El mundo está bailando una mascarada - Chinua Achebe entrevistado por Ulli Beier

ARTE ÁFRICA, número 07. Invitado editado por Kendell Geers.

Ulli Beier (UB): There is a well-known Igbo proverb, which says, “The world is a dancing masquerade. If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place.” This proverb seems to be a central image of the Igbo world. Can you elaborate on its meaning in traditional society, and also tell me to what extent it is still relevant to Igbo today?

Chinua Achebe (CA): Yes, you are absolutely right in thinking it’s a very important statement. First of all, the masquerade is, perhaps, the most typical of all the Igbo arts, because it contains so many things. It is theatre; it is dance, music, architecture – anything at all. The masquerade is motion; all kinds of motion – athletic motion, graceful motion. Then there is the religious aspect. The masquerade is a representative of the ancestors – of eternity. It comes to visit the living, thus establishing a link between the past and the present. History is one continuous ‘How?’ Now, the spectators in the arena, they cannot stand rooted somewhere or take a seat… They must get up and follow the masquerade around, if they want to see it in all its magnificence and from all angles. So that’s the literal meaning. But now the symbolic meaning, and why it is a proverb – not just a statement… The proverb is applicable to other things. You use it when you are telling people not to get so deeply rooted in one thing that they don‘t see the possibility of change. The world is in a continuous state of flux, and we, as inhabitants of the world, must learn to adapt, to change, and to move. So the whole concept of mobility in Igbo culture is enshrined in that proverb. Even old customs – customs that are wonderful – may at times no longer be useful. We must be ready at any moment to try something new. That is basic to Igbo culture, the idea of change – you know, that “no condition is permanent…”

UB: Yes, a favourite statement of the Onitsha pamphleteers…

CALIFORNIA: It is a modern statement of the same idea. In Igbo culture, nobody is allowed to inherit the titles of his father…

UB: Everybody starts from the beginning; everybody has to achieve.

CALIFORNIA: All that is contained in this statement. Society judges you by your own work, not by your ancestors. So you see, it gets very… sort of, succinct. It sums up everything about the Igbo people – the fact that they are restless, the fact that they believe in change, that they believe in “improvement,” whether as individuals or as groups.

UB: So you get this competitive spirit amongst lgbo communities: which village can first build a secondary school? Who can first install electricity or a water supply? Igbo communities have never waited for government grants!

CALIFORNIA: Now the problem of course is how do you accept change without losing your identity? Remember, everything has its deficit side…

UB: It’s a very pragmatic culture; it’s open to everything. It’s rather ironical, because it’s the exact opposite of the European cliché image of stagnant, primitive cultures.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, the idea that we have been trapped in savagery; the image that the “sweep of civilization” is going on somewhere else, and we have been totally unaware and untouched by it. That’s absolute nonsense. It’s a very pragmatic culture, even individualistic! We think that individualism is something we learned from the Americans. That’s not true! Igbo individualism goes so deep, you see, it’s not even “We are all equal in the sight of God.” Every single person, man or woman, is a unique creation. We are not just created by the same God, but each person has his own ji, a personal god. We are made by our ji, so no two people are the same, not even blood brothers! This is individualism taken to its utmost!

UB: It seems to me that one particular strength of Igbo culture is that they don’t accept any truth as absolute. I cannot see a Fundamentalist movement or fascism taking root easily amongst Igbo.

CALIFORNIA: No, the Igbo do not believe in anything absolute. They believe that “Nothing stands by itself”; that “Wherever one thing stands, some other thing will stand next to it.” It’s again the idea that you don’t stand in one place; that we don’t hold to one belief. lgbo people don’t say, “This is it. This is the answer”; rather they say, “There must be something else.”

UB: They believe in the possibility of simultaneous truths.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, so again it is movimiento… in the metaphysical sense! We are not fixed in a particular idea of truth.

UB: You can grasp an aspect of truth, but not el la verdad.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, I am sure that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” must have struck the first Igbo people as a heresy.

UB: Certainly they would have thought it represented a simplistic view of life.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, and I am convinced that the only reason the Igbo went under was the fire power of the British army who came with the missionaries.

