By Biko Agozino, Ph.D.
I enjoyed reading the interview of Elechi Amadi by James Eze in The Sun in October 2004. I wish to thank Amadi for sharing the open secret of his success as a writer: you need to read hundreds, and he repeated, hundreds of novels before you can master that art form and venture to become a successful novelist. I hope that this simple lesson will be encouraged in many more high schools by requiring students to read for pleasure beyond their textbooks.
As a high school kid, I read some of Amadi’s novels and books for pleasure and marveled at his ability to move my emotion in sympathy with his characters. I believe that it was his The Great Ponds that nearly drove me to tears in sympathy with the people dying in droves after someone swore an oath claiming a piece of land that was in dispute between two villages. The oath ended the bloody warfare but the mass suffering from what we can suspect to be cholera (but which the author represented as punishment from the gods) was too much for a kid to take.
In the interview, Amadi was wrong in assuming that he is the first to accuse Achebe of ‘pandering to the white man’. This question is raised frequently on the internet by university students of World Literature who argue that Achebe did not accomplish his stated objective in Things Fall Apart. As Achebe stated this objective shortly after the publication of the novel, his aim was: "to help my society regain belief in itself, and put away the complexes of denigration and self abasement."
Like Amadi, the students point out that the white man won the struggle and Okonkwo’s people were humiliated and they wonder how that could be uplifting to the people of Umuofia. The question is whether Achebe was pandering to the white man by portraying him as dominant or whether he was reporting the reality of the colonial and the neo-colonial situations in Africa? Is it an insult to Africans for someone to tell them that we are still under the domination of Europeans? How do you ‘help’ a people under domination to regain self-respect if it is taboo to tell them the home truth that they remain under domination? Is it more empowering to explain everything in terms of the anger of the gods?
In the work of Amadi the white man is almost completely absent but the author panders to superstitious beliefs in gods and goddesses. Is it not the case that Achebe was rendering a more urgent service to the people by telling them a few home truths? For instance, what if the white man had come to The Great Ponds of Amadi and diagnosed the cholera that was wiping them out and advised them to boil their drinking water and adopt sanitation measures to save more lives, could that be dismissed by Amadi as the triumph of Western medicine and therefore an insult to his people? Achebe wisely saw the need for us to send our children to the white man’s school to learn his wisdom for our own purposes.
In other words, why should Amadi keep silent on the colonial struggle in his own work and now try to lampoon Achebe for addressing the struggle and correctly concluding that our people have suffered major set-backs? Achebe claims that he was named after the husband of Queen Victoria, Albert, but that when he went to visit the Victoria Falls in East Africa, some petty colonial official tried to segregate him on the tour bus by asking him to move to the back but he refused and told him that in Nigeria we sit where we like on a bus. I do not think that such is the attitude of someone who would pander to racist Europeans.
Apart from this point on realism, I suspect that Amadi missed a secret in Achebe’s uses of European characters in his novels. I suspect that this is also a clever marketing ploy to get more readers worldwide beyond the place of origin of the author. Reading books without a character that you can identify with could be fun but it could be even more fun when you find characters that you can identify with. Beyond Africa, readers might find it difficult to identify with Amadi’s attempts to mystify the quite common death of young men at a time that life expectancy was so low in The Concubine or the senseless blood-letting in The Great Ponds of interethnic wars that continue to afflict sections of our society today.
As Biodun Jeyifo argued in The Truthful Lie, we need more writers who would contribute to the demystification of our crises and thereby contribute to our search for solutions. Achebe could have blamed Okonkwo’s death on some god or goddess, but he made it clear that he took his own life with his own hands and severely criticized him for killing Ikemefuna to appease some god.
I believe that the work of demystification runs through Achebe’s body of works in such a way that after reading any of his books, we are encouraged to seek human solutions to human problems rather than run to flawed places of worship for answers to mundane questions. The point of Achebe is that even though we are a conquered people, the conquerors are not perfect; even though we should learn the wisdom of the conquerors, it does not follow that we should abandon our ancient peace-loving ways either.
I use the occasion of Achebe’s 80 birthday to re-circulate this response as my contribution to the good wishes for our father, Chinualumogu nwa Anichebe! May your days be longer, Odenigbo, more ink to your printers; we are watching those who are watching you; keep on going, no shaking!
Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.