No longer at ease – influence of education



One of the most important aspects of Obi’s life is that he was educated in England. This small fact molds the way others treat him and shapes what others expect of him. At the same time, the education he holds dear is also one for which he has felt guilt and one which has often made him a stranger in his own Nigeria.

Upon his return from England, Obi is secured a position in the civil service, given a car, money, and respect. At the same time, however, he seems to be making constant mistakes because of what he has learned to be like, what he has come to understand, and what he has never learned. For instance, when Obi first arrives, he is given a reception by the Umuofian Progressive Union at which he makes several mistakes. He has forgotten how to act in his home or simply does not agree with its ways: he wears a short-sleeved shirt and sees nothing wrong with it, for it is hot, and he speaks casually in English, instead of the kind of heavy English that the Umuofians admire in the president of the Union. His education has brought him status and has placed him in a position where others expect the most and best of him. No one can understand, in the end, how a man of “his education and promise” could take a bribe. Of course, Achebe, says this cheekily since many who have accused him and who also hold high positions are guilty of similar transgressions. Ironically, the only thing his “education” did not teach him was how not to get caught.

Another important aspect of education, aside from the contradictions mentioned above, is the fact that Obi’s generation uses its education as a tool, paradoxically, against colonialism. Sam Okoli, the Minister of State and also an educated man, verbalizes the position of the populace by saying that, yes, the white man has brought many things to Africa, but it is time for the white man to go. In other words, a man like Obi can use his education to take his country back into his own hands, even if his education is something that the colonizer gave him. It is important to remember that the only way to survive in a world where two cultures have met is to allow a certain amount of mixture to be used in a positive regard.




No longer at ease – the corruptibility of civil servants


At first Obi is as critical as Achebe of bribery. He refuses to take bribes and also finds it necessary for himself to be a “pioneer” in Nigeria, bringing down corruption in government and instigating change. It seems that corruption runs rampant and that everyone in Nigeria from the “white man” to the Umuofian Progressive Union participates in “seeing” people about what they need done. Men offer money, and women offer their bodies, in return for favors and services. Obi believes that by not taking bribes he can make a difference. He had written, while at the university in London, a paper in which he theorized on what would change the corruption of high positions in Nigeria. He believed that the “old Africans” at the top of civil service positions would have to be replaced by a younger generation of idealistic and educated university graduates, such as himself.

Achebe, however, is not as optimistic as Obi because he has Obi fail. Achebe takes us through the path of how someone like Obi can come to take bribes. The book begins on a negative note: starting with Obi’s trial. It is as if Achebe, by beginning in the end, is saying that Obi was doomed from the start. Obi’s position is a difficult one. He is born in Ibo, but he has been educated in England and often feels himself a stranger in his own country. He has lost his love because of a rule of the past, he has suffered under great financial distress, he has exerted himself because of the expectations others have placed on him, and he has lost his mother. All of this brings the protagonist of the novel to fall into what he once had believed was a terrible and corrupt act. Still, Obi always feels guilt at taking a bribe, and he had decided to stop taking them. By having Obi get caught, even amid an aura of repentance and guilt, Achebe further illustrates the hypocrisy of all who have participated in bribes and now throw stones at Obi. And, at the same time, it tells us that, although he got caught, Obi is still a pioneer because he has sworn to not do it again. It may be that his beginning as a “pioneer” is a rough one, one that has taken a curved path, but it does not definitely mean that he cannot still lead toward change. Still, perhaps Achebe may be saying that this is not true, and that Obi, ultimately, has failed at the task he set before himself.

Your thoughts?


Achebe on language


In June 1962, there was a writers’ gathering at Makerere, impressively styled: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.” Despite this sonorous and rather solemn title, it turned out to be a very lively affair and a very exciting and useful experience for many of us. But there was something which we tried to do and failed—that was to define “African literature” satisfactorily.

Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could Af­rican literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?

In the end we gave up trying to find an answer, partly—I should admit—on my own instigation. Perhaps we should not have given up so easily. It seems to me from some of the things have since heard and read that we may have given the impression of not knowing what we were doing, or worse, not daring to look too closely at it.

A Nigerian critic, Obi Wali, writing in Transition 10 said: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the conference … is that Af­rican literature as now defined and understood leads nowhere.”

