No longer is an individual part of a society that is bounded by a tribal fence – where all its inhabitants share the same culture, norms and identity that are inherited unchanged by generation after generation. Values are more difficult to blindly accept since an individual’s outlook is no longer confined to the fences of his tribe, and not all the aspects of his specific culture remain consistent with the universal domain he now confronts. In other words – in light of the 21st century individuals are constantly faced with decisions that ask them to either side with tradition or globalization.
Girls at War and Other Short Stories by Nigeria’s ebullient Achebe, An Egyptian Childhood, by Egyptian thinker Taha Hussein and Un Chien Andalou by surrealist artists Luis Bunel and Salvador Dali are texts that contain culturally specific material but also have a universal appeal. How these texts work as art for a culturally specific audience and how they work for a world audience is largely based on the outlook of the author and reader, in addition to where their outlooks unionize.
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Nevertheless, one can still attempt to interpret the degree to which these texts are culturally specific or universally appealing through one’s own outlook, which is what I shall attempt to do through the course of my essay. Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s most celebrated writers does not only tackle this dilemma in his short stories but also confronts it in reality – notably his choice of language that he uses in his texts, which is the language of the colonizer.
He chooses English, which is not Nigeria’s native tongue even though his main audience are Africans. “The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of dignity and self respect. The writers’ duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost” (Achebe). Colonization affected the whole country and Achebe was required to suspend the dialect that was specific to his tribe – his choice in face of the inevitable question of either siding with tradition or globalization.
And since his outlook and the outlook of Nigeria had changed after colonization and English had become “the most important body of literature in Black Africa” (Achebe), no longer was Achebe confined to the fences of his small village in the southern western area of Nigeria. Therefore, he opted for a language that “… [permitted] the transcendence of old ethic divisions” (Achebe) and went beyond the value system of the Ibo tribe’s fences in order to convey his message.
The fundamental theme in Achebe’s short stories is that Africa was not a dark and sordid continent, which the Europeans enlightened with their philosophy and sophistication. Having kept this theme the locus of all his stories Achebe addresses directly to his African audience; however simultaneously there are issues that have a universal appeal that his global audience, particularly his European readers can relate to.
In Dead Man’s Path, there exists an interesting conundrum, since it is set in the post-colonial period and Achebe attempts to critique the very legacy he stands upon. In the midst of this legacy a clash between the European educated class and the traditional people is ignited and Michael Obi the headmaster who must have been born on the crossroads of two cultures as his name suggests takes the central role of this conflict. He is characterized as a man with a “passion for “modern methods…
and [exhibits] denigration of [the] old and superannuated people in the teaching field” (Achebe, 71). Moreover, Michael Obi’s absolute intolerance towards traditional beliefs “The purpose of our school is to eradicate just such beliefs as that” (Achebe, 73), remains a pivotal factor in this conflict. From a culturally specific point of view Michael Obi can be viewed as an African man whose outlook upon his origins has changed due to colonization – the very theme Achebe repeatedly addresses to his African audience.
By despising the beliefs of his ancestors as “pagan rituals” Obi is immediately taking the European point of view and admitting that their way is superior, which causes much resentment to Achebe, since it creates a situation where a European standard is formed which all Africans must measure up to. Achebe therefore despises globalization since it is responsible for creating an “us versus them” situation and not a “we” situation, whereby all societies can accept their differences and not view each other as outcasts.
This resentment and disgrace for colonialism and globalization is transformed into Achebe’s writings and is visible in many excerpts, “… this path was here before you were born and before you father was born” (Achebe, 73). The author is subtly mocking Europe’s infancy in Africa and he continuously does this with similar expressions of reproach that can repeatedly be found throughout his texts – this is the message I believe he wishes to convey to his fellow Africans.
The same reproach is sensed in the Vengeful Creditor, where the story shows that the end of colonialism does not necessarily mean the end of foreign rule and influence. Mrs. Eminike’s opinion regarding the ostentatious spending habits of the foreigners “to [entice] the few remaining servants away from Africans” (Achebe, 56) demonstrates the presence of the foreigners despite Nigeria having gained its independence. Her reproach is bluntly mentioned, “… she hated the Americans and the embassies (but particularly the Americans)” (Achebe, 56).
A more subtle form of reproach is hinted towards free education – a foreign policy – and its affects on the traditional class divide of Nigeria. In developing countries like Nigeria where a symbiotic system exists, whereby the poor live off the rich and the rich mutually benefit from the poor – free education causes much disturbance to this balance. Free education is seen as a free ride or as “an escape from the drabness and arduous demands of home” (Achebe, 58-59) and not as an opportunity whereby the poor can improve their lifestyles.
Once again Achebe entails the negative consequences of neo-colonialism on the mental attitudes of lower class Africans and how it aids to displace their traditional roles. The message I presume Achebe wishes pass to his African audience is how demeaning their attitudes are towards development; if it they were to pursue education it should be for their betterment and not seen as a vehicle to escape from their traditional positions in society. Even though Achebe’s main intention is to write for African’s through conveying culturally specific messages there are certain issues raised in his stories that are universally appealing.