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The Horse, the Spider and the Snake: A Picture of Africa

"The new literature is Africa pays tribute to humanity on our continent. Our world crosses more and more with the worlds of others. We don't have the same past but we will have the same future. The age of isolated fates is past once and for all. If we accept this, we could learn better to appreciate the nature and existence of the other and bring the due human respect to all people." The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe became world-famous with "Things Fall Apart".
The Horse, the Spider and the Snake

A Picture of Africa

By Chinua Acheba

[The peace prize of the German book trade was awarded in 2000 to the Nigerian Chinua Achebe. A writer was honored who lived through and narrated like no other the collision of cultures on his continent.]

[Chinua Achebe, born in 1930 in Nigerian Ogibi, worked in Nigerian radio after his study. He was Biafra's special envoy during the Biafra war. In 1958, Achebe was world- famous with his novel "Things Fall Apart". This excerpt is from "A Picture of Africa" (Ein Bild von Afrika: Rassismus in Conrads "Herr der Finsternis", C.Alexander Verlag, Berlin 2000).]

One of the earliest short stories that I wrote was "Chike and the River" with this ending. "The first sentences in his "new reader" were very simple and filled him with an indescribable joy: "Once upon a time there was a magician who lived in Africa. He went to China to buy a lamp." Chike read this at home again and again and wrote a little song about this, a song without meaning, "Evergreen Damascus". However the song was like a window through which he saw a magical new world in the distance. And he was happy."

Thus the little African boy enthusiastically opened his heart and mind to this exciting vast world unfolding around him. I was this boy.

I went to a good school organized according to the model of the British public schools. There I read many English books. Among the dozens of books, I read books like "Treasure Island", "Gulliver's Travels", "Oliver Twist", "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Tom Brown's Schooldays". There I met Ryder Haggard, John Buchan and their "African" books.

At the beginning, I didn't see myself as an African. I sided with the whites against the wild or savages. In other words, in my first school years, I thought I belonged to the whites with their hair-raising adventures and narrow escapes. The whites were good and rational, intelligent, brave and courageous. The savages opposing them were wicked and foolish or at least deceitful. I hated them to the bone.

A moment came when I was old enough to see that these writers had duped me! I was not on Marlow's boat that steamed toward the Congo in the "heart of darkness". I was one of those strange beings with hideous faces who jumped around on the river bank. When I insisted on being aboard the ship, I probably had to be satisfied with the role of that "improved specimen" as Conrad sarcastically the one who tries absurdly as a submissive dog to search behind the sorcery in the boiler of the ship

At that time I said No and understood that stories are not harmless. Stories can be used to engraft oneself in the wrong group, in the party of people who set out to rob you. Isn't this the situation with language? Doesn't the fact that I write in the language of my colonial master imply that I accept the definitive dispossession? This is a vast multi-layered matter that cannot be pursued here.

In my opinion, everyone unable to write in English should follow his predilection. However he may not exempt himself from any freedoms regarding our story. The English did not force us to learn their language. On the contrary, the British colonial policy in Africa and elsewhere emphasized their preference for the indigenous native languages. We can discover remnants of this policy today in South Africa's Bantustan policy. We chose the English because we silently accepted those new nationalities in which colonialism grouped us, not because the Brits desired this. We needed their language to settle our own affairs including overthrowing colonialism in the course of time.

This does not mean that our indigenous languages should be ignored. These languages coexist and influence foreign languages in the present and the foreseeable future. For me, English or Igbo is not the question but English and Igbo. When Christopher Okigbo, our most important poet, died on the battlefield twenty-two years ago, I wrote one of my best poems for him in the form of a traditional lament sung by a person of the same age. I wrote a completely different poem fifteen years ago in English to commemorate the death of the Angolan poet and president, Agostinho Neto. From my view, the ability to write both is a great advantage and not a catastrophe.

The emergence of modern African literature must be seen as the rebirth of the feast. One is tempted to say that this literature transfers people back to Africa. That would be wrong since people never left Africa except in the culpable imagination of Africa's adversaries.

One final point should be underlined. Feast does not mean praise or acknowledgment. Obviously praise can be a part of acknowledgment but only a part. Everyone familiar with contemporary African literature knows where we stand here. We are not the emperor's flatterers. A Swedish writer and journalist told a small group of Africans at a meeting of international writers: "You lads are lucky. Your governments lock you up in prison. Here in Sweden, no one pays any attention regardless of what we write." We had to effusively apologize for our undeserved happiness!

The constant struggle between ruler and poet is not a new phenomenon in Africa. The Griots, the poets of our ancestors, had their own way of resolving this problem, sometimes directly and sometimes secretly..

I'd like to conclude by telling you a fairy-tale of Haussa from Nigeria, a little masterwork and example that a story can be a two-edged sword.

Once upon a time, the snake rode on its horse curled up in the saddle as was its nature. When it passed by the spider that ran along the road, the spider said: "Excuse me, but you cannot be saved." "Can you show me how I can be saved?", the snake asked. "With joy", the spider replied.

The snake slid down the side of the horse from the saddle to the ground. The spider leaped up into the saddle, sat upright and galloped elegantly up and down the road. "In this way, one is saved". The spider said. "Very good", said the snake, "very good, please climb down."

The spider leaped down and the snake slid up again on the side of the horse into the saddle where they curled up as before. Then the snake looked down at the spider and said: "Knowledge is very good but possession is better. What good is chivalrous skill without a horse?"

In this simple fairy-tale, everyone can recognize the application of the story for preserving the status quo in a class society. The snake is an aristocrat who owns something like a horse because he is an aristocrat. The spider is a commoner whose chivalrous skill, doubtlessly gained in years of struggle and training, was useless in its hierarchical society. The Haussa who created this story are a monarchical people. The ethos of history is covered with the dominant values of their political system. The emir and his court must have laughed loudly at the end.

The Griot who invented this story was consciously or unconsciously hidden in the voluminous folds of laughter. The same story could serve a revolutionary goal by using what was always present. An unsightly, incompetent and self-satisfied aristocracy could be exposed to more than laughter.

The new literature in Africa pays tribute to humanity on our continent. Our world crosses more and more with the worlds of others. One of the figures of "L'Aventure ambique", says to a French person: "We don't have the same past but we will have the same future. The age of isolated fates is past once and for all." If we accept this, and I don't see an alternative, we could learn better to appreciate the nature and existence of the other and bring the due human respect to all people.

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