The Education of a British-Protected Child

The Education of a British-Protected Child

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by Chinua Achebe

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From the celebrated author of Things Fall Apart comes a new collection of autobiographical essays—his first new book in more than twenty years.

Chinua Achebe’s characteristically eloquent and nuanced voice is everywhere present in these seventeen beautifully written pieces. From a vivid portrait of growing up in colonial Nigeria to

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From the celebrated author of Things Fall Apart comes a new collection of autobiographical essays—his first new book in more than twenty years.

Chinua Achebe’s characteristically eloquent and nuanced voice is everywhere present in these seventeen beautifully written pieces. From a vivid portrait of growing up in colonial Nigeria to considerations on the African-American Diaspora, from a glimpse into his extraordinary family life and his thoughts on the potent symbolism of President Obama’s elections—this charmingly personal, intellectually disciplined, and steadfastly wise collection is an indispensable addition to the remarkable Achebe oeuvre.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
…a welcome return. Those who have closely followed Mr. Achebe's career won't find much that's new in The Education of a British-Protected Child…But in this book he tangles further, and profitably, with the obsessions that have defined his career: colonialism, identity, family, the uses and abuses of language. And he returns to some of the still smoldering controversies that have shaped his reputation.
—The New York Times
Kaiama L. Glover
While he very clearly—though without any particular drama—denounces colonialism, Achebe is equally clear in his intention not to be reactionary in his reactions, to concern himself with individuals rather than ideologies…Achebe takes on this challenge in his characteristically gentle narrative style, that way he has of seeming to be in casual conversation, discussing matters big and small with an interested and sympathetic companion. Simply and directly, he addresses many of the most fraught realities of colonial and postcolonial existence for the 20th- and 21st-century West African. The tone of his book is patient and measured, his voice personable and welcoming. Playfully deflating his own narrative authority by allowing admittedly shaky memories to stand as fact, Achebe juxtaposes ostensibly mild personal anecdotes with serious political reflections. He moves adroitly from the particular to the general, humbly revealing the greatness in each one of his small stories.
—The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
In his first book to be published in more than 20 years, Achebe presents 17 essays about growing up in colonial Nigeria (hence the title) and his country's history and politics from the viewpoint of a native. One of Nigeria's most respected authors, Achebe is best known for his novel Things Fall Apart, a story of Nigerian tribal life before and after colonialism that is credited with changing Europeans' views of Africa. One of the author's main thrusts here is the effects of the work of missionaries in his homeland; for all the good that they did, they represented the same people who had earlier taken slaves. He notes the condescension of Europeans toward Africans in their own land and points out that the slave trade caused Europeans to change their portrayal of Africans from admiration to contempt to justify their treatment of the people they were exploiting for their own gain. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers interested in African studies and European colonialism from the perspective of the colonized. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/09.]—Denise J. Stankovics, Vernon, CT
Kirkus Reviews
Deftly connected autobiographical essays by renowned Nigerian author Achebe (Languages and Literature/Bard Coll.; Anthills of the Savannah, 1987, etc.). "I have news for you," he writes. "Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people." In his first new book since Anthills, Achebe challenges the economic-development experts of today, the successors of the colonialists of yesteryear. Allowing for the good intentions of both, the author examines the effects of outside tinkering with the continent, which today can take the form of bankers' "structural adjustments" that result only in the continued immiseration of ordinary people. One source of such actions is paternalism, alluded to in the title of the collection, and Achebe allows for a bit of it in himself when he writes of his native country, "Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed, and incredibly wayward." And terribly corrupt, as well, which is no impediment to Achebe's call for well-meaning people to roll up their sleeves and get to work helping Africa in real ways. Achebe's view of African realities is hard-won, born of years of exile and thousands of miles of travels across the continent. He refrains, as he notes with some irony, from lecturing on colonialism per se, but he articulates a clear view of the ill effects of colonial rule. He also revisits a number of themes addressed in other works, including his objection to the European literature surrounding Africa, notably Joseph Conrad's ungenerous Heart of Darkness, and his championing of African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Cheikh Hamidou Kane ("Conrad portrays a void; Hamidou Kane celebrates a human presence and a heroic if doomedstruggle"). For every supposed primitive sensibility and quaint superstition to be found in Africa, Achebe observes, there's a counterpart in America and Europe-reason enough to shed ethnocentrism and open one's eyes. Humane and carefully argued responses to events of recent years, coupled with a long look back at the African past. First printing of 40,000
Anna Mundow
In 1989, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, best known for his 1959 novel Things Fall Apart, was invited to attend a meeting of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. "Here was I," he writes, recalling his puzzlement, "...a guest, as it were, from the world's poverty-stricken provinces at a gathering of the rich and powerful..." Participants discussed, in particular, the economic shock treatment required to "yank the sufferer out of the swamp of improvidence back onto the high and firm road of free-market economy." When the governor of the Bank of Kenya demurred, citing the disastrous case of Zambia, he was patronizingly reassured. Then Achebe signaled his desire to speak. "I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop," he recalls, "Here you are, spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories.... I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people." As he spoke, he noticed astonishment on some faces but also heard the Dutch director-general of the OECD, who sat beside him, muttering "Give it to them!"The realization that he may have been invited by this man to "set my cat among his own pigeons" was the one insight that gave him hope.

