur Fellowship winner Getatchew Haile. You may also consult the massive encyclopedic and cataloging projects for Ge’ez. Good scholarship has also been done on other written languages of Ethiopia, including Amharic, Tigrinya, and Oromo, although with little surviving written literature until the late 1800s.

Tamazight: Ocean of Tears

The second early modern African-language written text to cite is Ocean of Tears (Bahr ad-Dumu), a book written in what many call Berber, but which speakers prefer to call Tamazight, an Indigenous African language common in North Africa. The author Muuammad Ibn Ali Awzal (ca. 1680 – 1749), who lived in what is now Morocco, wrote the book in 1714. A fascinating figure in his own right, he fled the town where he grew up after accidentally killing a man, became a religious scholar, returned to his town (where the family of the man he killed forgave him), and lived his life there as a teacher and author. He is the most important author of the Sous Tamazi?t literary tradition, which constitutes the several thousand Indigenous Moroccan scholars writing between the tenth and nineteenth centuries. …

Scholars can read the book in English or French translation. The research in both is outstanding, and the translations are very erudite, although the awkwardness of the English is occasionally painful for native speakers. Nevertheless, the translation provides a full understanding of its themes and concerns, making it citable.

If you want to do more than token citation, check out the excellent work on early modern Tamazight literature by a range of North African scholars, including Salem Chaker, Lamara Bougchiche, Mohand Akli Haddadou, and Abdellah Bounfour, as well as the prolific Paulette Galand-Pernet, Daniela Merolla, and Maarten Kossmann; you may also consult the extensive Encyclopédie Berbère.

Hausa and Fula: Sufi Women

The third early modern African-language written text to cite is any of the poems by Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo (ca. 1793 – 1864), a fascinating and influential woman who was a scholar, teacher, and poet of West African Sufi Islam. She was not a minor figure in her land, but a revered woman whose authorial name is still mentioned along with male authors. She wrote in the Indigenous languages of Fula (her first language) and Hausa as well as Arabic. As many African intellectuals have for centuries, she used Arabic script, or ajami, to write these languages, much as many African languages now use the Latin script.

Hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in ajami are extant in West African archives, and yet the history of these books, their libraries, and the manuscript culture of early African Muslims have only begun to be studied in the Euro-American academy with any depth. For such archives to inform the collective understanding of literature scholars globally, we need to recognize the crucial abilities of multilingual scholars, those who are able to read Arabic script, to understand the African language of the text deeply, and to communicate their findings for publication in widely read language. And we must enable more Indigenous scholars to publish their research.

If you want to do more than token citation, check out the excellent work on early modern ajami literature done by a range of African scholars, including the indefatigable Fallou Ngom, as well as Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Shamil Jeppie, Ibrahima Diallo, and Ousmane Kane. Consult Ousseina Alidou and others on early written Hausa literature specifically.

Swahili: Song of Liyongo

The fourth early modern African-language written text to cite is Takhimisa ya Liyongo, a long praise poem written in Swahili by Sayyid Abdallah bin Nassir (ca. 1730 – 1820) in 1750. Swahili is rich in praise poems, a dominant genre across West and East Africa; as well as in epic written poems, such as Utendi wa Tambuka (1728), about the ancient wars between the descendants of Mohammed and Byzantine Christians; and didactic poems, such as Utendi wa Mwana Kupona (1858), a mother’s instructions to her daughter.

Takhimisa ya Liyongo is about the great early modern poet- warrior trickster of legend named Fumo Liyongo, who likely lived in the 1200s. This epic figure lived large—dancing, drinking, fighting; he was eventually killed by his own son. Liyongo was the firstborn of his kingly father, and enormously popular, so the second son, wishing to eliminate him as a threat, imprisoned him. Liyongo escaped, but his son, for the reward, killed him with a copper nail, the only object capable of taking his life. In the poem that Nassir wrote about Liyongo, based on earlier folk-tales, both the protagonist and the antagonist practice deception, which Joseph Mbele has argued is the poem’s sophisticated critique of heroism itself, and any supposed gap between heroes and villains.

Of all African-language literatures, that in Swahili has received the most published attention, with no little focus on its early written literature, going back as far as the 1600s, so I mention it only briefly here. If you want to do more than token citation, see the excellent work by a range of East African scholars, among them M.M. Mulokozi, Mohamed H. Abdulaziz, Euphrase Kezilahabi, Ibrahim Noor Shariff, Alamin Mazrui, and Joseph Mbele.

