Taban Lo Liyong

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Taban Lo Liyong
Born 1939
Gulu, Acholiland,[1] Uganda
Occupation poet, fiction writer, literary critic
Nationality Ugandan, Sudanese

Taban Lo Liyong (born 1936) is one of Africa's well-known poets and writers of fiction and literary criticism. His political views, as well as his on-going denigration of the post-colonial system of education in East Africa, have inspired criticism and controversy since the late 1960s.


He was born in Uganda. After matriculation there, he attended Howard University and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, where he was the first African to graduate in 1968. On the completion of his studies in the US, the tyrannical regime of Idi Amin prevented him from returning to Uganda. He went instead to neighbouring Kenya, and taught at the University of Nairobi. He has also taught at international universities in Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Japan, and South Africa, and maintains that his diverse experience offers an opportunity to place Africa in a position intellectually on par with the rest of the world, thereby recognising its various and valuable contributions to history and scholarship.

In collaboration with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and renowned Kenyan academic and writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, he wrote On the Abolition of the English Department in 1968. Acknowledging the formidable influence of European literature over African writing, Liyong and his colleagues called for the educational system to emphasise the oral tradition (as a key traditional African form of learning), Swahili literature, as well as prose and poetry from African-American and Caribbean society.

Through On the Abolition of the English Department, Lo-Liyong and his allies attempted a re-consideration of the humanities curriculum at the University of Nairobi, most particularly of its investment in foreign (British) literature and culture. They questioned the value of an English Department in an African context: “We have eyes, but we don’t see. We have ears, but we don’t hear. We can read, but we don’t understand what we read.” They suggested that the post-colonial African university must first establish a counter-curriculum of African languages and literatures and then return to a study of European and other world literatures from an African perspective: “If there is a need for ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?”

Liyong, Owuor-Anyumba, and wa Thiong'o were criticised for advocating cultural or even racial purity within academia. Rather, they sought to re-establish in East Africa traditional modes of knowledge and understanding in literature, in an effort towards authenticity and as a means for the region to better understand itself in the context of national independence. By placing African culture at the centre of education, “all other things [would] be considered in their relevance to [the African] situation, and their contribution towards understanding [itself]". This philosophy was also politically significant at a time when East African governing bodies were struggling against the influence of colonial powers such as the US and Britain .

Independently, Liyong has had published over twenty books. These include Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree (1998), an anthology of poetry that addresses various contemporary issues and follows African progress in recent history.

Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree

The East African Literature Bureau (EALB) published many of Liyong's earlier works in English as well as East African languages. The EALB played an instrumental role in disseminating the opinions of African academics in the period right after Kenyan independence from Britain in 1963. Many of these publications criticised neocolonialism, the new method by which former colonial nations maintained their dominance over the newly independent states. The emerging theories held that East African governments and institutions were manipulated by money and corruption into upholding structures that undermined local culture while uplifting colonial ideals.

Lo-Liyong's work emerges from this environment of cultural and political uncertainty. His work draws on the continent's tradition in its form as well as its content. Of his poetry, Liyong says: “the period of introspection has arrived; personal introspection, communal introspection. Only through introspection can we appraise ourselves more exactly.” In one of his most controversial assertions, Liyong rejects long-established literary conventions defined by Aristotle for effective writing. In The Uniformed Man (1971), Liyong calls for readers to approach text in a less familiar way, that is, not to follow the usual conventions of literature such as "introduction, exposition, rising action, etc. up to the climax". Instead, text should be unconstrained by expectation and read with a consistent appreciation for "each word, phrase, or sentence".

Lo-Liyong addresses an African audience in the majority of his work, but mostly he attempts to universally put forward the idea that African knowledge is of benefit to the intellectual world at large. African experience, including that of the diaspora, should not be marginalised intellectually. In his introduction to The Uniformed Man, he addresses the issues raised in On the Abolition of the English Department when he claims that "the [African] audience can only get full emotional satisfaction when they find that the world of the theatre and their world is completely evoked".

Despite his various contributions to poetry and fiction, Liyong considers his essays of most significance, calling them "essays with a practical nature". His eclectic and unconventional approaches to literature and literary theory make him an enduring study and a living icon of African nationalism. He remains a staunch political activist, committed to the causes of exploited communities. He was recently a professor of literature and Head of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Venda in South Africa. Professor Liyong is currently the Acting Vice-Chancellor of Juba University in South Sudan. After over 20 years of war, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought peace to South Sudan and Professor Liyong has returned home to contribute his outstanding intellectual and managerial prowess.


  • The Last Word (1969)
  • Meditations in Limbo (1970)
  • Franz Fanon's Uneven Ribs (1971)
  • Another Nigger Dead (1972)
  • Ballads of Underdevelopment (1976)
  • Another Last Word (1990)