“Africa is not fiction.”

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Africa’s Tarnished Name
by Chinua Achebe.
Penguin Modern Classics 28. 2018 (2009)

Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that?

‘Africa Is People’ (1998)

Chinua Achebe is regarded as a giant not just of African but of world literature, yet it has taken me a while to read anything by him. Being an academic as well as a man of letters his is a legacy of factual writings as well as of fiction and so for me provides a legitimate way into his body of work.

This volume in Penguin’s Modern Classics is a selection of essays and speeches taken from a collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child, published in 2011, two years before his death. The four pieces range in date from 1989 to 2008, and I propose discussing them in chronological order rather than the order published here. This way I hope to get a sense of any common themes spread over a score of years as well as any changes of emphasis.

Chinua Achebe, University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the 1970s

‘Travelling White’ first appeared in The Guardian in 1989, and describes a tour of east, central, and southern Africa undertaken soon after Nigerian independence in 1960, achieved with the help of a Rockefeller Fellowship. Or rather, it indicates that a tour did take place but the itinerary is very sketchy; instead Achebe highlights a handful of incidents that underline a racism that he, as a Nigerian, had largely been spared in his country and one that at first amused then saddened him. This racism manifested in what was then called Rhodesia, where segregation was practised on buses, for example, and in form-filling (where Africans fell under the category of ‘Other’). Another instance occurred after his novel, When Things Fall Apart, was lent to a German judge who’d intended to retire to Namibia. The book proved to be instrumental in that the judge chose to retire elsewhere: it had made him realise harsh truths not just about Nigeria’s colonial legacy but also South Africa’s then situation. Achebe considered this situation.

But how was it that this prominent jurist carried such a blind spot about Africa all his life? Did he never read the papers? Why did he need an African novel to open his eyes? My own theory is that he needed to hear Africa speak for itself after a lifetime of hearing Africa spoken about by others.

‘Travelling White’ (1989)

This notion — listening to Africa speak for itself — is taken up in ‘Africa Is People’, adapted from a speech Achebe gave to the OECD in 1998. In it he points to the continued othering of the African experience by rich, mostly white nations and by prominent white individuals. He instances the imperialist, colonialist attitudes that persist in First and Second World governments and international agencies, attitudes that he quotes Albert Schweizer and Joseph Conrad uttering, attitudes that continue to ensure many African countries remain plundered and exploited, to the impoverishment of millions. The point of his argument, he says after quoting James Baldwin,

is to alert us to the image burden that Africa bears today and make us recognize how that image has molded contemporary attitudes, including perhaps our own, to that continent.

‘Africa Is People’ (1998)

Africa is people, not the collective image non-Africans might casually picture: “Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone.” This is a thread he picks up in ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, also from 1998, which is the longest piece here and which gives to this selection its overall title. Achebe takes a long view of the relationship held by Africa and Europe, from when the European perception of its neighbouring continent changed from a degree of ignorance to “a deliberate invention” of alienness, dating from its pursuit of enslavement and then colonisation over the last half millennium.

Centuries of pejorative and derogatory value judgements were thought to provide justification for Europeans to regard and treat Africans as somehow lesser beings, a viewpoint which, only slightly modified, “has been bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself.” Achebe again levels his criticism at Albert Schweitzer and particularly at Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, whose protagonist in that novel characterised Africa somehow as Europeans’ “accursed inheritance.”

Conrad was at once a prisoner of this tradition [of seeming ambivalence towards Africans’ nature] and its most influential promoter, for he, more than anyone, secured its admission into the hall of fame of ‘canonical’ literature.

‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ (1998)

And yet, four centuries before Conrad’s portrayal of Africa as Europeans’ “accursed inheritance”, the Portuguese were on equal terms with Nzinga Mbemba, the Mweni-Congo or Congolese king, whose son became Dom Henrique, the country’s first bishop, who addressed the pope in Latin at his consecration. Nzinga Mbemba, as Dom Alfonso I of the Congo, was, addressed by the Portuguese king as his ‘royal brother’. Achebe contrasts Conrad’s infamous words with Livingstone’s observation that Africans “are just a strange mixture of good and evil as men are everywhere else;” he also contrasts a crude caricature of an 18th-century Jamaican and Cambridge graduate, Francis Williams, with Gainsborough’s sensitive portrayal of Ignatius Sancho, an African man of letters. How to account for such different responses? “Perhaps this difference can best be put in one phrase: the presence or absence of respect for the human person.”

Achebe’s stringent criticism of Conrad’s racism first appeared back in 1975 in his essay ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness‘, and it’s clear that the novel epitomised what he saw as a white supremicist attitude. However, in the 2008 speech entitled ‘What Is Nigeria to Me?’ (the latest in date but the first published here) he shows that “the presence or absence of respect for the human person” applied equally to fellow Nigerians in the newly emergent African state of the 1960s, when the country erupted into bloody civil war. Achebe, from the Igbo people in the nascent but doomed state of Biafra, soon found his feelings of pride for Nigeria severely tested when around two million Africans from both sides lost their lives. “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting,” he said in 2008, but the previously “hard words Nigeria and I have said to each other begin to look like words of anxious love, not hate.”

These four essays have proved enlightening and informative for me, showing Achebe to have been a complex, talented and thoughtful man, proud of the culture and history that shaped him, fearless in criticism but fair-minded when being fair-minded was called for. This selection has succeeded in doing what it set out to do — to introduce a writer and storyteller to a new audience using his own words, and offer us a man who showed respect to his fellow humans. I look forward to reading more by him.


No 9 of my 15 Books of Summer

30 thoughts on ““Africa is not fiction.”

  1. I have to ponder about this post as I had never seen Heart of Darkness as a novel with element of racisms, but quite the opposite. As you said, he wrote what he saw and condemned the brutal exploitation of the white man over those who were regarded, as Kipling said, ”half devil and half child”. To me, Conrad was the good guy of his times!!

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    1. Achebe has, understandably, an emotional response to Conrad’s novel, but I think he overestimates the semi-autobiographical aspect of the protagonist Marlow’s narrative. Marlow isn’t Conrad, though his physical journey up the Congo may match Conrad’s own; and I feel that the novel’s title refers principally to the darkness in the hearts of people like Kurtz and of the Belgians who saw the Congo as a means to be ruthlessly exploited.

      True, Conrad was a man of his time, and some contemporary prejudice will have rubbed off on to him, but I think Achebe, while admiring Conrad’s literary power, must have felt personally attacked by Marlow’s descriptions of the boat’s helmsman and Kurtz’s evil usage of indigenous people; and in that sense I sympathise with his anger towards Schweitzer seeing blacks as lesser than whites and Conrad’s casual racism.

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  2. Oh, this does sound good. I read Things Fall Apart as a teenager (i was reading the library from A-Z at the time, as you do) but shamefully can remember nothing about it. This sounds like an important collection of essays that I would get a lot out of.

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    1. This is one of the Penguin Classics pale green mini-collections, great for sampling unfamiliar authors. It encourages me to look out for the collection the four items were taken from, The Education of a British-Protected Child. And then I may feel up to tackling one of his novels, maybe even Things Fall Apart (even if it sounds like the world we’re in now).

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    1. He does give the reader new viewpoints to consider, and he does it almost conversationally and with great reasonableness. Though his criticism of Conrad was as much emotional as intellectual I absolutely got where he was coming from.

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  3. I need this book! Things Fall Apart has long been on my list but I think this should come first. I have read Heart of Darkness and was appalled by it. I am someone with a tolerance for the views prevailing at the time a book was written but this one disturbed me greatly. To hear Achebe’s position and have it extended to fellow Nigerians may help redress the balance.

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    1. It’s a relatively short read and easily available –cheap too! — so I do hope you find a copy, Sandra.

      As for Heart of Darkness what I recall coming away with was Marlow’s disdain for the Belgians involved with the ruthless exploitation, both human and material, of the Congo.

