View Full Version : Book Review Chinua Achebe- The Education of a British-Protected Child.
Jan 24, 2011, 11:10 PM
Achebe’s latest book tells personal story of past
By Kaz Komolafe on January 20, 2011
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, is internationally recognized as the man who moved mountains in bringing Africa to the world. He is renowned today not just as a great novelist, but also as a pioneer of African literature and the regeneration of the denigrated African spirit. Although Achebe is best known for his anti-colonialist novel, Things Fall Apart, in his latest book, The Education of a British-Protected Child, Achebe rejects the persona of “Achebe the Famous Novelist” and embraces “Achebe the Human.” British-Protected Child, a collection of autobiographical essays, is a summary of Achebe’s life, focusing on his family, his opinions about colonialism and African literature, and the complex sociopolitical development of his home.
As his first book in 20 years, British-Protected Child was met with high critical and popular expectations upon its release. When faced with this kind of pressure, it is easy to become overly ambitious, and Achebe offers solutions for seemingly every problem Africa has ever encountered. For example, in “The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics,” Achebe proposes a Platonic model as the only way to resolve Nigeria’s problems. Despite sometimes overreaching himself, Achebe’s humble tone creates a subtle political correctness that does not offend. Achebe is someone who genuinely cares. Having lived through the Biafran Civil War, been forced out of his home country and lost countless family members and friends to political unrest, Achebe’s blunt approach seems practical and empathetic.
Still, the ambitiousness of British-Protected Child sometimes detracts from the organization of the book, making it difficult to digest certain concepts. Achebe jumps from nostalgic memories about the establishment of Nigeria’s first university in Ibadan to Henry Kissinger’s stance on the United States’ role in Africa. This is peppered with references to events that only people who have read other African novels like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind would recognize. Yet although the book is tough to follow at times, it embodies a distinctly African oral writing style, as if the reader and Achebe are sitting beside a fire while he bestows his thoughts about the world to anyone willing to listen.
That image of Achebe as the kindly grandfather is the lasting impression left by the book. In fact, he talks about his children in the same warm tone that he uses when he discusses Africa generally. Behind this humble image, however, is a man who is truly impressive. Persecuted for his role in speaking out against Nigerian dictators and military coups, punished and ultimately exiled, Achebe has retained his integrity as a writer and his humility as a person despite his many literary awards. He still has the same intention as he did before any of it — to fulfill his obligation as a writer and tell his story.
Jan 25, 2011, 09:28 PM
Thanks for posting this Anwuli.
I saw this excerpt from the book:
All my life I have had to take account of the million differences — some little, others quite big — between the Nigerian culture into which I was born, and the domineering Western style that infiltrated and then invaded it. Nowhere is the difference more stark and startling than in the ability to ask a parent: "How many children do you have?" The right answer should be a rebuke: "Children are not livestock!" Or better still, silence, and carry on as if the question was never asked.
But things are changing and changing fast with us, and we have been making concession after concession even when the other party shows little sign of reciprocating. And so I have learned to answer questions that my father would not have touched with a bargepole. And to my shame let me add that I suspect I may even be enjoying it, to a certain extent!
My wife and I have four children — two daughters and two sons, a lovely balance further enhanced by the symmetry of their arrivals: girl, boy, boy, girl. Thus the girls had taken strategic positions in the family.
We, my wife and I, cut our teeth on parenthood with the first girl, Chinelo. Naturally, we made many blunders. But Chinelo was up to it. She taught us. At age four or thereabouts, she began to reflect back to us her experience of her world. One day she put it in words: "I am not black; I am brown." We sat up and began to pay attention.
The first place our minds went was her nursery school, run by a bunch of white expatriate women. But inquiries to the school board returned only assurances. I continued sniffing around, which led me in the end to those expensive and colorful children's books imported from Europe and displayed so seductively in the better supermarkets of Lagos.
Many parents like me, who never read children's books in their own childhood, saw a chance to give to their children the blessings of modern civilization which they never had and grabbed it. But what I saw in many of the books was not civilization but condescension and even offensiveness.
Here, retold in my own words, is a mean story hiding behind the glamorous covers of a children's book:
A white boy is playing with his kite in a beautiful open space on a clear summer's day. In the background are lovely houses and gardens and tree-lined avenues. The wind is good and the little boy's kite rises higher and higher and higher. It flies so high in the end that it gets caught under the tail of an airplane that just happens to be passing overhead at that very moment. Trailing the kite, the airplane flies on past cities and oceans and deserts. Finally it is flying over forests and jungles. We see wild animals in the forests and we see little round huts in the clearing. An African village.
