The author of poetry, children’s books, essays and novels — including the bestselling “Things Fall Apart” — Chinua Achebe talks with Bill Moyers about the challenges of forging cultural identity in postcolonial Africa. Achebe died at age 82 in March 2013.
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BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. One out of every eight people in the world lives today in Africa. And the population of that continent is increasing faster than anywhere else on earth; triple the rate of North America, ten times faster than Europe. That alone should be reason enough to pay attention to Africa, to listen to African voices. But there’s another. Listen to the storyteller, as my quest this evening tells us, and you’ll hear the music of history, you’ll weave the fabric of memory. And you may just rock the Emperor’s throne as well. Tonight: a conversation with Chinua Achebe.
[voice-over] Back in his village in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe is president of the town council, a job which brings him more headaches than honors. But honors he has, anyway; eleven honorary degrees from universities around the world, and awards galore, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Achebe wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart, at the age of 26. It sold over 3 million copies and has been translated into more than 30 languages. His latest novel is titled Anthills of the Savannah. He’s also written many children’s stories and political essays. Shortly before his return to Africa, I talked with Chinua Achebe at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he’s been teaching the past year.
[interviewing] There’s a proverb in your tradition which says, “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” How do you interpret that?
CHINUA ACHEBE: It means that there is no one way to anything. The people who made that proverb, the Ibo people, are very insistent on this; that there is no absolute anything, even good things. They are against excess. Their world is a world of dualities. It is good to be brave, they say, but also remember that the coward survives the brave man. And so this is what it’s saying.
BILL MOYERS: So if you have your God, that’s alright because there must be another God as well.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. If there is one God, fine, there will be others, as well.
BILL MOYERS: Two cultures.
CHINUA ACHEBE: If there is one point of view, fine. There will be a second point of view.
BILL MOYERS: Has this had any particular meaning for you living as you do in two worlds, between two worlds?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. I think it is one of the central themes of my life and of my work.
BILL MOYERS: –certainly of your literature.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. And this is where I think the first conflict with those who came to improve us developed -the missionaries -because, you know, they came with the idea of one way, one truth, one life. You know, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. And this is something which my people, traditionally, would consider so extreme, so fanatical, that they would recoil from it.
BILL MOYERS: Wasn’t this one of the reasons that missionaries, the colonial administrators, the Westerners, have often not ever penetrated the reality of the African society because you could embrace-the African could embrace the Christian God while still holding on to a sense of tradition, to the gods of old, in one sense? Is that right?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, and I think it was not necessary to have thrown overboard so much that was thrown overboard in the name of Christianity or in the name of civilization. It was not necessary. I think a lot of the damage, not only to the material culture but to the mind of the people -you know, that we made nothing, our thoughts were evil, our religions were not really religions; it was paganism or hedonism. And so this created a problem in the mind of the people.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that if you are an African, the world is turned upside-down. Explain that to me.
CHINUA ACHEBE: I look at the world and the space allowed me in the way the world is organized is in-adequate -wherever I look, whichever direction I look -and I don’t want to stay in that space because it is stifling. Racism, for one, even on our own continent-all kinds of mistreatment. The most recent, for instance, is the dumping of the toxic wastes from the industrialized world in Africa.
BILL MOYERS: Many people are not aware of this–
CHINUA ACHEBE: They are not even aware-
BILL MOYERS: -recently reported phenomenon that many American and Western companies and countries are dumping their toxic wastes in African countries, and often bribing governments to let it be done.
CHINUA ACHEBE: That’s right. Yes, yes, they’ll do that, too, yes. So, that’s what I mean by saying that the world is upside-down. The world is not well-arranged. It is not well-arranged, and therefore there is no way that we can be happy with it -no way, even as writers. Sometimes our colleagues in the West suggest that perhaps we are too activist, we are too earnest, you see. “Why don’t you relax,” you know, “This is not really the business of poetry.” The point is this. A poet who becomes–who sees poetry in the light in which I am suggesting, is likely to fall out very seriously with the Emperor, with the Emperor. And whereas a poet in the West might say, “Oh, no, we have no business with politics; we have no business with history; we have no business with anything, just what is in our own mind,” well, the Emperor would be very, very happy.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s what you meant when you said once that storytelling is a threat.
CHINUA ACHEBE: It is a threat, yes.
BILL MOYERS: A threat to anyone in control
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. Because a storyteller has a different agenda from the Emperor.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve certainly done your share of offending the Emperor. In fact, you draw a devastating picture of government in Africa; ministers living in princely mansions while the peasants and the workers live in shacks. You’ve talked about the corruption of democracy, the bribery, the vulgarity, the violence, the brutality, the rigged elections. Aren’t you concerned that, in these novels which are gaining a growing audience in the West, that you are reinforcing the stereotypes of many Westerners toward your own people?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, I can see that danger, but that doesn’t really bother me because I am not concerned primarily with those. I am concerned with the people whose story I am telling; and if I am a bit harsh, that harshness, I think, comes from concern. It is not that I hate my people, or that I hate those rulers even. I don’t even hate them. But, I don’t know, when you look at the possibilities, the opportunities that we have squandered in a country like Nigeria, you know, it is really so painful because so much could have been achieved. So much assistance could have been given to–not just to the poor in Nigeria but even outside of Nigeria, because providence has been so prodigious in its gifts to a country like Nigeria. And so when you look at that possibility and what was achieved, one feels very, very bitter, indeed.
