Umuahia, making of Nigeria’s literary elite
Book: Achebe And Friends At Umuahia, The Making Of A Literary Elite
Author: Terri Ochiagha
Reviewer: Olatoun Williams
For her towering achievement, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite, Terri Ochiagha won the ASAUK Fage and Oliver Prize in 2016. Published by James Currey, it is an edition of the African Articulations series and I can think of no better book to introduce the third, fourth and fifth generation of African writers, than this great work.
Achebe and Friends will remain — I am sure — the definitive biography of five distinguished first generation writers whose secondary school education took place in the 1940s at Government College Umuahia, Southeast Nigeria.
The school motto: In Unum Luceant. Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, Elechi Amadi, Chike Momah and the irrepressible Christopher Okigbo, are our school boys, the ‘shining ones’ — who grew up to become literary giants, straddling their own peculiar universe at a magical time in Nigerian history and it is on their shoulders that our 21st century literary icons stand.
Without a doubt, this is a scholarly monograph, but Ochiagha establishes intimacy with the reader and her subject quickly. It is her voice we hear as she narrates in the first person, walking us through what is not only an historian’s journey but a personal one to chart the individual and collective pilgrimage of five Nigerian boys through and beyond their colonial British education. I say personal because Ochiagha, of mixed race parentage, is frank about her indebtedness to four of these writers for the “nurturance and solace” their literature provided her “at pivotal moments” in her own “travails at the crossroads of cultures.”
The greater part of Achebe and Friends is devoted to their school days at GCU where in academic and sporting prowess the boys were unmatched. The book progresses into the boys’ years at University College Ibadan where their conquests continue unabated, and advances into an adulthood defined by national and global success.
This literary opus is a beautifully lit retrospective, gently disquieting — a stained glass window pieced together meticulously and lovingly from information sourced in literary and historical archives; from photos, school annuals and periodicals; from mementoes sent to her by the authors, and from interviews with them.
From conversations with their children, conversations with the children of school principals long deceased and with teachers.
Ochiagha spoke with many of their school friends and publishers also played a role in sharing memories and memorabilia. And later still there were discussions with and photographs sent by historian, Ed Emeka Keazor.
Her research is breathtaking in scope and detailed. It is 216 pages of erudition burning with a spirit of quest, which ennobles the text and a spirit of romance that uplifts the reader and which elicited in me, at moments, frissons of wonder and nostalgia. To classify Ochiagha’s opus as an academic work would be to miss a far greater point: Achebe and Friends is a great love story.
Terri Ochiagha has written out of admiration and gratitude for the legacies of five men of letters who respected and loved one another and who as courageous school boys experienced an evolving commitment to liberate themselves from the tyranny of colonial indoctrination not with weapons of hate but with their pens and their brains. That they were able to do this must be attributed in no small measure to the abundant resources of Government College, Umuahia, where a succession of principals expressed a deep love and a clear vision for the school, and a sincere conviction about the boys’ intellectual capacities. Where, using the arsenal of a remarkably well-stocked library and a Text Book Act, educators waged war against excessive ‘book work’ and promoted wide and recreational reading. They moulded the boys’ minds with a no-nonsense approach to the use of English and with curricula distinguished as much by high quality as by imperial bias. Just two of the teachers who adopted imaginative pedagogical approaches were Charles Low, ‘Mad Low’, renowned for his ‘triumvirate’ of disciplines: cricket, classics and literary creativity; and Nigerian, Saburi Biobaku, the Oxford graduate who liked to flick an imaginary lock of hair and yet dreamt of the restoration of indigenous cultures to their rightful place. We get to spend time with an extraordinary array of educators to whose passion the years between 1940 and 1950 owe their fame as the ‘magical years’ during which GCU evolved into a ‘literary oasis’ —-hotbed of writing and editorial talent.
Cultural attitudes at the school also attract Ochiagha’s piercing gaze as she crafts her retrospective of the boys’ pilgrimage. She is particularly interested in the cultural attitudes of school principals which range from founder, Reverend Robert Fisher’s paternalistic permission of ‘cultural alloyage’ to William Simpson’s vision of the school as ‘The Eton of the East’ with ‘Englishness at its core’; to the frank dismissal by W.N Tolfree and Adrian Slater of all that was indigenous in the colony. Ochiagha shows us how these attitudes served as powerful catalysts, producing in the schoolboys a counterforce of ethnic pride and increasing national consciousness, which they expressed in subtle acts of subversion of imperial authority.
The most ‘aesthetic’ and symbolic act of subversion being the one performed by Chike Momah’s fictional student, Obidike, a ‘thinly veiled’ Christopher Okigbo in his book, The Shining Ones: Obidike’s brilliant performance on the cricket pitch combined with his dismissal of the conventional rules of the game produce “gasps of wonder and disbelief” in the spectators watching him reinvent it — as though the very English game of cricket did not belong to the English; as though he, Obidike, had seized it, colonised it; and made it his own.