For some reason, the kite untangles itself at this point and begins to fall while the airplane goes on its way. The kite falls and falls and finally comes to rest on top of a coconut tree.
A little black boy climbing the tree to pick a coconut beholds this strange and terrifying object sitting on top of the tree. He utters a piercing cry and literally falls off the tree.
His parents and their neighbors rush to the scene and discuss this apparition with great fear and trembling. In the end they send for the village witch doctor, who appears in his feathers with an entourage of drummers. He offers sacrifices and prayers and then sends his boldest man up the tree to bring down the object, which he does with appropriate reverence. The witch doctor then leads the village in a procession from the coconut tree to the village shrine, where the supernatural object is deposited and where it is worshipped to this day.
That was the most dramatic of the many imported, beautifully packaged, but demeaning readings available to our children, perhaps given them as birthday presents by their parents.
So it was that when my friend the poet Christopher Okigbo, representing Cambridge University Press in Nigeria at that time, called on me and said I must write him a children's book for his company, I had no difficulty seeing the need and the urgency. So I wrote Chike and the River and dedicated it to Chinelo and to all my nephews and nieces.
(I am making everything sound so simple. Children may be little, but writing a children's book is not simple. I remember that my first draft was too short for the Cambridge format, and the editor directed me to look at Cyprian Ekwensi's Passport of Mallam Illia for the length required. I did.)
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'The Education of a British-Protected Child,' by Chinua Achebe: Chinua Achebe’s Encounters With Many Hearts of Darkness (December 16, 2009)
With Chinelo, I learned that parents must not assume that all they had to do for books was to find the smartest department store and pick up the most attractive-looking book in stock. Our complacency was well and truly rebuked by the poison we now saw wrapped and taken home to our little girl. I learned that if I wanted a safe book for my child I should at least read it through and at best write it myself.
Our second daughter, Nwando, gave us a variation on Chinelo's theme eight years later. The year was 1972 and the place Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had retreated with my family after the catastrophic Biafran civil war. I had been invited to teach at the university, and my wife had decided to complete her graduate studies. We enrolled our three older children in various Amherst schools and Nwando, who was two and a half, in a nursery school. And she thoroughly hated it. At first we thought it was a passing problem for a child who had never left home before. But it was more than that. Every morning as I dropped her off she would cry with such intensity I would keep hearing her in my head all three miles back. And in the afternoon, when I went back for her, she would seem so desolate. Apparently she would have said not a single word to anybody all day.
As I had the task of driving her to this school every morning, I began to dread mornings as much as she did. But in the end we struck a bargain that solved the problem. I had to tell her a story all the way to school if she promised not to cry when I dropped her off. Very soon she added another story all the way back. The agreement, needless to say, taxed my repertory of known and fudged stories to the utmost. But it worked. Nwando was no longer crying. By the year's end she had become such a success in her school that many of her little American schoolmates had begun to call their school Nwando-haven instead of its proper name, Wonderhaven.
Jan 27, 2011, 01:58 PM
I have been meaning to comment on this excerpt but,as they say, "time is a thief".
Btw, I have ordered the book on Amazon. How could I not?...I'm all for taking back all that "they" have stolen from us, viz: our consciousness, culture, pride in our individualism, etc.
I am doing all that I can to see that my children, regardless of their physical location at any point in life, identify with the things that make us who we are. So help me God.
I am thankful for people like Chinua Achebe. I was speaking with a very dear cousin of mine recently. I reminded him that his sons are already graduating from college, and that he should make an effort to take them to visit their ancestral home. I said this because his first son had "whispered" to me that he would like to know more about his roots, and that he blames his parents for neglecting to impart that knowledge.
See, my cousin is one of these people who would proudly announce to you that they live in an "all white neighborhood". Only God knows what that means.
He attends "Village meetings" with his wife sans the children. I visited the son's face book page and none of his friends look like him, except for four.
But things are changing and changing fast with us, and we have been making concession after concession even when the other party shows little sign of reciprocating. With regards to our children, we have made huge, painful and regrettable concessions. To me, the most painful being that we have abandoned our language. I admitted on this forum that I am/was equally guilty of this. Like I said, I am working hard to turn back the hand of the clock, and the result is encouraging. Whoever told us that it is classy to raise children who speak only a foreign language lied to us. We give the excuse that it is too difficult to teach an adult "to use the left hand in old age." How about the fact that these same children go to school and learn to speak French!
