Chinua Achebe | Critical Essay by Andrew E. Robson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Chinua Achebe.
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Critical Essay by Andrew E. Robson

SOURCE: "The Use of English in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 365-76.

In the following essay, Robson examines various types of English that appear in Anthills of the Savannah, demonstrating how each reflects differences in education, social status, and cultural context.

The language question, that is to say the question of whether Third World writers should write in indigenous languages or the international language of the former colonizer, is most commonly political in nature. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan writer, illustrates this point very clearly when he describes his decision to change from English to Gikuyu as his preferred literary language as "part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples."1 The language question may also be seen, however, as part of a debate in the fields of linguistics and culture, or the ethnography of communication. In this context, the question alludes not to political realities and/or fantasies, but to the nature of the relationship between language and culture. If language shapes our perception of the world, and if to be part of a language group is, in the linguist Whorf's phrase, to share a common "thought world." then to write a novel whose characters are Nigerian, for example, but whose thoughts and words are presented in English, might be said to be risking a certain lack of authenticity. Ngugi seems to be thinking along these lines when he asserts that "Language … has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture,"2 but he politicizes the sociolinguistic point by insisting that to write in English would be, for him and other Third World writers, to help perpetuate cultural imperialism. Taken to one extreme, of course, this kind of thinking, which sees language in proprietary terms, and which sees language choice as being equivalent to political choice, fails to take into consideration other aspects of the ethnography of communication, particularly in the area of code mixing and bilingualism. The world is not as simple as Ngugi seems to suggest, especially in the tumultuous areas of language and politics, where one symbol of modernity is the exile, the emigrant, the refugee, and others who live daily in a cultural and linguistic montage, a point made so effectively by Salman Rushdie. Ngugi's thesis leads us almost to the same unhappy conclusion as is reached in one version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, namely that literature is, in its very essence, untranslatable because language shapes the thought worlds of its users, and each linguistic thought world is different from all others.

The proposition that one's language of choice betrays one's political values, while it may in certain cases be true, is too narrow. We speak the language of our society first, and Third World writers usually speak the language of their former colonizers second. In neither case do we have much choice in the matter. Of course, we may ask why Chaucer or Conrad decided to write in English, or why Beckett chose to write in English, and it is possible that in both cases the answer is political in nature (certainly, much in human affairs can be said to have a political context), but it is also possible that such decisions have some other motivation—aesthetic, practical, mercenary, or quirkily individualistic. Chinua Achebe has observed that the language issue is unnecessarily sensationalised; he writes: "The issue is, I'm bilingual. This is the advantage we have—why turn it into a liability?"3

It is the purpose of this paper to describe how Achebe uses this "advantage" in his 1987 novel. Anthills of the Savannah.4 We shall see that in this work his use of English reflects the reality of language varieties and code switching reflecting educational background, social status, and context, as well as his characteristic flair for representing the dignity of indigenous languages in English words. Achebe, like Rushdie but in a different context, demonstrates the significance of language within contemporary culture in a way that is more telling and more relevant than the narrow obsessiveness of Ngugi who, after all, translates his work into English and who lives in the world of Salman Rushdie far more than the world of Franz Fanon.

Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah is set in a fictional West African state called Kangan. A civilian government has been overthrown, landing "unloved and unmourned on the rubbish heap" (11), and a military man has assumed the presidency. His closest advisers, members of his cabinet, are close friends, all of whom have overseas educations, mostly in England. The president himself is a graduate of Sandhurst, England's prestigious military academy. The privileged education of these people is reflected in their language. They and their friends are all bilingual and have a perfect facility in English, which is, indeed, their usual medium of communication. The language they use is indistinguishable from educated English anywhere in the world, except for the occasional locai references. Christopher Oriko, the Commissioner for Information, describes his longtime friend, now His Excellency the President, and those around him with ironic detachment:

He is in mufti as he now tends to be more and more within the precincts of the Presidential Palace: a white dashiki tastefully embroidered in gold, and its matching trousers. By contrast many of my colleagues, especially the crew from the Universities, aspire to the military look. Professor Okong wears nothing but Khaki safari suits complete with epaulettes. It is amazing how the intellectual envies the man of action. (4)

The words here are those of educated English speakers everywhere: "within the precincts," "tastefully embroidered," "the crew from the Universities," with the latter having perhaps a rather British sound. The final sentence—"It is amazing how the intellectual envies the man of action"—is also interesting, because it is characteristic of this novel that the philosophical, the reflective, the ironic voices of the narrators employ standard educated English. Ikem Osodi, editor of the National Gazette and, with Christopher Oriko, one of the two principal characters in the novel, both of whom are eventually murdered by security or military men, uses this same voice after witnessing public executions held before a grotesquely festive crowd and state television cameras:

