The Questionable Possibility of Utopia in Nigerian Literature

In 1516, Sir Thomas More created a place quite unlike England called Utopia. This writing oscillates between satirical and darkly comical; therefore, we must recognize that there is in “Utopia’s construction and utilization . . . a tension between reality and fiction” (Yoran 3). In this satire, what is real versus what is fiction becomes blurry. However, the core idea of a utopia itself is problematic, since the very meaning of the word is “no place,” coming from “Greek ou not, no + topos place” (“Utopia, n.”). Even though utopia as a place seems impossible, for hundreds of years people have written about utopia and its horrific, perhaps more realistic, counterpart—dystopia.[1]

image from here

All people continue to desire for utopia because they desire improved changes for their government, their community, and their nation. While there has been research on utopia and African American and Asian American,[2] South African,[3] and East African literature,[4] very little has been written critically concerning the Nigerian utopian dream. Utopian ideology connects with Nigerian writing differently from the Western tradition by addressing political and individual concerns of pre- and post-Independence Nigeria, using mythical and native language, dreaming, and showing how intolerable divisions are destructive. This paper will analyze the following three novels: Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God (pre-Independence, published in 1964), Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests (inbetween pre- and post-Independence, officially published in 1963), and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (post-Independence, published in 1991).

Nigeria has had a long, tumultuous history. Britain conquered and ruled Nigeria for over one hundred years. In 1851, British troops seized Lagos, but Nigeria did not become an official colony until 1861; however, the British were in Nigeria in the early 1800s because they were working to stop the slave trade (Oduwobi “From . . .”). On 1 October 1960, Nigeria gained independence from direct colonial rule, becoming “the biggest free black nation in the world” (Weaver 146). There are many religious and political divisions in Nigeria, and a civil war occurred for thirty months from 1967 to 1970. However, this war did not end all the conflict, since many military juntas or coups continued for several years (“Nigeria”). Despite political conflicts, “the arts in Nigeria underwent a surge in self-confidence. Initially, Nigeria led the way in West and East Africa” (Currey 8). Africa has a rich history of art and literature, and Nigeria has been a big contributor. The Nigerian people continue to celebrate the independence of their country with festivities since that eventful day.[5]

In Nigerian utopian novels, the difference between utopia and utopianism must be distinguished. According to critic Bill Ashcroft, while utopias are impossible, utopianism is “a universal human characteristic” (8). The settings of typical utopian novels (as well as dystopian novels) are often Western settings. For example, Plato’s Republic is in Greece; Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games is set in America; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is in England and New Mexico; George Orwell’s 1984 is in London. However, a visionary quest for a perfect society has occurred and continues to occur all over the world—not just in Western civilization. Nigerian writers, pre- and post-Independence, reveal their opinions and thoughts concerning a utopian possibility for their town, city, or country. Are Nigerian writers just copying or imitating the Western tradition of utopias to crystalize their own thoughts about a perfect society?

image from here

To better answer this question, we must discuss mimicry. Homi Bhabha defines mimicry as “a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power” (122), suggesting that the colonial power attempts to control the Other through reform or regulation. The question could be posed as to whether the desire for utopia is a reflection of the Africans’ desire to imitate Westerners. Dress, language, education, and even religion are often associated with colonial mimicry, but “the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabba 122). Therefore, if Nigerians imitate the utopian genre, they alter it just enough to make it their own. Additionally, all people dream, which becomes a necessity for survival during times of difficulty, such as juntas or extreme poverty. As Marxist critic Ernst Bloch says, “Daydreams focus that element in thought that constantly projects consciousness forward” (Ashcroft 9), pushing people into the future rather than focusing on fantasy. Therefore, desiring a perfect society is considered the norm in any society; yet Nigerian writers use the idea of dream in their utopias differently. For example, in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Okri uses magical realism when Azaro “dreams” to escape his present, unfortunate reality. Whether or not Azaro’s dreams are real, we meet talking cats, colorful spirits, enchanted albinos, and paranormal midgets. The book ends with this stunning line: “A dream can be the highest point of a life” (Okri 500). Life is difficult, especially for those who are poor, but dreams enable a young Nigerian boy to survive.

