The Writer in African Society

 Originally Appeared in: Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses | Published: 1991

An example of how literature helps define these choices may be drawn from the career of Chinua Achebe (b. 1930). One of Africa’s leading writers and intellectuals and one of the major contemporary novelists writing in English, Achebe is the founding editor of the African Writers Series, which has been the main publisher of new work by African writers for thirty years. Achebe’s own first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), gave impetus to the entire first generation of African novelists.

Achebe was born in an Ibo village along the Niger River. His grandfather had memories of life before the arrival of the white man; his father, who was converted to Christianity as a young man, taught in a mission school. Achebe has witnessed, in his own lifetime and through the experiences of his parents and grandparents, the telescoped history of his nation. In little more than a century, Nigerians—comprising three disparate tribal groups each with its own language and religion: the Ibo, the Hausa, and the Yoruba—were conquered and subjugated by whites, Christianized, selectively recruited into Western schooling and the English language, confronted with an urban and industrial civilization, “united” into one country, and given independence and self-rule.

Achebe’s novels have recorded the changes and upheavals of this process. Things Fall Apart tells the story of his grandfather’s generation, the coming of the white man and the disintegration of village culture and tribal rule. No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God, (1964) deepen Achebe’s account of village life and unfold the historical narrative right up to the eve of Nigerian independence. A Man of the People (1966) satirizes the course of Nigerian politics in the first five years of independence. The novel’s dramatic last chapter accurately prefigured a military coup which took place in January 1966.

Two purposes seem to animate all of Achebe’s writing. On the one hand, he preserves the record of the bitter historical experience of colonialism. He bears witness to a way of life destroyed never to be recovered; he records wrongs that can never be set right. On the other hand, Achebe attempts to make literature itself a means of securing the new national identity of Nigeria and of articulating the values and lessons needed by modern Africans as they take control of a world not yet of their own making.

The Politics of Language

African writers in recent years have debated whether they should write in European languages, “mother-tongues,” or Swahili. European languages like English and French, in which most contemporary African literature is written, are the “language of the colonizer.” Learned at school, these languages were the instrument of Europeans’ control of African education and culture. Most African writers grow up speaking a mother-tongue, the language spoken in their communities and by their families; some mother-tongues are spoken by many peoples across great geographical areas, but others are isolated languages or dialects. Swahili is a lingua franca invented and developed in modern times to give disparate linguistic communities a language in common.

Major writers have advocated various positions on the politics of language. Achebe has strongly advocated writing in the European languages. He believes Nigeria has to forge a national cultural tradition to underpin its political community, and English, though imposed by the British, serves that purpose. Like so many African writers whose own education was under European control, Achebe also has developed the very forms and styles of his writing from his contact with European and British literature. But while these reasons for writing in English bespeak the force of reality and necessity, Achebe also relishes the thought that Africans will change English or French by writing in it. Cultures that had for so long imposed their will on others must now be prepared to undergo changes wrought by the new practices and purposes of those it once colonized:

My answer to the question, Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say: I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.

The Choice of Genre

As with languages, so too with literary forms: Achebe has taken up genres with strong Western traditions—the novel, tragedy, satire—and given them new social and cultural tasks. Consider Okonkwo, the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. He is a successful farmer, an honored warrior in his tribe, and a man with several wives. His life is deeply embedded in the values and customs of the Ibo. The shape Achebe gives the events of Okonkwo’s life sheds light on his general strategy of adapting but changing cultural traditions.

Two catastrophes befall Okonkwo. In the first he runs up against the norms of his tribe; in the second he defies the white man’s norms. The first catastrophe brings Part One to an end. Okonkwo has to flee from his clan, exiled for seven years. He has accidently killed a boy during the funeral rites for the boy’s father, an honored elder who years before had chastized Okonkwo for taking part in the killing of a young captive who had grown up in his care. Okonkwo and his family, taking only the belongings they can carry, barely escape before a group of men overrun his compound:

They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. . . . They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman.

Catastrophe strikes Okonkwo a second time at the end of the novel. During his exile the first Europeans have begun to colonize the Obi tribe. He returns to find missionaries running a school and Christianizing the young people. A colonial administrator, backed by armed guards, pronounces new rules and outlaws old customs. Six elders, Okonkwo among them, try to fight back. They burn the whites’ newly built church to the ground. The six are arrested, humiliated by their captors, and fined. When they are able to assemble the clan again, the most revered of the six describes the sense of injustice felt by those who resist the Europeans:

All our gods are weeping. Idemili is weeping. Ogwugwu is weeping. Agbala is weeping, and all the others. Our dead fathers are weeping because of the shameful sacrilege they are suffering and abominations we have seen with our eyes.

These words inspire Okonkwo, who is enraged at the humiliations he and the others have suffered. The tribe’s justice always served to honor the gods and the dead, even when Okonkwo himself had to be punished, but the white man’s justice offends everything the clan honors. As things fall apart, the gods, forefathers, and elders are all shamed. When the administrator’s messenger comes ordering the elders to disperse the meeting, Okonkwo kills him where he stands, thereby sealing his own fate as well.

Both catastrophes in Okonkwo’s life result from actions that stem from his own personality and its excesses, for example, his rashness, his overstressed masculinity, his need to display prowess and strength. And both times he oversteps a powerful boundary, first the tribal law and then the colonizer’s law. Here lies the basic shape of tragedy in Achebe. When challenged Okonkwo asserts himself on the basis of the values by which he measures his own worth; not only does his self-assertion meet resistance of a greater power (the tribe’s, the colonizer’s), but also the values on which he pins his self-esteem are not fully shared by his community. His self-esteem is doubly at risk—either from not meeting the challenge or from not having his self-assertion accepted, valued, validated. Achebe finds the conditions for tragedy at those moments when no options but these present themselves.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this long and yet inevitably incomplete summary of twentiethcentury literature is to note that the title of Achebe’s novel, written around the middle of the century, alludes to one of the most-quoted poems ever written. In “The Second Coming,” written early in the century, W. B. Yeats looked both backwards and forwards. To Christians, the First Coming is the birth of Jesus; the Second Coming, then, would inaugurate a new cycle of being. But the modern world lacks confidence in a new messiah:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and every-
The ceremony of innocence is drowned. . . .
                                        but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Achebe, like Yeats, like everyone, has no answer to this terrifying question. But the achievement of art in every age has been to find memorable forms in which to frame those questions, forms that themselves take on independent life and invigorate new questioners. Defying the limits of time and space, of life and death, artistic traditions thus survive and nourish.