The Prophetic Vision of Chinua Achebe Reclaiming Africa's Past, Writing Its Present, Shaping Its Future

‘Does the white man understand our custom about land?’ ‘How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? […] He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.’ – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

This excerpt from Achebe’s most famous novel foregrounds a grasp of the embodied experience of language among the Igbo, its function not only as a system for signification but also as the encoded index of a people’s understanding of themselves and their world. This pervasive power of language is the premise of Edward Sapir’s seminal text The Status of Linguistics as a Science. He writes:

‘Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society . . . The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same reality.’

In other words, because the Igbo experience and the Igbo sensibility are particular to the experience of the Igbo people as it is lived and told from one generation to another, the language of this telling must precede any true apprehension of its speakers. This is a useful perspective from which to understand linguistic imperialism as a tenet of the colonial project as well as the denigration of indigenous languages as objects of knowledge. But it also brings into question Achebe’s use of the English language over his native Igbo. The excerpt, and all of Achebe’s writings, show that he was aware of the costs of choosing to write in English, and for a significant part of his career, it was a hotly contested choice.

The onset of African independence posed difficult questions to the generation of writers rising in colonialism’s shadow. Chief among these questions was one of language. The debate over the appropriate language choice between indigenous African languages and the languages of the former colonial masters came to a head at the Conference of African Writers of English Expression held in Makerere College, Kampala in June I962. The attendants were mostly split into two positions. The first, who like Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Nigeria’s Obi Wali, believed that ‘…until these writers and their western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they should be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncertainty, and frustration’, as Wali wrote in the essay ‘The Dead End of African Literature’. The second were like South Africa’s Ezekiel Maphalele, who wrote in the essay ‘Polemics’ that ‘the creative instinct always runs ahead of social, political, and economic developments; and the creative impulse cannot wait for such developments before it expresses itself. So, we use English, French, and Portuguese, which we know and have mastered.’

Between these two extremes stood Achebe and others like Gabriel Okara who made the case in in ‘African Speech…English Words’:

As a writer who believes in the utilization of African ideas, African philosophy and African folk-lore and imagery to the fullest extent possible, I am of the opinion the only way to use them efficiently is to translate them almost literally from the African language native to the writer into whatever European language he is using as his medium of expression. I have endeavoured in my words to keep as close as possible to vernacular expressions. For, from a word, a group of words, a sentence and even a name in any African language, one can glean the social life of a people…. [A] writer can use the idioms of his own language in a way that is understandable in English. If he uses their English equivalents, he would not be expressing African ideas and thoughts, but English ones. Some may regard this way of writing in English as a desecration of the language. This is of course not true. Living languages grow like living things, and English is far from a dead language.

For Achebe’s part, such reverence for the English language was of no use to him. He had every intention of desecrating it for it was the language of desecration, the language which deformed and mutilated, in which the ‘Dark Continent’ was created and bordered, and its savages endlessly explicated. As the colonial masters retreated, the back door had been left open, and he was determined to tear down the house and rebuild it. He intended to become a threat. Like his South African counterpart, J. M Coetzee, Achebe keenly understood the fragility of the post-imperial world, how deeply Africans bore ‘their past within them – as scars of humiliating wounds’ and were now hurriedly expected to move, in the euphoria of independence, ‘towards a post-colonial future […] in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory reclaimed’.

But Achebe was a man who wrote always with an awareness of the time in which he wrote, and he could see that it was a fragmented time; a time in which past and future collided in an uneasy pairing, in continuous mistrust of each other. In such a beleaguered situation, it was necessary to assume one’s ‘impurity and to recognize the necessity of speaking from a hybrid place’, as Vietnamese professor and filmmaker, Trinh T. Minh-ha, once said. Achebe intended to write from his woundedness, believing that much of what had been dislocated by colonialism had been dislocated permanently and that hoping for wholeness was a waste of time. If he could not prevent or undo the knife’s intrusion on what held things together, then, Achebe believed, he could articulate the ‘peculiar experience’ of being cut and split, of this hybrid place, a third space, an in-betweenness. Though he was the first—as in his 1973 essay, ‘Named for Victoria, Queen of England’—to admit, the ‘dangerous potency’ of navigating such a space, an endeavour made ‘dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision’. And so, Achebe wrote English that was not English, Igbo that was not Igbo, but both, combining the syntactic structure of the former with the rhythms and iconography of the latter.

