Chinua Achebe died on Friday. It hit me. It hit me like no other celebrity death in a while, it mattered more to me than Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse. Maybe because more than any of the others he understood me, he knew me. Not personally because I don’t really know any famous people, however when I read his books I saw versions of myself in them, versions I didn’t know existed and yet most assuredly did. I read his books and understood myself, my history. I laughed and was moved by them. There was always a prophetic quality, maybe a present quality to them, they always felt like they were happening right now. You read a Man of the People and you see the same thing happening in Kenya, his explanation that African politicians had been too short in the hut and remembered how the rain felt and that this was why they held on to power so eloquently captures the dynastic nature of our politics . “If you put a juicy morsel in the mouth of a man how do you expect him not to chew?” As a rationalisation for all the corruption we see in power. I remember reading this book for school and meeting chief Nanga and seeing him through Odili’s eyes. At first all the awe that he inspired and the gradual disillusionment and eventually hate that I felt as he(Chinua Achebe) did that most wonderful of things, took me through his hero’s journey. Chinua Achebe understood what it meant to be African more than just about everyone in the world and his death was a blow to African literature and intellectualism. The only good thing that may come out of it is that his work will get a broader audience now.
Achebe had the gift of making us feel African. I remember being in Europe last year and getting pissed that people didn’t seem to realise just how diverse and different Africa was. They didn’t get that Nigeria and Kenya are so far apart that it cost more to go there than to get to Europe. I insisted on my Kenyan identity while I was there, I think in reaction to what I saw as intellectual laziness. It was exhibited so much, how people in university could not see the connection or lack thereof between things. Most Kenyans have a grasp of the general geography of the world, we know that only Brazil speaks Portuguese, we know that Canada and America are different countries and we understand about what happened when Russia was on its descent from being a superpower and what it means now that China is on its ascent. It bothered me that they(definitely not all but so many it became distinctly noticeable) couldn’t pay a similar courtesy to our continent that is surely more on their news than South America is on ours. I read a long-lost blog by a friend where she was talking about similar issues but she was grown-up enough to understand and admit that there was a similarity running through African veins, “Our problems are almost uniform in nature: pick a little old lady living in a village in the Gambia. Chances are, she has plenty in common with my grandmother living in Nyeri. It’s not an insult. It’s a fact.”
These two things got me thinking about the things we have in common, after a too long introduction I thought I would make a list of sub-Saharan generalities, feel free to correct me as I go along.
1. The concept of ancestors and descendants. Though Christianity has done its best to wipe away this “superstition” it still informs our lives. How much renaming goes on in an African family? Most people were named after grandparents and uncles and aunts. In addition it is enshrined in our land laws, at least in Kenya where our conveyancing lecturer keeps saying community land is held in trust and belongs to the many who came before, the few still alive and the countless yet to come, perhaps this is why it was so much easier to enshrine the concept of environmental protection in our constitution.
2. The large, large families. We all seem to know our uncles and aunts and cousins going fifty deep. We aren’t all as close as we would have been some time ago but they mean something to us, something special, they ground us, they make us feel at home. This is why the whole notion of witness protection is foolish in an African context. You would have to evacuate not only me and my nuclear family but my cousins and their parents and then the people they loved and by the end there would be no one left in the country.
3. Ugali, sadsa(in Zimbabwe.) I can’t remember its other names but I know there are incarnations of this dish in Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, the Congo. It is -for those who don’t know- a dish made by mixing flour in piping hot water and adding more flour as you stir until you come up with a hard(mostly tasteless) but still well-loved cake.
4. Colonialism and its scars. Well apart from Ethiopia and Liberia we were all ruled for decades, had a foreign power impose its will on us, take from us and give nothing back but borders that had we been in charge we would never have approved of. Borders that split families in half and forced tribes that knew almost nothing about each other into nation states that have not yet coalesced because the history and culture we amassed as separate entities is much more than that as single nations.
5. The concept of African time. A friend in a bar told me that this arises because Africans always thought of time emotively. It was always “meet me here after your lunch” and you just felt that it was time. This is true in many ways, how many times are people just exactly as late as each other. And also the fact that we fit events into time. It happens a lot that I say, I’ll leave the house after lunch, when this movie is over and so on and so on.
6. Chinua Achebe. He knew what it meant to be African, to be Nigerian to be a person. And he reminded us more than almost anyone else by telling our stories in a language that we could recognise, the transliteration of Nigerian idioms, the names that sounded real, foods that were strangers to me but much less than shepherd pie and lasagne ever were, the truth that our past makes us who we are and the stories of what happened live in each of us; that who we are is as much who we decided to be as who were always told we were.
So RIP Chinua Achebe.