Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)Unmasking the Egwugwu

The passing of the African intellectual genius Chinua Achebe makes one ponder the political implications for the Father of African literature’s native Nigeria

Al-Ahram Weekly

OUTREMER, THE OTHER: Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), the pioneering exponent of the modern African novel written in the English language, and undoubtedly one of the best-known writers to have emerged out of Africa, is widely acclaimed for his seminal Things Fall Apart, the groundbreaking masterpiece that occupies a preeminent position in the author’s oeuvre.
His writings, and he was prolific, convey the unmistakable sense that he was not one to believe that any aspect of African traditional culture, precolonial, colonial or contemporary, is best left in obscurity. He believed in openness. Achebe placed himself at nobody’s disposal. And, as such, he was a rare phenomenon. Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, appeared on the cusp of Nigeria’s transition between colonialism and neocolonialism. Yet the “modernist” novel, to use a cliche, was set in precolonial Igboland, eastern Nigeria, or rather to be precise, in the most thoroughly Christianised part of Nigeria, a country with a sizable Muslim community, mostly in the western and particularly the northern reaches of the sprawling West African nation of an estimated 170 million people. And yet again, ironically, the novel depicts events in a specific historical epoch where Igboland was in  transition between animism, traditional African religious practices summarily dismissed by the colonialists as paganism, and Christianity.
Be that as it may, make no mistake: Achebe’s archetypical African novel takes its title from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”. West Africa, unlike Algeria or Kenya or southern Africa, had no European settler colonial communities to speak of. Indeed, West Africa, due to its inhospitable equatorial climate, was called the White Man’s Graveyard. Nevertheless, cultural colonialism was as pronounced in West Africa as in the rest of the continent. The Christian missionaries’ propagation of their version of the monotheistic faith proved astonishingly influential and productive even in irreverent and irreligious ways.
Achebe’s literary and intellectual reputation over the last half century has been second to none. Yet, he did not win the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. Many Africans, and students of African literature, wonder why. Both at home in Nigeria, and not just among his ethnic Igbo people, and abroad — especially in the United States, where he passed away this week — he was a considered a serious but popular writer whose celebrity surpassed that of Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) film stars.
I have no intention of writing a conventional sycophantic obituary, nor do I intend to regurgitate a  miniature biography. The Internet is replete with a long, long list of Achebe’s literary accomplishments and the highlights of a well-lived life. Rather, I aspire to spotlight the international cultural recognition of an African intellectual genius, and a man of integrity.
“A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness, he finds refuge in his motherland,” for me personally perhaps this is the most poignant statement in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It aptly sums up my life experience. Moreover, there are other parallels too between my own personal experience and those of the main characters in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, leader of the Umuofia Igbo clan and his family, including Nwoye, the apple of his father Okonkwo’s eye, after trials and tribulations move to Mbanta, the mother’s ancestral homeland.
Incidentally, turning to the imaginary utopian Motherland as a panacea from the phantasmal Fatherland, in both cases, proved to be no easy process. After the coup d’etat that toppled my father’s government we as a family, mother, my siblings and I, moved to my mother’s country, Egypt. Not long after Okonkwo’s family exodus to Mbanta, the Christian missionaries arrived with all their religious bigotry and zeal. The propagation of Christianity at the time is curiously akin to the spread of political Islam and the Islamist ideology in my own Motherland, Egypt. In both cases the religious zealots soon succumbed to the seductions of power.
With mercurial speed, the Christian missionaries convinced the indigenous Nigerians of the presumably inexorable gains of their monotheistic faith. Requiring total submission and unconditional conversion, the Christian missionaries’ insatiable appetite for colonial conquest appeared as an unstoppable force decreed by the Divine. Achebe, succinctly surmises why and how the local pagans lost out. Their unquestionable martial dynamism was marred by self-doubt and a mental attitude of colonial slavery that eased the path to exponential subjugation as personified in the mysterious masked Egwugwu, traditional religious leaders, who led lugubrious tribal ritual dances disdainful of European Christian missionaries in their immaculately tailored masquerades.
It was once popular to presume that the Christianity introduced by the European colonial missionaries might have swept across all Africa, and Achebe demonstrated why in spite of things falling apart as far as the pagans were concerned, Western Christianity prevailed to a point, but that indigenous Africans were not completely absorbed into the Western Christian world.
“Trying to avoid lending authority to any one culture over others, current advocates of multiculturalism generally emphasize the appreciation of difference among cultures,” Diana Akers-Rhoads in her “Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”. Contemporary Nigerian Christians have far more devout churchgoers than their counterparts in the West, in Europe at any rate. With the notable exception, perhaps, of the Pacific Rim states of California, Oregon and Washington as well as liberal New York, America is something of an aberration. 
“Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart represents the cultural roots of the Igbos in order to provide self-confidence, but at the same time he refers to the universal principles which vitiate their destructive potential,” Akers Rhoads elucidates. Her remarks about the animist Igbo culture ring as true as those of monotheistic Evangelical Christians and Salafist Muslims of contemporary America, much of Africa and the Arab and Islamic worlds. 
In other words, the “pagan” is as principled and righteous as the fundamentalist Christian and Islamist religious zealot. “Achebe cannot achieve his goal merely by representing difference, rather he must depict an Igbo society which moderns can see as having dignity,” she extrapolates.
“What is remarkable about his Igbos is the degree to which they have achieved the foundations of what people seek today — democratic institutions, tolerance of other cultures, a balance of male and female principles, capacity to change for the better or to meet new circumstances, a means of redistributing wealth, a viable system of morality, support for industriousness, an effective system of justice, striking and memorable poetry and art,” notes Aker-Rhoads.
Even as the enmity between Christians — both European colonial missionaries and their indigenous African coverts hardened, as Achebe so dramatically portrays in Things Fall Apart, the degree of influence exercised by both on subsequent generations of Africans dwindled. “Achebe appears to have tested Igbo culture against the goals of modern liberal democracy and to have set out to show how the Igbo meet those standards,” attests Akers-Rhoads.