image from here

Dreams for the future are also conveyed through telling stories of the past. Ashcroft argues that African literature differs from other utopian writing for two reasons: first, it “[recovers] a forgotten history” (9) and, second, it “[reimagines] the ‘past in the present’ through the kind of exuberant mythic language deployed by Ben Okri” (10). In The Famished Road, Okri shows the readers how these two reasons are quite interconnected. The narrator, a young boy named Azaro, is an abiku, or spirit child, born into poverty in Nigeria. Constantly, Azaro is being kidnapped by spirits or dying. One night Dad tells Azaro a story, combining family history and folklore, about the King of the Road, who required humans to give him sacrifices of food. The poor were unable to continue offering the sacrifices, and the King would become angry, eating people who traveled. One day the people gathered all the poison they could find and put it in the food offering. The only person to escape was “our great-great-great-grandfather” because “[h]e knew the secret of making himself invisible” (Orki 260). He saw the King of the Road eat himself up, leaving only the stomach behind. When the rain came, the stomach melted, forming the current roads. Dad concludes, “He is still hungry, and he will always be hungry. That is why there are so many accidents in the world” (261). This example combines the present, through the act of storytelling, and the past, by telling a story of an ancestor and explaining why something happens. Near the end of the novel, after Dad almost dies but escapes death, he tells Azaro that Nigeria is an abiku nation that “refuses to stay till we have made propitious sacrifice and displayed our serious intent to bear the weight of a unique destiny” (494). Saying that Nigeria or the road is hungry is a personification, since neither Nigeria nor the road could literally eat people. Rather than being hungry for food, post-Independence Nigeria is hungry for something else—for the people to remember the past in the present state of the nation. Only then can change occur. When political leaders remember that, Nigeria can stop being an abiku nation, as long as wrongs finally become right.

There is another essence of Nigerian utopian dream: “the radically new is always embedded in and transformed by the past” (Ashcroft 9). We see this idea in Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests because the connection between the past and present is real when the Nigerian community celebrates their independence. The characters include the Town Dwellers, who are living, and the Guests of Honour, a dead married couple.

image from here

The Half-Child, who is the baby of the dead mother, is symbolic of the present/past collision. Demoke, a living townsperson, decides to return the Half-Child to the Dead mother; by making this decision, Demoke symbolizes the new, independent nation that is entrenched in and changed by the past, as symbolized by the dead Guests of Honour. When Forrest Head, the magical leader, speaks to his assistant over Demoke’s action, Forrest Head contemplates, “I have tortured awareness of their souls [i.e., the dead], that perhaps, only perhaps, in new beginnings . . . does Demoke know the meaning of his act?” (71). Critic Simon Simonse claims that African authors “turn their backs on the African past and look for alternatives in the African society as they find it” (482). However, readers do not see any “back turning” but rather a literal confrontation with the past colliding with the present. A person, a community, even a country can desire a new beginning, yet society must not forget the old customs and traditions, horrors and pitfalls of the country. Of course, the ending of this play is ambiguous, and the future state of this nation is unclear. The new leaders must remember the injustices that occurred to the poor and those without power or prestige. If the new Nigerian leaders are not transformed by the past or fail to recognize the ways the past affect them, the nation will suffer, and the dream for utopia will quickly turn into a reality of a dystopian society.

Dreaming is not always hoping and imagining; Nigerians actively work for a better future by utilizing and adapting the resources the colonizer offers—education and religion. In their quest for utopia, Nigerian authors write “to engage power and to imagine change” (Ashcroft 13). For sixteenth-century humanists, More included, education was important for both low and high classes alike. For example, all of More’s Utopian people “devote themselves to the freedom and culture of the mind. For in that, they think, is the real happiness of life” (606). In other words, in order to gain happiness and freedom, one must be educated. Therefore, in the Western tradition, gaining knowledge allowed people to achieve power and create change in order to create the perfect society. In contrast, with Nigerian literature, the colonized Nigerians use education to engage with the colonial powers and to anticipate change that could occur in the future—a powerful Nigerian nation with authoritative citizens or even a Nigeria free from colonial rule. According to Dr. Gaurav Desai, mastering the culture of Englishness occurred when African writers began to re-think their relationship with the colonizer. As a result, the colonized wanted more of the assets of colonialism, like education, but not the horrors of colonial appropriation and other atrocities.

