Banning Chinua Achebe in Kenya

Banning Chinua Achebe in Kenya


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 Critics argue that the Nigerian’s novel, as well as the two Kiswahili ones by the prolific Zanzibari, only mirror society and that their themes do not aim to corrupt but to correct social mores. Evil does not, in the end, triumph over good.  


Rose Ure Mezu. Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works. London: Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd, 2006. 274 pp.

Achebe Novels: Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease,  A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah

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Banning Chinua Achebe in Kenya

A Man of the People—Pornographic?


Three novels, including one by revered African writer Chinua Achebe, at the centre of a heated controversy, pitting a Catholic lobby group against the Ministry of Education, are critical to the examination of Kiswahili.

Parents Caucus, a lobby operating under the wing of the Catholic Church in Kenya, claims that Achebe’s evergreen political satire, A Man of the People, as well as S.A. Mohammed’s two Kiswahili novels, Kiu and Kitumbua Kimeingia Mchanga, are sexually explicit and pornographic.

For that, the lobby argues, they should be struck off the schools reading list — lest they corrupt the morals of the youth. The three novels were selected as set textbooks for the Literature in English and Kiswahili courses for Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education two years ago, and have been taught in schools since. Form Four students will be sitting examinations on the books for the first time next month.

In Nairobi and Kiambu, lobbyists have been frantically collecting signatures on a protest note entitled Help Kick Pornography Out of the Classroom. Last Sunday, the lobbying moved a notch higher when the appeal for signatures was made during Mass at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi – in the hearing of President Mwai Kibaki and Education minister George Saitoti.

The import of the appeal was that the Head of State, and the Education minister should use their influence to have the contentious books removed from the syllabus. Both Mr Kibaki and Prof Saitoti are Catholics.

Although those agitating for the books’ ban insist that their themes and content are objectionable, literary critics have been quick to point out that two of the books have been taught in secondary school before, and the students were none the worse for it. Achebe’s A Man of the People was taught to high school students in the 1970s without protest, as was Mohammed’s Kiu in the mid 1980s.

Fr Emmanuel Ngugi of the Holy Family Basilica says the church is the conscience of society, and must stand up to be counted. He objects to the language used in the books, saying it is obscene and immoral.

“There is nothing morally redeeming in the female characters in the book who are merely portrayed as sex objects,” he says of A Man of the People.

Critics argue that the Nigerian’s novel, as well as the two Kiswahili ones by the prolific Zanzibari, only mirror society and that their themes do not aim to corrupt but to correct social mores. Evil does not, in the end, triumph over good.

The story in Achebe’s story revolves around Chief Nanga, a Cabinet minister, and his former student Odili Samalu, a school teacher. Their meeting at a school event leads to the minister inviting Odili to his city residence to help him secure a scholarship to study abroad.

Odili’s host seduces his girlfriend, and thus igniting a bitter feud for the minister’s mistress. The rivalry between the two men spills into the nation’s politics and reaches its climax in a coup d’etat.

Those pushing for a ban on the books pick excerpts from A Man of the People, which they say are clearly explicit and are likely to excite the students’ imagination and stir their sexual desires.

“It is astounding the kind of literature we are exposing our children to in classrooms,” says one parent. “In fact, it is quite demeaning to women for a man to think that they can only be recognised or are at their best only in a sexual relationship.”

Educationists, on the other hand, take the exact opposite view, and are accusing the church of overstepping its mandate.

Prof Henry Indangasi, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature, is clearly angered at what he terms as moral posturing by the church.

“I am passionately convinced that the critics of [Achebe’s] book are wrong. They are deliberately misinterpreting certain sections in the book to suit their purist stand,” he says.

Achebe, the don argues, is a respected author in Africa who has not been known as a purveyor of sex and pornography for its own sake. A Man of the People, he says, is a satirical book that merely aims to correct the moral decadence in society, and nothing else.

“Behind the satire is a set of morals to make us laugh at ourselves, and the characters who are depicted as morally deprived. Achebe is not telling his readers to behave like the characters, but wants them to learn from the book,” says the don.

“I would, without hesitation, recommend the book to my daughter because, in reality, there are men who are irresponsible and disgusting like Odili, Chief Nanga and “irre” in our society”, says Prof Indangasi.

“People who treat women as sexual objects and then gloat about it exist in society. It is the failure to teach girls that such men exist, and that they should be on the lookout for them, that is the problem,” he adds.

Literature mirrors what happens in society, and sex definitely takes place in society. It is not the work of literature to moralise, but to reflect society and, therefore, provide lessons.

Removing the books from the syllabus is being seen as tantamount to taking the country back to the dark days of censorship. Prof Indangasi, who sits on the English curriculum panel at the Kenya Institute of Education, says it would be tragic if the government resorted to the “Kanu way” of censoring books it is uncomfortable with.

“Kanu banned books by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I want to believe the present government cannot stoop that low,” he says.

Although sex is mentioned in the three books, it is not explicit as is being claimed by the lobbyists. Students of literature argue that it is likely the critics of the scenes have failed to appreciate the larger and more important issues the texts are commenting on — like bad governance, immorality, freedom of the Press, elections, betrayal and hypocrisy.

“The sexual images are a mere statement of what happens in society. Is the church trying to say that sex does not take place?” asks a University of Nairobi student.

