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The Song of Ourselves

An essay by Chinua Achebe first published in 1990 on creativity, Conrad and why he was not the "grandfather of African literature".

Portrait of Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela.
Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela in 2002. Photo: Getty Images.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died today, aged 82. Born in Ogido in 1930, Achebe's debut novel, "Things fall Apart" (1958) explored the clash between western and traditional African values, and how traditional norms were undermined. He was praised by Nelson Mandela, who said that Achebe had "brought Africa to the rest of the world", and called him "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down". Achebe's essay, "The song of ourselves", was published in the New Statesman on 9 February 1990, and explains how modern African literature marks the triumphant return to a pre-colonial celebration of African "presence". But, he argues, writers are also influenced by their colonial inheritance, and powerfully recalls how he and other schoolchildren had to “put away our different mother tongues and communicate in the language of our colonisers”.

Introduction by Aisha Gani.

The song of ourselves

Just under two years ago, I was one of a dozen or so foreign guests at a writers' symposium in Dublin. The general theme chosen, I believe, by the novelist Anthony Cronin, was "Literature as celebration." Some of my colleagues appeared to have difficulty with that subject. For my part, I found it almost perfect; it rendered in a simple form of words a truth about art which accorded with my traditional inheritance and satisfied my personal taste. A kind columnist referred to me as the man who invented African literature. I took the opportunity given me at the symposium to dissociate myself from that well-meant but blasphemous characterisation. My refusal was due rather to an artistic taboo among my people the Igbo of Nigeria, a prohibition—on pain of being finished off rather quickly by the gods—from laying a proprietary hand on even the smallest item in that communal enterprise in creativity.

I offer this to you as one illustration of my pre-colonial inheritance—of art as celebration of my reality; of art in its social dimension; of the creative potential in all of us and of the need to exercise this latent energy again and again in artistic expression and communal, cooperative enterprises.

Now I come to my colonial inheritance. To call my colonial experience an inheritance may surprise some people. But everything is grist to the mill of the artist. True, one grain may differ from another in its powers of nourishment; still, we must accord appropriate recognition to every grain that comes our way.

It is not my intention to engage in a detailed evaluation of the colonial experience, but merely to ask what possibility, what encouragement there was in this episode of our history for the celebration of our own world, for the singing of the song of ourselves, in the din of an insistent world and song of others.

Colonisation may indeed be a very complex affair, but one thing is certain; you do not walk in, seize the land, the person, the history of another, and then sit back and compose hymns of praise in his honour. To do that would amount to calling yourself a bandit; and you don't want to do that. So what do you do? You construct very elaborate excuses for your action. You say, for instance, that the man in question is worthless and quite unfit to manage himself or his affairs. If there are valuable things like gold or diamonds which you are carting away from this territory, you proceed to prove that he doesn't own them in the real sense of the word —that he and they just happened to be lying around the same place when you arrived. Finally, if the worse comes to the worst, you may even be prepared to question whether such as he can be, like you, fully human. From denying the presence of a man standing there before you, you end up questioning his very humanity.

In the colonial situation, presence was the critical question, the crucial word. Its denial was the keynote of colonialist ideology.

Question: Were there people there?

Answer: Well.., not really, you know people of sorts, perhaps, but not as you and I understand the word.

From the period of the slave trade, through the age of colonisation to the present day, the catalogue of what Africa and Africans have been said not to have or not to be is a pretty extensive list. Churchmen at some point wondered about the soul itself. Did the black man have a soul? Lesser attributes such as culture and religion were debated extensively by others and generally ruled out as far as Africa was concerned. African history seemed unimaginable except perhaps for a few marginal places like Ethiopia, where Gibbon tells us of a short burst of activity followed from the seventh century by 1,000 years in which she fell into a deep sleep, "forgetful of the world by whom she was forgot," to use his own famous phrase.

