As a successful author and editor of the influential and prestigious Heinemann Educational Books African Writers’ Series, Chinua Achebe opened the door to many African writers
Before Chinua Achebe came on the world literary scene in the late 1950s, African literature was treated by the rest of the world, and more sadly by many educated Africans themselves, as a quixotic exercise in which dark forests and evil spirits held sway. At best, its fruits were relegated to footnotes in anthropological tomes by foreigners seeking validation through evidence from authentic African ‘non-oral’ sources. Or at worst, as examples of the confused babbling that the ‘half-baked education’ provided by missionaries, had succeeded in churning out among the ‘natives’.
For instance, an English Lit. Oxford graduate once jested to me that Cyprian Ekwensi ‘should have stuck to his vocation as a pharmacist’ instead of veering aside to write ‘apologies’ for novels, like People of the City and Jagua Nana!
And, as for Amos Tutuola, if the derision of those better ‘educated’ than him could squelch the creative impulse, The Palmwine Drinkard would have been his last offering at the literary shrine. He was regularly ridiculed, but was it he — or his publishers — who gave his works such titles as Simbi and The Satyr of the Dark Jungle?
Tutuola was trying to open to the world the doors that led to the riches of Yoruba folklore. But the key to the door — the dyspeptic Western publishing industry — was rusted. And Tutuola was made to drink from the poison that was distilled when rust met even the freshest droplets of dew from the greenest leaves in the rainforest. These and other examples that I don’t care to recall serve to illustrate the infanticide that the ‘English Lit’ industry in England and America inflicted upon the offspring of the African muse, in those crucial years, when Africa was struggling to assert herself politically, and when political repression was extended to include the suppression of everything that helped the African to believe that he was the co-equal of his oppressors.
Teachers and publishers’ readers who were rolled out from the same cloistered cubicles of dead thought formed an unholy alliance to capture and shape the African soul. But unnoticed by them, Caliban’s tongue was being forged in the very crucible wherein African literature was being encrusted by them.
Peter Abrahams, for instance, broke free and was accorded some recognition for novels such as Song of the City and Mine Boy. But he was almost immediately slotted into the apartheid racialist ghetto of ‘Coloured Writer’!
Alan Paton, on the other hand, was killed with kindness — he was credited with producing not only white South African literature at its best — despite Cry The Beloved Country being an unmistakably pan-African work– but world literature, that employed African themes! My God – the head begins to swim when one re-emerges it in those years of what a Nigerian friend would call ‘literary caterwauling’; when English Lit practitioners felt the need to categorise in order to stake out virgin literary colonies in African literature for themselves.
I have practical experience of this: the German translation of my novel, The Gab Boys, was entrusted by the publisher -- of course, without consulting me -- to an ‘expert’ in African literature, Janheinz Jahn. I couldn’t, naturally, tell what sort of job he made of it, as I do not have German. But a casual remark from a German friend made me uneasy — apparently, in addition to changing the title to the obscure Flucht nach Akkra ['Escape To Accra'"> Horst Erdmann of Tubingen, Germany, had also accepted a translation that resorted to a completely quaint German argot to tell my story. Jahn’s explanation was that the characters in my book would, if they were Germans, not be capable of speaking grammatical German! My friend was not amused by the rationale used by Jahn. But what to do? You had been published in German and you wanted to make noise about the translation?
With Achebe, they couldn’t find anything to dare to mess with. The guy had used a line from the great Irish poet, W B Yeats, as his title for his first novel, Things Fall Apart. But if those who jumped with delight at the fact that a mere African understood Yeats so well had been adequately literate themselves, they would have been instructed that here was a man who had not only survived the deathly clutches of ‘English Lit’ at Ibadan, but who had guessed, in his heart, that his continent was in serious trouble; or as Yeats had continued, after the first lines of his poem:
The darkness drops again 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 last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats foresaw the years of bloodshed in Ireland, and following suit, Achebe might well have entitled his last published book, There Was A Country, The Hour of the Rough Beast. For he lived to see things that not even Yeats could have prepared him for. Maybe he had prepared himself, though: A Man Of The People began to unravel explicitly, the corruption, double-talk and ‘slouching’ towards self-destruction that Nigeria had embarked upon, and which he also more than hinted at in No Longer At Ease.
