When Chinua Achebe went to Scandinavia in 1988

It is striking that that the topics his hosts discussed with Achebe in those days are still animating us.

Photo: Chinua Achebe on a bench in Umeå, Sweden, on 19 October 1988. Photographer: Roland Berggren, Västerbotten-Kuriren.

In October-November 1988, Chinua Achebe travelled through Scandinavia to launch the translations of his novel Anthills of the Savannah into Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, and to meet readers, writers and academics, most of them well-known with his works, some not at all. He treated each group with the same respect and with inquisitive curiosity. ‘Why do you think so?’ ‘Yes, interesting, I never thought about that.’ The talks and the conversations that they generated are now available for a larger audience.

Re-reading the booklet Travelling: Chinua Achebe in Scandinavia, Swedish Writers in Africa that I did almost a quarter of a century ago (1990), it strikes me not only that the topics we discussed in those days with Achebe are still here, but that they were then more unabashedly direct and bona-fide. And also with what remarkable intuitive presence he communicates his thoughts. Meeting him in this text is listening to him; a voice captive, humorous, interactive, intelligent. I thank my university library (Umeå) for consenting to digitalize this bygone text. You can download it here (pdf). It is Achebe revisiting Sweden, and all of us.

Excerpt from an interview I did with Achebe that is included in the book:

Is the kind of political idealism that you have been promoting for years still a viable choice?

“Ideals are not merely realizable. I think that is why they are ideals. But they are important because they stand there so we can set our sights on them. So even if we fall short, as we are bound to, we would have lifted ourselves to a considerable height in simply looking at the ideals as we move forward. So I think that is the purpose that we should have set our minds to those values which the ideals represent, i.e. the value of people appearing and speaking in their own name, the ideal of [having] small rather than large associations of people.

“This is what the Igbo people chose, the small village entity that was completely self-governing, independent, that had the responsibility for everything from living, to making war and peace, to everything, [upholding] the customs, the traditions. There were contacts with neighboring communities, but these were … on terms of equality. One village could declare war on another village, and fight it and decide to end it. The reason why they chose it [this system] was because they wanted to be in control of their lives. So if the community says that we will have a meeting in the market place tomorrow, everybody should go there, or could go there. And everybody could speak.

“They also have cautionary tales about what happens if you did not allow everybody to speak, or if some people out of their own weakness or irresponsibility failed to participate in the discussion. They have the story of, for instance, the fowl, the chicken that did not go to the meeting of the village. All the animals went, [but] this chicken said “I am very busy, I have something else to attend to.” So when the entire community were going one way, he was going in the opposite direction. But he also said: “Whatever you discuss there, I am with you!” He sent a message through some of his neighbors who were going to the meeting saying that “I cannot go, but please tell the meeting on my behalf that I am there with them in spirit, and whatever they decide I will abide by.”

“Then when they get to the meeting the matter on the agenda was what to do about the predicament that had befallen the animals. They were being used by man as sacrifice to his god, man’s god, and man was falling upon them indiscriminately and slaughtering them for sacrifice. And this is what the animals assembled to discuss. So they had this long deliberation, and finally some wise fellow suggested that they should offer one of their number as sacrificial animal to man. So that at least man could know who to go for, and not harass the entire animal population. That was a wonderful idea, and the animals accepted it. And then who would be offered to man for this purpose? They decided without any difficulty that it should be the fowl. So the animals decided that from then on, they would go to man and say that “Any time you want to make a sacrifice, use the fowl. Do not bother the rest of us.” And that was of course carried unanimously. So from that day on the fowl became the primary sacrificial animal.

“The purpose of that story is quite clear. If you do not take part in a discussion, things could go really badly for you. You do not say to people “Go, and whatever you decide I am with you.” You have to be there, you have to speak when it is necessary, you have to listen.

“There are statements which are prevalent in our language, like “A king is an enemy.” Igbos are supposed not to have kings. They are supposed to be republican. But they also know about kings, they have the word in their language [meaning] that if you have a king you are likely to have an empire. You are likely to want to go on to increase your territory to overcome the next village and incorporate.”

The second part of the book, a sketchy overview of Swedish travel writers with both imperial, self-reflexive and oppositional perspectives of Africa, serves as a narrative foil for the first part with Achebe negotiating and mediating his views to the listeners.


Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.