The Centre Cannot Hold: Chinua Achebe



BlaiseP is the pseudonym of a peripatetic software contractor whose worldly goods can fit into an elderly Isuzu Rodeo. Bitter and recondite, he favors the long view of life, the chords of Steely Dan and Umphrey's McGee, the writings of William Vollman and Thomas Pynchon, the taste of red ale and his own gumbo. Having escaped after serving seven years of a lifetime sentence to confinement in hotel rooms, he currently resides in the wilds of Eau Claire County and contemplates the intersection of mixed SRID geometries in PostGIS.

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    I hear your viewpoint, though I do not agree with it.

    There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.

    – Mark Twain


    • Avatar Kim says:

      The idea of race is one of the cruelest jokes of them all.
      But let you pop someone’s bubble, and oh boy, you’ll learn how racist they really are.

      Sicilians are dark and swarthy — but god forbid you should tell them that they’re part black!
      Likewise, the watery edge of Africa had enough interbreeding that you really ought to think of a good deal of it as being part-white.

      Man is but a hairy ape, pretending to be something else, and clinging to pretense — and he wonders why he is so easy to trick!Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        We dare not call Tribalism for what it is: Racism where it has achieved a certain stasis. Everyone needs some ur-identity, I suppose. I encourage that sort of thing to a limited extent: religions, ethnic identity, it’s the first night of Pesach. May it always be celebrated unto the end of the world. Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, a thousand such celebrations give happiness to everyone.

        But tribalism, it’s just bad for humankind. It’s bad genetics, it’s bad politics, it’s held back a thousand cultures from advancing. Africans need a vision arising from within, a Zeitgeist to overcome all such divisions. E Pluribus Unum, rewrit for our times, for we all came out of Africa.Report

  2. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    From the savage wit of Fela Kuti:

    He be say you be colonial man
    it is said you are a colonial man
    You don be slave man before
    You have been a slave before
    Dem don release you now
    They have released you now,
    but you but you
    never release yourself
    have never released yourself

    Colonial Mentality

    When Africans decide to quit with its own “Colomentality” and decide, at long last, to start acting like Africans, whatever that might mean, (TBD!) it will have its own Literary Tradition to guard. Can’t wait for that to happen.

    Until then, the likes of Chinua Achebe, silly old man, lost in the funhouse of Colonial Mirrors, will be all the West will ever see. Africa is not populated with savages but with real people. Of course, you’d have to live there to get that point and Achebe is no help there.

    Tell you a few things about really primitive people. They’re not stupid. They see new things, they want them. They don’t entertain stupid ideas about holding onto their outdated ways nor do they glorify them. There are some things they’ll keep as ontological axioms about themselves but every culture does that. Things are always Falling Apart. I knew Nigeria before and after oil was discovered. It hasn’t improved: Nigeria’s only gotten worse. The Colonial Overlords might be gone but the Promised Paradise has proven a sorry bargain.

    Achebe condemned Conrad for painting Africa as a Heart of Darkness. It bloody well is a Heart of Darkness, go up any river far enough and you’ll find one. Our own Mississippi was one.Report

    • Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

      I remember hearing a story once, about two farmers, Farmer Brown and Farmer Jones.

      Farmer Brown was a family man, had a wife and some kids, and they also had a pet duck. They played with the duck, and he quacked a lot, but he was a good duck and Farmer Brown was generally a good guy.

      Farmer Jones hated that duck. He didn’t much care either way for Farmer Brown and his family, but he loathed that duck.

      One day, the duck flew from Farmer Brown’s property into Farmer Jones property. Farmer Jones yelled to his wife to go and get his shotgun. He took the gun and stalked the duck, until he was right on top of it. Then, he shot it.

      Farmer Jones took the duck back to Farmer Brown. He taunted him, and said “I’ve killed your duck for trespassing. Now I’m going to cook him and eat him.”

      Farmer Brown was distraught, and pleaded with Farmer Jones, “Please let us take the duck and give him a burial. For the children’s sake.”

      Farmer Jones was having none of this.

      So, Farmer Brown proposed: “Let us have a contest. Whoever wins the contest gets to keep the duck.”

      Farmer Jones thought this was another way that he could best Farmer Brown, so he agreed.

      Farmer Brown explained the rules: “One of us will start, and they will kick the other one in the balls as hard as they can. Then, that one will kick the first one in the balls as hard as THEY can. We’ll keep doing this until one of us gives up. The one who doesn’t quit will get to keep the duck.”

      Farmer Jones agreed and said “Ok, you go first.”

      Farmer Brown ran back about 30 yards and set himself. Then, he took off running as fast as he could, and right as he got to Farmer Jones, he hauled off and kicked him in the balls as hard as he possibly could.

      Farmer Jones collapsed and writhed on the ground in pain for about 10 minutes. Then, he pulled himself to his feet, and unsteadily said “Ok. Now it’s MY turn.”

      Then, Farmer Brown turned away and said “Keep the duck.”Report

  3. Avatar Fnord says:

    I strongly feel that Things Fall Apart loses a lot from being interpreted in isolation from the rest of Achebe’s work. I mean, heck, it even has an explicit sequel which forms the other half of a larger story (which, as the OP points out, may itself be only half of the whole story).