Yipes! The guy told us. But we wouldn’t believe it. Until it happened in real life before our very eyes. And all we could do was to sit and watch. As the stomachs of babies and infants swelled with starvation and exploded in thousands of tiny graves; as grown men ran like chickens upon the arrival of iron hawks droning noisily in the sky and swooping down to scatter burning fire and bullets into dwellings and schools and even — allegedly — hospitals with the Red Cross symbol painted on their roofs.
The reports of what was happening in Biafra were such that I wrote to Achebe (I don’t remember how I got his address, for I hadn’t kept in touch with him after Kampala) asking him to arrange for me to visit Biafra to see things there for myself. The address I’d been given was authentic, however: Achebe did reply, in his own hand, giving me the name of the Biafran representative in London, a Mr Kogbara, and asking me to get in touch with him to arrange my visit to Biafra.
‘Yes – this war should not only be reported by white journalists’, Achebe wrote to me.
But the sickness known as ‘Nigerianitis’ had also afflicted the London office of Biafra! I was always told by underlings that Kogbara was ‘not on seat’ when I called at Collingham Gardens, London, to see him. And my telephone calls, which were always received by someone else, were never returned. This surprised me, for I was writing regularly for the London Observer at that time and I expected that even if Achebe had neglected to apprise Kogbara in advance of my desire to visit Biafra, the latter would recognise my name himself and realise that it might be advantageous to the Biafran cause to arrange for an African journalist with access to a reputable British newspaper like The Observer, to go there. At the very least, he could do me the courtesy of talking to me directly?
It was then that I had an inkling that the Biafran struggle was not being pursued with as much idealism and devotion as some of Biafra’s foreign sympathisers believed. Later events were to prove that indeed, factionalism was sapping the vigour out of the benighted ‘country’. My own friend and Drum colleague, Nelson Ottah, defected to the federal side. But unaware of any of that, the wasteful death, at the front, of my Kampala friend, the personable Chris Okigbo, affected me deeply — so much so that I put my relationship with The Observer at risk when I noticed that its ‘omniscient’ Africa Correspondent, Colin Legum, was pushing a very anti-Biafran line in reporting the war, and keeping pro-Biafran stuff out of the paper.
Gee, it’s great to be young: I wrote from the USA, where I was on a visit, to tell the editor, David Astor, bluntly that Legum’s line could have been coming straight from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. I reminded Astor that The Observer was well known for supporting oppressed minorities like the Nagas of the India-Burma border region. I ended the letter disrepectfully with the words, ‘F**k Colin Legum!’
This letter caused a great stir at The Observer office, where, apparently, much heart-searching had been going on over the paper’s line on Biafra, as dictated by Mr Colin Legum. On my way back to Ghana from the USA, I passed through London and called The Observer. I was given the impression that David Astor was anxious to talk to me, but when I got to the office, I was palmed off to Astor’s deputy, Donalkd Trelford. We had a chat but as far as I know, nothing came of it. The paper continued to follow the Legum line.
I had first met Achebe in 1962, at a conference of writers organised at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. I cannot now recall who organised it and why, for in those days, when one got an invitation, one accepted it because it signified recognition, and if an airline ticket eventually materialised, one jumped into a plane and went. I got to the conference a day late, due to the lateness of my ticket’s arrival. So, when I got there, I was like a new boy in a new class in school – introductions, news, briefings – took half my time. But I enjoyed being there and getting acquainted with a host of very interesting people, including Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi, John Nagenda, Christopher Okigbo, Segun Olusola, Barry Record, Iskia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane and, of course, Chinua Achebe. The black South Africans were of particular interest to me, for I’d been writing passionate radio commentaries about their country, ever since the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960, without actually meeting any of them in the flesh. Bloke Modisane and Bob Leshoai became very good friends and taught me to sing ‘Tso-tso-loza!’ over several beers at a nightclub called ‘Top Life’.