For writers like Ngũgĩ and Wali who were more absolutist in their views on language, nothing short of a complete return to indigenous speech could fully express African consciousness and sensibilities without and against European psychology. Perhaps what was not clear to them in their criticism of Achebe for making use of English was that the task of expressing African consciousness and sensibilities was impossible without first dealing with the dissolution of Africa being undertaken by the colonial encounter.

Achebe had no interest in the self-reflexivity of an African Renaissance, rather his concern was in finding a way to problematize the fixity of subject-object dialectic and the relations of the speaker-spoken to/for/upon, by appropriating the active voice of the speaker. Achebe intended to re-enter and disrupt what Professor Mary Louise Pratt refers to as ‘zones of colonial contact,’ which are ‘space[s] of the colonial encounter . . . [as] peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict’. Those points of interaction from which the European always emerged the victor and the African defeated and subjugated.

There was more than style to Achebe’s philological manipulation; there was a deliberate attempt to unravel hegemonic control over the means of dictation and citation, to put in doubt the authenticity of the geographer’s map, the anthropologist’s thesis, the administrator’s tract, and the district officer’s reportage, in fact, to unsettle the whole weight of the archive. For if it is true, as Gayatri Spivak writes, that in the ‘contest of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak’ then the task for those who resist that production is not to ‘recover a lost consciousness but to see…the itinerary of the silencing’.

The history of colonial contact had been inscribed in the voice of the colonizer, according to his prejudices and preoccupations. And it was time, Achebe decided, like Saidiya Hartman after him has written, to ‘jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account’, to negate, as it were, the negation. If the story of the colonial encounter had to be told, then it had to be a story told fully, and the place of the narrator had to be hijacked, his narration interrupted.

The poet Claudia Rankine recounts a lecture given by philosopher Judith Butler in which she explains what makes language hurtful. Our very being, Butler says, ‘exposes us to the address of another. We suffer from the condition of being addressable.’ To believe the official account of colonial contact was to believe that the African was by nature doomed to silence, the addressed, the object pronoun, the receiver of the action. Achebe discovered that it was necessary to superimpose himself and his historical experience upon the authority of the addresser, to claim the primacy of the one who speaks, who names, the position of the first person singular, the I, to burden the Anglophone linguistic code with an African subjectivity. A discovery brought out by understanding that ‘To the colonialist mind it was always of the utmost importance to be able to say ‘I know my natives’, a claim which implies two things at once (a) that the native was really quite simple and (b) that understanding him and controlling him went hand in hand’.

This observation is evidenced by numerous colonial-era texts such as this 1784 missive from Walter Hastings, Governor-General of British controlled India, to Nathaniel Smith, Chairman of the Court of Directors:

Every accumulation of knowledge and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise dominion founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state…it attracts and conciliates distant affections, it lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection; it imprints on the hearts of our countrymen a sense of obligation and benevolence… Every instance which beings their [the natives] real character home to observation will impress us to a more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights and teach us to estimate them by a measure of our own.

Or this proclamation by Sir Hugh Clifford, Colonial Governor of the Gold Coast, the Blackwood Advertiser in January 1918:

The West African Negro has often been reproached with a failure to develop any form of high civilisation. It has been pointed out ad nauseum that he has never sculpted a statue, painted a picture, produced a literature, or even produced a mechanical contrivance worthy of the name, all of which are perfectly true’.

Achebe committed his life’s work to unmasking the pathology of colonialism and testifying to the violence of its aftermath by redefining what the centre of that testimony could be, and who could inhabit it. Even the great Toni Morrison, who recently passed, wrote of his influence thus:

Learning how to disassemble the gaze that I was wrestling with (the habitual but self-conscious writing toward a nonblack reader that threatened and coated much African American literature); discovering how to eliminate, to manipulate the Eurocentric eye in order to stretch and plumb my own imagination; I attribute these lessons to Chinua Achebe. In the pages of Things Fall Apart lay not the argument but the example; in the pages of No Longer at Ease, Anthills of the Savannah the assumptions of authenticity, the force, the valleys of beauty were abundant.

