Chinua Achebe’s latest book,‘The Education of a British-Protected Child’, a ‘compendium of seventeen skilfully written non-fictional pieces’, is an ‘acerbic lampoon on the propagation of colonial stereotypes via the medium of literature,' writes Peter Wuteh Vakunta.
Achebe’s latest publication, ’The Education of a British-Protected Child’, is a compendium of seventeen skilfully written non-fictional pieces in which he walks his readers down memory lane. In the title story (p3-24), he writes: 'In 1957, three years after my failed Cambridge application, I had my first opportunity to travel out of Nigeria to study briefly at the BBC Staff School in London. For the first time I needed and obtained a passport, and saw myself defined therein as a ‘British Protected Person.'(p4) Achebe paints a vivid picture of himself, an African child growing up in Nigeria under British rule, and having to straddle both worlds. Ill at ease with his ambivalence he adumbrates his aversion for colonialism and attendant ills in these terms: ‘…I will state simply my fundamental objection to colonial rule. In my view, it is a gross crime for anyone to impose himself on another, to seize his land and his history, and then to compound this by making out that the victim is some kind of ward or minor requiring protection. It is too disingenuous.’(p7)
Achebe’s book is an acerbic lampoon on the propagation of colonial stereotypes via the medium of literature in a bid to justify the subjugation of Africans. He singles out Joseph Conrad’s ’Heart of Darkness’ as an epitome of such disingenuous works of literature stepped in racial undertones and bigotry. He observes that Conrad, the Polish-born French-speaking English sea captain and novelist recorded in his memoir his first experience of seeing a black man in these remarkable words: ‘A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.’(p158) Achebe describes this sort of literature as ‘poisonous writing, in full consonance with the tenets of the slave trade-inspired tradition of European portrayal of Africa.’(p87-88)
‘The Education of a British-Protected Child’ is captivating in several respects but the quality that grips the reader’s attention is the writer’s continual recourse to the literary device of intertextuality. He often resorts to cross-references in a bid to prove salient points as this example indicates: ‘My first attention was first drawn to these observations of Conrad’s in a scholarly work, not very widely known, by Johah Raskin. Its title was The Mythology of Imperialism.’(159) In a similar vein, he refers to the ‘vast quantity of offensive and trashy writing about Africa in Victorian England (p62) and alludes to the works of Joyce Cary, Graham Greene, and John Buchan (p63). Taking umbrage at Buchan’s book, Prester John, Achebe notes that ‘what he says about natives in his novels takes on… an additional political significance.’(p63)
In ‘My Dad and Me’ (p35-38), Achebe lays bare the hollowness of the self-styled civilising mission to Africa: ‘Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before these European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, their ancestors, also sailing in ships, had delivered our forefathers to the horrendous transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?’(p38) Achebe paints the colonialists and evangelists with the same brush. He depicts the transatlantic slave trade as ‘mankind’s greatest crime against humanity…’ (p56) His book embodies some bitter-sweet stories. He strives to provide intriguing answers to perplexing questions, the thorniest of which is the one he christens the ‘Negro problem’ (p60) or the ‘conundrum of African-Americans’ (p60). Achebe posits that the African-American conundrum is a two-headed monster that could be described as follows: ‘One: Africans sold us to Europeans for cheap trinkets. Two: Africans have made nothing of which we can be proud.’(p60)
These understatements are allusions to Africans’ complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. Above all, it broaches the question of underachievement in Africa. Achebe depicts the African-American Dilemma as a ‘scenario in which the victim is blamed for the crime…’ (p134) He resorts to the story of ‘Dom Afonso of Bukongo’ to make the point that Africans did not wilfully engage in slave trade: ‘…the Portuguese missionaries abandoned their preaching and became slave raiders. Dom Afonso in bewilderment wrote a letter in 1526 to King John III of Portugal complaining about the behaviour of Portuguese nationals in the Congo. The letter went unanswered.’ (p64) Achebe offers no foolproof solutions to this irksome African-American imbroglio. Rather, he cautions Africans against the temptation to give outsiders the leeway to tell the story of Africans: ‘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…So much psychological, political and, economic interest is vested in the negative image.’(p61)
In ‘Spelling Our Proper Name’(p54-67), Achebe takes the West to task for the spoliation of Africa, particularly the theft of Africa’s artistic wealth: ‘Two hundred and fifty years later, before the British sacked the … city of Benin, they first described it as the ‘City of Blood’, whose barbarism so revolted their civilised conscience that they simply had to dispatch a huge army to overwhelm it, banish its king, and loot its royal art gallery for the benefit of the British Museum and numerous private collections.’(p62) So much for the civilising mission! Suffice it to say that the denigration of Africa, its people and value systems, to Achebe’s mind, amounts to a Western contraption designed to divest Africans of their valued treasures. He unveils the veneer that conceals Western hypocrisy in a story titled ‘Teaching Things Fall Apart’, a eulogy not only of African sagacity but also of the communal spirit characteristic of the African personality. He sheds ample light on the ‘Bantu dictum on humanity’s indivisibility: Umuntu ngumuntu nqa-bantu’ (p136), which could be translated as ‘A human is human because of other humans.’(136) Regarding the wisdom of Africans in conflict resolution, he has this to say about his own people: ‘When the Igbo encounter human conflict, their first impulse is not to determine who is right but quickly to restore harmony. In my hometown, Ogidi, we have a saying, “Ikpe Ogidi adi-ama ofu onye: The judgment of Ogidi does not go against one side”.’(p6)
In ‘Africa is People’ (p155-166), Achebe reveals painful truths about attempts made by Westerners to dehumanise Africans. He notes that in the course of his peregrinations around the world, he has learned eye-opening lessons, one of which is the fact that the simplest things can still give us a lot of trouble, even the brightest among us. This is particularly so in matters concerning Africa. For example, he observes that ‘One of the greatest men of the twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer – philosopher, theologian, musician, medical missionary – failed to completely see the most obvious truth about Africa and so went ahead to say: “The African is indeed my brother, but my junior brother.”’(p158) Achebe wonders why to date nobody has taken Dr Schweitzer up on that blasphemy.
In contradistinction, he heaps encomium on the best architects of Africa’s independence. ‘The Sweet Aroma of Zik’s Kitchen’ (p25-34) is the portrait of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, popularly known as Zik – as a fine educationist, politician and genuine Pan-Africanist. On Zik’s popularity, Achebe has the following remarks: ‘To say that Azikiwe’s name was a household word in my part of Nigeria during the first decade of my life would be true but insufficient… Azikiwe turned his light loose among the people and transformed Nigeria overnight.’(p28-29) Zik’s contribution to the decolonisation struggle in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general cannot simply be glossed over. Achebe notes that ‘Azikiwe’s contribution to Africa’s liberation politics was enormous.’(p33) In ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’(p77-95) Achebe writes in praise of Africa’s most accomplished statesman and man of letters, Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, who wrote a poem ‘Prayer to Masks’ in celebration of the problematic proximity between Africa and Europe.
All in all, the publication of this new book after protracted silence from a man acclaimed, rightly or wrongly, as the father of African literature should be a welcome relief to those who might have been wondering what became of their idol. True to himself, Achebe has once again proven to be a true master of the word.
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* Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child is published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2009 (ISBN 0307272559).
* Peter Wuteh Vakunta is visiting assistant professor in the Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.