Sometimes we wait too long to say thanks to people who have profoundly impacted and shaped us. Having just read Chinua Achebe’s latest book of essays, now is a good time to celebrate this literary giant who single-handedly gave many of us a ‘useful African past’.
Achebe is undoubtedly one of the most important African figures of the 20th century. And probably the most influential Nigerian figure to have impacted the rest of the continent. When I say this to fellow Nigerians there is noisy disagreement – is Achebe more influential than political heavyweights such as Nnamdi Azikiwe or Obasanjo? There is no doubt that ‘Zik’ influenced many people beyond Nigeria’s borders and Obasanjo and Murtala Muhammed were part of a generation of military officers that played important roles in the wars in Angola and against apartheid. But I don’t believe their impact is as enduring as Achebe’s. Let me explain.
In the 1990s I travelled extensively through Africa as I engaged in my work, making documentaries. Landing in a new country was always fascinating and it never ceased to amaze me how beautiful our continent and its people are. After each amazing landscape, sitting down and talking with people was the next most pleasurable thing. A typical exchange would have me asking them about themselves, their country and their future hopes. Then they would turn the questioning around, wanting to know about me – the person seeking to undress them. I too would have to strip – to begin to talk about who I was. Immediately my Nigerian heritage became apparent, the people in front of me would begin smiling in a kind of knowing way.
The more brazen would begin laughing – then the stories about Nigerians would flood out. Usually these would be negative stories about fast deals, arrogance, drugs and other illegality, strangely mixed in with other positive stories about Nollywood, and how much they admired the intelligence, no-nonsense business acumen, and energy of the many Nigerians they encountered. From this one got the sense that in many parts of Africa, Nigerians were as feared as they were admired. I would go on to mention my ethnic group. At the start I expected most people to have made the connection with my group through the Biafran tragedy – but this came up rarely. Instead, the minute I said I was Igbo, most people would literally swoon and say ‘aah Okonkwo…Achebe!’
As well as all the Nigerian stereotypes they were grappling with, through Achebe, they also had another, deeper narrative about Nigeria, which had also enabled them to intimately process their own pre-colonial African past. In many ways through Achebe, Nigeria had become an important part of their mental landscape, and it helped them construct an alternative, humane world to the humiliating, inhumane one constructed by the colonialist. Even the great Mandela remarked that when he read Achebe in prison, ‘the chains fell away’.
I had a similar feeling reading Achebe for the first time after so much European and American fiction. Achebe depicted a world that I finally recognised: individuals who were heroic, flawed, caring and generous, greedy and ambitious, who sometimes overreached themselves and were then tragically destroyed by their choices. In his two masterpieces ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘Arrow of God’, Achebe brilliantly explores one key challenge faced in the last 150 years – the encounter with the better armed, encroaching colonial power. We were outgunned economically and militarily, but we still had culture. Though the heroes of the novels understood the dangers, they could not provide successful leadership for their communities. In ‘Arrow…’, the anger and pride of the Chief Priest, Ezeulu, sees him opt for revenge and cruel punishment for a slight, over helping his people understand the importance of their traditions in the battles ahead. Instead, his dogmatism turns their religion into a weapon against them, unleashing a wave of heartbreak (and revolt) among the flock that eventually provides the bridge for their Christian conversion.
This paradox so well understood by Achebe, continues to haunt us in Africa, producing manifold tragedies. Achebe is a man who loves Africa and has in turn been loved by Africa – the AU should beat the Nobel Committee to it and honour a prophet at home for the insights he has provided into our soul.