Chinua Achebe and the German Judge

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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?

(Pause)

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

 

Reference:

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

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