In this second post in the series (for the first see here) I continue the theme of using notable novels to examine aspects of how we imagine the public. Looking along my shelves I thought I might focus on “A Grain of Wheat” or “Petals of Blood” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or “Seasons of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih, or perhaps “The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born” by Ayi Kwei Armah. Having looked at them again, and in particular read the back covers of my mostly Penguin Classics or Heinemann I was struck by how much the reviews were less about the writer and the locale than Western Influences, for example Kwei Armah is described as a Ghanaian Sartre. So in the end I picked a book by the writer whose essays I knew, and knew to forcefully resist this inclination, Chinua Achebe.
Things Fall Apart
In his 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” Nigerian author Chinua Achebe tells the story of Oknonkwo an Igbo man who attempts to resist the creeping colonisation of the British, as it encroaches on the land, the culture and spiritual beliefs, looking to shape politics and identity. Oknonkwo seems at first to be a typical “strong man”, a wrestling champion, who owes his renown within the area to his physical prowess, and a general sense that he is unwielding. His position is tenuous, his father was lazy, and such was his poverty he never got to marry the woman he loved, only later when she ran away from her husband did they marry. They produced a daughter, who he favours over his son, a son he sees as weak like his grandfather. He is often harsh, Achebe does not pretend that his protagonist is an easy person even a good person as he seeks to protect traditional ways form the influence of the “white man”.
Oknonkwo is asked to take a boy into his compound who is a hostage from a neighbouring village, given as recompense for the killing of the women from that village by the boy’s father. They grow close, becoming more of a son than his own. So when “the spirits” decree the boy should be killed, Oknonkwo seeks counsel from a village elder, Ezeudu. The elder advises him not to take part in the killing, but Oknonkwo is deeply conflicted, and in the end he strikes the final blow himself. Somehow in this scene, when he must sacrifice what he wants most, a strong son, for the ability to remain the defender of Igbo ways, Achebe manages to pivot the narrative.
When Oknonkwo’s gun explodes during Ezeudu funeral and he friend’s son is killed he is exiled. Returning after seven years he tries to remake himself, as a focus for resistance against the three prongs of colonialism, administration and private property, symbolic and actual violence and the church as supporter and apologist for the primacy of “Western Values”, while he is able to call some support his attempts to make himself up once again fail, and rather than be captured he kills himself, something forbidden in Igbo culture. Achebe does not give us a neat story of redemption, Oknonkwo does not stand against, or absent himself from killing his adopted son, neither does he come back as the village saviour, he is not redeemed.
What is Achebe trying to do in this novel, what is it he wants to show us? In a talk about Africa in the imagination Achebe (1978) suggests that where Africa appears in Western literature and thought it does so as a counterpoint, an example of what somewhere without the social political and economic structures of Europe looks, which is somehow other and universal. When he examines “The Heart of Darkness”, he focused on the characterisation, where the local people are at once uncivilised and inferior, but with recognisable universal human traits which civilised European only a slip away from. Thus he suggests, Africa its land and people, are treated by Conrad as a neutral backdrop, where narratives are set to play out very Western concerns. He admits his analysis of Conrad is concerned with recognising the superficial way Africa is represented. However, just like in “Things Fall Apart” he is not about to offer “… bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa (p14-15 Achebe 1978). Instead we must give this up ourselves, it is up to us to stop, and ceasing will be our reward.
Achebe shows us the way we tend to think we know more about Africa than the African, with this knowing itself part of the colonial project, for to know is to control. In Oknonkwo he has a character who beats his wives, who it is hard for liberals to sympathise, a spectre of domestic violence that “Western Values” exorcised. Achebe ( 1990) rejects this assertion from critics, he is also at pains to take aim at universalism, in particular the trope that sees African authors seen as making a break through when they are able to universalise the African experience, of course Euro-American authors never have to universalise, as “Western Values” are universal.
