The first part of this interview published on this platform September 9th was titled “Unless We Decolonise Our Minds, Freedom is Far – Chima Anyadike, Retiring OAU, Ile-Ife Professor”. The title has been slightly adjusted in this second and concluding part to stress a key point in the entire conversation. That point is, in the view of Prof Anyadike, how too heavily the past is still weighing on the present.
It bears repeating how those who conducted the interview appeared to have moved in a way that kept what many would consider as the weightier issues to the second part of the interview: slavery and the African self argued to be the outcome; the language question in the ‘African condition’; comparative scorecard of the university system in contemporary Nigeria; what is to be done, amongst others. Conducted by the trio of Chijioke Uwasomba, Victor Alumona and Ifenayi Arua, all academics of the Department of English in that university, this interview is part of the book – The Idea of African Fiction – scheduled for public presentation in the university September 13th, 2019. Prof Anyadike taught there for four decades.
Q: Do you see the possibility of an African liberation taking into consideration the problems of Africa which you have admitted were compounded about five hundred years ago with slavery.
Ans: That is a big question. When will Africa be free-free in the sense of taking control of our destiny – fighting off all kinds of foreign and local hindrances? One problem of Africa is a big one, coming from a very long time – about 500 years when our people were taken away as slaves. Some of our people colluded with the whiteman because the whiteman didn’t know the way into the hinterland. Slave trade stopped us from growing naturally. It has not allowed us to develop along our own line. Achebe had made the point that if only his novels would help our people to regain their dignity, he would be fulfilled. We need mental liberation for we are still far from it. Everybody is thinking outward. When you are thinking like that, you cannot have the freedom to choose what could confidently be yours. As long as we continue in this way, we cannot be liberated. So much has to do with the way of thinking. Slavery has made us lose our identity and trajectory and it is what we now do involuntarily. We tend to lose our balance when we see the Other. I went to Senegal and stayed in a university compound. In fact, the French did worse. The French Assimilation policy didn’t have regard for other cultures. Civilization is French civilization. Others didn’t matter. Our people still look up to their colonizers. Some people will say that by now we should have lived beyond colonialism, but the truth is that the West have put a lot of structures in place to control us. If you are studying Music, it is Western music. If you study Philosophy, it is the study of Kant, Plato, Aristotle, etc. Somebody here wrote a Ph.D thesis in Epistemology and the entire thesis didn’t reflect anything on Africa- nothing on African thought. Is there no way of bringing in how Africans do things with a view to showing that Africans think? Unless we decolonise our minds, freedom is far. The slaves were thinking back and that thought kept them alive. I am passionate about mental decolonization and this cannot be done in isolation. This process should be in all spheres of our lives. Look at religion for example. How many of our people will proudly say they practice African religions? When, right in the core of your brain, you dismiss what generations of people think about the origin of life, there is a problem. The truth of the matter is that those who claim Christianity, Islam and so forth are professing them superficially. They know that some of the African values are useful but they do not follow them through in the open.
Q: But don’t you think that even at that we have made some progress?
Ans: Yes, I know that some kind of progress is going on but it is not enough. There is progress made in agriculture and some other areas and there are a number of things that we have done correctly but I am saying that the engine room of authentic progress is not functioning in our brains and if we begin from there, more progress would be made. There should be a commitment in each African to drive development. We only need to cut out the bad things and allow the good ones grow. Our people must stop being happy followers. Why can’t we be happy leaders? We must believe in ourselves and our capacities. The more we put our minds on the outside, the more we realise that we don’t belong there. A whole lot of work is needed. There is so much of superstition in our midst and people need to be educated not necessarily in western education. To change our condition, we must decolonise the classroom. The push and the urgency are not there yet in us. We have not broken out of the cycle. To acquire technological skills and knowledge of science is not the same thing as trying to be a white man.
Q: You have left a strong mark in the teaching, criticism and evaluation of African fiction. What is influential in this genre of literature so much so that it has become your passion?
Ans: It is a question that relates to the differences in the genres of literature. There are different forms of literature with other categorizations. The difference has to do with the manner of presentation. If you are interested in deeper, varied, longer expression of ideas, you are initiated into fiction. The very nature of the subject, your interest and general exposure determine your focus. Naturally, I don’t like to come to decisions easily. I try to cover all the grounds and explore all the nuances. I read good fiction and I like to discuss problems with people and the students. When you read good and interesting books, the urge is there to read more. I read Achebe and I like his writings a lot. I question things when I am reading his works. Literature is about life and I am attracted to Achebe because he wrote a lot of things about our people. Reading Achebe further engaged my attention to the exploration of what has held us back.
Q: Do you have worries about the fact that our literatures are not done in our indigenous languages?
Ans: I have my worries. Here, in this interview, we are speaking English. When a people have lost their language and are not able to produce and create with their own language, there is a problem. I have raised my worries that English has become the language of expression for everything. Why are we not preparing the ground for the use of our languages? Our languages are kept alive when there are translations of books written in other languages. And if we claim that our languages are too many, what is the problem developing a common language for everybody? I am not rubbishing a good follower but why must we be followers in everything? My grouse against Achebe is that he did not put emphasis on the development of Igbo language beyond what it is. I wish this interview were done in Igbo for the value that this gives one as a person. I taught friction and enjoyed it but I have reservations. My regret is that I am doing all these things not in my mother tongue. I know that it is serious and difficult, but not to try to develop a lingua franca is very defeatist. First, we need to believe that it is important and needful. Genuine freedom will take a long time: unless we think very seriously and in our languages, we cannot be free. The language that you use shows who you are. Language is central to development – it gives people pride and confidence. That is what has happened in developed societies.