In Arrow of God, characters seek to engage with power by mastering the culture of Englishness. Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu and leader of the community, sends his son, Oduche, to the Christian school to learn the teachings of the white colonizer. Ezeulu confesses that he sent Oduche “to learn the white man’s wisdom” (Achebe 42). Although Ezeulu cannot remove the white presence from Nigeria, he can use his son to fight against colonizer. Then Ezeulu’s decision influences the community to send their children, as well: “many people—some of them very important—began to send their children to school” (215).

image from here

The word send is used, in connection with going to school or communication, twenty-seven times in this novel, suggesting an evolving process—when something is sent, something must be left behind or lost (e.g., you send a letter but never see that piece of paper again). While Ezeulu sends Oduche off, Ezeulu does not physically lose his son, who still lives at home; however, his son tries to kill the sacred python, indicating that Oduche has lost his tradition and religion. Ezeulu has lost his son, spiritually, to the colonizer. With More’s Western Utopia, when the people engage with power and imagine change, nothing important is lost (e.g., they still have their religion, families, and culture), and everything is gained (e.g., their perfected society, great education, no war, and improved work).

In contrast, with pre-Independence writers, engaging with power means that while the older generations may be unable to change, the children and future generations are able to engage with and master the culture of Englishness. Nonetheless, the younger generation changes in this process, becoming Anglicized Nigerians rather than pure Nigerians. With post-Independence writers, the current generation uses their education to bring themselves together. Because Nigeria has over two hundred languages, “British colonialism . . . helped foster a new national, though fractious, identity” (Richards 215). For example, in A Dance of the Forests, some sense of the past is lost: “Proverb to bones and silence” (74) is repeated hauntingly throughout the play by the old man, Agboreko. While proverbs may have lost their truth through the passing of time, all the characters, no matter their background, use the language English; through communication, even if English is the language in common for all the various groups, there is hope for a greater understanding among all the Nigerian people. Nigerians use English to benefit themselves, creating a more unified, although still imperfect, national identity.

In Nigerian utopian novels, the relation between the individual and the collective can become blurry; utopia is an impossibility, but both the individual and the collective may dream for utopianism and yet carry out that dream in different ways. According to Ashcroft, “while the equality of the individuals in the collective is a fundamental principle of utopian thought, the collective is always inimical to individual fulfillment” (11). In both Western and Nigerian tradition, the quest for utopia endures, while the fear about utopia dissolving into dystopia also continues. While we have acknowledged earlier in the paper that the concept of creating a utopia is seen in Western and Nigerian literature, it differs in that for Western writers, the look is external—the individual forces society to conform to him or her. For example, in Utopia, if a person did not conform to More’s ideal society, that person would become a slave or would be kicked out of the country. In Hunger Games, President Snow, the dictator of the Capitol, coerces the districts (the Subaltern, or lower classes) to conform to his will, which represents as the government and its law, forcing children to kill one another in the. Agency is implausible and threatening—a subject must act in accordance with the individual in charge and any deviance is considered heinous.

