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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