Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra Online

Authors: Chinua Achebe

Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2 page)

Pioneers of a New Frontier

My father was born in the last third of the nineteenth century, an era of great cultural,
economic, and religious upheaval in Igbo land. His mother had died in her second childbirth,
and his father, Achebe, a refugee from a bitter civil war, did not long survive his
wife. And so my father was raised by his maternal uncle, Udoh.

It was this maternal uncle, as fate would have it, who received in his compound the
first party of English clergy in his town. The new arrivals, missionaries of a new
religion, Christianity, had already “conquered” the Yoruba heartland and were expanding
their footprint in Igbo land and the rest of southern Nigeria with their potent, irresistible
tonic of evangelism and education. A story is told of how Udoh, a very generous and
tolerant man, finally asked his visitors to move to a public playground on account
of their singing, which he considered too dismal for a living man’s compound. But
he did not discourage his young nephew from associating with the singers.
1

My father was an early Christian convert and a good student. By 1904 he was deemed
to have received enough education at St. Paul’s Teachers College in Awka to be employed
as a teacher and an evangelist in the Anglican Mission. He was a brilliant man, who
deeply valued education and read a great deal—mainly the Bible and religious books,
periodicals, and almanacs from the Church Mission Society.

My mother, Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, was an extraordinary woman. As a student of
the legendary missionary and evangelist Miss Edith Warner she received a primary school
education, which was a phenomenal feat at the time, especially for a woman. My mother
joined my father on his travels through much of Igbo land to spread the gospel.

My parents were among the first of their people to successfully integrate traditional
values with the education and new religion brought by the Europeans. I still marvel
at how wholeheartedly they embraced strangers from thousands of miles away, with their
different customs and beliefs.

It is from these two outstanding and courageous individuals that my five siblings—Frank,
Zinobia, John, Augustine, and Grace—and I got our deep love for education and the
pursuit of knowledge.

The Magical Years

On November 16, 1930, in Nnobi, near my hometown of Ogidi, providence ushered me into
a world at a cultural crossroads. By then, a long-standing clash of Western and African
civilizations had generated deep conversations and struggles between their respective
languages, religions, and cultures.

Crossroads possess a certain dangerous potency. Anyone born there must wrestle with
their multiheaded spirits and return to his or her people with the boon of prophetic
vision, or accept, as I have, life’s interminable mysteries.

My initiation into the complicated world of Ndi Igbo
1
was at the hands of my mother and my older sister, Zinobia, who furnished me with
a number of wonderful stories from our ancient Igbo tradition. The tales were steeped
in intrigue, spiced with oral acrobatics and song, but always resolute in their moral
message. My favorite stories starred the tortoise
mbe
, and celebrated his mischievous escapades. As a child, sitting quietly, mesmerized,
story time took on a whole new world of meaning and importance. I realize, reminiscing
about these events, that it is little wonder I decided to become a storyteller. Later
in my literary career I traveled back to the magic of the storytelling of my youth
to write my children’s books:
How the Leopard Got His Claws
,
Chike and the River
,
The Drum: A Children’s Story
, and
The Flute.


When I think about my mother the first thing that comes to my mind is how clearly
the description “the strong, silent type” fit her. Mother was neither talkative nor
timid but seemed to exist on several planes—often quietly escaping into the inner
casements of her mind, where she engaged in deep, reflective thought. It was from
her that I learned to appreciate the power and solace in silence.

Mother’s education prepared her for leadership, and she distinguished herself in the
church and as the head of a group of expatriate women from the ancient town of Awka
who were married in Ogidi. She always treated others with respect and exuded a calm
self-confidence. Mother brought a remarkable, understated elegance to every activity
in which she engaged. She had a particularly attractive way of making sure she got
her point across without being overbearing or intimidating. It is her peaceful determination
to tackle barriers in her world that nailed down a very important element of my development—the
willingness to bring about change gently.