UB: Even then… I can’t see that even today, Christianity has succeeded to kill Igbo individualism or Igbo pragmatism…

CALIFORNIA: No, no! It’s not possible. People have been living in a particular frame of mind, and it is not possible that someone would come and uproot it all in a year or even in a generation. The basic individualism still exists.

UB: Certainly the competitiveness is as alive as ever today!

CALIFORNIA: Yes, yes, but what one regrets, I think, is that in the past it was kept within the bounds of a certain spirituality. There was a kind of composure…

UB: A certain dignity…

CALIFORNIA: Yes, you can lose that and become rather frenetic in your pursuit of the new things…

UB: Of course, in traditional society there was a limit to the amount of wealth a man could acquire, because there was a limit to his physical capacity to work. How many yams can even the strongest man grow?

CALIFORNIA: Yes, we have lost the relationship between wealth and work. Nowadays you can become rich without work, simply by manipulation…

UB: Traditional wealth did not involve selfishness, because there was the corrective mechanism. People didn’t mind anybody becoming rich, but if he then wanted to have political power as well, the community made him shed all his wealth first. If you wanted to become influential in the society, you couldn’t remain rich at the same time.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, that’s very true. And after all, you “took” the title. It was not the community saying, “You’re a great man, we make you a lord.” You, yourself, decided that you had acquired enough property, and you now wanted to become one of the titled men in the clan. And they would say, “Yes, but there is a Fee!” So you bring out all the wealth you have acquired and you throw it back into the community through feasting and through fees you pay to the older members of the association and so on. At the end of the period of celebration, you are really a poor man again. But you’ve got your title, and you wear your anklet, or your red cap, or whatever! But you are no longer rich, and you cannot be a threat to the community… And another interesting point: even within the narrow scope given you in taking titles, every title had its taboo! This in itself was an imposition of a spiritual nature on your activities.

UB: And severe…. As the titles got higher, so did the restrictions. They became more severe…

CALIFORNIA: Yes, the things you could not do! Like, you could not sleep outside your compound. Your movement was limited. And so people would then limit their ambition. They would say, “Why should I impose more restrictions upon myself? It’s too much trouble. I shall limit myself to my present title; I won’t go any further.”

UB: So the acquisition of power was not only made incompatible with the possession of wealth, it also imposed its own automatic discipline…

CALIFORNIA: Yes, the highest title was, of course, that of the king!

UB: Eze!

CALIFORNIA: Yes, Eze. But to become their king, you had to pay the debts owed by everybody in the community! They said, “If you want to become king over us, then we will tell you what we owe… Then, when you have paid all our debts, you can become king!”

UB: It is an amazing concept. A man who wants to hold supreme power is being prepared to shoulder that much responsibility, and to endure such severe discipline that in the end people feel, “It is not worth it!” This control mechanism was so effective, that in the end most Igbo communities managed happily enough without a king, because no one wanted the job. So the result is a democratic government! Europe could learn a lot from that. Another thing I find remarkable about this is the extent to which the Igbo man or woman is left to decide his or her own fate. There is a great concept of individual freedom here! It reminds me of another Igbo proverb which is quoted by Victor Uchendu, a historian, in his monograph on the Igbo: “The world is a market place, and it is open to bargain.” In other words, under whatever circumstances we are born, we have the right to manipulate our lives… our fate! How different from the kind of attitude you find in lower middle class England, where mothers tell their daughters, “Don’t think you can better yourself!”

CALIFORNIA: Is that so? You are not supposed to aim?

UB: You are not supposed to aim high because you find yourself embedded in a rigid class structure which you have been taught not to question. lt’s an attitude that would be unthinkable amongst Igbo.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, that’s right. The idea of bargaining is very intrinsic; it goes beyond the everyday reality we see around us. It reaches back into the very beginning, into the cosmology of Igbo land. There is a bargain…

UB: A bargain with your creator…

CALIFORNIA: Yes. With our chi; with your creator…

UB: It is similar to the Yoruba idea of “choosing your o.” There is the concept of a garden in heaven, in which the “good” heads and the “bad” heads are kept, and before a man enters the world, he is led into this garden, and he has to choose his o, fate. You may remember Gabriel Okara’s story of Woyengi, the woman who had chosen her fate before birth, and then went back to the creator to try and change it. So there seem to be related ideas in many West African cultures – and yet there are significant differences, too. Now how exactly is the myth of heavenly bargaining related among Igbo?

