What African Poetry In The 1960’s Tells Us About Colonialism

The African intellectual circle of the 1960s widely explored the effects of colonialism, oppression and religious subjugation.

Colonialism brought numerous ills on the indigenous people, forever altering the social, cultural, political and religious ways of life of Africans. The processes of colonialism and subjugation have been well documented in various narratives using different mediums.

The power of poetry to document the effects of colonialism, Apartheid and many other atrocities committed against the indigenous people of continent is one that can’t be overemphasized.

We revisit some of the most profound works in poetry which capture the darkness of the colonial era.

Maji Maji


One of the rebellions that the Germans crashed, resulting in the death of thousands of people was the MajiMaji Rebellion in present day Tanzania. If literature is a tool of preservation of culture and history, then poetry is one of the few ways the past can be captured. The poet Yusuf O. Kassam captured the Maji Maji Rebellion of 1905-1907 in his poem Maji Maji.

“The Germans— ” He shook his head and shuddered:

“Yes, they came— with guns, to be sure—

Many guns.”

. . . “They fired bullets, not water, no, not water.”

He looked up, with a face crumpled with agony,

And with an unsteady swing of his arm, he said,

“Dead, we all lay dead.”

. . . “The Germans came and went,

And for many long years

No drums beat again.”

The history of the MajiMaji Rebellion is tied to a powerful spirit medium who gave the MajiMaji warriors a charm against the German bullets, the bullets, the spirit medium said, would turn to water. The end result was a terrible massacre by the German bullets.


Effects of colonialism on African religion in The Cathedral

The poems by the first generation of African writers gave a clear glimpse into the effects of colonialism, including the denigration of African traditional religions. In The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor he captured the introduction of Christianity perfectly:

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.

The introduction of ‘the cathedral’ and other such edifices to the continent has been a source of doom to the unity of many African countries.

Nightfall in Soweto

It’s easy to disregard what writing contributes or contributed to the African story of colonialism. How it helps preserve the details of the past and serve as a guidance of where we came from. It is in poetry we’re able to perceive the mood of a period. Take for example Oswald Mtshalli’s Nightfall in Soweto a poem on apartheid South Africa. The meaning of nightfall to the black South African and the white meant different things.

Nightfall comes like

a dreaded disease

seeping through the pores

of a healthy body

and ravaging it beyond repair


. . . I am the victim

I am slaughtered

Every night in the streets

I am cornered by fear

Gnawing at my timid heart

In my helplessness I languish


Man has ceased to be man

Man has become beast

Man has become prey


I am the prey

I am the quarry to be run down

By the marauding beast

Let loose by cruel nightfall

From his cage of death


Written by How Africa

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