Achebe had a profound grasp of Africa’s spatial creation through language; through the representation that language enables. When Joseph Conrad, for instance, wrote about the ‘wild’ people on the bank of the Congo, its wide expanses and fallow lands in his famed Heart of Darkness, he was working within the same corpus from which Western scientists and adventurers explored and studied Africa, as we see in Herbert Lang’s photos taken in the Belgian Congo. He was trying to convince his reader of a particular kind of desolation and primitivity central to the experience of Africa, one with all the poetic resonance of novelty coexistent with the incomprehensibly primaeval; innocence at one with savagery. Here was, he seemed to say, nature’s raw and undiluted form, free from the influence of human enterprise, from human will, from those traits with which the white man is so richly endowed, which make his mastery of the world inevitable. Achebe understood this desire in ‘Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar… the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation’. It was reflected in Conrad’s portrayal of the Congo river thus: ‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’, an observation echoed often, perhaps unconsciously, when Africa’s sympathisers, in their attempt to plead Africa’s case, offer to their fellows that ‘we all come from Africa’.

It is no wonder that it is to Africa, to this start of the world, that people come to show their resilience to the world’s inhumanity, to declare affiliation with the downtrodden and assaulted, being itself the ready, obvious target of scorn. The news media were filled with images of United States Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar’s visit to Ghana in August of 2019. Her visit to the Door of No Return in Elmina was a response to President Donald Trump’s racist remarks to the congresswoman and her peers to ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came’, itself an evidence of the dominant ideology that influenced Hastings & Clifford and still colours the lenses of Westerners looking at Africa today. ‘So grateful for the [honour] to return to Mother Africa…’, she wrote on Twitter.

When the language of the maternal is deployed in reference to Africa it is used in a specific manner. What is reconstructed is not Africa as a fertile or generative entity, but Africa as the origin of being, as a prehistory about which anyone can speculate, and from which any meaning can be derived. Therefore, it is not used to say something about the character of Africa or African peoples. It is neither a reference to a country or a continent, rather it is a metaphysic, a spiritual condition out of which modern man has evolved, a night of blindness and chaos from which he has escaped into the light of reason, from which he has awakened and learned to stand upright, to stake his claim on the world. It becomes occasionally useful, then, to refer to Mother Africa in the same way that we commemorate human births—the farther we are from the event of birth, the more developed we become, physically and psychologically. Naturally, those whose fate it is to remain in the embryo, who cannot distance themselves from it, are forever in the process of gestation, never fully formed.

Achebe understood this as a tendency in the colonial mind, European or otherwise, to view Africans as unfinished Europeans. The African, he writes sardonically in ‘Colonialist Criticism’ (1957), ‘will grow up one day [and be] like every other European, but meanwhile must be humble, must learn all he can and while at it give due credit to his teachers in the form of either direct praise or, even better since praise sometimes goes bad and becomes embarrassing, manifest self-contempt.’

Through language, expressed in centuries of anthropological documentation about Africa, ‘Africa’ came into being, a vast & haunted terra incognita. This was so well done that the people became coterminous with the landscape, their actions and inactions perpetually tied to the continent, which is why it is always a handy insult to tell African immigrants to return to where they are from. For to ‘go back’ to Africa is not a simple matter of logistics, it is an exile from humanity at its best and most noble and most accomplished. To rehabilitate the continent’s image then, it is not surprising that the most popular representations of Africa by the Black diaspora- those who have ascended in the developmental ladder- often cast Africa’s past in tropes of royalty, grand enough, it is hoped, to rival European civilisation. This past is an embellished, surreal one that retains all previous associations of African exoticness in dress, art, and music.

