ACHEBE OPENED THE DOOR FOR US
By CAMERON DUODU
Before Chinua Achebe came on the world literary scene in the late 1950s, African literature was treated by the rest of the world, and more sadly, by many educated Africans themselves, as a quixotic enterprise in which dark forests and evil spirits held all the shares. At best, its yield was relegated to footnotes in anthropological tomes by foreigners seeking validation through evidence unearthed from authentic African “non-oral” sources. Or at worst, as examples of the confused babbling that the “half-baked, slightly dodgy “education” provided by missionaries, had succeeded in churning out among the “natives”.
The implication was that this was an area where pigmies were trying to pretend there was substance in the meagre proportions of their physiques, especially their brains. The ‘experiment’ needed to be shut down fast. And the task was, of necessity, entrusted to the ‘centres of excellence’ to which the African ‘mountebanks’ could not answer back.
For instance, an ‘English Lit’ graduate from Oxford once jested to me — with a look that warned me, pradoxically, that he was being serious — that Cyprian Ekwensi “should have stuck to his vocation as a pharmacist” instead of veering aside to write “apologies for novels”, with titles like People of the City and Jagua Nana!
In those circles, it was “witty” to signal that one was being profound by laughing uproariously at one’s own own ‘jokes’ and my friend did not exempt himself from that affectation. I said nothing, but filed away the fact he had broached to me, namely, that Ekwensi might have some real knowledge to impart in his novels. I discovered, later in life, that I was right in my supposition: if you want to know how a pharmacist is regarded in a small town, ask its hypochondriacs, or — its teenage boys and girls who had got each other into “trouble” by indulging in pursuits best left to adults; preferably, of the married variety.
As for my Oxonian friend, he showed me the horizons to which his literary vista extended when he asked me one day, when I was going to London, to “go to Foyles and buy me a copy of Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner.”
It was at the tip of my tongue to tell him that I had once tried, unsuccessfully, to read The Sound and the Fury by the same author. But I held my peace — after all, I had enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath immensely and Steinbeck sand Faulkner were touted to us in practically the same breath. I enjoyed, especially, the ending of The Grapes of Wrath, since one of my own greatest delights was to suck the nipples of a young woman, like Faulkner’s girl — though, definitely, not from a desire to save myself from starving! Anyway, I concluded, early in my career as a writer, that arguing
about literary tastes was not a very wise exercise.
(I had once nearly lost another literary friend because I did not share his approval of writing that was so densely done that it took for ever to read and understand. I foolishly admitted to him, quite artlessly as I was wont to do, that I had not yet managed to finish Ulysses by James Joyce, despite several years of trying. I confessed that I was susceptible to mind-wandering myself, and that reading about someone else’s endless addiction to associating words and scenes to everything in his memory bank only swerved my own mind into areas like the potholes that I needed to avoid as I drove to work; how my mother used to trust me to taste the soup for her; how I used to steal a piece of meat while doing it and swallow it half-chewed in order to avoid detection; and how nearly-rotten tomatoes tasted after being boiled in a soup. I had only managed to rescue my reputation in my literary friend’s eyes when I had described to him, in vivid detail, the scene in the movie of Ulysses that depicted Molly Bloom’s recollection of being fucked — suggestive moanings and all– YES!! Thank God for Hollywood scriptwriters, who do not scruple to take the measure of pretentious literary “giants” when they want to retell their stories on the big screen.)
From conversation like those I have sketched above — and many more — I gradually gathered the impression that some of the products of the ‘centres of excellence’ prized the snobbery implied by being able to say, “Only the properly-tutored can fully comprehend Joyce or Faulkner “, more highly than the simple idea, rooted in common sense, that nobody forces one to write and that if one wanted to write, then one should also want to be read; and if one wanted to be read, then one should also want to be understood.
Amos Tutuola was another ‘African writer’ who was despised
by the English Lit establishment. If the derision — and patronising — inflicted on him by those better “educated” than him could
squelch the creative impulse, The Palmwine Drinkard would have been his last offering at the literary shrine. He was regularly ridiculed for writing books with titles like Simbi and The Satyr of the Dark Jungle. But was it he who chose that title? Or was it, more probably, his publisher?