I had never expected that Authority should excel in matters of taste. But the ritual obscenities it perpetrated that afternoon took me quite by surprise—from the pasting of a bull's eye on the chest of the victim to the antics of that sneaky wolf of a priest in sheep's clothing whispering God knows what blasphemies into the doomed man's ear, to the doctor with his stethoscope rushing with emergency strides to the bull's eye and then nodding sagely and scientifically that all was finished. Call him tomorrow to minister genuine human distress and see how slow he can be! And how expensive! Authority and its servants far exceeded my expectations that day. (37)

A certain self-consciousness about English appears among this group also, with Christopher Oriko noting that one moment of crisis "threw the Chief Secretary into utter confusion and inelegance of speech" (6). Oriko even goes so far as to correct the English of the Attorney-General:

"Your Excellency, let us not flaunt the wishes of the people."

"Flout, you mean," I said.

"The people?" asked his Excellency, ignoring my piece of pedantry. (5)

In these circles, the language of the elite is spoken, and this emphasizes the distance between the powerful and the powerless. This distance is suggested more directly when the Chief Secretary opens the palace window in order to hear what is going on outside: "And the world surges into the alien climate of the Council Chamber on a violent wave of heat and the sounds of the chanting multitude" (8).

In the "alien" world of the elite, there is a little room for the language of the ordinary people. The use of traditional proverb is characteristic of the national culture, but the President, impatient with Professor Okong's obfuscations: tells him to "Please cut out the proverbs, if you don't mind" (18). The President is happier with the language and values of Sandhurst:

I certainly won't stand for my commissioners sneaking up to me with vague accusations against their colleagues. It's not cricket! No sense of loyalty, no esprit de corps, nothing! And he calls himself a university professor. (19)

This, then, is the world of educated soldiers, of a certain disdain for the masses, of people trained in foreign universities, and of public relations. The President tells Okong to "humour" the masses outside: "Gauge the temperature and pitch your message accordingly" (16). In response to these and other remarks by the President, Okong makes the first successful use of traditional proverbs in the novel, putting himself and his colleagues in the role of students, with the President being teacher:

We are always ready to learn. We are like children washing only their bellies, as out elders say when they pray. (17)

This flattery, along with the self-abasement that it involves, is expressed in traditional proverb form and is appropriate for this moment of deference to authority. In general, the representation of the idiom, notable particularly for its use of proverbs, for its ornate formality, and for its elegance, reminds us of the traditional society from which it springs. Thus, deference to the chief may be expressed in such a form, although the reader may be aware of the rather fawning effect of this particular speech in the political context in which it takes place. There is something paradoxical, even incongruous, about the use of such language in the palace, and this explains the President's impatient demand, shortly thereafter, that Okong "cut out the proverbs."

No such sense of the inappropriateness of traditional oratory attaches itself to the use of such language at the gathering of Abazon elders and their supporters, who are hoping to petition the President for relief from certain reprisals which he imposed on them following their rejection of a proposal to make him President-for-Life. Ikem, the editor, is also from the Abazon region and is the guest of honor at a gathering near the palace. Ikem is criticized by one speaker for his failure over the years to attend ceremonies and monthly meetings of the urban Abazonian community. At this point, one of the elders, a member of the delegation from the province itself, far from the urban center, speaks in defense of Ikem:

"I have heard what you said about this young man, [Ikem] Osodi whose doings are known everywhere and fill our hearts with pride. Going to weddings and naming ceremonies of one's people is good. But don't forget that our wise men have said also that a man who answers every summons by the town-crier will not plant corn in his fields. So my advice to you is this. Go on with your meetings and naming ceremonies because it is good to do so. But leave this young man alone to do what he is doing for the Abazon and for the whole of Kangan; the cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household but his voice is the property of the neighborhood. You should be proud that this bright cockerel that wakes the whole village comes from your compound."

There was such compelling power and magic in his voice that even the MC who had voiced the complaints was now beginning to nod his head, like everybody else, in agreement. (112)

Here, in the more tribal, more traditional context of village elders and a gathering of the community at a moment of crisis, the cadence and imagery of traditional speech is powerful. The image of Ikem, the news editor, as the cockerel whose early morning voice belongs to the whole community, is one which is compelling in any context, but it is particularly appropriate when used among people whose village lives make them intimately familiar with the early morning crowing alluded to.

