“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” should be repeated every hour on the hour by every school child all over the world until it becomes the mantra of all societies. It is Bantu for “A human is human because of other humans.”
The simple but profound adage is the theme of Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays.It may also be the theme of his life’s work, judging by the simple message it conveys about the importance of the communal aspirations of the peoples of Africa. He uses it several times in various essays in the book, but really drives the point home in the concluding paragraph of the last one, titled “Africa Is People.”
“Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day, we would have taken a truly millennial step forward.”
Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and best known as the author of Things Fall Apart,one of the seminal works of African fiction, has a subtle, dry voice that makes each of these seventeen essays something to savor and linger over. He makes his points about racial stereotypes, African development, history, and politics, and the African-American diaspora, sometimes with humor, sometimes with biting directness, but always graciously and without rancor. You sense Achebe knows that to rail against injustice is futile; change must come through education achieved one cogent argument at a time.
While Achebe is a scholar, he is also a master storyteller. More often than not, he makes his points not with dry logical argument but with an exegetical tale about someone he’s met or something that’s happened to him. Those little narratives are much more illustrative than pure cant. In “Spelling Our Proper Name,” he tells the story of Dom Afonso of Bukongo, for example, who negotiated with King John III of Portugal in 1526 as an equal. He then writes:
“Such stories as Dom Alfonso’s encounter with Europe are not found in the history books we read in schools. If we knew them….young James Baldwin would not have felt a necessity to compare himself so adversely with peasants in a Swiss village. He would have known that his African ancestors did not sit through the millennia idly gazing into the horizon, waiting for European slavers to come and get them.”
I found his exploration of the complex politics and history of Africa in “Africa’s Tarnished Name” to be particularly thought-provoking. He also talks frequently about Joseph Conrad’s racism, which has become an important theme in the deconstruction of Heart of Darkness. Some of these essays have been presented elsewhere, although they have been revised and updated since they were first published. Nothing in them is dated, however, and Achebe’s insightful discussions with Langston Hughes and James Baldwin ring as true as his observations about the potent symbolism of Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States.