Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is considered by many as perhaps the world’s most accomplished novelist still at work. She is and has always been an activist and she has spoken out with such honesty and elegance that her every thought has caused discussion and debate. We are delighted to welcome her to our youth special in conversation with our guest editor Nqabisa Faku.
Most of us youth look up to you as one of the most admired novelists and respected activists of our time. What in your childhood prepared you to become who you are?
Firstly, thank you for having me, and you have a lovely name. Without doubt, I think what really prepared me is the love from my parents. My family is the reason that I am what I am. They gave me room to be a bit different.
You know how it can be when you are growing up in some African households and cultures, where fear is often and routinely mistaken for respect. Young people are expected to fear adults and society takes that as a show of respect.
But my parents didn’t raise us that way. As a child, I always asked questions and my parents allowed me to ask questions. However, there are consequences to being a person who speaks out, and I was willing to take on those consequences.
For example, not everybody agreed with or liked me. But from a very young age I just didn’t, and never needed everybody to like me. I said what I thought, but I should also say that I could do that because I had the solid support and love of my parents and family.
As you rightly say, African youth are often discouraged from speaking up. But what continues to drive your outspokenness?
I would like to say, there is a big problem when young people on this continent are always being told to ‘be quiet because adults are speaking’. However, I also think that it matters how African youths speak up.
I remember very well that as a young girl who excelled and achieved As in secondary school, often, in the teachers’ comments section, they wrote: ‘She has no respect for her teachers!’
That really used to bother me because I’m a very big believer in being respectful, civil, and courteous. When I did ask questions, I did so respectfully. I was raised to respect my elders and I still do. It is one of the many wonderful things about being raised in an African culture.
But I realised that what my teachers saw as disrespect was my questioning spirit. The idea of respect is a beautiful thing, and I hold that dear. However, we need to be very careful and draw the line when respect starts to turn into fear, and eventually silencing.
Where do you draw your confidence and fearlessness from, and what can we learn from it?
My confidence – again I have to keep saying this because it really is true – comes from my family. I was just very fortunate to have parents who encouraged and built my confidence, and who made me feel that I didn’t have to apologise for being who I was.
I’m also the fifth of six children and we are all really close. I think all these things matter because if as a young person you have a solid social and emotional foundation – it doesn’t have to be many people; it can just be two people who have your back and always support you – just knowing that you have people who love you, can propel you to face the world and make it possible for you to live what you believe.
I didn’t know I was confident until people started to ask me why I was confident. But honestly? I’m just normal.
However, as I have become older and a public figure, I’m more aware of what people mean when they say you are too confident. For many, you are expected to speak your mind a little less when you become a public figure. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, ‘Don’t talk about that subject, you will upset people,’ or ‘Don’t say that because you’re going to be misunderstood.’
And it is true, there are certain things you will say that will upset people and there are certain things that people would deliberately misunderstand.
But for me, having lost both my parents in a short period of time in the past few months – the loss has really made me think even more about this – I now ask myself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
So, for example, when I talk about feminism in a conservative society like Nigeria, the people’s reaction is like: ‘Oh, you are upsetting people’ or ‘God, she’s gone too far’.
People think that when I say fairly harmless things like, men and women are equal, or that in a marriage, both people are full partners, somehow that is controversial. I find this so ridiculous because this is just common sense in my opinion. Men and women are equal.
But if I can change one person’s mind, and make one man stop beating his wife, for me that’s success. If I can change the mind of one woman and make her stop shrinking herself and make her feel more ambitious, that’s progress. That’s the point and the lesson of speaking up.
Despite all the rhetoric about empowering youth, African youth still feel very marginalised and economically and politically disempowered. Do you think that there is enough political will to harness the power and potential of this demographic?
Oh no! Of course not. I think it is important for us to be honest about things. I can use Nigeria as an example, I certainly don’t think the government of President Buhari is interested in any way in harnessing what I actually think is the enormous potential of young people.
Let me shift that a bit, and maybe instead of talking about how the government is not harnessing the youth, let us talk about what the youth can do to make themselves ‘harnessable’, so to speak?
In a place like Nigeria, it’s not enough to sit down and say, ‘We are not being allowed to participate.’ The youth must make themselves a voting block that becomes almost impossible to ignore.
For example, in Nigeria, a country where voting is often rigged and rubbish, young people should organise and decide they will go to polling centres and push back those paying money to buy votes or stuff ballot boxes.
If young people organise themselves in such ways, governments and potential candidates will court you for your vote. It’s then that you should ask for concessions. For example, tell them: ‘We’re not voting for you until you fix that road from Kano to Kaduna.’
The youth need to not only become more politically active, but also more politically educated about the issues. When I talk to young people, I’m impressed by how much they want a change, but often, I am also struck by how little they know about the actual things happening in their country!
For example, you cannot talk about corruption, if you don’t know what the funding of your local government area is and how it works. But again, let’s not pretend that it’s not hard to be a young person on this continent, more so economically. Hence in a place like Nigeria, it’s very easy for young people to be bought.
You wake up one day to find somebody who was once speaking up, has suddenly gone quiet. There they are thinking, ‘School fees are so expensive, they are offering me all this money, maybe I should choose school fees and just go.’ The point is that people have difficult decisions to make, and in some ways, integrity can seem like a love story.
But it’s important for young people to speak the truth.
