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In MSU's African Studies Courses, the Spirit of Chinua Achebe Lives On

credit: The New Yorker

Chinua Achebe was Africa’s most famous novelist and professor, the founding father of African fiction. His 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” challenged traditional Western thought and assumptions of colonial rule in Africa, and remains the most widely read book in African literature. Achebe died Thursday at the age of 82. KSMU’s Samuel Crowe spoke with a local professor who shares her perspective on the African luminary’s impact in her classroom.

For Dr. Jamaine Abidogun and her students, Chinua Achebe’s novels provide a context that history textbooks cannot. They convey a first person perspective of life in Africa under colonial rule, and the repercussions of the interaction of African and Western cultures. Abidogun is an associate professor of history at Missouri State University and teaches two African studies courses: Women in Africa and African Civilizations. She’s even worked with and briefly met one of Achebe’s daughters, Nwando Achebe, a history professor at Michigan State University.

“I think he was one of those people that spearheaded the introduction of real African literature from an African perspective during the era where colonization was ending and independent African nation states were emerging. That’s his true importance in history, as well as literature,” Abidogun said.

Abidogun says Achebe’s writings help her students understand the structure of traditional African religions, and how they’re entwined with the political and educational systems within African civilizations, specifically Achebe’s native Igbo ethno nation. She says his writings allow for talking points amongst her students, ones that help erase what she says are condensed and simplistic stereotypes Westerners have of African civilizations.

“To a large extent they really become interested in the people there, and their cultures, not what we can do to those people or for those people, but what their politics are, what their religious beliefs are, what their arts are, et cetera,” Abidogun said.

She says Achebe’s writings also help her students understand Britain’s role during colonization, which she says can be misunderstood as conquer. She says it was more an indirect rule, and the British goal was to profit off of African civilizations, not dismantle them. But she admits colonization did twist the social and political systems of these African nation-states, and today people are trying to reclaim those structures so they’re once again controlled by the people.

“You can see that interaction that African civilizations were on par with Western Civilizations, and that they [the British] really did have to negotiate when they were there on the ground, and even now, today,” Abidogun said.

For anyone interested in picking up an Achebe book, Abidogun recommends to start with his 1964 novel “Arrow of God,” a book that focuses on the interaction between traditional Igbo religion and Christianity.

“And how Africans viewed both the conversion experience, but also what that meant to their own traditional religion, as an Igbo. Again, Igbo is only one group out of 1,500. But it helps bring perspective and balance to that experience,” Abidogun said.

When asked what lesson Achebe’s writing imparts on her students, Abidogun says it’s that they learn to understand how similar human beings are to one another.

“There are often more similarities to bring us together than to keep us apart, but allowing for difference within those similarities is what allows people to survive and prosper for the greater good. Not just one group over another, but for the greater good. And I think that comes across in most of his work,” Abidogun said.

And it’s the ones who resist those differences, she says, are the ones that “fall apart.”

For KSMU News, I’m Samuel Crowe.