For years, people have identified Africa as a continent of darkness. Whether it was Orientalism at is worst a la European cultural-political hegemony, or our foggy perception about a culture that gave the modern world some its unique gems, including the beats and rhythms that went into rock music, our perception of Africa remains skin-deep.
There are other aspects to our idea of this vast continent. First off, its past – the continent that is home to diverse peoples/tribes and myriads of civilizations, including the Egyptian civilisation of the Pharaonic period – creates an aura of mystery. Secondly, the civilisational past has pushed the tribal cultural richness to the margin. And finally, since the local literary scenes were mostly embedded in oral culture, modern interpretation suffered from lack of resources. All their mythologies, music, tunes, laws were handed down to the next generation verbally, which the modern Europe failed to take into account while framing Africa.
Additionally, one must take note of the fact that when European rule enveloped the terrain, the oral tradition was not only misinterpreted, also endangered.
It is in this context that one may set a new lens on Nigeria, and one of its protean minds – Chinua Achebe (formerly Albert Chinualumogu Achebe).
Chinua Achebe was born, on 16th November in the year 1930. He grew up under colonial rule, received primary education in a missionary school and studied English afterwards.
When he was growing up, he realised the way world perceives Africa, excluding all her integral parts, was problematic.
Modern European interpretation of the continent is eternally tied to the project of colonisation. Though the seminal novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, whose critical take on colonisation should have cleansed many a mind, but there was not visible attempt on the part of the literary giant at dislodging the myths and misinterpretations.
Africa still seems like a mere haze even in the collective consciousness of the Indian subcontinent.
Chinua Achebe took issue with this axis of misinterpretation and denigration. Through one of his most eminent quotes – 'If you don't like someone's story, write your own', one may come to an understanding with what inspired the writer to take up the pen. The intention to overturn the circulating narrative laden with misperceptions drove him to pen the very first novel.
In the year 1958, he published his first book 'Things Fall Apart'. It became a ground-breaking testament to African culture and in turn raising him to the status of the founding father of modern African literature.
He has a terrific career with number of novels, short stories and poems. But he is primarily known for his ground-breaking creation – 'Things Fall Apart'. The storyline lands one on a sticky ground where the conflicts of traditional and European culture are played out.
Each and every layers of the story unswervingly deals with the stereotypical prediction about Africa.
Chinua Achebe puts his disappointment on the historic confrontation in a nutshell – "Past with all its imperfections was not one long night of savagery from which the Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them."
Though set in the late 19th century, anyone of the current age can also relate to the protagonist Okonkwo – a patriarchal figure who is a self-made farmer of Igbo tribe. He is eternally hiding his emotions behind a stern mask, holding an honourable position in society.
The story deals with the rise and fall of the protagonist who faces his fate with all his flaws and weaknesses and as a consequence appears as no less than a Greek hero in his struggle to accept life as it comes.
Okonkwo, an ambitious man who aspires to become a 'lord' one day tries hard to keep everything in place. He skins his fears behind anger, hides affection behind a mask, and attempts to set an example by playing by every law and rule with passion.
Yet, things slip out of his hands. He ends up being exiled from his own village for seven years after accidentally killing a boy.
When he gets back after serving the tribal verdict of seven years in exile, he finds out a new alien rule has overrun everything. He finds out that the Europeans have come equipped with not guns and ammunitions but religion as their ultimate weapon.
A new struggle starts from here. The entire plot revolves around this character in such way that the British invasion looks like a problematic insertion into an otherwise traditional life.
The readers are confronted with the usual form of prejudice at this point that equated all things base with Africa and its past. As the protagonist resorts to merciless wife beating, this act too is used against Africa since it is interpreted as vice that perpetuated from the dark past.
The readers also witness the potent aspect of their actual cultural past when Okonkwo's wife narrates myths to their kids. Their celebration of social and religious rituals and how organically bound it was with the people and its geography.
Divided in 25 chapters, colonisation and its grand design to civilise the so-called savages only emerge at the later part of the novel where the new ruling elite force on their subjects a barbaric and savage identity.
By the time the readers have already spent enough time to know the other side of the story, they are confronted with a form of anti-colonial tirade that is not unique to Africa. In fact, the incessant mockery against the British takes on some specific forms of slangs, one such slang being 'white cockroaches', which simply a way of venting anger against the coloniser.
The anti-colonial stance of Achebe may come off as a surprise for many as the author himself grew up under colonialism and the modern liberal ideals they foisted on a people whose organic existence has been disturbed through various interventions.
The novel, in its penultimate phase, see the dawning of the resistance movement. It describes the formation of a group with Okonkwo and all other lords of Igbo clan as its leaders. At one point, all of them are tricked into serving jail time by the British rule and they had to bribe the authority to earn freedom.
Achebe found his own way of pointing to 'white hypocrisy'. Though in the end, Okonkwo's life meets a tragic end – he commits suicide. Okonkwo chooses to end his life while he was being taken care of by a number of white men during his last journey. Some critics claim it to be an intentional framing of the irony explicit in the life of a colonised.
The novel is considered to be the first of its kind where an African voice is telling the story.
Today is the 89th birthday of Chinua Achebe. Doesn't he deserve a bow from all of us for showing the world the other side of the coin?