Chinua Aachebe © ehlingmedia 2002

Chinua Aachebe © ehlingmedia

Chinua Achebe is celebrating his 80th birthday on November 16, 2010. Born and raised in the eastern section of what later became Nigeria, he came to fame in 1958 with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart. The success of that novel, along with his profound thinking on the role of the writer in Africa, earned him the tag „Father of African Literature.“

During the 1960s, Achebe became one of the most vociferous critics of the social and political developments in Nigeria and other newly independent African countries. He also became a major spokesman for Biafra, the territory that sought to seperate itself from Nigeria.

Chinua Achebe has been living in the United States since 1990. He is the recipient of numerous awards, such as the International MAN Booker Award (2007) and the „Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels“ (2002).

Ehling: No condition is permanent, even some that are very unpleasant: “No Condition is Permanent” is of course the buzzword when it comes to looking at Nigeria, talking about Nigeria. In the past couple of years, some slight changes have occurred. The Abachas and Babangidas have gone, the military regime has been ousted. Mr Obasanjo is trying to establish some sort of order. How do you perceive what is going on in your country?

Achebe: Well, quite frankly, I find Nigeria very frustrating. I am not alone in this. There are many Nigerians abroad. As you know, the brain drain is just incredible. And when we talk to one another and there is a certain sense of frustration and but I struggle not to let the frustration degenerate into dispair,. Because it is easy to be impatient, because we know the potentiality of that country and the talent and the resources and to see it having no effect on the lives of the people, on the infrastructure, the roads, the hospitals, the schools, seeing no effect of these talents, these recourses is very frustrating. But it is the result of the damage that was done to the country, especially during the various military regimes. We were considerably damaged by colonial rule. Colonial rule means that power, initiative is taken away from you by somebody else who makes your decisions. If that goes on long enough, beyond one generation, then the habit of self-rule is forgotten. People are no longer able to realize what it means. To be dependant for a hundred years! And suddenly when this thing ends there is nobody who actually knows how to set about running the country. So that is one thing. We got rid of that in 1960 and then we did not really have too much of chance because within six years after independence there was the huge crisis of civil war and then a succession of military regimes. And I think it was in that period that the damage was done. And to recover from it is not going t be easy. It is a very long background to the question you asked.

Ehling: Where were you when the first massacres [that led to the civil war] started? Were you in Lagos?

Achebe: Yes, I was in Lagos. I stuck to my place in Lagos as long as I could because I just did not believe the time had come to run away from my national capital.

Ehling: When did you realize that you had to go?

Achebe: Well, when practically everybody else had gone. And first of all I sent my family, my wife and two kids, away from the town and stayed on. And then, in hiding, one day I realized that my cover had been blown, somebody telephoned asking for me and there was nobody who knew I was there, so I realized that I had to go, so I left.

Ehling: With massacres as such happening, with neighbours turning against neighbours, and retaliation – how does such a situation start, how does is brew up? It is outside effects  that drive people to do what they do? Is it existing anatagonism?

Achebe: Well, it is a mixture of everything. But the real, the main course is the lack of responsible leadership. If you have leaders who are prepared to incite group against group it is very easy to manufacture reasons and excuses. There are all sort of resentments festering, but under control. In the colonial period you see, Britain did not particularly set about making one group “like” their neighbours. That would not be as sensible way of maintaining control over the whole. It is not just Britain, anybody who wants to rule a group will find that if this group is quarreling among themselves they leave you alone. There was a considerable policy of separating people, the various ethnic groups: The Muslim North, the non-Muslim South, East and West. But it did not erupt into sort of a full scale war. There were occasional skirmishes. But if you have good leaders, you know that this is a problem, you keep an eye on it, but this was not done.

Ehling: Has Nigeria had any good leaders, ever?

Achebe: Well, we have had…  – some are better than the others obviously. But I do not know that I can say that we had a really outstanding political leader in the country. I think some of them have been reasonably good.

Ehling: How would you define a good leader? What are the qualities?

Achebe: Well, a good leader, the kind of person I am talking about, would be almost a miracle. A good leader for instance is somebody like Nelson Mandela. I do not have seen such people coming every generation, maybe every ten generations, every hundred generations. People who are miracle workers, that is what I am talking about, but you do not bank on that. So, competent, responsible leadership is possible for many more people and that is what I mean. We have had some reasonably good people who had merit, and made some faults. But there was nobody who could put this great diversity of people together and get them to work.

Ehling: Quite often with leaders emerging, over time they develop into something utterly disappointing – from the example of Mugabe, this is very clear at the moment. Is there any way in which the people of Nigeria can actively encourage their leaders not to develop such habits? What can the individual person in Nigeria do to create an agreeable society of some sort?