image from here

In contrast, Nigerian utopian individuals have the new potential of choice more readily available because of their independent state. Nigerians can look internally to change themselves for the better of society in order to create harmony. In Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, the ending is ambiguous—the future could become dystopian or utopian; however, when Demoke chooses to recognize the Half-Child, which could symbolize the recognition of horrors from the past and of retribution, there is considerable hope for the future of Nigeria. However, when characters in Nigerian novels do not look internally but remain selfish, utopia turns quickly to dystopia. In The Famished Road, neither the Party of the Poor nor the Party of the Rich are interested in the lower classes because they are too busy seeking power, prominence, and money.[6] Azaro’s Dad “conjured an image of a country in which he was invisible ruler and in which everyone would have the highest education, in which everyone must learn music and mathematics and at least five world languages” (Okri 409). However, since Dad cannot compete with the two parties, he is unable to make his utopia for their Nigerian community to come to pass. One night, Dad explains his hopes for the grand changes in their community, and Azaro explains what he says: “‘We have to clear garbage from our street before we clear it from our minds,’ [Dad] said, echoing something he had hear in one of the books” (Okri 410). Although Dad tries to gather the community and clean up the streets, the people never really come together as Dad had imagined. Perhaps they feel that change is impossible, that hope is not worth having.

The biggest problem with this inability to work together is related to class divisions. Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak questions whether the Subaltern can truly speak and explains that the Subaltern “acted in the interests of the [dominant groups] and not in conformity to interests corresponding truly to their own social being” (27). What is the solution that will enable the Subaltern to speak, to enable a better, if not a utopian, society to exist?

image from here

image from here

Desmond Tutu’s description of Ubuntu proves insightful. With Ubuntu, we “recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together” (Tutu 24). Therefore, if Nigerians truly followed Ubuntu, a more utopian-like society would exist. Without the government party leaders’ imposition and corruption, the poor would not live in pathetic housing, slowly starving to death, such as in The Famished Road. Although Ezeulu becomes crazy at the end of Arrow of God, Achebe could be suggesting that Ezeulu’s inflexibility as a ruler of his people was an incorrect way to govern. What Nigeria, as well as the rest of the world, really needs are social leaders and government officials who remember the Subaltern, listen to how citizens feel, and then show Ubuntu to all.[7]

In conclusion, hope is a universal aspect of all people and all nations. Nigerians may speak different languages, believe in different religions, or have different dreams, but Nigerian writers show how their people hope for their nation’s improvement. During the twentieth century, science fiction has been the dominant form for writing about utopia; however, Nigerian writers are not merely using mimicry to copy the Western tradition of utopia. Nigerian utopian thinking is distinct from other utopian/dystopian genres because Nigerian writers show readers “their distinct form of cultural and political hope” (Ashcroft 8). Utopia has become more focused on an idea, rather than a specific location: “Utopia is no longer a place but the spirit of hope itself, the essence of desire for a better world” (Ashcroft 8). We cannot know for certain the future of Nigerian utopias, but we recognize that if selfishness, greed, and hate abide in a society, whether it be Western or Nigerian, the future looks dim. However, if kindness, selflessness, and forgiveness abound in a community, then there is a greater possibility for hope for a promising future.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor Books, 1974. Print.

Ashcroft, Bill. “The Ambiguous Necessity of Utopia: Post-Colonial Literatures and the Persistence of Hope.” Social Alternatives 28.3 (2009): 8–14. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Barrett, Stanley R. “Sex and Conflict in an African Utopia.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 13.1 (1982): 19­­–35. PsycINFO. Web. 28. Mar. 2015.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. J. Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222–37. Print.

Cartwright, Marguerite. “Nigerian Independence.” Negro History Bulletin 24 (1961): 99­–103. EBSCO. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Currey, James. “Literary Publishing after Nigerian Independence: Mbari as Celebration.” Research in African Literatures 44.2 (2013): 8­–16. EBSCO. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Danzieger, K. “Ideology and Utopia in South Africa: A Methodological Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge.” British Journal of Sociology 14.1 (1963): 59–76. Humanities Source. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Desai, Gaurav. English 397R. Brigham Young University. Provo, 20 March 2015.

Erritouni, Ali. “Apartheid Inequality and Postapartheid Utopia in Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.” Research in African Literatures 37.4 (2006): 68­–84. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Joo, Hee-Jung. “Speculative nations: Racial utopia and dystopia in twentieth-century African American and Asian American literature.” Dissertation Abstracts International Section A 68. (2008). PsycINFO. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Leman, Peter. “Law and Transnational Utopias in East African Fiction. Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16.6 (2014): 818­–836. EBSCO. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

More, Thomas. Utopia. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W.Norton, 2012. Print.

