Wednesday, July 30, 2008


It is 50 years since Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart. The novel came out a year after Ghana's independence, an event that significantly changed the face of Africa. What was to be famously termed the Wind of Change in 1960 - the celebrated year of African independence - was already blowing accross our continent. Since then the 'masterpiece' has inspired the African imagination in its quest for self-expression in relation to self-determination. As various forums revisit this illustrious moment in the history of African literature, I am moved to share what I once wrote as a university student. This essay is an abridged version of a longer essay entitled 'The African Writer's Burden: A Description and Critique of the Polemic Significance of the Works of Achebe and Ngugi'.

Retelling The African Writer's Story

“His [The African Writer] story had been told for him and he had found the telling quite unsatisfactory’”- Chinua Achebe

In his literary critique on The African Imagination, Abiola Irele devotes an entire chapter on the Dimensions of African Discourse where he presents what he considers to be the most striking aspect of this discourse, that is, its character as a movement of contestation. A movement that had and is still adversely contending with European representation(s) of Africa and Africans, and has thus, in his own words, assumed a polemical significance. Moreover, he deduce that the “point that emerges from this aspect of African discourse is its strongly articulated sense of historical grievance” (Irele, 2001, p.69). In a significant way this grievance is what has been articulated by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

It is important to bear in mind that these writers were born during the colonial phase of African history and in African countries which were under the rule of the British Empire. While Chinua Achebe was born in the Eastern part of Nigeria (West Africa) in 1930, Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born James Ngugi in Limuru, Kenya (East Africa) in 1938.

Like many other intellectuals of their generations, they were both educated in primary schools run by Christian missionaries and therefore had an early encounter with the Christian and European discourses of civilization. While Achebe later moved to a government college, Ngugi had an opportunity to study in a Kikuyu independent school before moving to a government Alliance High School. As undergraduates they both attended prestigious African colleges which had been established by the then ruling colonial administrations: Achebe went to University College, Ibadan in 1948 while Ngugi went to Makerere University College in 1959.

Achebe and Ngugi as writers share a lot in common. Both use their African imagination to retell the stories of Africa and Africans in contrast to the way they have been told earlier by some European writers. Thus, they are all centrally engaged with the same dominant issue which, according to Irele (2001), constitutes the imaginative and ideological forms of African expression in European languages i.e. “our historic encounter with and the continuing relationship to the west and the varied implications of our modern experience as it has been determined by this historic encounter” (Irele, 2001, p.68). However, they differ in some of their perspectives and approaches, especially in relation to the use of what has been sometimes referred to as the ‘language of the oppressor or the colonizer’ i.e. English in the context of the British Empire.

Neither Achebe nor Ngugi lived or wrote during the pre-colonial phase of Africa. But both writers had an opportunity to learn about pre-colonial Africa’s history and culture from their elders, relatives, parents etc. These lessons were mainly learnt through what Irele (2000) identify as representing the basic intertext of the African imagination i.e. ‘oral literature’.

For instance, in his 1998’s McMillan-Stewart Lectures at Harvard University entitled My Home Under Imperial Fire, Achebe states categorically that it “was from the conversation and disagreements in these rooms [His father’s piazza and his mother’s parlor]…that I learned much of what I know and have come to value about my history and culture…. I heard, for example, that one of Ogidi’s neighboring towns had migrated into its present location a long time ago and made a request to Ogidi to settle there. In those days there was plenty of land to go round and Ogidi people welcomed the newcomers, who then made a second and more surprising request –to be shown how to worship the gods of Ogidi” (Achebe, 2000, p.11).

Likewise, in Writers in Politics: A Re-Engagement with Issues of Literature & Society, Ngugi nostalgically recalls how he got involved in what he calls a dreadful indulgence of fiction: “It began in my childhood in my mother’s house where people would gather to tell stories and to compete in unraveling riddles. I myself was not good at telling stories but I was a very good listener. I could not hear enough of these stories. These characters, human, animal, ogres, all seemed dangerously but excitingly real to me. They dwelt in a world which was near and far, real and unreal, or shall I say marvelously real. The forest and the mountains and the regions in which they dwelt were truly enchanted, magically true, recognizably close to, but at the same time very different from, the Limuru that I knew ” (Ngugi, 1997, p. 87).