I am sure that Obi Wali must have felt triumphantly vindicated when he saw the report of a different kind of conference held later at Fourah Bay to discuss African literature and the university curriculum. This conference produced a tentative definition of African literature as follows: “Creative writing in which an Afri­can setting is authentically handled or to which experiences orig­inating in Africa are integral.” We are told specifically that Con­rad’s Heart of Darkness qualifies as African literature while Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter fails because it could have been set anywhere outside Africa.

A number of interesting speculations issue from this definition, which admittedly is only an interim formulation designed to pro­duce an indisputably desirable end, namely, to introduce African students to literature set in their environment. But I could not help being amused by the curious circumstance in which Conrad, a Pole, writing in English could produce African literature while Peter Abrahams would be ineligible should he write a novel based on his experiences in the West Indies.

What all this suggests to me is that you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African lit­erature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa.

A national literature is one that takes the whole nation for its province and has a realized or potential audience throughout its territory. In other words, a literature that is written in the national language. An ethnic literature is one which is available only to one ethnic group within the nation. If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English; and the ethnic literatures are in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc., etc.

Any attempt to define African literature in terms which over­look the complexities of the African scene at the material time is doomed to failure. After the elimination of white rule shall have been completed, the single most important fact in Africa in the second half of the twentieth century will appear to be the rise of individual nation-states. I believe that African literature will follow the same pattern.

What we tend to do today is to think of African literature as a newborn infant. But in fact what we have is a whole generation of newborn infants. Of course, if you only look cursorily, one infant is pretty much like another; but in reality each is already set on its own separate journey. Of course, you may group them together on the basis of anything you choose—the color of their hair, for instance. Or you may group them together on the basis of the language they will speak or the religion of their fathers. Those would all be valid distinctions, but they could not begin to account fully for each individual person carrying, as it were, his own little, unique lodestar of genes.

Those who in talking about African literature want to exclude North Africa because it belongs to a different tradition surely do not suggest that black Africa is anything like homogeneous. What does Shabaan Robert have in common with Christopher Okigbo or Awoonor-Williams? Or Mongo Beti of Cameroun and Paris with Nzekwu of Nigeria? What does the champagne-drinking upper-class Creole society described by Easmon of Sierra Leone have in common with the rural folk and fishermen of J. P. Clark’s plays? Of course, some of these differences could be accounted for on individual rather than national grounds, but a good deal of it is also environmental.

I have indicated somewhat offhandedly that the national lit­erature of Nigeria and of many other countries of Africa is, or will be, written in English. This may sound like a controversial statement, but it isn’t. All I have done has been to look at the reality of present-day Africa. This “reality” may change as a result of deliberate, e.g., political, action. If it does, an entirely new situation will arise, and there will be plenty of time to examine it. At present it may be more profitable to look at the scene as it is.

What are the factors which have conspired to place English in the position of national language in many parts of Africa? Quite simply the reason is that these nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British, which, I hasten to add, is not saying that the peoples comprising these nations were in­vented by the British.

The country which we know as Nigeria today began not so very long ago as the arbitrary creation of the British. It is true, as William Fagg says in his excellent new book, Nigerian Images, that this arbitrary action has proved as lucky in terms of African art history as any enterprise of the fortunate Princess of Serendip. And I believe that in political and economic terms too this ar­bitrary creation called Nigeria holds out great prospects. Yet the fact remains that Nigeria was created by the British—for their own ends. Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before. Nigeria had hundreds of autonomous communities ranging in size from the vast Fulani Empire founded by Usman dan Fodio in the north to tiny village entities in the east. Today it is one country.

Of course there are areas of Africa where colonialism divided up a single ethnic group among two or even three powers. But on the whole it did bring together many peoples that had hith­erto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.

You can take this argument a stage further to include other countries of Africa. The only reason why we can even talk about African unity is that when we get together, we have a manageable number of languages to talk in—English, French, Arabic.

The other day I had a visit from Joseph Kariuki of Kenya.  Although I had read some of his poems and he had read my novels, we had not met before. But it didn’t seem to matter. In fact I had met him through his poems, especially through his love poem Come Away My Love, in which he captures in so few words the trials and tensions of an African in love with a white girl in Britain:

Come away, my love, from streets

Where unkind eyes divide

And shop windows reflect our difference.

By contrast, when in 1960 I was traveling in East Africa and went to the home of the late Shabaan Robert, the Swahili poet of Tanganyika, things had been different. We spent some time talking about writing, but there was no real contact. I knew from all accounts that I was talking to an important writer, but of the nature of his work I had no idea. He gave me two books of his poems, which I treasure but cannot read—until I have learned Swahili.

