Ochiagha, Terri, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite, England: Boydell and Brewer (James Currey), 2015. ISBN: 9781847011091 (cloth). 202pp.
Known by several names in its nearly a century as a centre of building character and developing intellect, including Primus Inter Pares
among all Government Colleges in Nigeria and ‘The Eton of the East’, Government College Umuahia (GCU) has been one of the more important secondary schools in Nigeria. Founded as a teacher training institution in 1929 on a ‘desecrated’ land, with twenty three eager male students, the status was changed a year later to that of a boarding secondary school with the remit to produce competent men to work in the general administrative and teaching sectors of the colonial government. Government College Umuahia later became THE SCHOOL
which has not only produced many important figures in the history of Nigeria, but has been the womb of creation of major Nigerian literature. Indeed, as Terri Ochiagha establishes in her new book, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: the Making of a Literary Elite
, Government College Umuahia has been influential in the literary and political development of Nigeria. A labour of love, Ochiagha conceived and wrote this book to, as she puts it, ‘unravel the literary mysteries of my youth’, an unravelling that has become an important contribution to the scholarship in African literature.
Achebe and Friends at Umuahia
is a major study, the first to examine the importance of GCU in the nurturing and development of some of the major writers in Nigeria. The writers particularly mentioned in the book include Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike (Toads for Supper
and Expo ’77
, the first Nigerian detective novel), Chike Momah (Friends and Dreams
), Christopher Okigbo (Heavensgate
) and Elechi Amadi (The Concubine
). Ochiagha also looks briefly at the effect of the GCU tradition on Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigeria government in 1995, and I.N.C. Aniebo, both writers who infused local speech patterns and sensibilities into their works.
Divided into eight chapters, this monograph provides an insight into the culture and tradition that formed these young men in the early 1940s and turned them into lifelong friends and collaborators with unified aims of making enduring changes in the postcolony. Perhaps the most exciting format of the book lies in the structure, which, rather than being chronological as you would expect of a historiography, or thematically subdivided, is set out in a circular structure with interweaving subjects and striking pointers that cross reference one another. The book begins with an introduction to the ‘Umuahian writers’ before giving and overview of the first few years of GCU as a teacher training and secondary school that provided education ‘along the African’s own lives’, a philosophy that the founding principal Robert Fisher, strictly adhered until the period of Second World War when the school became a billeting space for the colonial army as well as a concentration camp of some sort to German prisoners of war from the Cameroons.
Chapter one discusses the ideological tensions underlying the school’s adaptation of the English public school model and the vocational principles of Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire, England. Ochiagha stresses in this chapter the influence of religion and culture in the experiment that the founding principal, Robert Fisher, ‘conducted’ in the formative years. The second chapter traces the transformation of this ‘cultural’ school into a bona-fide English public school under the principalship of William Simpson, and the ideological and educational consequences of this revolution. This second chapter is perhaps the most important, as it establishes the ethos of the school as it sets the standard for educational and sporting credentials that later underpins the fame of the school. Simpson ‘tried to establish the very best in the English public school tradition’ (p.49), with a regimented schedule of activities supported by ‘reward and sanctions’ for accomplishments in the area of intellectual and character development. The competence of the teaching staff, made up of Nigerians and British Commonwealth citizens from as far afield as Australia also contributed to growth of this tradition, especially in cricket and other sports. Chapter three is devoted to the introduction of these teachers and their efforts in getting the students to achieve the best results in the Cambridge School Leaving Examinations.
Chapter four expands the study to embrace the nationalist fervour that emerged after the Second World War and the relevance of the campaigns by activists and politicians such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of the independent Nigeria, in shaping and informing the political awareness of the students. Ochiagha here mentions that this influence did not go unchallenged or unremarked in the school, as the authorities tried to ‘rein in and re-direct the impact of anti-colonial ideas’ (p. 15). After all, GCU was still a government funded school with a curriculum designed by government officials to produce middle class workers for the colony. Chapter five examines students’ writings that responded to the ‘censuring’ by the school authorities and ‘new knowledge’ by the nationalists, with a reproduction of two significant pieces of writing – Chukwuemeka Ike’s short story, ‘In Dreamland’, and Elechi Amadi’s poem, ‘A Social Day with the C.C.C.’ This chapter also highlights the training these writers had by functioning in the position of authority in the universe of the school; for instance Achebe was the Editor of the Niger House journal, The Excelsior
in 1947, a position he also held on the University Herald
at the University College, Ibadan in 1951-52; Chukwuemeka Ike and Christopher Okigbo were editors of The Athena
, the journal of the School House in 1949-50.
