Giving Honor to Whom Honor is Due: Chinua Achebe

by Eric M. Washington

Upon arriving on campus yesterday and sitting in front of my computer, I noticed something eye-catching for the Google Doodle. I rarely click on them, but this one featured the late Nigerian novelist, writer, and professor Chinua Achebe, who would have been 87 yesterday. A number of online stories underscored the significance of the Achebe Google Doodle, including one by The Independent. The article by San Francisco-based Jeremy B. White, describes Achebe’s work as “telling distinctly African stories from the perspective of African characters, helping to forge a literature that — like newly created countries — was independent from Europe.” I wholeheartedly agree.

In the Spring of 1990, I took my first African history class, Africa: 1880-Present. In it, my professor assigned Things Fall Apart. This was my introduction to African fiction. Things Fall Apart tells the story of a man, Okonkwo, who lived in the village of Umuofia in Igbo land, which is now the eastern area of Nigeria. Achebe set the story sometime during the late 19th century as the Igbo began to encounter Anglican missionaries from England, and Igbo-speaking evangelists. This was also the period of the Scramble for Africa, where European powers colonized African people and African land. Okonkwo is the person through whom the reader witnesses this time of tremendous change in Igbo land.

What I appreciated then about the novel is that Achebe told an African story. No apologies. As a student in an African history course but as an American-born person of African descent, the descriptions of the intricacies of Igbo life and culture interested me. Because of this novel, I have a fondness for West African yams! Reading Igbo voices and coming to understand an Igbo worldview created within me a deep empathy for each character, even the majorly flawed Okonkwo. The novel engendered so much empathy within me that I found myself rooting against the European missionaries in the story. How could I, who identified as a Christian, side with non-Christian Igbo men and women as they ridiculed the halting attempt of an English missionary to explain Christianity to them?

I can honestly testify that reading Things Fall Apart moved me to love African history; thereby, it placed me on a track to choose African history as my major field in graduate school. Though I would specialize in southern African history, I have remained devoted to Things Fall Apart. When I began teaching World History here at Calvin, I chose to assign Things Fall Apart. So for the past ten years, I have taught this novel to students in World History and African History. Though I do teach other historical fiction by African writers, I cannot let Things Fall Apart go. It is a deep love affair that endures.

As I read Things Fall Apart for the first time in 1990, the story captivated me much like the singing of Christian missionaries had captivated the character Nwoye. Most of the times I teach the book, I read this passage out loud:

But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about the brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt relief within as the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry panting earth. Nwoye’s callow min was greatly puzzled.

This passage encapsulates the beauty of the novel. First, it is wonderfully composed by Achebe, just chock-full of sharp imagery. Second, it brings to light the complexity of Igbo-Christian encounters serving to counter a popular notion that European missionaries “forced” Christianity upon Africans. Achebe presented Nwoye as thinking through what Christianity had to offer as an alternative solution to deep, troubling, and nagging problems he had with Igbo culture and practices. What Achebe did was act as a good historian. He complicated the narrative.

It is difficult for me to measure the amount of impact Things Fall Apart has had on me personally and spiritually. It has been immense. I read the novel at a time in which I began to think deeply about my own African heritage and identity. What did it mean to be Black? What did it mean to be an African American? Things Fall Apart served as a bridge for me in understanding the base from which I emerged. It has had existential relevance for me. I have no idea if any person in my lineage was Igbo. That is unimportant. What is significant is that Things Fall Apart gave me a reference point to claim what was mine already, an African heritage. Achebe served as a teacher. In his 1965 essay, “The Novelist as Teacher,” Achebe wrote these words, which can readily apply to the situation of Africans in the Diaspora:

Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse—to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul… The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done.

For this, I am forever indebted.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Sometimes History Hits Home

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
Black and white photo of flattened wood building on the coast.

A building in Corpus Christi, Texas, destroyed by a storm surge in 1916. (Photo by National Weather Service.)

Sometimes history hits home. Hurricane Harvey is one of those hits.

Watching the devastation along the Gulf Coast, from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur, has been heart wrenching. Following the struggles of folks in the region, some of them my former students from back in Minnesota, puts real faces and real experiences into the picture. Thankfully, the people I know have emerged intact, at least physically.

There is a second raw nerve here: Just last year I spent a week in Corpus Christi. I walked along the waterfront; I had dinner on a barge anchored in the marina. I stayed in a motel in Robstown, where a house burned to the ground in the storm’s aftermath. I flew in and out of the airport the president used to make his stop in town just last week. These places are not just pictures on a television screen. They are three-dimensional images in my mind.

Five years back I visited a research library in Beaumont. Now the city has a severely limited water supply. I saw a reporter standing at an exit on I-10 situated within shouting distance of the hotel where I stayed. The documents I handled are likely still under water. If so, they will not be handled again, except on the way to a dumpster. The life story of someone I researched will be gone, at least the original manuscript version of it.

