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PBS - HOPES | Nigeria | Essay

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An intimate interview
with Chinua Achebe
The man who so successfully describes African village life was
himself born in a village close to the Niger River on November
15, 1930. Chinua Achebe was familiar with both Christian and
Ibo traditions. His father was an Ibo who had converted to
Christianity. Achebes early knowledge of the differences
between cultures was a valuable preparation for the writing of
Things Fall Apart. He wrote Things Fall Apart, partly in
response to what he saw as inaccurate characterizations of
Africa and Africans by British authors. The book describes the
effects on Ibo society of the arrival of European colonizers and
missionaries in the late 1800s. Achebes satire and his keen ear
for spoken language have made him one of the most highly
esteemed African writers in English.
An exceptionally bright student, Achebe went on to study
European literature at a Nigerian university. His mastery of
European and African traditions explains why his Ibo tale has
the clear, dramatic form of a Greek tragedy. Although Achebe
has worked in both radio broadcasting and publishing, today he
earns his living as the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of
Languages and Literature at Bard College in New York.
Blackside Inc. (BSI) conducted the following interview with
Chinua Achebe (CA) via telephone shortly after the 70th
birthday of the patriarch of the modern African novel.
BSI: If Okonkwo were living today, how would he feel about the
present state of Nigeria? What would be his solution to some of
Nigerias problems?
CA: Well, we know from the kind of person he was that he
would be saying to Nigerians, I told you so, you should have
stopped it you should have stopped this thing when it began.
People say that if you nd water rising up to your ankle, thats
the time to do something about it, not when its around your
neck. Okonkwos solution to colonial invasion was to rebuff it,
to repulse it, to drive it back. The problem with this is that
Okonkwo was the only person in his community who saw the
problem and its solution that simply.
You see, his community was aware from what they knew of
European invasion of Africa at that point that it was not going to
be easy to drive it back, they had examples around of
communities that were bombarded, of markets that were
bombarded. So it was not a simple matter of cowardice or
bravery, it was really a question of looking taking a hard look
at the situation and deciding that this thing cannot be handled in
this simple way without running very, very great risks. And so
the community would be where we are today, that whichever
way you turned at the beginning of colonial invasion, whichever
way you turned, you were going to come to a sticky end. The
colonizers were not going to be persuaded by simple resistance
to re-evaluate their intentions. So theres really no escape, thats
what Im saying. Theres no escape.
BSI: Many in Nigeria have called for a sovereign national
conference in Nigeria to deal with Nigerias problems, including
giving those minority ethnic groups in Nigeria a stronger voice
and control over their natural resources. Would Okonkwo call
for a separation of Nigerian states, or would he be willing to
work toward a more unied Nigeria?
CA: I think in hindsight, he would probably say, OK, we should
work together, we should nd we should nd a way to talk to
one another, to negotiate, to learn from our mistakes in the past.
You see, Okonkwos mistake in the past was that his people
were deliberating on what to do about the colonial invasion.
They had not made a decision, they were still struggling with
this debate when Okonkwo went out on his own and killed the
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white mans messenger. What he intended to do by this was to
force his people into the kind of action that he preferred. Now,
the Ibo people do not like to be forced to end deliberating as a
group. They dont want somebody to preempt them. And so
Okonkwo now knows that fact, and I think that would inuence
his attitude today what Nigeria needs, its nothing new, it is as
old as you have neighbors, that if you have a neighbor, you talk
with them, you discuss with them, you reduce the level of
hostility. Thats really what Nigeria needs. Its really quite
simple. The minorities or the majorities, they are just people
who have always lived together in the same space. Sometimes
you hear people talking as if they were new to that their part of
Nigeria, or as if their neighbors were new to those parts of
Nigeria has not imported any new people. The people you see in
Nigeria today have always lived as neighbors in the same space
for as long as we can remember. So its a matter of settling
down, lowering the rhetoric, the level of hostility in the rhetoric
is too high. If we did that, I think we might be able to begin to
solve the problems of Nigeria. Then we would be able to enjoy
the enormous benets that will come from the fact that
Nigerians are very, very talented people, and Nigeria is a very
rich country in manpower and natural resources. And we can
really begin to create a new and progressive nation, something
that we missed out in the 20th century, and we should we must
not miss out again in the 21st.
BSI: In 1995, after General Sani Abacha appointed himself
president of Nigeria, he jailed and terrorized scores of
journalists, lawyers, and military ofcers accused of plotting
against him. What is your take on the treatment of journalists
and other political activists in Nigeria, past and present? What
was your reaction to the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa?
CA: Well, my reaction [to Wiwas execution] was it would be
expected, horror and great sadness that I indicated at that point.
The situation with Abacha was particularly painful to me
because when he came to power, when he seized power, I was
very angry that there were people who were able to say that we
should give him time, because he might be better than
Babangida, the general who had annulled the election that was
held. There were people who did not feel as angry as they
should have that another soldier was coming up and making
promises about when he would hand power back. And some of
the people who were saying this were journalists, so I was really
quite annoyed that we were now dealing with yet another
soldier, who was even worse in terms of intellect, in terms of
anything, to Babangida.
We in Nigeria now have a lot of responsibility for the decay of
Nigerian politics, because theres no unity, there was no
determination to say, enough is enough. Whenever one soldier
came up, there would be someone saying, oh, hes better than
the last one. And we failed to recognize that there was no
solution, there was never any solution in military dictatorships.