NOT THE NOBEL: South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer called Achebe “the father of modern African literature” in 2007, when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International prize for fiction. Achebe’s pet subject matter, the overriding theme in most of his works and especially the earlier ones, were broadly-speaking the clash between “African traditions” and “Western modernity”, whatever that really means.
Successive generations of African writers borrowed Achebe’s style and the rhetoric that went with it. When indigenous Africans lost trust in their timeless oracles and modes of religious expression, the traditional healers, herbalists, shamans or as the Christian missionaries preferred to pejoratively refer to them as witchdoctors, invariably chalk the lack of faith in their ancestral traditions by Christian converts as a lack of spiritual discernment. Achebe had no such delusions.
Towards the end of his life, Achebe became more and more obsessed with The Trouble With Nigeria, published in 1984. “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” concluded Achebe. He himself never aspired to political position, and never to my knowledge longed for political leadership in Nigeria. In this book Achebe broke his silence about the 1983 Nigerian elections. Nigeria always appears to be a disappointment to its inhabitants. And, even more poignantly, to other Africans who are pained by the shortcomings of a nation with perhaps the greatest promise in all Africa. Achebe’s satirical style and rancorous wit in part camouflaged his deep despair over the direction of change in his beloved nation.
In 2011, Achebe rejected a Nigerian government offer to honour him with one of the nation’s highest awards — at least the second time he had done so. But while he was internationally acclaimed, Achebe never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His compatriot, Wole Soyinka, became the first African Nobel literature laureate in 1986. Other African novelists followed suit, including Egypt’s own Naguib Mahfouz in 19. The politics of the Nobel Prize is a prickly one. Suffice it to say that since the French poet Sully Prudhomme became the first Nobel literature laureate for tirelessly seeking “evidence of man’s supernatural destiny in the moral realm, in the voice of conscience, and in the lofty and undeniable prescriptions of duty. From this point of view Sully Prudhomme represents better than most writers what the testator called an ‘idealistic’ spirit in literature. What exactly is meant by the ‘idealistic spirit’ actually simultaneously escapes and eludes me.
The onus of the Nobel Prize for Literature was on the spiritual import and application of literary expression in the days of Sully Prudhomme. The moral component of the Nobel idealism has today become more political, again a rather vague and nondescript designation, and decidedly on the side of liberal secularists.
Nigerians, and Africans generally, have never faced up to the full implications of the denial of the Nobel Prize to Chinua Achebe. A sanitised version of the argument over who deserved the Nobel was adopted: African, and Nigeria, has more pressing problems and challenges to iron out than to figure out why Achebe never received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
So does it really matter whether Achebe did win the Nobel Prize or not? South African Nobel literature laureate was praised in the Nobel citation for “her involvement on behalf of literature and free speech in a police state where censorship of books and persecution of people exist”. If so, why did Alan Paton not get the Nobel Prize for Literature for his 1948 classic Cry, the Beloved Country? Was it because the anti-apartheid movement was not yet in vogue?

