Chinua Achebe: European-African Frictions

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. European-African Relationships

III. Achebe on Literature

IV. Achebe – The Novels

V. Religion in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God

VI. Post-Colonial Phenomena in A Man of the People

I. Introduction

It is quite ironic that at this very moment while I am typing these lines about Chinua Achebe, a major historical event is taking place in Europe, or more accurately in Luxemburg where twenty five foreign ministers of European countries have gathered to start the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey regarding Turkey’s entry to the European Union (EU). I would very much like to know what Achebe himself would say about this European-Turkish issue. Because culturally it is so similar to the issues - that is problems - Achebe has been dealing with and writing about for some fifty years. Only his criticism on European concepts are a reaction the European-African issues. Whatever the historical backgrounds of Nigeria, or Africa as a “whole” (colonialism, slave trade, current European influence), psychologically the European-African and the European-Turkish relationships[1] share some remarkable similarities. The source of the problem is the European perception of other and self.

Although, for various reasons, I myself am anything but an avid supporter of the idea that Turkey should join the EU – and I think in this context it might be useful to mention that I am German of Turkish descent –, I want to stress that the question of whether Turkey belongs to Europe or not is above all a (pseudo-)cultural one, rather than a geographical. Of course Europe[2] has had completely different dealings with Turkey than with any African country. Even so, although Europe has played a tremendous role in quite a considerable part of Turkish and Ottoman history and in spite of efforts on the part of Turkey to “meet” European “standards” in order to become a modern democracy (or, at last, “fully” European), there is still the idea –or “fiction” - as Achebe would put it – that Turkey is culturally inferior to the Western world and thus should therefore not be treated as equal. I am aware that these thoughts come through in a simplified way but my point is that in Europe, which of course not only designates a geographical as well as a cultural entity such as religion and traditions etc., there is still a feeling of superiority towards the other, many of which can be explained historically. Racism due to military and economic strength is quite common among rich countries, the majority of which are Western countries (I will not embark on an explanation of the term “Western” although it too requires discussion). Likewise, it is common for poorer countries to admire the Western world’s superiority in modern technology and wealth but apparently without knowing that they are not very much appreciated by the Westerners.

Although there is quite a number of reasonable arguments for not welcoming Turkey to the European “family”, such as financial as well as political and ethical, the majority of Turkish people consider prejudices against Turk s as the actual reason for their rejection: they are (culturally) too different and more than the half of the European citizens are against a Turkish membership in the EU[3]. Instead, a “privileged partnership” is being proposed by some conservative European governments (or opposing parties such as the German Christian Democratic party), instead of a full membership. I think “full” needs to be emphasised here because it means a real and well-meant friendship, a step closer to becoming a family member one day rather than a mere political (or strategical) ally. Well, family implies that there are less differences, that one is almost alike. There are many European tenets as well as traditional views which hinder an honest dialogue since Europe has yet to rid itself of some of its dangerous ideas (“maleficent” fictions)[4] which set the world ablaze in the 20th century. Neither Nigeria is honestly acknowledged, nor is (in the minds of many a European critic) Achebe’s writing universal[5], nor is Turkey’s fourty-year old endeavour to become a full European member acceptable. There is, intellectually, a problem on the part of Europe to accept the idea of equality which Achebe has been persistently trying to point out both in his novels and in his essays (which is the same reason, I think, why Turkey is so hard done by): feeling of superiority. That is why Achebe’s books lack the quality of universal European (or Western) books and is only applicable to Nigeria and likewise the reason for Turkey being a second-rate country. Both of these concepts reveal classical European ideas that will – in all probability – prove to be false during the course of the twenty-first century. In order to support my thesis, which I admit sounds far-fetched at first glance, I will refer to Chinua Achebe’s accounts on colonial criticism and, wherever possible, compare them to the recent issue in European dealings with the Other, i.e. the Turk. I will later on focus on the novels “Arrow of God” and “A Man of the People”, particularly on the aspect of religion in “Arrow of God” and the post-colonial phenomena of Nigeria in “A Man of the People”.

II. European-African Relationships

In one of his acclaimed essays[6] on literature, as well as on Western and African issues, Chinua Achebe, the writer of classical novels such as “Things Fall Apart” (1958) and “Arrow of God” (1964), discusses the term ‘partnership’ (15) between Africa and Europe in regard to the past dealings of these two continents. According to Achebe, as well as the general ideal, Europe has benefited from this connection which was never, and still is not, a partnership:

“The relationship between Europe and Africa is very old and also very special. The coasts of North Africa and Southern Europe interacted intimately to produce the beginnings of modern European civilization. Later, and much less happily, Europe engaged Africa in the tragic misalliance of the slave trade and colonialism to lay the foundations of modern European and American industrialism and wealth.”