Before Abacha, we had Babangida, who in the view of many
people actually destroyed the Nigerian nation by that decision to
annul an election that was laboriously arranged and executed.
He called into question any possibility of a peaceful transition
from one government to another. Abacha was simply the last
crude conclusion of a train that had been set in motion. And
therefore, what Abacha did, including the hanging of Ken Saro
Wiwa, was not really surprising to anyone who knew the quality
of the man. He was a man you would not dare if you said to
him, I dare you to do this, he would do it. And that, when you
get to that level of response, action and response in politics, you
are in deep trouble. And Nigeria was in deep trouble.
BSI: Many speak of the brain drain that takes place in Nigeria.
Some of its sharpest minds, including you, have moved abroad.
What are your reasons for exile?
CA: Well, everybody has his or her own reason. My reason is
primarily Ive said this many times has to do with this spinal
PBS - HOPES | Nigeria | Essay
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injury [Achebe was paralyzed from the waist down in a serious
car accident], which I sustained 10 years ago. I would have been
out [of Nigeria] whether or not there was Abacha, because the
medical facilities in Nigeria had deteriorated to a point where it
was impossible for me to have the surgery that I required after
my accident. So that was why my exile began it did not begin
with the political situation in the country, although the political
situation in the country indirectly created the situation in which
our hospitals were no longer functioning.
But you will nd that there are many people who left the country
for a whole range of reasons. Safety is one major reason, but
also simply because a professional, for instance, who can no
longer carry on his or her professional work, a doctor in a
hospital who can no longer carry on his work because the
hospital has broken down to give you one personal example, a
surgeon who ew out with me after my accident, ew out from
the teaching hospital where I was being treated in Nigeria until it
was discovered that I needed to go abroad, to England, and the
doctor traveled with me. And when we got to England, he
discovered that the surgeon who was going to perform the
surgery on me had been his classmate. The point Im making
here is that he this Nigerian surgeon could have performed the
same operation if the facilities had been there in Nigeria. Im
simply hoping that we will quickly get the country back to a
state where a large number of these people will begin to go back.
Because this is really where their work is, its not because
people love America more than they love Nigeria. Its in Nigeria
that their heart is. And so its painful for these professionals.
BSI: Your representation of indigenous Ibo culture contradicts
stereotypical, often oversimplied European representations.
Most people around the world know a little of Nigerias
traditional past directly because of you. How have you come to
terms with this awesome responsibility? And do you feel that
you tell it like it is, or are you sometimes tempted to romanticize
certain aspects of traditional Nigerian culture?
CA: First of all, let me take the second part. I do not
romanticize, because that was the one thing that was very clear
to me 40 years ago when I was a young man beginning to write,
that I was not going to romanticize my culture, because I knew
that theres a matter of integrity in artistic creation which is
involved, and that your reader must trust what you say, that what
you see is what you are going to report. It is such as serious
issue, ones story other people who have a vested interest in
undermining my humanity have bastardized my story. So its a
very serious challenge they have thrown at me.
I have no question no doubt whatsoever in my mind about my
humanity or the humanity of my people. And the story I am
going to tell is to make this humanity apparent. Now, you note
Im talking about humanity; Im not talking about angels. Im
not talking about perfect beings. Im talking about people. And
so it was important to me if I knew nothing at all about novel
writing, I knew this one fact, that I wanted to make the humanity
of my people apparent. And at the end of my story, what Im
saying to my reader is, now Ive told you about these people, I
dare you to challenge their humanity.
BSI: What effect did politically charged musicians and artists,
particularly Fela Kuti, have on Nigerians? And how do you see
these artists affecting change?
CA: Oh, quite a lot. As a matter of fact, Fela Kuti was a good
friend of mine, and in my exile, I went to the University of
Massachusetts to hear him perform a few years before he died.
And we were I would say kindred spirits. He was in music and
I was in literature, and there were other kindred spirits. Felas
inuence on Nigeria was quite strong, in fact, phenomenal. And
Nigerians appreciate his work. Thats really all I need say.
BSI: What is your sense of hope for the continent? And does this
hope largely come from Africas women?
PBS - HOPES | Nigeria | Essay
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CA: Well, I think the women are extremely important in that in
our culture, whenever things really got out of control, when
things were damaged beyond repair, the culture seemed to call
on the women to move in and repair the damage. Historically,
this has happened a number of times in our history. When the
British came to Ibo land, for instance, at the beginning of the
20th century, and defeated the men in pitched battles in different
places, and set up their administrations, the men surrendered.
And it was the women who led the rst revolt. They said it was
a revolt against taxation. It was actually a revolt against
imposition of foreign rule. And it happened in such a spectacular
way the British could not understand it what was going on.
Here were these peasant women scattered over hundreds of
square miles, and they were able to get into action in a very
coordinated way. The British pulled back, and went to study the
Ibo people again.
That is the kind of thing I have in mind when I talk about
women coming in when things seem to be completely hopeless.
Somehow in our idea of creation, women are very, very close to
the creator. It is very important to them that our world continues.
And so they have this last resort responsibility. Now, that was all
right in the past. It is something we can look at and learn
something from. But it may well be that today, we dont want
the women to be in the background until things get out of
control. It may well be that they should be in the action all the
time so that things dont get out of control.
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