ACHEBE THE AUTHOR: Even less is known about the early life of Chinua Achebe than his compatriot and fellow literary genius Wole Soyinka. When asked about his family and his family background, Achebe retorted that: “There are few things more important than my family”. He was an intensely private man and unlike Soyinka was less of a political activist and his personal views about the breakaway Igbo state of Biafra that tore itself apart from Nigeria for three years is to say the least ambiguous.
The Igbo poet Christopher Okigbo died fighting for the cause of an independent “Biafra”. At the time Achebe was desperately trying to save his family, immediate and extended, from the horrors of the Nigerian civil war that erupted with Biafra, dominated by Achebe’s own Igbo people, declaring unilateral independence. It was only in 2012 that Achebe published There Was a Country, a memoir of the Biafra war. It was much later, in 1987 that he published Anthills of the Savannah — a scathing critique of military rule.
Soyinka, in sharp contrast seems more comfortable with the role of public personality. He was born into an ethnic Yoruba family in Abeokuta, Western Nigeria. Yoruba culture tends to be more generally appreciated among the African Diaspora in part because of the prevalence of Yoruba derived religious denominations such as the Orisa (Yoruba) Candomble and Batuque in Brazil and Santeria and Lukumi in Cuba. Igbo culture, in spite of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, tends to be more obscure and misunderstood abroad. The association with and political affiliation of most of the Igbo people with secessionist Biafra in the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War further alienated the Igbo people from mainstream Nigerian politics.
After working with the Royal Court Theatre in London, he became a Nigerian independence agitator and a post-independence political activist, seizing the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service headquarters and demanding the cancellation of Western Nigerian Regional Elections in 1965. He was incarcerated in solitary confinement for two years by the then Nigerian military ruler Yakubu Gowon.
So Soyinka the playwright and political activist has always been different in temperament than Achebe, the novelist, poet, professor, political essayist and literary critic. It is unfair, however, to compare the two men even though inevitably many Nigerians, Africans and African literature aficionados undoubtedly do. Unlike other African novelists such as Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiongo, Achebe controversially defended the paramount importance of writing African literature in the “language of the colonisers”, be it English in his and Nigeria’s case, or French in Francophone Africa, or Portuguese in Lusophone Africa.
Achebe was born the fifth of six children in 1930 in Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, where the preponderance of his Igbo ethnic group has often resulted in tribal conflicts in the past. Achebe was a child of the era of Christian missionaries and British colonialism at its zenith. Achebe referred to his parents as early converts to Christianity, with his father becoming an Anglican religious teacher and recalled how his father roamed the region with his mother faithfully tag along her husband who was teaching English and preaching the British colonialists’ Christianity.
How could he resist the temptation to peep into his father’s terrain? In later life Achebe conceded his abhorrence for his own traditional African cultural traditions and his adoration of Western culture. “The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid. I hated their guts,” the late writer would concede, recalling the thoroughly colonised psyche of the impressionable adolescent Achebe.
If the continued attraction of the British colonial authorities and Christian missionaries was noteworthy in Achebe’s early upbringing, so too was the closely associated radical revision of his childhood convictions. Emotionally compelling tales such as the Narrative of the  Eighteenth Century ex-slave Olaudah Equiano hit home. Such stories struck a chord with an increasingly politicised Achebe. “Equiano was an Ibo, I believe, from the village of Iseke in the Orlu division of Nigeria” Achebe wrote in 1975.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Achebe conceded that his reading evolved and he slowly became aware of how books had cast Africans as savages. Not only did his political views gradually change, but also his use of the English language deliberately and creatively altered syntax and idiom into an English that was fast metamorphosing into a hybrid language with a distinctly African flavour. Achebe’s tweaking, twisting and turning of the conventional English he studied at school was his way of politicising the African reader paging through books written in the colonial masters tongue. This was not done out of innocence. It was a deliberate political ploy, and he was the unsurpassed pioneer. “There is that great proverb  that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” as Achebe aptly put it.
In 1954, Achebe moved to the then Nigerian capital Lagos, the country’s most populous metropolis. He joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, a radio network founded by the British colonial authorities in 1933. The pulsating conurbation of Lagos left the son of the preacher from rural eastern Nigeria with mixed feelings. In 1960 he published his novel No Longer at Ease describing his confused soul-searching simultaneous attraction and apprehension of the overwhelming Lagos.
Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, was published in 1964. The interplay of Igbo or African religious and cultural perspectives with European Christianity provided like its predecessor novels Achebe’s thematic core. Ezeulu, chief priest of Ulu, is like Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart and Obi in No Longer at Ease obsessed with European technological superiority, firearms and all. African arrows and other artifacts were no match to the wonders of the “White Man”.
A Man of the People, published in 1966, was of a different tenor altogether. The colonialists had vanished from the scene, but neocolonialism flourished in the form of a corrupt minister of culture named Nanga. From then onwards, Achebe became more preoccupied with contemporary neocolonialism in Nigeria.
In 1977. Achebe published An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “’Heart of Darkness’ projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where a man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality,” from [Achebe’s] “An Image of Africa,” a 1975 lecture that became a widely printed essay,” notes Professor Charles Larson, author of works of literary criticism and fiction. His critical works include The Emergence of African Fiction, American Indian Fiction, The Novel in the Third World, in Counterpunch. “Achebe and many other Igbos were left in a state of emotional collapse and, if you talk to Igbos today in southeastern Nigeria, they’ll tell you that a similar situation could occur again,” Larson extrapolates.
“An automobile accident in Nigeria in 2001 left Achebe paralyzed and wheelchair bound.  A person of less inner strength would not have survived.  Finally, there has been a kind of downward spiral in the country’s ability to emerge as the major moral force that it might have become on the African continent, leading the much-heralded but still unrealized African renaissance.  Military coups, terrible leadership, the waste of the billions and billions of dollars from oil revenue, rampant corruption—even the “Nigeria scam”–have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.  You can’t call Nigeria a failed state, but it’s certainly difficult to see the country as much beyond that because of the extraordinary toll of wasted potential in all areas,” Larson expounds.

