Literary Pan-Africanism in African epics

The legends of Chaka Zulu and Sundiata Keita

Authored by: Babacar M’Baye

Routledge Handbook of Pan-Africanism

Print publication date:  May  2020
Online publication date:  April  2020

Print ISBN: 9780367030667
eBook ISBN: 9780429020193
Adobe ISBN:


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Thomas Mofolo’s version of the epic of Chaka Zulu seems to be the oldest one and the first to be published. In his introduction to this epic, entitled Chaka, that Mofolo wrote in a novel form, Daniel P. Kunene says that a translated version of the text was available in 1931 although the manuscript was mentioned in a 1912 clergy book entitled Livre d’Or de la Mission de Lessouto. 1 Mofolo’s rendition of Chaka’s story has been hailed as “one of the most important pieces of twentieth century African literature.” 2 This book’s capital stature in African literature is not surprising because it is a pivotal example of literary Pan-Africanism. This position is visible in the fact that Mofolo’s book created the retributive image of Africa as a strong continent inhabited by dignified, proud, and valuable people. This discourse was central in Africa’s fight for independence and world respect, especially during the postcolonial period when numerous contemporary African political leaders revisited Mofolo’s account of Chaka to tell their own versions of this emperor’s resistance against European oppression. Donald E. Herdeck explains: “King Chaka has become the ‘culture hero’ of many Black African intellectuals and increasingly is the subject of poems and plays written by artists far from Zululand.” 3 Twentieth century African authors, such as Leopold Sédar Senghor and Seydou Badian, among others, were drawn to Chaka’s epic because they revised it in ways that allowed them to exemplify black defiance of European imperialism and racism. My exploration of the significance of Chaka’s myth departs from this intellectual tradition that glorified Chaka in the contexts of the early post-independence periods of Africa in which the existence of heroes to whom black people could turn was a necessary source of pride and identification. Rather than quibble with that intellectual tradition, this chapter intends to simply look at how Chaka’s myth reveals both strengths and weaknesses that either embrace or reject Pan-Africanism. In addition, this essay attempts to examine Chaka’s legend as one of the narratives that can be compared with the Malian Epic of Sundiata Keita that was popularized with the publication of Djibril Tamsir Niane’s 1965 version of the story. This comparison shows that both Chaka’s and Sundiata’s epics focus on the incredible and supernatural journeys of heroes and heroines who are compelled to leave their land of birth and forcefully go to foreign nations in search of survival and substance, and return home to claim their rightful place in a society that had shunned them before. This heroic cycle is a form of literary Pan-Africanism since it serves as a means of garnering a liberator’s consciousness about the importance of defending and protecting their community unless they become corrupted by evil forces.

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