The Education of a British-Protected Child: A Review

I had almost forgotten how unique a writer Chinua Achebe is. This work is like a body of water that appears listlessly quiet on the surface but is quite deep, swift flowing and full of fish as you would immediately realize if you went ahead and stepped into it. This might be among the least popular works of the author but it dragged emotions out of me that the other works of his have never done. It was not a comfortable book for me to read.

A key overall takeaway from the book, one that is addressed, or touched on briefly, in several of the essays (Spelling Our Proper Name, Africa’s Tarnished Image, Martin Luther King and Africa, Africa is People, My Daughters, etc.) is “the image burden that Africa bears today” and “how that image has molded contemporary attitudes, including perhaps our own, to that continent.” It is part of the author’s goal to identify, to put it in the way he would, where the rain that is currently beating Africa started.

This book was published in 2009. To think that, around then, I was still getting well entertained by The Gods Must Be Crazy a movie that is filled with the kind of narrative that Achebe was fighting against in this book, and which movie he indeed alluded to in one of the essays. I have to mention how the brunt of his tirade against incorrect narratives about Africa was directed at the works of Joseph Conrad. He did it so well it is amusing to think how hard @realCaptainJConrad would be dragged and cancelled had this book been published in an age of social media like we have today. But I think it would be hard to project the full depth of feeling in this work onto social media.

The book contains essays that explore other topics: Racism (Traveling White), Biafra (Stanley Diamond), issues in African Literature (Politics and Polititians of Language in African Literature, African Literature as Restoration of Celebration), and personal topics (My Daughters, What is Nigeria to Me?) among others.

There are plenty of quotations, references to other relevant works, and of course, proverbs. The author frequently used stories to make his points. And stories he had in abundance. I particularly liked how he carefully told the stories referencing their contexts in time and in geography to drive home his points. This is kind of what scientists do with facts and empirical data, but what Achebe had was stories (many of them true and provable), and he had them in abundance. I might even go ahead to say that stories in the way he use them are more effective: first, it puts things in perspective (in a not very usual perspective outside of Africa, and hence a much needed perspective) in ways plain reporting cannot; and second, like the book also makes clear, many of the official records were prejudiced against the African to promote the slave trade.

In all, you find that the author takes pain to maintain balance while navigating various topics. In fact, he outrightly champions the middle ground quite early in the first and title essay of the book. That first essay, if you start with it as I did, could come across as underwhelming. What is the man doing going on about middle ground and sweet remisciences and all? But then if you do read on, you get a feeling that it was part of the design so that the surface of the river remains calm and undisturbed. You will find the torrent in the middle essays!

Even though I did not know it when I started reading, I needed this book. And even though it has not answered all the questions that I have, it is a work carefully, and with courage too, put together to set matters in proper perspective.