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Learning from Achebe

April 01, 2013

THE great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe passed away some days ago after having changed the face of world literature by bringing African writing to global attention. Called the most widely read African writer of his time, he chronicled Nigeria’s transition from colonial outpost to post-colonial African nation.

His most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, was a declaration that Nigeria, which had long been defined only by the West, had its own history and culture; in his novels, his non-fiction books, his poetry and his essays, he chronicled the challenges and struggles as well as the beauty and dignity faced by Nigeria’s people and inspired generations of African and other post-colonial writers to take charge of writing the stories of their own people.

Described by his colleague at Brown University Dr Corey D.B. Walker as a great humanist, an artist with limitless vision and compassion, and a bearer of the messages of hope, courage, and inspiration, Achebe is being widely mourned by lovers of literature all over the world. But someone posted an intriguing comment on Facebook the day that he died: that Pakistan could learn so much from the work of Achebe. Not only this, but that so much of what Achebe wrote could be applied to the quandaries that Pakistan finds itself in today.

Chinua Achebe addressed the issue of Nigerian identity vis-à-vis colonialism. He challenged the conventional way of writing in English as if it were a language of masters; instead, he made English a tool for the expression of his own ideas and themes as voiced by the Nigerian characters in his books. The chair of judges for the Man International Booker Prize that Achebe won in its first year, 2007, said that he had “illuminated the path for other writers seeking new words and forms for new societies and realities”.

In his own words, Achebe said of using English: “The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.” It is this boldness that we Pakistanis can learn from when contemplating our own identity, an issue we still struggle with as part of a post-colonial legacy. The use of English and the significance of our other regional languages, still hotly debated in our intellectual circles, is one of many complex signposts of our own identity crisis.

Given that all Pakistanis juggle multiple identities and feel the competing tug of religion, ethnicity, social and familial ties, we have yet to come to terms with who we are and what we stand for as a nation and as individuals. But instead of allowing outside factors to manipulate our sense of personal integrity, we must learn to do as Achebe did, and define ourselves by and for ourselves.

Achebe was the chronicler of his nation, but far from heaping praise on his country, he was one of its most firm and vocal critics. He had much to say about Nigeria’s corruption; that while colonial legacy, corporate power and local business elites had all contributed to the immense corruption in Nigerian society, “we can no longer absolve ourselves of the responsibility for our present condition”.

Achebe felt that Nigerian leaders have found it too easy to profit from corruption, a situation that would end when checks and balances were put in place to make corruption “inconvenient”.

Harsh punishments, jail terms and penalties would bring about an end to corruption. In Pakistan, the same simple yet complex formula would do much to bring honesty back into the system, if we only have the courage and willingness to implement it.

But corruption wasn’t Achebe’s only concern: he wrote and spoke about Nigeria’s political instability, a scenario we in Pakistan are only too familiar with. He discussed war, coups, dictatorship and oppressive regimes both civilian and military in his wide body of work, advocating all the time for democracy, openness, and justice.

According to the Guardian, Achebe believed in “a staged approach to building democratic institutions, holding free elections so as to put good candidates in office, and developing a ‘justice system that can thrive and a flourishing free press that will exert checks and balances and put anti-corruption laws on a firm footing’.”

I would have given anything to know what Achebe thought of our own efforts to move in the same direction in Pakistan, and whether he thought we would achieve our goals. Certainly he would have approved of Pakistan’s upcoming elections and seen it as a symbol of hope for our country.

Achebe knew what he wanted his leaders to look like. He spoke of the “servant leader”: “an individual that is well prepared — educationally, morally and otherwise — who wants to serve (in the deepest definition of the word); someone who sees the ascendancy to leadership as an anointment by the people and holds the work to be highly important, if not sacred.”

His vision for Nigeria was people freely electing the right kinds of leaders who would end the illnesses of government and society and protect human and civil rights. And while he knew the limitations of his country and its people, he never stopped hoping that his vision might come true one day.

Hope is the last message that Achebe might have given us in Pakistan: to never lose sight of it, to always keep striving for it, to maintain the vision of honest leadership that can make things better in Nigeria and in Pakistan and all the countries of the world where things have fallen apart, to varying degrees.