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Politics and Prose: A tribute to Chinua Achebe

Since the death of Chinua Achebe on 21st March, much has been written about the
tremendous impact his work had on the world of contemporary African literature.

Many writers on the continent and in the diaspora, myself included, felt
as though we had lost a mentor and literary godfather. But writers were not the
only ones who held him in high esteem. In the same way that Mr. Achebe’s books
helped foster the talent of countless writers in Africa’s post-colonial era,
they also inspired a number of Africa’s current political leaders.

Achebe had such influence on the African political landscape that three
years ago he started convening an annual colloquium at Brown University, where
he was a professor that brought together leaders, scholars and artists to
discuss “strengthening democracy and peace on the African continent.”

When I was introduced to Mr. Achebe’s writing in the 1970s, during
secondary school, there seemed to be no discernable separation in Africa between
politics and the arts. We attended demonstrations almost as frequently as we
attended discos. The music that we listened to, from Fela Kuti to James Brown,
was filled with racial pride and political protest.

It was, however, the
literature of Achebe, namely his classic novel Things Fall Apart that provided
me with a larger context for the various maladies that were taking place on the
continent. Reading that book was like a rite of passage. The books that I’d been
reading previously were peopled with foreigners whose lives and concerns, though
fascinating, bore no resemblance to mine. I read about Okonkwo, and his story
resonated because it was rooted in a culture that felt

“Storytelling has to do with power,” said Achebe. “If you do
not like someone’s story, write your own.”

After Things Fall
, I read Mr. Achebe’s other novels; I read the works of other African
writers, such as Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ghana’s own: Ayi Kwei
Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Kofi Awoonor.

This literature empowered me,
and others to believe in our ability to create change. They urged us to see the
value of our cultural inheritance and the potential of our continent and its
people. It was this vision that challenged many of us to pave the paths upon
which we now find ourselves walking. In my case, activism was, and remains, a
natural bridge between politics and the arts.

During a recent discussion
about Achebe, a political contemporary asked me if I felt as though I had
somehow become part of the system that we so bitterly decried in our

“No,” I replied without hesitation. “I entered politics because I
wanted to be a part of changing that system.” One of the things I learned from
Achebe’s work is that “the system” is nothing more than a collection of people,
their values and their behaviours. We are all a part of a system; and all
systems are subject to change.

Change can be difficult, even for those
who claim to want it. Nostalgia is a powerful force. It can keep us locked in
the status quo.

Africa is constantly amending its story and adding new
chapters. We have experienced political, cultural, and digital revolutions.
Those who stay beholden to only the story of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic
warfare will never allow themselves to know the Africa that now also tells a
story of equality, democracy, and capital cities that are as crowded and
cosmopolitan as those of any other continent.

Likewise, those who still
talk of African leadership using only words like corrupt, dictator or despot
will miss the opportunity to take part in creating a new vocabulary—be it one of
praise or criticism—for the men and women who are now working with the citizens
of their countries to craft new styles and processes of leadership.

Missing out would truly be a shame because just as we must all play a
part in nation-building, we must also play a part in the writing of our stories.
This is the new Africa we are creating.

Africa is people” may seem
too simple and too obvious to some of us. But I have found in the course of my
travels through the world that the most simple things can still give us a lot of
trouble, even the brightest among us: this is particularly so in matters
concerning Africa
.”—Chinua Achebe

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