Achebe: Well, they have a whole range of things to do. You have to put your own house in order. For the ordinary person, the ordinary Nigerians have lived as neighbors down the millennia. I was talking about the British who came and merged a whole number of mini states and big states into one unit. But those people were always there, and they always managed to live side by side with their neighbours. So they were not owned or run by one kingdom. It was not practically impossible for these people when they have different languages and religions to be neighbors. So it is that habit of neighbourliness which is destroyed and put under great strain again and again when you have things like massacres. That habit of being good neighbors can be developed, can be worked out, consciously. Good leaders, competent leaders must see it as primary task to create friendliness. This something within the scope of most people. Now artists, like writers and sort of course have an added option of using their scale and talent with this in view. It is their business to create an environment in which our people will prosper and be happy.

Ehling: In your work, in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, I think it is quite obvious that you are rather critical of the way things were during the time of colonial incursion, and that the time was right for some sort of change. Possibly not the sort of change that actually did occur, but were these changes brought forward by colonialism? Where was the junction?

Achebe: I do not think that there is any time in our history when things were perfect. I do not expect such times in the near future either. But I think every generation has to examine what needs to be done, what belongs to its peace and proceed. And so what needs to be done will change with time depending on the conditions, whatever the conditions happen to be. And they will not be the same for generation after generation. Every generation must find its mission and fulfill it, as Fanon said – or betray it. So it is not something that you can write up on the wall, saying this is what has to be done. Every generation has to discover what it needs to do.

Ehling: A new generation of African leaders is emerging slowly. South African president Thabo Mbeki is one of those. And with a person of the older generation, like Obasanjo – he has been instrumental in setting up a new agenda for better cooperation with Africa on the condition of good governance in Africa. How do you see this situation?

Achebe: That is a major change for the better. I think that Nigeria could have done much worse than Obasanjo. He has certain qualifications which in his position should be effective. One is that he has experience in leadership, number two is that he has insight into the army, the military, who are still hovering around. And having been its commander in chief before he is able I think to talk to the military in a way that a civilian would have found rather difficult. So this are the qualifications I think he brought to the leadership of Nigeria. Nigeria is a complex place. He also has that additional qualification of having physically suffered under the repression of Abacha, in fact coming to be quite close to being dead. So I think he is very highly qualified to know exactly what Nigeria is and should not be. And so these are the good marks. The doubt is whether he has done as much as he should do in the circumstances. Many people would perhaps think that he let things slight. I am not there [in Nigeria] to be able to assess this myself but things are very slow. The change that one has expected does not seem to be coming. Now it might well be that things are really much worse than we thought. Which I believe is probably part of the answer: that Obasanjo himself did not even know how bad things were when he was promising that in six months we are going to do this and do that – and it has not been done. It is possible that he was over optimistic. But you know, in Nigeria, the pace is slow, and this is the reason for this impatience that I mentioned.

Ehling: One way to accelerate things in the opinion of many people is to look for radical solutions, some of them based on extreme interpretations of religion, both Christian and Muslim. In Nigeria, we have the big problem of quite a number of the Northern states imposing the Sharia, which opposes federal law in many aspects. Is the idea of a cohesion of Nigeria under such circumstances really a realistic idea? Would is not be better, easier, less stressful to break up something which might have been cobbled together without really belonging together?

Achebe: Well, you know that was precisely the thinking behind the Biafra experiment. Staying together seemed to be just too destructive, too self-destroying, and that it would come to a stage when we ought to separate and live rather than stay together and die. But it did not work, it did not succeed, we did not succeed and instead we got back together. I think we should give this as much time and energy – this idea of one nation, as much time and energy as we possibly can. I would not say that it must go that way forever, I think at some point one may be able to say: look this thing is not ever going to work, or this is going to tie us down for too long – let us separate peacefully. Now I think the sharia question may well be one of those issues around which such a decision maybe called for. Because the thinking behind some matters of sharia and others is so radical, the difference [between the parts of the nation] is so huge. Now, the reason I am not saying this is the time to separate is that those who are talking sharia in Nigeria are really just politicians exploiting what they think is available. But if it should turn out that there are in fact whole sections of the country which believe that it is legitimate to chop off peoples hands because they stole a hen – if that should really turn out to be the genuine belief of responsible, educated people in the North than I would say there is no chance. But I do not believe that is the case. The sharia was always there but it was never force onto non-Muslims and it was not ever applied in the area of criminal law. It was applied as a kind of civil law of those who want to. But now I think it appears to be getting out of hand and that is one era to watch very carefully.

Ehling: The advocates of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) are offering a new approach to development, but they are also demanding a control of good governance, standards for good governance in Africa. With powerful people like Robert Mugabe, Daniel arap Moi, Eyadema, Biya and many others clinging to their positions and powers, is there really a chance for such a control of good governance?

