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Ancestor, book, church : how Nigerian literature responds to the missionary encounter Ney, Stephen


Ancestor, Book, Church reinserts into Nigerian literary history the texts generated by the nineteenth-century Anglican missionary incursion into Yorubaland, in the southwest of today’s Nigeria. I demonstrate how these early texts – in Yoruba and in English, written by Europeans and by Africans – and the histories and modes of thought that they reflect can be used as resources for understanding contemporary African literatures. Thus I argue against those who would dismiss the missionary text as absolutely foreign to and the missionary encounter as strictly an interruption of an “authentic” African cultural history. In much of Nigeria during the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries the first literacy training was provided by missionaries, whose goal in teaching the ABCs was typically to lead indigenous people away from ancestral beliefs, through books, to the church. Yet this ideal linear sequence is inadequate as a description of what was in practice a complex, dialogical process. Sometimes the education and technologies associated with books enabled writers to reconfigure and revivify ancestral beliefs, to incorporate them into a revised form of Christianity, or to turn towards secularity. In all cases, I argue, literature in Nigeria engaged and engages with the legacy of missionary Christianity. I find evidence for this engagement not only in the contextual and thematic dimensions of literary texts but also, and especially, in a mode of signification exemplified by the English missionaries’ favourite fictional text, The Pilgrim’s Progress, a translation of which was also the first work of extended fiction to be written in Yorubaland. Ancestor, Book, Church reads nineteenth-century missionary texts and twentieth-century literary texts together as instances of the ways that Nigerians think and believe. It builds therefore upon research by anthropologists and scholars of religions, which it presents in the first chapter, and then moves into a literary analysis, informed by postcolonial theory, of the Nigerian writers Samuel Ajayi Crowther, D. O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, and Wole Soyinka.

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