And there are scores of languages I would want to learn if it were possible. Where am I to find the time to learn the half dozen or so Nigerian languages, each of which can sustain a literature? I am afraid it cannot be done. These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one central language enjoying nationwide currency. Today, for good or ill, that language is English. Tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it.

Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.

Some time last year I was traveling in Brazil meeting Brazilian writers and artists. A number of the writers I spoke to were con­cerned about the restrictions imposed on them by their use of the Portuguese language. I remember a woman poet saying she had given serious thought to writing in French! And yet their problem is not half as difficult as ours. Portuguese may not have the universal currency of English or French but at least it is the national language of Brazil with her eighty million or so people, to say nothing of the people of Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, etc.

Of Brazilian authors, I have only read, in translation, one novel by Jorge Amado, who is not only Brazil’s leading novelist but one of the most important writers in the world. From that one novel, Cabriella, I was able to glimpse something of the exciting Afro-Latin culture which is the pride of Brazil and is quite unlike any other culture. Jorge Amado is only one of the many writers Brazil has produced. At their national writers’ festival there were liter­ally hundreds of them. But the work of the vast majority will be closed to the rest of the world forever, including no doubt the work of some excellent writers. There is certainly a great advan­tage to writing in a world language.

I think I have said enough to give an indication of my thinking on the importance of the world language which history has forced down our throats. Now let us look at some of the most serious handicaps. And let me say straightaway that one of the most serious handicaps is not the one people talk about most often, namely, that it is impossible for anyone ever to use a second language as effectively as his first. This assertion is compounded of half truth and half bogus mystique. Of course, it is true that the vast majority of people are happier with their first language than with any other. But then the majority of people are not writers. We do have enough examples of writers who have per­formed the feat of writing effectively in a second language. And I am not thinking of the obvious names like Conrad. It would be more germane to our subject to choose African examples.

The first name that comes to my mind is Olauda Equiano, better known as Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano was an Ibo, I believe from the village of Iseke in the Orlu division of Eastern Nigeria. He was sold as a slave at a very early age and transported to America. Later he bought his freedom and lived in England.  In 1789 he published his life story, a beautifully written document which, among other things, set down for the Europe of his time something of the life and habit of his people in Africa, in an attempt to counteract the lies and slander invented by some Eur­opeans to justify the slave trade.

Coming nearer to our times, we may recall the attempts in the first quarter of this century by West African nationalists to come together and press for a greater say in the management of their own affairs. One of the most eloquent of that band was the Honorable Casely Hayford of the Gold Coast. His presidential ad­dress to the National Congress of British West Africa in 1925 was memorable not only for its sound common sense but as a fine example of elegant prose. The governor of Nigeria at the time was compelled to take notice, and he did so in characteristic style: he called Hayford’s congress “a self-selected and self-appointed congregation of educated African gentlemen.” We may derive some amusement from the fact that British colonial administra­tors learned very little in the following quarter of a century. But at least they did learn in the end—which is more than one can say for some others.

It is when we come to what is commonly called creative lit­erature that most doubt seems to arise. Obi Wali, whose article “Dead End of African Literature” I referred to, has this to say:

.. . until these writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity and frustration.

But far from leading to sterility, the work of many new African writers is full of the most exciting possibilities. Take this from Christopher Okigbo’s limits:

Suddenly becoming talkative

like weaverbird

summoned at offside of

dream remembered

between sleep and waking

I hand up my egg-shelles

To you of palm grove,

Upon whose bamboo towers hang

Dripping with yesterupwine

A tiger mask and nude spear….

Queen of the damp half light,

   I have had my cleansing.

Emigrant with air-borne nose,

   The he-goat-on-heat.

Or take the poem Night Rain, in which J. P. Clark captures so well the fear and wonder felt by a child as rain clamors on the thatch roof at night, and his mother, walking about in the dark, moves her simple belongings

Out of the run of water

That like ants filing out of the wood

Will scatter and gain possession

Of the floor.

I think that the picture of water spreading on the floor “like ants filing out of the wood” is beautiful. Of course, if you have never made fire with faggots, you may miss it. But dark’s inspi­ration derives from the same source which gave birth to the saying that a man who brings home ant-ridden faggots must be ready for the visit of lizards.