“Nigeria.” Nigeria Embassy. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Oduwobi, Tunde. “From Conquest to Independence: The Nigerian Colonial Experience.” Historia

Actual On-Line 25 (2011): 19–29. EBSCO. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. London: Doubleday, 1991. Print

Richards, Sandra L. “Nigerian Independence Onstage: Responses from ‘Second Generation’ Playwrights.” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 215­–227. EBSCO. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Simonse, Simon. “African literature between nostalgia and utopia: African novels since 1953 in the light of the modes-of-production approach.” Research in African Literatures 13 (1972): 451­­–487. Humanities Source. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Soyinka, Wole. A Dance of the Forests. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, et al. The Post Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Stieber, Zachary. “Nigerian Independence Day 2014: Quotes and Sayings for Nigeria Holiday.” Epoch Times 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Tayob, Abdulkader. “Islamic Politics in South Africa between Identity and Utopia.” South African Historical Journal 60.4 (2008): 583–599. Humanities Source. Web. 28. Mar. 2015.

Tutu, Desmond. God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. London: Doubleday, 2005. Print.

“Utopia, n.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Weaver, Edward Kimmons. “What Nigerian Independence Means.” Phylon 22 (1961): 146–159. EBSCO. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Yoran, Hanan. “More’s ‘Utopia’ and Erasmus’ ‘No-Place.’” English Literary Renaissance 35.1 (2005): 3–30. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.


[1] When “dystopian novels” is searched online, there are 3,240 results with but only 85 results with the website for Barnes & Noble. In contrast, when “utopian novels” is searched, the numbers drop—1,946 results with but only 37 results with Barnes & Noble. Although these specific numbers could fluctuate, the overall trend seems to show a greater preference for dystopian novels in the year 2015.

[2] Hee-Jung Joo’s dissertation analyzed African American and Asian American literature, finding three main trends: (1) The multiracial utopias that express the contested relationship between formal and substantive citizenship throughout the twentieth century; (2) The utopian longings that stress the mid-century conflict between domestic racism and global expansionism; and (3) The contemporary dystopian scenarios that depict a US eventually destroyed by the racial contradictions of late capitalism.

[3] Ali Erritouni explores the South African writer, Nadine Gordimer’s, work: “[Gordimer] trusts that art can be effectively marshaled in the effort to resist the abuses of power” (81). Additionally, K. Danzieger’s article is a sociological study of what is happening in South Africa: “[I]n the case of the ideology of apartheid there arises the spectre of a totally ‘false consciousness’ whose every cognition must necessarily be wrong” (76). Finally, Abdulkader Tayob claims, “Islamic politics in South Africa inscribed an idealistic vision for the future. It promoted a utopian vision that was by definition unattainable” (584).

[4] BYU Professor Peter Leman explores the question “Where is the law in utopia?” in different East African literature in his paper “Law and Transnational Utopias in East African Fiction.

[5] On the one-year anniversary of Nigerian Independence, there were many celebrations and festivities. Although Queen Elizabeth II was not in attendance, she had this message read on her behalf: “I am confident that Nigeria will play a worthy role in the council of Nations and remain true to the high ideals of friendship and cooperation so manifest today, making a positive contribution to the peace and prosperity of mankind . . . .” (Cartwright 101).

[6] Chinua Achebe said, “Nigeria is what it is because its leaders are not what they should be” (Stieber “Nigerian . . .”).

[7] Susan Rice, the US National Security Advisor, said, “Nigeria has played a constructive role in peacekeeping in various parts of West Africa. But unless and until Nigeria itself is democratic and respects human rights, it too may well be a source of much greater instability as political repression limits the ability of the people of Nigeria to achieve their full potential” (Stieber “Nigerian . . .”).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s