Achebe: Well, I think we are in the beginning stages. One thing we must bear in mind is that the crop of really bad leaders we have had, have come largely as a result of the cold war. This is something we often forget: that there was a short period following on the optimistic era of independence. That era was really squashed by the manipulations of the cold war in which the quality of a leader did not matter at all. What mattered was whether he said he was a communist or a democrat. And money was just poured into Africa in defence of ideologies had nothing to do with continent. That destroyed the hopes and the prospects of independence of the middle of the 20th century. And so these people you mentioned are, if you like, the remnants of that period. Now one of the changes that must come to Africa is the idea of limited rule, I mean in term of how long one leader can stay in power. The era of president for life is not gone yet but it is on its way out and that is one of the problems with Mugabe and others. Twenty years as president is too long for anybody. And I think Africa is slowly learning – and painfully – that importance of insisting on responsible leadership. It will come eventually, and we may be impatient and rightly so, because it is not coming fast enough. But that is the way to go.

Ehling: The standards of good governance – who should set them, and who should control them? Would not the idea of the West, of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair and Mr. Chirac and others imposing standards and then allocating gifts and goodies according to good behaviour be the bluntest of neo-colonialist approaches?

Achebe: Yes, it does not sound right, does not seem right at all and it is not right. I think the language that we use in dealing with one another is very important. And even if I am called upon to bring out some money to support a regime, and I am entitled to say I do not like what that regime does and obviously I am not going to put money there – you cannot really say this is wrong or this is unreasonable. But at the same time if I am the same man who has this money to give I should be very very careful in the way I present this case. A lot depends on the presentation of the case. If I say look unless you change your leaders I will not give you any aid, you are likely to have people who say: “To the hell with you, we will struggle on the way but we will do it”. Therefore what I am saying is – and I do not whether it is coming through clearly – there has to be a lot of care exercised by the people who are in the position to give or withhold assistance: if they start throwing their weight around, using extreme language, seeming to order other nations to do their bidding, then there will not be a good result, it will not be done.

Ehling: Africas is the continent that has both been most ravaged by the consequences of globalization and has profited least from it. I mean economic globalization, the availability of swift transport to take ressources from A to B. and create wealth for Africa. Africa’s historical problem has always been that it is so resource-rich and that is has been easily available even in early colonial times, when the Portuguese transported goods and people from West Africa very easily, when the slaves were easily to be had, no matter whether they lived or died on the way. This aspect of economical globalization also has one aspect which probably is more damaging than the plundering of physical resources, that is the plundering of intellectual resources. Starting with the brain drain from Africa to the United States, to France to the United Kingdom – these are of course only very few selected people who are picked – to such blatant attempts such as what British government has done in the last two years in recruiting nurses and doctors from especially South Africa, because England hasn’t invested at home. Is there any way in which such a policy can be countered?

Achebe: Well, I think at this stage all we can do is to recognize it and talk about it. It is very tragic and it is also complex because, take doctors for instance, if the economy of a country collapses completely and the hospitals are no longer able to function as hospitals, it will be very difficult to tell every doctor to stay home to work without drugs, to work without equipment. You might tell some to stay but there a lot of young people who are at the beginning of their careers who would be very difficult to persuade. I tell you one example, when I had my accident in which I broke my spine 12 years ago, I was flown out of Nigeria because the hospitals could not cope. I was there for about a week. I was flown out, and there was a doctor who has set to accompany me and my wife to the hospital in Britain. When we got there to the hospital that had pioneered in spinal injuries during the second World War, it turned out that the surgeon who performed the operation on my spine and the doctor who accompanied me from Nigeria were class mates. And they just recognized each other there and so the Nigerian doctor was part of the team. Now the point I am making there is, that if the facilities had been there in Nigeria, that Nigerian doctor would have had no reason to take me to Britain. But the facilities were not there and so he couldn’t perform, and that is the problem.

Ehling: Facilities non-existant as the result of non-investment, as a result of the money having been transferred out of the country …

Achebe: Oh, yes. One thing goes for an other, so we have to break the circle. I think a whole lot of thinking and planning and patience is needed.

Ehling: I would like to leave this subject and come to your writing. When did you start?