As Kodwo Eshun writes, to ‘establish the historical character of black culture, to bring Africa and its subjects into history denied by Hegel et al., it has been necessary to assemble counter-memories that contest the colonial archive.’ A consequence of these counter-memories is the consistent absence of any Africa that may not suit narrow notions of refinement and splendour; any Africa unable to retain its claim to the permanently exotic, a terrain always awaiting discovery and wonder.

Infinitely fantastic. Thus, Africa for those who had known the horrors of the Middle Passage was a place where, as W. E. B. DuBois writes, ‘the Mountains of the Moon raised their white and snow-capped heads into the mouth of the tropic sun, where Nile and Congo rise and the Great Lakes swim.’

Beyoncé’s lauded The Gift, the 2019 album, which accompanied the release of the remake of the classic The Lion King, for example, was replete with such symbolism. From the associations of African otherworldliness in ‘Spirit’ to the deep, throaty chants of ‘sọ̀kalẹ̀ Olúwa, in ‘The Other Side’, which imitated the invocation of God in the Yoruba Christian music of Bola Are, Ojo Ade and the like—sounds whose popularity was gradually displaced by Nigeria’s young generation in favour of the more Nathaniel Bassey-like renditions.

When Africa’s modernity is portrayed by African media it is often with careful manoeuvring to steer clear of the popular congested buses that have become a trademark, the villages with mud huts, lest one is accused of peddling African poverty. We hail African urbanization like Maurice Oniang’o does in his 2017 article, ‘Not All Africans Live in Grass Huts’, showing off sites like Lagos’s Ikoyi and Victoria Island to cast off African ‘primitiveness’. Jidenna’s ‘85 to Africa’, a 2019 song whose title alone implies a homogenization of the continent, starts its opening verse with the artist’s story of debunking ‘white people rude allegations’. He’s taken his ‘crew on vacation; Accra to Abuja, amazed them’. Now, he sings, they are envious of Africans, ‘now they gon’ do DNA shit. Most of y’all hopin’ you are from Lagos’.

One who has been to Lagos can testify to the unfortunate city planning from which both the Lagos rich and poor suffer and the despicable conditions under which the majority of its inhabitants languish. In fact, it is astonishing how African cities like Lagos are used as a counterargument to notions of African backwardness. In reality, the people primarily responsible for the city’s hip-ness, it’s Èkó ò gba gbẹ̀rẹ́-ness—the lively bus conductor, the Buka owner, the mechanic, the street hawker, the young, hustling pedestrian cum job-seeker cum person-about-town—are the ones completely by-passed in invocations of Nigerian or African modernity. We select pieces of Africa that are palatable in the moment to showcase on the world stage. What underpins these invocations if not an inherited fear of the African bush, of African savagery? We want the rest of the world to see that we are not that kind of African, but an improvement, an evolved post-Africa Africanness. It may be useful to ask if the African is, in fact, possible within the present, if African life is contemporaneous if it has prospective validity.

Why is an African present or future conceivable only when it is set up against the West? Are we not human beings? Are we not in history? Achebe’s work challenges us to think more deeply about these questions and rebukes the continuous failure to recognise that there are, in fact, many, multiple ways of being that need not, and should not, mirror Western concepts or practices. He would ask how come we continuously reinstate Western hierarchies of value, why we still do not see the vastness from which we can create literary, administrative, social, and economic systems which have a merit of their own. Even Nigerian poet laureate Wole Soyinka wrote, in a different context, about the new African ideologue, equally a victim of the doctrine of self-negation because they ‘never stopped to consider whether or not the universal verities of his new doctrine are already contained, or can be elicited from the world-view and social structures of his own people’.

If the complexities of Achebe’s time forced him to, as Raja Rao puts it, ‘convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own’ it was because he believed in the power of fiction to transmit important ideas and serve a moral purpose, and he also believed that while fiction could be free of the strictures of realism, it could also be true or false, in how it said what it said, and why. But more than that, he saw literature, for the African writer, as ‘a life and death affair’, because the battle for the African destiny was a battle in the African mind, and there was no greater tool by which minds might be changed than words. This belief was echoed by another post-colonial writer, Edward Said, in his book Culture and Imperialism: ‘The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future—these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative’.

