Monday, November 15, 2010

For Achebe @ 80: Tulu Ugo


By Biko Agozino, Ph.D.

I enjoyed reading the interview of Elechi Amadi by
James Eze in The Sun in October 2004. I wish to thank Amadi
for sharing the open secret of his success as a
writer: you need to read hundreds, and he repeated,
hundreds of novels before you can master that art form
and venture to become a successful novelist. I hope
that this simple lesson will be encouraged in many
more high schools by requiring students to read for
pleasure beyond their textbooks.

As a high school kid, I read some of Amadi’s novels
and books for pleasure and marveled at his ability to
move my emotion in sympathy with his characters. I
believe that it was his The Great Ponds that nearly
drove me to tears in sympathy with the people dying in
droves after someone swore an oath claiming a piece of
land that was in dispute between two villages. The
oath ended the bloody warfare but the mass suffering
from what we can suspect to be cholera (but which the
author represented as punishment from the gods) was
too much for a kid to take.

In the interview, Amadi was wrong in assuming that he is the first to
accuse Achebe of ‘pandering to the white man’. This
question is raised frequently on the internet by
university students of World Literature who argue that
Achebe did not accomplish his stated objective in
Things Fall Apart. As Achebe stated this objective
shortly after the publication of the novel, his aim
was: "to help my society regain belief in itself, and
put away the complexes of denigration and self

Like Amadi, the students point out that the white man
won the struggle and Okonkwo’s people were humiliated
and they wonder how that could be uplifting to the
people of Umuofia. The question is whether Achebe was
pandering to the white man by portraying him as
dominant or whether he was reporting the reality of
the colonial and the neo-colonial situations in
Africa? Is it an insult to Africans for someone to
tell them that we are still under the domination of
Europeans? How do you ‘help’ a people under domination
to regain self-respect if it is taboo to tell them the
home truth that they remain under domination? Is it
more empowering to explain everything in terms of the
anger of the gods?

In the work of Amadi the white man is almost
completely absent but the author panders to
superstitious beliefs in gods and goddesses. Is it not
the case that Achebe was rendering a more urgent
service to the people by telling them a few home
truths? For instance, what if the white man had come
to The Great Ponds of Amadi and diagnosed the cholera
that was wiping them out and advised them to boil
their drinking water and adopt sanitation measures to
save more lives, could that be dismissed by Amadi as
the triumph of Western medicine and therefore an
insult to his people? Achebe wisely saw the need for
us to send our children to the white man’s school to
learn his wisdom for our own purposes.

In other words, why should Amadi keep silent on the
colonial struggle in his own work and now try to
lampoon Achebe for addressing the struggle and
correctly concluding that our people have suffered
major set-backs? Achebe claims that he was named after
the husband of Queen Victoria, Albert, but that when
he went to visit the Victoria Falls in East Africa,
some petty colonial official tried to segregate him on
the tour bus by asking him to move to the back but he
refused and told him that in Nigeria we sit where we
like on a bus. I do not think that such is the
attitude of someone who would pander to racist

Apart from this point on realism, I suspect that Amadi
missed a secret in Achebe’s uses of European
characters in his novels. I suspect that this is also
a clever marketing ploy to get more readers worldwide
beyond the place of origin of the author. Reading
books without a character that you can identify with
could be fun but it could be even more fun when you
find characters that you can identify with. Beyond
Africa, readers might find it difficult to identify
with Amadi’s attempts to mystify the quite common
death of young men at a time that life expectancy was
so low in The Concubine or the senseless blood-letting
in The Great Ponds of interethnic wars that continue
to afflict sections of our society today.

As Biodun Jeyifo argued in The Truthful Lie, we need
more writers who would contribute to the
demystification of our crises and thereby contribute
to our search for solutions. Achebe could have blamed
Okonkwo’s death on some god or goddess, but he made it
clear that he took his own life with his own hands and
severely criticized him for killing Ikemefuna to
appease some god.

I believe that the work of demystification runs
through Achebe’s body of works in such a way that
after reading any of his books, we are encouraged to
seek human solutions to human problems rather than run
to flawed places of worship for answers to mundane
questions. The point of Achebe is that even though we
are a conquered people, the conquerors are not
perfect; even though we should learn the wisdom of the
conquerors, it does not follow that we should abandon
our ancient peace-loving ways either.

I use the occasion of Achebe’s 80 birthday to re-circulate this response as my contribution to the good wishes for our father, Chinualumogu nwa Anichebe! May your days be longer, Odenigbo, more ink to your printers; we are watching those who are watching you; keep on going, no shaking!

Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

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