But these memoirs were not the stories they read when they went to school or church. There they read about civilized Europe and Europeans or about Africa and Africans who had no history, language, culture or religion. Little did they know then that they were located as ‘colonizable objects’ in a larger body of a European discourse that encompassed discourses such as those of ‘scientific racism’ and ‘civilization’ disguised under the innocent garb of Christianity.

For instance, the following is Achebe’s recollection - cited in African Literature as Restoration of Celebration - of his first naïve encounters with these writings: “One of the earliest short stories I wrote was called ‘Chike’s School Days’, and it ended like this: The first sentences in his New Method Reader were simple enough and yet they filled him with a vague exultation: ‘Once there was a wizard. He lived in Africa. He went to China to get a lamp…. That boy [Chike] was me [Achebe]…I did not see myself as an African to begin with. I took sides with the white men against the savages” (Achebe, 1991, p. 7).

And this is what Ngugi could recall: “At Ma-nguu and Kinyogoori primary schools, one of my teachers, Samuel Kibicho, introduced me to stories in books such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dickens’ Oliver Twist and my happiness knew no bounds…. And then in 1954 I went to Alliance High School where I was introduced to a house full of these magic pages… I read voraciously; anything from detective novels to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth” (Ngugi, 1997, p. 87). It is interesting to note the affinity this list of books has with the following list of what fascinated Achebe in is school years: “ Treasure Island, Mutiny of the Bounty, Gulliver’s Travel, Ivanhoe, School for Scandal” (Achebe, 2000, p. 20).

To Achebe the light dawned when he reached what he calls an appropriate age. Deducing from what Achebe (2000) calls "the gossip in African Literature" once can speculate that the most significant incident in this realization was his experience of a ‘landmark rebellion’ over Joyce Carry’s novel Mister Johnson. This incident was triggered by their fellow student at University College, Ibadan who gathered the courage to tell their English professor point blank that he, the Nigerian student, only enjoyed the moment when Johnson, the Nigerian ‘bumbling idiot and embarrassing nitwit’ hero ,was shot to death by his British master in the novel. Though like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its inhuman depiction of Africans, what sounded more problematic to Achebe (2000) in this novel relatively to Heart of Darkness of which he is well known as it’s prominent controversial critic, is that it’s author was/is writing or rather claiming to be writing about Nigeria i.e. the home of Achebe which, unlike Congo, was/is well known to Achebe.

This book made Achebe call into question his childhood assumption of the innocence of stories and in the end he began to understand that there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative that render the privileged the security to arrange the stories about others in whatever manner they, the privileged, like. Just like the totalitarian regimes, they ‘could rent a crowd’ for indeed the crowd of the ‘others’ in Mister Johnson reminds one of the crowd in Heart of Darkness.

Thus, when Achebe reached that appropriate age he realized that the European writers he read in school ‘had pulled a fast one on him’ for it indeed it came to light that he was not one of the so-called civilizing agents on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo in Conrad’s in/famous novel Heart of Darkness but, rather, he was “one of those strange beings jumping up and down on the river bank, making horrid faces” (Achebe, 1991, p. 7). This is when Achebe (1991) said no and concluded that stories are not innocent for they can locate one in a wrong crowd as in this case were he was put in a crowd of those who came to dispossess him.

