Friday, 20 November 2009

Home And Exile

For those who have not been to Africa before especially Europeans and Americans, they have a very negative perception of Africa. These negative perceptions could be forgiven for it was not intentionally developed. These ‘have-not-been-tos’ rely heavily on false information they were fed by their countrymen who have been here before and decided to give them the picture of Africa they think would appeal to them.

It is because of this reason that the western media and charities would prefer to portray Africa in a very negative way with pictures that would create an impression of poverty, conflict, disease and war in the mind of their western audience in order to attract attention of the audience with bogus headlines to maximise sales and for the charities to attract more money for their cause. These media and charities are wired not to see anything good in Africa. They would prefer seeing slums and ghettos instead of skyscrapers and the rich parts of Africa. Against this backdrop one begins to ask if they are blind that they cannot see good parts of Africa. Why are they only seeing bad parts of it? This is the argument and the questions Chinua Achebe is tackling in the ‘Home and Exile’.

In this book which is a product of three lectures he delivered as the 1998 McMillan-Stewart Lectures at Harvard University, Achebe discussed the question of the west’s negative perception about Africa, her writers and literature. He is of the opinion that western writers do not see anything good in writers from Africa as a result of which they are ever ready in their reviews to dump writers from Africa to the literary bin or review their works in a highly negative way if they make up their mind to review them. He suggested that the west has already made up her mind that African literature and writers make no sense at all and consequently worth no attention. This phenomenon he pointed out was prevalent during the colonial period but in some quarters today is sadly still deeply entrenched.

He cited an instance, “When my first novel appeared in 1958 with the allusive title ‘Things Fall Apart’, an offended and highly critical English reviewer in a London Sunday paper titled her piece-cleverly, I must admit-‘Hurray To Mere Anarchy’! But in spite of the cleverness, she could not have known the cosmological fear of anarchy that burdened the characters in my novel and which W. B. Yeats somehow knew intuitively”.

While a young student at the University of Ibadan, he also encountered something similar. In the University of Ibadan modelled in those days after the University of London, most of the authors they read were English ‘with one or two exceptions’. He did not hide his hatred for one of the writers and his book and the book and author in question was Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary. According to Achebe, “My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson. More importantly, there is certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred and mockery breaks through to poison his tale”.

Continuing he said, “Here is a short excerpt from his description of a fairly innocent party given by Johnson to his friends: ‘the demonic appearance of the naked dancers, grinning, shrieking, scowling or with faces which seemed entirely dislocated, senseless and unhuman like twisted bags of lard or burst bladders’”.

Against this background, Achebe posited that sensational writing about Africa and Africans by European travellers and writers has a long history. He buttressed his argument by quoting an account of the voyage to West Africa in 1561 by an English ship captain named John Lok. According to Achebe, this is what he said about Negroes, “a people of beastly living, without a God, lawe, religion...whose women are common for they contract no matrimonie, neither have respect to chastity...whose inhabitants dwell in caves and dennes: for these are their houses, and the flesh of serpents their meat as writeth Plinie and Diodorous Siculus. They have no speech, but rather a grinning and chattering. They are also people without heads, having their eyes and mouths in their breasts”.

Achebe did not stop at criticising the west for this anomaly, he also lambasted African writers living abroad for also joining the west to lambast the Africa literature. He condemned the growing phenomenon of Europeanising and Americanising African literature which he described as an erosion of self esteem stressing that African literature is a rich goldmine that should be explored since it has a huge wealth of experience to offer adding that it only demands careful observation and the fact that no writer writes in vacuum to discover this wealth and appreciate it.

Cover Photograph Courtesy of Oxford University Press.

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