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 somebody….you 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.