The use of such images and proverbs is also interesting in the context of the struggle between the master-of-ceremonies and the elder for the audience's sympathy. This oratorical struggle becomes a battle of proverbs, with the MC couching his sarcasm in the terms of traditional oratory:

"When you hear Ikem Osodi everywhere you think his head will be touching the ceiling. But look at him, how simple he is. I am even taller than himself, a dunce like me. Our people say that an animal whose name is famous does not always fill a hunter's basket." (111)

This contest is, as we have seen, won by the elder, and Achebe uses this character to deliver some of the most poignant messages in the novel. The wisdom of the elder is used to assert the supreme value of the storyteller's art compared with "the sounding of the drum" and "the fierce waging of the war":

"[I]t is only the story [that] can continue beyond the war and the warrior…. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind…. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors." (114)

Here, the author's voice may be heard in that of the elder. The novel is a continuation of Achebe's brave condemnations of corruption and failure of leadership in Nigeria and elsewhere; the writer, as we have seen recently in Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of Africa and around the world, may articulate the present pain and the future promise, may be a moral voice in a frightened or indifferent world. Such is Ikem in the novel, and such is the novelist himself. The elder may articulate the significance of history, or the story, for the reader, but he also gives his people a way of seeing the circumstances of the present that are both true and painful:

"It is proper that a beggar should visit a king. When a rich man is sick a beggar goes to visit him and say sorry. When the beggar is sick, he waits to recover and then goes to tell the rich man that he has been sick. It is the place of the poor man to make a visit to the rich man who holds the yam and the knife."

"That is indeed the world," replied the audience. (117)

The people's recognition of the realpolitik of their situation does not lessen the bitter irony of what is being said, and the language itself expresses this poignancy; to those in the palace, the crowd outside is a rabble to be dealt with in the noncommittal language of public relations, but to the crowd itself, those in the palace hold both the yam and the knife, and the poor are supplicants.

The third variety of English used in Anthills of the Savannah is the lingua franca of the urban masses; it may be referred to as pidgin English, described by Brosnahan in 1958 as "spoken by those without any formal education," and by Banjo, in 1971, as "marked by wholesale transfer of phonological, syntactic, and lexical features of Kwa or Niger-Congo to English. Spoken by those whose knowledge of English is very imperfect. Neither socially acceptable in Nigeria nor internationally intelligible."5

We are first introduced, in a mild way, to this variety when Ikem calls Chris Oriko's office and is told that he is "not on seat, sir" (25). This, of course, is not the full-blooded pidgin of the taxi drivers, but it gives us a local idiom, meaning that the person is not in the office at present, used by a secretary of intermediate education. Elewa, Ikem's uneducated girlfriend, speaks the real thing, and, in talking with her, Ikem and others switch codes constantly, depending on the purpose of the context. We are repeatedly made aware of the gaps that yawn between different codes, as when Ikem is remembering an argument with Elewa:

That was the night I first tried to explain my reason for not letting her sleep in my flat…. "Your compliment to my stamina notwithstanding," I said totally and deliberately over her head, "the reason is really quite simple, I no want make you join all the loose women of Bassa who no de sleep for house." She stared at me with her mouth wide open, quite speechless. Thinking to press home my point and advantage I said something like: "I wouldn't want a sister of mine to do that, you see." She fired back then: "Anoder time you wan' poke make go call dat sister of yours, you hear?" (33)

Beatrice, the English-educated girlfriend of Chris, is similarly at ease in both codes, as when she talks with her maid, Agatha. A soldier has come to her door:

When Agatha had whoever it was as long to herself as she thought necessary she came to the door of the bedroom to inform me that one soja-man from President house de for door; he say na President sendam make he come bring madam. "Tellam make he siddon," I said, "I de nearly ready." (65)

The pidgin code is also used between Beatrice and Chris in moments of banter, especially when the context is sexual (32).

Among the masses, therefore, and in certain contexts among educated people, the language of the streets is used. It is the language of banter but is also the language of confrontation and danger in encounters with police and soldiers. Chris Oriko's last exchange, as he attempts to evade capture by security forces, pits him against a police sergeant who is abusing a young woman. Chris cannot stand by and ignore the brutality, and his decency and his frame of reference are in stark contrast to the lawlessness and casual violence of the policeman:

Chris bounded forward and held the man's hand and ordered him to release the girl at once. As if that was not enough he said, "I will make a report about this to the Inspector-General of Police."