Achebe was not only determined to challenge dehumanising narratives of Africans written by foreigners he was also determined to expose the imaginative failures in the narratives Africans created and believed about themselves, and he also wrote freely about the dysfunctions and contradictions of his own environment. He knew the dangers of living in a society which could no longer be honest with itself and he saw it as the writer’s place to ensure that language was not disjointed from truth, otherwise, we risked the descent of horrors. Like his peers among the Makerere generation, Achebe had a keen grasp of how language demonstrated power and how power determined what was considered knowledge, and how this knowledge could become truth. It was on this understanding that he wrote everything he wrote, and it was one he never abandoned.

In this way, a thorough analysis of his fiction and critical writings will reveal consanguinity with the ideas of the French philosopher Michel Foucault whose theories of power and knowledge have not lost their prominence. Foucault expands on the ‘regime of truth’ thus:

Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.

Colonial mastery of the language-power-knowledge dynamic produced Africa, and to a large extent still does, but Achebe reminds us that resistance is not only possible but imperative. We must advance our own truths, we must decide what we are for ourselves and make this a known thing, declaring that we know best what manner of people we can and ought to be. We must have our own agenda, and we must be unafraid in enforcing it and seeing it respected by others. Butler sees language as ‘an open system of signs by which intelligibility is insistently created and contested. As historically specific organizations of language, discourses present themselves in the plural, coexisting within temporal frames, and instituting unpredictable and inadvertent convergences from which specific modalities of discursive possibilities are engendered’. In simpler terms, language is the medium through which archives are formed, therefore it is the medium through which they can be dismantled. This sentiment is succinctly put by Ben Okri when he says, ‘To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.’

It seems necessary, amidst enduring political failure and the nation’s increasingly uncertain future, to revisit Achebe’s dream for Africa and, particularly, for Nigeria: that by daring in imagination and in thought we can better understand and critique the systems of power, those of us who wield it and those of us who are subject to it, the ways in which many of us are both. With such daring, we can create for ourselves a different order of reality than the one which has been given to us. A reality where citizens are not massacred or incarcerated for exercising their basic right to question unfavourable policies and demand restitution. A reality in which our eyes are open to the detriments of Big Man politics and we reject the allure of easy fixes and shallow promises. Where we are emphatic in our rejection of any form of discrimination. Where we can answer oppression, as Achebe writes, with appropriate resistance. An endeavour which will require ‘an awareness in the first place that the oppression exists…and a willingness to know ‘the oppressor’s real name […] not an alias, not a pseudonym, not a nom de plume… [as] an adversary who fails to call his opponent by his proper name puts himself at risk.’ But we also must be mindful to not accept or answer to false names, to the summations and approximations and reductions of others, in how they may choose to represent us. We must pay close attention to Achebe’s narration of the Igbo myth of how the world of the living and the world of the dead came to be separate:

When death first entered the world, men sent a messenger to Chuku, asking him whether the dead could not be restored to life and sent back to their old homes. They chose the dog as their messenger. The dog, however, did not go straight to Chuku and dallied on the way. The toad had overheard the message, and as he wished to punish mankind, he overtook the dog and reached Chuku first. He said he had been sent by men to say that after death they had no desire at all to return to the world. Chuku declared that he would respect their wishes, and when the dog arrived with the true message, he refused to alter his decision. Thus although a human being may be born again, he cannot return with the same body and the same personality.

He tells it to illustrate the belief that language is enfolded in the ‘destiny of man’, and our attempts to master the one cannot be conceived outside our attempts to master the other. Through language, we can articulate our experience as Africans shaped by particular and interwoven localities and by global circumstances of which we are not only victims but contributors and agents, whose ideas and actions constitute more than pathos or exotic spectacle. Achebe shows us that language is political not only when it is used by writers and intellectuals, but also when used by anyone who is part of society. For it is by language that the world into which we are born is made nameable to us, less strange, and by which we make ourselves nameable to it. In doing so, the myth implies, it is best to speak on our own behalf, on our own terms