I do not see any signs of sterility anywhere here. What I do see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a worldwide language. So my answer to the ques­tion Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask. Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker?  I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. I have in mind here the writer who has something new, something different to say. The nondescript writer has little to tell us, anyway, so he might as well tell it in conventional language and get it over with. If I may use an ex­travagant simile, he is like a man offering a small, nondescript routine sacrifice for which a chick, or less, will do. A serious writer must look for an animal whose blood can match the power of his offering.

In this respect Amos Tutola is a natural. A good instinct has turned his apparent limitation in language into a weapon of great strength—a half-strange dialect that serves him perfectly in the evocation of his bizarre world. His last book, and to my mind, his finest, is proof enough that one can make even an imperfectly learned second language do amazing things. In this book, The Feather Woman of the Jungle, Tutola’s superb storytelling is at last cast in the episodic form which he handles best instead of being pain­fully stretched on the rack of the novel.

From a natural to a conscious artist: myself, in fact. Allow me to quote a small example from Arrow of God, which may give some idea of how I approach the use of English. The Chief Priest in the story is telling one of his sons why it is necessary to send him to church:

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.

Now supposing I had put it another way. Like this, for instance:

I am sending you as my representative among these peo­ple—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion de­velops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.

The material is the same. But the form of the one is in character and the other is not. It is largely a matter of instinct, but judg­ment comes into it too.

You read quite often nowadays of the problems of the African writer having first to think in his mother tongue and then to translate what he has thought into English. If it were such a simple, mechanical process, I would agree that it was pointless— the kind of eccentric pursuit you might expect to see in a modern Academy of Lagado—and such a process could not possibly pro­duce some of the exciting poetry and prose which is already ap­pearing.

One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.

But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it. I hope, though, that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literature will flourish side by side with the national ones. For those of us who opt for English, there is much work ahead and much ex­citement.

Writing in the London Observer recently, James Baldwin said:

My quarrel with the English language has been that the lan­guage reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.

I recognize, of course, that Baldwin’s problem is not exactly mine, but I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but al­tered to suit its new African surroundings.

Achebe on the African Novel


Thoughts on the African Novel, by Chinua Achebe

Extracts from speech delivered in Halifax, Canada (1973).

Many years ago at a writers’ conference in Makerer, Uganda, I attempted (not very successfully) to get my colleagues to defer a definition of African literature which was causing us a lot of trouble. I suggested that the task might become easier when more of our produce had entered the market. That was ten years ago. I was saying in effect that African literature would define itself in action; so why not leave it alone? I still think it was excellent advice even if it carried a hint of evasiveness or even superstition.

I do admit to certain residual superstitions; and one of the stronger is the fear of names, of hurrying to a conclusion when the issue is still wide open. …

But I am never fully consistent, not even in my superstitions. I always find thoughts antagonistic to my secure position floating dangerously around it. It is these floating thoughts I wish to talk to you about.

The first is that the African novel has to be about Africa. A pretty severe restriction, I am told. But Africa is not only a geographical expression; it is also a metaphysical landscape – it is in fact a view of the world and of the whole cosmos perceived from a particular position. This is as clost to the brink of chaos as I dare proceed. As for who an African novelist is, it is partly a matter of passports, of individual volition and particularly of seeing from that perspective I have just touched with the timidity of a snail’s horn. Being an African, like being a Jew, carries certain penalties – as well as benefits, of course. But perhaps more penalties than benefits. Ben-Gurion once said: “If somebody wants to be a Jew, that’s enough for me.” We could say the same for being an African. So it is futile to argue whether Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is African literature. As far as I know, Joseph Conrade never even considered the possibility. In spite of all temptations he remained an Englishman! And it is not even a matter of colour. For we have Nadine Gordimer (who is here today), Doris Lessing and others.

And then language. As you know, there has been an impassioned controversy about an African literature in non-African languages. But what is a non-African language? English and French certainly. But what about Arabic? What about Swahili even? Is it then a question of how long the language has been present on African soil? If so, how many years should constitute effective occupation? For me it is again a pragmatic matter. A language spoken by Africans on African soil, a language in which Africans write, justifies itself.

I fully realize that I am beginning to sound like a bad dictionary – the type you take a strange word to and it defines it with a stranger word; you look that up and it gives you back your original strange word; so you end up with two mysteries instead of one! But that is the reality of our situation, and it is surely more useful to begn to deal with its complexity than to propose catchy but impossible simplifications.

