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Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography (review)

Saine, Abdoulaye S., 1951-

African Studies Review, Volume 48, Number 2, September 2005, pp.


173-174 (Article)
Published by African Studies Association
DOI: 10.1353/arw.2005.0082

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/arw/summary/v048/48.2saine.html

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Book Reviews 173


LITERATURE & ARTS
Tijan M. Sallah and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A
Biography. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003. 160 pp. Maps. Illustrations.
$19.95. Paper.

This volume is a fitting tribute to a renowned African writer whose works


have elicited worldwide critical praise. It is written in prose that flows with
an ease and fluidity that almost resemble Achebes own. In the book we
meet a gifted and sensitive writer-activist who is deeply rooted in African
and Igbo values and sensibilities. It is these values that enabled the young
Achebe to navigate the African and Western/Christian worlds, both to transcend and ultimately to contest the absence of a positive and balanced view
of Africa and Africans in the stories he so loved to read. By giving Africa
and Africans a voice in world literature, Achebe has made a definitive statement that Africa and Africans matter. It is a role he has come to be identified with and one he performs repeatedly in his native Nigeria and elsewhere.
The first eight chapters detail Achebes early childhood and education
in Ogidi and then at University College, Ibadan. It was at Ibadan that
Achebe realized that all the writers he had read growing up, including
Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad, had in a sense deceived him. The important discovery that there was something dehumanizing in the way stories
about Africa were told led him to conclude that Africans had to break their
silence and begin to narrate their own stories. This was the inspiration for
Things Fall Apart, Achebes first novel.
The authors also recount the story of how he met his wife, Christie,
while both worked at the Nigeria Broadcasting Service (NBS), he as controller and she as a student-intern for the summer. It is clear that their relationship is a loving and trusting one, based on mutual respect, caring, and
understanding. These qualities served them in good stead with the eruption of the Nigerian Civil War and the tragedy that followed in Biafra, eloquently discussed in chapters 10 and 11. These were trying times for Nigerians generally, and for Igbos and the Achebe family in particular, as the
brutal war tore at the very core of the country. The Achebes lost not only
dear friends, including the poet Christopher Okigbo, but also perhaps
hope in a unified and stable Nigeria. Thus, like his protagonist Okonkwo
in Things Fall Apart, Achebe went into exile, albeit self-imposed, which
gave him time to reflect and heal somewhat (96).
Chapter 12 provides a lucid overview of Achebes major novels, five of
them in all. The single most important elements that unify Achebes novels, the authors argue, are the deceptively simple and accessible style, so
richly interlaced with Igbo proverbs that they have the rare classical elegance of biblical parables. Also, all of them reveal a continuing engagement with the evolution of Nigerian society and a deep concern for its

174 African Studies Review

unstable politics. Achebe has been unrelenting in letting it be known that


he is unhappy with the state of affairs in Nigeria, most explicitly in The Trouble with Nigeria. As a writer-activist and teacher he does not shy away from
controversy, yet he chooses his battles carefully. His refusal in October 2004
to accept Nigerias highest honor characterizes his way of speaking truth
to power, just as did his earlier decision not to participate in a Swedish
conference on the future of African literature. This is the path Achebe has
chosen to take: not to avoid controversy but to break down the stereotypes
and reductive categories that limit humans thought and action. On occasion he has also accepted invitations, as he did from the OECD and World
Bank. In these venues he has remained critical of structural adjustment, as
well as of development theories and abstractions that gloss over the havoc
they inflict daily on the poor. His refusal to attend the Stockholm literary
conference may have cost him the Nobel Prize for Literature. No regrets
here, however, as he has received numerous international awards and accolades and many conferences have been held in his honor.
Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography is a richly documented book
that tells an important story about a truly gifted artist who is endowed with
the rare faculty of representing Africa and Africans while at the same time
articulating a universal message, and, in so doing, questioning and sometimes even embarrassing the orthodox and the powerful. What comes out
clearly from this book is that Achebe cannot be co-opted, bought, or
silenced, because he has an unflinching commitment to represent issues
and people that the powerful would prefer to ignore. Sallah and OkonjoIweala have written an intelligent and readable book that is sure to prove a
lasting contribution to African literature generally, and to understanding
Achebe and the books that he has so beautifully crafted. This is an excellent text by itself or as a complement to others in courses on Africa.
Abdoulaye Saine
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

Pauline Duponchel. Textiles Bglan du Mali. Neuchtel: Muse dEthnographie,


2004. 333 pp. Photographs. Map. Catalogue. Annexes. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography.
23. Paper.
Bernhard Gardi, ed. Textiles du Mali daprs les collections du Muse National
du Mali. Bamako: Muse National du Mali, 2003. 119 pp. Photographs. Maps.
Notes. Bibliography. $30.00/36 CHF. Paper.

Pauline Duponchels volume reflects the dozen years of comprehensive


field research she conducted on Bamana mud cloth in Mali between 1974
and 1997. Originally written as a doctoral dissertation for the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, its principal focus is on the diverse cultural, social,