The Education of a British-Protected Child
In 2008, the literary world marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), among the most widely read novels ever to come from Africa. The story of the Igbo village leader Okonkwo and the ways his life is changed by the coming of British colonialists and missionaries, the novel is a common text studied in high schools and colleges throughout the world. When Newsweek published a “Meta-List” of the world’s top one hundred books of all time in June, 2009, it ranked Things Fall Apart fourteenth, behind such novels as the first-place Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and the eleventh-place The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), but ahead of such others as the eighteenth-place The Great Gatsby (1925) and the fortieth-place To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
Achebe’s most recent novel, Anthills of the Savannah, was published in 1987, although he has reported that he is working on another. In 1989, he published Hopes and Impediments, the first of what are now three collections of lectures and previously published essays dating back to his early career. In Hopes and Impediments, he reflected on the extent to which Africa and Africans have been perceived by Europeans as lesser, incapable of producing real art or thought. He introduced themes that would also inform his next two books: the central role Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899) played in shaping and reflecting Western attitudes toward Africa, the reasons for Nigeria’s inability to rise above poverty and corruption, the need for increased dialogue and understanding between Africa and the West, and the role that literature and art can play in enabling that kind of dialogue. In a slim volume called Home and Exile (2000), Achebe continued to develop these themes in three extended essays, originally a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University.
Twenty years after the publication of Hopes and Impediments, Achebe has released The Education of a British-Protected Child, another collection mostly of previously published essays. This volume revisits and refines many of the themes addressed in the earlier book, but its focus is more autobiographical. It happens that in 1990, shortly after Hopes and Impediments came out, Achebe was in a serious car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He moved shortly thereafter to the United States, where he has lived ever since. The essays in the new collection, which have been updated and revised, reflect an older man’s ponderings about his long life and career, as well as an expatriate’s analysis of the homeland he loves. Of the sixteen essays in the book, fourteen are adapted from earlier work. The earliest piece, “Spelling Our Proper Name,” is from a speech delivered on the death of James Baldwin in 1988; the most recent is “What Is Nigeria to Me?”an address delivered in Lagos at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in 2008.
The title of the volume signals the autobiographical elements that distinguish it from Achebe’s other collections. Achebe explains that he grew up and attended school under British colonial rule; he was already thirty years old and the author of two novels when Nigeria attained independence. As the child of Christian evangelical parents who valued education, Achebe attended schools that strictly followed the British model, and the books he studied “were the books English boys would have read in England.”
Throughout the volume, Achebe offers glimpses of his early life in an Igbo village that was home to both “the people of the church and the people of the world,” his education under the guidance of what appear to have been excellent teachers, and his involvement with Nigerian media and politics. He also describes the period in the 1950’s when he studied at the British Broadcasting Corporation Staff School in London, noting that his passport identified him as a “British Protected Person.” The designation represented an official denial of his status as an Igbo, as an African, and as an autonomous adult.
Interestingly, Achebe says little about his wife and sons, his horrific car accident, or his life in the United States since 1990, although two of the essays are titled “My Dad and Me” and “My Daughters.” Instead, he...
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