At the root of all these strange and untidy thoughts lies a monumental historical fact, Europe – a presence which has obsessed us Equiano to Ekwensi. For Equiano a preoccupation with Europe was pretty inevitable. After all, he had only just recently freed himself from actual enslavement to Europeans. He lived in Europe and was married to a European. His ancestral Igboland had become a fragmented memory.

In our own time a preoccupation with Europe has seemed almost equally inevitable despite the passage of nearly two hundred years. In the colonial period and its aftermath we were preoccupied with Europe in the form of protest. Then a bunch of bright ones came along and said: “We are through with intoning the colonial litany. We hereby repudiate the crippling legacy of a Europe-oriented protest. We are tough-minded. We absolve Europe of all guilt. Don’t you worry, Europe, we were bound to violence long before you came to our shores.” Naturally, Europe, which was beginning to believe the worst about itself, is greatly relieved and impressed by the mental emancipation, objectivity and sophistication of these newcomers. As if any intelligent writer of protest had ever taken a starry-eyed view of Africa or doubted the reality of evil in Africa, the new anti-protest, broad-minded writer will not endorse the racist theory that Africa is evil, is the heart of darkness.

It is this illusion of objectivity, this grotesque considerateness, this perverse charitableness which asks a man to cut his own throat for the comfort and good opinion of another, that I must now address myself to.

Quite often the malady (for it is indeed a sickness) shows fairly mild symptoms and is widespread; at other times it comes in is virulent forms. But mild or severe, it manifests itself as self-disgust and an obscene eagerness to please our adversary.

There is a Nigerian academic who went to study in Britain in the late 1920s and decided to become an Englishman. So he settled down in Britain after his studies, married and raised a family, and by all accounts was a perfectly happy man. Forty years later as a result of an unhappy conjunction of events he found himself appointed to an administrative position in a Nigerian university. At his first press interview he boasted that he spoke no Nigerian language. He cannot recognize Nigerian food, let alone eat it. Given a chance he will appoint a European over a Nigerian to teach at his university; his argument: a university, as the name implies, is a universal institution.

But fortunately, this man is not a writer. For wouldn’t it be awful if writers – those bright hopes of our society – should become afflicted with such a warped vision; a vision which creates a false polarity between an object and its abstraction and places its focus on the abstraction? Personally, I am no longer entirely optimistic. Let me present two short passages of the kind that has been causing me great discomfort:

This is the confrontation with The Interpreters presents. It is not an “African” problem. Events all over the world have shown in the new generation a similar dissatisfaction . . . Thus Soyinka, using a Nigerian setting, has portrayed a universal problem. This is what makes both this novel and the whole corpus of Soyinka’s work universally valid.

Before I go on, let me make two points. First, I am not concerned with Professor Eldred Jones’s evaluation of Soyinka but with the terms he has chosen for that evaluation. The second point is that I regard Eldred Jones as our finest literary scholar, a man of great sensitivity and perception whom I should have much preferred not to disagree with. But the dogma of universality which he presents here (I believe, absent-mindedly) is so patently false and dangerous and yet so attractive that it ought not to go unchallenged. For supposing “events all over the world” have not shown “in the new generation a similar dissatisfaction …, ” would it truly be invalid for a Nigerian writer seeing dissatisfaction in his society to write about it? Am I being told, for Christ’s sake, that before I write about any problem I must first verify whether they have it too in New York and London and Paris?

What Professor Eldred Jones is proposing is that I renounce my vision, which (since I do not work with the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank) is necessarily local and particular. Not so long ago a similar proposition was made to me, an attempt to discredit my vision and the absolute validity of my experience. But it came from “expected quarters.” At the end of the war in Nigeria (in which, you may know, I was on the wrong side), I had an invitation to visit New Guinea and Australia. But some official or officials in Lagos saw to it that I did not get a passport. When I protested to the Commissioner for External Affairs he wrote me a nice, intriguing letter with words to this effect:

Dear Achebe,

Thank you for your letter in which you complained about difficulties which you thought you had with my officials…

You can see, can’t you, the close kinship between that letter and the proposition by Eldred Jones? They are both telling me to be careful in defining “difficulties.” Because other people may not agree, I had better check my vision with them before saying what I see. Such a proposition is dangerous and totally unacceptable, for once you agree to “clear” your vision with other people you are truly in trouble.

