From one of the greatest writers of the modern era, an intimate and essential collection of personal essays on home, identity, and colonialism
Chinua Achebe’s characteristically eloquent and nuanced voice is everywhere present in these seventeen beautifully written pieces. From a vivid portrait of growing up in colonial Nigeria to considerations on the African-American Diaspora, from a glimpse into his extraordinary family life and his thoughts on the potent symbolism of President Obama’s elections—this charmingly personal, intellectually disciplined, and steadfastly wise collection is an indispensable addition to the remarkable Achebe oeuvre.
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About the Author
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. His first novel, Things Falls Apart, became a classic of international literature and required reading for students worldwide. He also authored four subsequent novels, two short-story collections, and numerous other books. He was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and, for over 15 years, was the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. In 2007, Achebe was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement. He died in 2013.
Read an Excerpt
All my life I have had to take account of the millionbdifferences—some little, others quite big—between the Nigerian culture into which I was born, and the domineering Westernbstyle that infiltrated and then invaded it. Nowhere is the difference more stark and startling than in the ability to ask a parent: “How many children do you have?” The right answer should be a rebuke: “Children are not livestock!” Or better still, silence, and carry on as if the question was never asked.
But things are changing and changing fast with us, and we have been making concession after concession even when the other party shows little sign of reciprocating. And so I have learned to answer questions that my father would not have touched with a bargepole. And to my shame let me add that I suspect I may even be enjoying it, to a certain extent!
My wife and I have four children—two daughters and two sons, a lovely balance further enhanced by the symmetry of their arrivals: girl, boy, boy, girl. Thus the girls had taken strategic positions in the family.
We, my wife and I, cut our teeth on parenthood with the first girl, Chinelo. Naturally, we made many blunders. But Chinelo was up to it. She taught us. At age four or thereabouts, she began to reflect back to us her experience of her world. One day she put it in words: “I am not black; I am brown.” We sat up and began to pay attention.
The first place our minds went was her nursery school, run by a bunch of white expatriate women. But inquiries to the school board returned only assurances. I continued sniffing around, which led me in the end to those expensive and colorful children’s books imported from Europe and displayed so seductively in the better supermarkets of Lagos.
Many parents like me, who never read children’s books in their own childhood, saw a chance to give to their children the blessings of modern civilization which they never had and grabbed it. But what I saw in many of the books was not civilization but condescension and even offensiveness.
Here, retold in my own words, is a mean story hiding behind the glamorous covers of a children’s book:
A white boy is playing with his kite in a beautiful open space on a clear summer’s day. In the background are lovely houses and gardens and tree-lined avenues. The wind is good and the little boy’s kite rises higher and higher and higher. It flies so high in the end that it gets caught under the tail of an airplane that just happens to be passing overhead at that very moment. Trailing the kite, the airplane flies on past cities and oceans and deserts. Finally it is flying over forests and jungles. We see wild animals in the forests and we see little round huts in the clearing. An African village.
For some reason, the kite untangles itself at this point and begins to fall while the airplane goes on its way. The kite falls and falls and finally comes to rest on top of a coconut tree.
A little black boy climbing the tree to pick a coconut beholds this strange and terrifying object sitting on top of the tree. He utters a piercing cry and literally falls off the tree.
His parents and their neighbors rush to the scene and discuss this apparition with great fear and trembling. In the end they send for the village witch doctor, who appears in his feathers with an entourage of drummers. He offers sacrifices and prayers and then sends his boldest man up the tree to bring down the object, which he does with appropriate reverence. The witch doctor then leads the village in a procession from the coconut tree to the village shrine, where the supernatural object is deposited and where it is worshipped to this day.
That was the most dramatic of the many imported, beautifully packaged, but demeaning readings available to our children, perhaps given them as birthday presents by their parents.
So it was that when my friend the poet Christopher Okigbo, representing Cambridge University Press in Nigeria at that time, called on me and said I must write him a children’s book for his company, I had no difficulty seeing the need and the urgency. So I wrote Chike and the River and dedicated it to Chinelo and to all my nephews and nieces.
(I am making everything sound so simple. Children may be little, but writing a children’s book is not simple. I remember that my first draft was too short for the Cambridge format, and the editor directed me to look at Cyprian Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam Illia for the length required. I did.)
With Chinelo, I learned that parents must not assume that all they had to do for books was to find the smartest department store and pick up the most attractive-looking book in stock. Our complacency was well and truly rebuked by the poison we now saw wrapped and taken home to our little girl. I learned that if I wanted a safe book for my child I should at least read it through and at best write it myself.
Our second daughter, Nwando, gave us a variation on Chinelo’s theme eight years later. The year was 1972 and the place Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had retreated with my family after the catastrophic Biafran civil war. I had been invited to teach at the university, and my wife had decided to complete her graduate studies. We enrolled our three older children in various Amherst schools and Nwando, who was two and a half, in a nursery school. And she thoroughly hated it. At first we thought it was a passing problem for a child who had never left home before. But it was more than that. Every morning as I dropped her off she would cry with such intensity I would keep hearing her in my head all three miles back. And in the afternoon, when I went back for her, she would seem so desolate. Apparently she would have said not a single word to anybody all day.
