A Made-Up Story That Explains Something That People Do Understand How Things Fall Apart Was Written, The Making of the African Novel

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

If we seek to understand history, few events will better illuminate the circumstances and moments that preceded and surrounded the emergence of the modern African novel. A seemingly innocuous event was a dinner at the campus home of Professor Molly Mahood, Head of the English Department of the then Brand New University College Ibadan in colonial Nigeria. The entire faculty was at the table.

Ibadan was the only university institution in the country; One of a handful in all of Africa. In 1947 Professor Kenneth Melanby, a liberal British academic, became its first Vice-Chancellor. The college was affiliated to the University of London, thus it was able to offer University of London degrees. Mellanby’s stated intention was to create, in Africa, an educational institution comparable to any in the world. Melanby brought together a remarkable crop of young and talented academics drawn largely but not exclusively from Britain. Molly Mahood was one of the young pioneers.

But let us return to the dinner party at Molly Mahud’s house where the entire faculty gathered. Africa was fun and Africa was for many white people, still a place on the edge, still part of the great unknown. Stories were a way to mediate the unknown. That night, around the dinner table, guest and host exchange stories, stories about Africa.

It was 1948. Joyce Carey has just published her novel about Nigeria. He named it Mr. Johnson after the Nigerian hero. Not an unusual story for its time, Mr. Johnson was a work that mercilessly mocked the Nigerian character. It got great reviews. Time magazine called it the best African novel published in the last fifty years; Most of the guests at the dinner party shared a feeling. The conversation of the evening revolved around the new novel. The guests could not imagine why their African students could act like a story so beautifully and beautifully told. Here were the seeds of conflict that would lead to something new.

The dinner hall is full of speeches and entertainment. Guests discuss their role as teachers in Heart of Darkness. They are the first university people in Africa. Being white in Africa was still supposed to be special. Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim, although set in Southeast Asia, may be set along the water front 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 hums to its own authentic rhythm. It was a world in which the writers of the African novel participated fully. James Baldwin’s Harlem was the largest black group there at the time, with the exception of Ibadan. It was chaotic, dirty and lively. By the middle of the 20th century, Ibadan was exploding like few other places on the continent as African. At that late hour of the night Molly Mahud’s guests could distinctly hear, in all its melodic power, the beat of the Yoruba drum from beyond the door. The fact is that in Ibadan, guests, as faculty, were surrounded by the aroma and feel of Africa, in a way they could not have been anywhere else on the continent. This proximity lent them a certain tendency. This makes them accessible to students.

It was against this background that modern African literature emerged at the University College Ibadan. Poems, short stories, plays, printed in the pages of absurdly crafted student newspapers, men and women at dinners are supported and encouraged by generous and well-dressed faculty. Robert Wren in his book, The Magical Years, captures the period 1948-1966 at The University College of Ibadan.

The year was 1958. The new literature grew and matured in the rich cultural and intellectual environment of Ibadan. Now from nearby Lagos where many university college graduates moved to work and live, the new literature was seemingly fully formed. It was the novel Things Fall Apart. It is in fact Africa’s limitless, English words, African idioms skillfully woven by a master craftsman to create African stories.

Modern African literature in time to come would grow and flourish around this one work. The novel would become a classic of world literature. Chinua Achebe was its young author at the age of 26. He is not alone but part of a group of young people who have graduated or are still students at the University College Ibadan. They included playwright Ole Soyinka, who would win the first African Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

American academic and critic Robert Wren posed the question. How did modern African literature begin in Ibadan and elsewhere in Africa? University colleges of equal merit existed elsewhere. Why Ibadan?

The answer is this. The social, cultural and political awakening of West Africa has made a difference. While in East Africa, Kenya’s war of independence and a political crisis in Uganda involving the exile of a powerful local king kept things on hold. The cultural and political environment in Nigeria was vibrant. Ibadan was the place where all the forces necessary for the creation of new literature were being forcibly assembled. Ibadan was at the root of a nationwide movement that sought to define the African experience and preserve the African essence in the modern world. From this came the classic, Things Fall Apart.

It helped that the faculty in Ibadan was what it was, gifted men and women who were at the same time creatures of their time. The literature they taught, in their understanding of their dealings with the students they taught, was defined by the empire of these men and women. The tipping point was their endorsement of stereotypes of pure Africa and Africans by Joyce Carey in Mr. Johnson.

This was the catalyst for the emancipation of colonial students. In the past, students hesitated and shied away from things African, now rejecting colonial stereotyping, they embrace their African heritage. In the process they created a new mode of African expression and self-representation. Things Fall Apart is a lasting symbol of what they achieved.

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