Now let us look at another short extract from the same essay by Eldred Jones quoted in Introduction to Nigerian Literature:

When Wole Soyinka writes like this his audience is not a local one; it is a universal one. Indeed at this point he widens his immediate range of reference by making the Court Historian invoke the precedent of the Trojan War.

Thus, in the first extract Eldred Jones praises Wole Soyinka for not writing about an African problem but a universal one; and in the second for not writing for a local but a universal audience! Surely, African criticism must be the only one in the whole world (or perhaps universe) where literary merit is predicated on such outlandish criteria. But as I said earlier I don’t really believe that Eldred Jones thought seriously about this. He has simply and uncritically accepted the norms of some of the prevailing colonialist criticism, which I must say is most unlike him. Perhaps I should point out in fairness also that in the first extract he put “African” in quotes, although it is not clear to me what exactly the quotes are supposed to do. Perhaps they hint at a distinction between real and so-called African problems. This may redeem the situation somewhat, but not very much. For real and so-called Africa can and do become metaphysical retreats for all kinds of prejudice. Thus a certain critic many years ago said of Ekwensi’s Burning Grass: „At last Ekwensi has drawn real Nigerian characters…”without saying what unreal Nigerian characters looked like. But one sensed that a Lagosian or an African from Nairobi might be deemed less real than a Masai or a Tuareg; surely a matter of social taste and not of literary criticism!

I shall look at one other aspect of the same problem and I shall be done. In our discussion yesterday, Professor Emile Snyder reminded us that politics was always present in literature and gave examples ranging from Dante to Eliot. Why, he asked, do we get so worked up about it in discussing African literature? Of course the reason is that we are late starters. I mean really late – after the prizes are all given out and the track judges have packed up their things and gone home. Such late starters are generally very conscientious. Though no one is looking, they will cut no corners.

That is why, for instance, we must now have our own debate on art for art’s sake. Why we must have pundits decreeing to us what is or is not appropriate to literature; what genres are for us and what we must only touch at our peril. Why literary legislators pass laws telling us what social and political roles artists may (but more usually, may not) perform.

Thus, in a curious novel entitled The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Ali Mazrui has a poet tried in the hereafter for throwing away his life on the battlefield like any common tribesman. There is no condemnation of war as such, only of poets getting involved – for „some lives are more sacred than others.“ In the words of one of the novel’s leading characters (an African Perry Mason clearly admired by Mazrui): „… a great artist was first of all an individualist, secondly a universalist, and only thirdly a social collectivist.“ Since these roles and attributes are not known instinctively by the artist in question (otherwise how would Okigbo not know what was legitimate activity for him?) it stands to reason that he requires someone like Mazrui to tell him (a) the precise moment when he crosses the threshold of mere artist and becomes a great artist and (b) how to juggle with his three marbles of individualism, universalism and social collectivism.

What I am saying really boils down to a simple plea for the African novel. Don’t fence me in.

I dare not close without a word of recognition for that small and proprietary school of critics who assure us that the African novel does not exist. Reason: the novel was invented in England. For the same kind of reason I shouldn’t know how to drive a car because I am no descendant of Henry Ford. But every visitor to Nigeria will tell you that we are among the world’s most creative drivers!

In conclusion, all these prescriptions and proscriptions, all these dogmas about the universal and the eternal verities; all this proselytizing for European literary fashions, even dead ones; all this hankering after definitions may in the end prove worse than futile by crating needless anxieties. For as everybody knows, anxiety can hinder creative performance, from sex to science.

I have no doubt at all about the existence of the African novel. This form of fiction has seized the imagination of many African writers and they will use it according to their differing abilities, sensibilities and visions without seeking anyone’s permission. I believe it will grow and prosper. I believe it has a great future.  


– Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments. Selected essays. Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York (1989)

Chinua Achebe and the German Judge


Chinua Achebe “The Judge and I did not go to Namibia”

In October 1960 I enjoyed the first important perk of my writing career. I was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to travel for six months anywhere I chose in Africa. I decided to go to East, Central and Southern Africa. I set out with high hopes and very little knowledge of the real Africa. I visited Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar and then Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia. I had had vague notions of going to South West Africa as well, and even South Africa itself. But Southern Rhodesia proved more than enough for me on that journey, and I turned around after a little more than a week there. The chief problem was racism. The only African country I had visited before was Ghana, the flagship of Africa’s independence movement. Ghana had been independent for a few years and was justly the pride of emergent Africa. Nigeria had won her own freedom from Britain just before my journey, on October 1, 1960, and I set forth with one month’s worth of ex-colonial confidence-the wind of change, as it were, behind my sails.