Tutuola was only trying to open to the world, the doors that led to the incomprehensively vast riches of Yoruba folklore. But the key to the door — the dyspeptic Western publishing industry — was rusted. And Tutuola was made to drink from the poison that is distilled
when rust catalyses with even the freshest droplets of dew from the greenest leaves in the rain-forest. The snobbery directed at Tutuola for using the only tool that made sense to him — an English language that gave him a world audience, ungrammatical though the language was, and other examples that I don’t care to recall, serve to illustrate the infanticide that the “English Lit” industry in England and America inflicted upon the offspring of the African muse in those crucial years, when Africa was struggling to assert herself politically, but when political repression was abetted by the suppression of everything that helped the African ftreedom fighter to believe that he was the co-equal of his oppressors and everyone else on Planet Earth.
Teachers and publishers’ readers who were rolled out from the same cloistered cubicles of dead thought formed a tacit, unholy
alliance, that used the power of the publishing industry to
capture and try to reshape the African psyche and even the African soul. But fortunately, unnoticed by them, Caliban’s tongue was being forged in the very crucible wherein they were trying to pour encrusting alloys on to “African literature”.
Peter Abrahams, for instance, broke free and was accorded some recognition for his books, such as Song of the City and Mine Boy. His editors even allowed him to use the word “piddle” in one of his books. I’d never seen it written in a book before, and it had a very liberating effect on me, who lived in the other side of Africa. Yet, despite this evidence of his universal appeal, he was almost immediately slotted into the apartheid racialist ghetto of “Coloured Writer”!
Alan Paton, on the other hand, was showered with kindness — he was credited with producing not only white South African literature at its best (despite Cry The Beloved Country being an unmistakably pan-African work) but world literature, that happened to employ African themes! My God – the head begins to swim when one re-emerges it in those years of what a Nigerian friend would call “literary caterwauling”; when English Lit
practitioners felt the need to categorise in order to colonise ‘virgin’ literary territories in ‘African literature’ for themselves.
I have practical experience of this: my first literary output was sent to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a programme of short stories and poems entitled The Singing Net. I listened avidly to it and although the programme seemed to be largely devoted to the works of a West Indian poet called Macneill Stewart, who lived in the Ghanaian village of Oterkpolu, and wrote fantasies about the life he found there, I summoned the courage to send a short story to it. It was called Tough Guy In Town.
It was nearly the last thing I ever sent to the programme. In my story, the “tough guy” was a real ‘hero’ who defied everyone and got away with it — because he was very strong and could pack a powerful punch to get himself out of any scrape he got himself into. When the story was broadcast, however, the ending had been changed — withot my being consulted — and my ‘hero’ had been carted off to jail for getting the better of some guys
who had annoyed him in a nightclub! When I heard the story
read on the radio, my pleasure at hearing my name broadcast
to the whole of Ghana, and my own words beautifully rendered by a well-known news reader, was considerably reduced by the fact that the most distinctive aspect of a story about a hero who could cock a snook at authority, had had its hero emasculated into a conventional trouble-maker,
who got his just deserts from the judicial system.
Anyone else could have written that story, as broadcast,
I thought. I was being told, indirectly, that if I wanted to have
my stories broadcast, then I needed to treat my themes in a
manner that would be “acceptable” to the ‘authorities’ at Broadcasting House. I later discovered that these “authorities” were actually, one person: a guy called Henry Swanzy, who had joined the BBC in London with a first at Cambridge, and had subsequenly been seconded to the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service as Head of Programmes. He had midwifed several West Indian writers on to the BBC’s Caribbean programmes and he was in the Gold Coast to tell the Cameron Duodus too what they couldust
write! So the Gold Coast bred different people from those in the Caribbean? So what?
I was only 19 or so when this happened to me and I had a youthful anger which amazes me today, when I look back on it. Who were these broadcastiong ‘authorities’ who fond nothing wrong in substituting their view of the world for my own and yet put my name to it without first consulting me to see whether I would agree to that being done or not? The idea was repugnant to me and when I first met the producer of the programme, Henry Swanzy, I raised the issue with him. He came from a country that boasted of being “The Mother of Democracy”! I noted. And yet he had ridden over my democratic rights as a writer with complete unconcern!
“Look, Mr Diwodu, we have to take the whole poplation into
account when we broadcast things, you know, and we can’t
take the risk of broadcasting examples of bad behaviour,
in case it influences other people to imitate it and act likewise,
you. know?” he said to me. Sweetly. Then he added the
clincher, “You saw that your story was the centre-piece of the
Radio Critic’s column in the Sunday Mirror that week?
he threw the honey in. “We wanted to promote your story, Mr Diwodu, and that wouldn’t have worked if we had retained your original ending!”
