At a time when UK higher education managers talk of “internationalisation” and “world-changing research” while limiting participation and undermining the arts and humanities, proof that education has the power to change the world can be found in the story told in this groundbreaking book. In 1928, the Reverend Robert Fisher, an Englishman eager to found an elite British secondary school in colonial Africa, paid “two heads of tobacco and twenty pennies per annum” for “more than 10 square miles of ‘desecrated’ land used as a burial-ground for outcasts” in a remote region of Nigeria. Government College Umuahia instilled discipline by design and dissent by accident. This study focuses on the years 1944-52 and the legacy of a colonial institution that inadvertently laid the foundations of independence – in 1960 – and, later, post-colonial disaffection.
Umuahia produced writers of distinction. Alumni include Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Its pupils studied cricket and the Classics in the context of “mounting anti-colonial nationalism outside the school walls”. Individual autobiographies have covered some of this ground, but Terri Ochiagha’s study is the first to examine in detail the coming-of-age of an influential group, seeing their schooldays as key to their emergence as writers: “The secondary education of some of Nigeria’s most celebrated writers in the colonial equivalent of the British public school system” is a story of indoctrination, but also liberation.
By introducing his own “Textbook Act of 1945”, an injunction against spending too much time on textbooks, the school’s principal encouraged pupils to read imaginative literature. The love of stories of “faraway and long-ago worlds”, as Achebe recalled, enriched the boys’ lives. The “transformation of talented African youth into intellectually empowered, yet politically quiescent colonial replicas of English gentlemen” did not go according to plan. The boys bit the hand that fed them. Inspiring teachers taught them literature, and their profit on it was that the boys learned to curse their colonial masters.
Despite warnings from earlier colonial governors “that a literary education was unsuited to the mental aptitudes and needs of ‘the natives’”, Umuahia steeped its boys in stories. Two novels speak to the strengths of the Umuahian legacy. Achebe’s Arrow of God (1964) – arguably his best book – and Amadi’s The Concubine (1966) are immersive tales of village life hatched on the playing fields of “the Eton of the East”, its bucolic setting and rich library furnishing time and tools.
Achebe is Africa’s greatest writer. Accordingly, those who followed him, especially Nigerians, are called “the Achebe School”. But the real Achebe School, as Ochiagha’s elaborate analysis reveals, was Umuahia. Located far from the political upheavals in Lagos, this pioneering establishment provided engagement and estrangement, the latter evident in Achebe’s loaded reflection that the boys learned to write stories about themselves having realised that the literature they got in class excluded them even as it energised them.
In Achebe’s case, the pull of fiction was so strong that he dropped medicine after a few months at university and switched to arts, studying English, history and comparative religion. There’s a lesson here for those who want to shape the world. A burial ground for outcasts became a breeding ground for the leading lights of Nigerian independence. In my own country, another oil-rich nation with a strong storytelling tradition, scarred by poverty and journeying towards independence, education remains a crucial driver, as the election to Westminster of two current students at the University of Glasgow attests.
Willy Maley is professor of Renaissance studies, University of Glasgow.
Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite
By Terri Ochiagha
James Currey, 216pp, £45.00
Published 16 April 2015