CALIFORNIA: Tu ji is the representative of the almighty, and it is your ji who is assigned to be your companion through life. This relationship starts at the very beginning, the moment you choose your career – because life is viewed as a career with the possibility of…

UB: Promotion!

CALIFORNIA: Change, yes. So you decide this is the kind of person you want to be in life! Then on your way into the world, there are distractions – there are temptresses who try to shake your resolution! You could fall there already, but again you could resist. Your ji will be keeping close to you, but not so close as to deprive you of your own free will.

UB: But you can get support from your ji!

CALIFORNIA: Yes you can! And now, when you come into the world, and you discover that you have a different ambition from…

UB: What you have planned…

CALIFORNIA: Planned, yes, in fact what you had sworn to! Then it’s not easy but here again this is where the Igbo pragmatism comes in: strong as that pact is, it’s not absolute.

UB: It is negotiable!

CALIFORNIA: It’s negotiable, but very difficult. That’s why we say, “If a man says ‘yes’ very strongly, his ji will also say ‘yes’!”

UB: You have to be pretty single minded to bargain successfully with fate! And this single mindedness is another strong Igbo characteristic. When they say “yes” very strongly, they are prepared to go with their head through the wall! At a certain point, when a strong decision has been taken, you are supposed to carry that through to the end; there is no turning back again. I have read in a book about the slave trade that three hundred Igbo slaves, chained together, decided not to accept this humiliation, and they jumped overboard together and drowned. Now this kind of determination, this ability to draw consequences to the bitter end, seems to me a very pronounced characteristic of this culture!

CALIFORNIA: Yes, it is! But you are not supposed to invoke it every day! It is only permissible when there is no way out, when, as another proverb says, “The back is broken and hung over the fire!”

UB: When you have exhausted all your options!

CALIFORNIA: Yes! And that’s when you can have the incident of “The Igbo Landing.” That’s still the name of the place in South Carolina: “Igbo Landing”.

UB: That’s why people did not want to buy Igbo slaves; they fetched a low price because they were reputed to commit suicide.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, particularly the titled men with the ichi marks. They would not, they could not possibly, be slaves. That’s why there is this ultimate – this suicidal element…

UB: At a certain point, the Igbo reached that stage during the Biafran war – or so it seemed to me.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, they did. It’s interesting that you should raise this, because the story of the Igbo slaves who walked into the sea was told at a meeting which I addressed in the South in the United States, during the war. I was travelling there, trying to explain what was going on, and at the end of my lectures this old man, this old black man got up and told the story of the Igbo Landing. It was a very strange Feeling! Nobody knew what to say after that! He didn’t say, “Your people have done that before,” or anything like that. He just told the story and sat down! So there have been such moments in Igbo history. Fortunately, Igbo culture makes sure that it does not encourage people to adopt that attitude too often.

UB: Then how do they stop people from adopting this single minded last stand? By creating alternative views that almost contradict it. For instance the proverb which says, “It is good to be brave and courageous, but we stand in the compound of a coward and point to where a strong man used to live.” “You see? He is no longer there. He has been destroyed by his strength and courage.” So it is saying be strong, be powerful, be prosperous. But it is also saying it carries a penalty.

UB: But then people also know, that there are moments in life, situations when they must be willing to pay the penalty. There are some cultures which have a clearly marked bottom line where people exercise a lot of tolerance, but then there comes a situation where you have to kill. Certain cultures in New Guinea are like that.

CALIFORNIA: It’s what the Igbo call abominación. Everything else can be sorted out peacefully by some sort of arrangement; but when an abomination is committed, the community cannot tolerate it. Murder is an abomination, and a man will have to pay for it with his life! Only if it can be proved that he did it by accident, then he will be sent into exile for seven years!

UB: That is a harsh punishment because where does a man go? What role can he play elsewhere?

CALIFORNIA: It’s the harshest kind of punishment because your life is supposed to be lived within your community. There is a Bantu statement: “A person is a person, because of other persons.” That also applies to the Igbo concept of a community. If a man had no community, he would be an animal! It’s society that makes you human…

UB: It’s only in relationship to other people that you could be right or wrong, good or bad.