I was learning fast — editors and producers reserved for
themselves, the right to substitutete their own viewpoint for
that of a writer whose story landed on their desks! And yet, they would all — to a man — have insisted that they respected in its entirety, the universal human right that allows each person to hold his or her own views, without being coerced to change it for that of an an editor or producer. The BBC, in particular, was constantly criticising the lackof “freedom of expression” that was to be found in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Yet here in Ghana was Henry Swanzy, the best of the best with a first class degree from Cambridge University, pushing his own view of morality down the throat a young lad brought up in a rustic village called Asiakwa — as if I
had no right whatsoever to have a viewpoint of my own that should be represented in anything allegedly written by me!
Swanzy was, however, so pleased with my story that he included it in an anthology of Ghanaian writing entitlede Voice of Ghana, that he edited and got the Ghanaa Information Services Department to publish.
My second experience of cultural imperialism occurred when
the German translation of my novel, The Gab Boys, was entrusted to an “expert” in African literature, a German resident of Nigeria called Janheinz Jahn. I couldn’t, of course, tell what sort of job he made of it, as I do not have German. But a casual remark from a German friend made me uneasy — apparently, in addition to changing the title to the obscure Flucht nach Akkra [‘Escape To Accra’] Horst Erdmann of Tubingen, Germany, had also accepted a translation that resorted to a completely quaint German argot to tell my story. Apparently, Jahn’s explanation was that the characters in my
book would, if they were Germans, not be capable of speaking gramatical German! My friend was not amused by the rationale used by Mr Jahn. But what to do? You have been translated into German, and you cavil at the quality of the translation? What was truly amazing was that not once did Mr Jahn find it necessaty to broach a single word to me of what he was ttrying to do to my book!
With Achebe, they couldn’t find anything to dare to mess with. The guy had used a line from the great Irish poet, W B Yeats, as his title for his first novel, Things Fall Apart. But if those who jumped with delight at the fact that an African understood Yeats so well had been adequately literate themselves, they would have been instructed that here was a man who had not only surpassed “English Lit” at Ibadan, but who had guessed, in his heart, that his continent was in serious trouble; or as Yeats had continued, in his poem:
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Achebe might well have entitled his last published book, There Was A Country, “The Hour of the Rough Beast”, for he lived to see things that not even Yeats could have prepared him for. Maybe he had prepared himself, though: A Man Of The People began to unravel explicitly, the corruption, double-talk and “slouching” towards self-destruction. that Nigeria had embarked upon, and which he also more than hinted at in No Longer At Ease.
Yipes! The guy told us. But we wouldn’t believe it. Until it happened in real life before our very eyes. And all we could do was to sit and watch. As the stomachs of babies and infants swelled with starvation and exploded in thousands of tiny graves; as grown men ran like chickens upon the arrival of iron hawks droning noisily in the sky and scattering burning fire and bullets into dwellings and schools and even — allegedly — hospitals with the Red Cross symbols painted on their rooftops.
The reports of what was happening in Biafra were such that I wrote to Achebe (I don’t remember how I got his address, for I hadn’t kept in touch with him after our first metting in Kampala) asking him to arrange for me to visit Biafra to see things there for myself. The address I’d been given was authentic, however: Achebe replied, in his own hand, giving me the name of the Biafran representative in London, a Mr Kogbara, and asking me to get in touch with him to arrange the visit. “Yes – this war should not only be reported by white journalists”, Achebe wrote to me.
But the sickness known as ‘Nigerianitis’ had also afflicted the London office of Biafra! I was always told by underlings that Kogbara was “not on seat” when I called at Collingham Gardens, London, to see him. And my telephone calls, which were always received by someone else, were never returned. This surprised me, for I was writing regularly for the London Observer at that time and I expected that even if Achebe had neglected to apprise Kogbara of my desire to visit Biafra, the latter would recognise my name himself and realise that it might be advantageous to the Biafran cause to arrange for an African journalist with access to a reputable British newspaper like The Observer, to go there. At the very least, he could do me the courtesy of talking to me directly?