However, in its preoccupation with this realization, African discourse has tended, whether deliberately or not, to ignore or pay little attention to the question of gender and patriarchy. And this has courted the attention of some feminist critics. One such critic is Florence Stratton, (1994) whose work How Could Things Fall Apart For Whom They Were Not Together? offers a feminist critique that tries to make Achebe swallow his own critical words on the racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by arguing that there is sexism in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

According to Stratton (1994), in his attempt to masculinized the Africa that had been 'feminized' by Europe, Achebe ended up silencing the African women and therefore he failed to keep what he proclaimed as the prime duty of an African writer in the few years after independence i.e. the duty of restoring dignity to the past and to show that African people did not hear culture for the first time from Europeans. She argues that while Achebe attempt to ‘restore dignity’ and self-respect to African men, he does not attempt to do so to African women nor does he tell them, as he does to the African men, where “the rain started to beat them.” Thus their African writer's realization is literarily and stereotypicallt gendered in favour of African men at the expense of African women.

Since Ngugi often appear to be wary of telling his earlier experiences directly, I cannot exactly pinpoint when exactly he got to that point of realization. Maybe it was 1954 when an editor of the school magazine decided to frame Ngugi’s (1981) story on magic so that it can fit with the Christian message. Or maybe it was in 1955 when became a devout Christian and then abandoned it due to its relation to colonial discourses. Whatever the case, the main point that emerges here is that this kind of realization - this wake up call - is the basis of the birth of modern African [written] literature as a form of a promising African discourse that was to contest with the European discourse on Africa that was premised on what Edward Said appropriately terms Orientalism.

Achebe illustrates this On-the-road to Damascus type of realization nicely in the following conclusion on the difference between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Senegalese Hamidou Kane’s novel Ambiguous Adventure: “Conrad portrays a void; Hamidou Kane celebrates a human presence and a heroic struggle. The difference between the two stories is very clear. You might say that difference was the very reason the African writer came into being. His story had been told him and he had found the telling quite unsatisfactory” (Achebe, 1991, pp. 6-7). However, the major mistake which he, Achebe, made in this quote was that he didn’t include ‘she’ and 'her' when referring to an African writer and thus opened doors for feminist critics to attack him in a way that is reminiscence of his very own attack on Conrad.

At this juncture it is worthwhile to recall one of the works that have influenced both writers i.e. the work of Frantz Fanon on The Wretched of the Earth. In its chapter entitled On National Culture, Fanon describes three phases, which characterizes the evolution of a native intellectual, in this case an African writer:

“In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. His writings correspond point by point with those of his opposite numbers in the mother country. His inspiration is European and we can easily link these works with definite trends in the literature of the mother country. This is the period of unqualified assimilation…. In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is. This period of creative work approximately corresponds to that of immersion which we have just described. But since the native is not a part of his people, since he only has exterior relations with his people, he is content to recall their life only. Past happenings of the bygone days of childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed aestheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies…. Finally, the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with people, will on the contrary shake the people. Instead of according the people’s lethargy and honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, and a national literature. During this phase a great many men and women who up till then would never have thought of producing a literary work, now that they find themselves in exceptional circumstances – in prison, with the Maquis or on the eve of their execution – feel the need to speak to their nation, to compose the sentence which expresses the heart of the people and to become mouthpiece of a new reality in action” (Fanon, 1963, pp. 178-179).

It is clear that Achebe and Ngugi outgrew the first phase while in school and by the time they started to write and publish their novels they were already in the transitory period between the second and the third phase.

The immediate effect of the transition and hence the realization was that the latter was put vehemently into practice in their first written novels i.e. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958 – two years before Nigerian independence from Britain; and Ngugi’s The River Between, which, though was the first one be to be written, yet, it was the second to be published in 1965, a year after Weep Not Child was published.

A cursory analysis of the title of Things Fall Apart would lead one to conclude that Achebe was telling, not only the Europeans, but also the Africans that at a certain point of time before the colonizers came to Africa things were somewhat together. And with Christianity appearing as a twin sister/brother of Colonialism in taming, pacifying and conquering Africa(ans), which was a better place to start the polemic contest other than on the sphere of culture, political, and religion?