CALIFORNIA: Nobody says that a lion is wicked, because it does not apply. The Igbo actually believe that it was agriculture (and the communal effort in making it succeed) that humanised us. There is a story that human beings used to wander around in the bush like animals. And one day Chukwu, the supreme God, gave yam to the king of the Wanderers and to the king of animals, and told them to plant it. They tried, but they did not succeed. Then the Wanderers went back to Chukwu and said, “We cannot do it. The soil is too soft, too watery…” Then Chukwu said, “Go and bring the blacksmiths from Awka, and let them blow the soil dry with their bellows.” They did, and the soil became drier. Then they grew yams and all sorts of other crops. So this is how civilization began, according to this tale. Once people settled down and began to plant, they then had to make tools for use in agriculture, and this is how the arts and crafts are developed…

UB: Now this is interesting because it defines art as a communal activity or as an activity that serves a very practical purpose in the community. But there is another characteristic of Igbo art that has always fascinated me: The Igbo artist often likes to work en contra his material. Compare, for example, an Igbo Mbari house with an Olokun shrine from the Benin area. They are both similar in that they consist of assemblages of mud figures, often life size; the one being dedicated to the earth goddess Ala, the other to the god of the sea, Olokun. Now the Olokun mud figures, or Yoruba mud sculptures representing Esu-Elegbara, are all carved out of a lump; the shapes arc rounded, heavy, with the arms usually close to the body, and the shapes undulating which is what comes naturally out of the process of moulding clay. But in an Mbari House you will find the earth goddess enthroned, with her arms outstretched wide, holding a sword in the right hand, or a leopard pouncing from a height and supported tenuously on its small paws. Here the artist is defying the limitation of the material; he is exposing it to a stress it cannot stand. But he does not care if the figure collapses after a few days, because he feels that “it is then simply time to make a new one.” Or again, if you see a Yoruba carving of a horseman, it’s carved out of one upright trunk, and the horse is reduced in size and shortened, so that it can fit into the shape of the trunk. But I have seen an Igbo shrine where a horseman was carved out of two pieces of wood. The horseman was carved separately and placed at an angle onto the horse, and one arm was carved out of the third piece of wood, thus allowing the artist to create a series of intersecting lines, and thus exploiting all possibilities of creating tension.

CALIFORNIA: Oh, I see. Yes, yes….

UB: Or if you look at Igbo face painting, if you look at the cover of my book on mud sculpture, there is an image of Ala from an Mbari House and the Uli design on the face cuts right across the eye. The painting is used to destroy the anatomy! Compare that to the Yoruba tribal marks. They will always underline the anatomy. They follow the bone structure of the face. But the Uli artist imposes his own vision onto the natural shape of the body, so that you forget certain aspects…

CALIFORNIA: Of the body itself! Yes, yes that’s very interesting.

UB: It’s highly sophisticated, and I think there is also an enjoyment of the tension.

CALIFORNIA: It’s a dare! Well, I think you put it very well. It’s also obviously part of what you might call the ambitiousness of the Igbo people – to go beyond what is given…

UB: An element of provocation!

CALIFORNIA: Provocation, yes; that’s really what art is to them ultimately. You are given something – the human form – but you want to go beyond… I would describe it as “giving yourself another handle on reality.” The more you go beyond what is given, the more tension you create, and thus the more vitality is introduced into what you create! It’s not composure that the Igbo artist is seeking. His art is full of vitality and motion.

UB: Yes, I think you are very right when you said earlier that the masquerade is the most typical, the most central art form of the Igbo. Even today when much of the religious significance has gone out of the Igbo masquerades, even now! What energy, what constant surprises, when the masquerade stands still, and then it suddenly seems struck by some lightening energy, and it bursts forth… This explosive movement is quite mind blowing. And the colours! The violent juxtaposition of reds and yellows and oranges! Again, it’s this enjoyment of a clash, of tension!

CALIFORNIA: It’s like Igbo women dancing. There is this undulating, flowing motion of the choreographed group, which is satisfying to the eye… But then there are these individual outbursts, where a single woman comes out and dances against the beat in a truly antagonistic movement! It requires courage to do that! And again, it’s an attempt to go beyond…

UB: To challenge the given order. But to go back to those colours, two generations ago those colours could not have been available to the Igbo artist; yet they seized on this new opportunity and used it to express something that had always been inherent to their culture.

