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The Education of a British Protected Child


The Education of a British-Protected Child

Author:            Chinua Achebe
Penguin Classics
              978 1 8461 4259 8

Reviewer:      Zoe Norridge

 An Umuahia Education

In the preface to his 1972 short story collection, Girls at War, Chinua Achebe commented that it was “something of a shock” that his earliest stories were published “as long as twenty years ago” and he could therefore no longer be described as “new”.  Four decades later, his volume of essays The Education of a British-Protected Child, published in the UK this month, is both familiar and still fresh, revisiting expected themes and yet charming the reader anew.

Controversially hailed as one of the founding fathers of African literature, Achebe’s career spans a period of radical change, from the optimism of Nigerian Independence to transatlantic elation at Obama’s election.  Things Fall Apart has inspired five generations of adults and schoolchildren.  Looking back at these years, Achebe comments: “I wanted very much to shine the torch of variety and of difference on the experiences my life has served up to me, illuminating what it is that unites my writing and my personal life.”  The resulting volume brings together pieces dating from 1988 to 2009.

The title essay of the collection recounts the young writer’s realisation on receiving his first passport, that he was defined as a “British Protected Person”.  Of the disingenuous patronage of colonialism Achebe makes it clear straight away he will offer “only cons”.  Not unexpected for anyone familiar with his work.  The statement though is tempered by a pledge to explore the middle ground – antithetical to the fanaticism Achebe terms the “One Way, One Truth, One Life menace”.  The nuanced space he roams around in this essay is that of his education at Government College Umuahia, a school where he studied with a remarkable number of the incipient heroes of African literature.  He remembers with fondness his extraordinary head teacher, a Cambridge mathematician who forbade the reading of text books on three days a week in favour of the perusal of novels.  It is perhaps no coincidence that Achebe’s fellow alumni included amongst others the leading poet of his generation, Christopher Okigbo, and the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.  Tragically both were to die far too young – Okigbo fighting for Biafra, Saro-Wiwa protesting Shell’s oppression of the Ogoni people.

The passion and commitment of this, the first generation of internationally recognised African writers, resonates throughout the book.  Achebe describes their heady optimism in his account of an infamous conference at Makerere University, Uganda in ’62.  Evoking debates that still dominate  the field, he recalls animated discussions of language and identity, the endless “problem of definition”.  On the relevance of literature though he is unequivocal.  Describing the advent of African literature as one of the most beneficial explosions to rock the continent in the 60s and 70s, he derides the “fashionable claim” that “literature can do nothing to alter our social and political condition” with the admonition, “of course it can!”.  

One of the most humbling and inspiring aspects of this collection is Achebe’s enduring belief in the relevance of literature and his public responsibilities as a writer.  In “Africa Is People” he tells the story of a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that he was asked to attend in 1989.  Initially rather unsure as to why he had been invited, he listened with growing unease to the theoretical suppositions of international economists, convinced that structural adjustment regimes merely required time.  Achebe describes his sudden realisation that what was going on before him was “a fiction workshop, no more no less!”.  Standing to take the floor, he then addressed the room of international experts, protesting:

“Here you are spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories [...] and hoping for the best.  I have news for you.  Africa is not fiction.  Africa is people, real people. [...] Have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people?”  

It takes the novelist to offer the antidote to dehumanising abstraction.  It is the writer of fiction who sees the stories the others are spinning for themselves.  Achebe is an uncompromising critic of misrepresentation: from his enduring indictment of that “thoroughgoing racist” Joseph Conrad with his dangerously “fanciful” descriptions of the Congo, to his fierce criticism of the flaws of leadership in Nigerian politics.  His reproaches carry with them the urgency of someone who feels the enduring injustices of the world personally.  In “Recognitions” the author identifies with the courage of fellow Igbo, Olaudah Equiano, who overcame incredible odds to write the history of his life as an enslaved person.  In “Traveling White” he recounts his experience of racial segregation on buses in then Rhodesia.  Consistently he seeks to point out how images and myths about Africa in international circulation remain complicit with ongoing inequalities, the culprits ranging from thoughtlessly essentialist children’s books to images of African suffering in the media. 

But this is all beginning to sound too earnest, an accusation it would be hard to level at Achebe’s playful prose.  Alongside serious debate, The Education of a British-Protected Child is a monument to Achebe’s infectious love of language, to his lively turn of phrase and his assured self-doubt – “I may be wrong; if so, who cares?”.  The collection is not a finely crafted and structurally coherent whole – as the author himself points out there are gaps and repetitions.  But these essays bring together decades of fearless engagement with literature and politics, and above all with the quirks of personality that render each person Achebe describes ineffably human.

Zoe Norridge

Zoe Norridge
s the Salvesen Fellow in African and Comparative Literature at New College, University of Oxford. She has published articles on literature from Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Papua New Guinea and is currently teaching a masters course on life-writing and testimony.
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