I’m mid-way through the new collection of essays by Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child.” His lucid crystaline writing produces page after page of pithy brilliance, even though he shies away from spelling out his political positions on many urgent matters. The great Nigerian novelist and storyteller. also prattles on too long about how wonderful his fellow Igbo are. I am married to one and he may well be right, but he seems tone deaf to the way his ethnic pride plays can be misunderstood. Through the prism of Igbo-ness, Achebe can sometimes barely make sense out of the Nigeria he both loves and hates. While the book consists nearly entirely of speeches and essays from the 1990s, Achebe’s insights remain fresh and biting. Rooted in culture and history, he harks back to a glorious African past and a future, perhaps far in the future, of African self-reliance. In a time when troubedours of humanitarian relief and saviors from the philanthropic world dominate discussions of African problems, Achebe’s folksy cheerfuliness about the destiny of both Africa and Africans inspires admiration — and highlights the egregious mistake made by the saviors of Africa who fail to recognize the richness of African society, the beauty and courage of its people and the wisdom that springs forth even on its tarnished benighted soils. While Achebe knows nothing about “economic development,” his emphasis on the spirit and psyche of his fellow African ultimately tells more about the future prospects for wealth-creation in African than any plans by any eminent political economist. Let the Nobel committee, who has denied Achebe its literature prize for so long, awaken to this great truth-tellers value in the struggle by Africans for Africans in Africa.
Let me close with a staggering single sentence that captures the full range of Achebe’s powers to perceive, as he says, “the middle ground” between two polarities. While often circumspect about the personal details of his life, he writes at the start of one essay: “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 infilitrated and then invaded it.” Achebe’s capacity for navigating between these two polarities created a difficult life — and great art.