Achebe: Well, I would say I thought it is cool. I was sort of playing around with words but seriously it was at the University that I began. I did not think of writing as a career and I don’t think that I did this ever really, but I think of writing as something that I could do, I should do alongside whatever else I was doing. It simply grew on me. I think as you grow up and you see things which are around you and you ask questions and you hear the answers, your situation becomes more and more of a puzzle. Now, why is it like this, why are things like this and since writing is one way in which one can ask this questions and try to find these answers, it seems to me a very natural thing to do, especially as it meant stories which I always found moving, almost unbearably necessary. I don’t know from what age but it always seemed to me that stories were terribly important. I couldn’t tell you why but now I know a story is in fact where you discover who you are, where a culture discovers what it is and I just think that this is a terribly important place to get into and that I would enjoy it. This is why. And when I went into college and into medical studies and I fled after one year because I didn’t seem to find much of this kind of life, important life and important enjoyment of what I was doing there, so it was by accident in the college that I started to take writing seriously.

Ehling: Now by the stories you talk about, I take it, you mean the traditional tales?

Achebe: Yes.

Ehling: With these traditional tales existing in every society, one strong characteristic is that they are all didactic, they want to teach the listeners something about the cultural background, of the nation, the people of that country or about ways good and bad behaviour and such. Now, your writing is of course modern writing, it is not a traditional tale – but would you say that in your writing you try to have this didactic impetus as well?

Achebe: No, I think the word didactic which is often used is too pejorative …

Ehling: It is not art for art’s sake …

Achebe: Yes, yes. But as long as one accepts, the sense in which I uses didactic – but I would not use it, I would simply say that art is created to make us, to make our passage through the world better, fruitful – and I would say that every story in the end, if it is good, tells us something. This is actually what I meant when I said a novelist is a teacher. Which is why I am constantly dealing with “didactic”. Now a teacher in the sense I use it is not somebody who has the profession of standing in front of children, with a piece of chalk in his hand scribbling on the blackboard. That is not the teacher I have in mind. The teacher I have in mind is something less tangible. And I do not actually see how art, literature can be anything other that being in that domain of trying to tell us, trying to get us to see what is important in our lives.

Ehling: What was important in the life of that very young man at college who somehow started to write Things Fall Apart?

Achebe: Well, this young man had studied the books that were part of his education, he had encountered many stories told about himself by Europeans. At first he did not realize that these rather unpleasant characters he was reading about were supposed to be himself. And as he grew older and becoming more aware, he began to see the vision that was being projected into the world, by some of these stories about the civilized world and about the savage, about the white man and others. And so he began to realize that the world was not as straightforward as he had assumed as a child. Children are very fair minded, they really are. And when this young student became aware that the stories had been used to set one people against another, and that the depiction of himself and his colour and his people and his race has been less than just, he then realized that he had a task. Not necessarily to confront other people, but to save himself because he was aware that there was a story, that there was another story about himself which was not being told. And so all he was doing really was to bring that other story that was not being told, bring it into being, put it among the stories and let it interact.

Ehling: How did you go about having the book published?

Achebe: Well, there were a lot of happy coincidences. I sort of completed the first draft of the manuscript when I was sent to the BBC from my work as a talks producer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, and I was sent to the BBC to do a course and there was an instructor of the BBC, a man called Gilbert Phelps who had published some novels and so I showed him my manuscript. I was urged by one of my friends to show my manuscript. I was very diffident, I nearly didn’t but my friend kept saying, almost pushing, go show him, tell him and I finally asked him if he would like to and he said yes which was very kind of him. He didn’t say yes with a great enthusiasm, which I have fully understand, because I would probably not have even said yes in his situation. But he did and he was very enthusiastic and it happened his publishers were W. Heinemann and so he told his editors there and so my manuscript finally wound up at Heinemann. So it was a lucky chance. I probablay might have been at another publisher, I don’t know. That was the story.

Ehling: Had James Currey been instrumental in this?

Achebe: No, Currey had not arrived on the scene, this is before Currey. Actually I was one of those responsible for bringing Currey to Heinemann. I think he was at Oxford University Press or something. No, it was a man called Allan Hale,who is no longer with us, whose idea the whole thing of Africa was, going to Africa, looking not for potentialities to bring British books into Africa, but to look for writers who must be there for some reason. Everything worked, I took it, at that point in time.

Ehling: Now the book is there. What was the reaction in Nigeria?

Achebe: Good, I would say, of course slow to begin with, because you see the thing is, it is published in London, in far away London you see and a prize of beyond the reach of most people, I think ten shillings and six pence or something like that, but ultimately the news got to us and it was very well received I must say. But it was available in specialized places and few people, it didn’t become a well-known household thing that it became later, until the paperback edition was published some years later.

Ehling: In 1962?

Achebe: In 1962, yes. The hard back, I believe they printed something 1000 copies, and it was gone you know in about one year or a little more and I believed the book would have probably gone out of print maybe for good, if this man Allan Hale hadn’t been fixated on this notion of a Penguin kind of thing for Africa and even using the colors that Penguin used for their books and that was when it caught on.