"You go report me for where? You de craze! No be you de ask about President just now? It you no commot for my front now I go blow your head to Jericho, craze-man." The other said nothing more. He unslung his gun, cocked it, narrowed his eyes while confused voices went up all some asking Chris to run, others the policeman to put the gun away. Chris stood his ground looking straight into the man's face, daring him to shoot. And he did, point-blank into the chest presented to him. (189)

Throughout the novel, Achebe describes the violence of the country in the most formal English. Educated English is also often used to score points over the less educated, either for momentary gratification, as with Ikem and Elewa, or to confuse and intimidate less-educated but armed antagonists, as when Ikem is confronted by police on a set-up charge, and decides that a counter-attack, in legalese, might help:

"Do you know it is an offence to operate a vehicle without interior lights according to the Criminal Code chapter forty-eight section sixteen subsection one hundred and six?"

"Na today—even na jus' nou as I de come here de light quench out."

His lie is as good as mine but I have an advantage: I know he is lying; he doesn't know I am, and he is scared. (34)

Educated English is, furthermore, also the language of reflection on the important issue raised in the novel. Ikem's set-pieces, as when he lectures the students towards the end of the novel, are addressed to the widest audience possible, the readers of the novel, and the language is articulate, educated, and unambiguous. He speaks for human decency and against hypocrisy and unthinking dogmatism. The students are not always pleased by what they hear:

"I regret to say that students are in my humble opinion the cream of the parasites." Redoubled laughter. "The other day, did not students on National Service raze to the ground a new maternity block built by peasants? Why? They were protesting against their posting to a remote rural station without electricity and running water. Did you read about it?" The laughter had died all of a sudden. "Perhaps someone can show one single issue in this country in which students as a class have risen above the low, very low, national level. Tribalism? Religious extremism? Even electoral merchandising. Do you not buy and sell votes, intimidate and kidnap your opponents just as the politicians used to do?… So what are we talking about? Do you not form tribal pressure groups to secure lower admission requirements instead of striving to equal and excel any student from anywhere? Yes, you prefer academic tariff walls behind which you can potter around in mediocrity. Are you asking me to agree to hand over my life to a democratic dictatorship of mediocrity? No way!" (147-48)

In this voice Ikem seems to be the medium through which Achebe's vision is articulated. He is brave indeed, not pandering to the worst instincts of his audience, nor seeking refuge in the conventional wisdom, but challenging anyone who cares to listen to put behind them the squalid factionalism, corruption, and violence of the past and seek a better path, based on traditional civility ("At this point the normal courtesies which the prevalence of armed robberies had virtually banished from Bassa could no longer be denied" one of the narrators notes elsewhere in the novel [124]), democratic processes, and a humanity that ameliorates suffering and rewards merit in national affairs.

In some ways this is a bleak novel, except that it is filled with characters from all sectors of society who, given a chance, could help realize this humane vision. The novel ends with a naming ceremony for Elewa's baby girl, and the ceremony is Beatrice's idea; thus the future is anticipated, a new start possible. The naming is celebrated by two women from opposite ends of the educational spectrum, both of whom have lost their male companions to state-sponsored brutality and lawlessness, and by a cross-section of men, civilian and military, of various religions, young and old, all of whom participate in a kola-nut ceremony for the baby, and, of course, for themselves and their country. Beatrice, the English major, cannot resist a reference to Keats' "Truth is beauty" (216), and this spirit of cultural pluralism, where wisdom from any source remains wisdom, where life is celebrated, not murder and mayhem, is also represented in Ikem's "Hymn to the Sun," a prose-poem in which the central image of the novel, from which the title is derived, is articulated:

The trees had become hydra-headed bronze statues so ancient that only blunt residual features remained on their faces, like anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires. (28)

This admixture of Western and African images, like the representation of different groups and individuals through a range of English language varieties, conveys the view of someone who embraces the best of these various worlds and who sees the best hope for the future in nurturing a sense of a common humanity among the population, from soldier to intellectual to market woman to taxi driver to politician to policeman. The use of English in the novel, that is to say the use of different English language varieties, is perfectly appropriate, reflecting sociolinguistic realities and being a superb device for realizing a dangerous world in which the way characters use language reveals much about their status and their ability to survive and function.


1. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind (London: James Currey, 1986) 28.

2. Ngugi 13.

3. Robert Moss, "Writing and Politics: An Interview with Chinua Achebe," West Africa 11 August 1986: 1677.

4. Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (New York: Anchor, 1987). All page references are to this edition.

5. Qtd. in Ayo Bamgbose, "Standard Nigerian English: Issues of Identification," The Other Tongue, ed. Braj Kachru (Oxford: Pergamon, 1983) 100.

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