Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chinua Achebe-2007 Man Booker Prize winner


As children growing up on colonial fare, we were fed everything British. British was best and so I read Enid Blyton's mass media books from Amelia Jane to Brer Rabbit and all her mysteries and adventures, everything -almost. Then we discovered America's Nancy Drew at the Osu Children's library. As soon as we were old enough, we read Mills and Boon and Harlequin, hidden between text books during geography class. The boys discovered Nick Carter, the character, (I'm not sure who wrote those books)and together we discovered the block-buster books of Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon and Alex Haley. When we thought of literature and fiction these were what we thought of, not the books our schools forced on us, The Day of the Triffids, Invisible Man, My family and Other Animals or Shakespeare's Macbeth or Julius Caesar.


All of a sudden from the middle of this sea of literary whiteness, we discovered that Africans actually wrote books, fiction which explored our lives, our cultures, pre colonial life and history. We were excited to taste the flavour of our vernaculars cleverly translated into the English language and yet retaining the taste of salt, pepper ginger and onions. Instantly we felt at home, as if we had read these all our lives. Our eyes opened, we could see into the life of Okwonkwo and by extrapolation the lives of our great grandfathers, when they had marked the land and cut down the forest to create homes and villages and towns. We began to understand what their hopes had been and why the whiteman had so awed them. We began to visualize the stresses of colonialism, the forced inferiority and the reasons why we were who we are. And not because we had read the clinical facts of history from which all black thought had been excluded. When we read of the Abolition, we never heard of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano nor of Olaudah Equiano. We never learned of William Still or Harriet Tubman or Toussaint d'Ouverture of Haiti. Abolition was Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, all heroes of England expressing the goodness of white. Thank God times are changing or we may never have heard of Nelson Mandela, only of the honourable F.W. de Klerk.

Where else could we discover the beauty of blackness if all we knew of ourselves was that we had performed human sacrifices, sold our brothers into slavery and been conquered, indentured, colonized, or if you like plundered against our will. As if these roles were singularly ours to enact on the theatre stage of our world. And even today when our stories are told, our voices, our art, our take on literature is often rejected by the big-boy publishers so that our stories gush out of western mouths, open wide to taste the bottom of grandmother's pepper-soup. Another Picasso waiting to be born. But every now and then, someone makes it to the top in spite of the odds. Someone wins a coveted prize. So we celebrate the elder novelist Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, (I say of Africa) and the open path he cut through the bush for many others to follow, like Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and those of us who are finding the path. It is Chinua Achebe who explains as none other, the real role of the storyteller of our times. He enacts it fully for all to see. While madness drives a man into the bush, the storyteller is coralled to the compound to serve it well. So we serve; so we serve.
“Agwu picks his disciple, rings his eye with white chalk and dips his tongue, willing or not, into the brew of prophecy; and right away the man will speak and put head and tail back to the severed trunk of our tale. " Anthills of the Savannah

When we were young and discovered Heinneman's African Writers Series, we strung titles together and learned this chant: Because of Burning Grass and The Narrow Path, the People of the City are No longer at Ease, so Weep not Child, when Things Fall Apart. So fully did we own African writing, the titles were like music to our ears. It is true what Chinua Achebe says: "It is the story that makes us different from the animals." Anthills of the Savannah

1 comment:

Mizz Dee said...

I couldn't have worded my sentiments better, Adwoa, you take the words right out of my mouth.
The progeny of Africa owes a lot to men like Achebe, who have given us stories- our stories. It is to men like him that we will give thanks when in some years to come, parents are too westernized to know the stories of old and children are groping around for the past.