Other than that, I hardly paid any attention to the many voluble opinions and prescriptions offered at the conference on how to write in our ‘African setting’, for I was preoccupied with arranging interviews for the paper I edited in Accra, the Ghana edition of Drum magazine. Among the historic personalities I was chasing were Jomo Kenyatta (in Nairobi), the prime minister of the Central African Federation, Sir Roy Welensky (in Salisbury, now Harare) Kenneth Kaunda (in Lusaka) Dr Hastings Banda (in Nyasaland, now Malawi) and, will you believe it — the South African prime minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd (in Johannesburg.)
In those days, to expect to be able to use telephones between one African country and another was akin to expecting manna to drop from heaven, so I was reduced to using cablegrams and letters – a task immensely complicated by the fact that I could not afford to stay long enough in any one capital to await replies to my cables and/or letters from another capital! Even worse I was constantly short of money on the trip, for the administrators of Drum in Johannesburg did not quite appreciate the adventurism of their pan-African editor in Accra, who was apparently threatening to upset the delicate policy of ‘live and let live’ that they had managed, by long practice, to establish with the racist regimes of east, central and southern Africa.
Their appeasement of racism in those countries, as I saw it, nauseated me — when I wrote a piece attacking the Nation newspaper group of companies in Nairobi for only allowing the perfectly literate Kenyans I had met on their staff — including Herman Igambi — to write only for their Swahili paper, Taifa Leo, the Drum administration apologised when the Nation threatened to sue for libel. I told them: “If they sue they will lose, because what I wrote is true!” But it was hushfully intimated to me that the Kenyan blacks whose case I had taken up might be sacked if they gave evidence against their employer! I gave up and a “clarification” was published in the East African edition of Drum.
I could sense that with Ghana operating a stringent exchange control system that prevented me from gaining access to the money in my bank account in Accra, the only way the Drum administration could rope me in was to stall whenever I asked for money. But I stuck it out, often making friends with hotel managers in order not to be chucked out, while making daily trips to banks to see whether any money had arrived for me. I was immensely impressed by the generosity of two Drum representatives – a guy called Dick Walker in Ndola (Northern Rhodesia/Zambia) and another called Noel Mukono (in Salisbury/Harare).
Despite the hardships I endured on the trip, I managed to interview everyone on my list, except — Dr Verwoerd, who declined with a curt note saying: ‘Your visit to South Africa cannot be allowed’.
I was as sure as hell that his office had contacted Drum headquarters in Johannesburg and that the answer I had received from him was a reflection of the annoyance that must have been felt at said HQs, that I had not bothered to inform them of my plan to arrive on their doorstep! Of course, I had deliberately not consulted them – for I was not stupid enough to imagine that they would exactly dance around with glee, if their ‘Pan-African-minded’ editor from Nkrumah’s Ghana came to South Africa to set the blood pressure of Verwoerd racing, with ‘insensitive’ questioning about the presumptions underlying the philosophy of apartheid.
I could understand that, from their perspective, I might put their entire South African operation at risk and that they would thus like to veto my visit. For the apartheid regime continued to fool the world that the blacks it oppressed had the best lives of all the blacks in Africa! I could explode that in less than a week of seeing South Africa. Of course, I had to guess at everything that was going on, for the art of acting by doing or saying nothing was not exactly unknown to me!
But back to Achebe – I last saw him some years ago (before his sad motor accident) coming out of the Strand branch of a London bank, just as I was entering it. He recognised me and complimented me on my novel, The Gab Boys, as a ‘fine’ piece of work. I nearly asked him, ‘If you liked it, why didn’t you put it on the Heinemann Educational Books African Writers’ Series, of which you were the editor?’ (The paperback edition went, instead, on a Fontana Modern Writers list that was very prestigious but didn’t penetrate African schools as deeply as the HEB series.)
I am glad I didn’t press the issue. For I later got to know that my compatriot and friend, Ayi Kwei Armah had had a very irksome experience with the Heinemann people, when they published his work. (You see, publishing is not just a literary pursuit but also, a commercial and intensely political one!)
Fortunately, Ayi Kwei and I both now own the copyright to our work and can do what we like with it. But I must say that whatever he did – or did not – do with Heinemann, Achebe, by breaking through publishing the way he did, opened the door to all of us African writers. We honour him for that as we do his great craftsmanship.
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