Achebe and Friends at Umuahia

Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite. Terri Ochiagha. James Currey, Oxford, 2015, pp 202, ISBN 9781847011091. Hb £45.

This is an eminently readable book, especially for anyone with a possibly somewhat arcane interest – such as myself – in the oddities of the British colonial education system in Africa. Terri Ochiagha’s avowed intention is to look at the generation of ‘The Shining Ones’: Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemaka Ike, Chike Momah and Christopher Okigbo, who all arrived at the government boarding school at Umuahia, between 1944 and 1948, in order to explore just what set of circumstances might have given rise to such an intense flowering of literary excellence.

Ochiagha is a clear and capable writer so she deals interestingly, if necessarily briefly, with the writing careers and connections between the writers after they left school, but much of this is relatively well trodden ground. The star of this book is Government College, Umuahia, founded in 1929; school motto: In unum luceant. (Latin was not formally taught at the school.)

Umuahia was one of a pair of pre-eminent boys schools created by the British government in Nigeria, the other being at Ibadan, where indeed many of Nigeria’s other most famous writers, including Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Cyprian Ekwensi studied, though over a much wider time period. As Ochiagha acknowledges such institutions popped up in the early twentieth century in a somewhat haphazard manner across British colonial Africa; including King’s College Budo (for boys) and Gayaza High School (for girls) in Uganda, Alliance High School in Kenya, Tabora School in Tanzania and Achimota College in Sierra Leone.

They were all modelled on the British public school system, though unlike that iniquitous bastion of class privilege, in the colonies those who got to the schools were the (nearly always) boys who won places in exceedingly competitive national end of primary school examinations. These exceptionally academically gifted children were then closeted in boarding schools where, apart from generally excessive amounts of compulsory sporting activity and religious attendance in the tradition of Matthew Arnold’s Victorian ‘muscular Christian education’, all they had to do was to study. The schools generally held only a few hundred students, so class sizes were tiny, they were generously equipped with grounds and libraries and laid on many extra-curricular activities. Above all, as Achebe and Friends beautifully illustrates through Ochiagha’s careful research, they provided an exceptionally intellectual teaching faculty.

Nearly all Achebe’s teachers were Oxbridge graduates. The cream of the British education system was sent to teach the cream of Nigerian youth, with the aim of turning them into future leaders who would be deeply invested in, and committed to, a British view of culture and civilisation and to the British Empire. As time went on a handful of African teachers were allowed in, but only if they had suitably outstanding academic qualifications from leading British Universities (American ones didn’t count). These teachers expected very high standards from their students, and got them. They also allowed only English to be spoken and insisted that each boy read a novel a week in addition to ordinary school work. It seems to me that this collection of facts goes a fair way to explaining much of the success of these hot-housing schools in producing the future leaders of Africa in a wide range of disciplines.

The story of the school is a fine piece of social colonial history, with a cast of British eccentrics and exceptional African boys, and glorious pictures of staff and teachers posing in their regulation baggy shorts, or (my absolute favourite) the all-male cast of The Mikado in full costume. But there is nothing about the institution that seems to me to explain why in this period it produced such an exceptional crop of creative writers.

Chinua Achebe appears as a boy of outstanding abilities even among a gifted peer group. And as Ochiagha follows ‘The Shining Ones’ into their post-school careers Achebe is the trail-blazer with his seminal Things Fall Apart (1958). There does seem to be, unsurprisingly, evidence that such a ground-breaking role model inspired a number of Achebe’s former school-mates, though I doubt anything would have prevented Christopher Okigbo’s blazing star of a life from following its literary course.

What I did find interesting to consider was how Umuahia succeeded so well in nurturing an outstanding group of creative intellects, while failing so abysmally to inculcate the colonial mindset which was the raison d’etre for the institution. These boys were taught English literature, British empire history and Protestant Christianity, but as soon as they moved on to university and beyond they produced novels and poetry that subverted and denounced with brilliant effectiveness the narrative of the ‘civilising mission’ and the idea that Nigeria did not contain its own rich and complex cultures. Ochiagha speculates about the ‘unique humanistic ambiance’(11) of the college, but her own research reveals that this was no by an means a consistent guiding philosophy of the school. It is perhaps impossible to pin down just how any exceptional cultural blossoming comes to pass, but Achebe and Friends certainly adds to our understanding of how a group of 1940s Nigerian schoolboys acquired the intellectual education which was a necessary precursor to the extraordinary literature that five of them went on to produce.

Reviewed by: Jane Plastow, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 143-145]