It was then that I had an inkling that the Biafran struggle was not being pursued with as much idealism and devotion as some of Biafra’s foreign sympathisers believed. Later events were to prove that indeed, factionalism was sapping the vigour out of the benighted “country”. I was, of course, unaware of any of that. Indeed, the wasteful death, at the front, of another Kampala friend, the personable poet, Chris Okigbo, affected me deeply — so much so that I put my relationship with The Observer at risk when I noticed that its “omniscient” Africa Correspondent, Colin Legum, was
pushing a very anti-Biafran line in reporting the war, and keeping pro-Biafran stuff out of the paper.
Gee, it’s great to be young: I wrote from the USA, where I was
on a visit, to tell the editor, David Astor, bluntly that Legum’s line could have been coming straight from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. I reminded Astor that The Observer was well known for supporting oppressed minorities like the Nagas of the India-Burma border region. I ended the letter disrepectfully with the words, “Fuck Colin Legum!”
This letter caused a great stir at The Observer office, where, apparently, much heart-searching had been going on over the paper’s line on Biafra, as dictated by Mr Colin Legum. On my way back to Ghana from the US, I passed through London and called The Observer. I was given the impression that David Astor would be glad to talk to me, but when I got to the office, I was palmed off to Astor’s deputy, Donalkd Trelford. We had a nice chat
but as far as I know, nothing came of it. The paper continued to follow the Legum line.
As I have just mentioned, I first met Achebe in 1962, at a conference of writers organised at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. I cannot now recall who organised it and why, for in those days, when one got an invitation, one accepted it because it signified recognition, and if an airline ticket eventually materialised as well, one gratefully jumped into a plane and went. I got to the conference a day late, due to the lateness of my ticket’s arrival.
So, when I got there, I was like a new boy in a new class in school – introductions, news, briefings – took half my time. But I enjoyed being there and getting acquainted with a host of very interesting people, including Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi, John Nagenda, Christopher Okigbo (whom I’ve already mentioned), Segun Olusola, Barry Record, Iskia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane and, of course, Chinua Achebe. The black South Africans were of particular interest to me, for I’d been writing passionate radio ommentaries about their country, ever since the Sharpeville massacre of March
1960, without actually meeting many of them in the flesh. Bloke Modisane and Bob Leshoai became very good friends and taught me to sing “Tso-tsho-loza!” over several beers at a nightclub called “Top Life”.
Other than that, I hardly paid any attention to the many voluble opinions and prescriptions offered at the conference on how to write in our “African setting”, for, apart from finding the discourse of writers generally puzzling — to say the least — I was preoccupied with arranging interviews for the paper I edited in Accra, the Ghana edition of Drum magazine. Among the historic personalities I was chasing were Jomo Kenyatta (in Nairobi), the prime minister of the Central African Federation, Sir Roy Welensky (in Salisbury, now Harare) Kenneth Kaunda (in Lusaka) Dr Hastings Banda (in Nyasaland, now Malawi) and, will you believe it — the South African prime minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd (in Johannesburg.)
In those days, to expect to be able to use telephones between
one African country and another was akin to expecting manna to fall from heaven, so I was reduced to using cablegrams and letters – a task immensely complicated by the fact that I could not stay long enough in any one capital to await replies to my cables and/or letters forwarded from another capital!
Even worse I was constantly short of money on the trip, for the administrators of Drum in Johannesburg did not quite appreciate the adventurism of their radical, pan-African editor in Accra, who was apparently threatening to upset the delicate policy of “live and let live” that they had managed, by long practice, to establish in relation to the racist regimes of east, central and southern Africa.
Their appeasement of racism in those countries — as it
uncharitably appeared to me — nauseated me. When I wrote
a piece attacking the Nation newspaper group of companies in Nairobi for only allowing the perfectly literate Kenyans I had
met on their staff — including Herman Igambi — to write only for their Swahili paper, Taifa Leo, while the white staff
monopolised the English language daily, the Nation, the Drum administration was eager to apologise when the Nation threatened to sue for libel. I told them: “If they sue they will lose, because what I wrote is true! and truth is a complete defence in libel”. Yes — I
had read my ‘Gatley’ on libel and slander! But it was intimated to me, in a nod and a wink, that the Kenyan blacks whose case I
had taken up would be leaned upon and threatened with
the sack if they testified for me against their own employer!
I gave up and a friendly “clarification” was published in the East African edition of Drum.
