Achebe freed me to tell my own story

He demonstrated the importance of finding your own voice.

Chinua Achebe, who has died aged 82, writes of his protagonist in Things Fall Apart: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievement.” At the age of 27, Achebe most likely had no idea just how much of his own life that opening sentence of his debut novel was prophesying. Things Fall Apart has since sold more than 12 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

The book’s publication in 1958 was deservedly a huge cultural event. Published two years before Nigeria gained independence, at a time when questions of identity and nationhood preoccupied colonised nations throughout the continent, it firmly moved Africans from the margins of their own narrative to the centre.

It tells the story of the colonial intervention from the African point of view and eloquently challenges the notion of the “discovery” of a people who already existed, and whose well-established civilisation has come under attack by the “discoverers”. “The white man is very clever,” Achebe writes. “He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Like everyone else I know, I remember the first time I read Things Fall Apart. I could not have been more than ten when I read an older sibling’s copy. I was struck even then by the simplicity and beauty of the prose, and how the village it described seemed very much like mine. It captivated me and opened up for me a world of expansive possibilities. In it, I – who had been fed on the stories of Enid Blyton, and instructed at school on the history of post-colonial Nigeria – found a space where I could exist, one in which my forefathers existed as people worthy of respect. They were not pagans, running around wildly in the dark, cursed by God for not being Christians, as a pamphlet I had discovered around the same period asserted.

That revelation was a liberating and refreshing experience. Nelson Mandela has been quoted as saying that Achebe was the one writer in whose company his prison walls came down. For me, it was in his company that my world opened. And it would be many years before I would describe it as “coming home”.

Achebe became my idol and I sought him out diligently. I read him carefully, savouring his wisdom. His later works continued the interrogation of the tension between old and new, but also became increasingly critical of the Nigerian government. His last book, There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra (2012), traces the trajectory of the country’s leadership problems and offers an honest and biting criticism of contemporary Nigeria.

No matter what his subject, Achebe wrote with an unflinching honesty and with elegance. From Things Fall Apart to There Was a Country, he has reminded me of the importance of not only owning my own story, but also articulating it, transcribing it, and, more importantly, of finding my voice. That is his enduring legacy, for which I – and many others – are immensely grateful. Achebe is gone, yet he lives not only in his works, but in those of generations of writers all over the world for whom he continues to be an influence.

Chika Unigwe won the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature for “On Black Sisters’ Street” (Vintage, £8.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times