Chinua Achebe, on Engaging with the Culture of the Coloniser
Achebe’s attitude towards cultural exchange is quite balanced. While he acknowledges the disruption caused by the colonisation of Africa, he credits it with the creation of larger, more secure ‘political units’ (i.e. nations) and the enablement of their unification through a shared linguistic system. Achebe believes that inherent value of inheriting English language is often overlooked or underestimated. He challenges Wali’s assertion that native Africans cannot express themselves fully without their native tongue, pointing out the pliability of English and its usage.
He observes that it is not necessary to use English like an Englishman: instead, the African voice is free to express itself creatively whilst still understood worldwide. Achebe argues that ‘the real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to …but for [him] there is no other choice’. Achebe argues that ‘[he has] been given this language and [he] intends to use it’. African writers face multiple challenges when deciding which language their work should be composed in: that is, whether to embrace the language of their colonisers, or sustain the use of their native dialects. By exercising racial exclusivity and choosing to write in solely indigenous languages, the African writer limits their audience to native speakers and those willing to learn their language. They pose a resistance to the imposition of the colonial tongue, but lose the ability to communicate with the colonisers through their national literature – a form of vocal opposition proven to possess cultural/political power.
The abolishment of the colonial language also severs the ‘facility for mutual communication’ between Africans grouped together in newly-formed nations. Because English intervention led to the initial ‘arbitrary creation’ of these nations, English became the language used within them to communicate. This leads Achebe to argue that African writers choosing to write in English, far from being unpatriotic, are ‘by-products’ of this same process, and just as their geographic and ethnic position is different to ours, so is their use of the language. He describes an English language forced to submit to the creativity of the African mind and accept the diversification of its use, which I view as a positive and liberating interpretation.