The author rejects the European[7] notion and definition of partnership because one side appears to dictate the roles within this ‘relationship‘, the neutral meaning of which seems to be more appropriate to approach this Euro-African thing. Achebe accuses Europeans as “incapable of extending [equality within a relationship] to others, especially Africans” (ib.). If we look closely to some relationships between people in general we will, however, certainly have to agree that even in Europe equality is something which is hard to find and that it had to be historically claimed first, e.g. by Karl Marx (or even invented). Since human beings are social creatures which organize themselves in a hierarchical pattern, it does not appear likely that equality is self-evident. But when we speak of ‘partnership’ we take equality for granted, otherwise it would be an ‘unequal’ partnership, which has negative connotations attached. Which individual would be fond of being treated unequally in any partnership? Achebe goes so far as to use an originally British colonial metaphor of “horse” and “rider” (ib.) to reinforce his argument and to demonstrate the clear and overt master-and-servant ‘partnership’, with the latter being ascribed animal characteristics: “You may talk to a horse but you don’t wait for a reply!” (ib.).

Achebe continues to point out that this racist concept (in combination with the colonial presence of the Europeans) has caused major inferiority feelings to Africans. Likewise, he condemns Africans for doing so. These “traumatic effects” (ib.) still carry on and results in a highly problematic perception of one’s self, that is to feel ashamed for one’s culture[8] even to an extent to be unable to accept one’s own peoples’ traditions, indeed denying to be one of “them”:

“Three or four weeks ago my wife, who teaches English in a boys’ school, asked a pupil why he wrote about winter when he meant the harmattan [a whirl wind which rows in the South of Sahara and also in Nigeria]. He said the other boys would call him a bushman if he did such a thing.”[9] (29). Achebe elaborates on the harmattan argument since it is a quite odd ‘incident’ that someone really should feel ashamed for his country’s weather. The Nigerian bushmen, by the way, call the harmattan “The Doctor” for it brings them relief from the oppressive heat[10].

What is more, Achebe states that for these reasons the Euro-African partnership, i.e. relationship, is one-sided and fundamentally a communication-related problem. However, since the “Negro talks” (16), a feature as Achebe points out which distinguishes himself from an animal - a fact which cannot remain unquestioned forever - he asks for equality and all he gets is “evasions” (ibid.) in its place. This holds true even for the exploration of African cultures. Since the European does not consider Africans equal to him, he feels no inclination whatsoever to get into direct contact with Africa(ns) – he asks his own countrymen on who’s judgement only he can rely to, say, do the job for him. It seems almost to be consequential within these thought patterns that the African is portrayed as a cannibal incapable of talking properly – Achebe quotes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” (17).

As to the European contemporary attitude to Africans, Achebe points out, for all “progress” in Europe – after all, they are representing the cradle of democracy and are, politically, doing quite well at it! – prejudice is still prevailing, only now in a much more subtle way. According to Achebe this very prejudice on the part of Europe is the major impediment to dialogue [11] (14) when he thinks about the relationship of North and South (ib.) and he prefers to point out these issues in full to merely proposing ideas of how to improve this peculiar “partnership”[12].


[1] I am aware that the comparison Turkish (which is a country of ca. 70 million people) and a continent, esp. Africa, might appear politically incorrect or even a trifle chauvinistic, but even so I am inclined to make use of this preposterous “apple-orange” comparison, because in the terms of this paper, I think, they are appropriate, and after all, I only want to stress the European attitude towards these entities.

[2] When I say Europe I mean the Western European countries such as Germany, France, Italy, England etc. and some others who “participated” in colonialism (Portugal, Netherlands etc.)

[3] http://www.euractiv.com/Article?tcmuri=tcm:29-142697-16&type=News [according to public-opinion poll

52% of the European citizens are against Turkey’s accession to the EU]

[4] Chinua Achebe. The Truth of Fiction. In: Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford:

Heinemann, 1988

[5] Chinua Achebe. Colonialist Criticism. In: Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford:

Heinemann, 1988

[6] Chinua Achebe. Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South. In: Hopes and Impediments: Selected

Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988

[7] It would go beyond the scope of this paper to embark on (or even to approach) a definition of Europe. I am,

however, inclined to use this term in a general sense in which non-Europeans ‘usually’ look at Europeans,

thus with especial emphasis on Europe’s, say, traditionally racist behaviour towards non-European countries. I

regard myself fully as a European, by the way.

[8] I use this term in a general way (here).

[9] Chinua Achebe. The novelist as a teacher. Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South. In: Hopes and

Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988

[10] This very wind is also mentioned in Michael Ondaatje’s famous novel “The English Patient” (in a romantic sense, though)

[11] Chinua Achebe. The novelist as a teacher. Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South. In: Hopes and

Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/06/opinion/06thu3.html [Published: October 6, 2005: “Austria's Shoddy

Gambit on Turkey” (editorial note)]


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Title: Chinua Achebe: European-African Frictions