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Susan VanZanten

Things Come Together

Chinua Achebe looks back.

Editor's note: Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, best known for his novel Things Fall Apart, died a week ago. Here is a piece about him from the March/April 2010 issue of Books & Culture.

In 1929, the British colonial administration of Nigeria opened a secondary boarding school called Government College Umuahia. Led by the Reverend Robert Fisher, Government College Umuahia compiled an excellent library and quickly began to provide an outstanding education for those young African men (not women) whose passports read "British Protected Person." Closed to be used as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, the school reopened in 1944 under the direction of Cambridge-educated William Simpson, a mathematics teacher and member of the Colonial Education Service. Simpson held unusual ideas about education. While most colonial (and British homeland) schools relied on rote memorization and cramming, Simpson prohibited the study of textbooks after classes on three days of the week, promoting instead the reading of novels, biographies, and magazines. Simpson-era Umuahia graduates subsequently played a central role in the development of modern African literature; notable alumni include Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart.

The Education of a British-Protected Child, Achebe's new collection of autobiographical essays, describes how he and his classmates spent many hours reading the same books that would be read by students in Britain: Treasure Island, Tom Brown's School Days, The Prisoner of Zenda, Prester John, and David Copperfield. Achebe reports that he enjoyed the exhilarating plots and animated descriptions of these novels and that he was not disturbed by their frequent depiction of repulsive, inhuman, barbaric natives. Reflecting on his education, he concludes, "it all added up to a wonderful preparation for the day we would be old enough to read between the lines and ask questions." The seventeen essays included in this collection demonstrate Achebe reading between the lines, asking probing questions, and instigating new ways of speaking to and of Africa.

Achebe is a relaxed raconteur, unfolding short stories about his life, rambling and repetitive, with occasional insertions of apt Igbo proverbs and sharp one-liners. The book, he says, illuminates "what it is that unites my writing and my personal life," and the recurring themes are identity, narrative, and language. The essays include anecdotes of Achebe's growing up among a mix of Christian and non-Christian Igbos, his experiences with British colonialism, his early involvement in Nigerian broadcasting and politics, his eye-opening travels in other parts of Africa, his encounters with and opinions of prominent African Americans, and the events that led him to write children's stories. There is little new material here; most of the essays are based on talks that Achebe gave in the 1980s and 1990s and originally published elsewhere. But this slim volume does provide a useful compilation of the ethical commitments that drove Achebe to become a writer, perhaps the most widely recognized African writer today.

Achebe's father was an early convert to Christianity who became a teacher and evangelist in the Anglican Mission, and Achebe was raised as a Christian—attending mission schools, hearing twice-daily Bible readings during family prayers, and participating in church services. Christianity divided his village in two, but "the boundaries had many crossings." In "My Dad and Me," a tender reflection on his father's Christianity and his great-uncle's refusal to convert, Achebe briefly speaks of the gifts he received from both men, but his praise for the missionaries and their message is tempered with more skepticism than his father had, as Achebe thinks about those ancestors of European Christians who administered the transatlantic slave trade "and unleashed darkness in our world."

One of Achebe's most notorious critical acts is his assessment and condemnation of racism in Joseph Conrad's classic novella, Heart of Darkness. That essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," is not included in this volume, but Achebe does re-visit the controversy in "Africa's Tarnished Name." In reply to those who have pointed out that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in opposition to the horrors unfolding in the Congo, Achebe argues that Conrad's compassion for Africans does not excuse his narrative failure to treat them as human beings deserving respect. And to the argument that Conrad's racial insensitivity was typical for his time, Achebe provides the counter-examples of David Livingstone and Thomas Gainsborough. What most distresses Achebe is that Conrad was such a gifted and powerful writer, tarnishing the continent's name much more effectively than "centuries of transparently crude and fanciful writing about Africa." Africans, Achebe repeatedly asserts, ask to be seen as human beings, and the way that Africans are depicted in literature powerfully shapes European and American perceptions. These convictions led to and inform Achebe's literary life.

Two essays tell the story of Dom Afonso I, King of the Congo from 1506 to 1543, an African who became a Christian, learned Portuguese, built schools and churches, and corresponded with King John III of Portugal on issues of law and civilization, expressing dismay over the severe laws of Portugal. Some radical African writers view Dom Afonso's conversion as a betrayal, but Achebe wonders how he is any different from the Roman emperor Constantine I. The primary difference, he concludes, is the eventual defeat of the Christian kingdom of Dom Afonso I after a two-century struggle with the Portuguese over the slave trade and mining rights: "In the war that finally ended the independence of the kingdom of the Congo and established Portuguese control over it, the armies of both nations marched under Christian banners." Too few Africans and even fewer Europeans know this history, Achebe laments, relying instead on Conrad for their impressions of Africa.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Achebe has always been his ability to engage in dialectic rather than diatribe, to critique unsparingly both Western and African failures. In "What is Nigeria to Me?" Achebe speaks of his profound love of his homeland as well as his deep disappointment, touching on the difficulties of developing a national identity in a polyglot, colonially constructed, and politically corrupt country. The essay's title evokes Countee Cullen's "Heritage," a haunting poem from 1930 that opens,

What is Africa to me?
Copper sun or scarlet sea
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?

"Nigerian nationality," Achebe admits, "was for me and my generation an acquired taste—like cheese," but despite his strong condemnation of Nigerian corruption both in fiction (An Enemy of the People, 1966) and in jeremiad (The Trouble with Nigeria, 1984), despite his participation in the attempt to create the independent state of Biafra, he concludes by describing the outpouring of affection he received from Nigerians after he was paralyzed in a car accident in 2001: "I am still totally dumbfounded by it. The hard words Nigeria and I have said to each other begin to look like words of anxious love, not hate. Nigeria is a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask: what can I do now? There is work for all."

Susan VanZanten is professor of English and Director of the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development, Seattle Pacific University.

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