CALIFORNIA: Well, this kind of creativity comes straight from the source. It’s like those Igbo who were asked by some of us in the university to paint a shrine at Nri, with Uli paintings. Now the art of Uli painting had practically died out in that village, and none of them had ever done it before; only one old woman had some vague memories of being involved in a painting when she was a young girl. And yet they were able to create the Uli forms again! Perhaps that call gave us some courage, because it seems to show that our culture is not all that fragile after all!

UB: Of course, we are actually witnessing a kind or regenerative process of the culture now. There is a process of rethinking – a new consciousness. I am thinking of artists like Uche Okeke and Obiora Udechukwu. They have been objecting to certain aspects of colonial art teaching, certain methods or imposing another way of seeing onto the culture. And they have gone and looked at Uli design, and the traditional wall paintings of Igbo women. They are trying to find a new starting point from there. Some people have compared this quite wrongly, I think, to the Negritude movement, but I don’t see it like that. There is, of course, the theoretical danger of such a process turning into mere rhetoric, and I think that with some of the lesser Nsukka artists, this has become a mere stance – a pose, rather than a genuine development. But with the major artist like Obiora it’s not like that at all. Now, you have been quite close to the artistic movement. How do you see it?

CALIFORNIA: Well, it’s difficult to put into words, but it’s no like going back to something “primitive.” We must explain the need for this movement from our recent history. The change in our society has not been a gradual development; it’s been rather brutal – like a violent incision, a breach of continuity. Through colonialism your initiative is taken from you; you are thrown out of your history and into somebody else’s history.

UB: All the decisions were suddenly made by other people.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, and it was a very traumatic experience. We are only just beginning to wake up from it. So this artistic movement is part of the

process of saying, “Let’s discover who we are…”

UB: Of making a connection with your history…

CALIFORNIA: So that you can then decide which way to go. You see? We cannot pre-empt and say, “This is the way to go…” But we have to establish a kind of awareness of who you are – after this period of total dehumanisation… We have to find the measure of things again, find out just who we are. That does not solve all our problems – or even most of them. But it’s a beginning. It’s a point from which you can find a direction. And it’s not a personal decision, there’s a whole generation involved. To put it in literary terms, when I travelled to Kenya last December, my publisher invited me there, and I must have seen every school child in Kenya! They came out in hundreds and thousands in every centre. There are about twelve schools in every district, and they all came together in one place with all their teachers, and it was like they were saying, “We found ourselves in literature.” I had the biggest book signing in my life. So something has happened to us through this literature, no matter how imperfect it may be, and these school children found themselves at the centre of a story! So they can go and develop it later whichever way they want. We have to re-establish again that we own this territory; after that artists can go on, and go their various ways…

UB: I started some modest courses in African literature in the early fifties in the Extra-Mural-Department of the University of Ibadan – before your books were published. Some Nigerians would come to me and say, “You are trying to put the clock back.” They did not want to know about Tutuola or Fagunwa let alone about Oriki (panegyrics), hunter songs or Igbo ballads. And I tried to explain to them, “I am not trying to tell you to ignore what has happened or undo what has been done because that is not possible. But I want you to evaluate what happened. I don’t want you to accept the interpretation of your colonial masters who are telling you that what has happened is simply a change from bad to good, from darkness to light.” But some of them are already reacting the way they had been taught to react…

CALIFORNIA: Yes, of course, it is brainwashing of a very serious nature.

UB: So what the young Nsukka artists are doing, what the young writers are doing, is opening everything up again. Everything is open to question again; nothing is taken for granted any more. You are open to different kinds of change, and that is the basic Igbo attitude again. What happened in colonial times is that you were deprived of choices. This is why your novels have been so very important. They made people aware; they helped people to re-examine the colonial process. They realised that the tragedy was not so much that they lost this or that art form or this or that custom, but they’d lost their ability to make decisions. But while the intellectuals begin to resume some kind of initiative, politicians all over the Third World still have decisions made for them by bodies like the IMF.

