Africa is people

In the early 1990s, novelist Chinua Achebe was puzzled to be invited to a meeting of the international financial institutions as they discussed structural adjustment. Well, puzzled for a moment.

Suddenly I received something like a stab of insight and it became clear to me why I had been invited, what I was doing there in that strange assembly. I signaled my desire to speak and was given the floor. I told them what I had just recognized. I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop, no more and no less! Here you are, spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people?

His latest collection of essays, speeches and memoir is excellent. One of my favorite bits:

Some years ago at an international writers’ meeting in Sweden, a Swedish writer and journalist said to a small group of us Africans present: “You fellows are lucky. Your governments put you in prison. Here in Sweden nobody pays any attention to us no matter what we write.” We apologized profusely to him for his misfortune and our undeserved luck!

Another:

Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste—like cheese. Or better still, like ballroom dancing. Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat. I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.

And last but not least.

The British have always claimed that they taught us the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy and we blew it. Nothing could be more absurd. You might as well say you taught someone to swim by letting him roll in the sands of the Sahara.

The book is here.

8 thoughts on “Africa is people

  1. I for one was disappointed with Achebe’s latest book. I am a big fan of his work, but this one was a let down. There are some going points, but all in all, I came to the end of the book thinking, whether these essays (which in fact were mostly a collection of speaches and forewords) actually mertied to be advertised as the latest book from the greatest African novelist. I cannot help but agree with Michela Wrong’s review in The Spectator.
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/5704233/a-sage-on-his-laurels.thtml

  2. Thanks for Posting, Chris!

    @Aaron, Considering it is only a blurb of something greater, I do not think it is meant to give the ins and outs of designing good policy for Africa.

    I don’t think there is anything in the excerpt which tries to highlight his insiderness vs others’ outsiderness. The issue is that a lot of policy makers, in international, national and local contexts, tend to discuss problems in the abstract , but have a difficult time really, I mean REALLY, considering how their work affects real, live, people. I think that if people were really conscious of the humanity of others, like they are of their own, development policy of the past 30 years would have been very different.

    Also, Achebe, is a novelist; not an economist or policy wonk, so I think calling the blurb juveline and unhelpful is a tad bit unfair.

    Just a thought.

  3. I love Chinua Achebe. As a young African, I really love reading an african writer who loves his country and his continent. I just got to America for college and I completely understand how people think of Africa as a concept, not people. People ask me such generalised questions because they seem to disregard that Africa is not one big country but over 50 different countries. When we learn about Africa, it is always in relation to something else as if Africa cannot stand on its own.

    @Manoel. If you wanna learn about South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography ‘long walk to freedom’ is the best place to start. I also found the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu quite useful coz it illustrates what was going on in South Africa in the townships whilst Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Plus there is an amazing book list on this very website which is pretty awesome!

  4. The first blurb kind of makes my eyes roll a bit. Fine, Africa is people (if you like), but how does that help anyone design good policy? Perhaps I’m too cynical or I’m missing something important, but all that that kind of talk communicates to me is that the speaker had an urge to highlight his insider-ness and everyone else’s outsider-ness. This is not that big of a deal and perhaps it’s understandable in some way, but it seems like it’s also a bit juvenile and again, not really helpful.

    • Hi Aaron, defining public policies, being at home with your family, studying/ working, everything become different if you look others as people. please google meeting point kampala or Mrs Rose Busingye interviews.

  5. Hi,

    I am interested in learning more about Africa (particularly South Africa and Mandela, but not only). Do you have any suggestion of readings?

    thanks
    Manoel