Anthills of the Savannah, by Chinua Achebe.
Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe. London: Heinemann,1988.
A well-written and thought-provoking novel about the men who run African governments and strong African women.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was the first African novel that I and many other Americans read. Since it was published in 1958, he has continued to write and comment on his homeland. He is a great storyteller and skilled writer who continues to create interesting plots and creatures.
In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe tells the story of politics in the imaginary nation of Kangan. Those more knowledgeable about Africa may recognize who and where is being depicted better than I. After a coup, His Excellency leads the country. Chris is his Commissioner for Information and Ikem the editor of the state-run newspaper. The three had been boyhood friends, but their new relationship soured that friendship. As Chris observes at the start of the book, “this was a game that began innocently enough and then turned poisonous.” Achebe is obviously frustrated by the governments, both civilian and military that have emerged since independence. He seems to consider them as the Anthills of the Savannah of his title. His criticism of the men running them is sharp, and he comments frequently on their flaws. In the end, the main problem he sees is “the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and the dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.” He has no better opinion of non-African powers. While he no longer considers Britain a “menace,” for him, “the real danger is that fat, adolescent and delinquent millionaire” the United States.
Achebe does, however, continue to see the need for stories and storytellers like himself.
It is the story that outlives the sounds of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters…The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors.
Political intrigues run through the book giving it an element of suspense, but gradually the male political storyline is joined by that of the women who share the lives of Chris and Ikem. Chris’s lover, Beatrice, is the English-educated daughter of an African religious leader and holds a responsible position in the Finance Ministry. More importantly, she is articulate, observant and strong. In the course of the story, she is joined by Elewa, a store clerk and Ikem’s lover, and her own Evangelical maid, Agatha. In a long, dramatic statement, Achebe praises African women. He tells the story of the water goddess, the daughter of Almighty, and the spread of her worship. He declares “Mother is supreme,” and to be kept in reserve. “Then, as the world crashes around Man’s ears, Woman in her supremacy will step in and sweep the shards together.”
Beatrice’s response is to point out that women ought to be allowed to act before situations reach their worst. With her response, Achebe seems to admit the limits of his own perspective. At the end of the book, it is the women who lead into a new beginning—with a few good men joining in. They advocate a new society that honors both people and ideas, but readers are left with little idea of how that new society will be created.
My interest in this book was piqued by an interview with Achebe that I read. When he was asked why he had not turned the government over to the women in the novel, Achebe reiterated that the women would lead, but that he was unsure whether or not they would chose to work within or outside of government. His answer raises intriguing questions. Is he dismissive of all government? Can affective leadership take place outside of formal political channels? The answer is unclear in Anthills. Others who have read more of Achebe’s writings, and know Africa, may have better answers than I do. I’d welcome your comments.
One problem I must admit. I had trouble following what was being said in the dialogue of the uneducated characters in the book. With his use of dialect, Achebe makes clear the divisions that exist among Africans. He treats the characters who use dialect with great respect and makes a point of integrating them with the English-speaking characters. I just skipped over their words, however, because I could not understand them. That is personal flaw of mine, but it raises the point which is debated among post-colonial writers. What audience do they write for? English-speaking foreigners or their own people?
I highly recommend Anthills in the Savanna to readers how are interested in enjoyable novels, in African politics, or in the women of Africa.