The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe recounts this myth, which exists in hundreds of versions throughout Africa, in one of his essays.
Sometimes, Achebe writes, the messenger is a chameleon, a lizard, or another animal; sometimes the message is altered accidentally rather than maliciously. But the structure remains the same: men ask for immortality and the god is willing to grant it, but something goes wrong and the gift is lost forever. “It is as though the ancestors who made language and knew from what bestiality its use rescued them are saying to us: Beware of interfering with its purpose!” Achebe writes. “For when language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from truth . . . horrors can descend again on mankind.”
The myth holds another lesson as well—one that has been fundamental to the career of Achebe, who has been called “the patriarch of the African novel.” There is danger in relying on someone else to speak for you: you can trust that your message will be communicated accurately only if you speak with your own voice. With his masterpiece, “Things Fall Apart,” one of the first works of fiction to present African village life from an African perspective, Achebe began the literary reclamation of his country’s history from generations of colonial writers. Published fifty years ago—a new edition has just appeared, from Anchor ($10.95)—it has been translated into fifty languages and has sold more than ten million copies.
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Photograph by Steve Pyke