Many times, we wonder how the death of someone famous will affect us. What role in our lives does a celebrity or personality hold? We admire them and keep track of professional and personal life achievements, but do they really mean anything to us? After all, we don’t know them.
The other week, I read the news of Chinua Achebe’s death and was shocked when genuine tears began to flow down my face. I was driving and had to slow down as they continued to flow freely. I wondered why I was so affected and began to think back to ask myself what Chinua Achebe, perhaps the greatest of African authors had meant to me, that I should be weeping over the loss of a man I had never met.
The story begins and ends with his seminal work, Things Fall Apart. I always planned to, but never got around to reading any of his other works (I still do). I read articles and essays that he wrote, as well as followed interviews he gave to various publications and outlets.
I was a latecomer to the Things Fall Apart party.
Growing up in the UK, I never had the privilege of reading any African writers at school. I was introduced to reading at home, where I developed a lifelong respect for the written word. At a mission primary boarding school in Zambia, we had story time in the afternoon as well as a weekly book reading for the whole school of a more serious literary work. I first ‘read’ The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien during these read-aloud sessions at school. By Grade 3 we were required to submit a weekly book report based on what we read. I was hooked and have never looked back. It is for this reason that I still have a love for children’s books and young adult fiction.
I spent my High School years living in South Wales with my family, where English Literature was one of my favourite subjects. For our GCSEs, we read Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (both in my top 5 favourite books), while the plays were Macbeth and Hobson's Choice. During my weekly trips to the council library, I came across Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and immediately fell in love. She remains my favourite author and her most famous book occupies the top (No. 1) spot on my Best Books Ever list.
The books I read as a young child and adolescent contributed to moulding me into the woman that I am today. Titles and authors that come to mind are:
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; Watership Down; The Silver Sword by Ian Serralier; The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis; The Magic Faraway Tree, Mallory Towers, Amelia Jane and St Clare books by Enid Blyton; The Animals of Farthing Wood; numerous books by seasoned YA fiction writers Robert Leeson, Lynne Reid Banks and Jan Mark; Liz Berry and the forbidden world of Easy Connections; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Superfudge and of course, Forever by Judy Blume; The Shoe books by Noel Streatfield; almost all of Roald Dahl’s works; so many books by Christian children’s author Patricia St John; Charlotte’s Web; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairytales; The Chalet School series; My naughty Little Sister Ramona and other classics by Beverly Clearly and last but not least, an honourable mention to the Sweet Valley High books by Francine Pascal. All these make up a part of who I am.
Why have I taken so much time to give this background to my literary past? In order to give you an indication of how much of a revolution reading Things Fall Apart was at the ripe old age of 27. My family returned to Zambia in the autumn (fall) of 1995. I enrolled in Evelyn Hone College to study Journalism before switching to the University of Zambia to study Mass Communication. I was drawn to my social science studies to the extent that I almost changed majors to Development Studies. I was passionate about what I was learning about poverty, economics, political history, and development. I came to understand some of the reasons why Africa had some of the difficulties I saw around me. At the same time, I was also being inducted into appreciating my black identity. It may appear strange to some people, but I was unfamiliar with RnB music and most African American music artists. I was comfortable with my Brit Pop and soft rock because I had no idea other genres of music existed. However, even though I got interested in African music, food, dress and hair, I never got around to reading any of the African writers my friends mentioned reading in high school.
When I came up with the idea of starting a book club in 2005, it was initially a Jane Austen Book Club, but since she only wrote six books, it soon morphed into a regular book club. Despite having run the Lusaka Book Club for a number of years, no one had ever picked a title by an African writer. So when someone finally did in 2007, it was something that I looked forward to immensely. Unlike others in the group, I wasn’t revisiting a beloved (or hated) high school classic as was the case when we read Jane Eyre; I was being baptised into African literature for the first time. And oh what a baptismal it was!
From the very first page, I was transfixed. As a social science student who had studied development and politics and for someone who worked in a development context, I was so often fed a single and skewed narrative of Africa, such that one scarcely recalls that there is more to our people than poverty, corruption and disease. Having had a western education throughout my life, it was at that moment I realised just how biased it was.
When I first started my blog about natural African hair care, www.ZedHair.com, I shared about some of the events that motivated me to cut off my chemically straightened hair. In my inaugural post, I wrote:
“In September 2004, I had just spent three months in Holland doing a course in development and was full of righteous activist fire. From Holland, I spent a month in Bermuda where my visit coincided with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery... I was an angry black woman of 25 years and I felt the need to do something radical… I felt a need to reject what I termed 'western concepts of beauty'. A friend later pointed out the flawed nature of the second point, seeing as I still wore western clothes and ate western food. Still, at the time, I didn't want to quibble about such details since I was bent on making a political statement.”
That was me and my oh-so-young self (almost a decade ago). But, it was the beginning of my exploring my African identity and I went about it in the most obvious (if not superficial way). My work in the development sector led me to question why as Africans we couldn’t seem to get our act together. I don’t have the answer to that question yet and it is not really the focus of my discussion here.
Being invited into Okonkwo’s world was a major revelation. Finally, I felt that my identity as an African was validated. I existed before the white man came and I had a history and a culture that was rich and diverse. It was not primitive, backward or unsophisticated; in fact, it was intricate and complex and it worked. Okonkwo’s genuine struggles with reconciling the old way with that of the newly arrived white man is something many Africans still face today. Especially given the influence of Christianity on our cultural traditions and way of life and how many of the early missionaries took the ‘everything you are and represent is evil’ strategy. I think this doctrine was transferred to so much more than just religion. With missionaries as agents of colonialism brought with it the plunder of resources and a political and administrative system that was unfamiliar. Add in to that trade, commerce and globalisation and Okonkwo’s world was gone forever.
On this foundation, the African independence struggle was formed and in the midst of this wind of change across the continent, Things Fall Apart was published. In it, Chinua Achebe for me, represented why it is so important for us to tell our own stories and our own history in our own voices, from our own perspective as Africans and on our own terms. Yes the victors write history, but Africa’s story is not over yet.
Fare thee well Mr Achebe...
The Guardian’s obituary brought on fresh tears. Read it here.
There is a wonderful interview with Mr Achebe also published in The Guardian in 2010, that they have re-released. Read it here.