    Unfortunately, it’s so often presented as a stand-alone.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      In a sense, Achebe only digs his hole deeper with No Longer at Ease. Once again, here’s a fine upstanding Igbo youth, sent off at great expense to Albion’s Isle so he can learn the Law of the British and thus represent the Igbo. He returns, the story takes some beautifully tragic turns, clashes of cultures — no spoilers here, but Nigeria’s just eaten up with bribery, always has been, it’s the main reason Nigeria’s never really improved.

      My main critique of No Longer at Ease is this: the elders sent Obi Okonkwo to the wrong school. He came back to Nigeria, not knowing how to cope with the Dash System.

      The Hausa have an expression he has shit under his own shade tree, a phrase which best describes Arrow of God, a truly disgusting mockery of the Christian missionaries. John Goodcountry is a filthy parody of a missionary but the book just got praised to the skies.

      Look, I really don’t care what Achebe thought about missionaries or their motivations. But I know enough about how the Igbos actually behaved under the British Colonial period. Their role was exactly paralleled in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, who lorded it over the majority Shiites with a heavy hand — and kept right on going, after the British left, having created yet another idiotic nation, full to brimming with mutually distrustful tribes.

      Arrow of God was exactly backward: the missionaries saw how the British were turning the Igbo and the tribal chiefs into bagmen and procurators, giving them power and snatching it away depending on how subservient the chiefs were to British suzerainty, turning them into the hated Tax Collectors of the Gospels. The missionaries loudly condemned it, as they had condemned the slave trade.

      But you’ll never hear a word of that from Achebe. Think “missionary”, what images come to mind? Any of them positive? A little word association might well be in order. We have Achebe to thank for much of that crap.Report

  4. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    I don’t know much about Nigeria other than knowing a handful of Nigerians. But, I do know something about Nigeria’s nearest English speaking neighbor, Ghana. I see a lot of extrapolation of conditions in Nigeria to all of Africa here. Since they do not even fit Ghana which shared the same colonial ruler, the UK, and is in the same region of Africa I am quite sure they don’t fit other areas of Africa. From little I do know about Nigeria you are correct about it. However, the same pattern does not fit Ghana and I doubt it fits the rest of Africa.

    I have lived in worked in Ghana for two years now. I am a lecturer in the history department at the University of Ghana in Legon. That does not make me an expert, but I have drank over 1000 liters of water and had malaria three times. So I have a little bit of insight into Ghana and it does not resemble your description of Nigeria for the most part. Ghana never had a Civil War like Nigeria did and its first leader Kwame Nkrumah did a good job of raising loyalty to Ghana above ethnic attachments. As far as I can tell there is no racial animosity here towards Whites. There is some resentment of the Lebanese minority, but it is considerably less than anti-Arab racism in the US. The American missionaries today are welcomed and the majority of Ghanaians have become evangelical Christians as a result. While Ghana has many problems, “racism and tribalism” are not the foremost problems, particularly in the south where most of the population lives.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Ghana is a completely different animal. I know Accra reasonably well, and everything on the way to Burkina. I’ve done two solar projects in Burkina. Ghana is roughly one-quarter of the size of Nigeria. Ghana has 19 million people, Nigeria is 170 million people. They aren’t even remotely comparable as nations: Ghana is doing reasonably well, oh it’s got its problems, as I’m sure you know. But Nigeria….

      I wonder about that Evangelical Christian business, though. Ghana has about as many Muslims as Christians, that much I can say. Both are veneer religions: the traditional gods and ancestors of the Akan have an even larger following and they overlap with both. You might get the deities out of the picture but you won’t get the ancestors out.Report

  5. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    No, Ghana is only about 20% Muslim if even that and most of them are in the north. Most of the population are evangelical Christian Pentacostals. I am told that this is fairly recent, but in the two years I have lived here the most notable thing is how prevalent the evangelicals are. Almost all student activities are focused around the evangelical churches and there are huge billboards advertising “Crusades” everywhere on the main road from the campus past the airport to the center of town. Likewise they have a very heavy television and radio presence. Here on campus there are several thousand students that talk in tongues all night on the fields. From what little I do know most of the evangelicals are Akan migrants and it is the indigenous Ga who are more likely to hold onto traditional rites here in the greater Accra area.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Very interesting, thank you for the update. Things change so quickly. For me, Ghana was mostly seen from the road to Yendi and north to Ouagadougou, bumping along in an old Leyland lorry, praying the solar panels didn’t break and the burkinois douaniers weren’t going to give me a hard time.Report

  6. Avatar damon says:

    I think one of the worst legacies of Western colonialist is that smashing of tribal groups into nation states, excluding the colonialism itself ofc, in Africa and the Middle East. God what a mess.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Absolutely not. The tribes could never have held. Certainly the Indian (americans) did not!

      The problem was the practice of nurturing hatred. Mexico, for all its troubles, has not the same problems. The Spanish integrated — you find some classism, yes, but not the degree of hatred, the complexes.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        I don’t agree. The borders of Africa were expressly designed by the British and French to keep the Hausa from having their own country. The same was true of Iraq, indeed the entire Middle East, also by the British and French to keep the Kurds from having their own country. Likewise the Durand Line was established by the British to keep the Pashtun from having their own country.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        As for Mexico, they’ve got huge problems. They do have a two-tier system. The south of Mexico is in a near-perpetual state of rebellion: Spanish is a second language down there and the tribal people have been badly treated by their Mestizo overlords.Report