African Heart, No Darkness | The Nation


African Heart, No Darkness

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In his novels Achebe can also be unsparing. Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God (1964) portray village life before the arrival of colonialism as rich, complex and quasi-democratic, but also as sometimes violent, a place where newborn twins are left in the Evil Forest to die and a young boy is sacrificed when the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves demands it. No Longer at Ease (1960), set in the fifties, shows, with excruciating tension, a young government official sliding into corruption under the competing pressures of trying to do an honest job but simultaneously look out for his home village--the very people who helped pay for the education that qualified him for his government post in the first place.

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James North
James North has reported from Africa, Latin America and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City and tweets at...

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In A Man of the People (1966), greed and tribalism undermine formal democracy in the years just after independence, clearing the way for the first of many military coups; the book's humor cannot fully obscure what is at bottom a depressing tale of hopes dashed. And Anthills of the Savannah (1987) delivers a more sinister picture of a military dictator who suppresses reports of drought and famine and then orders the death of a courageous newspaper editor who had once been his high school classmate and friend. Anthills is especially chilling because His Excellency is neither clown nor maniac but a successful, charismatic man whom Achebe shows to be subtly but inexorably corrupted by power and his fear of losing it.

Achebe's five novels are so accurate and insightful about Africa's history over the past century that you could teach an entire course in politics and culture around them. The best proof of his honesty is his continuing popularity in Africa; few Africans would remain interested in him if he were not telling the truth about how hard life there can be.

So just where does Achebe differ from Naipaul, given that on the surface both men portray an Africa marred by corruption and violence? In Home and Exile Achebe indicates the difference eloquently, explaining that the new African writers of his generation had "one common thread running through it all: the thread of a shared humanity linking the author to the world of his creation; a sense that even in the most tempting moments of grave disappointment with this world, the author remains painfully aware that he is of the same flesh and blood, the same humanity as its human inhabitants."

It is here that Naipaul and Conrad fail dismally. They see Africa as cursed, a place where evil and degradation are somehow intrinsic to its people and inherent in the dark land itself. But the crisis in parts of Africa today is by no means inevitable, nor are its origins entirely local. It is the product of human actions, of stagnation caused in large part by an unjust international economic order, including crushing levels of debt, and by the global trade in weapons and diamonds. This economic depression has contributed to the rise of dictators (often backed by the West, openly or tacitly) in some places and failed states and vicious profiteering warlords in others.

An imperfect but useful parallel would be Europe in the thirties--high rates of unemployment, unstable, disfigured by dictatorships and war (in Spain) that would spread across the continent. Europe's rapid recovery after 1945 proves that chaos was neither ingrained in its people nor embedded in the European landscape.

In the end Achebe is not asking the rest of the world to go to the other extreme, to revere Africa as a source of superior, tribal wisdom. All he wants, as he writes in critiquing Conrad, is for the West to start to look at Africa as "quite simply a continent of people--not angels, but not rudimentary souls either--just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society."

Achebe's own exemplary life and work are helping to make this eloquent request real. He is by no means the only writer who portrays Africa's complexity and humanity. Others of this generous spirit include his fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka; Ngugi wa Thiong'o, exiled from Kenya; the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembène Ousmane; and Bessie Head, who fled apartheid to live and write in Botswana before her untimely death in 1986.

Chinua Achebe's influence should go on and on, outliving petty African warlords and small-minded Western writers alike, teaching and reminding that all humankind is one.

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