As I had the task of driving her to this school every morning, I began to dread mornings as much as she did. But in the end we struck a bargain that solved the problem. I had to tell her a story all the way to school if she promised not to cry when I dropped her off. Very soon she added another story all the way back. The agreement, needless to say, taxed my repertory of known and fudged stories to the utmost. But it worked. Nwando was no longer crying. By the year’s end she had become such a success in her school that many of her little American schoolmates had begun to call their school
Nwando-haven instead of its proper name, Wonderhaven.
Table of ContentsThe Education of a British-Protected Child
The Sweet Aroma of Zik's Kitchen: Growing Up in the Ambience of a Legend
My Dad and Me
What Is Nigeria to Me?
Spelling Our Proper Name
Africa's Tarnished Name
Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature
African Literature as Restoration of Celebration
Teaching Things Fall Apart
Martin Luther King and Africa
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics
Africa Is People
From the Hardcover edition.
What People are Saying About This
"Page's solid performance suits the tone of the essays." -Library Journal Audio Review
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" should be repeated every hour on the hour by every school child all over the world until it becomes the mantra of all societies. It is Bantu for "A human is human because of other humans."The simple but profound adage is the theme of Chinua Achebe's collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays.It may also be the theme of his life's work, judging by the simple message it conveys about the importance of the communal aspirations of the peoples of Africa. He uses it several times in various essays in the book, but really drives the point home in the concluding paragraph of the last one, titled "Africa Is People." "Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day, we would have taken a truly millennial step forward." Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and best known as the author of Things Fall Apart,one of the seminal works of African fiction, has a subtle, dry voice that makes each of these seventeen essays something to savor and linger over. He makes his points about racial stereotypes, African development, history, and politics, and the African-American diaspora, sometimes with humor, sometimes with biting directness, but always graciously and without rancor. You sense Achebe knows that to rail against injustice is futile; change must come through education achieved one cogent argument at a time.While Achebe is a scholar, he is also a master storyteller. More often than not, he makes his points not with dry logical argument but with an exegetical tale about someone he's met or something that's happened to him. Those little narratives are much more illustrative than pure cant. In "Spelling Our Proper Name," he tells the story of Dom Afonso of Bukongo, for example, who negotiated with King John III of Portugal in 1526 as an equal. He then writes: "Such stories as Dom Alfonso's encounter with Europe are not found in the history books we read in schools. If we knew them....young James Baldwin would not have felt a necessity to compare himself so adversely with peasants in a Swiss village. He would have known that his African ancestors did not sit through the millennia idly gazing into the horizon, waiting for European slavers to come and get them."I found his exploration of the complex politics and history of Africa in "Africa's Tarnished Name" to be particularly thought-provoking. He also talks frequently about Joseph Conrad's purported racism, which has become an important theme in the deconstruction of Heart of Darkness. Some of these essays have been presented elsewhere, although they have been revised and updated since they were first published. Nothing in them is dated, however, and Achebe's insightful discussions with Langston Hughes and James Baldwin ring as true as his observations about the potent symbolism of Barack Obama's election as President of the United States.
This is a recent publication of personal essays and Achebe's first new book in over twenty years. I say "personal" not because Achebe talks mostly about his own life (he does a bit, but all of the essays center on Africa in one way or another) but because he's speaking from his own experiences and opinion. The name of the book is also the title of an essay about his education in Nigeria and I think Achebe chose it as the book title because it indicates his particularly worldly and complex viewpoint regarding Africa's history, culture, and future. It's been a while since I underlined so many passages in a book; Achebe is a really thoughtful, articulate, and good person (which is a long-winded way of saying that he's wise, I guess) and he says so many things in this book that would make the world a better place if everyone in the world just read them and took them to heart. Most of these nuggets are about Africa, since that's the focus of his book, but a lot of them have pretty universal applications since bigotry--whether it takes the form of racism, sexism, xenophobia, or whatever--all comes from the same dark and fearful place in human nature. Here's one particular passage, from The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics, which I think should be tattooed to the forehead of every politician post-haste: Leadership is a sacred trust, like the priesthood in civilized, humane religions. No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly, because it demands qualities of mind and discipline of body and will far beyond the need of the ordinary citizen. Anybody who offers himself or herself or is offered to society for leadership must be aware of the unusually high demands of the role and should, if in any doubt whatsoever, firmly refuse the prompting.Granted, that would be a really big tattoo, but it's not very often that a writer as calm and eloquent as Achebe makes me go "Hell yeah!" out loud while I'm reading. On top of his good advice, Achebe also has a very nice writing style that presents his nuanced thoughts clearly and often with a little humor. I really liked this bit from My Daughters: My wife and I have four children--two daughters and two sons, a lovely balance further enhanced by the symmetry of their arrival: girl, boy, boy, girl. Thus the girls had taken strategic positions in the family. Definitely recommended.PS--I had read previously Things Fall Apart a few times, but familiarity with Achebe's previous work isn't necessary to enjoy this one. Only one of the essays is about Things Fall Apart and he barely touches on his other books.
No other author places as much of a high powered lens on the uncomfortable topics of race, colonialization, oppression, and reconciliation like Achebe. The West owes him a great deal of gratitude, for being able to present these topics that no one else wants to deal with, in an exquisite, narrative style, that is both educational, and, fundamentally hopeful, for our rapidly changing world. An instant classic that should be required reading!
This collection, mostly of speeches previously delivered over Achebe's career, is somewhat repetitive. However, his elegant prose makes reading every essay worthwhile.