Chinua Achebe, as is well known, is one of the greatest African writers of the post-colonial era. He was an Igbo, born under British colonial rule, who began his writing career in the years just before Nigeria achieved its independence. Most famous for his groundbreaking novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe died about a year ago, in March 2013. There are many fine obituaries which pay homage to his life and career, including this one in The Guardian.
Some time ago I bought a collection of essays Achebe published under the title The Education of a British-Protected Child, a retrospective work published in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart. In The Education of a British-Protected Child, Achebe tells stories from his upbringing, education, and literary career, all of which touch in one way or another on the subject of African identity. Achebe is so interesting to me because of the way he gently but firmly rejects negative Western language about and images of Africa. Over an over, he demonstrates how such language and imagery enabled the colonization of Africa and still hinders African development. As someone who cares deeply about conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I find Achebe’s writing a helpful education about how (and how not) to think about Africa and Africans.
To begin near the end, in the chapter “Africa Is People”, Achebe recalls a strange invitation to participate in an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting in Paris. As an African novelist among Western bankers and economists, he felt markedly out of place listening to the others discuss the economic troubles in Africa and what he calls “the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment”–a policy of strict economic discipline and shock treatments designed to pull struggling third world economies on towards the cure-all of free-market economics. Suddenly, Achebe realized why he had been invited to the meeting. Asking for and receiving the opportunity to speak, he described the OECD meeting they were holding as a “fiction workshop.” He continued:
Here you are, spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people? I will tell you the experience in my own country, Nigeria, with structural adjustment. After two years of this remedy, we saw the country’s minimum wage plummet in value from the equivalent of fifteen British pounds a month to five pounds. This is not a lab report; it is not a mathematical exercise. We are talking about someone whose income, which is already miserable enough, is now cut down to one-third of what it was two years ago. And this flesh-and-blood man has a wife and children. You say he should simply go home and tell them to be patient. Now let me ask you this question. Would you recommend a similar remedy to your own people and your own government? How do you sell such a project to an elected president? You are asking him to commit political suicide, or perhaps to get rid of elections altogether until he has fixed the economy. Do you realize that’s what you are doing? (157)
Achebe goes on to explain how tricky a simple concept like “Africa is people” can be:
[I]mperial domination required a new language to describe the world it had created and the people it had subjugated. Not surprisingly, this new language did not celebrate these subject peoples nor toast them as heroes. Rather, it painted them in the most lurid colors. Africa, being European imperialism’s prime target, with hardly a square foot escaping the fate of imperial occupation, naturally received the full measure of this adverse definition. Add to that the massive derogatory endeavor of the previous three centuries of the Atlantic slave trade to label black people, and we can begin to get some idea of the magnitude of the problem we may have today with the simple concept: Africa is people. (159)
Earlier in the book, in “Africa’s Tarnished Name”, Achebe makes a similar point, arguing that the European perception of the alienness of Africa stems not from ignorance but from invention. He describes how the invention of African alienness was deliberately devised “to facilitate two gigantic historical events: the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa by Europe, the second event following closely on the heels of the first, and the two together stretching across almost half a millennium from about A.D. 1500.” (78) Over time, European reports about Africa shifted from matter-of-fact accounts of the people and things Europeans witnessed to pejorative judgments of wretched, debased, and degraded natives for whom slavery was entirely appropriate.
Similarly, in the chapter “Spelling Our Proper Name”, Achebe argues Africans must “recover what belongs to them–their story–and tell it themselves.” (61) As he puts it:
The telling of the story of black people in our time, and for a considerable period before, has been the self-appointed responsibility of white people, and they have mostly done it to suit a white purpose, naturally. That must change and is indeed beginning to change, but not without resistance or even hostility. So much psychological, political, and economic interest is vested in the negative image. The reason is simple. If you are going to enslave or to colonize somebody, you are not going to write a glowing report about him either before or after. Rather you will uncover or invent terrible stories about him so that your act of brigandage will become easy for you to live with. (61)
Achebe goes on to describe radical shift (for the worse) in travellers’ reports about Benin before and during colonization. He then tells the story of the sixteenth-century Congolese Christian king, Dom Afonso I, who was certainly more civilized and more Christian than the Portuguese missionaries who raided his territory for slaves. Here Achebe is working to undermine the legacy of the slave trade and colonial era, the victims of which “have been struggling for centuries now against their cruel fate on both sides of the Atlantic: on one side, scratching the soil of ruined farms in a devastated continent; on the other, toiling in the sweltering aftermath of captivity.” This nightmare lasted so long, says Achebe, that its victims forgot each other, and forgot their proper name. “One side earned the name of slaves, and the other of savages. Oppression renames its victims, [and] always aims to subvert the individual spirit and the humanity of the victim.” (56) The academic in me is enriched by Achebe’s post-colonial critique of the European discourse around “blacks”, “savages”, and “slaves”, but the truth is that this discourse is not just an academic problem. It’s a collection of words and images which have long shaped–badly–how we in the West see, think about, and talk about blacks and Africans.
There is much more to The Education of a British-Protected Child than all this, but these are the sections that speak most powerfully to me. It is so easy to think of Africa using words like “tribal” or “crisis” or “dysfunction” or “violence” or “rape” or “genocide” or “child soldier” or “underdevelopment”. Most often, these are the windows through which our news of Africa comes to us. When I travelled to Congo in 2008 and 2011, I encountered for the first time real African people–laughing, worshipping, struggling, learning, serving, and working against really significant challenges simply to make a living. It was a tremendous learning experience, and it did much to strip away the stereotypes and easy assumptions that even a highly-educated person with good intentions can have about such a far-away place. I find Chinua Achebe’s writing helps with this unmasking. And so while I find I have fewer answers than ever about how to “help Africa”, I will continue to supply resources to Africans there who can make a difference and continue to wait for opportunities to help along. In the mean time, I will work to make sure that the history I teach does justice to the story Africans are telling about themselves, and not simply the story Europeans have told–the story that created the image of the “Dark Continent” and that facilitated and then justified centuries of slavery and colonization.