We were Christians, though the interreligious struggle was still evident in our time.
There were occasions when one would suddenly realize there were sides, and one was
on one or another. Perhaps the most important event that illustrates this was what
has come to be known in my family as the “Kola nut incident.”

The story came out that a neighbor who was a relative of mine and someone the Christians
would refer to as “a heathen,” was passing on the road one day and watched quietly
as my mother pulled down a small Kola nut branch from a tree in her compound and picked
a ripe fruit. Now one often forgot that there were taboos about picking Kola nuts.
Traditionally no one was allowed to pick them from the tree; they were supposed to
ripen, fall, and then be collected from the ground, and by men—not by women. The Kola
nut was a sacred fruit and had a very distinct and distinguished role to play in Igbo
life and culture.

The neighbor reported this incident to the menfolk, who then exaggerated the “insult
to our traditions.” But Mother insisted that she had every right to pick the fruit,
particularly from a tree in her own compound. I did not think up to that moment that
my mother was a fighter. There was pressure to punish my mother, though it did not
go anywhere in the end. Looking back, one can appreciate the fact that she had won
a battle for Christianity, women’s rights, and freedom.

The most powerful memories of my father are the ones of him working as a catechist
and a teacher. He read constantly and had a small library. My father also had a number
of collages and maps hanging on the walls, and books that he encouraged his children
to read. He would often walk us through the house telling stories linked to each prized
possession. It was from him that I was exposed to the magic in the mere title of William
Shakespeare’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
and to an Igbo translation of John Bunyan’s
The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Bible played an important role in my education. My parents often read passages
out loud to us during prayer time and encouraged us, when we were all able, to read
and memorize several passages. Sunday school continued this tradition of Christian
evangelical education, this time with several other children from the village. Education
was so important to my father that he often would sponsor a bright child from an underprivileged
background, reminding us that he too, as an orphan, had received providence’s benefaction.

The center of our family’s activities was St. Philip’s Church, Ogidi, a large Gothic-style
parish church that my father helped establish. It was constructed on an impressive,
open
ilo
, or piece of open grass, on the outskirts of Ogidi. It was an imposing structure
for its time, built with wood, cement, mud, and stone. Local lore holds that my father
took part in the building of the church from its foundations. My father also helped
conduct Sunday service, translate sermons into Igbo, and arrange the sanctuary and
vestry. I remember waking up early to help out, carrying his bag for him as we set
out at cock crow for the parish church.

Eucharist on Sundays often lasted more than two hours. For those who were not asleep
by the end of the proceedings, the fire and brimstone sermons from the pulpit made
attendance worthwhile. There was an occasional outburst of uncontrollable laughter,
when the rector, an Englishman, enthusiastically drank all the remaining wine at the
end of communion, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. A crowd favorite was
the inaccurate translations of Igbo words into English, such as the word
ike
, which is an Igbo word that can mean “strength” or “buttocks” depending on the skill
or mischief of the translator!

I can say that my whole artistic career was probably sparked by this tension between
the Christian religion of my parents, which we followed in our home, and the retreating,
older religion of my ancestors, which fortunately for me was still active outside
my home. I still had access to a number of relatives who had not converted to Christianity
and were called heathens by the new converts. When my parents were not watching I
would often sneak off in the evenings to visit some of these relatives. They seemed
so very content in their traditional way of life and worship. Why would they refuse
to become Christians, like everyone else around them? I was intent on finding out.

My great-uncle, Udoh Osinyi, was able to bestride both worlds with great comfort.
He held one of the highest titles in all of Igbo land—
ozo
. I was very interested in my great-uncle’s religion, and talking to him was an enriching
experience. I wouldn’t give up anything for that, including my own narrow, if you
like, Christian background.

