3 April 2013

Nigeria: Reflections On Chinua Achebe


As I reflect on Chinua Achebe's passing, two things spring to mind about him. Both relate to his pronouncements on The Novelist as Teacher, the title of one of his most memorable essays.

First, Achebe speaks to us about Africa's unfolding culture of liberation. The challenge of the liberation struggle, past the flag independence post, is the integration of the former colonised to their human stories (history), culture and heritage. South Africans do mistake the trappings of independence for its substance, often substituting words like "freedom" for independence and "post-apartheid" for neo-apartheid (read neo-colonialism). Liberating the African mind from the stranglehold of Western cultural imperialism, the unfinished business of the liberation struggle, is an African renaissance imperative. Orature has the capacity to restore lost memory, reclaim past accomplishment, implant a liberatory ethos in people's hearts and, therefore, decolonise their minds. Chinua Achebe writes in "The Novelist as Teacher": "Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse - to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of that word."

Secondly, Achebe spells out his creed in deploying orature for literary purposes as follows: "I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past - with all its imperfections - was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them." The point that should resonate with South Africans is that with very few exceptions, mainly among novels written in African languages, African writers from South Africa, show a remarkable lack of historical consciousness. Orature is the bedrock of historical reconstruction among Africans, as writers such as Sol Plaajte and Mazisi Kunene demonstrate. Achebe delves into orature to recreate his people's culture, their cultural values and social environment in pre-colonial times. The process restores his people's voice, where colonial history silences them. The perspective of the Igbo people of what is today the eastern part of Nigeria dominates Achebe's project to correct distortions and misrepresentations from colonial history. He teaches that people are agents of history and not its hapless, helpless victims. They each have distinctive personalities and some of their traits are laudable and others reprehensible. They are not simply part of the exotic African landscape and they do not merely constitute some backdrop to the action, as in colonial novels about Africa by such writers as Humphrey Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad and Robert Ruark. Achebe's characters act rather than being acted upon all the time and from their decisions, and from the kind of individuals they are, certain good or bad outcomes flow.

These are timeless lessons Achebe teaches. Moreover, for South Africa, the issues continue to rear their ugly head. Human Rights Day for South Africans, does not go further back than the Sharpeville tragedy; the women struggles do not go further than the march to Pretoria in 1956; the land issue is only traced as far back as 1913. These historical distortions are then canonized in the school curriculum. A reading of Achebe should compel South Africans to re-examine what outrageously passes for history but is little more than regurgitating the colonial master's version and then giving it back to him untainted to obtain a pass grade in matriculation.

Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, Project Leader & General Editor, Encyclopaedia of South African Arts, Culture & Heritage

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