My relationship with Drum came under great strain at this time, for I could sense that with Ghana operating a stringent exchange control regime that prevented me from gaining access to the money I had in my bank account in Accra, the only way the Drum administration thought it could rope me in and frustrate my desire to expose racism in the white-ruled countries in Africa, was to stall whenever I asked for money. But I stuck it out, often making friends with hotel managers in order not to be chucked out, while making daily trips to banks to see whether any money had arrived for me. I was also immensely assisted by the unexpected generosity and hospitality of two Drum representatives — a guy called Dick Walker in Ndola (Northern Rhodesia/Zambia) and another called Noel Mukono (in Salisbury/Harare).
Despite the hardships I endured on the trip, I succeded in interviewing everyone on my list, except — Dr Verwoerd! He declined with a curt note to me saying simply: “Your visit to South Africa cannot be allowed”.
I was as sure as hell that his office had contacted Drum
headquarters in Johannesburg about my request for an i
nterview with him and that the answer I had received from him was a reflection of the annoyance that must have been felt at said
hq, that I had not bothered to inform them of my intention to
arrive on their doorstep and interview their prime ministre!
They already saw me as a handful, and I knew it. So, of
course, I had deliberately not invited a veto to my proposed
visit, by consulting them, or asking for their assistance. After all, they had been telling everyone in Accra who would listen, that the Ghana edition of Drum was an autonomous edition edited by a Ghanaian — myself! Well, I wasn’t the type of Ghanaian who would wear the “mask” of a blackman while acting for a whiteman! (Apologies to Frantz Fanon!)
I mean, I was not stupid enough to imagine that they would exactly dance around with glee, if their ‘Pan-African-minded’ editor from ‘enemy territory’, Nkrumah’s Ghana, came to South Africa to set the blood pressure of Verwoerd racing, with “insensitive” questioning about the presumptions underlying the philosophy of apartheid.
I could understand that, from their perspective, I might put their entire South African operation at risk and that they would thus not welcome my visit. Of course, I had to guess everything, for the art of acting by doing and saying nothing was not exactly unknown to me! I wasn’t being discourteous, just practising the journalist’s creed of putting the story above everything else.
If I got a scoop interview with Verwoerd, I could say
‘To Hell with you!’ to Drum, and they knew that too. I was taking a risk, and I was prepared to suffer its consequences. I was raised in Ghana, and self-confidence wasn’t a trait that could be found lacking in me.
Years later — in 1990 in fact — the owner of Drum, Jim Bailey, perhaps haunted by a bad conscience over the role he knew I suspected he had played in preventing me from obtaining what would then have been the greatest scoop of my life — ‘MR DRUM INTERVIEWS DR VERWOERD ‘ (in the same way that I had managed to get Drum scoops like ‘MR DRUM MEETS RUSSIAN SPACEMAN [Yuri Gagarin]) invited me to spend four
memorable weeks in Johannesburg, during which I met Nelson Mandela. This visit helped to wipe the slate clean of the memories of those tense days between us at Drum.
But back to Achebe – I last saw him some years ago (before his
sad motor accident) coming out of the Strand branch of a London bank, just as I was entering it. I called out to him, “Chinua!” He turned round and recognised me. He complimented me on The Gab Boys, describing it as a “fine” piece of work. I nearly asked him, “If you liked it, why didn’t you put it on the Heinemann Educational Books African Writers’ Series, of which you were the editor?” (The paperback edition went, instead, on a Fontana Modern Writers list that was very prestigious but didn’t penetrate African schools as deeply as the HEB series did.)
I am glad I didn’t press the issue. For I later got to know that my compatriot and friend, Ayi Kwei Armah. had had a very irksome relationship with the Heinemann people, when they published his work. (You see, publishing is not just a literary pursuit but also, a commercial and intensely political one!)
Fortunately, Ayi Kwei and I both now own the copyright to
our work and can do what we like with it. But I must acknowledge that whatever he did – or did not – do with Heinemann, Achebe, by breaking through publishing the way he did — both as a writer and editor — opened the door to all of us African writers. We honour him for that as we do his great craftsmanship.
UPDATE: One of the BBC’s most intelligent African employees, BILKISU LABARAN, was interviewed by Stephen Sackur of the BBC programme, Hard Talk, on Achebe’s death. It was an interview full of insight. Well done, BILKISU! Here it is: