Published on 23 Mar 2013

How Achebe and Marley inspired a London teenager

It feels odd to fete Bob Marley and Chinua Achebe in the same sentence, but fete them in very similar ways I do.

Marley’s accessible mass market blend of conscious reggae was the soundtrack to my early teens.

Confused as I was by growing up half African in an inner city London comprehensive, my learning atmosphere was defined by white and Caribbean working class attitudes to education.

Does that sound snobbish? Racist even? It may well. It’s not meant to be.

Was I ever bullied, demeaned or sneered at for enjoying reading, or generally getting my homework done? For enjoying learning?

There wasn’t a great deal of encouragement among my peers to study hard, but no, I wasn’t.

Luckily I was generally part of the gang – which meant the fact that I also (sometimes) worked pretty hard went unnoticed by the people that really mattered. The other kids.

It was an environment where many pupils got more out of tormenting teachers than trying to get good grades. It was pretty amusing, I must confess, indeed I was a regular participant in puerile schoolboy pranks.

But there was a really unpleasant side too. In my year group there was very little – if any – white on black racism.

Largely because the toughest kids were all of Caribbean descent. But there was a seeping insidious prejudice that went unchecked and unacknowledged until the tough kids left school.

‘African’ was routinely hurled amongst them as an insult – with few pupils, or indeed teachers, confident or aware enough to proffer any challenge.

I was one of only two pupils of African – as opposed to Caribbean – descent in my year. It was often a painful experience.

Marley – a Jamaican global icon loved by everyone – provided some solace in those isolating early years of self awareness and awakening. His music spoke of loving Africa. He helped me love my roots.

Of course at home I was surrounded by reasons to embrace my African heritage – the books of Achebe included – but at school I had little support and few reference points.

Until I was aged 16, and the moral compass of my school life changed overnight.

Age 16. Post GCSE’s. Sixth form time. When 80 per cent of my year group – many of whom I genuinely considered my friends, as well as the good time boys who were great for a laugh but didn’t have the family backing to stick out another two years of school – left my life pretty much forever.

On the bookshelves in my parents home were tome upon tome from my motherland – America – and my fatherland – Nigeria. I had skimmed it before but there was something so compelling and readable about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that I soon chose it as the subject of my English a level dissertation. That and its sequel, No Longer At Ease.

I knew of course that they were written by a Nigerian. In fact, by an Ibo (from the Igbo ethnic group in southeastern Nigera)- like my father. A people who have had long had bitter and bloody conflicts with their fellow Nigerians, but who nonetheless pride education above anything else.

The Ibo determination to learn I knew well. Not through my own somewhat lackadaisical efforts at school, but the legion stories I heard of relatives who held down several jobs in order to amass two, three or more degrees.

And in Chinua Achebe’s books I learnt about more than just the ambitions and the tortured history of my people. I learnt about more than just the imperial and post colonial changes in 19th and 20th century Nigeria.

Achebe’s simple – some would say sparse – accounts of personal mores, values and sometimes collapse as the winds of global change caterwaul about – transcended way beyond any African or indeed tribal affiliations I felt.

I had no idea how Achebe would sculpt so adroitly themes and concepts I would recognise again and again. As both a student, and then as a journalist – seeking to understand the ways in which ordinary people cope – or indeed don’t cope – with the world morphing around them.

And Achebe did something we also recognise and celebrate in the music of Bob Marley.

They communicated with the same prescience. Their books and music have the same easy accessibility. And that same ability to parse precisely what it is to be human. It is just darn fine work. Stuff even this anxious teenager could – and did- begin to understand.

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Related posts: Why Chinua Achebe embodied Africa’s struggles

 

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5 reader comments

  1. Annette says:

    Keme, I spent two years in Ethiopia as a kid in the 1960’s. It changed my life forever, and so, Africans became my icons: Mandela, Tutu and people like Albert Schweitzer and Catherine Hamlin: the latter founded the Fistula Hospital in Addis. I also lived in South Africa for 6 years – the apartheid time – where I learnt about justice and standing up for marginalised people.

    The Africans I know and respect are hard-working, moral and uncorrupt, who keep doing what they’re doing for their family, for a better future. I’m proud to count many Africans as friends and proud to say that I sponsored one hard working orphan, Hanna Alemu, through university in Addis. Today, she has a well paid job as a college teacher. So, education, education and education is so important!

    Well done for all your family taught you, and who you’ve become. And now you are an icon to many Africans and African families living here – whether 1st, 2nd or even 3rd generations. Perseverance and self belief pays!

  2. SUBRATA KUMAR ROY says:

    I forgot how and when I became a blood relation of ‘ole Man of Africa. As if he was there even before I read things fall apart…(reminding me Yeats), like my father and ma. It is the book “Home and exile” which woke me up from the slumber of colonial past, which is the hang over we Indian still continuing, willingly and knowingly. Conrad or Naipaul ( he however didn’t talk about Pearl S Buck or our own Kipling), whoever it is,even great Graham Greene (writing about the Latin America) unconsciously or genetically used to veer on the border of white racism. We, Indian, a distinctly cynical race, totally forgot our great past. And for us, Alas, there is no Chinua Achebe in this very diabolical century, where the mammon culture of multiplex is all about human race.

  3. Susan de Pear says:

    ‘Things Fall Apart’ will be my next choice of book when it’s my turn at our local Book Club.

  4. Philip Edwards says:

    Keme,

    What a wonderful, moving blog.

    My roots are different from yours so I don’t share your affection for reggae. Mostly, it is too repetitive for me.

    But Marley’s politically conscious stuff was marvellous, lyrical even.

    All human beings should be aware of the truth of their origins and NEVER deny them. In human history the African-Caribbean-Americas (South and North)-Europe connection has demonstrated the best and worst of our species. It is still being resolved, but the past must NEVER be forgotten and must be exposed to the truth constantly. Your blog is a small but vital part of that.

    As a white British European I am thoroughly ashamed of our part in that history. We can never restore what was lost in lives, natural resources and wealth. But we can have the courage to recognise it and try our best to make restitution.

    We are a very long way from setting the record straight and trying to shape a better future. The horrors of racism still exist, as does colonialism – witness events in the Middle East.

    Hope dies last.

  5. Keme Nzerem says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    Keme

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