I discovered Chinua Achebe at the age of thirteen. I was in my sixth grade at Nairobi’s Ofafa Jericho Primary School, in 1970. We had never heard of African writing before. We thought that books were only written by Europeans. We had been fed on Grimm’s Fairy Tales and sundry English folktales.
We had read all about The Brave Little Tailor, Snow White and the Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Elves and the Shoemaker and the like. My sisters were in love with a book in two volumes, titled Read Me a Story. They were forever singing about the “Mirror on the Wall” and the “fairest of women,” Snow White.
Beauty was defined as whiteness and whiteness as beauty. African women still wrestle with this absurd conflation. You want to be beautiful? Be white. Years later, I would come across an address that Achebe made at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair’s Indaba in 1986. He described my formative literary menu as “beautifully packaged poison.” But I run ahead of myself.
Our first encounter with African books was heavily West African. The European publishers behind them invariably painted on Nigerian and Ghanaian canvasses. This was both true of the children’s readers and of the English Language course books. Before the advent of Kenya’s Safari Children’s English, we read the alien New Oxford English Course by French and a course titled Learning by Reading. The closest thing to East Africa was Roland Hindmarsh’s Understand and Write. The background was however heavily Ugandan and Tanzanian. So, too, was Oxford English. And so we read about Mallam Ishaya the blind storyteller, the handlooms of Kano, Hassan and Udo the greatest among thieves, the tiger who wore shoes, and many others. In high school they wrestled with Ogundipe and Tregidgo’s Practical English.
It was within these circumstances that I stumbled into Achebe. It was a passage from Things Fall Apart, in the Learning by Reading course book. The passage was about the feast of the new yam festival. It remarkably introduced us to Ezinma and Ekwefi, her mother, in the Okonkwo household. A few days later, I devoured for the first time the entire volume of Things Fall Apart, from the Macmillan library in Makadara, Nairobi.
Such was Achebe’s prowess. His classic was accessible even to a little boy in Standard Six. I hardly put it down. The African world of letters had come home to stay. And I was not alone. The Heinemann orange covers moved from this pair of hands to the other, often inviting trouble from our teachers who found us reading these books in the middle of other lessons. The virtuosity of Achebe, the founding editor of the African Writers Series (AWS), was simply pulsating. Alan Hill, his publisher, has told the story of how he first got to publish Achebe in 1958 and how the AWS was launched. It was a journey of faith. For, nobody believed that an African could tell a story, let alone write one.
Was Achebe, who died last year, a great writer? This question is frivolous. He was a prodigy, completing Things Fall Apart at age 21. Yet, we must grapple with the doubt. Last week, Prof. Henry Indangasi of the University of Nairobi dismissed Achebe as an inconsequential writer who lost the opportunity to become great. In a cripplingly ad hominem assault calculated to be pruriently iconoclastic, Indangasi painted the portrait of a feverish attention hungry individual. He cast Achebe as finicky eater, and above all an intellectual dwarf:
Why was Achebe feeling bad (about Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize for literature)? It revealed a side of the fabled writer that still makes me cringe. Arrogance, vanity, lack of modesty . . . he read sections of his newly published novel with a somewhat heavily Nigerian accent. He wasn’t a particularly good reader . . . he was very careful about what he drank or ate . . . he did not touch alcohol, even as he watched us getting drunk . . . The Nigerian novelist had the potential to be great: but great he was not.
Indangasi describes Achebe’s visit to Kenya in 1988. I was part of the activities around this visit. I was a young editor, recently retained by Henry Chakava as the English Language Teaching (ELT) Editor at Heinemann. As the ELT person, part of my brief was to develop children’s literature. I launched the series with Achebe’s The Drum, The Flute and How the Leopard Got His Claws. The latter was a combined effort between Achebe and John Iroaganachi. The great raconteur could condescend to co-authorship. Chike and the River would follow two years later, after Achebe personally intervened to stave off an intermeddling European publisher who contested our right to publish. We threw in Anthills of the Savannah Grasslands, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, The Trouble With Nigeria and – of course – Things Fall Apart. We were ready to hit the road.
We travelled across the country with Achebe, Chakava and a few other colleagues. Achebe talked about children’s literature and about the African condition. Anthills was freshly arrived from the kitchen. It was the latest talking point in African literature. Coming as it did 21 years after the prophetic A Man of the People, it invariably informed a significant part of the dialogue.