CALIFORNIA: Well, you know, in March, I went to a meeting of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation which is really a meeting of rich nations – Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians – all the people who are doing well in the world. They were celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary in Paris. And for some reason I was the only one among them who was not an economist or a banker. They were reading their papers, and they were talking about the “structural adjustment programmes” which they impose on the Third World. They say to us, “You are not managing your affairs well; you are in debt. So if you need more loans, this is what you will do: You have to remove subsidies on agriculture and this and that. And if you obey our rules, more loans will come your way.” So they tell us, “There are a few things that you will have to adjust; it may impose some hardship on you, but we know it’s going to work.” Then the Chairman of the Central Bank in Kenya said, “A country like Zambia has been practicing in this for ten years, but they are no better off after this.” But they said to him, “No, you have to give us a little more time… This thing has to work in the end!” Then I got really angry and said, “I am beginning to understand why I am here. I have been wondering what a fiction writer is doing among world bankers and economists. But now I realise that what you are doing here is fiction! You talk about ‘structural adjustment’, as if Africa was some kind of laboratory! Some intellectual abstraction. You prepare your medicine, you mix this into that; if it doesn’t work, you try out another concoction. But Africa is people, you know? In the last two years, we have seen the minimum wage in Nigeria fall from the equivalent of fifteen pounds a month to five pounds a month! That’s not an abstraction: Somebody is earning that money, and he has wife and children, you see?” And it was amazing because the person who had been speaking was shocked! As if he had realised for the first time that Africa was not just a conglomeration of different formulas… I said to them, “You are punishing these countries because they are in debt, but America is the biggest debtor of all; and nobody is asking America to adopt politics that would bankrupt their citizens. But Africa, the Third World, they are places where you can try out things. Africans are not really people… They are expendable!” And that’s the mentality that created our problems. Whether in literature or economy, people think we are expendable: “We can go there and straighten them out. Give them the gospel, give them this and that.” Then they go and forget us and carry on with their lives… In the meantime, our own lives have been messed up. The situation is much more serious than in colonial times, because the bankers exercise much more power than the colonial district officers. The power is greater without the responsibility! They don’t have to explain to anybody why there is a coup in Sudan, but they control Sudan nonetheless.

UB: A colonial officer could get killed. Think of the governor of the Gold Coast who was captured by the Ashanti. At least they had to stick their neck out…

CALIFORNIA: And explain themselves in the House of Commons! But today they are totally faceless! Our first generation of nationalists had a go at it, but they did not make a good job of it, and now we have to persuade ourselves that we can actually run nations. There are people now in Africa who doubt that we could ever do it; after all, they say they were there in the first place because we were savages. But the assessment is not quite fair, because if our leaders failed, they were not the leaders we have chosen; it was the leadership vienen ellos instalado.

UB: It was certainly the leadership they had educated in their own image. And certainly, they did not question the political, social, or economic processes they found themselves involved in. I remember that I had a lot of arguments with my friend, S.O. Awokoya, a science teacher who became the first Minister of Education in Awolowo’s Government in the Western Region of Nigeria. He was a very nice person and very intelligent, and I did admire this extraordinary drive he had. But he had this theory: Yoruba society was becoming a kind of class society because the few who had been to school despised the majority of the farmers who had not. The answer to that problem, he said, was to send everybody to school, so that school would cease to confer any artificial distinction on anybody. And with enormous energy and efficiency, he organised “universal, free education” in the whole of western Nigeria within two years! An extraordinary feat! But I said to him, “Is it not far more important to think about the content of education than the quantity of it? Instead of saying, “Within two years I want every child to go to school”, is it not far more important to ask, “What kind of citizens do we want to produce in our schools?” Or “what values do we want to impart to the school children?” For if school children go to school, and end up despising their grandparents, does it not indicate that something is wrong with the content of education? And by multiplying schools without correcting the content of education, are we not multiplying the problems? Schools and universities can become places in which irrelevant knowledge is passed from generation to generation.