PENITENT PUNDIT: After writing Things Fall Apart, Achebe was certainly on his way to becoming a new man. He was no longer entranced by the Christian ethics inculcated in him at an early age by his colonial missionary schoolmasters and by his own preacher father. He had rediscovered his African heritage in a manner free of the Christian mores of the missionaries. He had recovered his roots and he had learned to view his African world through the prism of his own political convictions and from within his own aesthetic consciousness. The lamentable truth, however, was that Nigeria had not changed much since the days of what he now described as “colonial dictatorship”. True democracy had not yet happened in his homeland and there was not the slightest sign of it happening anytime soon.
Achebe lived and worked as a professor in the United States in recent years, most recently at Brown University in Rhode Island, and he joined the ancestors in Boston, Massachusetts. The late Nigerian novelist was an engaging narrator. The splendours of European civilisation as embodied in the Christian missionaries he encountered as a child were towards the end of his life viewed almost exclusively from his own hard-earned perspective.
“For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter. Of the ‘pioneer quartet’ of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced – one, of the poet Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe,” Soyinka and fellow Nigerian poet and playwright John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo issued a joint statement upon learning of the passing of Achebe.
“We need to stress this at a critical time of Nigerian history, where the forces of darkness appear to overshadow the illumination of existence that literature represents. These are forces that arrogantly pride themselves implacable and brutal enemies of what Chinua and his pen represented, not merely for the African continent, but for humanity. Indeed, we cannot help wondering if the recent insensate massacre of Chinua’s people [the predominantly Christian Igbo] in Kano [the metropolis of the principally Muslim northern Nigeria], only a few days ago, hastened the fatal undermining of that resilient will that had sustained him so many years after his crippling accident,” in a straightforward reference to religious strife in contemporary post-colonial Nigeria.
Nevertheless, Soyinka and Clark-Bekederemo concluded their statement on an upbeat note. “No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives. His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression”.
Nigerian demographics are far more complex than they were during the colonial days. The demographic shifts in question in contemporary Nigeria concern religious affiliation as much as ethnicity. Nigerians also perceive their identities differently. As with ethnicity, contemporary Nigerian politicians like their colonial masters of yesteryear still find it hard to disguise their interest in religion as anything but a targeted vote pitch.
How I wish that there would have been a Muslim, northerner or otherwise, among the pioneer quartet of contemporary Nigerian literature alluded to by Soyinka and Clark-Bekederemo in their farewell statement apropos of Achebe. When the esteemed authors speak of Kano, the city connotes Islamist extremism. Sadly, the implicit message is that “Chinua’s people”, the stereotypical Christian Igbo are viewed as victims of militant Islamists. Small wonder many Muslims in Nigeria, however unwittingly, are on to something serious — Boko Haram, literally Western education, that of the colonial era Christian missionaries, is sinful.

Gamal Nkrumah

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