Chinua Achebe: The Rational Radical

Chinua Achebe: The Rational Radical
Reading Time: 8 minutes

I want us to begin with two assumptions:

ASSUMPTION ONE: That death of Chris Msando death in July 2017 had something to do with his job at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, where he was acting in the best interests of a clean, fair and transparent election.

ASSUMPTION: Had Msando knew that barely seven months after his gruesome murder, Raila Odinga will join the government through the backdoor, in a disappointing “handshake”, would he have martyred himself for a “lost cause?” I want to assume he would not lay his life on the line, widowing his wife and orphaning his children.

I respect martyrs, like Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire, in an act of self-immolation in a Tunisian town of Sid Bouzid, sparking the Arab revolution. Tunisia came out of the Arab spring better, but most countries like Egypt and Libya (especially Libya have fared worse.

Which begs the question, if you want to be a radical, a revolutionary, which is the best way to go about it? Do you become an overzealous, passionate crusader who gets carried away by the cause you forget yourself? Or should you be moderate in your radicalism? By all means, I have maximum respect for those who are able to pay the highest price in any struggle.

From history, we know peacemakers just as rabble-rousing revolutionaries met a very violent end to their lives. Think of Martin Luther King Jnr and Mahatma Gandhi and contrast their fateful deaths with those of Malcolm X, Che Guevara or Steve Biko.

Closer home, we do have our own revolutionaries, some who died violently, and others who lived to tell: Pia Gama Pinto or JM Kariuki (how much he was a revolutionary is debatable) were assassinated. But others like Wangari Maathai, Martha Karua among the many from the Second Liberation movement who later joined the government in 2002 lived to tell. But most of those who were at the forefront fighting President Moi’s dictatorship became the very monster they chased out of town.

And that Ladies and Gentlemen is my question: Is it worth dying for a cause?

What can we learn from Chinua Achebe’s life and works on how to be radical, while remaining rational? Is there beauty in strategic withdrawal like running to exile, for instance? Or that is cowardice? Because every community abhors cowardice, more so among their males. I grew up in a section of Kisii County where men are by default warriors, what we call Chinkororo, and the most cherished possession in my clansmen is courage, to face the Maasai Morans who are some of the toughest warriors anywhere in Africa.

But many brave men go to the grave early. Both out of sacrifice and both out of recklessness. And that recklessness is what Achebe advises us against in his body of work. You will notice that foolhardy people either die or end up disgraced.

In the Arrow of God, Ezeulu warns his excessive and temperamental son, Obika with my favourite Achebean proverb: “It is praiseworthy to be brave and fearless, my son, but sometimes it is better to be coward. We often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live. The man who has never submitted to anything will soon submit to the burial mat”. Obika indeed meets an untimely death.

There are men examples, but allow me, to first prove that Achebe in every way was a radical, in thought and action. In his essay, Traveling White, that appears in his collection, The Education of a British Protected Child, Achebe travels to Eastern and Southern Africa, and there is something he did in Zambia that was extremely impressive. This was in 1960, and few countries had been granted independence from their colonial masters. In 1960, even in Nairobi, racial segregation was the order of the day.

The chief problem he encountered was racism. He admits having a one month’s worth of ex-colonial confidence (his country had just been independent for slightly over a month when he traveled). So, he arrives in Tanzania at a time, when the European Club in Dar was debating on whether to amend its rule to allow Julius Nyerere, then a chief minister, to drink there.

On getting to Zambia, he talks of the incident that happened in a bus, where he sat in the front where only white people sat. Black people sat behind the bus. He admits that he is not sure what he would have done had he noticed the separate entrances. He recounts the conversation with the ticket collector, not sure why he never mentioned the colour of the ticket collector, but we can safely assume he was black.

Their Conversation:

TC: What are you doing here?

CA: I am traveling to Victoria Falls.

T.C:  Why are you sitting here?

CA: Why not?

TC: Where do you come from?

CA: I don’t see what it has to do with it. But if you must know, I come from Nigeria and there we sit where we like on the bus.

Achebe tells us that the man fled from him as if he was fleeing “from a man with plague”.

The Europeans co-travelers remained as silent as the grave, while at the end, black travelers rushed to cheer and sing him praises.

This short incident, inadvertent as it was, gives us a chance to understand the nature of his person. It is a trait that you notice in his more personal essays: defiant, intellectual, but there is a prevailing tolerance to other views, that is admirable and one that the world needs the most now, one which I want to delve into briefly.

It is the same courage that made him confront the racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A subject that he tackled in many other essays, showing that Conrad was following a long tradition of Europeans casting Africa as a land of savages. You will know that Joseph Conrad is considered one of the greatest European writers, that he consistently tops the list of the greatest writers who never won the Nobel. Many white scholars and some Africans hated Achebe for his criticism of one of the purest prose masters.

But in his fiction, which character embodies Achebe the most?

I think Odili Samalu in “The Man of the People” carries the Achebe’s political and philosophical ideal. And Achebe makes him to be as flawed and lecherous like his antagonist, Chief Nanga, but still, he is very principled and utterly incorruptible. Throughout the book, he frowns at official corruption at every single level and has nothing but contempt towards the political class that took over after independence. The same contempt can be reserved for the political class that took over in Kenya.

