By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
People say that if you find water rising up to your ankle, that’s the time to do something about it, not when it’s around your neck. The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery.
Quotes from Chinua Achebe, Nigerian (Igbo) author of the classic novel “Things Fall Apart” published 1958.
Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 in Ogidi, Nigeria. He was the fifth of 6 children born to Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam and Isaiah Okafo Achebe. The name “Chinualumogu” means “God will fight on my behalf” and since Achebe was born during the British colonization of Nigeria his parents probably thought their child would need the intervention of the Almighty to survive the imposition of a foreign power in their land.
Achebe, who transitioned on March 21, 2013, was an acclaimed novelist who published several books about the negative effects of European colonization, domination and exploitation of Africans. In his first book “Things Fall Apart” published in 1958 Achebe introduced Okonkwo the Igbo leader whose life and the lives of his people are devastated by the arrival of the Europeans and the destruction of the traditional way of life.
In chapter 7 of “Things Fall Apart” in this allegory of the arrival of the colonizers from Britain, Achebe writes: “And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them.”
At the end of “Things Fall Apart” as “things are falling apart” for the Igbo leaders facing the domination by the White colonizers, two of the central characters (Obierika and Okonkwo) have this conversation:
“Does the white man understand our custom about land?”
“How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Achebe’s depictions of the social and psychological damage that accompanied the imposition of Western customs and values upon traditional African society are probably the reason he was never awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. When asked by Onuora Udenwa of Quality Weekly how he felt about never winning a Nobel Prize, he reportedly replied: “My position is that the Nobel Prize is important. But it is a European prize. It’s not an African prize. It’s not a Nigerian prize. Those who give it, Europeans who give it are not responsible to us. They have their reasons for setting it up. They have their rules for determining who should get it. Literature is not a heavyweight championship.”
Achebe was uncompromising in his stance on challenging conventional Western perceptions of Africans and provided alternatives to the negative stereotypical images of Africa constructed by European authors. On February 18, 1975 while he was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Achebe presented a Chancellor’s Lecture at Amherst entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” where he deconstructed the racism in Conrad’s novel and described Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist”. (http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html) That lecture has been described as “one of the most important and influential treatises in post-colonial literary discourse.”
In “Things Fall Apart” Achebe describes in vivid language through various characters the damaging and ruinous effects of European imposition on African culture, civilization and society which continued in the 1960 sequel “No Longer at Ease.”
In his 1964 book “Arrow of God” Achebe also wrote about traditional Igbo culture clashing with European Christian missionaries and colonial government policies as the British Empire prevailed in Africa. “A Man of the People” published in 1966 and “Anthills of the Savannah” published in 1987 are also powerful stories told by an African about Africans and African culture. In one of his essays published in “Morning Yet on Creation Day” in 1975, Achebe explained in “The Novelist As Teacher”: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”
Achebe also wrote in an essay entitled “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation” which was published in “Morning Yet on Creation Day” in 1975: “The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them.”
With the publication of “Things Fall Apart” in 1958, Achebe revolutionized the telling of African stories and set the standard for successive generations of African authors/writers, including Buchi Emecheta and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Achebe was the founding editor of the “Heinemann African Writers Series” (established in 1962) which provided a forum for many African writers who came of age after their countries’ independence from European colonizers. His collection of poems “Beware Soul Brother” was published in 1972 and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
Achebe was born during a time when Africans were agitating for their independence from European colonization. Nigeria had been occupied by Britain since the arrival of the “Royal Niger Company” which was founded by a group of White men in 1879 as the “United African Company” renamed the “National African Company” in 1881 and then the “Royal Niger Company” in 1886. Whatever name the group gave themselves their purpose was always to exploit the Africans and the resources. On January 1, 1900, the “Royal Niger Company” transferred the territories it occupied to the British government and was paid £865,000. No Africans were consulted during the transaction.
In the 1920s several Nigerians joined by other Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora began organizing in a Pan-African movement to liberate Africans from European domination and the attendant racism to which Africans were subjected in White supremacist cultures. The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey founded the “Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League” (UNIA-ACL) in 1914 in Jamaica and expanded the organization after immigrating to the USA in 1916. The influence of Garveyism with his (Garvey’s) philosophy of “Africa for Africans at home and abroad” galvanized the Pan-African movement and influenced generations of African and Caribbean leaders.
In 1923 Olayinka Herbert Samuel Heelas Badmus Macaulay established the Nigerian National Democratic Party (Nigeria’s first political party) which successfully contested three Lagos seats in the Legislative Council. Macaulay came to be regarded as the “father of modern Nigerian nationalism” in spite of the British colonialist efforts to suppress the movement. He was jailed twice by the British as he agitated for African self-rule in Nigeria. He led protests in Lagos over water rates, land issues and exposed British corruption of their “mishandling” of railway finances. In 1918 he successfully handled, before the Privy Council in London, the cases of chiefs whose land had been taken by the British. As a result of his campaigning, the colonial government was forced to pay compensation to the chiefs. On June 23, 1923 he established Nigeria’s first political party the “Nigerian National Democratic Party.”
Macaulay, like many other African leaders who campaigned for independence from European domination, was a Pan-Africanist. In a letter to Garvey in June 1919 (http://wyatt.elasticbeanstalk.com/mep/MG/xml/mg080008.html) he expressed his support of Garvey’s initiative to establish a shipping company “The Black Star Line.” Macaulay ended his letter to Garvey with these words: “With the most heartfelt prayer for the success of “The Black Star Line,” and in the fervent hope that the undertaking will be conducted upon lines based on strict moral rectitude, fair and healthy competition qualified by the most scrupulous and resolute Self-determination, I remain Your Fellowman of the Negro Race, H. Macaulay.”
Although he was not a politician Achebe was as much an activist as the people who agitated for African freedom from colonization. He used his talent as a writer to educate and agitate and his work has been recognized by universities in Britain, Canada, Nigeria and the United States with honorary degrees.