This July marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart. Lebohang Mojapelo reviews a book that places its author among his contemporaries.
Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite
James Currey, 2017
It is a poignant scene: Chinua Achebe has left this earth—he died in March 2013, aged eighty-two—and in the middle of a sequence of speeches, over thirty gentlemen stand up. They are from Government School in Umuahia, and include Chukwuemeka Ike (class of 1945), Chike Momah (class of 1944) and Elechi Amadi (class of 1948). Together, they recite the school anthem:
We lift our voice to thee, O Lord
To Thee we sing with one accord
To grant us through Thy Son adored
The will to shine as one
A striking send-off. Absent from the group is Christopher Okigbo, who was killed while fighting in the Nigerian Civil War, on the Biafran side, in 1967, and who, with Achebe, would have completed the picture. These five men were incubated in the school together and formed a brotherhood that transcended its walls—Nigeria’s first collection of post-independence writers.
While it may seem that Achebe was at the centre of this brotherhood, in Terri Ochiagha’s new book Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite it is her intent not only to trace what qualities Umuahia had to produce such a generation of writers, but also to trace the lives of those who lived and wrote, inevitably, in Achebe’s shadow.
For example, Okigbo (class of 1945) gave us several poetry collections, including Heavensgate (1962), Silences (1962) and Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder (published posthumously in 1971). Ike offered seminal works such as Toads for Supper (1965), The Naked Gods (1970), The Potter’s Wheel (1973), The Bottled Leopard (1985) and The Accra Riviera (2014); and Amadi is well known for the novels The Concubine (1966), The Great Ponds (1969), The Slave (1978) and the play ‘Dancer of Johannesburg’ (1977). Momah, meanwhile, a late bloomer in his writing, produced Titi: Biafran Maid in Geneva (1990), Friends and Dreams (1997), The Shining Ones: The Umuahia School Days of Obinna Okoye (2003) and Jericho Wall (2011).
The Government School at Umuahia was a teacher’s training college in colonial Nigeria that boasted a combination of English and Australian teachers with a sprinkling of Nigerian academics. Its governing ethos might best be summed up by its self-given tag, Primus Inter Pares, or ‘first among equals’. As a typical boarding school of the British Empire, the institution housed a rigorous programme meant to challenge bright young African boys—many of whom excelled in subjects with which English boys frequently struggled. Here, Nigerian scholars were drilled in the Western classics, history and arts, and trained in sports such as football, cricket and other games befitting a colonial education.
Ochiagha’s book on the school and its prodigies is well researched and engagingly readable. She displays the precision of an archaeologist, the pedantic nature of a historian, the intuition of an anthropologist and the vivid, engaged imagination of a literary critic in her writing. The dedication she shows, in building up the lives of these iconic writers from various sources, including their school assignments, is extremely impressive. The work she put into her coherent and well-structured narrative was clearly painstaking: Ochiagha draws parallels between the scholars’ earlier writings and their later novels, poetry and plays with a careful linearity.
Ochiagha states that she is:
… equally interested in the political dimension of the Umuahia experience. Apart from being Nigeria’s own particular cradle of the muses, Government College—a colonial permutation of the English public school—was a political device, instilling English cultural and political allegiance and self-assurance of the chosen elite.
Elite British schools trained future leaders by subliminally manipulating affect, even as they impressed a critical spirit. The Umuahia experience, further complicated by the colonial factor, mounting anti-colonial nationalism outside the school walls, and the ensuing conflict between the school’s ideology of Englishness and the students’ cultural and affective ties with their indigenous communities, had further psychopolitical consequences.
Similar to marvelling at a future artist’s childhood doodles, it is a curious thing to look at these writers’ formative years, and it is particularly interesting to try and distinguish their special threads of talent. In unravelling these various threads, artistic and political, Ochiagha has done literary history a great service.
Things Fall Apart was released on 17 July 1958 in London, to immediate international acclaim. This year, 2018, thus marks the sixtieth anniversary of the life of the book that spearheaded the efflorescence of African literature in English and cemented Achebe’s reputation as the ‘father’ of African letters. Today, the novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo, and its setting, the village of Umuofia, are part of the world’s popular literary imagination, and serve as the imaginative location, per Achebe, ‘where the rain began to beat’ us, as Africans, in light of the colonial conquests.
At sixty, Things Fall Apart still represents many African readers’ first encounter with an imagined precolonial past in written form, and its combination of Igbo idioms and seemingly ‘transcribed’ oral storytelling seems as innovative today as it must have on debut. Intellectual debate surrounding African literature at the time of the novel’s release attempted to locate the African novel either as a continuation of the English novelistic tradition or, at the other extreme, as a continuation of the African oral tradition. The conundrum facing those who tried to locate the African novel definitively was particularly well delineated by Congolese philosopher VY Mudimbe, who, in L’odeur du père, argued that:
… to truly escape the West presupposes that we understand exactly what it will cost to detach ourselves from it; it presupposes that we know just where the West may, perhaps insidiously have drawn close to us. It presupposes that we know what remains Western in our very ability to think against the West and that we assume to what extent our rebuttal against it is perhaps yet another trap it uses against us and at the end of which it awaits us quietly and elsewhere.
