Reflection on Chinua Achebe’s, ‘There was a country’ : Shirumisha's Platform
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Shirumisha Kwayu
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Reflection on Chinua Achebe’s, ‘There was a country’

by Shirumisha Kwayu on 09/06/18

Earlier in April this year my sister Aikande suggested that I should read George Orwell’s books- in particular the Animal farm and 1984. She also suggested Chinua Achebe’s memoir - ‘There was a Country’. I did. These books among other things have informed and helped my understanding of the socio-political trends of what is happening in Tanzania and elsewhere around the world. Indeed, these books offer valuable insights and a perspective to view current events in a new light, which enables us to see core problems rather than the surface view of current trends. In this entry am going to reflect some of the insights that I learned from Chinua Achebe’s memoir – with an insight from Orwell’s books mentioned above.  

Achebe starts by explaining how his parents engaged with the early missionaries. The missionaries spread Christianity and provided formal education. Achebe critically evaluates the pros and cons of Christianity versus the traditional beliefs. This reminds me of the missionaries who came to our area (Machame). My great grandfather, Solomon Nkya, was one of the early converts and one of the first black pastors in Tanzania. Evidently, the work of missionaries had a positive influence on his family and in the community. Likewise, the work of mission produced writers such as Achebe and Wole Soyinka who went on to develop African literature. It is fair to mention that Achebe and Wole among others learnt European literature, which did not reflect their environment. The missionary and colonial education went on to produce African leaders who fought for independence. Important thing to note from the work of missionaries is the role of education in transforming a society. Education is a soft power of producing change to an individual, family and society in general.

Soon after independence, most African leaders strived to live the lifestyle of their colonial masters. Nevertheless, Achebe observed, that they did not have the same diligence of managing the new independent states specifically due to politics that allowed incompetent people to be in position of power. The mismanagement and oblivious lifestyle of new leaders engendered coups. In Nigeria, coups and tribal contentions within the new state led to progon, which some suggest it was a genocide. The tribal persecution of Igbo, led to secession consequently producing a civil war - Biafra. The war was  also fuelled by ego of leaders from both conflicting sides, who had a chance to avert and end the war. In such circumstance, the secessionists determined to rule themselves and fight for their survival. Conversely, the federal government did not want to lose its mandate and resources. Allowing secession would have triggered further disintegration, the government thought. This stance was supported by the majority members of OAU. Tanzania did not. It was the first country to recognize Biafra as a state.  Unfortunately, the desire to preserve the colonial boundaries and protecting power denied other new independent states to see justice and enjoy their rights of self-determination.

From Achebe’s memoir, we also learn about innovation. During the course of the civil war, the Biafrans had to develop means of refining oil. The British had told them it would have taken more than five hundred years to be able to refine oil. Other innovations were on weapons and telecommunication gadgets. One example is the notable Ogbunigwe, which was an effective bomb that struck terror among the enemies. Likewise, the Biafrans had to develop their own tanks from range rovers. There was research on medical side. Despite these innovations, war is destructive. It led to deaths of many soldiers and civilians in both sides of the conflict. It also gave rise to humanitarian crisis such as hunger and death of innocent children. Furthermore, war had psychological effects to many people consequently giving rise of mental health problems to many people who were affected by the pressure of war.

Considering the inhuman effects of war, Achebe documented and narrated the reaction of individual, governments, regional and international bodies on conflict. The Western powers, UN and OAU, which had the powers to avert the war, played a neutral role and sometimes supported the oppressor by selling Arms or failing to mediate. Particularly, the UK government under Harold Wilson failed a moral test in undermining the reality. Despite the role played by these governments, individuals from Western countries, media, faith groups and non-governmental institutions played a significant role in helping the starving children’s. Some employees even resisted to board arms, which were sent to the conflict. This to me shows how individual values are important in human crisis that sometimes may seem distant to us. Also in the book, Achebe showed the role played by Nyerere then Tanzanian president in recognizing the Biafrans and their right to self-determination. This reminded me of the basic principles of our country and the noble foreign policy we had. I personally, feel ashamed when we are drifting away from such novel humane diplomacy to economic diplomacy increasing with disregard to our values.

Lastly, Achebe suggested that children should be taught their history regardless of how dark it is to prevent recurrence of such atrocities. Furthermore, Achebe noted that democracy should be institutionalised and practices beginning with free and fair elections. Having proper checks and balances as well as free and fair elections will curve out the current tendencies of violence and rough plays, which prevent decent people from participating in democratic processes. Tolerating violence and rough play is a nursery, which nurture incompetent and corrupt leaders. The emphasis should not be on the education level of the leaders but more the moral, ethics and values. This can be done when proper democratic institutions are in place. Today African countries are facing authoritarian leaders who are produced from poor democratic institutions. These types of leaders have no regard to democratic process, rule of law, and human rights. As a result, they produce tribal and political polarising nationalists sentiments. Our generation has to fight for this course in our own countries and at regional level. Furthermore, we are challenged with global trends such as growing income inequality and infowars that jeopardise our trust in democratic processes. 

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