Ehling: Of course, it was a shrewd business idea for an educational publishers like Heinemann to create African books which in their view certainly would be used as textbooks in schools at a time when independence was lurking round the corner – definitely the curriculum in these countries would be revised …

Achebe: Yes. He did not pretend that this was all missionary work but I believe he was driven just as much by this sheer excitement that something new could happen there, and that if it did of course there would be money for everybody, which is exactly what happened. It was both shrewd and it was a kind of shrewdness that is also mixed with idealism.

Ehling: Other publishing companies over the years have come up with similar efforts from Longman’s Drumbeat series to the sometimes very, very hard-to-swallow Macmillan Pacesetters.

Achebe: Yea, that’s right.

Ehling: I think that was exploitative in a way. I mean your book is still the benchmark: everybody who wants to know anything about African Literature has to read it. Are you proud of that? That no book replaces yours?

Achebe: Well I’m proud that it is my book that did that. But I would not say that no other book will come and replace it. The place it has is a historical place – to begin with, it came when it did and that is part of it’s success. There will be great books, greater books. Some Scottish scholar once said that no greater book than Things Fall Apart was published in the 20th century, but, that Achebe himself surpassed it in Arrow of God – and I like that very much. You see now, Arrow of God will not take things from the place of Things Fall Apart because of the historical fact that this came at a time when it was needed. And what ever flaws it may have, what ever weaknesses it may have, it came at this time and did this particular job. So nobody else can take that. But there are a whole range of other things yet to do which literature, which books will be called upon to do and other books will be doing it.

Ehling: Other things to do. At the time when Things Fall Apart appeared in 1958, of course the end of colonialism was imminent. Other writers were around – Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kenya, Ayi Kwei Armah in Ghana, Wole Soyinka, of course, to name but a few. There was a whole crop of very good, some of them first rate writers around – by any definition of what a first rate writer should be. And today? Where is the crop of first rate African writers, people who consistently produce books that can be taken seriously? Ben Okri has created one very good book and has enjoyed life in Maida Vale since then. One I like personally is Biyi Bandele; from Zimbabwe there is Yvonne Vera. Who can take on that task you described just now? Some of the writers one still considers as being young, youthful, up and coming are in their late 30s or early 40s or even older.

Achebe: Well, what has happened to Africa is very severe. We are talking about the collapse of this and the collapse of that, of good government, of the economy particularly. And this has hit education badly. The news you get from the universities in Nigeria is often appalling. I don’t think a lot of it gets out. There is the obsession with cults and all kinds of dreadful things going on and all this is taking its toll and it is not surprising that quality of students and graduates who come out is not good. It will not be surprising if this shows in the quality of work they do. Now having said that I wouldn’t really go any further because the continent is so huge, it is quite possible that there is some good work being done somewhere in the continent and it doesn’t have a chance to be published to begin with. These day if you want your book published you pay the publisher, this is what happens in Africa. You have to find a lot of money to publish your book. So, in that kind of situation you may really not be accurate for us to say “this is the picture” – but even if the picture were, as dark as bad as you suggest and I suspect, I would put it down to the overall failure of Africa. There are people who say that if you are told that your house has fallen you don’t ask what about the ceiling or what about the windows. The main thing is that this house has fallen. So I don’t think that’s the problem, literature is just one aspect, pick any aspect of the situation. We were talking about the brain drain. Take for instance a lot of people writing in the new diaspora of Africa. A friend of mine, a former classmate who now lives in this country [the USA] began writing novels, late in his life at it were. There are some very young people who also write, I get to see and hear about some of them but I don’t know one thenth, one hundredth of them, of the African in diaspora in the USA, not to talk about Britain and Europe. So, things are bad, I said that, but I don’t really know how bad it is in the literary area.

Ehling: Vanity publishing seems to have made it to the forefront of publishers’ interest in Nigeria. Is there something that can be done about the lack of investment by publishers?

Achebe: Well I am just hoping that things are better than they look. I must say I do not have any evidence to contradict this gloomy picture, I’m just saying that this is such a terrible time and the wilderness is so vast and perhaps in odd corners hidden away somewhere will be some great writers coming up. But I’m worried, I’m a little anxious, especially as I know that the people I sometimes hear from who are complaining that their work is not being projected, put the reason on the fact that people are still talking about me, talking about all these other old writers instead of a new generation. And they almost suggest that I should retire. There is a bit of that going on, that is just a part of the sad story. The inability to assess oneself rigorously that is there is part of the problem, as well.

Ehling: Shall we end for today?

Achebe: Yes.

Ehling: Thank you very much for the time being.

Day 2

Ehling: Despite the obvious problems of the current state of affairs, you seem to be optimistic for the future? Do you put trust in the people to be able to pull themselves out of the quagmire, if only they are given the cance to do so?

