ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II

African arid landscapes in literature and beyond

by Christine Loflin

"Perhaps future writers will find a way to articulate more fully the integration of life with landscape in African drylands communities. For now, we have glimpses, suggestions of that relationship, in a language that cannot fully reveal the specificity of Africans' knowledge of the geography and botanical diversity of the African deserts."

The desert is an essential feature of indigenous African writing from arid countries, and yet it is often not directly described in such writing. It is the desert lands that give the hunters their magical powers in the Malian epic Sundiata; it is the veld that refuses to yield food enough in South African writer Sindiwe Magona's Living, loving and lying awake at night; it is the desert that provides the horizon of the village in Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih's The wedding of Zein. Yet the reader who looks for detailed landscape description in such books will rarely find it.

Some writers, such as Sembene Ousmane, do provide a paragraph or two at the beginning of a novel, describing the landscape:

The last rays of the sun filtered through a shredded lacework of clouds. To the west, waves of mist spun slowly away, and at the very center of the vast mauve and indigo arch of sky the great crimson orb grew steadily larger. The roofs, the thorny minarets of the mosques, the trees—silk-cotton, flame, and mahogany—the walls, the ochered ground; all caught fire. . . . At the center of the belt of hills the groups of mud-walled houses and the dry grass, still scorched by the heat of noon, now swam in the red waters of the setting sun. A dry breeze from the northeast moved against the faces of the people, but they still sweated a little. (Ousmane 1970, 1)

For the Western reader, this description is familiar in its form and many of its details: there is a broad horizon of sky, bordered by hills which in turn encircle a city. It provides a visual image that a Western reader might picture as a backdrop to the action of the novel. Yet this image also follows African patterns of description, in that it is human-centered. We sense the dryness of the air and the heat, even though the sun is setting. The focus of the landscape is on the city and its people; the wind blows on their faces, the sun scorches them. The land is not described as separate from the community, but as an integral part of the daily life and experiences of the people who live within it.

This integration of people and landscape is particularly hard for Western readers to imagine in association with the desert: from the Bible to "Western" movies we are used to a tradition in which descriptions of the desert generally suggest that it is a place of exile and suffering. Yet in African fiction, characters look out at a desert landscape which is not a featureless wasteland, but a place in the full sense of the word: full of spiritual life, history, and personal significance. Here, for example, is how Bessie Head begins a description of a character in a desert landscape in Botswana:

The thorn trees turned black in the darkening light and a sudden breeze stirred the parched, white grass. There was so little to disturb his heart in his immediate environment. It was here where he could communicate freely with all the magic and beauty inside him. (Head 1971, 7)

This character is Maru, who will be chief in the local village. Here, through the narrative movement from outside detail to inner thought, we see that Maru's spiritual power is connected to the land: the landscape is not separate from his character, but part of his spiritual life.

Thus, there are few descriptions of a panoramic vista of the desert in African literature. Instead, there are frequent, short descriptions that reveal how life is lived within this landscape. In Season of migration to the north, Tayeb Salih describes his setting this way, "I have known the fields too ever since the days when there were water-wheels, and the times of drought when the men forsook the fields and when the fertile land stretching from the edge of the desert, where the houses stood, to the bank of the Nile was turned into a barren, windswept wilderness" (Salih 1980, 48). The landscape is not stable, but transformed by the seasons, by the weather, and by the activities of the villagers. The landscape is also a landscape of history and social boundaries; on a trip to Mogadishu, a character in Nurrudin Farah's Maps asks "Could you tell us, in the simplest language possible, why you are crossing a border which exists no more, to a Mogadiscio to which you've never been?" (Farah 1986,122). The question points to the boundary between Ethiopia and Somalia, shifting because of war. These shifts on the map and on the land of the two countries are producing shifts in the narrator's relationship with his aunt Misra, an Ethiopian. In the beginning of the novel, she is the center of Askar's world; he mistakes the word "earth" as a term for his aunt. But then the war begins, and the villagers distrust Misra, because she is an Ethiopian. Finally, his family separates Askar from his aunt and sends him to Mogadishu. The landscape of the novel, then, starts with the tight circle of an infant and a woman, and expands to include the shifting, contested maps of Ethiopia and Somalia. The visual landscape is only one aspect of the role of land in the novel.

In anthropological writing, this integration of people and landscape is even more apparent. For example, in Nisa: the life and words of a !Kung woman (Shostak 1983), Nisa, in narrating a hunt, describes the scene as if we can see it with her. She says: "We had just left the place where the ground dips down and where the trees are thick and when we came to the opening beside the groves, that's where I saw it" (Shostak 1983, 93). These passages and others, while hard for an outside reader to imagine, suggest the intimacy with which the !Kung live in the desert world. They migrate in response to the seasonal appearance and disappearance of water resources; they spend much of their lives outdoors, fetching water, gathering food, or involved in social activities. The change of seasons transforms the life of the !Kung people: "The rainy season had finally come. The sun rose and set and the rain spilled itself. It fell and kept falling. It fell tirelessly, without ceasing. Soon the water pans were full. And my heart! My heart within me was happy. We lived and ate meat and mongongo nuts and more meat and it was all delicious" (Shostak 1983, 99). The drama of this scene involves the human community, watching the clouds as they hang in the air, and then celebrating as the rain "spills itself." The environment is not an "out there" that the human figures enter—they are already a part of the landscape, receiving gladly what the rain spills. The season means water, and food, to the people of the Kalahari; it also means happiness.