Q: Is this issue language; the core of our problem?
Ans: Those who denied that Africa had no history did that because our history was not recorded. I bemoan slavery because it caused the problem as it cut off a lot from us. And unfortunately, the story has continued that we are the children of Ham cursed by God. This is even worse than colonialism. It may sound undoable, impossible but if we begin now to lay the foundations of developing a language which our grandchildren may benefit from, it will grow and become established.
Q: Still on the language question: Do you really think that language is the issue even when we think in our languages while speaking English?
Ans: The language issue in literature has been overflogged. There is a big divide between Achebe, Ngugi and others. Ngugi wa Thiong’o now writes in Kikuyi but translates into English. We are developing the English language by the varieties we are promoting. Achebe’s English is still English but flavoured by the Igbo language. The varieties are enriching the English language.
Q: If we must reinvent our languages, it is not a question of what we wish, but it is a political and institutional matter. How do we get government to resuscitate indigenous languages?
Ans: If it is imposed, there will be a war. We need to have the mind to find a solution. You may say that in your own area, all the people there must learn and speak their language. The kind of thing that Prof. Fafunwa was promoting! My argument is that we should be putting things on ground that would finally grow. Institutional and political means would need to be put in place. What is disturbing is that nothing is being done. We may select many languages in different areas and make them national languages.
Q: Your Inaugural Lecture is being touted by many as one of the best in recent times. Do you intend to develop it further for a bigger audience?
Ans: Thank you for the comments on my Inaugural Lecture. I am thinking about developing it into a book. I have to do a book which I will consider as a book arising from all my stay in the university system – a book that contains my thoughts including the ideas from the Inaugural Lecture.
Q: Can you project the place of African literature in the next millennium?
Ans: If these things I have said about language take root, I project that the literature will grow as it will connect to the roots of the African people. When people speak and write in African languages, it will put us in a position of dialogue with the world linguistically speaking. The French, the Germans, the Japanese, the Chinese, etc. do their things in their own languages. They walk the tight rope by using their languages even though they still need English to interact with the world. Another projection which is not fascinating is that young people will be writing in English, Portuguese and French. This is a reality because these languages of the colonialists are flourishing. There is no closure along the line of young people writing more in these languages. There is a big hope for African Literature in foreign languages. It is a pity we can’t say that for literature in African languages.
Q: You have taught in universities in Senegal, US, China and other global institutions. Can you share your experience visa-viz the Nigerian university system?
Ans: Those of us who were in OAU in the 70’s, we had a good sense of what it was to be in a good university. Our teachers were great scholars. In my mind’s eye I see the great scholars compared to what it is now. Given what I see now, Ife has come down from the heights. The university was doing well and attracted scholars from all over the world. There was what was called the film society. Films that you could not find in the market. In the evenings, families would come to the Auditorium. We had expatriates from various parts of the world coming to the university. People from other departments came to our department to attend seminars where people contested ideas. The environment was clean and attracted people. The buildings were incomparable. Ife was great. That was Ife that I knew. Then I go to other places: Senegal is even better. People still come from different places. As we speak English here, so they speak French. In terms of the problems of the colonial mind, they are like us. I can’t speak of the knowledge we produce in Ife. There may be a few exceptions. In Senegal along the line of mental slavery, it is the same. But in terms of international presence, Senegal is better. The interaction between people from other cultures is higher and you know that interactions with other cultures are important because they make knowledge and ideas richer. People no longer come to Ife to stay. In Senegal, there are areas they are still ahead of us. In the US, there are many things going on in African Languages and Literature that you cannot get in African universities. I spent a year in Wisconsin during my Ph.D programme researching on the African novel. My supervisor arranged that I should go there. At Wisconsin, scholarship was/is thorough and going on as it should be done. I went to Cornell where I taught. It was a beautiful experience. You are encouraged to develop what you want to teach. My experience in Cornell taught me so much because the students were prepared, and since they were prepared, you are forever interactive. It was good to be in a place where the students were enthusiastic to learn. In a place like that scholarship is enjoyable. I taught so many courses and was asked to develop a course on Achebe. There were many scholars from various places; quality scholars and students. In China, I taught English only at the graduate students’ level. China is also well developed along the line of pedagogy. Their English was not the best but they tried their best. The students have a passion to see their language grow. I toured about three Chinese universities. My experience in China shows that if you remove impositions, mankind is really the same.
Q: What are your views about the Nigerian university system which appears to have become an industrial processing centre where all sorts of ill-prepared students are to go and acquire degrees?
Ans: There is nothing wrong with having many universities. The problem is: what are they being taught? What is the orientation of these teachers and what do they teach? I am not bothered about the proliferation. What model of universities are we thinking of? It is the quality of things that goes on in these universities that is important. What is necessary is that when you establish them, you have to put in place the requirements for the transformation of the society. First of all, train those who will accept that what you are saying make sense – the critical mass that will engage in the crusade to liberate our minds. This is because in future anyone who has imbibed the values, if he/she is in a position to change things will do the needful. If you begin early enough to teach the children these values, a change will come. These things should not be in isolation –good things can be got from anywhere. Knowledge is universal. To make the society a happier one, you cannot do it by abandoning other.