Achebe: Yes, it’s an aspect of the energy which certainly exists in that country. I mean you know Nigeria well, so you know what I’m talking about. There is energy, whether it is Lagos, which is sheer anarchy, but it is not lethargic. It is strong, even aggressive and if that energy could be directed to work it will produce really enormous results.

Ehling: If public energy alone doesn’t work to really get Nigeria on the road again – there are administrators in other countries such as Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, who both for reasons to portray himself as a good boy towards the international donor community, and of course for reasons of domestic power politics, spent most of the donor money for development aid on the rural areas. Whatever happened in the two elections he actually went through and won after stepping down as military dictator, he had this very strong power base in the rural area. Is that where Nigeria has to look to start rebuilding itself, to look at the rural areas, and, coming from there, to empower itself?

Achebe: Well, I think not just Nigeria but I think the whole of Africa has to turn back to the rural areas and that’s where the majority of the citizens are and that’s where the engine of of development has to be found. Also because it is right and just. The rural areas have been deprived by the cities in the past. Development resources and energy should be directed where the people live. And there is a lot of scope: I lived in my village, Ogidi, and I know that it is possible for a small community to organize itself, its life, especially on the national or state level. And they do that on this kind of local political level, to throw out of office corrupt and stagnant village politicians and put in others. Sometimes they do it with great severity, to be able to say no to people who grab public land and sell it for their own profit. At the very local level of a village to be able to do this, to insist on accountability of people that are put in by the parties, to stand in regular rather than infrequent elections. There is that kind of will at the village level and I’m sure if one turned one’s mind back from grandiose faults to what is happening to the average man or woman or child in the rural areas, we will probably find that’s where the energy for development is.

Ehling: But to be able to stand up for your own rights, you have to know your own rights.

Achebe: Yes.

Ehling: And there we come back to education.

Achebe: Yes. Education is central and this is of course why I have used the example of my village: they have known the importance of education for ever. You see, this is not something that they need to be taught about. My father who has been one of the early converts to Christianity in my town, in that part of Igboland, he always quoted what a West Indian missionary, who became director of education for the Church Missionary Society in our part of Nigeria, at the turn of the 20th century, he said that education was going to be the thing of great value. This is something that the villagers know. The education is in a bad way today but it is not because the people do not understand its value. Now, I am talking about one part of Nigeria. As you know, this is not necessarily the same everywhere. There are parts of Nigeria where you still need to make an argument for education and so every area will have to deal with the problem that it has – and that is not impossible.

Ehling: You mentioned your father being an early convert – I think in 1904 …

Achebe: Yea, that’s right.

Ehling: Which makes you rather late child.

Achebe: Yea. With my family and I, my the siblings, it is almost as if there are two families. There is a break of something like seven years between my older brother and myself, and my older brother and four other people older than himself, from the first part of this family. My little sister and I were the last two from this kind of junior section of this family. So, yes I am late in the family and that was of course a great advantage in terms of education that we are talking about. Things developed slowly and patiently, my father for instance was not able from the pittance he earned as a church teacher to spend a lot of money on his first son, but he did send him to secondary school which was all there was in those days. But he didn’t get to the end, you know he got up to a point where it was enough for him to get a job in the government, in the posts and telegraphs department. Now, the second son was able to finish secondary school, one more year, you know. And by the time you get to me, I now had two brothers working. And although my father was in retirement, there was enough money in the family to make sure that my school fees were paid. And on top of that of course, historically this was the moment when Britain was planning on a parting gift to Nigeria at independence you see, and so they built the first university in West Africa, in Ibadan. This of course was expected to serve the whole of West Africa, but the West Africans were not going to be that patient so they went ahead and built Legon. And Nigeria itself began to build a university virtually in every village.

Ehling: Yes, it is amazing where one seems to be getting correspondence from – the department of whatever in somewhere. It’s alright with places like Enugu and such, but a university in Awka …

Achebe: (laughing) Yes, of course. Awka kind, this is a great culture of, that is the town where my mother comes from by the way, that is where my wife comes from, so I’m a bit partial about this. But Awka appears in a creation myth, as a town of blacksmiths. So that is where the world was made more habitable. Chukwu, the high good, told the priest king who had been given the yam by god to stop people wandering like animals but to settle down. Still, it was not working and Chukwu asked why this was, as he had given them yam. And they said the ground is too soft, is too wet. And Chukwu said, go to Awka and then bring a blacksmith and let him work his bellows on the soil and dry it and that was what they did, that was the beginning of agriculture. That’s a very powerful little story. What I am saying is that Awka has a certain kind of aura about it, because it was the place of the blacksmiths that created implements which made agriculture possible.