The first shock came when we were about to land in Nairobi, Kenya, and we were handed immigration forms to fill out. After your name you had to define yourself more fully by filling in one of four boxes: European, Asiatic, Arab, Other! At the airport there were more of the same forms and I took one as a souvenir. I was finding the experience almost funny.

There were other minor incidents, like the nice matronly British receptionist in the second-class hotel I checked into in Dar-es-Salaam, who told me she didn’t mind having Africans in her hotel and remembered a young West African woman who had stayed there a year or so ago and had “behaved perfectly” all the time she was there and spoke such beautiful English.

I read in the papers that a European Club in Dar was at that time debating whether it ought to amend its rules so that Julius Nyerere, who was then Chief Minister, might be able to accept the invitation of a member to drink there. But as the weeks passed my encounters became less and less amusing. I shall recount just two more, which happened in the Rhodesias (modern Zambia and Zimbabwe). I was met at Salisbury Airport by two young white academics and a black postgraduate student from the new University of Rhodesia. The Rockefeller Foundation, apparently knowing the terrain better than I did, had taken the precaution of enlisting the assistance of these literature teachers to meet me and generally keep an eye on my programme.

The first item on the agenda was to check into my hotel. It turned out to be the new five-star Jameson Hotel, which had just been opened to avoid such international incidents as the refusal of hotel accommodation to a distinguished countryman of mine, Sir Francis Ibiam, Governor of Eastern Nigeria, President of the World Council of Churches and a British Knight!

But I was neither a knight, a Governor nor President of any Council, but a poor unknown writer travelling on the generosity of an enlightened American Foundation. This generosity did not, however, stretch so far as to accommodate the kind of bills Jameson Hotel would present. But that was another story which would unfold later.

For the moment my three escorts took me to my hotel, where I checked in and then blithely offered them a drink. It was the longest order I had ever made. The waiter kept going and then returning with an empty tray and more questions, the long and short of which was that the two bwanas could have their beer, and so could I, because I was staying in the hotel, but the other black fellow could only have coffee. So I called the entire thing off.

Southern Rhodesia was simply awful. It is a miracle what Mugabe has been able to achieve in race relations there through his own ability and the capacity of African peoples to ignore their hurt. Those were not jet days, and my journey home entailed an overnight stop in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia. The Manager of the rather nice hotel where I stayed spotted me at dinner, came over and introduced himself and sat on my table to have a chat. It was a surprise; I had thought he was coming to eject me. He had been the Manager of the Ambassador Hotel in Accra Ghana. From him I learnt that Victoria Falls was only twenty-odd miles away and that there was a bus going regularly from the Hotel.

So the next morning I boarded the bus. From where I sat-next to the driver’s seat – I missed what was going on in the vehicle. When finally I turned around, probably because of a certain unnatural silence and force around me, I saw with horror that everyone except me was white! As I had turned round they had averted their stony gazes, whose hostility I had felt so palpably at the back of my head. What had become of all the black people at the bus stop? Did they have a separate bus? Why had no one told me? I looked back again and only then took in the detail of a partition and a door!

I have often asked myself what I might have done if I had noticed the separate entrances before I boarded, and I am not sure. Anyhow, there I was sitting next to the driver’s seat in a Jim Crow bus in Her Majesty’s colony of Northern Rhodesia, later to be known as Zambia. The driver (black) came aboard, looked at me with great surprise, but said nothing, deciding to mind his own business and leave problems for those who were paid to solve them.

The ticket-collector appeared as soon as the journey got underway. I did not have to look back anymore: my ears were now like two antennae on each side of my head. I heard a bolt move, and the man stood before me. Another black. Our conversation went something like this:

T.C.: What are you doing here?

C.A.: I am travelling to Victoria Falls.

T. C.: Why are you sitting here?

C.A.: Why not?


T.C.: Where do you come from?

C.A.: I don’t see what that has to do with it. But if you must know, I come from Nigeria, and there we sit where we like in the bus.

He fled from me as from a man with the plague. My European co-travellers remained as silent as graven images. The journey continued without further incident until we got to the falls. Then a strange thing happened. The black travellers in the back rushed out in one huge stampede to wait for me at the door and to cheer and sing my praises.

