By Kole Omotoso
Now that I have read these three essays I can understand why the British reviews of this book, reviewing it along with other books from and about Africa, gave it such a short shrift. The issues which Chinua Achebe writes about here so touchingly have to do with other issues which he had written about before, things which those not particularly involved would know nothing about and so be unable or unwilling to write about. They were entitled "My Home Under Imperial Fire", "The Empire Fights Back" and "Today, the Balance of Stories". All these are continuations of previous issues and they are definitely a deepening of the issues under discussion and, as usual, they are all three delightful lectures fascinating to read.
It is quite clear that Achebe's argument is that stories might look innocent to children, adults need to know that the telling of stories is not innocent. While we have a line up of the usual suspects - Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary, Elspeth Huxley - Achebe increases the material on the argument by putting into the bowl the contribution of a contemporary English writer FJ. Pedler, author of West Africa. It is in this book that Pedler makes the following statement which Achebe quotes: "It is misleading when Europeans talk of Africans buying a wife." "But what I find truly remarkable," writes Achebe, "about Pedler's book is the prominence he gave to, and the faith he had in, African literature that was not even in existence yet: A country's novels reveal its social condition. West Africa has no full-length novels, but a few short stories may serve the purpose." Pedler then goes on to quote from two short stories from the then Gold Coast. He then concludes: "Here is a dramatic treatment of a contemporary social phenomenon which leaves one with the hope that more West Africans may enter the field of authorship and give us authentic stories of their own people." The bringing in of Ms. Huxley strengthens Achebe's argument about the racist prejudices which gave rise to the distortion of Africans in European writing. When African stories begin to fight European stories, Chinua Achebe quotes from Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya. It is the story that serves as the motif of his book and it is called "The Gentlemen of the Jungle."
"A man in his hurt allows his friend, the elephant, to put his trunk into the hurt out of the rain. The elephant, in stages and against the man's protests, eases the rest of him into the small hut and finally forces the man outside. The resulting commotion brings King Lion himself to the scene. He immediately appoints a royal commission of inquiry to look into the man's complaint. But the commission is made up of the Rt. Hon. Mr. Elephant's cabinet colleagues, like Mr. Rhinoceros, Mr. Buffalo, and the Rt. Hon. Mr Fox as chairman. The commission met and heard evidence from the elephant and such witnesses as Mr. Hyena, but they cut short the man's testimony because, they said, he had not confined himself to relevant facts. Before passing their judgement they first retired to have a feast prepared by Mrs. Elephant. Their ruling was that unoccupied space existed in the man's hut and was legitimately put into use by the elephant whose action was ultimately good for the man himself. They also gave the man permission to look for another site and build another hut more suited for his needs." You want to know how the story ends? Get this book. And get Kenyatta's book as well. The lesson at the end of the story is "Peace is costly, but it's worth the expense."
These are the preoccupations of the first two lectures. The third lecture and essay in this book deals with the present situation and the balance of the forces or as Achebe puts it the balance of stories. As usual Achebe speaks through stories. "Let us imagine a man who stumbles into an alien ritual in its closing stages when the devotees are winding down to a concluding chorus of amens, and who immediately and enthusiastically takes up the singing with such loudness and gusto that the owners of the ritual stop their singing and turn, one and all, to look in wonder at this postmodernist stranger. Their wonder increases tenfold when they ask the visitor later what kind of modernism his people had had, and it transpires that neither he nor his people have ever heard the word modernism." Here Achebe was making reference to a statement which Buchi Emecheta made to Adeola James some years ago. In the statement, Emecheta says: "Writing coming from Nigeria, from Africa (I know this because my son does the criticism) sounds quite stilted. After reading the first page you tell yourself you are plodding. But when you are reading the same thing written by an English person or somebody who lives here you find you are enjoying it because the language is so academic, so perfect. Even if you remove the cover you can always say who is an African writer. But with some of my books you can't tell that easily any more because, I think, using the language everyday, and staying in the culture my Africanness is, in a way, being diluted. My paperback publisher, Collins, has now stopped putting my books in the African section."
It is quite clear that there are those of Emecheta's ilk, who do not see themselves in the struggle of the stories and claim that they are not African writers but writers, period. This is unfortunate and maybe, one should not ask for fatwas to deal with them. Yet, there seems to be a failure on the part of such writers and Achebe is correct to remonstrate with them.
This publication is a delight to read. It also deepens Achebe's case against the usual suspect of negative depictions of Africans and their cultures.