Ehling: What strikes me about this creation story is of course that in that story industry is there before agriculture, which is very quaint.

Achebe: Yea.

Ehling: Your father as a convert, as priest and teacher in the mission society, I gather that he brought you up in a very Christian way. What about this creation myth, the traditional religion – was it allowed in the house to talk about these stories?

Achebe: Yes. And no. There were things I was not allowed to do, some things I didn’t even want to do or didn’t even know they existed. For instance the one that I regretted as a boy was not being initiated into the masquerade society which is where a boy really begins to become a full member of the society, and then he can go around with other boys, accompany their mask as the attendants to the mask. Now, Christians didn’t do that and join that. If there was any traditional festival at which masquerades came out, you would not go and accompany them, you know with their whip and so on. That kind of insight we where denied as Christians, because we were told – and we felt too – that Christianity was better than this thing they are doing in the village. But personally I also wanted to know what it was. And I have wished that things were different, that I could go with the other boys and being initiated at midnight songs. By the way, my two sons were initiated. I saw to it that they were initiated because I was not under the same anxiety as may father or his generation about the danger of heathanism. I was not as totally committed to the new change as my father was, and that is just the difference that can not be eliminated, it is there. My father, the name he gave his first surviving son was, first you have to have a European name, Frank, which is German I guess, but then an Igbo name. For his Baptism his Igbo name was Okwuafor, which means „new word“ which is like a modern word, like a new discourse, a new debate, and that is the coming of Christianity. That is the new thing to do. Now, by the time I came around it was no longer that new and that exciting. It was important of course in its own way but it did not have to supplant the old world.

Ehling: So you became a good old Albert?

Achebe: Yea, well and then we forgot about it.

Ehling: I would like to touch upon another issue and that is literacy and reading. In the 50s, 60s and into the 70s there was the great phenomenon of market literature. Of simple, of cheap books and booklets and brochures which were found everywhere. Today when I travelled to Africa it shows me that there are lots and lots of book stalls, that people sell very, very cheap, very bad editions of whatever. There seems to be an urge to read. But is that a part of that appreciation of education that you mentioned earlier on?

Achebe: Yes. I think you know the, for people who are coming out of an oral tradition, it is very exciting to get into reading and writing and it is quite interesting how frequently people want to write their own story. Sometimes it is straight history – this is how we came about, how our town was created, a lot of that kind of effort, as soon as literacy came. The first thing you wanted to do was to put something down about who you are or how you are related to you neighbors. Then the next stage would be the stories, the cultural part of the story: this is the kind of world our ancestors made or aspired to. These were the things they approved of, things they didn’t approve of. All that kind of thing that seems to be at the root of our human consciousness. We don’t want to be simply wandering about without some kind of reason, we want our presence here to have a purpose, and that we are not going to end here, we are going to proceed somewhere else, and also that we didn’t begin here, that we began somewhere else and all that living, all that elaborate account of our presence seems to be quite basic to our nature and so this is what literacy taps into. It is a new way of conveying the story. Instead of telling it, you write it down. It can travel on its own. That is something new. Today, the literature you mentioned, the market literature, which was particularly strong in Igboland, in Onitsha, today it is no longer strong. It is one of the victims of the civil war, that market was actually destroyed and at the end of the war a new Nigeria has struggled to come into being and I believe that what is probably going to replace the market literature might be the video, which they have taken to in a big way, creating dramas. So that may be the next thing way we will see coming out of the local basic level in our society.

Ehling: There is a strong basis for video production in some West African countries. I am familiar with the situation in Ghana, where the quality of production is very very good, not only technically, but also when it come to scripts. There are gifted, good script writers in Nigeria, as well, Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of the best with his series „Basi and Company“. How do you see that development in terms of education and keeping reading alive?

Achebe: Well, that is the task for teachers, you know I do not think that there need be the conflict between books and videos, that one would drive out the other. It certainly is possible to watch the screen for some things and for others to sit down and read, because the screen is easier to do, to watch is easier than to read because you don’t have to contemplate anything. Someone else has done the work of putting it on the video. But if you were to loose the habit of making the effort to get the book and read the words one by one you would have lost something terribly important. So I think that we have a task to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Ehling: Are you thinking of script writing in any way?

Achebe: No, I don’t have the plan for that just now. I think for some reason it does not appeal to me to the same degree, in the same way theatre has not appealed to me. It is extremely important, but it seems to me that there is simply enough for me in the written word. I perceive that it is important and that this area is being developed by those who want to do it.

Ehling: In terms of production your literary output has not been as prolific as, say Wole Soyinka’s, producing new literary children every year. There has been that long gap between A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah. There are five novels and two collection of short stories, four childrens books I think, poetry. Why?

