How Western Writers Battered the African Identity and How Achebe Responded to This

Westerners, through their Literatures have always seen Africans as uncivilized, savage and primitive beings. Several times, Africans are been referred to as 'black monkeys' by the whites and thus, suffered oppression, humiliation and other forms of ill treatment. An indepth study of Fugard Authol's Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Richard Wright's Black Boy and Native Son, will no doubt expose you to the pitiable fate of Africans due to the ill treatment they got from their white counterparts as a result of their skin colour. 

Further exposing such menace, this article examines the stereotypical representation (single story) of Africans by Westerners through their literatures and how Chinue Achebe, an African writer, reacts to such stereotype through his first novel, Things Fall Apart. To adequately explain this, reference will be made to Adichie's talk on the dangers of a single story.

During a talk in TED TALKS, Adichie highlights the dangers of a single story. According to Adichie, a single story shows a people as one thing; as only thing over and over again and that thing is what they become. The single story creates a stereotype and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but they are incomplete. They make one story becomes the only story.

Prior to this fact, westerners had a single story about Africans. This single story about Africans ultimately comes from western literatures and in these literatures, they portray Africans as savage who needed to be enlightened by Europeans. For example, here is a quote from the writing of a merchant called John Locke who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as beasts who have no houses, he writes, “they are also people without head having their mouth and eyes in their breast.” European writers battered the African identity.

Another western literature that has a single story about Africa is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This classic tale presents Africa as a wild ‘dark’ and ‘uncivilized’ continent. It is a story on how Europeans oppressed Africans in Africa during colonialism. The story centers around Marlow, an introspective sailor and his journey up to Congo river to meet Kurtz, reputed to be an idealistic man of great abilities. Marlow takes a job as a riverboat captain with the company, a Belgian company organized to trade in the Congo. Marlow encounters widespread inefficiency and brutality in the company’s station. The native inhabitants(Africans) of the region have been forced into the company’s service and they suffer terribly from overwork and ill-treatment at the heads of the company’s agents. Joseph Conrad, in his novella, portrays Africans as slaves in their own country.

In other to react to this stereotypical representation on the African identity, African writers began to write to counter it. Prominent among them was Chinua Achebe and he used his first novel, Things fall Apart to counter Joseph Conrad’s single story about Africa in his novella, Heart of Darkness. Through his emphasis on the harmony and complexity of the Igbo, Achebe contradicts the stereotypical European representation of Africans as savage. Throughout Achebe’s novel, there is a practice of sharing kola nuts to emphasize the peacefulness of the Igbos.

Another important way in which Achebe challenges such stereotypical representation is through his use of language. As Achebe writes in his essay on Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness: colonialist Europe tended to perceive Africa as a foil or negation of western cultures and values, imagining Africa to be a primordial land of silence. But the people of Umuofia speak a complex language full of proverbs and literary and rhetorical devices. Achebe’s translation of the Igbo language into English retains the credence, rhythmic and speech patterns of the language without making them sound as Conrad did, primitive.

In chapter 4-6, Achebe puts out another aspect of the Igbo culture that colonialist Europe tended to ignore- the existence of subcultures within a given African population. Each clan has its own stories and Ikemefuna is an existing addition to the Umuofia people because he brings with him new and unfamiliar folktales. All the stories Ikemefuna tells Okonkwo’s children are unfamiliar to them. Achebe is able to remind us that the story we are reading is not about Africa but rather about one specific culture within Africa. He thus combats the European tendency to see all Africans as one and the same.

Again, Achebe uses the incident that happens at the end of the novel to tell Conrad that he knows nothing about Africa. When the district commissioner comes to arrest Okonkwo for killing his messenger, he finds out that Okonkwo has committed suicide and in the culture of the Igbo people, suicide is an abomination. The body of one who commits suicide is not touched by his villagers; only persons from another village can take this body to the evil forest and drop it there. However, the District commissioner is not aware of this tradition so on his arrival, he orders Oberika and other villagers to bring down Okonkwo’s lifeless body. He only becomes aware of this tradition when Oberika tells him about it. So Achebe tries to tell Conrad that he knows nothing about Africa and even if he does, he is been told by an African.

In sum, a single story about a particular people robs them of their identity. It makes their recognition of equal humanity difficult and emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar and until we reject the single story, we cannot regain paradise.

Tamuno Reuben

Those who seek knowledge seek power because the pen is mightier than the sword.

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