An American literature academic once told Chinua Achebe that after reading his critique of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness, the academic understood Conrad’s book for the first time. This, despite the fact that the academic had been teaching the book for years! This anecdote captures what Achebe was all about. By deconstructing post-colonialism, he made reading so much more meaningful, especially to those of us who lived his stories.

Over the past fifteen years I have come to realize that reading Achebe was my initiation into reading. I took four years of literature classes at an English high school but can’t recall ever enjoying or learning from any of the books I read then. I can’t and don’t blame the teachers or the books.

Nigerian novelist, poet, professor-Chinua Achebe

Nigerian novelist, poet, professor-Chinua Achebe.
Image via PEN American Center, Flickr.

For my first year of high school I had an Indian teacher who brought us, I’m sure, very interesting literature from India. Most of them addressed the agony of urbanization. While I enjoy reading them now, they were lost to me then. Then came a gay American who hated everything American and focused on British literature. I never gave those books the chance to get past my cornea. By then I was convinced that the British had nothing positive to contribute to my life.

Then came a South African lady who got us started on books that peered into the lives of coloreds and Afrikaners in South Africa. I knew that there was something to the woman and the books but by then I was already deep into petitioning to be removed from the literature classes altogether. None of them reflected my culture. There was no backing down. Well then why was I at an English school to start with? So they got rid of me and I left them to go to an Ethiopian school.

I didn’t know it then, but I went to an English school because I lived in a post-colonial country that had never been colonized. In post-colonial Africa, people with means sent their kids to their colonizers’ schools because those were the best schools around. My parents went to one, I went to one, and if post-colonialism were still around, so would my children. All this happened in a country that has had its own literature and formal education for thousands of years, longer than the colonizers. This nonsensical situation spoke to the difficulty of modernizing Africa’s indigenous schooling, which is exactly what Achebe set out to do.

Achebe literally turned literature on its head and became the delineation for what was old literature and what was new. In the post-Achebe world, old great works of literature revealed their weaknesses to the world and the colonized took over as the writers of good English literature. He subverted the language of the colonizer into the most potent weapon of the colonized. He turned commercial English publishers into his megaphone. English became the language into which African literature could blossom.

It was physically violent to read Things Fall Apart for the first time. It shattered all of the (mis)conceptions that many of us had about pre-colonial African societies. Then came Anthills of the Savannah and his critic of Hearts of Darkness. In one fell swoop Achebe gave us permission to understand non-modern African society and criticize the post-colonial state and western liberalism without reservation.

The other night, I heard a fascinating story of how patriots in Wollo managed to scare off the British from Ethiopia in the 1940s. The British had come to help Ethiopia rid itself of fascist Italy but decided that Ethiopia needed to remain a protectorate of theirs. The patriots would hang a boy upside down, give his head a comfortable resting place on soft dung and pad him with beef. Then they would put on a show of eating the raw meat off of his limp body as the British watched in horror at what these cannibals could do to them if they didn’t leave.

Only the sons and daughters of “savages” can turn them back into intelligent people with a legitimate purpose. The lady who told me the story was the daughter of one such patriot. She succeeded in convincing me of her people’s bravery and sophistication. But Achebe achieved the same for all African “savages” and convinced the entire world while he was at it.

Achebe had much in common with those of us who grew up around people who were critical of the post-colonial African state. Waged during his lifetime, the Biafra War in Nigeria represented one of the very first and symbolic revolts against slick European policies that created a system of nominal political autonomy for African countries. Meanwhile, the system kept Africa corrupt and captive through debt, fraternal conflict, and intimidating assassinations. Of course these days, “debt, fraternal conflict, and intimidating assassinations” are still around with longer names: “relief and development aid, conflict resolution initiatives, and targeted terrorist assassinations.”

But Achebe’s legacy is this: those Africans who aid and abet these policies can no longer hide from themselves. Without mincing his words, he told us how the African intellectual is divorced from the intellect “but for two things: status and stomach. And if there’s any danger that he might suffer official displeasure or lose his job, he would prefer to turn a blind eye to what is happening around him.”

Like my aunts and uncles, Achebe immersed himself in the struggle of his conviction and was not afraid to shoot real bullets at the powerful. But he also shot intellectual bullets at western liberalism, which forms the basis for western policies toward Africa to this day. Devoid of any liberating economic principles, western liberalism has turned out to be a continuation of old missionary zeal – only secular this time.

Achebe’s opening shot was his criticism of Albert Schweitzer – “That extraordinary missionary who sacrificed brilliant careers in music and theology in Europe for a life of service to Africans in much the same area as Conrad writes about, epitomizes the ambivalence …”. Achebe continues his criticism, “… In a comment which has often been quoted, Schweitzer says: ‘The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother.’…”

Such was the boldness and tenacity of Achebe that he refused to back down even when challenged by the same New England academics who had offered him a living, following his “exile” from Nigeria whereby he was denied Nigerian citizenship for all practical reasons, and yet not deported. Achebe made a habit of telling the hard truths to those whose narratives of life depended on letting lies stand. He did so in the face of death during the war and continued to do so until his own death.

For that he is our hero. The hero of all those who have been denied a voice and a proper citizenship despite our love… those who have died, been crippled or exiled by the post-colonial African state. Thank you Chinua Achebe!