Africa is People

Chinua Achebe, Nelson Mandela said, “brought Africa to the rest of the world.” Poet Jackie Kay called him “the grandfather of African fiction.” In commemoration of Achebe, who has died at the age of 82, we publish his essay “Africa is People,” from his 2010 collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child.

||Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, photo by Ralph Orlowski

I believe it was in the first weeks of 1989 that I received an invitation to an anniversary meeting—the twenty-fifth year, or something like that—of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in Paris. I accepted without quite figuring out what I could possibly contribute to such a meeting/celebration. My initial puzzlement continued right into the meeting itself. In fact it grew as the proceedings got underway. Here was I, an African novelist among predominantly western bankers and economists; a guest, as it were, from the world’s poverty-striken provinces to a gathering of the rich and powerful in the metropolis. As I listened to them—Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians—I was left in no doubt, by the assurance they displayed, that these were the masters of our world, savouring the benefits of their success. They read and discussed papers on economic and development matters in different regions of the world. They talked in particular about the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment, specially designed for those parts of the world where economies had gone completely haywire.

The matter was really simple, the experts seemed to be saying; the only reason for failure to develop was indiscipline of all kinds; and the remedy a quick, sharp administration of shock treatment that would yank the sufferer out of the swamp of improvidence back onto the high and firm road of free-market economy. The most recurrent prescriptions for this condition were the removal of subsidies on food and fuel and the devaluation of the national currency. Yes, the experts conceded, some pain would inevitably accompany these measures, but such pain was transitory and, in any case, negligible in comparison to the disaster that would surely take place, if nothing was done now.

Then the Governor of the Bank of Kenya made his presentation. As I recall the events, he was probably the only other African at that session. He asked the experts to consider the case of Zambia which according to him, had accepted, and been practising, a structural adjustment regime for many years; and whose economic condition was now worse than it had been when they began their treatment. An American expert who seemed to command great attention and was accorded high deference in the room, spoke again. He repeated what had already been said many times before. “Be patient, it will work, in time. Trust me”—or words to that effect.

You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people.

Suddenly I received something like a stab of insight and it became clear to me why I had been invited, what I was doing there in that strange assembly. I signalled my desire to speak and was given the floor. I told them what I had just recognized. I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop, no more and no less! Here you are, spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people? I will tell you the experience of my own country, Nigeria, with structural adjustment. After two years of this remedy we saw the country’s minimum wage plummet in value from the equivalent of fifteen British pounds a month to five pounds. This is not a lab report; it is not a mathematical exercise. We are talking about someone whose income, which is already miserable enough, is now cut down to one-third of what it was two years ago. And this flesh-and-blood man has a wife and children. You say he should simply go home and tell them to be patient. Now let me ask you this question. Would you recommend a similar remedy to your own people and your own government? How do you sell such a project to an elected President? You are asking him to commit political suicide, or perhaps to get rid of elections altogether until he has fixed the economy. Do you realize that’s what you are doing?

I thought I could read astonishment on some of the faces on the opposite side of the huge circular table of the conference room. Or perhaps it was just my optimistic imagination. But one thing I do know for a fact. The Director-General (or whatever he was called) of the OECD beside whom I was sitting, a Dutchman and quite a giant, had muttered to me, under his breath, at least twice: Give it to them!

I came away from that strange conference with enhanced optimism for the human condition. For who could have imagined that in the very heart of the enemy’s citadel a friend like that Dutchman might be lurking, happy enough to set my cat among his own pigeons!

Africa is people may seem too simple and too obvious to some of us. But I have found in the course of my travels through the world that the most simple things can still give us a lot of trouble, even the brightest among us: and this is particularly so in matters concerning Africa. One of the greatest men of the twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer—philosopher, theologian, musician, medical missionary—failed completely to see the most obvious fact about Africa and so went ahead to say: The African is indeed my brother, but my junior brother. Now, did we or did anyone we know take Dr. Schweitzer up on that blasphemy? Oh no. On the contrary he was admired to the point of adoration and Lamberene, the very site on African soil where he uttered his outrage, was turned into a place of pilgrimage.

Or let us take another much admired twentieth century figure, the first writer, as it happens, to grace the cover of the newly-founded TIME magazine. I am talking, of course, about that extra-ordinary Polish-born, French-speaking, English sea captain and novelist, Joseph Conrad. He recorded in his memoir his first experience of seeing a black man in these remarkable words:

A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in
Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal
to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.

My attention was first drawn to these observations of Conrad’s in a scholarly work, not very widely known, by Jonah Raskin. Its title was The Mythology of Imperialism, and it was published in 1971 by Random House. I mention this because Mr. Raskin’s title defines the cultural source out of which Conrad derived his words and ideas. Conrad’s fixation, admitted so openly by him in his memoir, and conspicuously present in his fiction, has gone largely unremarked in literary and scholarly evaluations of his work. Why? Because it is grounded quite firmly in that mythology of imperialism which has so effectively conditioned contemporary civilization and its modes of education. Imperial domination required a new language to describe the world it had created and the people it had subjugated. Not surprisingly this new language did not celebrate these subject peoples nor toast them as heroes. Rather it painted them in the most lurid colors. Africa, being European imperialism’s prime target, with hardly a square foot escaping the fate of imperial occupation, naturally received the full measure of this adverse definition. Add to that the massive derogatory endeavor of the previous three centuries of the Atlantic Slave Trade to label black people and we can begin to get some idea of the magnitude of the problem we may have today with the simple concept: Africa is people.

I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings. And I am hard-headed enough to realize that we must not be soft on them, must never go out to justify them. But I am also rational enough to realize that we should strive to understand our failings objectively and not simply swallow mystifications and mythologies.

James Baldwin made an analogous point about black people in America, descendants of Africa. In his essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” he wrote:

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable.

The point of all this is to alert us to the image burden that Africa bears today and make us recognize how that image has moulded contemporary attitudes, including perhaps our own, to that continent.

Do I hear in my mind’s ear someone sighing wearily: there we go again; another session of whining and complaining! Let me assure you that I personally abhor and detest whiners. Those who know me will already know this. To those who don’t, I recommend a little pamphlet I wrote at a critical point in my country’s troubles. I called it The Trouble with Nigeria, and it is arguably the harshest statement ever made on that unhappy country. It is so harsh that whenever I see one of the many foreign critics of Nigeria quoting gleefully from it I want to strangle him! No, I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings. And I am hard-headed enough to realize that we must not be soft on them, must never go out to justify them. But I am also rational enough to realize that we should strive to understand our failings objectively and not simply swallow the mystifications and mythologies cooked up by those whose goodwill we have every reason to suspect.



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