Monday, May 3, 2010


WHEN HIS DAUGHTER STARTED PRESCHOOL IN NIGERIA IN 1965, Chinua Achebe was alarmed to find how much racism was built into the books she was exposed to at school. Even when the teachers, who were predominantly white, presented the material with no personal bias, the stories themselves contained racial stereotypes that portrayed Africans as primitive and superstitious. Achebe was, at that time, the recognized voice of modern African literature ever since the publication of his novel Things Fall Apart (1958). As editor of the African Writers Series and director of external broadcasting at the Nigerian Broadcast Service where he founded the Voice of Nigeria, he was a major cultural leader. It was in this capacity that his good friend and former classmate, the poet Christopher Okigbo, then serving as the manager of the Cambridge Press for West Africa, approached him about writing a children's book.

Achebe had given a lecture in Leeds the year before entitled "The Novelist as Teacher." He said his role as a novelist was "to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement." With this purpose in mind, Achebe saw himself as a teacher as well as a novelist. And while he had intended his "teachings" for people of all ages, his work had so far been addressed to adults. His experience as a parent, however, showed him that he could not ignore Nigeria's children. So as a novelist and as a concerned father, he wrote Chike and the River (1966).

Chike and the River is a sixty-page chapter book intended for middle readers with illustrations by Prue Theobalds. Chike, a Nigerian boy, moves from his native village of Umuofia to the city of Onitsha to live with his uncle.

In the city, Chike is overwhelmed by how different life is from what he had known in Umuofia. "In Umuofia every thief was known, but here [in Onitsha] even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to one another." His uncle is stern, and the friends he makes at school are mischievous, often leading Chike astray.

From his first day at school, the children talk about one thing: Asaba, the city on the opposite bank of the Niger River. It can be reached by ferry, "sixpence to go over and sixpence to return." But Chike has no money.

After many ill-conceived plans for acquiring the necessary ferry fee, Chike stumbles on the idea to wash the cars of people waiting to cross the river. "When he had finished [washing the car] he told the owner [who] ... brought out a handful of coins and gave one to Chike. ... Chike's dream had come true; at last he could go to Asaba."

Once in Asaba, Chike is disappointed by how unimpressive the town is. But when he decides he has seen enough, he finds that he has missed the last ferry back to Onitsha. With no place to stay, Chike takes refuge in the back of a lorry.

The lorry turns out to belong to a gang of thieves. Chike overhears the thieves make arrangements with a night watchman and then load their lorry with stolen goods. Chike avoids discovery, and in the morning when he awakes, "He was amazed by what he saw. A man tied to a mango tree."

It is the night watchmen, who begins to tell the police that he had been overpowered by thieves. But Chike steps up, "'I saw the thieves...This man helped them.'" Chike's testimony leads to the arrest and conviction of the thieves, and Chike becomes a hero.

Chike and the River suffers from strong didacticism and that workshop woe "telling" instead of "showing." Achebe acknowledged that he found writing for children difficult, and the difficulty feels like the awkward discomfort some adults get around children. The book's final paragraph shows this well:
So Chike's adventure on the River Niger brought him close to danger and then rewarded him with good fortune. It also exposed Mr Peter Nwaba, the rich but miserly trader. For it was he who had led the other thieves.
Such a pat ending and overt tying off of loose ends comes across as either lazy or exasperated, a desire to just be done with it. Achebe discovered what will be something of a theme on We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie: an ability to write for adults does not necessarily translate into an ability write for children. With his next three children's books, Achebe chose a mode more suited to his audience and his purposes--picture books about talking animals.

Tomorrow: How the Leopard Got His Claws.

Background on Achebe's composition of Chike and the River came from Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto and The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia by M. Keith Booker.

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