Achebe: And a massive number of essays. That’s the way it comes to me and that’s the way I work. I wish there was a bigger harvest, but I go at the pace my inspiration and my physical condition allows me to. So it is one of these examples – and I’m glad that I haven’t written so many bad things so that people say „oh not again“, but „When is the next one?.“

Ehling: You mentioned the urge for people to put down their own writing, to tell plain stories about who they are and where they came from. Now, throwing this together with the literary production and reception of writing from Africa – over the last fifteen years, there has been that new theory for post-colonial writing which basically assumes that most of the texts written after the period of colonialism are basically rewriting colonial texts and trying to reposition the „African Nation“ whatever the image is. Niyi Osundare wrote a very nice satirical essay where he asks ‘where colonialism has been posted to’. Especially from African writers there seems to be quite some resistance towards the term „post colonial literature“. What is your reaction?

Achebe: Well, I think it agrees with my feeling that the desire to attach labels can sometimes get a bit out of hand. This is something I have said from the beginning of my career, I wrote an essay in which I said „don’t fence me in“. You know, let’s not rush to name this thing. Because naming is like putting a stamp on it and fixing it. A kind of formaldehyde sort of fixation, but it becomes dead, sitting there forever, frozen. So, I’m not a great one for these modernist, post modernist, post colonial labels. I think they serve certain purpose. You do need some kind of sign post here and there, but it can also become an end in itself. Maybe next year somebody will try to find out where we are – and what is the word for this period, is it post-post?

Ehling: Well, it may be post-September 11th. That is more or less the start of the new century. When there are people like Homi Babha who are theorising …

Achebe: Yes. These are good people. This is what they do. And they are not entirely useless. But I am saying that I don’t sort of sit down and think about what is post colonial.

Ehling: But it does of course fit into the necessities of European and American curricula.

Achebe: Yes. That is right.

Ehling: One last point I would like to touch upon is the question of literature in African languages. You have not been as strong an advocate of literature in African as, say, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But in your essays I think you pointed out that you find this important to have.

Achebe: Yea, well, I actually, it is not quite true to say that I am not an advocate of writing in African languages. What I think is, one has to think about what is practicable. And I must say also that maybe my very first essay I wrote on this probably gave the impression that I didn’t put it very well that I should write in English and leave who else wants to write in Igbo to do so, or in Swahili or what ever. I have put it more moderately since and that is to say that I want you to make all the effort that is called for in the direction of the mother tongue. And if you can write certain things as, in my case, you must so. Maybe the best poem I have ever written I wrote in Igbo. You may know about it, it is called ‘for Christopher Okigbo’ and it was then translated by a friend of mine into English. I intend to more work along these lines and I intend to write for children in the Igbo language. I intend to recreate some of the folk tales for children, not only in translation but in the original language. So I think the situation as I see it is the existence of both streams of writing side by side into our future. And the future will determine how much space it will give to one or to the other. It is possible that English maybe something that will go. I don’t know if it is going to happen or would happen next year. But whatever is, I think the Igbo language has enough claim and energy and beauty to deserve respect. As a matter of fact, my son is involved in a project of the World Bank to help produce a major Igbo dictionary by really going into the dialect areas and bringing back the words, especially words that are in danger of disappearing. So there is a lot of good work ahead.

Ehling: This is very interesting. There are projects in other African countries to develop text books for primary education especially in national languages which seem to be very successful, and I remember a project in Madagascar which has been very successful because they included forms of Creole in their and it was interesting to see the re-formation of language that was happening. One of the most interesting things I always found in your writing is your way of handling the English language, of not taking it for granted but subverting it …

Achebe: Well I think that is one of the first things that I got clear in my mind when I began to play around with fiction, that I had to find a language and it was not in existance at the time. You have put it very well – it wasn’t to be taken for granted. You had to go on and search until you found a way through the conversation of English and Igbo. The two languages stuck into each other and tried to find a way to express through one, the medium of the thoughts. That’s a very exciting thing to do, a very difficult thing to do.

Ehling: How do you do it? A lot of listening, lots of trying around?

Achebe: Yes, I play around but I think it is just this notion that you are present when two languages are talking. And there are things which are an easy conversion from one to the other. But at other times you have to go around some things, and that is a problem because the language doesn’t allow it what you want it to do, doesn’t do it. So it is difficult to talk about because if you don’t talk about it well it sounds like juggling numbers, but it is a live conversation and it requires an equal respect for the two languages.

Ehling: If it is done badly it makes people look stupid, if one takes Joyce Carey’s model of having an African talk as an example.

Achebe: Yes, that is right. That’s totally opposed to what I think literature should be doing.

This interview was conducted on June 27 and 28, 2002, at Chinua Achebe’s residence at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.