What South Africa can learn from Chinua Achebe


In South Africa it is difficult to imagine a place or historical moment in which enamel crockery was preferable to hand-crafted Nigerian pottery. Enamel holds a unique set of connotations for us, many of which we would rather forget. But this is what Chinua Achebe recalls from his childhood in his seminal essay, ‘The Novelist as Teacher’ (1968). He also recalls the reaction of shock and horror at the decision by a local girls’ school to perform traditional Nigerian dances instead of the usual, ‘genteel’ Maypole dance of England. Using these analogies, he makes his point: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”

What can we draw from this essay in the South Africa of 2013? Africa has come a long way since the 1960s when it was written: a time of emancipation for many of its countries – pre-colonial ways of life lost forever, and the struggle with inherited culture and infrastructure only just beginning. Because post-colonial circumstances were so extreme, with inherited crises in the economic, political and social spheres, the question of relevance was a pertinent one for the writer as an emerging figure in modern Africa. Having been released from our own shackles of apartheid as late as the 90s, South Africa is still experiencing the ripple effect of turbulence, and in many ways our writers’ struggle for identity during the last twenty years has not been very different to the struggles experienced in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana in the 1960s. We still ask ourselves what the role of the writer, critic and artist is in the new South Africa – what responsibilities do they have to political commentary and to the nation in general? What are the pitfalls – social or aesthetic – of writing for a European and American readership rather than a local one? As J.M. Coetzee wrote through the mouthpiece of his character, Elizabeth Costello: “African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them (…) How can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders?”’

Deftly Achebe has achieved this balance during his rich and wide-spanning career. His decision – a controversial one – to write in English has re-invented the language for African readers and writers and has meant that children across South Africa and elsewhere were introduced to Things Fall Apart at the age of 17, as I was. Despite glamour, international acclaim and more than 40 honorary doctorates from universities across the world, it is the children of Africa who Achebe always had in mind when writing. He reaffirmed the act of writing not as something which comes from an ivory tower — isolated and isolating – but as something public, social, relevant and indeed, necessary. For Achebe, the writer’s role was as important as the teacher’s – something which, in South Africa, was nearly re-classified as an essential service. “I think it is part of my business as a writer to teach a boy that there is nothing disgraceful about the African weather,” he wrote, “and that the palm tree is a fit subject for poetry.”

By Anneke Rautenbach