Government College, Umuahia, was located in the backwaters of South East Nigeria, “far from the madding crowds” of cities like Lagos where journalist-turned politician Nnamdi Azikiwe bellowed nationalist propaganda through the foghorn of the West African Pilot. It wasn’t the legend of Azikiwe — it had reached them, however — but imperialist forces dominating the ‘bush’ enclave of GCU that made the schoolboys angry enough to begin – in their minds – the deconstruction of the “colonial hegemonic discourse” with its “epistemic violence.” This work to ‘deconstruct’ would come in later years to define their individual and collective literary production. The pen is mightier than the sword.
Our protagonists would grow to see themselves as prodigals returning home – not with the intention of glorifying pre-colonial history but to introduce a new discourse with which to heal themselves of the ‘psychic wounds’ inflicted by imperial education. What they sought to do through their writing was to move beyond the “psycho-cultural anguish” they experienced in the ‘liminal place’ they were forced to inhabit. This perilous place, in which warring cultures met, was the wilderness the young men were committed to forge through. And through their literature, they would forge an honest and realistic path of thought that would lead them and their brethren into the hope of a modern Africa. An Africa that would pay homage to what was their own by heritage; an Africa, which would evolve to meet the demands of the times.
To communicate this vision, our novelists would learn to function as teachers. Okigbo and Amadi, despite themselves, would come to embrace the didactic mission of their friends, Achebe and Ike. Without exception, the men were honest, recognizing that their discourses were best served using resources and mental tools acquired from varied sources including their home cultures and their very English formal education.
The urgency of Ochiagha’s desire to see the world break out of its prison of binaries: Africa/Europe, black/white, coloniser/colonised, this culture / that culture – reverberates throughout her history of 5 beautiful souls growing up and breaking out of those very binaries in a cry for freedom in an expanding 3rd space – full of light and permission to be what they had become, and were becoming: enriched human beings, great Nigerians and citizens of the world.
They were products of a school, which in the first half of the 20th century, ranked in Nigeria as Primus Inter Pares — First among equals. Okigbo, poet turned solider, died with characteristic drama, at the war front of Biafra. He was in his 30s. He was so young. Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi lived into ripe old age, but have since passed to Glory. Only recently, January 9, 2020, Chukwuemeka Ike transitioned to Glory. Of the five ‘shining ones’, patriarchs of African letters, only Chike Momah is still with us.
For the important task of documenting sovereign Africa’s struggle to liberate herself from whatever shackles remain and from whatever fetters she acquires as she modernizes and globalizes, the baton has passed to the new voices crying in the 21st century wilderness of Africa’s hopes, Africa’s doubts and her uncertainty.
Over the past three years, it has been a joy through a great deal of reading, through attendance at literary festivals and book fairs, to track the evolution of literary culture started by Achebe and his friends during their Umuahia school days. A joy, as the years pass, to identify the heirs of the patriarchs of African letters.
Democracy in Nigeria has brought with it an army of gifted writers whose numbers grow exponentially by the day. In their writing, by their willingness to engage a diversity of genres, they have departed from the patriarchs locked down in prescriptive prose forms; the patriarchs who chose the stability of tried and tested forms of expression as they struggled to free their minds from colonial oppression.
The power of Nigeria’s new voices is being harnessed by a new generation of informed, tech-savvy publishers who know how to ensure visibility for their authors not only on the world stage but importantly here at home. A departure from the days of Achebe and his friends who were made famous by Heinemann’s African Writers Series, or Longman’s; a fame overseas which managed to make them invisible at here at home.
To the dazzled eyes of their own people, these celebrities on the world stage looked as untouchable as ghosts. Their writerly English voices meant they were unheard by vast swathes of their own people, not understood.
Today if literary festivals and book fairs are conflated in their respective functions, their rise is rooted in a growing clarity: we need to reclaim African literature for ourselves; to gather the sons and daughters of the soil around our books and identify stewards amongst us, those of us willing to manage and curate literary production.
Things are coming together massively in Africa’s literary scene. The world’s increasing interest in Africa as both an emerging market and a rising power will propel the continent’s book industry forward. It is not unrealistic to forecast a publishing surge on the back of foreign rights and cross-border trading, all kinds of cross-border collaborations– an exponential increase of these- and our own calculated risk-taking and our digital dreams.
But isn’t it interesting that with all this talk about a digital insurgency, we are still grappling with the issues that consumed our forebears born in the early decades of the 20th century? We are still struggling with the question of freedom. How to overthrow western hegemony – that thing around Africa’s neck? How do we decolonise our minds? What does a decolonised mind look like? How does the decolonised author write?
With a setting not in colonial Africa, but in the 21st century Diaspora, Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, 40-year-old Nigerian author, whom Achebe praised for emerging fully formed, is surely the campaign of negritude revived?
The great, ongoing project by Jalada, the pan-African writers collective, to translate Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story, The Upright Revolution into the maximum number of African and world languages and Adichie’s Americanah, are just two witnesses broadcasting the fact that the succeeding generations of African writers at home and in the Diaspora, continue to grapple with (the legacies of) colonialism, that brutal rupture with Africa’s traditional past and sudden reconfiguration of things which incited Achebe in 1958 to begin to record his generation’s unease in the passages of his famous trilogy.