Intellectual Societal Position in Anthills of the Savannah
Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah deals with positions of power in society, and government’s true role in this hierarchy of power. It explores the intersection of power with societal roles, gender, and education, showing how knowledge is both related to power closely and distanced from it incredibly. Through the lenses of Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem, as well as sometimes Sam, Achebe shows how differently intellectuals fare in postcolonial society, and yet how they all share many commonalities. For example, Franz Fanon in “On National Culture” explains that all natives “…need to take part in the fight if, quite simply, they wish to continue to exist…” (36). Each of these characters do fight in their own way, proving their stance as native intellectuals. Their role as storytellers highlights their intellectual standing and the power that they hold. This paper will argue that the native intellectual characters examined in Anthills of the Savannah can all be basically defined in terms of Franz Fanon’s ideas in “On National Culture” through their many traits as storytellers.
Firstly, it is important to note where each narrator of Achebe’s falls in the stages of the native intellectual, as described by Fanon. Fanon claims that the native storyteller in colonial or postcolonial society goes through three different phases: “In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power,” “In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is,” and, “Finally, in the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people” (Fanon 40-41). In the postcolonial society of Kangan, which Achebe creates, the characters of Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem all seem to be stuck in these different stages. Through the course of events in the novel, the characters do evolve slightly, but primarily Chris is in the first stage, Beatrice is in the second, and Ikem is in the third. Sam lies questionably outside of these guidelines, but perhaps is most like a native in the first phase.
Chris appears to stay in the first phase for at least a large portion of the novel, as he succumbs to the authoritarian regime of Sam and does his job dutifully, thus “[assimilating] the culture of the occupying power” through a government that is closely modeled to the one of their former colonizers. However, just because he falls under the corrupt government rules does not discredit his importance. His beliefs remain steadily opposed to Sam’s government. He firmly states his reasons for staying true to the government, and his resolute purpose appears to be for the greater good. He says, “…I couldn’t be writing this if I didn’t hang around to observe it all. And no one else would,” (Achebe 2). This speaks to his role as a storyteller, to his understanding of the importance of public information. Chris believes that if he openly opposed the government, he would be persecuted immediately and would be doing no one any good, and so he is subservient and agreeable to Sam. So, Chris’s role in society is to play the double-agent, creating a kind of neutral ground between the people and the government, allowing for a compromise if one were ever to arrive.
Beatrice appears to reside in the second stage, remaining adamantly disturbed by the references to white, western culture. She is aghast at Chris’s story about Sam and a white girl’s intimacy and she fixates on her “Desdemona complex.” “So I was locked in combat again with Desdemona, this time itinerant and, worse still, not over some useless black trash in England but the sacred symbol of my nation’s pride, such as it was” (Achebe 74). Beatrice is constantly aware of her position in society, showing distaste at her many forced roles. She connects with her identity very strongly, the only of the three narrators to do this completely. Fanon explains this phenomenon of the second stage: “Past happenings of the bygone days of [her] childhood will be brought up out of the depths of [her] memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed aestheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies” (41). Beatrice uses her references to her past to demonstrate her very specific role in society. For Beatrice, gender hinders her intellectual potential, as she is constantly viewed in a specific role for women. She is referenced as a priestess or prophetess of some sort many times, portraying a role of majesty and beauty, but she is also shown as being nothing more than a woman, as if it is inferior to any other role. Her real name, Nwanyibuife, means “A female is also something” (Achebe 79). At the party with Sam and the other government officials, she notes that she was brought to give “the woman’s angle,” rather than give actual input to any matters at hand (Achebe 69). In reality, it seems that Beatrice’s role in society as an intellectual is as a woman who “will descend and sweep the shards together” (Achebe 89), just as she does during the naming ceremony at the end of the novel, as a last resort. Beatrice’s references to the past and to tradition are highlighted with the legend of Idemili, which only reinforces Beatrice’s forced role as the one who repairs the things men break. It is important to note, however, that Beatrice is not necessarily aware of her own parallel with Idemili. “Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played but little part in her upbringing” (Achebe 96). However, Beatrice is constantly looking for these meanings, for little pieces of herself, which she still has yet to find. Fanon reinforces this idea with his description of the second stage of native intellectualism: “But since the native is not part of his people, since he only has exterior relations with his people, he is content to recall their life only” (40-41).
Ikem is the most radical of the three, the most revolutionary, and the most openly fighting. He “turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature” (Fanon 41). Ikem is unafraid to fight, and unafraid to use his powerful words and his position as editor of the National Gazette as leverage in that situation. Ikem’s strong-mindedness is probably why so many governmental officials do not like him, as Ikem points out, saying, “‘The reason for our little disagreement is because I have not attempted to hide my opinion of them as plain parasites’” (Achebe 145). Ikem’s talk with the university students was perhaps his most important action in his societal role, which was, in fact, as an awakener of the people. Because Ikem came from Abazon, a place seemingly ridden with poverty and disconnected from the rest of Kangan, he can relate to the larger scheme of people. Through his education and career as a writer, he can then reach these people and relate radical ideas to them with much agreement on the commoners’ side. Then, Ikem uses this leverage to fight back against their agreement, twisting their opinions to create their own, so that eventually the society to which he is talking will develop their own view of the political and social issues. This is apparent in his talk with the university students: “…it was during question-time that he finally achieved the close hand-to-hand struggle he so relished. By nature he is never on the same side as his audience. Whatever his audience is, he must try not to be” (Achebe 142). Ikem rallies the people, and even after his death, his role is remembered as the intellectual for the people; his death, it could be said, even inspires the rest of society to join in the fight against Sam’s regime. Ikem’s fight is a fight much more about the wrongdoings of society in general, than about the specific problems with Kangan. In this way, Ikem takes up “The responsibility of the native man of culture [which] is not a responsibility vis-à-vis his national culture, but a global responsibility with regard to the totality of the nation…” (Fanon 43).
Finally, Sam is an example of a native intellectual who is perhaps not fighting for the overall wellbeing of his society. Sam seems to possibly be in the first phase of the native intellectual, as he is proud to demonstrate the traits of the previously occupying power, and attempts to model a government around it. Still, he refuses to acknowledge that his regime could be worse than colonial power, seemingly putting anything African in front of anything European, although his actions do not support this. “The efforts of the native to rehabilitate himself and to escape from the claws of colonialism are logically inscribed from the same point of view as that of colonialism” (Fanon 38). Sam strives to be just like western culture, and it appears that he always wanted to be accepted by this culture. “…all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness” (Achebe 44-45). This admiration of western culture speaks to Sam’s character to say that perhaps he does not even fit in the battle of native intellectuals; he barely considers himself native, so it is possible that his acceptance of European culture does not even belong in the same category as the attitudes of his peers.
Achebe and Fanon together show the different roles of intellectuals in a postcolonial society, and prove their significance in reference to society and culture in general. While other factors are clearly mixed with the roles of Achebe’s characters, like gender issues and governmental repression, the characters’ want of freedom and intellectual fighting defines them clearly, perhaps more than other traits. Each character is in a different stage of native intellectual development, and they all struggle to embrace African culture alongside their colonial past, but their ways of coping are very similar. They fight, sometimes passively, sometimes overzealously, but the confused fighting helps them all find their identities both as individuals and as a postcolonial nation.
Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor, 1988. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. “On National Culture.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994. 36-52. Print.