      I also think we have to be careful to distinguish between Conrad’s voice and the voice of the narrator, and associate the ‘heart of darkness’ with the likes of Kurtz as much, if not more than, stereotypical European views of the Congo. It’s a complex web Conrad wove, a weave I never quite unentangled, and a similar approach to that I sensed in his The Secret Agent. I think we’re meant to be appalled, but I may of course have completely misread it—I’d have to read it again!

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      1. Indeed, conflating protagonist and author is not wise. In this instance I think I was so horrified that I lost the capacity to step back. I’m sure I’d get a better view if I read it again. I think it unlikely that I will try.

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  4. I will look for these essays. Things Fall Apart is one of my favourite novels and his others are excellent too. There is a recent edition of his children’s book, Chike and the River, that has gorgeous illustrations.

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    1. I hadn’t realised he’d written a children’s book, Daphne, but I do hope to get round to at least one of his adult novels in the near future. I read this small selection soon after your prompt about expanding my reading in terms of diversity but somehow never got round to reviewing it till now. Next up soon is a review of Octavia Butler’s Kindred which I recently completed, so thanks for pointing me in this direction!

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  5. My major problem with Achebe is that I don’t think he really understood what Conrad was saying in his colonial literature. To me, Conrad is clearly anti-colonialism, feeling that it corrupts and destroys both colonised and coloniser. I don’t know where the “accursed inheritance” quote comes from, but on the basis of my understanding of his general thrust, the inheritance would be one passed down from previous generations of colonisers – i.e., that his generation were dealing with the burden left by the greed of their forefathers. Is he racist? Well, depends how you define it. Conrad’s white characters are usually considerably worse than his black ones, especially in Heart of Darkness. But he wasn’t writing about Africa or Africans (in my limited experience of his work) – he was specifically writing about the colonisers and how morally corrupt colonialism makes them. So to the extent that he can write entire books set in Africa and other outposts of Empire and barely mention the indigenous people at all except as a frightening, because not understood, backdrop – guilty. But it wasn’t what he was aiming to do. However, I do admire Achebe for his own honesty about the fact that colonisation brought some benefits to the Igbo even as it destroyed their traditional way of life. And that he led the way in Africans writing stories about their own lives rather than having those lives written for them. I can’t say I enjoyed Things Fall Apart, but it’s a deserved classic.

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      1. An excellent review, by the way: though I can’t say I’m tempted to read Things Fall Apart (especially in the light of what you say) I’m equally determined to seek out at least one of his later novels.

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    1. I agree with you, in that it’s clear from a couple of these essays that Achebe took exception to things Conrad’s characters might say and conflated them with Conrad’s own attitudes. Unfortunately I haven’t read enough Conrad (other than The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness) to say he never resorted to racial stereotypes and myths of white superiority, but as Achebe mostly reserves his ire for the one novel it’s hard to avoid the sense that he may have overreacted in this case.

      But Achebe does, as you point out, acknowledge that there are pluses and minuses on both sides of the equation, and he was clearly attracted by Conrad’s powerful and alluring use of the language.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read Achebe and found your review most interesting. I feel that Conrad is a complex character. In his first book, Almayer’s Folly he shows awareness of the power struggle between ‘native’ people and a white man’s urge to dominate. He also writes a strong female character in that book. But I can see how painful it would be to identify with the race that is being denigrated. The white man comes to quite a bad end in this book, though.

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    1. That’s interesting to know, Gert, especially as I’m now casting around trying to decide which Conrad novel to read next. The fact that Achebe returned again and again to his beef with Conrad probably indicates how disappointed he was with a writer he desperately wanted to admire (perhaps as a fellow author writing in a language that wasn’t their first).

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          1. I take your point, Josie, a good writer can get inside the head of a character they’ve created but that character isn’t necessarily a mirror image of themselves.

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  7. Thank you for this, I haven’t read anything since Things Fall Apart years ago and this sounds important writing, in fact I must come back to your review later when I’ve had time to think.

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