CALIFORNIA: Yes, that’s the mistake of the first years after independence – not realising where our priorities lie. The idea of “school” not being just “school”; rather “what kind of school?” We cannot afford to make these mistakes again. The most important thing for us to aim at is the mind. We have to say to our children, “Look, we had this kind of society in the past. Late as it is, we must find out what we can…” There are still little corners of knowledge where values exist, where poetry exists! It is the question of content, again. There are young people nowadays, who are trying to invent a new Igbo language, which they call “Central Igbo”. They are not familiar with the work of great Igbo poets, but they start to invent! They invent a word for university which literally means, “knows everything!” This shows how tired the minds are, how unhealthy. And this is what we are trying to battle! There are certain university professors who are setting up the society for the study of Igbo culture, but they don’t know anything about it, and they don’t care. Their only interest is to get together and set the exams for the West African School Certificate; mark the exams, write their books, and make money off them. But they are not struggling for the survival of those elements of our culture, on which we can build! For example, they don’t even know about the great poets in Anambra State, and how relevant and topical their work is today! There is one story – just an excerpt of a long epic… It is an epic story about how the heroes got together to discuss a threat, a threat that was coming from the sky… where a certain ruler, a tyrant, had established himself. He had built steps up to the sky, and from there he was sending down decrees. One day he dropped down a piece of paper to the community telling them that they must not eat for the next twenty-eight days! There would have to be complete abstinence from food and drink! Why? He was holding a feast up there, and while he’s feasting, nobody on earth must eat.

UB: Almost like the IMF!

CALIFORNIA: Exactly! And the people obeyed, you know; they felt helpless! And he said, “If I see even one person drink even water, or chew a chewing stick, I will destroy the entire community!” So the people started crying. Those who could read started to cry, and those who could not read took it to the ones who had learned to read, and when they read it to them, they all started crying! And they started their month of starvation, and the children began to die. The heroes came together from different parts of the land and said, “What are we going to do about this? We must go and find out what’s going on up there!” Then, first of all, they started quarrelling over who should lead them – the usual sort of thing. And the boisterous ones became the leaders, but the real hero was the one in the back, with his flute in his hands. After weeks of arguing and moving about, but getting nowhere, they began to say, “Well, we better go home. We better give the whole thing up!“ So they turned around, and they met the man at the back who asked, “Why?” And they said, “We don’t see any point in this. We are going home!” So they all went back – including the spirits that had come from the spirit world to help them. But the real hero continued the journey. And the amazing thing is, when he arrived in heaven, the tyrant was not really all that strong! You would have expected a cataclysmic kind of struggle, but there was none at all! The fellow was actually a coward!

UB: So it was a bluff! And the real heroes of the Igbo society are the artists and the writers who have been telling everybody that colonialism was just one big bluff!

CALIFORNIA: Yes, and if we win the battle for the minds, the first thing which will go is that rigidity of mind that has come to us with the so-called “higher religions”, this fanaticism that can make a man go to war over a matter of belief!

UB: Then you might recreate the spirit of the culture, not by going back to some antiquated custom, but by making people realise again that the world is a market place – open to bargain!

CALIFORNIA: Yes, and by rediscovering the meaning of the old saying, “The World is a Dancing Masquerade!”

Horst Ulrich Beier (1922-2011) was born in Germany, and has lived and worked in the United Kingdom, and in 1950, Nigeria, where he joined the Extra-Mural Department of the University of Ibadan. Here Ulli was afforded the opportunity to meet many important custodians of Yoruba traditions and values that would become his life’s pursuit. Ulli famously became Omoluwabi – a person of character and class – the ultimate glory and status achievable in Yorubaland and psyche. As an educator Beier pioneered courses in African Literature, and is the founder of multiple organisations, institutions and publications, including ODU, BLACK ORPHEUS, the MBARI CLUB in Ibadan, MBARI MBAYO in Oshogbo, the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, IWALEWA haus and helped to found the Duro Ladipo Theatre. Between l967-l971 he taught ‘New English Literature’ in Africa and Asia & ‘Creative Writing’ at the University of Papua New Guinea. In l971 he spent four months doing a guest professorship at the University of Mainz, Germany, where he offered the first course in Eurupe on “Cotemporary Art in Africa”, hosting a large exhibition of Contemporary Art in the city’s museum, which was opened by President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal. Up until l974 he was the Director of the Institute of African Studies at the University Ife.

Ulli Beier // Chinua Achebe interview is from the book edited by Remi Omodele – Weighing the Cost of Pin Making: Ulli Beier in Coversations, published by Africa World Press, 2012.