Nsibidi: Men and Women

The fifth early modern African-language written text to cite is any of the stories translated from Nsibidi. Nsibidi is a written system, an ideographic script, elaborated by the Efik people of Nigeria in the 1770s for their secret society, but with symbols in it found on pottery dating to a thousand years earlier. Although sometimes dismissed as merely representational, Nsibidi is far richer than that, a type of what one scholar has called “a vast, deep-time, curated supply of symbols.” Only members who have been trained to read Nsibidi can understand its texts, which are used to narrate events, such as court cases and love affairs. Enslaved people in the Americas used this language to communicate, so it is particularly vital that Americanists be aware of it.

Nsibidi is a secret language protected by its peoples and therefore access to its stories is rightly limited. No historical, political, or legal texts have been translated from it; rather, those seen as frivolous, and therefore not in need of protection from prying eyes, have been.

If you want to do more than token citation, see the excellent work on Nsibidi done by African scholars, including Basil Amaeshi, Ekpo Eyo, Olu Kalu, and Maik Nwosu, and the interpretive work of the modern Nigerian artists Victor Ekpuk and Chike C. Aniakor. If you are interested in teaching about it and other African writing systems, consult the online exhibit Inscribing Meaning by the Fowler Museum and the National Museum of African Art.

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Anticipating Objections

Some people will want to dismiss these five examples of written African texts. For them, they will not be “African” enough, not “literary” enough, not “early” enough, not “enough” enough.

So let me remind such readers that most literatures are not enough in the same ways. The history of writing in most regions is not local, for instance. European texts were written in the foreign language of Latin (unless written by Italians, for whom it was native) into the 1800s. Likewise, many African texts were written in the foreign language of Arabic, with few written vernaculars.

Yet no one says that European texts are not European because they were written in Latin. Just so, no one should say that African texts are not African because they were written in Arabic. Nor should anyone say that because a text was written in North Africa or East Africa, that they are not African. Their bracketing arises from the racist assumption that Africa is a place without writing and history, and that therefore anywhere with writing and history cannot be Africa.

The history of writing in most regions is not “early” either. Almost no vernaculars were written until quite late in human history. Most European languages were not written until the 1500s CE. By contrast, Egyptian languages had written texts by 2,600 BCE, two thousand years before the Greeks arrived to “civilize” Egypt. Tamazight language inscriptions appear across North Africa and West Africa by the 1000s BCE. Sudan and Ethiopia had written languages by the 100s BCE. By contrast, even the major European languages appeared much later: the first English, Spanish, and Portuguese written texts are from the 700s, 1200s, and 1500s CE respectively.

A more serious critique of the citation practice I am recommending is that it is “mere tokenism,” a glib attempt to be inclusive without fully recognizing or engaging the bodies of work ostensibly included (or the ethics of translating Indigenous language texts into colonizers’ languages). Yet, “token citation” is the very definition of a heuristic technique—being both imperfect and yet useful—and is a practical way of making a vital strike at the Eurocentric foci of US scholarship while destabilizing the canon and helping literary studies support decolonization.

Yes, real inclusion—and recentering of scholarly focus—requires more than such gestures. But absent radical transformation, doing nothing is not the solution. As the famous Amharic proverb goes, “slowly, slowly, the egg goes by its legs;” (that is, incremental change is the basis for large change). As one example of its practicality, token citation can keep alive for future scholars that which is not valued in the present. Take the scholarship on Olaudah Equiano, a luminary of the eighteenth century who had faded almost entirely from cultural awareness in the nineteenth century but for the work of a handful of African American scholars. A single descriptive sentence in 1913 in a brief article by no less a figure than W.E.B. Du Bois reintroduced Equiano after a century of general neglect and enabled Equiano’s star to rise again.(Yet another case of African American scholars, through the critical language and theoretical approaches they developed, bringing to light the overlooked contributions of African writers.) In the same way, token citing of early modern African-language written texts would be an important seeding of the field.

Such practical methods, while they do not in and of themselves solve the problems of a field’s systemic exclusions, can help to make more long-term changes possible. …

Early Modern Studies Action Items

I have suggested one way to improve the future of early modern studies—by encouraging readers to cite early African language literature, not only to improve their own citational practice, but crucially to seed the field with the necessary references that will enable future scholarship to attend more fully to the disproportionately neglected archives of early African literatures and counteract the limiting Eurocentrism of early modern studies.

It is my sincere hope that one hundred years from now, someone will cite this article as an example of how farcically limited early scholarship on written African literature was, and will chastise me for standing on the edge of its vastness and seeing so little. Yes, token citation may invite sanction. Especially if you are white, it may feel safer to say nothing than to do something so clearly insufficient in the face of such severe inequities. But a difficult truth of our time is that you can be cowardly correct (adhering to familiar ways of exercising your expertise and protecting yourself while doing nothing to improve the conditions of academic knowledge work), or you can bravely risk your status to do something, however contingent or small.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter. For an archive of previous Bulletins, see,

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