BILL MOYERS: You’re pretty tough when you write, ‘We have given ourselves over so completely to selfishness that we hurt not only those around us, but ourselves even more deeply, that one must assume a blunting of the imagination and a sense of danger of truly psychiatric proportions.” That’s a harsh judgment on your own.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. You have examples, scores and scores of examples of people who cart away the wealth of their nations, you know, to Europe, to Swiss banks. You have examples of more officials who take money so that toxic wastes can be dumped in their territory. I mean, this is the kind of thing I am talking about, and really you can’t-it is impossible to think and contemplate that kind of situation without being very, very bitter.
BILL MOYERS: It was a great gamble that Nigeria and other new nations in Africa took when leaving colonialism they embraced democracy, because democracy offers the possibility of infinite corruption -leaders promising benefits to the electorate if they are only returned to power again. It takes a great deal of discipline, institutional building and tradition to make a democracy incorruptible; and, of course, no democracy is incorruptible.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. Well, I think you are right. And I think it goes even beyond that, because when people say, for instance, that we failed to practice democracy in Africa, for instance, they assume that we were taught democracy during colonial rule, and that we somehow betrayed our education. That is not the case. That is not true at all. The colonial regime itself was not a democratic system. It was a most extreme form of totalitarianism. The colonial governor was not responsible to anybody in the territory. He might be responsible to a minister in Paris or in London, but he was certainly not responsible to the people on the ground. And so there was no model of democracy. We were not practicing Westminster model in Nigeria under colonial rule. We were practicing colonial dictatorship. And so, the colonial people really had no experience, even of this so-called democracy that they were supposed to have inherited. They did not inherit anything of the sort. So it was more than simply a question of people not living up to expectations. They really were not prepared. They were not trained for this.
BILL MOYERS: Well, so candid an admission, once again, can play into the hands of the enemies of black Africa because so many Westerners argue that, “Well, that’s right, Mr. Achebe is right”-that Nigeria was not ready for democracy, and because it can’t handle democracy we’ve gotta stick with South Africa because they know how to keep order, to keep stability, to prevent Communists from rising to power, whereas the governments of Africa and other black countries have not proven themselves up to the test.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, well, that is, of course, totally spurious. The question of being ready. I would like to take that on, because what I am saying, really, is that you cannot become ready under colonial rule, because colonial-there was no attempt, there was no way, there was no-it was not part of the program to inculcate democracy. There is no way you can inculcate democracy through dictatorship, you see. So, the colonial system, in itself, was the very antithesis of democracy. So no matter how long you stayed on that, you would not learn democracy. There was democracy in many parts of Africa before colonial rule came, you see. So to say, “Oh let’s keep ruling them until they learn democracy” – it’s really fraudulent.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what is said in South Africa.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. And, of course, to say that the South Africans are doing it right and let’s support them, since they’re the only ones who understand democracy, comes down to not accepting that Africans are people. Because if you accept that Africans are people, you cannot possibly say that a handful of white people, a tiny minority of white people, should impose their will to the extent of depriving even elementary rights of self-expression. All the rights we know in so-called democracies are denied, positively denied in this regime. But, I say it is analogous to, perhaps, analogous to the Nazi regime in Germany. Now for anybody to say, “That’s the right thing for Africa,” of course, shows that that person does not grant full humanity to Africans. And we know that there are such people, but we are not really going to listen to them, and they are not ultimately going to determine what happens in Africa
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned Africa before the colonial powers came. There’s the opening line of your children’s story, “The Drum,” which begins, “In the beginning, when the world was young…Does the artist in you ever wish you could start the whole story all over again, that you could go back?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes. Well, that is the whole strength, I think, of stories, and especially of children’s stories. I am happy you raised that because we do need to learn, all of us, to learn to be-come like children again once in a while. We become so stiff. We are weighed down by so much, so much knowledge, so much possession, so much special interest, that we lose the ability, the flexibility, of children. Children can fly, and everything is possible to a child. This is something that children’s stories can do for us, and this is something I think we ought to learn again. We ought to keep ourselves young in that particular way.
BILL MOYERS: You took a period of your life away from writing novels and wrote for children. Why?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, because I thought it was very important. It is very, very important. I had some very interesting, and very strange experiences, too, bringing up my own children that really con-fumed my fears about the danger, the predicament, we were going through in not telling our children stories, you see. Our fathers did. Our grandfathers did. But once writing came, we more or less forgot that responsibility to tell children stories.
BILL MOYERS: So what happened? What changed?