A habit of generosity to Africa has not grown since Gibbon's time; on the contrary, it seems to have diminished. If we shift our focus from history to literature we find the same hardening of attitude.

In The Tempest, Caliban is not specifically African; but he is the quintessential colonial subject created by Shakespeare's genius at the very onset of Europe's Age of Expansion. To begin with, Caliban knew not his own meaning but "wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish". However, Shakespeare restores humanity to him in many little ways, but especially by giving him not just speech but great poetry to speak before the play's end. Contrast this with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness 300 years later. His Calibans make "a violent babble of uncouth sounds" and go on making it right through the novel.

So these African creatures have no soul, no religion, no culture, no history, no human speech, no IQ. Any wonder then that they should be subjected by those who are endowed with these human gifts?

A character in John Buchan's colonial novel, Prester John says:

I knew then the meaning of the white                               
man's duty. He has to take all the                               
risks.... That is the difference                              
between white and black, the gift of                              
responsibility, the power of being in                              
a little way a king, and so long as                              
we know and practise it we will rule not                              
in Africa alone but wherever                              
there are dark men who live only for                              
their bellies.                              

John Buchan, by the way, was a very senior colonial administrator and novelist. One suspects he knew his terrain. So let us add to our long list of absences this last item—the absence of responsibility. If we add up all the absences reported from Africa, our grand total would equal one great absence of the Human Mind and Spirit.

I am not quite certain whether all the field-workers who reported these absences genuinely believed their report or whether it was some kind of make-believe, the kind of alibi we might expect a man arraigned for a serious crime to put together. It is significant, for example, that the moment when churchmen began to worry and doubt the existence of the black man's soul was the same moment when the black man's body was fetching high prices in the market place.

On the other hand, these reporters may well have believed their own stories—such was the complex nature of the imperial vocation. The picture of Africa and Africans which they carried in their minds did not grow there adventitiously, but was planted and watered by careful mental and educational husbandry. In an important study, Philip Curtin tells us that Europe's image of Africa which began to emerge in the 1870s was:

found in children's books, in Sunday  
school tracts, in the popular press.  
Its major affirmations were the "common  
knowledge" of the educated classes.  
Thereafter, when new generations of  
explorers and administrators went to  
Africa, they went with a prior  
impression of what they would find.  
Most often, they found it...  

Conrad's Heart of Darkness, first published in 1899, portrays Africa as a place where the wandering European may discover that the dark impulses and unspeakable appetites he has suppressed and forgotten through ages of civilisation may spring into life again in answer to Africa's free and triumphant savagery. In one striking passage, Conrad reveals a very interesting aspect of the question of presence. It is the scene where a French gunboat is sitting on the water and firing rockets into the mainland. Conrad's intention, high minded as usual, is to show the futility of Europe's action in Africa:

Pop would go one of the six-inch guns;  
a small flame would dart and vanish,  
a tiny projectile would give a feeble  
screech—and nothing happened.  
Nothing could happen. There was a  
touch of insanity in the proceeding.  

About sanity I cannot speak. But futility, good heavens, no! By that crazy act of shelling the bush, France managed to acquire an empire in West and Equatorial Africa nine to ten times its own size. Whether there was method in the madness or not, there was profit, quite definitely.

Conrad was giving vent to one popular conceit that Europe's devastation of Africa left no mark on the victim. Africa is presumed to pursue its dark, mysterious ways and destiny untouched by explorations and expeditions. Sometimes Africa as an anthropomorphic personage steps out of the shadows and physically annihilates the invasion—which of course adds a touch of suspense and even tragedy to Europe's enterprise. One of the best images in Heart of Darkness is of a boat going upstream and the forest stepping across to bar its return. Note, however, that it is the African forest that takes the action: the Africans themselves are absent.