Thank you for that emphasis on the importance of youth being politically active and educated. But then there comes an element of fear and intimidation, as we have seen with the #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria, and the persecution of young people such as Bobi Wine in Uganda and Boniface Mwangi in Kenya. How can Africa make sure that the impact of youth activism is leveraged, and how can it be sustained?
I don’t actually know. The reality of this is that there are different ways of participating. In other words, the very vocal, very visible, outspoken way of participating is not the only way of participating.
When I talk about forming organised groups to vote or even just practising citizen journalism, for example – it’s one other great way of participating politically.
Part of the problem in our societies is how little we know about how things are supposed to work. We know that things are not working in general, we know the roads are bad, we know that education is failing. But when we begin to talk about specific ways of solving the problems, I don’t think that we have that language yet or that we have that knowledge. And this is one of the ways youth can get involved.
Go on your blogs, and instead of writing gossip about the latest musicians, take pictures of the big potholes and write about the bad roads. Call out the person who is responsible. For me that citizen journalism, factually done, is one way of being politically active. Politicians don’t like being publicly shamed.
And yes, youth feel very intimidated, but you can do it anonymously, and for now, I recommend that young people do such things anonymously.
Recently, you criticised some aspects of social media, which has caused a few people to be uncomfortable and in some ways, infantilised the debate. Where do you stand on the issue now?
I still stand where I stood when I wrote about what I think about social media – that it is very easy for people to lose their sense of humanity on these platforms. It’s easy for people to forget who they are when they are writing about human beings. And it’s also easy for the people writing all that rubbish about other people, to forget their own humanity.
As a public figure, I am very much aware there is so much you cannot control on social media. It goes with the territory. But there comes a point where you just think, ‘No. This line? You are not going to cross it.’ For me, it was the fact that people were writing about the death of my parents in the most dehumanising way, which I thought was totally unacceptable.
There are things that I think are sacred, and it’s important that if social media is to be a force that’s useful, we have to find a way to have some kind of balance which recognises that in the end, people are human beings and that, there are consequences to what is posted on social media.
There is also a lot of performance on social media, which can be very shallow. But at the same time, social media can be a force for good, and young people can get politically active on these platforms. But it depends on the choice you make and how you want to use your social media platforms.
A lot was also made out of your views on trans women, and the debate has raged. What exactly is your message on this issue? And what are your views on how African societies treat the LGBTQ communities and other minorities, including those with disabilities, for example, albinism?
One of the things I’d like to say is that in most African traditions and cultures going back in time, minority groups have been treated with less compassion at times. But it is actually very African to be an inclusive society.
From what I know about people with albinism, they are horribly ill-treated. And in Nigeria so are gay men and lesbians, because in this country we have a law that says it is a crime to be gay. When that law was passed, I wrote and spoke up about it. My point was, gay Nigerians are Nigerian citizens, we cannot turn something that is utterly and completely human into a crime. It makes no sense.
For something to be a crime, someone must be able to tell us who has been hurt. Who is the victim of that crime? But how is it that a person’s choice to love another person, should be a crime? Who is the victim there?
Part of the problem is that here, we use two things – religion and African culture – to justify our prejudices. But when we take these two notions out and start to talk about them just in very practical ways, I think it helps.
You mentioned trans women, there is no time to talk about that, but I should also say that I have not written about the issue, although I have said something about it. What I said is what I stand by, which is that I refuse to participate in a kind of Western, American orthodoxy that makes no sense to me. I just won’t participate in what people call the right side of history, where you’re supposed to speak in a particular way.
In some ways, I think it then becomes about controlling the way you think and I have a huge problem with that and I really have just had enough. I’m not going to be told how to think. I have spent my whole life reading and thinking and I’m not going to be told how to think. I can think for myself.
And one more last question. As the unapologetic feminist that you are, why is it that feminism remains such a difficult issue for many people to grasp. Why are some men and even some women still against feminism? How can we move the whole world forward through feminism?
First of all, I want to know what your experience is. I want you to tell me something a bit more personal about feminism for you. What’s your personal challenge?
When my mum passed, I guess the most natural thing for my father was for me to take on her responsibilities at home. For my father, the passing of my mum was really hard, but then I noticed at that time he expected me to take care of the family on my own – but I would have preferred him to see me almost like a partner, even if I am his daughter. I guess my question is: How can we change the minds of men so that they can see women as equal partners, even at home? How do we change that mindset? For men to understand that we are them, and they are us.
You put that so beautifully. I love that. We are them; they are us, isn’t that lovely. The only thing that I can tell you is that you are not alone in this quest.
But it’s not just men whose minds we need to change. We need to change the minds of women as well. So many women, not just in Africa, the whole world over, have been raised in a world that is really, so misogynistic. Both in big and small ways. It’s very easy to absorb the idea that somehow, women are not quite fully human.
What you experienced is a classic thing where the burden of domestic work is always on women and men are not expected to know. Sometimes people don’t see the consequences of that on women. Across the world women are doing so much and yet, not encouraged to talk about the consequences for them, which is partly why the rates of depression in women are very high.
Many are carrying their families domestically while working outside the home at the same time. And this is one of the problems with the kind of feminism people talk about, which says women can go out to work but come home and do all the domestic work as well. When the woman complains, she is met with, ‘You wanted feminism, you wanted to work outside the home.’ That is not feminism.
Feminism means that if women are making progress outside the home, men must make progress inside the home.
Read more from our special report African Youth Speaks.