In academic circles, the campaign to take the books off the reading list is being viewed as religious conservatism and perpetuation of a secluded theology that is removed from reality.

Authors, says the literati, never ask their readers to emulate the characters in their works, but to instead learn from them.

A Kiswahili author who sought anonymity said the church has no business trying to comment on issues best left to the academia.

If the government accedes to the church’s demands, he says, it will be setting a very bad precedent.

“The view that the books are pornographic, just because they mention sex, is myopic and totally uninformed. There are very many passages in  the Bible mentioning and describing sex, yet the church has never advocated for those sections to be removed, or for the Bible to be banned,” he adds.

Additional reporting by Kwamchetsi Makokha (Story courtesy of The Nation and All

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Dear friends,

There is much that is comical in our new Kenya; but the nature of comical statements is often something that invites threats. Years ago, when the late Kariuki Chotara, a Kenyan politician, wanted “Karo Max” arrested and detained, we laughed – but this sort of cowboy narrow-mindedness lead to a purge of writers, free-speakers and thinkers that Kenya is still recovering from.

Now a new one: that Chinua Achebe is a pornographer. His book, A Man of the People, which is taught in schools to 16-18 year olds. This is what a Catholic Church lobby group is saying; what several parents groups are saying. (See attached newspaper article below)

My organisation, kwani? wishes to solicit commentary from writers and writers organisations so we can use this to prevent any action being taken to remove this, and the other books under threat. We hope to have edited comments published in one of our national newspapers: the East African or The Sunday Standard.

We would need such submissions in by Monday the 15th of September 2003. We will also put up these comments on our website

We are also trying to get in touch with Mr. Achebe urgently so he may give his views on the matter.

Please forward this to any writers or lovers of free speech that you know.

Warm regards,

Binyavanga Wainaina

Thank you.

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Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan writer, is the founding editor of Kenya’s only literary Journal, Kwani?. He lived and worked for ten years in South Africa. He has been writing from Nakuru, Kenya for the past two years. He is now based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been published by various literary journals around the World. He writes regularly for the Sunday Times (South Africa) and the East African (Kenya). He has also written for the Guardian (UK), The Mail and Guardian (SA), The Cape Times and the Cape Argus (Cape Town).In July 2002 he won the Caine Prize for African Writing – Africa’s most prestigious literary prize.

The Caine Prize for African Writing is named in memory of the late Sir Michael Caine, who was Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for almost 25 years. The patrons of the prize are three African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and Naguib Mahfouz. The two African Booker Prize winners, J. M. Coetzee and Ben Okri, have joined the Council of the Caine Prize.

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Chinua Achebe wins $300,000 Gish prize—By Philip Nwosu—Monday, September 27, 2010—The author of the epic novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, has emerged winner of the United States Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. The Gish prize, which was established in 1994 by the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust and administered by JPMorgan Chase Bank as trustee, is given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” The prize is worth $300,000. . . . Achebe’s writings examine African politics and chronicle the ways in which African culture and civilization have survived in the post-colonial world. Some of his acclaimed works include A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1988).

 [The 80-year-old author has founded a number of magazines for African art, fiction and poetry.] Achebe, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to a 1990 car accident, is currently Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.—SunNewsOnline

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Again, Chinua Achebe Rejects Nigerian Award—“The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again,” Achebe said in the letter which he reportedly sent to Nigeria Ambassador to the United States. Achebe had in 2004 rejected offer of national award from the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo in protest of the political situation in Nigeria and his native Anambra State then.

The US based writer had in the rejection letter he wrote to the then President noted that: “I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.  I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.

“Forty three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours—the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic—and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award.

“I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples.  Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List.”—PMNewsNigeria

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One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir

By Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina tumbled through his middle-class Kenyan childhood out of kilter with the world around him. This world came to him as a chaos of loud and colorful sounds: the hair dryers at his mother’s beauty parlor, black mamba bicycle bells, mechanics in Nairobi, the music of Michael Jackson—all punctuated by the infectious laughter of his brother and sister, Jimmy and Ciru. He could fall in with their patterns, but it would take him a while to carve out his own. In this vivid and compelling debut memoir, Wainaina takes us through his school days, his mother’s religious period, his failed attempt to study in South Africa as a computer programmer, a moving family reunion in Uganda, and his travels around Kenya. The landscape in front of him always claims his main attention, but he also evokes the shifting political scene that unsettles his views on family, tribe, and nationhood.  

Throughout, reading is his refuge and his solace. And when, in 2002, a writing prize comes through, the door is opened for him to pursue the career that perhaps had been beckoning all along. A series of fascinating international reporting assignments follow. Finally he circles back to a Kenya in the throes of postelection violence and finds he is not the only one questioning the old certainties.

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#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

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#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

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#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”

We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 29 march 2010




Home Transitional Writings on Africa  The African World  Betty Wamalwa Muragori Table

Related Files: Reading Rose Ure  Mezu   Achebe Preface  Achebe Introduction   Mezu and Achebe: An Inside Knowledge     Achebe Another Birthday in Exile  

Banning Chinua Achebe in Kenya  Women in Achebe’s World   Okonkwo’s Curse  Achebe’s Female Characterisation

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