About one hundred years ago, this same Gulf Coast area endured other hurricanes of similar proportions. Just the other day I saw a weather map showing the paths of them, one that struck the Beaumont area in 1914 and the other which came ashore south of Corpus Christi in 1916. There are lessons in them.

The 1914 storm literally washed away a farming community. When it struck, the crops were in the fields, just days away from harvesting. The storm surge rolled more than 12 miles inland from the gulf, pouring salt water into the canals that fed the rice fields. When the sun finally reappeared, the crops were gone, the future of rice production destroyed. One hundred farm families left the area within days, never to return.  A few of the families held on to their land, if only for sentimental reasons. If they did, their reward came decades later when the land sprouted oil wells, instead of produce. Those wells fed the refineries in Beaumont and Port Arthur that produce 20% of the gasoline consumed in the United States today, and are currently out of production due to the flooding.

The 1916 storm destroyed a church, a resort hotel, farmsteads, and a railroad. The railroad tracks went for scrap. Since the local farmers could not afford to leave, they rebuilt their houses and barns. They also built a new church, with bricks made of mud mined from the bottom of Baffin Bay. That Thanksgiving, the parish priest organized a community celebration, starting a tradition that endures to this day. Since the oil companies concluded they had no use for the area, the future remains with small farms raising produce, and small-scale cattle operations that compete with the industrial sized ranches that dominate South Texas.

I’m not sure what this says about cities like Houston and Beaumont and Port Arthur, or the many small communities, like Rockport, that line the Gulf Coast. Except this, maybe: No matter what we think or hope, Harvey has changed the region permanently. Things will never be the same. And this: the region’s future will not be the one we think it will be today. One final thing: although I write this from a distance, Harvey changed me, as well, because history has once again hit home.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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A Tale of Two Cubas

by Dan Miller.
Streetview of buildings in Havana, Cuba

Havana, May 2017 (photo by Dan Miller.)

This past May I had the pleasure of leading a group of 14 Calvin alumni plus my wife on a ten day tour of Cuba as part of the Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning program. It was a rich experience for me. As the Latin Americanist in Calvin’s History Department for 32 years I had taught lessons on Cuban history to numerous undergraduates, but I had never had the opportunity to visit the island myself. So when the CALL director asked if I would lead a tour group to Cuba, I agreed without hesitation.

Although I have read a lot about Cuba over the years, watched a number of films, interviewed a number of Cubans, and even done research on the Cuban Christian Reformed Church, I was unsure of exactly what I would encounter there. As normally happens when vicarious experience is supplemented with direct contact, my views of Cuba and Cubans was made more complicated by our visit to the island. Here are my main impressions:

Cuba’s economy is visibly two-tiered. We operated in the tourist economy which directly employs approximately 10% of the Cuban people but doubtlessly influences many more. It has its own currency—the Convertible Cuban peso or CUC—which is roughly equivalent to a US dollar. Actually it is worth more because to buy CUCs one must pay a 3% exchange fee and an additional 10% charge in retaliation for the US embargo so $100 US earns only 87 CUCs.

Brightly colored classic cards in a row.

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba (photo by Dan Miller.)

Purchases in the souvenir stores, meals in private restaurants (paladares), tips to hotel staff, and rides in classic American cars were all paid in CUCs. Working in the tourist sector brings access to CUCs (or dollars, or Euros) which enables many Cubans to earn incomes of several hundred dollars per month or even more. The value of such employment is suggested by the fact that a well-maintained classic car (which is a big money maker) sells for $30,000 to $50,000 in Havana. Even hotel maids, however, earn tips that amount to several times the income of non-tourist workers.

By contrast, workers in the non-tourist economy such as teachers, medical personnel, agricultural workers, office workers, etc., are paid in ordinary Cuban pesos worth about 4 cents. Such workers receive salaries of 1000 to 2000 Cuban pesos per month which is equivalent to 40 to 80 CUCs (or US dollars). Clearly that is not a survivable wage. Nevertheless, we saw little evidence of the destitution such as is widely visible in other nearby Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Market stall showing piles of fruit.

Popular market in Cuba. (Photo by Dan Miller.)

Cubans supplement their salaries with purchases of basic goods at government dispensaries (we visited one in Trinidad) using a ration card (libreta) that allows them about ten day’s worth of basic staples (rice, beans, potatoes, eggs, sugar, two pieces of chicken) at very low prices. They also purchase food and other items at private markets where prices are higher. (We saw one such market in Havana and it seemed to be well supplied with fresh produce at what seemed like modest prices, albeit still high for ordinary Cubans.) We also heard about “Cuban mathematics” from a farmer who gives 90% of his crop to the state and keeps 20% (sic) for himself. We also learned that workers at government-run stores supplemented their stock with goods purchased on the black market and pocketed the profits from the unofficial sales. Even so, there is a growing gap between those who earn government salaries and those who work in the tourist-dominated private sector.

