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How Things Fall Apart Was Written, The Making of the African Novel

How Things Fall Apart Was Written, The Making of the African Novel

If we seek to understand history, few events would illumine better the circumstances and the moments preceding and surrounding the rise of the modern African novel. One seemingly innocuous event was a dinner party at the campus home of Professor Molly Mahood, head of the department of English at the then brand new University College Ibadan in colonial Nigeria. At table was the entire faculty.

Ibadan was the lone university institution in the country; one of a handful in all Africa. In 1947 Professor Kenneth Mellanby, a liberal British academic, had become its first Vice Chancellor. The college was affiliated to the University of London, thus enabling it to award degrees of the University of London. Mellanby’s declared intention was to create in Africa, a higher institution of learning comparable to any in the world. Mellanby put together a remarkable crop of young and talented academics gathered mainly but not exclusively from Britain. Molly Mahood was one of the young pioneers.

But let us return to the dinner party at Molly Mahood’s house where were gathered the entire faculty. Africa was fun and Africa was for many white people, still a place out there on the fringes, still part of the great unknown. Stories were a way of mediating the unknown. That night, around the dinner table, guests and host exchanged stories, stories about Africa.

It was 1948. Joyce Carry had just published his novel about Nigeria. He called it Mister Johnson after its Nigerian protagonist. Not an unusual story for its time, Mr Johnson was a work that lampooned and mercilessly mocked the Nigerian character. It received great reviews. Time Magazine called it the best African novel published in the last fifty years; a sentiment most of the guests at the dinner party shared. The evening’s conversation coalesced around the new novel. Guests could not imagine why their African students could get so worked up as they did at a story so gracefully and beautifully told. Here was the seed of the contradiction that would lead to something new.

The dinner hall buzzed with discourse and merriment. Guests discussed their role as teachers in the heart of darkness. They were the first university people in Africa. To be white in Africa was to still to be special. Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim, although located in South East Asia, may well have been set along the water fronts of Lagos. Lagos was the administrative capital of the colony. Ibadan was its intellectual center.

Beyond the gates of the colonial campus, a parallel world buzzed with its own authentic rhythm. It was a world in which the would-be writers of the African novel fully participated. Barring James Baldwin’s Harlem Ibadan was the largest black conglomerate there was at the time. It was chaotic, slummy, and vibrant. Ibadan was exploding as few other places on the continent were, with what it meant to be African in the middle of the twentieth century. In that late hour of the night Mollly Mahood’s guests could hear distinctly in all its melodic force, the beat of Yoruba talking drums, coming from beyond the gates. The fact is at Ibadan, the guests, as a matter of fact the faculty, were surrounded by the aroma and the feel of Africa, in a way they could not have been in any other place on the Continent. This proximity lent them a certain predisposition. It made them accessible to their students.

It was against this background that Modern African literature emerged at the University College Ibadan. Poetry, short stories, plays, printed on the pages of crudely produced student magazines, supported and encouraged by a generous and well disposed faculty, the men and women at the dinner party. Robert Wren captures the period in his book, Those Magical years, the University College of Ibadan during the period 1948-1966.

The year was 1958. The new literature had grown and matured within the rich cultural intellectual setting that was Ibadan. Now from nearby Lagos where many of the graduates of the University College had gone on to work and live, the new literature emerged seemingly fully formed. It was the novel Things Fall Apart. This was in reality Africa unbound, English words, African idioms skillfully woven by a master craftsman to create the African story.

In the period ahead modern African literature would rise and blossom around this one work. The novel would rise to become a classic of world literature. Chinua Achebe at 26 years of age was its young author. He was not alone but part of a group of young people who had graduated from, or were still students at the University College Ibadan. They included the dramatist Wole Soyinka who would win the first African Nobel Prize for literature in 1986.

The American academic and critic Robert Wren asked the question. How come modern African literature got its start at Ibadan and in no other place in Africa? University colleges of equal merit existed in other places. Why Ibadan?

The answer is this. The social, cultural and political awakening in West Africa made the difference. While in East Africa, the war of independence in Kenya, and a political crisis in Uganda involving the deportation of the powerful local Monarch, put a hold on things. In Nigeria the cultural and political environment was vibrant. Ibadan was the locale where all the forces needed to make the new literature were coming together forcefully. Ibadan was at the core of a countrywide movement that sought to define the African experience and to live the African essence in the modern world. Out of this came the classic, Things Fall Apart.

It helped that the faculty at Ibadan was what it was, men and women of talent who were at the same time creatures of their time. In their perception of the literature they taught, in their dealings with the students they taught, these men and women were defined by empire. Their endorsement of the stereotypes of Africa and Africans purveyed by Joyce Carry in Mister Jonson was the tipping point.

This was the catalyst the colonial students needed to set them free. In the past, the students hesitated and shied away from things African, now in rejecting colonial stereotyping, they embraced their African heritage. In the process they created a new mode of African expression and self-representation. Things Fall Apart is the enduring symbol of what they achieved.