Others, like Chinweizu (born Chinweizu Ibekwe), sought to ‘help release African culture from the death-grip of the West’—releasing the African novel, for example, through an acknowledgment that it came from an oral form, with a movement to the written form, in the same way that the European novel arose from classical myths and epics. This view denies, of course, the oral tradition an independent space in history and even its continuation in contemporary society. In her book Literacy and Orality, Ruth Finnegan argues that both orality and literacy:
… take diverse forms in differing cultures and periods, are used differently in different social contexts and, insofar as they can be distinguished at all as separate modes rather than a continuum, they mutually interact and affect each other, and the relations between them are problematic rather than self evident.
In light of such debates, one would perhaps have expected a strongly polarised perspective from the Umuahia generation, in the form, for example, of resistance against their colonial education. One would, perhaps, even anticipate a desire to articulate a ‘pure’ indigenous African identity, an explicit rejection of the colonial tradition. However, as Achebe and Friends articulates, the writers’ time at Umuahia saw them end up at more of a crossroads than any definitive destination. According to Achebe:
The crossroads does have a certain dangerous policy; dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision.
In Umuahia’s case, it was the latter: a place so abundant the fruit overflowed.
Rather than a conflicted agony of internalised oppressions and rebellions, there seems to have been a harmonious synthesisation at Umuahia, which Ochiagha terms the ‘third space’: a space ‘of cultural translation, reserving open manifestations of their newfound hybrid subjectivity for politically tenable times’. The group ‘began to envision the possibilities of cultural hybridity for aesthetic, personal and political emancipation’.
Okigbo demonstrated this as an avid cricket player at Umuahia. While he is said to have enjoyed the game immensely, he was determined to play it his way. Quoting Simon Gikandi’s analysis in Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism, Ochiagha notes that while colonial sport presupposed a conformity to English gentlemanly behaviour, cricket, similar to literature, is an institution ‘that allows formerly colonised peoples to hallow new spaces of identity and self expression’. Okigbo’s use of cricket to carve out a form of individual selfhood is noted by Chike Momah:
We were both taught to write conventional poetry, with Iambic and Trochaic pentameters and all that. Okigbo’s emerging poetry rejected all that. Just as he had opted for the cross bat rather than the straight bat we were taught in cricket, he opted for the unconventional in his poetry.
Ochiagha also highlights how Ike’s time in Umuahia’s ‘third space’ ferment clearly comes through in his work, specifically in his novel The Bottled Leopard. The main character, Amobi—who is a student at a boarding school—experiences visions that are akin to spiritual experiences. These visions are dismissed by the schoolmasters from whom he seeks advice, and ‘rather than polarise colonial and indigenous perceptions … [Amobi] realises the need to illuminate indigenous modes of knowledge with the help of his colonial education’.
Mr Babatunde, the Nigerian teacher in Ike’s The Bottled Leopard, advises Amobi:
My advice to you is to chew your stick thoroughly in the privacy of your bedroom and use your toothbrush in public spaces … You will not receive any useful answers and yet you’ll continue tarnishing your public image. Whenever you go home, find out the people who know what you are looking for. Listen to them.
Compare this with what happened in real life, at a a real Nigerian boarding school. Ochiagha quotes Achebe:
Students did not merely ‘admire, wonder, imitate, and learn’ in Umuahia’s colonial enclave. They saw themselves as occupants of a liminal space, co-opting the cultural codes of their elite English education in symbolic ways.
Quoting Achebe, in a book about Nigerian literature, is almost unavoidable, and Ochiagha does not ignore the fact that the four other writers under consideration in her book lived in his shadow, at different times called his ‘sons’, or as belonging to the ‘school of Achebe’. But while her book’s title might make the work seem to centre on him, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia dedicates space and time to all five writers equally, excavating their memories and experiences and their joint connections with scrupulous equitability. This includes covering the ways the writers set themselves apart from Achebe. Okigbo was very clear in challenging Achebe’s philosophy of a writer as a teacher:
I don’t in fact think it is necessary for the writer to assume a particular function as the Messiah or anything like that … If he wants to educate people he should write text books. If he wants to preach a gospel he should write religious tracts. If he wants to propound a certain ideology he should write political tracts.
Okigbo advocated for writing to be a deeply personal and intense spiritual experience, for this, he believed, was the place where art originated. Similarly, Amadi saw himself as a storyteller and thought that ‘hiding behind the facade of a novel to launch a political assault is prostitution of literature’.
Achebe and Friends at Umuahia, then, is more than a literary history: it makes literary history itself, by correcting the notion that Achebe’s contemporaries were in any way his ‘sons’ or ‘followers’, and highlighting how this simplistic understanding has become a form of erasure. At the end of the book Ochiagha writes, ‘Nigerian literary history will remain incomplete until more research is done on the lifelong work of all the country’s first generation writers’. We can only hope that others take up her call, for the benefit of a richer and fuller archive, and a better understanding of the world that made a Primus Inter Pares like Achebe possible.
- Lebohang Mojapelo is an editor, writer, researcher and poet based in Johannesburg. Follow her on Twitter.