A well-maintained building beside another that has collapsed.

Havana buildings (Photo by Dan Miller.)

That gap is most visible in the architecture of Havana. The bus ride to our hotel on the west side of Havana revealed crumbling multistory buildings alternating with newly minted high rise hotels. Our own hotel was clean, modern, and staffed by friendly, professional people. A walk around the historic downtown the next morning revealed many beautifully restored colonial buildings. Later in the trip, my wife and I took a long walk off the tourist route and discovered buildings that were very poorly maintained but which were nevertheless fully occupied and others which had actually collapsed from neglect.

The explanation appeared to be that only in the last five years were Cubans granted full ownership rights to their dwellings. Prior to that they paid almost nothing in rent but had no incentive to do more than the most basic repairs and even that was difficult since their incomes were paltry and construction materials were in short supply. Now however the government is allowing people to own their properties and even convert them into private restaurants (paladares) and such. You can see the result in fresh paint and landscaping and architectural renovations going on in all of the parts of the island that we visited.

A plate showing a hearty meal of rice, vegetables, and shrimp.

One of our meals in Cuba (photo by Dan Miller.)

The food offered to us was invariably delicious. Lots of fresh fruit, well-prepared side dishes, lovely desserts, and meat—fish, shell fish, chicken, beef, pork—at every meal. It was all very delicious and came in large portions. The only cause for regret was the knowledge that our fare represented the “first fruits” of the Cuban economy; ordinary Cubans eat meat at most two or three times a month, and eating in a restaurant is a treat that most cannot even imagine.

Transportation is another place where “two Cubas” are visible. We rode in a very modern, very comfortable (air conditioned), Chinese-built bus. (The US embargo prohibits US car makers from selling vehicles in Cuba so other nations have filled the vacuum.) In the city we saw many well used public buses, some fairly new, some quite old (and spewing diesel fumes). Along the lightly-traveled highways we passed lots of old cars (not the shiny well preserved Havana taxis) and quite a few horse-drawn carts. There were also a fair number of hitchhikers which, along with the relatively light traffic in both city and country, reflects the fact that few Cubans own their own car.

We did not get a chance to visit any schools or hospitals but from much reading and personal interviews I understand that they are staffed by well-trained professionals but short on material resources. We did visit a lovely adult day care center run by the Christian Reformed Church in Jaguey Grande. For a nominal sum (the Dutch organization that provides half of their funding insists as a condition that the other half be borne by the Cuban Church and by those who use the service) the building provides two meals and some programming for elderly retirees who would otherwise have to subsist on a pension that is even lower than the meager official salary that they received when they were working.

Speaking of the church, we visited several Catholic churches which appeared to be very active in promoting the spiritual and personal development of their congregations as indicated by advertisements for lecture series on marriage, family, and other topics. We also spent a couple of hours having lunch with members of the Cuban Christian Reformed Church and touring a house church with the President of the denomination. The meal they prepared for us was wonderful and more than ample. (We left a donation to cover the costs.) The house church was quite literally that: a home with a covered patio on one side that provided a worship space for sixty or seventy attendees. The President who lives in the home and pastors the church that meets there is hoping to raise close to $50,000 to transform the space into a full-fledged sanctuary, a proposition that will require much funding from abroad since such sums are beyond the capacity of his congregation or the denomination. Little was said about the role of government in regulating religious activities, but most of its impact seemed to be indirect: the meager economic status of Cubans generally explains why churches are so heavily dependent on foreign sources of income.

Young girl with a bicycle cart full of onions for sale.

Cuban street seller (photo by Dan Miller.)

So we come back to the notion of the two-tiered economy and the divided society that is quickly taking shape because of it. Our Cuban tour guide described how the 10% of the population that works in the tourist economy receives an “income” that is not only far above the “salaries” paid to workers in state-run enterprises, incredibly it is also not taxed since Cuba’s socialist government has never needed an income tax prior to the rise of the private, for-profit sector. The predictable result has been a growing economic gap that is eroding the egalitarian-communitarian spirit that was supposed to be a hallmark of “the new Cuban man” and which, under the influence of Fidel Castro’s incessant preaching, was accepted by most of the population as something to aspire to, if not exactly something to live by. What seems to be taking its place is not a revolt against the state-run system (we saw no no anti-government graffiti or other evidence of popular restiveness) but rather the spread of individual ambition as evident in the proliferation of paladares, inns, and other small scale capitalist enterprises that enable individuals and families to capture tourist dollars in order to improve their personal well-being. The government is obviously trying to grow the economy and move people off the government payroll by allowing small scale capitalism to grow, even as it tries to preserve Cuba’s well-staffed but under-resourced health care and education systems. Most Cubans probably hope that they can continue to receive those free public services, but more and more are hoping that someone else will do those badly paid government jobs while they push their way into the for-profit, tourist economy where the real money is.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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