West African Crime Fiction

Introduction

This article discusses the commonalities between seven crime fiction novels from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Liberia.

Genre fiction, according to Steven Petite of The Huffington Post, is for escaping reality and discovering a new world, while literary fiction “provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses” (Petite). This is the difference between Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Great Gatsby. Another difference is that genre fiction is not high-brow literature; it is for the masses. Crime fiction itself is a subset of genre fiction, and can then be split into at least nine sub-genres, five of which will be explored in this article.

Even though West Africa is home to many different languages, all our novels come from anglophone West Africa. The history of West African fiction written in English starts with Love in Ebony: A West African Romance in 1932 and continues through this day. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is probably the most recognizable West African novel and it is written in English (Gunner). With all of our books being from anglophone West Africa, it has given our analysis more coherence, since we are comparing different sub-genres of crime fiction from different countries.

Books

  • Lords of the Creek by Tony Nwaka (Nigerian socio-political thriller)
  • Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

     (Ghanian detective-forensic mystery)

  • Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey (Ghanian murder mystery)

  • The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye (Ghanian slow violence mystery)

  • The Lazarus Effect by Hawa Jande Golakai (Liberian detective novel)

  • Bound to Secrecy by Vamba Sherif (Liberian detective novel)

  • The Akroma File by Linus Asong (Cameroonian thriller)

Corruption

One of the central elements of West African crime fiction is corruption. Corruption occurs on many levels, notably among local officials and the police. In the novel Lords of the Creek the police force is heavily corrupt, reflecting the larger scale corruption pervasive in Nigeria. Corruption in Nigeria is one of the most recognizable example of corruption in post-colonial states, and Nigeria has gained a negative reputation on the world stage. In a research study entitled “Police corruption and the national security challenge in Nigeria: a study of Rivers State Police Command” was conducted by Ngboawaji Daniel Nte and explored the overarching effects of corruption in Nigeria and suggested possible solutions. Nte concludes that the corruption in Nigeria undermines its national security. He diagnoses the corruption of the police force as resulting from a lack of funding, organization, and equipment.

The police are not provided with the necessary tools to meet the demands of the people, and more often than not become criminals themselves. This issue of police corruption can be seen throughout many of the other novels in the genre of West African crime fiction. Wife of the Gods provides the Ghanaian perspective and features corrupt local police arresting people out of convenience, rather than to catch the responsible party. In addition, the Ghanian novel Tail of the Bluebird the Inspector is offered a better job if he makes the case more prolific and the police make false arrests to speed up the investigation of the case. They use threats and bribery to get what they want. And in the Cameroonian thriller, The Akroma File, many officials both in the government and private sector are bribed to supply false documents and other illegal information for the protagonist.  The theme of corruption is also seen in the Liberian novel The Lazarus Effect when characters are arrested without being charged, assaulted while in police custody, and characters bribe their way to the top of an organ transplant list. ­­In all of the novels, corruption is a symptom of a larger problem and is taken advantage of by characters in the books.

Police

The general view on police is negative in West African crime fiction. The police are displayed as a symbol of corruption and abuse of power, and are more incompetent than the main characters, who range from journalists and reporters to detectives and forensic specialists. Their main goal is to advance within the system, and their tenacity in solving crimes revolves around what is in it for them.

Cameroonian and Nigerian genre fiction portray police as inept and lazy. In The Akroma File, one detective is capable and intelligent among the mass that is easy to take advantage of and selfishly focused on their own interests.

In The Lazarus Effect, a Liberian detective novel, police are seen as negligent and incompetent compared to the reporters, but aren’t overtly evil. Bound to Secrecy, another Liberian detective novel, paints police as a localized symbol of distant and corrupt power. Their domination over society and negligence towards ancient cultures is what builds tension in the novel. Police power is most always guided by vengeance and upward-seeking mobility.

Ghanaian novels Wife of the Gods and Tail of the Blue Bird portray police as violent, corrupt and strictly out for their own interests. The main character in Wife of the Gods is a policeman who differs from the normal caste of police. He approaches investigations in a cynical but justice-seeking way — he’s more focused on catching the right criminal than just solving the crime. This differs from the portrayal of the police in West African genre fiction because most times they will mold cases and evidence to fit into their preconceived idea of the crime. In Tail of the Blue Bird, the main character (a forensic pathologist) was sent to a village to solve an unsolvable case. The police forced him to investigate the case, and they wanted it solved “CSI-style” with international implications. The police’s imposition of power onto the village failed. The villagers did not recognize the power of the police because they have never directly experienced their brutality, as author Nii Ayikwei Parkes explains. That shows that respect for the police comes from fear.  The children in the village danced around their cars and sang songs, and most characters disregarded the “importance” of the police’s arrival.

Justice

Each novel approached justice in a unique way, often critiquing where government institutions fail to enact justice, leaving citizens to find it on their own. Some West African countries such as Ghana have a long history of native law and justice, which has survived despite English colonial attempts to replace them with a Westernized justice system.

However, much of the justice within West African Crime fiction is dealt with outside any formal or informal court of law, often taking on an eye-for-an-eye approach. In The Lazarus EffectLords of the Creek, and Wife of the Gods, the perpetrator of the chosen crime is captured, but only in The Lazarus Effect is that the end to the story. In Lords of the Creek and Wife of the Gods, the simple “we nabbed the bad guy” conclusion is forgone in favor of pointing to the continued existence of corrupt politicians, violent gangs, and spiritual leaders who abuse their power.

Both Tail of the Blue Bird and Wife of the Gods exhibit brutal retributive justice, which appears to be the favored way of dealing with the most detestable characters. The “fetish priest” in Wife of the Gods, who was seen as a village leader, was castrated by one of his wives after he tried to rape his daughter. Because he was feared by the villagers and police alike, the priest would not have been arrested, so his wife felt enacted a punishment that fit the crime.

