Friday, 29 March 2013

A land in need of heroes

In There Was a Country, his memoir published last year, Chinua Achebe counted himself part of a lucky generation, and so they were. Pampered by the departing British as the sun began to set on the Empire, they were in their late twenties and early thirties at independence in 1960, fresh graduates from the country’s only university, where they were taught in small classes by professors from Oxford. Achebe himself walked from there into a job with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and quickly rose to Director of External Broadcasting by the time of the civil war seven years later. By then, he had a house in Ikoyi, a ‘Jagua’ car and four well-received novels to his name, one of which, Things Fall Apart, is widely considered a twentieth-century classic. It was to his great credit that he recognised the privilege for what it was, which perhaps accounted for his famous humility, a much-praised quality in Nigeria – hardly an obituary fails to attribute such to the dearly departed – precisely because it is so rare, at any rate amongst those whose chi cracked their nuts for them.

I was never a fan. I have always considered Things Fall Apart a bad book, although its suffocating sentimentality about a vanished kingdom where men were virile and women virtuous – the past is always a better place, in Nigeria no less than elsewhere – presumably accounts for its 10 million readers in 50 languages who evidently like their literature to be uplifting, in this case that Africans once had cultures of great depth and beauty. Arrow of God, his other book set in the olden days, was a more complex attempt at characterisation but here as in the others he faded well short of the finishing line. Still, both those novels were at least driven by passion. Not so the other two set in modern times, where the machinery creaks awfully. The protagonist of No Longer at Ease is unable to stand up to his parents for the woman he loves but imagines he can prevail over the corruption in the wider society; in A Man of the People, the same sort of protagonist triumphs over his older rival by stealing his improbable girlfriend before the revolution comes along to settle the country’s problems. Neither of them would have attracted the interest of Jagua Nana - ‘They called her Jagua because of her good looks and stunning fashions. They said she was Jag-wa after the famous British prestige car’ - but then Achebe, unlike Cyprian Ekwensi, never did create a woman who wasn’t virginal or elderly – sexless, at any rate.

Nor did I think much of his political observations, notably the famous opening passage in The Trouble with Nigeria to the effect that Nigeria’s problem is its leadership. As I have argued elsewhere, the politicians he held responsible for our ills are themselves Nigerian (albeit of a more desperate disposition); moreover, politicians, everywhere, will get away with what they can because that is their nature. It is up to the people they seek to exercise power over to keep them in line. That Nigerians do not do so is hardly their fault, although a modicum of probity among just a few of our legislators would be water in the desert. That this is not going to happen is Nigeria’s tragedy, as Achebe himself observed from the exile he was forced to endure because the medical facilities he needed were not available in his homeland; the same homeland, incidentally, which nevertheless attempted to use him as cover for its own deficiencies. Much was made of Achebe’s rejection of successive national honours in his later years, and rightly so. The first was in 2004 by the then Obasanjo administration; as he stated at the time: ‘I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.’ The second was seven years later when he was even more forthright: ‘The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again.’

Then there was the matter of his ‘viciously dim’ observation of Heart of Darkness, although he might have had more cause for unease had the ‘racist’ Conrad presumed upon the African imagination that so distressed him in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, the novel which famously inspired Things Fall Apart. Conrad, equally an outsider in the very tradition Achebe aspired to, concerned himself with what he knew - Kurtz adrift in the incomprehensible bush, divested of all that was familiar – as, indeed, did Achebe himself in his insistence that everybody must tell their own side of the story the better to understand our shared humanity. But the real question is why he didn’t write in his own language if he was so concerned with the depth and beauty of his culture. What is extraordinary, in fact, is the effortless way Achebe et al abandoned their mother tongues in order that they might challenge the white man at his own game, a futile exercise which only proves the white man in his superiority, and underscored when the same white man organises conferences to reassure his charges that they write even better English than he does. And it’s not as if a start hadn’t been made with Pita Nwana’s Omenuka in 1933 and D O Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale five years later, but they were swiftly shunted aside in favour of the self-styled ‘pioneers’ the British cultivated in their own image as the logical extension of indirect rule.

That said, the encomiums have been pouring in from the moment we received news of his death, but then Nigeria is in the unhappy state of a land in need of heroes and Achebe might as well fit the bill. At least he didn’t take anything from anybody while writing the books that have given so much pleasure to so many, including, it seems, the saintly Mandela  - ‘There was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison walls fell’ – who absolutely everybody has been quoting.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, and Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:


  1. Remember another famous quote of Achebe's: "If you don't like my book write yours!"

  2. Mr. Pearce,

    It's all about gentility, Mr. Pearce. Please, be gentle.


  3. Insightful observations. They need to be taken seriously in an intellectual environment.

  4. Tributes have continued to pour like torrents - and the great Achebe deserves it - but not many have been as profound and sophisticated as this.

  5. Akin Caulcrick6 April 2013 at 14:04

    I know say you go talk am as you see am! Anyways, as Reg Ofo talk the other day some peoples go chop from dis Baba death o! D gorment go give contract to tar d road to Ogidi etc. Thins must not fall apart o! Second Base jare!!

  6. I couldn't lay my hands on the import of this article. It is full of myopic and superficial errors of deep thougth.