The OECD incident is recounted in "Africa is People," the concluding essay in Achebe's new collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child. In it he reaffirms the belief that permeates these essays and, arguably, all of his work: "that the most simple things can still give us a lot of trouble." Or, as Achebe quotes James Baldwin having written, "Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words."

The plainness of Achebe's humanistic convictions may be fundamental to his work, but the impression of intellectual naivety, is deceptive as these autobiographical essays attest.Spanning almost twenty years, they are the product not of a simple mind but of a long and illustrious academic and artistic career. Some were first heard as speeches delivered by Achebe at venues such as Cambridge University, the Smithsonian Institution, and The Guardian's Silver Jubilee, while others were written for various academic and literary journals. They are typically short and their titles largely announce their themes: "Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature," "The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics," "Martin Luther King and Africa," and so on.

But themes for this exquisitely sly writer are always fluid and interlinked. "My Dad and Me," for example, begins "My father was born in the 1880s, when English missionaries were first arriving among his Igbo people of eastern Nigeria." The essay, which is barely three pages long, encompasses not only an individual life (Achebe's father became an Anglican teacher and evangelist), but also a continent's calamity, engendered by the arrival of the colonizing white Christians. "An orphan child born into adversity, heir to commotions, barbarities, rampant upheavals of a continent in disarray," Achebe lovingly writes, "was it at all surprising that he would eagerly welcome the explanation and remedy proffered by diviners and interpreters of a new word?"

Achebe's great-uncle Udoh, on the other hand, resisted conversion to Christianity, and Achebe salutes him for his fidelity to tradition while nevertheless acknowledging the invaluable education that he, young Chinua, received as a consequence of that 19th-century missionary incursion. He ends with a question for which his father had no use: "Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before these European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, their ancestors, also sailing in ships, had delivered our forefathers to the horrendous transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?"

It matters indeed, each essay here proves, not least because that earlier abomination determined who would tell the story of the Achebes and millions like them. "One side earned the name of slaves," Achebe writes, "and the other of savages." This observation arises in "Spelling Our Proper Name," an essay that opens with Achebe meeting Langston Hughes in Uganda in 1962, and proceeds to examine the question of identity -- imposed and chosen, African and African-American. Here Achebe again quotes Baldwin, this time his famous statement which lists European glories from Dante to Bach and ends "Go back a few centuries and they are in full glory -- but I am in Africa watching the conquerors arrive."

Sympathetic to Baldwin, but reservedly so in this instance, Achebe counters the notion that people without a gloriously inscribed past are up for grabs, exposing the convenient nature of the colonial lie. "If you are going to enslave or colonize will uncover or invent terrible stories about him so that your act of brigandage will become easy for you to live with." He then neatly skewers the "colonial genre" of literature for bolstering this colonial worldview, "beginning with Kipling in the 1880s, proceeding through Conrad to its apogee in E.M. Forster and ending with Joyce Cary and Graham Greene, even as colonialism itself began to end."

Achebe has already declared his viewpoint in the collection's title essay. "I hope nobody is dying to hear all over again the pros and cons of colonial rule," he warns, "You would get only cons from me, anyway." He adds that he prefers to survey events from "the middle ground," and when he vividly describes his colonial childhood you appreciate the honesty of a considered perspective that is derived from his own complicated personal experience and rooted in Igbo culture.

It was when Achebe left Nigeria in 1957 to study in London that he first saw himself described in his new passport as a "British-Protected Person." (Nigeria would not gain its independence until 1960). As a "British-Protected Child" in the large village of Ogidi he attended a school modeled on a British school, celebrated Empire Day, and read not only Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, and other classic novels, but also the "African" books of Rider Haggard, John Buchan, et al. "I did not see myself as an African in these books," he recalls, "I took sides with the white men against the savages....I hated their guts."

On the walls of the Achebe house was a picture of the principal of St. Monica's Girls' School where Achebe's mother, the daughter of a village ironsmith, was educated. Beside Miss Warner's picture were educational collages pasted together by Achebe's father: a portrait of George V, a Johnnie Walker label,Church Missionary Society almanacs, portraits of bishops. On a neighbor's wall, however, hung a photograph of Nnamdi Azikiwe, "the most popular nationalist freedom fighter against colonial rule in West Africa." In "The Sweet Aroma of Zik's Kitchen," originally delivered as a speech in 1994, Achebe the writer honors Azikiwe, his childhood hero. This is just one pleasing circle in a slim collection that gracefully weaves together subjects as diverse as the Biafran War and Igbo art, all clarified yet never reduced by the unfussy beauty of Achebe's language. --Anna Mundow

Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and the "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Irish Times.