In Tail of the Blue Bird, a man who beat his daughter, causing her consecutive miscarriages, died by aging backwards until he was just a pile of flesh. After his death, his daughter’s children returned to her from the woods, grown. Although Tail of the Blue Bird was the only novel to draw its justice from pure mysticism, mysticism and religion played an important role in many of the novels.

Mysticism and Religion

Religions form the core of the societies of West African genre fiction, where the discovered world illuminates the local understanding of society. The Poro secret society is central to Bound to Secrecy and The Lazarus Effect because the Kpelle ethnic group is dominant in Liberia. “Kpelle life can have a highly fused character. Religion, political organization, agriculture and medicine are all combined into one largely undifferentiated life concept,” largely dominated, propagated and protected by the Poro (Fulton 1219). Religion creates the bonds of secrecy by giving the people their own governmental structure, a target for a distant government that deepens the local-national divide with shows of force, and religious fear as “death awaits one who reveals the secrets” (Fulton 1222). Death follows those who help William, who symbolically first appears claiming to be a repairman in Bound to Secrecy, and the government burns the town down when they can’t penetrate the society’s presence subtly. In The Akroma Files, the Christian Reverend meets similar opposition. Religious zeal through fear of divine retribution also creates the core challenge of the people and police in Wife of the Gods. Police don’t want to challenge the priests because they fear the wrath of the gods and Trokosi continue to demand girls as penitence from repentant villagers.

Use of Narrator

In West African crime novels, the narrator is seldom the perpetrator. In the texts The Lazarus Effect, Lords of the Creek, Wife of the Gods, and Tail of the Blue Bird, the narrator of the novels is the crime solver of the story, wehther this a detective, a reporter, or someone else who has taken it upon themselves to solve the crime in question. This narration style is used by many genre fiction authors in West Africa because it puts the reader directly into the shoes of the crime solver, making it easier to empathize with the crime solver, or the “good guy.” Notably, however, this good guy is rarely a member of law enforcement. Additionally, most West African genre crime novels utilize the third person while switching between multiple perspectives to give the reader a broader sense of the plot.  

Coherence to American Audiences

Though all of these books were written in English, the average American reader would be missing important background information in most of them. In contrast to African novels written for global audiences, many of these novels assume readers have working knowledge of West Africa’s history as well as its current political and economic issues, so readers without this background will understand the context better after additional research.

For example, in Lords of the Creek, no history is given for Nigeria’s oil crisis, though this is the basis for the plot of the novel. The Akroma File contains some background on Ghana and Cameroon, but to most American readers, more context is necessary to understand the animosity between the characters. The Lazarus Effect’s main character has flashbacks to the violence she experienced as a child, but she is not explicitly named a refugee of first Liberian civil war in the text, so a reader unfamiliar with Liberia’s recent history might not understand the character’s background without looking elsewhere. Similarly, The Lazarus Effect and Tail of the Blue Bird both use West African Pidgin English throughout the novels without providing English translations, implying that they were intended primarily for a readership familiar with this language. The fact that American readers may not easily understand the context of these novels is not a drawback; it simply speaks to a difference in intended audience and gives other readers an opportunity to broaden their knowledge independently.

Works Cited

Advocates for Human Rights. “Chapter Seven: Liberia’s First Civil War 1989-1997.” A House Rooms, DRI Press, 2009, pp. 127-180, http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/chapter_7-liberia_s_first_civil_war_1989-1997.pdf.

Appiaheneâ-€Gyamfi, Joseph. “Crime and Punishment in the Republic of Ghana: A Country Profile.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2009, pp. 309-24,  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01924036.2009.9678810?needAccess=true.

Fulton, Richard M. “The Political Structures and Functions of Poro Within Kpelle Society.” American Anthropologist, vol. 74, issue 5, 2009, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00140/pdf.

Gale, Thomson. “Fiction: African Fiction and Religion.” Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fiction-african-fiction-and-religion.

Goodman, Amy and Sandy Cioffi. “As Hundreds Die in an Oil Pipeline Explosion in Lagos, a Look at the Fight over Nigeria’s Natural Resources.” Democracy Now, 26 Dec. 2006, http://www.democracynow.org/2006/12/26/as_hundreds_die_in_an_oil.

Gunner, Elizabeth Anne Wynne and Harold Scheub. “African Literature: Literatures in European and European-derived Languages.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/African-literature/Literatures-in-European-and-European-derived-languages#toc57047.

Ngboawaji, Daniel Nte. “Police corruption and the national security challenge in Nigeria: a study Rivers State Police Command.” Journal of Human Sciences, Vol. 8,  No. 1, 2011, https://www.j-humansciences.com/ojs/index.php/IJHS/article/view/1430.

“Nii Ayikewi Parkes talks to Bola Mosuro on BBC Network Africa.” Uploaded by BBC Africa, 11 Jun. 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V4-EE_6M2Q.

Patel, Khadija. “What caused the xenophobic attacks in South Africa?” Al Jazeera, 6 Apr. 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/report-blames-media-xenophobic-panic-africa-160406102827284.html.

Patterson, Amanda. “Nine Examples of Sub-Genres in Crime Fiction.” Writers Write. N.p., 02  Nov. 2013. Web. 7 Nov. 2016. http://writerswrite.co.za/nine-examples-of-sub-genres-in-crime-fiction

Petite, Steven. “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction.” The Huffington Post, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-petite/literary-fiction-vs-genre-fiction_b_4859609.html.

“West African Pidgin English.” Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications, no. 14, 1975, pp. 345–360, www.jstor.org/stable/20006622.

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