The Centre Cannot Hold: Chinua Achebe
Cowering in the back of my father’s little Peugeot sedan, I watched a mob of Hausa hack an Igbo man to pieces the day the Biafran War began in earnest. My father’s Igbo students fled Titcombe College and most were never heard from again.
Chinua Achebe was Igbo. He lived through that war, Biafra’s de-facto ambassador to the outside world.
Through the early 1960s, Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart made its way through the expatriate community in Nigeria. It was met with considerable eye-rolling and some scoffing from the Old Hands: missionaries had been in West Africa long before Chinua Achebe’s father’s conversion to Christianity in Onitsha/Ogidi. Things Fall Apart was, even then, a pastiche of romantic myths and half-truths. None of it was even remotely true: not the Igbo, not the missionaries, nobody got a fair shake in that book. Things Fall Apart is one of those books which African expatriates secretly laugh about. We keep such laughter to ourselves: Chinua Achebe has been put on a literary pedestal higher than Nelson’s in Trafalgar. The truth was far weirder and more tragic.
To understand West Africa is to first understand the Niger River. Igbo territory covers much of the east bank of the Niger, down toward the Atlantic coast, where the Ijaw control most of the Niger River Delta — but not all of it.
The British liked the Igbo and the Igbo liked them. Igbo are clever, inquisitive, good-looking people: they run an orderly, sophisticated culture which prizes learning. Thus the Igbo have gained a reputation for sharp business practices. Their affection for the British and the Anglican faith causes considerable resentment among other, less-educated tribes. They are deeply hated by the Muslim Hausa to the north, a people I know far better, who view the Igbo as ass-kissers and traitors. The Yoruba have no love for them either. The Igbo rapidly mastered English, played a prominent role during the British colonial period and have influence far out of proportion to their numbers to this day, both within Nigeria and abroad.
The Igbo had a few access points to the Atlantic Ocean and the British chose to build Port Harcourt at one such point, mostly to export the coal discovered at Enugu. Port Harcourt is now the Houston of Africa: from which most of Nigeria’s oil is exported. The Ijaw, who once controlled access to the Niger River, have since been left behind, their Edenic waterways become a flaming, greasy Mordor in the delta.
The Igbo had been exposed to the West and to Christianity since the first Portuguese mariners came south, hugging the coast. At least since the 1770s, the Igbo had been in constant contact with the West. The Christian missionaries Achebe’s ancestors would have seen would have been in the 1850s at the latest, with the establishment of the Onitsha Anglican mission. Catholicism is strong among the Igbo: Achebe’s home town, Onitsha, is now a Catholic archdiocese.
Someone had to write Things Fall Apart. It’s only surprising it took as long as it did. In 1958, Nigeria was only two years from formal independence: the country had been preparing since the end of WW2.
Poor Nigeria, the most stupidly-assembled nation in the world, a preposterously huge and varied chunk of Africa, crammed full of mutually-hostile tribes. I remember singing the old Nigerian nation anthem in the 1960s: “…though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand.” I always cringed as I sang it, knowing it for the horrible joke it was, even then.
Chinua Achebe wrote more books than Things Fall Apart, most of them better but none so well-known. Achebe would in time become the godfather of African Literature, a position he largely created for himself. Achebe would later lash out at external criticism of African writers, saying No man can understand another whose language he does not speak (and ‘language’ here does not mean simply words, but a man’s entire world view.)
There’s an inside joke there: Achebe is quoting St. Paul to the Corinthians: For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
The joke is rather on Achebe himself: Achebe never published a word in Igbo, preferring English. Nor has any of his work been translated from English back into Igbo.
Chinua Achebe condemned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, loudly and often. But Achebe and Conrad have something in common: Joseph Conrad was a Pole who only wrote in English. Achebe’s condemnation of Conrad is now my condemnation of Achebe. If Conrad painted Africa as a dark mystery, the Congo River and the Niger River are voyages into different Hearts of Darkness.
The Niger River did have its horrors: it killed most of the Europeans who voyaged up that river. Miango’s cemetery is full of them, just behind the Kirk Chapel. Achebe’s facile condemnation of the Europeans and the missionaries is best seen in the light of the Igbo people’s purposeful assimiliation into Western values and Western religion. When the Onitsha Anglican mission was established on the banks of the Niger, their linguists did work on an Igbo lexicon and dictionary. The Igbo, to everyone’s consternation, simply bypassed their own language and went straight to English.
I’m at sixes and sevens about Chinua Achebe’s legacy. He amused and annoyed everyone I ever knew who understood Nigeria. Missionaries aren’t as stupid as all that, we really aren’t. Once you’ve drunk your requisite 1000 liters of local water, your opinion of any place starts taking on some validity. Once you’ve crossed the 10,000, 50,000 liter mark, once you speak the language well enough to see yourself in context, you’re just another figure in the landscape. People know you, you know them. The missionaries never thought themselves superior to the Igbo. The Igbo saw Western culture, they chose it, they adopted it, they mastered it and for it they were envied by their enemies. The missionaries were astonished by the transformation and the British were delighted.
Well, Achebe is dead. He had long since lost any relevance. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, I suppose, but Achebe’s condemnation of my culture, the missionaries, was facile and intemperate. I have, in this essay, attempted to present the other side of it. Achebe represented a period in Nigerian history, a period I lived through. If Biafra died, Achebe lived on to impose his august presence upon Western criticism of African literature, serving as a self-appointed gatekeeper. Now “everyone” condemns the missionaries. Thanks so much, Chinua Achebe. Imela, imela.
There’s no denying Achebe’s importance. But for those of us for whom Africa was home, those of us who watched as Things Fell Apart, Achebe represents something else, a sentiment expatriates understand well enough: the dichotomy created by an Africa for which the Centre Cannot Hold, the cruel idiocy of Africa’s leadership and seemingly by its literary community, an inability to forge a genuine African identity based on confraternity.
Instead, Achebe looked back instead to a Tribal Paradise which never was and never could have been. He damned the missionaries, though it was his father and grandfather who chose to adopt western ways, to the exclusion of their own religious traditions. Achebe’s own brother became a Christian pastor and missionary.
Boko Haram now kidnaps and murders Europeans, the Ijaw do the same. Achebe, you were wilfully blind. Africa is paralysed by racism and tribalism — this topic never once entered your rhetoric. Those of us who remember when the Igbo were the henchmen and teachers’ pets for the British Imperialists put no stock in your viewpoints for we remember how studiously the Igbo aped the Europeans, the best students my father ever had. The world thinks you gave some insight into African culture. For all your talent for description, you never grasped the possibilities, as Nelson Mandela did, of an Africa looking forward, to true unification, not backward, through the lenses of resentment.