The text of Nisa also reveals some of the difficulties of translation. African landscapes are full of plants, geographical forms and other physical features which are named in indigenous languages, but have no names in English. Shostak, the author of Nisa, comments that the women of the !Kung gather over 150 species of edible plants, but Shostak doesn't try to name them. Thus the specificity of the !Kung vision of the landscape—their knowledge of the names and use of all of the plants surrounding them—doesn't come through in the text that tries to represent their experience of life. Shostak herself points to this predicament, saying "It is difficult to render in English what the !Kung say about the environment, because their vocabulary has a richness of detail for the terrain and vegetation that has no English equivalent" (Shostak 1983, 377). In addition, in an English language text, the conventions of narration usually lead to the omission of references to specific trees and dips in the ground, references that are meaningful to Nisa and possibly to Shostak, but not to the reader in another location. Thus the landscape of the !Kung is lost in translation.

Where then, can someone look for an understanding of an indigenous relationship to the African desert landscape? One place to find indigenous conceptions of land is in the domestic architecture of the people who live in arid landscapes. Architecture is one of our fundamental responses to place: orientation, size, material and function all reveal how we feel about and live within a place. In African spaces: Designs for living in Upper Volta, Jean-Paul Bourdier and Trinh T. Minh-ha (1985) carefully explore the villages and homes of the Gurunsi people of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). Here, they show that the organization of these spaces not only reveals essential information about human relations, but also relations to the surrounding landscape, through decoration, through shape, and even through materials and function. Dug into the earth, houses in the region provide shelter from the sun, and complex systems provide ventilation and cooling. Roofs are both shelter from the rain and open spaces for grinding grain. Designs on the buildings reflect beliefs about the shape and significance of the cosmos, or provide motifs that symbolize the perfect union between male and female. Because buildings are often low, the landscape of the village almost always includes trees, fields and pathways, connecting it to the larger world. Where people still build their own homes, domestic architecture can be read as an intimate, revealing response to landscape.

Another place to look is in African film. Certainly, one can read works by Sembene Ousmane (Senegal), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), Tayeb Salih (Sudan) and Bessie Head (Botswana), and read about characters living in the arid lands of Africa. In African films, however, the Western audience can find rich depictions of African deserts. The films of Sembene Ousmane are classics, but there are also newer films which depict arid landscapes, including La Genese (Genesis) and Guimba (The Tyrant) directed by Cheik Oumar Sissoko, Wend Kuuni (God's Gift) by Gaston Kabore, and Keita, a retelling of the Sundiata epic by director Dani Kouyate. In these films, the landscape is revealed as the space of human activity. Often, characters first appear on screen emerging out of the desert. For the viewer, the individual is first seen as inseparable from landscape. Thus a strong suggestion about the integration of human and desert life is made visually, without overt commentary. Another common technique is to show human characters within a large landscape, appearing not as tiny figures on the horizon nor dominating the screen in the foreground, but in the middle distance. Their movements can be seen, and their activities are significant to the film's plot. Thus we watch characters move within the large horizon of the desert in a way different from the techniques of depiction that are more common in Western film: a pan of an empty landscape, followed by closeup action shots of the main characters. The pacing of these African films, their integration of land and character, all reveal a complex and intimate relationship between the human figures and the desert landscape.

Perhaps future writers will find a way to articulate more fully the integration of life with landscape in African drylands communities. For now, we have glimpses, suggestions of that relationship, in a language that cannot fully reveal the specificity of Africans' knowledge of the geography and botanical diversity of the African deserts. However, through these glimpses, and through the depictions in film, the implications of architecture, and through other African art forms such as painting, carving, dance and textiles, African conceptions of the beauty, vitality and spiritual significance of African drylands can be appreciated by a Western audience.


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Bourdier, Jean-Paul and Trinh T. Minh-Ha. 1985. African spaces: Designs for living in Upper Volta. New York: Africana Publishing Company.

Djebar, Assia. 1993. Fantasia: An Algerian cavalcade. Tr. Dorothy S. Blair. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.

Farah, Nuruddin. 1986. Maps. New York: Pantheon Books.

Head, Bessie. 1971. Maru. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Magona, Sindiwe. 1991. Living, loving and lying awake at night. Claremont, South Africa: David Philip.

Ousmane, Sembene. 1970. God's bits of wood. Tr. Francis Price. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Salih, Tayeb. 1980. Season of migration to the north. Washington: Three Continents Press.

_____. 1969. The wedding of Zein. Porstmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Shostak, Marjorie. 1983. The life and words of a !Kung woman. New York: Vintage Books.

Niane, D.T. 1965. Sundiata: An epic of old Mali. Harlow: Longman.


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Author information

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Dr. Christine Loflin is an Assistant Professor of English at Oxford College of Emory University. She is the author of African horizons: The landscapes of African fiction (Greenwood Press, 1998). Her current interests include interdisciplinary course development, island landscapes in literature, and gender issues in the novels of Bessie Head and Nadine Gordimer.

Additional web resources

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H-AfrLitCine, a member of H-Net Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine, is the H-Net discussion list dealing with African Literature and Cinema. Resources on the site include book reviews and logs of messages exchanged through the list.

Tiebele, Burkina Faso
This page from a commercial photographer's web site shows several interesting pictures of Gurunsi dwellings from Burkina Faso, as alluded to in the text of this article.

California Newsreel: Library of African Cinema
Suggested by the author of this article as a good North American source for the movies mentioned herein, as well as for other African movies on video.


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