Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CHINUA ACHEBE - The Education of a British-Protected Citizen

By Sonala Olumhense

I did not know how hungry I was for Chinua Achebe until I picked up "The Education of a British-Protected Citizen," his latest work.

This 2009 collection of essays follows the year in which his first and most famous work, "Things Fall Apart," turned 50. In New York City, I attended one of the many events that were being held worldwide to celebrate the man and his great book.

I owed my good fortune that evening to my friend, Ogaga Ifowodo, who arranged a ticket to the event for me in Manhattan. But I almost did not get in. That was not because I was late. I had arrived at my desired New York street to find it jampacked with a long queue of people, 4-6 abreast, trying to get into a rock concert.

I walked past them, a long line that crawled all the way to the end of the block. It was only after I had freed myself of the throng first by crossing to the other side of the road, and then over to the next avenue, that I realized I had long passed the street number I sought. Making my way back, thanks to the magic of cell phones, I realized that there was no rock concert at all: the mammoth crowd I had almost called names was Achebe's!

I journeyed back again to the back of the queue. Whereupon a middle-aged black man wearing his scowl like a mask, stopped to ask which artiste was responsible for such a tumultuous crowd. He was told it was not a concert, but a writer.

His frown deepened. "He must be very good," he commented.

I seized the moment, and involuntarily deployed an American expression: "You better believe it!" I said.

Every seat in the large hall was a precious possession that night, as writers and teachers and students of literature came from the world over to breathe the same air as Achebe. As we all know, nothing succeeds like success. That night, as I buzzed with so much pride I came close to standing on my chair in order to be recognized as a "relative" of Achebe's, I realized how dangerous success also can be.

Just over one year later, in nearby Grand Central Station, I bought "The Education of a British-Protected Citizen" in a bookstore. I read it largely on my work commute everyday. Achebe's essays are great, but they are autobiographical only in a limited sense. I feel that they leave a lot of room for a major autobiography should he ever choose to pen one. But in this book, close readers of his will not only be persuaded about subjects about which he is passionate, they will also encounter Achebe, the man.

The essays are, in the main, drawn from public addresses he has given over the years. They explore themes that every African, indeed every black man, will identify with: slavery, colonialism, politics, Nigeria, religion, literature, and-yes-"Things Fall Apart."

But it is Achebe's fluid, humorous style, that changed my appreciation of my daily train ride, and I recommend that the Nigerian edition of the book carry the following warning: "This book is not recommended for quiet environments where people may be offended by repeated outbursts of mirth."

Some of the essays are not necessarily funny. For instance, all Achebe fans know that in 2001, he was in one of Nigeria's routine road crashes. He ended up in a wheelchair, and has lived abroad ever since. It is interesting to consider his experience several years earlier, in 1989, as a guest at an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting in Paris. In the final essay in this book, he relates his curiosity at that time about why he, a writer, had been invited.

Sitting there, he then heard renowned economic gurus at work, casually recommending vicious structural adjustment programmes for traumatized economies such as Africa's. Achebe recalls he listened as they talked about how, in time, such steps as devaluing currencies and eliminating subsidies on food and fuel would stabilize such economies.

There and then, Achebe, who had experienced the menace of structural adjustment under President Ibrahim Babangida, experienced a bolt of inspiration. "Suddenly I received something like a stab of insight...I said that what was going on before me was a fiction are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people..."

Was that epiphany productive? Achebe reflects: "The director-general (or whatever he was called) of the OECD, beside whom I was sitting, a Dutchman and quite a giant, had muttered to me, under his breath, at least twice: 'Give it to them!'"

Achebe continues: "Who could have imagined that in the heart of the enemy's citadel a friend like that Dutchman might be lurking, happy enough to set my cat among his own pigeons!"

Achebe's entire book is, in a sense, an intervention of this nature on several issues, some in greater depth and detail than others. While he successfully establishes the culpability of Europeans as they corrupted and changed the positive image of Africans in order to justify the slave trade and the way they treated Africans, he is clear as to where we are today as Africans. Of Nigeria today, he writes, "Nigeria is a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask: what can I do now? There is work for all."

And indeed, Achebe points the way to the future. What is most remarkable about him in the past eight years is that he has refused to see life on a wheelchair as existence on life-support. He continues to be productive, and this book is great evidence. As I conclude this article, word comes that in two weeks in his new environment in Rhode Island, United States, he will be hosting the Achebe Colloquium on Africa. The first concern is called the "International Conference on the Nigerian Elections."

I have heard the Speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole, brag that he will be there. With only a couple of months before the Anambra governorship elections that his party, the dominant People's Democratic Party, has begun to manipulate, I hope he keeps his word.

What is more important is that Nigerians see the importance of joining Achebe in his engagement with Nigeria. As he observes the growing mess in Nigeria from across the Atlantic, Achebe seems concerned about the implications of that distance. Asked a few years ago by a UNESCO reporter what he missed most, he answered: "I miss being where I am needed most."

He described that as "The atmosphere of real work...The other day, the current president (of my town council in Nigeria) wrote to me to ask for my help with a project for a new library. Nobody in upstate New York comes and says, "We want to build a library, can you help?"

Of course not, and a library is an excellent metaphor. When it comes to the public good, Nigeria is the most backward nation in the world. People would take money meant for education, or books, or to support writing, or children's lunch, and repeatedly stuff it into their pockets.

This "self ahead of anything else" madness is eating Nigeria alive from within. It is the new enemy. And our nation, lacking heroes, needs people like Achebe in the frontlines wielding the long scapels. At Brown University in the aptly-named Providence, on December 11, I will be signing up in his command. The situation is too dangerous for absence.


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