So the introductory note of my intermediate Heinemann version of Things Fall Apart re-written by John Davey, and of course approved by Achebe himself, reads: “This is the story about life in Africa before the Europeans came, and the destruction of this life by the Europeans…The clan had its own customs, religion and leaders…the people were free” (Davey, 1974 - In Achebe, 1958a, p. ix). And the first chapter of The River Between goes back to the ‘long ago’ as it paints the same type of picture: “These ancient hills and ridges were the heart and soul of the land. Their people rejoiced together, giving one another the blood and warmth of their laughter. Sometimes they fought. But that was amongst themselves and no outsider need ever know” (Ngugi, 1965, p.3).

Contrary to the Africa of Conrad and Joyce, the African societies of Achebe and Ngugi in the opening salvos of above two novels are presented as having a civilization and founders ordained by divine beings. Achebe, for instance introduces in the very first paragraph of the first chapter an old man who tells us that the founder of the town had engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights – a story that reminds one of the Christians stories such that of Jacob who also engaged an angel before he was given a new name which was to be the name of a new nation i.e. Israel (Genesis 32:24-32 KJV). Ngugi is more explicit for he turns upside down the Christian story of creation: “And Murungu [God] had told them [Gikuyu and Mumbi i.e. the Kikuyu’s Adam and Eve]: this land I give to you, O man and woman. It is yours to rule and till, you and your posterity.” The land was fertile. It was the whole of Gikuyu country” (Ngugi, 1965, p. 2).

They thus retell stories about societies which had a God or spirits and,thus, had a religion. And many years later Achebe (2000), after gaining an understanding of the above-mentioned folklore of an Igbo town of Ogidi that was reluctant to foist its religious beliefs and practices on those neighbours even when it was invited to do so, concluded that this African society could not have any notion of the psychology of religious imperialism, and may I add paternalism, that was later to be manifested by European evangelism in Africa.

Moreover, Achebe (1958) tells us that his main character i.e. Okonkwo sat with kings and elders while Ngugi (1965) tell us that leaders rose from the land of many ridges, which simply mean that these pre-colonial societies had organized leadership let alone democracy. Achebe goes as far as telling us that there was a systematic monetary exchange system: “Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbour some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts” (Achebe, 1958, p. 4).

Yet in the midst of a strong temptation among African writers to romanticize the past, both writers manage to start retelling their stories without unneccessarily idealizing their pre-colonial African societies. For instance they are honest enough to admit that there were some ethnic wars as well as internal disputes. Okonkwo’s pre-colonial life itself is an embodiment of these conflicts: 'he fought and killed five men in tribal wars'; 'he broke the week of peace when he beat his wife, Ojiugo, and Ani, the earth goddess punished him'; 'for the sake of maintaining a fearless masculinity, he went against the warning of the oracle when he killed Ikemefuna; and then 'Okonkwo killed himself' and his suicide was to be a "story” [to be written by a colonial writer and not by a colonized writer] to make an “interesting reading under the title The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Lower Niger” (Achebe, 1958).

This story of pacification, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was to be a guiding Bible to earlier colonialists, such as Captain Winterbottom in Achebe's Arrow of God, who believed they were “called” to bring light to the “heart” of the “African darkness” as this statement of his, reminiscence of Conrad’s fine specimen, imply: “ ‘He is a fine specimen, isn’t he? He’s been with me four years. He was a little boy of about thirteen – by my own calculation, they’ve no idea of years –when I took him on. He was absolutely raw’” (Achebe, 1964, p. 35). This is the kind of a paternalistic discourse that was to be inherited by Mr. Green in Achebe's No Longer at Ease.

Thus, on the eve of of the end of British rule in Nigeria when colonial administrators represented by Mr. Green were busy preparing ‘civil servants’ to take over, Things Fall Apart came out of one of the European publishing houses as an ‘African voice’ showing the damages inflicted on a pre-colonial African society which was organized according to its own suitable type of civilization. This was primarily an African attempt to tell the African story for the sake of Africa and Africans. The onus is on us to keep on rethinking, rewriting and retelling our own African his/herstory to our satisfaction.

Source: Chambi Chachage, CAS UCT 2003
Photo: Courtesy of Mail & Guardian Online


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