During our early stages of our "IGBO 101", my son was not the best student in my class. I told him that if he could pick up so much French in one semester, I expect the same level of seriousness.
I learned that if I wanted a safe book for my child I should at least read it through and at best write it myself.
I found out that you can actually set the tone for the type of books your children would favor as they grow older. Before you check out that book at your local library, take a minute or two to browse through. While I believe that books should be fun, they should also teach. It is important to know what our children are being taught.
Sometime ago, I got a rare gift from a friend, Things Fall Apart (autographed by Chinua Achebe). I was so excited that my children were wondering what the big deal was. I seized that as a teaching moment. I made sure that both of them read the book and we later had a Discussion Session. When I saw that it made the desired impact, I started ordering books by authors in the African Writers series. Right now, we are reading Chukwuemeka Ike's "The Potters Wheel". Great book, especially since the main character, Obu, is in their age bracket. As the story is set in a rural village, we get to do lots of juxtaposing.
I had to tell her a story all the way to school if she promised not to cry when I dropped her off. Very soon she added another story all the way back. The agreement, needless to say, taxed my repertory of known and fudged stories to the utmost. But it worked. Nwando was no longer crying. By the year's end she had become such a success in her school that many of her little American schoolmates had begun to call their school Nwando-haven instead of its proper name, Wonderhaven.
That sums it up. What a great way to sharpen a child's mind.
Like they say, a child's mind is like a clean slate. The problem is that most of us, parents, let someone else write on that slate before we try to erase or write over it. It proves to be even more difficult if the writing was done with a permanent marker.
I sincerely believe that the best investment is the one we make in our children.
Jan 27, 2011, 04:19 PM
Thank you Dimaanu for the excerpt! I am even more excited about this book now because of the this excerpt and like you, I have pre-ordered my book and can't wait to read it!
I learned that if I wanted a safe book for my child I should at least read it through and at best write it myself. --Chinua Achebe.
Chinua Achebe is one of my greatest (if not my greatest) writing influences. This quote has confirmed what I truly believe is the most devastating, yet the most subtle way of continuing the slavery/colonialism for generations to come; the belittlement and demonizing of everything Black and Negro related directly and indirectly, starting from our children and their books. It might appear subtle but it is very clear to the keen eye. I see the propaganda everywhere; even in my own chosen genre as an aspiring romance novelist.
The descriptions were always the same...
"Her beauty was unmatched...Her sun bleached long blonde hair tousled in the wind...creamy alabaster skin...striking blue eyes..." etc.
It looks innocent enough doesn't it? but imagine reading that time and time again, books after books and not finding yourself in these descriptions.
I remember that as a young girl, the description of the lifestyle and physical attributes of the characters of most of the books I read were foreign to me. As a young child, I just read these books without much introspection and analysis but growing up in a society where beauty has been dictated by print and visual media to be "skinny, Caucasian with straight, long blond hair and blue eyes", I had some personal struggle in accepting myself as beautiful just the way I am; with my kinky hair and chocolate brown skin. This was the beginning of my personal journey to find my own beauty in these books that meant so much to me as a young woman and to write very good fiction romance novels that my sisters, mothers, friends and future daughters (when they are old enough) can relate to.
Another similar quote from one of my other literary heroes, Toni Morrison.
If there is a book that you really want to read and it has not been written yet, then you must write it.
Your comment below hit home with me:
With regards to our children, we have made huge, painful and regrettable concessions. To me, the most painful being that we have abandoned our language. I admitted on this forum that I am/was equally guilty of this. Like I said, I am working hard to turn back the hand of the clock, and the result is encouraging. Whoever told us that it is classy to raise children who speak only a foreign language lied to us. We give the excuse that it is too difficult to teach an adult "to use the left hand in old age.
Thank you again Dimaanu. Sad to say, I am a product of this thinking and as a result, cannot speak my native language or any other languages but English but like I told a friend, I am challenging myself to be fluent in Igbo in two years. So help me God!
Jan 27, 2011, 04:49 PM
I am challenging myself to be fluent in Igbo in two years. So help me God!
You go, girl! :clap:
I came across this youtube clip. Our children are beginning to wonder 'WHY?'.
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