Ochiagha expanded the focus of the monograph in chapter six by using the template of interculturalism, especially Homi Bhabha’s idea of colonial mimicry and the third, liminal space, to review some of the writers’ constructs that interrogated the complexities of identity creation and probe the struggles present at the crossroads of cultural interaction. Here, the author controversially tries to link the education at Umuahia with the idea of colonial indoctrination, exposing dim connections between the perceived intentions of the writings of Ike, Okigbo and Momah, among others. Whilst not totally successful, the attempt raises valid questions about the nature of colonial education and lasting effect on the intellectual development and productivity of the men. The final chapter – chapter eight – further elucidates the ‘convergences and divergences’ in the poetic and literary practice of the five major writers whose works are referenced in this boom – Achebe, Amadi, Ike, Okigbo and Momah. Okigbo is especially mentioned as trying to reimagine the ‘primus inter pares’
years of GCU in the use of sporting (cricket) imagery in his poems. It concludes by singling out – and this is quite remarkable for its intertextuality – a distinctive ‘Umuahian’ ethos in their work and proffering a reason for the affinity and thematic closeness in the works, stating that this is derivative of the nature of the education provided by GCU in the 1940s and 1950s. Achebe and Friends at Umuahia
ends with the funeral of Chinua Achebe in 2013 and the moving performance of the school anthem by a group of old students and friends of Achebe. It links the literary lives of the five major writers and pointing at the unstoppable final ‘departure’ of these men whose incursion into the literary live of Nigeria remains enduring.
The seventh chapter, which examines the writing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and I.N.C. Aniebo, serves as the ‘control’, a placebo attempt to check for changes in the Umuahian experiment of the 1940s. However, it reads like an ‘orphan’ chapter that does not fully blends in with the rest of the book; it should have been excised as a separate study and the monograph would not be poorer for that reason.
There are a few repetitions in the book, such as Achebe’s ‘they weren’t teaching us African literature. If we had relied on them to teach us how to become Africans we would never have got started…’ but these could be attributed to the ‘circular structure’ of the book. However, proofreading of the final manuscript was not as stringent as you would expect of such an important, ground breaking book (see the last line of page 48, for example, where ‘education’ is written as ‘rducation’). Nevertheless, this book is a new perspective on British colonial education in Nigeria and the development of Nigeria’s modern literature, especially in the way the writers’ visions were shaped to re-inscribe African literature. There are, in addition to the plethora of information in the book, an appendix of bibliographical materials of the five major writers, including a list of supplementary online material and sources.
Sola Adeyemi, University of Greenwich
Emmanuel Iduma & Shaun Randol (Eds.), Gambit. Newer African Writing, New York: The Mantle, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-938-02288-3, 280pp.
A Gambit is a first move in a game, mostly chess. And, this anthology of lovely stories is published as a first move, a trigger for writers and editors to publish more of its kind. A trigger also to show the literary world how beautiful Africa’s literature at its best could look like. In the introduction to their anthology, the editors Emmanuel Iduma and Shaun Randol put it like this:
Gambit aims to open up the conversation about what is (or is not) African writing, who or what African writers are and represent, and how this conversation can broaden the reader’s understanding of places and people so foreign to their own experiences. Further Gambit seeks to challenge the publishing industry’s assumptions of quality African and world literature and to encourage similar publishing efforts elsewhere. (p. xii)
Gambit. Newer African Writing
consists of nine short stories from young emerging African writers. This means ‘emerging’ from a Western literary point of view, because some of them do already have a certain reputation in their home country. And it’s exactly one of the aims of the editors of this anthology to bring these voices to the limelight.
Each short story is preceded by an interview with the writer. Usually this works out quite well: the interview helps in interpreting the story and vice versa. But, not so in this anthology. The short story that follows is never a topic of discussion in the preceding interview. As a reader, you are curious how the story fits within the author’s oeuvre, or in the literary canon of the author’s home country or region, or whatsoever. However, the interviews don’t give you any clues on this.