In Igbo cosmology there are many gods. A person could be in good stead with one god
and not the other—
ogwugwu
could kill a person despite an excellent relationship with
udo.
As a young person that sort of complexity meant little to me. A later understanding
would reveal the humility of the traditional religion with greater clarity. Igbo sayings
and proverbs are far more valuable to me as a human being in understanding the complexity
of the world than the doctrinaire, self-righteous strain of the Christian faith I
was taught. This other religion is also far more artistically satisfying to me. However,
as a catechist’s son I had to suppress this interest in our traditions to some extent,
at least the religious component. We were church people after all, helping the local
church spread Christianity
.

The relationship between my father and his uncle Udoh was instructive to me. There
was something deep and mystical about it, judging from the reverence I heard in my
father’s voice whenever he spoke about his old uncle.

My father was a man of few words, and I have always regretted that I did not ask him
more questions. But he took pains to tell me what he thought I needed to know. He
told me, for instance, in a rather oblique way of his one attempt to convert his uncle
Udoh. It must have been in my father’s youthful, heady, proselytizing days! His uncle
pointed to the awesome row of insignia of his three titles—
ichi ozo
,
ido idemili
,
ime omaalor
. “What shall I do to these?” he asked my father. It was an awesome question. He had
essentially asked: “What do I do to who I am? What do I do to history?”

An orphan child born into adversity, heir to the commotions, barbarities, and rampant
upheavals of a continent in disarray—it was not at all surprising that my father would
welcome the remedy proffered by diviners and interpreters of a new word of God. But
my great-uncle, a leader in his community, a moral, open-minded man, a prosperous
man who had prepared such a great feast when he took the
ozo
title that his people gave him a praise name for it—was he to throw all that away
because some strangers from afar had said so?

At first glance it seemed to me that my father, a deeply religious man, was not tolerant
of our ancient traditions and religion. As he got older, however, I noticed that he
became more openly accommodating of the old ways of doing things. By this time he
had developed quite a reputation as a pious, disciplined, honest catechist. He was
widely known as
onye nkuzi
(“the teacher”), and the villagers found him very trustworthy. Strangers would often
drop off valuables at our house for Father’s safe-keeping.

Those two—my father and his uncle—formed the dialectic that I inherited. Udoh stood
fast in what he knew, but he also left room for my father to seek other answers. The
answer my father found in the Christian faith solved many problems, but by no means
all.

As a young person my perspective of the world benefited, I think, from this dichotomy.
I wasn’t questioning in an intellectual way which way was right, or better. I was
simply more interested in exploring the essence, the meaning, the worldview of both
religions. By approaching the issues of tradition, culture, literature, and language
of our ancient civilization in that manner, without judging but scrutinizing, a treasure
trove of discovery was opened up to me.

I often had periods of oscillating faith as I grew older, periods of doubt, when I
quietly pondered, and deeply questioned, the absolutist teachings or the interpretations
of religion. I struggled with the certitude of Christianity—“I am the Way, the Truth
and the Life”—not its accuracy, because as a writer one understands that there should
be such latitude, but the desolation, the acerbity of its meaning, the lack of options
for the outsider, the other. I believe that this question has subconsciously deeply
influenced my writing. This is not peculiar or particularly unique, as many writers,
from Du Bois to Camus, Sartre and Baldwin to Morrison, have also struggled with this
conundrum of the outsider, the other, in other ways, in their respective locales.

My father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message, and so do I.
I am a prime beneficiary of the education that the missionaries made a major component
of their enterprise. But I have also learned a little more skepticism about them than
my father had any need for. Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before European
Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness,
other European Christians, also sailing in ships, delivered us to the transatlantic
slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?

Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by
history and by providence to perform. From where I stand now I can see the enormous
value of my great-uncle, Udoh Osinyi, and his example of fidelity. I also salute my
father, Isaiah Achebe, for the thirty-five years he served as a Christian evangelist
and for all the benefits his work, and the work of others like him, brought to our
people. My father’s great gift to me was his love of education and his recognition
that whether we look at one human family or we look at human society in general, growth
can come only incrementally.

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