At the University of Nairobi, I was dismayed to witness a professor of literature who had not read Anthills attempting to discuss it with Achebe, nonetheless. He occasioned Achebe to read excerpts from the book, as a basis for engagement. Such was the academic environment at my erstwhile university at the time, the Launchpad of Indangasi’s diatribe against Achebe. If Indangasi was uneasy with Achebe, he did not say so – until last week, 26 years later. However, I recall that Indangasi, then Chair of the Literature Department, was extremely panicky. He trembled like a leaf. He could hardly make a coherent address in Taifa Hall, where I sat only a few places from him. The students shouted him down. He cut short his address and invited Chakava to introduce Achebe. Achebe spoke with aplomb, to great acclaim.
Indangasi’s face off with his students, however, has remained. But have I not seen Indangasi try to speak in other forums? I deliberately say, “try to speak.” For, Indangasi seems to be very nervous before audiences. A slightly diminutive and somewhat diffident individual, he tends to fumble and trundle with words. He can put off the audience. Could his showing in Taifa Hall, 26 years ago, be what caused him to attack a dead man who cannot defend himself?
We visited many institutions with Achebe. He addressed a diversity of themes and topics, contrary to Indangasi’s selective amnesia and deliberate hypermetropia. Two themes recurred. First was the poet and the emperor, second the beautifully packaged poisons. The emperor was the African strongman, the poet the philosopher. Why was the emperor uneasy with the poet? Rather than dialogue with him, the emperor incarcerated him or, alternatively, exiled him. This was a daring subject to address at the apogee of Kanu’s dictatorship. It was the year of the infamous Mulolongo elections in Kenya. University dons languished in detention, or exile. Meanwhile “Scholars for Kanu” were in ascendancy. Achebe made these scholars-for-hire very restless.
It is not true, as Indangasi alleges, that Achebe made personalized attacks on Ngugi and his pet subject of writing in African languages. Invariably this question came up, from the audience. What did Achebe think about it? His answer was that where one thing stood, another one could stand there with it. It was a very complex issue, he said. He gave the example of Nigeria, where with over 300 tribal languages, English was playing a unifying role of sorts. In any event, our situation and crises were far too urgent for us to argue about the vessels, when we should be arguing about the content. Any idiom that helped us to tell our story justified itself.
Equally important was the issue of the beautiful packages of poison. Achebe said on numerous occasions that it was important for Africans to tell their own story. Foreigners like Joseph Conrad had tried to tell our story. However, they had distorted it with lurid racist images of primitive cannibalistic “beasts.” It is strange that Indangasi admires this racist writer, for whom he even named his son.
But something else, Indangasi had the chance to take on Achebe on Conrad in 1988. He did not. Nor did he pluck the courage to write about this and other things at the time. It would have sparked a good debate, in which Achebe would probably have participated. But Indangasi instead waited for Achebe’s death to assist him in his demolition of this writer’s reputation. Even then he had to wait for a further year after the death – no doubt to be very sure that Achebe was truly dead and would never speak for himself – for him to make his assault.
Does Indangasi write with the pen of a bitter man? Is his pen drunk with the ink of an axe grinder? I am aware that Indangasi would have wanted to become a great writer. To his credit, he has written some illuminating literature study guides for high school. Yet I don’t know of anything significant he has published. Some years back we turned down his manuscript on the escapades of a brazen teenager in Kamusinga and Chavakali villages. It did not make the mark. Is Indangasi unhappy that he did not become an Achebe? Does he seem to have pathological fear and suspicion of Nigerians? Indangasi was shocked that Achebe – nay, a Nigerian – (sic) treated him well. That earlier on, Wole Soyinka had treated him as “a non-person.” I have had the privilege of sitting at table with Wole many times. To say that he is extremely brilliant is to say nothing new. He is possessed of the kind of intellectual acumen that makes people of subordinate endowment cringe with inferiority complex. I don’t doubt that you could feel like a “non person” before him. But Wole is a very warm person, as are virtually all Nigerians I have sat with. Nigerians are by and large very intelligent people. Such people arouse fear and suspicion among intellectual minnows and sundry slow thinkers.
What is wrong with reading a book you have written with “a Nigerian accent” if you are Nigerian? Should Achebe have read his books with a Maragoli accent, like Indangasi’s? We all have our mother tongue influence on our articulation of foreign languages. Should we be accosted because of that? What is wrong with not touching alcohol, even as Indangasi and “the rest got drunk”? Should Achebe have sponged himself with alcohol in order for him to be a great writer?