Yet, all the interviews are of great depth in understanding these writers and are very much worth a read. They touch upon the writers’ literary perspectives, their literary examples and preferences; upon the influence of the writer’s milieu on his or her work, upon the writer’s choice for fiction or poetry, upon the choice between writing novels or short stories, upon the use of the English language, upon the importance of (Western) recognition for an emerging African writer, etc. etc.
Focus on Nigeria
Every interview is followed by a short story. The nine wonderful stories in this book are written by: Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya), Ayobami Adebayo (Nigeria), Dami Najayi (Nigeria), Richard Ali (Nigeria), Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), Dango Mkandawire (Malawi), Donald Mlosi (Botswana), Navuyo Rosa Tshuma (Zimbambwe) and Susan Ushie (Nigeria). The book ends with brief notes about each of these authors. So, most writers, and also the interviewer Emmanuel Iduma , originate from Nigeria. Hence, as a reader, you learn a lot about the position of literature in that country, which was until late in the 1980s the purveyor of literature in Africa. You also learn, for instance, that after the generation Soyinka, Achebe and Clark, very little important poetry has been published from Nigeria. In contrast, the short story seems to flourish, in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. The Nigerian author Richard Ali makes the following, important remark on the state of African literature:
I foresee the rise of ideologies of Nigerian and Africa writing from this generation; we will leave ideas and factions and schisms - the whole works. And we will leave a mark. We are already making an impact, because for us the purpose of tradition is to aid us to be at the start of a new tradition. There are no foreign influences to overwhelm, for we have seen the harm of unoriginality and, I am hopeful, we largely value our creative authenticity. (p. 103)
African and Western Recognition
Hence, Richard Ali touches here upon the central thought of this book: a new generation of African writers has come to the fore, who write from Africa, on Africa, from a local point of view, and for whom it’s not a primary concern to be acknowledged by the Western literary world.
In the interviews, most writers say they write in first instance from their belly, out of an urgency because the stories have been roaming in their head already for a long time. Or, they say that they just want to write beautiful stories. They acknowledge that recognition is important for a writer, but that in the process of writing, you don’t have to bother yourself with it. And, for them, the recognition afterwards might as well come from a local setting.
It’s exactly the intention of the editors of this book to give a voice to these emerging African writers and to give them the broader recognition they deserve, from a non-Western perspective, regardless of recognition from the Western literary quarters. And, they succeed keenly in this: the stories are clearly written, easily accessible, and have a firm plot structure and characterization.
Another characteristic of great literature is that universal themes like solitude, love, desire, loss, estrangement, racism, etc. are worked out in a subtle way. This is definitely the case regarding the stories in this book. For instance, what are we to make of the captivating story Talk to me
by Dami Ajayi (Nigeria), in which a young couple is totally bored. They have completely lost interest in each other. Talk to me
is an alarm cry from the man to his woman, who most of the time only talks to her Blackberry screen.
Also the young couple in Back to love
by Donald Molosi (Botswana) is totally bored. She’s American, he’s originally from Botswana. They dine in a restaurant where the Vermeer painting in the entrance hall is as fake as the conversation among Americans in general, and between the two ‘lovers’ in particular. Thus, the setting of the restaurant is emblematic for American, and by extension, Western society: impressive on the outside, but artificial from within. At least, seen from the perspective of non-Westerners like Thera, the Motswana man. The conversations are superficial and lack empathy. The treatment of non-Western people is, in the best case friendly, in the worst case racist, but most of the time something in between.
Scratches on the soul
Particularly these two stories, but also others in this anthology, impose a great deal of uneasiness on the reader; they leave scratches on the soul, because they are so recognizable. Out of the stories looms an atmosphere of estrangement, disorientation, either within an (other) culture, or within a relationship. They fully do revive the ‘condition humaine
’. But, as the Nigerian author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim explains, perhaps this must be the objective of every writer:
Essentially, I think the purpose of the writer is to cast light on the dark side of things – of feelings and thoughts and actions that define the way we live and the way we perceive things. I think the writer is the chronicler of the human experience against the backdrop of change, which in itself is constant.
Gambit. Newer African Writing
confirms and demonstrates that Africa is full of young, creative writers, who are a real match for the established storytellers of the literary world, if ever we doubted this! And, one of the main intentions of the book was to give a podium to young, emerging African writers. By publishing these short stories for a wider audience, The Mantle Publishing
, also an interesting online platform for world literature, has kicked off with a solid gambit. Mission accomplished, I would
Gilbert Braspenning, Editor Africa Book Link