Exploring African knowledges through literature

Dr Brendon Nicholls' method of reading postcolonial literature opens up the possibilities of meaning and makes room for African knowledges.

Dr Brendon Nicholls is the Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS) and Associate Professor of Postcolonial African Studies in the School of English.

His published work includes the book ‘Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading’ as well as journal articles and book chapters about animism, environmental psychoanalysis, decolonisation in poetics, conference papers on African-American womanism and more.

Through the lens of literature, Dr Nicholls explores the history of resistance and its intersections with gender, including problematic gender politics.

Anti-colonial resistance and literature

Dr Nicholls focuses on the works of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose novels are often situated in Kenya’s colonial history.

For example, he writes about forms of anti-colonial resistance including the Mau Mau rebellion, a war between the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and the colonial British authorities. He also writes about the campaign against female genital mutilation in colonial Kenya.

Dr Nicholls explains the complexity of the Kenyan Circumcision Debate in both how engrained the practice is in social and generational memory, but also how it acted as a resistance to colonial forces.

This is one example of how history and gender politics have become intertwined in complex ways. It’s also an example of how, without knowledge of the history associated with literary texts, it’s possible to make judgements or assumptions about what they depict.

The ethics of postcolonial literature

Throughout his work, Dr Nicholls investigates this in the ethics of postcolonial readings.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o currently writes in Gikuyu, his first language. He has historically campaigned for African writers to write literature in their first languages rather than adopting the languages of colonisers.

As well as distancing authors and their works from colonial narratives, this gives them more space to explore African histories, knowledges and meanings that are not available in non-African languages such as English and French.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o in 2012Ngugi wa Thiong o in 2012

Dr Nicholls explores African language and Anglophone texts by translating individual words and sentences and finding gaps in the meanings that English translations aren’t able to convey.

He searches for the gaps in his understanding of African knowledges and histories to find potential meanings.

However, he is careful not to make decisions about what the true meanings might be. These gaps in knowledge have often led English-speaking readers to make assumptions about the texts that use stereotypes or are false.

To ensure he is not overriding the text with ideas that are based on his own experiences, Dr Nicholls says that he must pay attention to his own position and institutionality; research and centre the history of the novels’ settings; and be aware of the binding of perspectives into larger ideological interests.

African histories and knowledge

Reading African literature this way reveals knowledge that has not previously been acknowledged by predominantly white scholars and institutions.

What may have previously been assumed to be spiritual or poetic metaphors can sometimes be understood, when appropriate attention is paid to the language, as references to historical events.

For example, written records of metaphors depicting humans turning into animals have often been regarded as expressions of spirituality.

However, Dr Nicholls’ research into the history and environment at the time of these writings has shown that they mirror situations where people were starving due to food insecurity.

Therefore, stories depicting people turning into predators or following foraging animals may have related to important knowledge on how to survive.

Dr Nicholls explores this in the article ‘Practical Magic: Shapeshifting as Survival Tactic.’

African knowledges have been subjugated for hundreds of years, leading to lost histories and understandings. Honoring African languages and indigenous philosophies such as Ubuntu is one way to restore some of this.

Knowledge gaps in other texts

Dr Nicholls’ technique highlights how assuming knowledge from a white Western perspective leaves gaps in our understanding – even, or especially when learning about the histories and experiences of communities outside of our own.

The 12,000-page Digital Archive of Indigenous folklore created in the South African Northern Cape by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, for example, documents the lives and beliefs of a community that cannot be located today.

Files from the Bleek-Lloyd archive of Indigenous folklore.

Files from the Bleek-Lloyd archive of Indigenous folklore.

However, it hasn’t been clearly acknowledged that the people contributing to this archive were enslaved prisoners themselves, contributing under a range of circumstances that were likely to lead them to contribute in a certain way. Ensuring that these texts are read ethically means challenging the presumptions about how they were created.

Dr Nicholls has begun to perform a similar evaluation of the theories of psychoanalysis, which can be read about in the publication ‘Africas of the Mind: From Indigenous Medicine to Environmental Psychoanalysis,’ published in Cultural Critique.

He has taken the writings of Freud, who had a fascination with Africa, and re-engineered his texts from the perspective of Indigenous medicine and witchcraft on the continent.

This has created a new imagining of what psychoanalysis could look like for communities whose values, beliefs and versions of healing are so different to the writers of the theories.

It also allows us to repurpose psychoanalysis to meet the global environmental challenges of our present.

This shows that it’s not only narrative literature that has been affected by the subjugation of knowledge – it affects every understanding and practice that we have. But it also shows that we can forge new decolonised understandings and informed practices.

About Dr Brendon Nicholls

Dr Brendon Nicholls is on the editorial boards of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies.

He teaches the modules Contemporary South African Writing; Contemporary African Writing; Africas of the Mind; Race, Writing and Decolonization; Creative Africas: Culture and the Arts in Modern Africa; and Postcolonial Literature.

In September, he delivered a keynote paper on African Literature and the Sustainable Development Goals for the African and African Diasporic Studies Research Group at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Dr Nicholls and Africa Charter Signatories in Namibia.

Dr Nicholls and Africa Charter Signatories in Namibia. Courtesy of the Association of African Universities.

Dr Nicholls increasingly applies his research findings to advocate for equitable Global North-South research funding policies. In support of the Africa Charter for Transformative Research Collaborations (PDF), he visited the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa in Portcullis House, Westminster and the Conference for College Rectors, Vice-Chancellors and Principals of African Universities.

More information

Top image: Dr Nicholls meets Lord Boateng in parliament. Courtesy of Nico Leo, Royal African Society.

Find out about the University of Leeds interdisciplinary research in African studies at the LUCAS website.

Watch Global Black Women’s Writing: Experimental Subjectivities | Workshop 2 on YouTube. Dr Brendon Nicholls discusses Ubuntu from 00:18:00.

Listen to the Afems 2017 panel: African Feminist Thought on YouTube. Dr Nicholls talks about African-American womanism from 00:25:00.

Watch a video on Chinua Achebe for a Leeds alumni Nigerian vodcast on YouTube.