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Anthills of the Savannah, by Chinua Achebe.

February 3, 2013

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2013 11:51 am

    This is one of Achebe’s novels I am looking forward to reading. Actually, it caught my eye when in an interview (as well) Achebe said the feminist accused him of “machismo” because he never writes about strong women characters, considering the fact that women in most of his novels are always at the service of their male counterparts. Which is unfair, as he said, because they have not yet read Anthills of the Savannah.

    With your review, it went high in my TBR. You seem to have enjoyed the novel, except for the part where there was use of dialect, I guess you were refering to Pidgin-English or Broken-English.

    Nice review, hopefully I will read and review it soon.

    • February 5, 2013 10:25 am

      I did enjoy this book immensely, despite the fact that I know I missed out on the Pidgin-English. Even when I didn’t know the words, they gave the book texture and helped establish characters.

      I found the women in Anthills very strong and capable. In fact their strength seemed to be a main message of the book. True, they were loyal to their men, more so than some feminists would like, but they certainly didn’t get their identity from the men which I consider more important. They were independent and able to function well even when the men were not there. I thought Achebe was more critical of the men and the government than of the women.

      I look forward to your review of Anthills.

  2. February 4, 2013 6:24 pm

    I read Anthills of the Savannah way back in English Literature Class at the Uni. I still have a copy somewhere. I remember loving the novel back then because I could identify my country Ghana in the fictional nation of Kanga. Being under a a military rule then, the issues raised resonated. Indeed, I dare say that the nation of Kanga might have resonated with lots of African nations under military rule back in the 80s

    Like Mary hinted, the issue of language in this novel is the pidgin English which has become a lingo in Nigeria, a sort of second official language. Though an African, I find it difficult to follow sometimes. But then it does not detract from the novels of Achebe. The Pidgin only adds to the richness of language used by Achebe and others like him, thus creating a style of his own.

    A fine review as always 🙂

  3. February 5, 2013 10:29 am

    Thanks. I really appreciate your sharing your experience with this book. I think Achebe would appreciate what you said too. I believe that he was writing it in some ways for African readers who would recognize the governmental problems. I was surprised you had some trouble with the dialect, but totally agree that it added to the book.

  4. jane permalink
    April 6, 2013 4:19 pm

    what page number in the book is that boxed quote on?

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