Chinua Achebe’s stoic and gradualist approach to life was evident not only in his unhurried diction and surgically measured prose but also in the kind of solutions he proffered to the vexing questions of the post-colonial world. Particularly, in Nigeria, the country that vexed him the most — to the point of death in exile. If Arrow of God is the novel that Achebe admitted he was “most likely to be caught sitting down to read again,” the one essay of his that I might be caught re-reading and quoting from with gusto is “The Novelist as Teacher.”
Achebe was no revolutionary in the ordinary sense. Such that while delivering the 1998 McMillan-Stewart Lecture at Harvard University, he felt the need to apologise for never having “held a gun” in his life — something, curiously enough, he considered “shameful” — even though his hosts could hardly be expected to hold that against him. As keen as he was to contest the West’s monopoly of discursive power for over four centuries to represent and constitute non-White people according to their imperialist whims and fantasies, he “did not really want to see the score of narratives … settled by recourse to power,” unless it be “the innate power of stories themselves.” His “choice of weapons,” he said, was determined for him by his “temperament.”
Why then the audacity of my title? Because a revolution, as every careful student of history knows, is never prompt or sudden. The cataclysmic moment when the dam bursts and sweeps away the old order is a culmination of a process long in the making and not a beginning that is also an end. Then there is the other sense of the term that accords perfectly with Achebe’s temperament: revolution as any undertaking whose goal is fundamental change in socio-economic conditions, attitudes, or mode of operation. This, precisely, is what Achebe meant by the novelist as teacher. Colonialism, together with the centuries of slavery that preceded it, defined our contact with Europe, resulting in our internalisation of the ideology of racial inferiority fabricated to justify conquest.
It had convinced us that we were inferior to Europeans; that we had no worthy history or culture; that our languages, gods, religious systems and moral codes were damning evidence of our sub-humanity. If the “postcolonial” novelist or writer was to matter to her society, she would have, necessarily, to assume the role of teacher. And her lesson would be nothing but revolutionary, seeking as it would to wipe out the self-abnegating consciousness of the colonised man and woman and return them to their font of being; to “where the rain began to beat” them, as Achebe memorably put it. And to make them see that “their past — with all its imperfections — was not one long night of savagery from which the first European acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”
Achebe makes the case for the novelist as revolutionary most eloquently. “Here then,” he says, “is an adequate revolution for me to espouse — to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” The revolutionary import of this mission is what made it possible for me to cite Achebe in the same breath as Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Mandela, Che Guevara, Karl Marx, among other certified “reds,” at rallies back in my days as a student leader. And it is what makes me read him with renewed delight now when I am more and more convinced of a related revolution: the urgent need to examine the unquantifiable damage done by colonialism to our psyche. As Achebe rightly observes, we have yet to overcome the “disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection” despite independence. I would add that independence, as the hasty and persisting denial of the trauma of the colonial voiding of our will to self-determination, repeats and exacerbates that original catastrophe. The result is the unbroken cycle of “acting-out,” of puzzling behaviour, in the political sphere clearly defined today by shocking impunity and corruption. “Today, things have changed a lot,” Achebe says, “but it would be foolish to pretend that we have fully recovered from the traumatic effects of our first confrontation with Europe.”
The real tragedy of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, then, is the failure to acknowledge the trauma of his subjugation. “The white man whose power you know so well has ordered this meeting to stop,” a colonial messenger, one of his own, barks at him. So if democracy, the process of ascertaining the people’s will for popular action, has failed so miserably to take root in our land, we should know one good reason why: we are yet to recover our brutally truncated will. Okonkwo would be as perplexed today by our leaders’ mindboggling thefts as he was by the defection of his fellow Umuofians to the white man’s church, that more insidious means of our subjection. “I cannot understand these things you tell me,” he says to Obierika. “What is it that has happened to our people? Why have they lost the power to fight?” And we may ask: What has happened to us? Why have our leaders no desire whatsoever to respect and improve the land; to serve and lead by example? On 21 March 2013, the world lost a revolutionary novelist and essayist.