I was not elated. A monumental sadness descended on me. I could be a hero because I was in transit, and these unfortunate people, more brave by far than I, had formed a guard of honor for me! The awesome waterfall did not revive my spirits. I walked about wrapped in my raincoat and saw the legendary sight and went back to the terminal and deliberately walked into the front of another bus. And such is the speed of hopeful news in oppressed places that nobody challenged me. And I paid my fare!

And so I never did go to South West Africa (Namibia) in 1961. And neither did Wolfgang Zeidler, twenty-five years later, for very different reasons. It is a curious little story which came my way last year when I went to lecture at the University of California at Berkeley. A librarian there showed me a letter she had received from a friend of hers in Germany to whom she had once introduced my book, Things Fall Apart. This friend, according to the letter, had then loaned the book to his neighbor, who was a distinguished Judge.

The reason for the loan was that the Judge was planning with much enthusiasm to emigrate to Namibia after his retirement and accept the offer made to him to become a constitutional consultant to the Namibian regime. He planned to buy a big farm out there and spend his retirement in the open and pleasant air of the African veldt.  His neighbor, no doubt considering the Judge’s enthusiasm and optimism rather excessive, if not downright unhealthy, asked him to read Things Fall Apart on his flight to or from Namibia. Which he apparently did. The result was dramatic.

In the words of the letter shown to me, the Judge said that “he had never seen Africa in that way and that after having read that book he was no more innocent.” And he closed the Namibia chapter. Elsewhere in the letter the Judge was described as a leading constitutional Judge in Germany as a man “with the sharpest intelligence.” For about 12 years he had been president of the Bundesverfassunisgericht, the highest constitutional court in Germany.

In short, he was the kind of person the South Africans would do much to have in their corner; a man whose presence in Namibia would give considerable comfort to the regime there. His decision not to go was obviously a triumph of common sense and humanity over stupidity and racial bigotry. But how was it that this prominent German jurist carried such a blind spot about Africa all his life? Did he never read the papers? Why did he need an African novel to open his eyes? My own theory is that he needed to hear Africa speak for itself after a lifetime of hearing Africa spoken of by others.

I leave the story of the Judge, Wolfgang Zeidler, as a companion-piece to the fashionable claim made even by writers that literature cannot do anything to alter our social and political condition. Of course it can!

October, 1989



Achebe, Chinua. “The Judge and I Didn’t Go to Namibia,” Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1990), pp. 82-85

Classical Tragedy or Modern Tragedy?



A strain of criticism developed around the relations between Things Fall Apart and Aristotelian or Greek tragedy. While investigating the novel’s structure, plot, and characters, critics began debating whether Okonkwo can be called a classical tragic hero. In Greek tragedy, the tragic hero is a noble character who tries to achieve some much-desired goal but encounters obstacles. He often possesses some kind of tragic flaw, and his downfall is usually brought about through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods.

One of the earliest articles on this theme is Abiola Irele’s “The Tragic Conflict in the Novels of Chinua Achebe” (1967), in which Irele asserts, “Things Fall Apart turns out to present the whole tragic drama of a society vividly and concretely enacted in the tragic destiny of a representative individual” . This idea grew popular during the 1970s and 1980s and has endured as a typical way of defining Okonkwo’s character–even the back cover of the 1994 Anchor edition of the novel claims that it “is often compared to the great Greek tragedies.”

David Cook, in African Literature: A Critical View, which contains an important early formalist study of Things Fall Apart, provides a close reading of Okonkwo, claiming, “If Things Fall Apart is to be regarded as epic, then Okonkwo is essentially heroic. Both propositions are tenable” . He closely examines Okonkwo’s actions, and, although Cook believes Okonkwo is similar, he concludes: “Okonkwo is unlike the prototype epic heroes of Homer and Virgil in one very important respect which has to do with circumstances rather than character. He is not a founding figure in the fabled history of his people, but the very reverse”.

Harold Bloom does not consider the novel a traditional Greek tragedy, but he does compare Okonkwo to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, concluding in his introduction to his Modern Critical Interpretations volume on Things Fall Apart, “If Coriolanus is a tragedy, then so is Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, like the Roman hero, is essentially a solitary, and at heart a perpetual child. His tragedy stands apart from the condition of his people, even though it is generated by their pragmatic refusal of heroic death” .

See: Amy Sickels