Personhood and Political
Reading the book again, as I did for this post, my mind started to wander over all I had read in the intervening years, in particular “Theory from the South” by Comaroff and Comaroff (2012). In particular, the question they ask “is the idea of an autonomous person a European invention?” (p 51). It was a question they were asked, and a trap they felt they ought not to fall into, is the person asking the question suggesting the absence of a sense of the autonomous self as somehow an indication of failure, a deficit, is it where we are all going, it is universal. After all most of our ideas about society, democratic structures, the public are based on these autonomous individuals. On the other hand to suggest that it is a European invention whose application as a universal value is inappropriate, as it ignores complex constructions of personhood outside Europe.
I want to draw two examples from their collected essays, which have a bearing on this question and also on our previous exploration of “Things Fall Apart”. The first concerns the concept of personhood as it relates to the democratic process in South Africa through the exploring Tswana experiences in the late colonial period. Settlers first arrived in the 1820s’, then gradually the apparatus of the British state, which created hybrid identities between European “sekgoa” ways and Tswana “setswana” ways, while also clearly demarcating a line between white and black, between the rulers and the ruled. Setswana ways were socially fluid, while gendered and not without inequities, a person’s status was largely of their own construction, even though relatedness played a part, self and status needed to be constantly made – either you do to the world, or the world does to you. Personhood was not being, but becoming. This personhood was made and manifest materially through work and the land and property you tended and maintained, and symbolically how one made oneself through relations with others.
The second from is post-colonial Botswana. Botswana is generally reckoned to one the best examples of a functioning democracy in Africa, so the occasions in the 1970’s and 1980’s when there appeared a demand a move away multi-party democracy, in particular by opposition parties, and a wish for one party rule, seems odd. Prior to the colonial period what is today Botswana was organised into about eight chiefdoms. Chiefs were hereditary, but it was unstable, the chief was understood as being separate from the chiefdom, he was judged and how well he performed “good governance”, subject to open challenge in the many public forums he was expected to hold to discuss decisions, and unsatisfactory performance would see his birth status challenged. The chief was chief with the people, and expected to set around him key advisors and hold public forums where these could be challenged. His exclusive right to wield power was based how inclusive the decision making process was.
While these spaces were filled with factions, and many of the actions followed a set formulae, often concerned with reminded the chief of his duties and the “setswana”, people did speak out against the chief, alliances made and remade off stage. These discussions were understood as being a reflection of the chief’s ability and also determined their ability. This was the reason that people started to become disillusioned by party politics and the dominant Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), cycles of elections only to give life to these discourses when there is an election. While the parliament itself often behaved like these spaces, with members from all parties including the ruling one criticising the executive as they saw fit. It did not foster open debate. Interestingly the BDP rejection of one party politics made others suspicious of it, with the sense that they wanted to hold onto Western democratic models so they could get on with government away from public scrutiny.
It is not been my intention to hold up Oknonkwo’s story or the ones from Comaroff and Comaroff as some exotic other, nor indeed to argue for some kind of universalism, instead I merely hold them up in order that we might examine them. Reflect on them in relation to the how well, or badly, or our own political process function.
Of course I am being disingenuous. I framed the argument in a certain way, picked the books, in particular Comaroff and Comaroff, with its subtitle “How Euro-America is Evolving towards Africa” is very deliberate. I want you to look at how “strong men” look to make themselves up, and remake themselves, how well the stages debates within our cycles of democracy and party politics function as a means for us to assess good governance. Let us examine the recent UK election in relation to “setswana”, For the Conservatives it was a series of staged and controlled debates, often through the media. It spoke of a party that is concerned with how it might appear and what people might say in these forums, in closing these down it shows its weakness. It resulted in the Conservatives asserting a mandate they don’t have, and our “sekgoa” ways, our focus on procedural democracy, mean we have to live with it. The party political machine fights to stop challenges from inside and out, looking to shore up power and undermine political debate, so here we have what we call democracy.
Achebe C. ([1958 2001) Things Fall Apart, Penguin Books: London
Achebe C. (1978), An Image of Africa, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15
Achebe C. ( 1990), Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, Penguin Random House: London
Comaroff J., Comaroff J. L. (2012) Theory from the South: How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa, Paradigm Publishing: London