But we can point out to the various instances of Odili’s bravery in the book. Standing up to the charlatan of the school headmaster where he used to teach, telling them it was inappropriate to line him teachers like children to be introduced to the Minister, Chief Nanga when he came to the school.

Standing up to the Minister, however powerful when he snatched his girlfriend, and deciding to run for a political post, as only a jilted man can, is another case in point. He takes the war to the doorstep of Nanga and even goes after Edna, then betrothed to Nanga who had even paid his school fees. Odili remains stubborn when Nanga visits his homestead to buy him out of the race with some 250 pounds and a scholarship, he refuses, even as Nanga persuades him that his friend Max, had already taken a bribe. Max later admits this, and it leaves him despondent because that would taint their party and deny them the moral high ground. Max, defends his move. This reminds me of the calls by the opposition to boycott certain products last year. I met one of the top bosses of big corporation and he told me that a top opposition figure had been calling him, asking for a bribe. While talking to a friend about it later, my friend whom I thought he is a bigger idealist than I am, told me, “revolutions in their nature can be messy.”

Goes to show it helps to tame your expectations to a fashion. And make certain allowances that within the ranks of a movement, there will be corrupt people, there will be womanizers and people given to a myriad of other vices. Without accommodating these very contradictions, you will not go far. So, it helps that as my friend, Odili was able to understand where Max was coming from.

Odili also did something as stupid as to go to Chief Nanga political rally where he is beaten up and only comes wakes up several days later when the government had been replaced through a coup.

Odili, by his courage, by his moderation, he emerges out alive and even wins Edna. Call that a happy ending. But his friend Max, a flawed radical meets a violent death. I was thinking that Max could be Achebe’s friend and tribesman, Christopher Okigbo because he was poet and rookie musician just as our Max in the novel. Okigbo too, who could be headstrong did join the Biafra war where he died at the age of 34-25.

Odili’s uprightness and morality resonate with the rallying cry of Achebe.

Especially, where there was a need for him to be understanding, and accommodating. He was disdainful of the villagers, but he understood their skepticism.

In other Achebe’s work, he glorifies Africa’s past but never romanticizes. And he very much calls for the co-existence of both the new and the old doctrines, best exemplified by his father accommodating villagers who preferred worshipping different deities.

Which brings me to the final aspect of why it pays to be rational in our radicalism.

Two incidents capture the idea best. One in the short story, Dead Men’s Path, the overzealous teachers refused to let villagers use the path within the school on their way to a shrine. It is a very important shrine, because, according to the priest, that is where the dead pass through to the afterlife and that is where life comes to the unborn.

But the new school principal Michael Obi, with his European education, he thinks that as a backward thing. Michael has the same attitude that the middle-class have in Africa, where they think every African traditional is backward. When he seals the fence to stop the villagers from using it, the villagers storm and wreck the school and the white supervisor that Michael probably wanted to please writes a scathing report, saying that all the problems in the school were caused by an overzealous teacher.

Second incident: After Chief Nanga left Odili Samalu, following his failed mission to buy Odili, Max arrives with his crew to launch Odili’s campaign against Nanga. When Odili’s father is asked if he should permit a rival party to launch at his homestead, he answers with a proverb; “I say let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch and whoever who says the other bird should not perch, may his wing break.

The same proverb reappears in the aforementioned short story about the overzealous school headteacher.  The priest tells the teacher to let the two birds perch: i.e both modernity and tradition could co-exist with some inconvenience here and a compromise there.

A proverb in similar vein reoccurs in No Longer at Ease: Where one thing stands, another one can stand.

That spirit of having two ideas to coexist is something the world needs now. In the West, the Right does not see the Left in the eye. Both parties have taken extremes, to even have a rational debate on some of the most pressing issues in the world from gun control, to Climate Change, to gay rights, to taxation, to abortion. The Left takes a patronizing, moral high ground, with the assumption of intellectual monopoly. And the Right, hiding behind ownership of capital, resorts to uncanny methods to keep in touch with their base. The result is an extremely toxic atmosphere where radicals on both sides stand for nothing whatsoever, other than holding each other in mutual contempt.

The same can be said locally. Up to until last year’s election’s Jubilee and NASA supporters hardly saw each other, eye-to-eye. The polarization means that we doubt each other intentions. The handshake, for all the bad NASA supporters, can think about, has brought some peace, but not prosperity, but that is something.

But Achebe tells us that we need to accommodate each other, even as we seek the truth that we hope will prevail one day.

When you are rational, you live long enough to old age, while still upholding your integrity. But when you become irrational there is a price you will pay: You will be disappointed. You may be killed and the people that you want to die for, may not even understand what cause you are dying for.

PS: I delivered this speech at the Chinua Achebe Colloquium at the British Institute of East Africa. After delivering, a section of the people in attendance insisted that it was a sick oxymoron to tell radicals to be rational. That to be a radical, you have to be a Sankara, Che Guevara, a Malcolm X. There is no middle ground. While I agree, I think it is selfishness to ask others to sacrifice, when we ourselves want to live. Good enough, there have been other radicals like Mandela and Achebe, who lived long enough to see their dreams come through, despite the many misgivings.

Silas Nyanchwani is writer and literati who lives in Nairobi. 

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