Home page > Writing and publishing in Africa > Sex, Africa and Chinua Achebe
| More

Sex, Africa and Chinua Achebe

Thursday 25 April 2013


Born on November 16,1930 in Ogidi, an Ibo village, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, one of six children, was the son of Anglican Christian missionaries. He received his degree at University College, Ibadan, which I visited in 1999 and among whose famous alumni are Ken Saro-Wiwa, Christopher Okigbo, and Wole Soyinka. While there I learned that its students fought the dictator Sani Abacha who retaliated against them ruthlessly.

While literary dissent in The United States is often either marginalized or co-opted, many African writers like Wole Soynika, Nuruddin Farah, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been jailed, threatened with murder or, like Achebe, driven into exile after someone explained to various dictators what they were writing about. Like Soyinka and N’gugi, Achebe was engaged in international affairs. Most notably his criticism of massacres of Ibos during the Nigerian Civil War. The government blamed the writer for participating in a coup, a designation that compelled him to leave the country with his family. He spent years teaching at American universities, among them the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut, and Brown. The last time I saw him was when he received the Phillis Wheatley award from the Harlem Book Fair. He greeted me as his friend and was stoical about the injuries that were the result of a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. As Achebe has said, “The Igbo are not starry-eyed about the world.”

Though he was the author of many works, his magnum opus was the much celebrated “Things Fall Apart,” a novel whose title was taken from a line in W.B.Yeats’s mystical poem about the coming of the Anti-Christ. Yeats was Achebe’s kindred spirit because he also lived under British occupation, and like Achebe sought to preserve storytelling traditions that preceded the invasion by outsiders. For Yeats it was the Celtic Revival. And though there has been an attempt to regard Achebe as a western writer–he read Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Tennyson–it is his use of African storytelling techniques, proverbs, sayings, metaphors, etc. that make “Things Fall Apart” a remarkable achievement. Published in in 1958, and translated into 50 languages it has sold ten million copies.

In it, all of the tensions present in a society in transition are present.

Conflicts exist between the older and younger generation, the traditional order and the one imposed by invaders, and the isolation of tribes from one another. There are also conflicts between masculinist and womanist principles.

The leading character Okonkwo represents the old masculinist values. He is cruel to women and their children, and even shoots one of his wives (yes wives, members of a polygamous arrangement; in the west these wives are called Mistresses). He doesn’t use words when threats, intimidation and fists will do. Part of his fame is based upon his defeat of a famous wrestler.

He murders a boy, Ikemefuna, because some crazy oracle told him to do it. His father, Unnoka, whose reputation he is attempting to overcome, was a dope and a drunk. But, unlike the many American black bogeyman works, novels and movies that feature one-dimensional violators of the incest taboo, Achebe shows other black men who are considerate, charitable, and merciful.

In the novel, conflict between values considered masculine and feminine even includes the planting of crops. Yams are masculine, other crops are feminine. Inadvertent murders are feminine, while intentional murders are masculine.

Okonkwo is exiled from his tribe for committing an inadvertent murder. Indeed for the older generation,the worst thing that a man can be is woman-like.

It’s easy to tell which side Achebe is on, possibly influenced by his mother, Janet Anaenechi ILoegbunam, who was an evangelist and women’s rights advocate. In the famous Kola nut incident, she violated a taboo by picking a Kola nut from the tree instead of from the ground. When scolded,she said that she had every right to pick the Kola nut since the tree was on her property. (I’m one who believes that some patriarchy– a benevolent form–is necessary. When the last of the elders who kept order on my inner city block died, the neighborhood was terrorized for years by gangs.) You can also understand why some reviewers on the European continent–critics who praise masculinists like Winston Churchill–would be friendly toward a work that argues for the diminishing of black masculinity.

But that being said, Achebe’s indictment of the consequences of the European invasion and its scouts, christian priests, in this novel a Mr.Brown and Mr.Smith who demand that the indigenous population abandon their gods, is devastating. Of those who convert to the invader’s religion he writes “Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, called the converts the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that had come to eat it up.” First the priests came- Achebe says that Nigeria was given to the British as one would give someone a cake at a birthday party- and then soldiers who go on a rampage and begin hanging and handcuffing people and imposing the Queen’s law on a traditional society and forcing people to worship their god because their own gods are regarded by the invader as merely pieces of wood.

Unfortunately, people all over the world are familiar with the pattern. So why is Achebe great? I believe that he is great because I have been writing every day for about fifty years and can appreciate the energy, thought, genius and pain that it took to construct the novel’s architecture. The result is a work of versatility which is as rich as a rain forest. By combining the techniques of African storytelling,which he learned from his older sister, Zinobia, Ibo cosmology, taught to him by his great uncle, Udoh Osinyi, and English fictional techniques, introduced to the English by Muslims, he made those who write from a monocultural perspective seem small.

Unlike some other black writers who have been accepted into the canon, he has not been rewarded for mimicry or what the Nigerian critic Chinweizu calls “Euro Assimilation,” or, letting the empire off the hook by blaming the personal behavior of the oppressed for their problems. Both Achebe and Soyinka might know about Allah and Jehovah but they also are aware of Africa’s indigenous gods.

Some Eurocentric critics, scared to wander from the cultural neighborhood, want writers like Achebe to tutor them. A critic in the New York Times Book Review once scolded Soyinka for not acquainting him with African Religion. He seemed to want Soyinka to set up a correspondence course for “those of us who know little about African Religion,” as he wrote.

African Religion has millions of adherents in this hemisphere. All that this critic, a San Franciscan, has to do is take a walk through the Mission District of San Francisco, or attend the annual San Francisco Carnival.These critics lack the restless adventurous intellect of an Ezra Pound who studied Chinese characters and Nigerian mythology.

Pound would have enjoyed “Things Fall Apart” which is like enjoying a lengthy feast made up of many courses. Achebe is indeed one of the fathers of African literature and his legacy will be that of the number of excellent writers that his example has spawned. He was part of a global movement of writers and artists who are bent upon preserving the best of tradition in the face of globalization. In the United States the African American traditions are in jeopardy. I was shocked to learn that black high school and college students I’ve mentored over the last three years have never heard of Phillis Wheatley, all for the sake of assimilation. Achebe said “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Spoken like a lion.

Ishmael Reed is the publisher of “25 New Nigerian Poets” and “Short Stories by 16 Nigerian Women,” both edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, recently sold to the Egyptian Center for Translation, to be translated into Arabic. He can be reached at

See online: Sex, Africa and Chinua Achebe