CHINUA ACHEBE: So what happened was that all kinds of bad stories, all kinds of junk, again -this is like toxic waste again, you know, being dumped -and I noticed that my daughter-we were very young parents so we really had no experience and we used to go into the supermarket in Lagos and pick up a glossy, nice, big-looking. colorful story. We never read children’s stories ourselves so we didn’t know what was in them. But then we discovered, my wife and I, that our daughter was beginning to have very strange ideas, you see. It was at that point that we began to look carefully into what she was reading, and really, there was a lot of poison. There was a lot of poison there, stories full of racism, full of ideas of Africa, again, as the other place, as the back of the world. And this is what we were feeling.
BILL MOYERS: So you decided to-
CHINUA ACHEBE: So we decided, I decided then-well, I didn’t decide then to write, but I knew then the importance of children’s stories and I knew that we were failing as parents in not bringing round the children after dinner as our forefathers did to tell them stories, I had not written any before, I didn’t know how it was going to work, but I was ready to try, and that started me in that direction.
BILL MOYERS: The power of reminiscing is very important to you.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, if you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have the warrior, you have the war drummer; the man who drums up the people first of all, the man who agitates the people, I call him the drummer, And then you have the warrior, who goes forward, you know, and fights. But you also have the storyteller, who takes over to recount the event. And this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, that makes us what we are, that creates history.
BILL MOYERS: The memory. The continuity of the generations.
CHINUA ACHEBE: That’s right. The memory which the survivors must have, otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.
BILL MOYERS: The knowledge that others have suffered and died-
CHINUA ACHEBE: -have suffered here, and battled here. That is very, very important. And that is the meaning of Anthills of the Savanna, you see. It is this memory, the memory that is necessary if surviving is going to be more than just a technical thing.
BILL MOYERS: What is it? The anthill survives in order next year-
CHINUA ACHEBE: So that the new grass will have memory of the devastation of the savanna.
BILL MOYERS: Of the fire.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, of the fire that happened in the savanna in the previous dry season.
BILL MOYERS: So the anthill carries the memory to the new grass, to the new generation-
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes-
BILL MOYERS: And weaves together a collective memory.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So, what you’re saying is every survivor has an obligation to remember.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: What’s that old Jewish saying? That in remembrance is the secret of redemption.
CHINUA ACHEBE: I’d say they’re damn right, Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Is that why you write?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, I didn’t put it that way. I mean, I write partly because I enjoy it. But also, I think, because I knew that somebody had to tell my story. There’s really-for me, you know, we were at the period which is so different from anything else that happened, that everything that was presented to us had to be looked at twice. I went through university, the first university in Nigeria, we went and did a course in English literature and we were taught the same kind of literature that British people are taught in their own universities. They recommended books for us to read. But I began to look at these books in a different light. I realized suddenly that I was, in fact, one of the savages. When I had been younger I had read these adventure books about the good white man, you know, wandering into the jungle, of the danger and the savages were after him, and I would instinctively be on the side of the white man, the good white man. This is what fiction can do. It can put you on the wrong side if you are not developed enough. In the university I suddenly saw that these books had to be read in a different light. Reading Heart of Dark-ness, for instance, which was a very, very highly praised book, and it is still very highly praised, and, I mean, it wasn’t-
BILL MOYERS: It’s considered a classic in the West.
CHINUA ACHEBE: -and I realized that I was one of those savages jumping up and down on the beach. I was not on Marlow’s steamer, you see, as I had thought before. And once that kind of enlightenment comes to you, you realize that you need to write a different story, that someone has to write a different story. And since I was, in any case, inclined that way, why not me? And so, what I’m saying is there was a certain measure of seriousness in addition to the pleasure, just the pleasure of creating stories, of telling stories-but there was a serious intention. And so when somebody gets up and says, “Oh, but literature, or poetry, should have nothing to do with society or with heavy things like politics,” I just can’t understand.
BILL MOYERS: Well, they do all the time. They shape our image of the world, right or wrong, true or false. You once said that Africans hope the West, and America, in particular, will listen. If we listen, what will we hear? What does Africa have to say to the rest of the world?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, first of all, we are people. We are not funny beings. We are not funny beings, you know. If you take up any newspaper here, you probably wouldn’t see Africa at all mentioned for months. Then perhaps one day a year it is some strange, some strange story-it has to be that kind of story that we have come to associate with Africa. I would simply say, “Look at Africa as a continent of people.” There are people there -just people. They are not devils; they are not angels; they are just people. And listen to them. We have done a lot of listening ourselves. This is a situation where you have a strong person and a weak person. The weak person does all the listening. Up to a point the strong person even forgets that the weak person may have something to say, you see, because he is simply there; he is a fixture, you simply talk at him, you see. A governor, a British governor of Southern Rhodesia, once said, “The partnership between us, the whites, and the blacks, is a partnership of the horse and its rider.” And he wasn’t trying to be funny. Seriously he thought so. Now that’s what we want the West to get rid of, because we lack imagination when we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of the person we oppress. If we were able, if we had enough imagination to put ourselves in those shoes, things would begin to happen. So it is important that we listen, that we develop the ability to listen to the weak, not only in Africa but even in your own society. The strong must listen to the weak.