From the Publisher
"Page's solid performance suits the tone of the essays." —Library Journal Audio Review

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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All my life I have had to take account of the millionbdifferences—some little, others quite big—between the Nigerian culture into which I was born, and the domineering Westernbstyle that infiltrated and then invaded it. Nowhere is the difference more stark and startling than in the ability to ask a parent: “How many children do you have?” The right answer should be a rebuke: “Children are not livestock!” Or better still, silence, and carry on as if the question was never asked.

But things are changing and changing fast with us, and we have been making concession after concession even when the other party shows little sign of reciprocating. And so I have learned to answer questions that my father would not have touched with a bargepole. And to my shame let me add that I suspect I may even be enjoying it, to a certain extent!

My wife and I have four children—two daughters and two sons, a lovely balance further enhanced by the symmetry of their arrivals: girl, boy, boy, girl. Thus the girls had taken strategic positions in the family.

We, my wife and I, cut our teeth on parenthood with the first girl, Chinelo. Naturally, we made many blunders. But Chinelo was up to it. She taught us. At age four or thereabouts, she began to reflect back to us her experience of her world. One day she put it in words: “I am not black; I am brown.” We sat up and began to pay attention.

The first place our minds went was her nursery school, run by a bunch of white expatriate women. But inquiries to the school board returned only assurances. I continued sniffing around, which led me in the end to those expensive and colorful children’s books imported from Europe and displayed so seductively in the better supermarkets of Lagos.

Many parents like me, who never read children’s books in their own childhood, saw a chance to give to their children the blessings of modern civilization which they never had and grabbed it. But what I saw in many of the books was not civilization but condescension and even offensiveness.

Here, retold in my own words, is a mean story hiding behind the glamorous covers of a children’s book:

A white boy is playing with his kite in a beautiful open space on a clear summer’s day. In the background are lovely houses and gardens and tree-lined avenues. The wind is good and the little boy’s kite rises higher and higher and higher. It flies so high in the end that it gets caught under the tail of an airplane that just happens to be passing overhead at that very moment. Trailing the kite, the airplane flies on past cities and oceans and deserts. Finally it is flying over forests and jungles. We see wild animals in the forests and we see little round huts in the clearing. An African village.

For some reason, the kite untangles itself at this point and begins to fall while the airplane goes on its way. The kite falls and falls and finally comes to rest on top of a coconut tree.

A little black boy climbing the tree to pick a coconut beholds this strange and terrifying object sitting on top of the tree. He utters a piercing cry and literally falls off the tree.

His parents and their neighbors rush to the scene and discuss this apparition with great fear and trembling. In the end they send for the village witch doctor, who appears in his feathers with an entourage of drummers. He offers sacrifices and prayers and then sends his boldest man up the tree to bring down the object, which he does with appropriate reverence. The witch doctor then leads the village in a procession from the coconut tree to the village shrine, where the supernatural object is deposited and where it is worshipped to this day.

That was the most dramatic of the many imported, beautifully packaged, but demeaning readings available to our children, perhaps given them as birthday presents by their parents.

So it was that when my friend the poet Christopher Okigbo, representing Cambridge University Press in Nigeria at that time, called on me and said I must write him a children’s book for his company, I had no difficulty seeing the need and the urgency. So I wrote Chike and the River and dedicated it to Chinelo and to all my nephews and nieces.

(I am making everything sound so simple. Children may be little, but writing a children’s book is not simple. I remember that my first draft was too short for the Cambridge format, and the editor directed me to look at Cyprian Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam Illia for the length required. I did.)

With Chinelo, I learned that parents must not assume that all they had to do for books was to find the smartest department store and pick up the most attractive-looking book in stock. Our complacency was well and truly rebuked by the poison we now saw wrapped and taken home to our little girl. I learned that if I wanted a safe book for my child I should at least read it through and at best write it myself.

Our second daughter, Nwando, gave us a variation on Chinelo’s theme eight years later. The year was 1972 and the place Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had retreated with my family after the catastrophic Biafran civil war. I had been invited to teach at the university, and my wife had decided to complete her graduate studies. We enrolled our three older children in various Amherst schools and Nwando, who was two and a half, in a nursery school. And she thoroughly hated it. At first we thought it was a passing problem for a child who had never left home before. But it was more than that. Every morning as I dropped her off she would cry with such intensity I would keep hearing her in my head all three miles back. And in the afternoon, when I went back for her, she would seem so desolate. Apparently she would have said not a single word to anybody all day.

As I had the task of driving her to this school every morning, I began to dread mornings as much as she did. But in the end we struck a bargain that solved the problem. I had to tell her a story all the way to school if she promised not to cry when I dropped her off. Very soon she added another story all the way back. The agreement, needless to say, taxed my repertory of known and fudged stories to the utmost. But it worked. Nwando was no longer crying. By the year’s end she had become such a success in her school that many of her little American schoolmates had begun to call their school
Nwando-haven instead of its proper name, Wonderhaven.


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"Page's solid performance suits the tone of the essays." —-Library Journal Audio Review

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