Last week I read both an essay collection and a novel by the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.
Africa’s Tarnished Name is a collection of four essays about the complex history of an exploited continent and its reckoning with a (at least formally) post-colonial reality. These essays are filled with anger, frustration and complete honesty about Achebe’s difficult relationship to the continent and the crimes committed against it and the common misrepresentation of Africa by others.
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930 and worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service until he had to leave this post at the outbreak of the Biafran War. The essay “What Is Nigeria to Me?” discusses his complicated relationship with his nationality. “Being Nigerian,” he writes, “Is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting.” He makes himself utterly vulnerable when writing about the nuances of his – at times – conflicting feelings to the place where he was born and raised, the country which he might have physically left but constantly revisits in his writing.
“Africa’s Tarnished Name”, the essay lending this collection its title, discusses how colonisation has forever altered the perception of Africa by the rest of the world. He reminds us that despite Europeans having conceptualised Africa as the most removed place on earth, the antithesis to civilisation, the two continents are extremely close geographically. Achebe states that the imperial process of othering the African continent involved a methodologic dehumanisation of its people before finally reminding us that “our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows.”
Africa’s Tarnished Name is a short and very accessible collection of post-colonial writing. In just over 50 pages, Achebe demonstrates his wit and skill as a writer as well as his indignation and passion as a human.
No Longer at Ease tells the story of a young man about to enter the Nigerian civil service after receiving his university education in Britain. Obi Okonkwo quickly has to learn that the government operates on a system favours and corruption, which clashes with his sense of morality. The young idealist manages to resist any bribes offered to him but soon finds himself struggling financially – especially after falling in love with a girl his family disapproves of. Obi becomes progressively frustrated and disillusioned with the systems and social customs he faces and the challenges put in the way of someone seeking to live an honest life.
Chinua Achebe describes the growing pains and cultural dilemmas of a country under colonial rule. And asks what it takes to change habits and mentality of a generation or an entire nation. As in his essays, Achebe’s honesty is striking. The sense of disillusionment in this story about human flaws and entanglements feels real.
Over a short 136 pages complex characters a constructed – and destructed in this eloquent novel. However, while the social criticism has sharp and fascinating, the writing was less passionate and enchanting hat I had hoped for after reading Achebe’s essays. His language is clear and convincing and the subject matter important but No Longer at Ease did not manage to grip me entirely.