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May 5, 2011

The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe

A few years ago, I read Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s exceptional novel Half of a Yellow Sun, and realized that I had to read Chinua Achebe. And so I read Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease (the latter at the same time that I was reading its near-contemporary Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Allan Sillitoe, and strange connections between the two were illuminating) and enjoyed the books for both their literary value and the opportunity to read about Africa from the perspective of an African. Or rather, as in the case of Adichie too, more specifically, Nigeria from the perspective of a Nigerian.

My book club read Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah last month, and I thought it would be a good segue into his most recent book, the essay collection The Education of a British-Protected Child which had been sitting on my shelf for a while. And it was a good segue, or more accurately, the essay collection was a wonderful complement to Anthills…, which had been much more challenging than I’d been prepared for.

The Education of a British Child collects essays and addresses by Achebe from over the last 30 years, about his life, his work, and his politics. For Achebe, all three are intertwined, and have their roots in his origins. Nigeria was a British colony until 1960, and so until then, Achebe’s passport had distinguished him, like all Nigerians, as a “British Protected Person”. It was a strange kind of protection though, and Achebe’s feelings towards colonialism and post-colonialism are explored in most of these pieces. What I found most interesting about his perspective is that he writes from “the middle ground”, which he explains is:

.. neither the origin of things nor the last things; it is aware of a future to head into and a past to fall back on; it is the home of doubt and indecision, of suspension of disbelief, of make-believe, of playfulness, of hte unpredicable, or irony.

So that while Achebe’s feelings about colonialism and its horrendous effects are never measured, neither is any situation so simplified that colonialism is the easy answer to any hard questions about Africa’s present and its past. Achebe writes about the strange position of being an African writing in English, but doesn’t necessarily see the English language as part of the colonial yoke, and notes that English was readily by adopted by Nigerians as a unifying language. Or that he can learn as much from his great-uncle, a traditional leader in his community, as he can from his father, who was a Christian schooled by missionaries, and that both father and uncle “formulated the dialectic which I inherited”. Which is, of course, the capacity to acknowledge the world as a complicated place.

Achebe’s essays are funny, engaging, and where points between them overlap it serves to underline the general effect of the book rather than detract from it. Though it’s much less funny that Achebe has been making the same points for 30 years, that so little has changed– about how Western readers understand African (and Achebe makes a spectacularly impassioned case against Joseph Conrad, over and over), how we have to read Africa through Africa’s eyes, about the legacies of colonialism (and here Anthills of Savannah became so much clear to me– that African didn’t squander a democratic inheritance from its colonizers, Achebe describing the British colonial administration instead as “a fairly naked dictatorship” so what it wrought it unsurprising). He writes about the connection between Africa’s population, and the African-American population, about the history of Africa and Africans, which is so much different from how the colonizers told it in order to justify their actions.

The final essay “Africa is People” begins with Achebe sitting in on a meeting of economists on the state of Africa, during which the prescription for Africa’s problems was generally removing food subsidies and devaluing currency. Suddenly, Achebe takes to the floor with the realization that he was sitting in on a fiction workshop. “Here you are,” he says to the economists, “spinning your fine theories to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories”. Except that Africa was not a laboratory, and Africa was people, and surely they wouldn’t permit these same perilous economic experiments upon the citizens of their own countries?

My copy of this book is now full of underlinings, but I’ll conclude here with what I think is one of the powerful in this marvelous collection, displaying Achebe’s grace, sensitivity, erudition and ease with language:

“Like the unfortunate young man in my novel, the poor of the world may be guilty of this and that particular fault or foolishness, but if we are fair we will admit that nothing they have done or left undone quite explains all the odds we see stacked up against them. We are sometimes tempted to look upon the poor as so many ne’er-do-wells we can simply ignore. But they will return to haunt our peace, because they are great than their badge of suffering, because they are human.”

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