April 2010

Barbara J. King

features

Africa is People: Chinua Achebe's Essays

In his new collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe recounts the story of a kite flown high by a small white boy. It’s a glorious summer day, with the beauty of houses and gardens surrounding the boy. The kite soars so high, it catches on an airplane, and is carried far, far away to an African village. 

There, above a clearing pocked with little round huts, the kite lands in a coconut tree. A small black boy, about to pick a coconut but frightened by the kite, falls out of that same tree.  

The boy’s parents and neighbors, Achebe writes, “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.” 

Retold by Achebe in his own words, the story originated in a book his daughter Chinelo was given as a young girl. His daughter attended a nursery school “run by a bunch of white expatriate women” who favored “expensive and colorful children’s books imported from Europe.” The books, Achebe says, were a “poison wrapped and taken home to our little girl.”  

It’s easy enough to agree with this statement of Achebe’s. The image of awestruck Africans venerating a strange object that dropped out of the skies reeks of colonial condescension. Fury at this prolonged and indeed willful misunderstanding of Africa and Africans by Europeans is a current that runs through many of these sixteen essays, written between 1988 and 2009. Amazing, how fresh this theme becomes in Achebe’s hands.  

It is a habit of mine to pencil-mark pages of the books I own, when passages seize my consciousness and shake it till it cants at a new angle. With this book, I wore out a pencil. Most people know that vast kingdoms thrived in West Africa (to take one example from this large continent) in earlier centuries. Yet Achebe’s comparison, made in referencing a traveler’s account, of the city of Benin at AD 1600 to modern Amsterdam reopened for me a door to thinking about the richness of African history.    

Or consider Achebe on Conrad. Achebe is virtually obsessed with Joseph Conrad. In essay after essay, via blistering prose he dissects passages from Heart of Darkness, like the one in which Conrad compares observing an African at work on a ship’s boiler to “seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs” -- and thus makes me feel Conrad’s refusal to see Africans as fully human. 

Humanity is Achebe’s theme. Achebe compares Conrad with David Livingstone, a near-contemporary who famously wrote that Africans are “just a strange mixture of good and evil as men are everywhere else.” And then Achebe cuts it cleanly: “Without doubt, the times in which we live influence our behavior, but the best or merely the better among us, like Livingstone, are never held hostage by their times.”    

Achebe grounds his fury in a refusal to see anything or anyone one-dimensionally. (Well, almost. Paralleling “a white man” and a “woman depicted in copulation with a dog” was a bit strange.) He does grind away at the “European” failure to see Africa clearly, and he does rail at the “protection” offered by the British to Nigeria. But -- and could it be otherwise given his theme? -- he writes lovingly of people of all colors and backgrounds, including some of his British teachers in Nigeria.  

Another of my habits is to read a novel and a nonfiction book in tandem, so that my brain might code-switch according to its pleasures of the hour. By happenstance, I read The Education of a British-Protected Child in the same week as the latest Alexander McCall Smith mystery set in Botswana. The Double Comfort Safari Club stars the by-now familiar (and traditionally built) lady detective Precious Ramotswe. As she can be counted on to do, Mma Ramotswe sets about solving puzzles (of the heart more so than of crime) as she enjoys her days with family and friends in Gaborone.   

Now, to sit Smith’s gentle novels side by side with Achebe’s great ones -- Things Fall Apart tops the list -- makes little sense at the level of fine literature. But at that thematic level of humanity, the twinning works.  

In The Education of a British-Protected Child, Achebe writes, “At the center of all the problems Europe has had in its perception of Africa lies the simple question of African humanity: are they or are they not like us?” It’s a terrible indictment that throughout human history, over and over again, groups of people should wonder this about other groups of people. It’s the fundamental hope of our time that this should no longer be so. 

And in his own way, Smith too writes precisely to this point. A Zimbabwe-born African, he fictionalizes the Batswana people with nuance and tenderness. Tricky thing, tenderness; a patronizing paternalism may aim for tenderness. But with Smith, there’s no insidious lifting up of another to the human gaze (“they’re just like us after all”). There are just people: men and women doing their jobs, living their marriages and their divorces alongside other people, some who behave morally and others who don’t so much.  

Last month in this space, I noted that Paul Raffaele in his new book made Africa a bit cartoonish because he conveyed no sense of the humanity beyond the poverty, or the suffering behind the violence, or the resistance behind the oppression. In his essay “Africa is People,” Chinua Achebe comments, “’Africa is people' may seem too simple and too obvious to some of us. But I have found in the course of my travels through the world that the most simple things can still give us a lot of trouble, even the brightest among us.”  

Africa is not primitive huts and wide-eyed kite-worshipping. Africa is people. 

Barbara J. King’s Friday Animal Blog can be found at http://www.barbarajking.com/blog.htm