Contrast Conrad's episode of the French gunboat with the rendering of an analogous incident in Ambiguous Adventure, a powerful novel of colonisation by the Muslim writer, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, from Senegal—a country colonised by the French. Conrad insists on the futility of the bombardment but also the absence of human response to it. Cheikh Hamidou Kane, standing as it were at the explosive end of the trajectory, tells a different story. The words are those of one of the Most Royal Lady, a member of the Diallobe aristocracy:

A hundred years ago our grandfather, along with all the inhabitants of this countryside, was awakened one morning by an uproar arising from the river. He took his gun and, followed by all the elite of the region, he flung himself upon the new-comers. His heart was intrepid and to him the value of liberty was greater than the value of life. Our grandfather, and the elite of the country with him, was defeated. Why? How? Only the new-comers know. We must ask them: we must go to learn from them the art of conquering without being in the right.

Conrad portrays a void, Hamidou Kane celebrates a human presence and a heroic struggle.

The difference is very clear. You might say that difference was the very reason the African writer came into being. His story had been told for him and he found the telling quite unsatisfactory. I went to a good school modelled on British public schools. I read lots of English books there; Treasure Island and Gulliver's Travels and Prisoner of Zenda, and Oliver Twist and Tom Brown's School Days and such books in their dozens. But I also encountered Ryder Haggard and John Buchan and the rest, and their "African" books.

I did not see myself as an African to begin with. I took sides with the white men against the savages. In other words, I went through my first level of schooling thinking I was of the party of the white man in his hair-raising adventures and narrow escapes. The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. the savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts.

But a time came when I reached the appropriate age and realised that these writers had pulled a fast one on me! I was not on Marlowe's boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness. I was one of those strange beings jumping up and down on the river bank, making horrid faces. That was when I said no, and realised that stories are not innocent; that they can be used to put you in the wrong crowd, in the party of the man who has come to dispossess you.

And talking of dispossession, what about language itself? Does my writing in the language of my coloniser not amount to acquiescing in the ultimate dispossession? This is a big and complex matter I cannot go into fully here. Let me simply say that when at the age of 13 I went to that school modelled after British public schools, it was not only English literature that I encountered there. I came in contact also for the first time in my life with many boys of my own age who did not speak my Igbo language. And they were not foreigners, but fellow Nigerians. We lived in the same dormitories, attended the same morning assembly and classes, and gathered in the same playing fields. To be able to do all that we had to put away our different mother tongues and communicate in the language of our colonisers. This paradox was not peculiar to Nigeria. It happened in every colony where the British put diverse people together under one administration.

Some of my colleagues, finding this too awkward, have tried to re-write their story into a straightforward case of oppression by presenting a happy monolingual African childhood brusquely disrupted by the imposition of a domineering foreign language. This historical fantasy demands that we throw out the English language in order to restore linguistic justice and self-respect to ourselves.

My position is that anyone who feels unable to write in English should follow their desires. But they must not take liberties with our history. It is simply not true that the English forced us to learn their language. On the contrary, British colonial policy in Africa and elsewhere emphasised again and again its preference for native languages. We see remnants of that preference today in the Bantustan policies of South Africa. We chose English not because the British desired it, but because having tacitly accepted the new nationalities into which colonialism had grouped us, we needed its language to transact our business, including the business of overthrowing colonialism itself in the fulness of time.

Now, that does not mean that our indigenous languages should now be neglected. It does mean that these languages must coexist and interact with the newcomer now and in the foreseeable future. For me, it is not either English or Igbo, it is both. Twenty one years ago when Christopher Okigbo, our finest poet, fell in the Biafran battlefield, I wrote for him one of the best poems I have ever written, in the Igbo language, in the form of a traditional dirge sung by his age-grade. Fifteen years ago I wrote a different kind of poem, in English, to commemorate the passing away of the Angolan poet and President, Agostinho Neto.

It is inevitable, I believe, to see the emergence of modern African literature as a return of celebration. It is tempting to say that this literature came to put people back into Africa. But that would be wrong because people never left Africa except in the guilty imagination of Africa's antagonists.

9 February 1990