Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2018

Africa’s Tarnished Name (1998), by Chinua Achebe (Penguin Moderns #28)

The Penguin Moderns series is a collection of 50 little books that sell in Australia for $2.50.  Handbag-friendly, they are typically about 50 pages in length, and can be letters, travelogues, short stories, speeches, poetry and essays: selected, says the Penguin website, to represent the radical spirit of Penguin Modern Classics.  I have four of them so far:

  • The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino;
  • Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell;
  • Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch by Hans Fallada; and the subject of this review,
  • Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe.

Like the essays and speeches within, Africa’s Tarnished Name is a provocative title.  There are two essays and two speeches, and all of them are the words of an angry man, one who is outraged by the representation of Africa by the West yet disappointed by Nigeria’s post-independence flaws.

  • ‘What is Nigeria to me?’
  • ‘Travelling White’
  • ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, and
  • ‘Africa is People’.

Chinua Achebe, (1930-2013), said to be ‘the father of African literature’, is famous for his ground-breaking novel Things Fall Apart (1958), which I read at school.  This was followed by No Longer at Ease (1960, see my review) and No#3 in the trilogy Arrow of God (1964) which is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. There are other novels too, (but I’m not going to buy them till I’ve read Arrow of God!) and also works of non-fiction, among which is The Education of a British-Protected Child (2011), in which these essays and speeches are collected.

The two earliest essays challenge readers to reflect on the experiences of a Nigerian in transition from colonialism.   ‘Travelling White’ was first published in The Guardian in 1989, and it’s about Achebe’s first travels in 1960, on a Rockefeller Fellowship which funded him to travel anywhere he liked in Africa for six months.  He went to Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, and planned to visit South-west Africa and South Africa – but abandoned his trip after his experiences in Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe).  In a hotel in Salisbury (now Harare) he ordered a drink for the two white academics and a black postgraduate student from the new University of Rhodesia.

It was the longest order I had or have ever made.  The waiter kept going and then returning with an empty tray and more questions, the long and short of which was that the two bwanas could have their beer and so could I because I was staying in the hotel but the other black fellow could only have coffee.  (p.12)

What Achebe doesn’t say is that the author of this offensive and humiliating response to his request for service, was of course a black waiter.

Achebe’s journey home was by bus, and he decided to visit Victoria Falls en route.

So the next morning I boarded the bus.  From where I sat – next to the driver’s seat – I missed what was going on in the vehicle.  When I finally turned around, probably because of a certain unnatural silence, I saw with horror that everyone around me was white.  As I had turned around they had averted their stony gazes, whose hostility I felt so palpably at the back of my head.  What had become of all the black people at the bus stop?  Why had no one told me?  I looked back again and only then took in the detail of a partition and a door.  (p.13)

It was a racially segregated bus. Achebe recounts the conversation with the ticket collector:

TICKET COLLECTOR: What are you doing here?
CHINUA ACHEBE: I am travelling to Victoria Falls.
TC: Why are you sitting here?
CA: Why not?
TC: Where do you come from?
CA: I don’t see what that has to do with it.  But if you must know, I come from Nigeria, and there we sit where we like in the bus.  (p.14)

The black passengers in the back cheer him when they all alight from the bus, but Achebe is acutely aware that he can be a ‘hero’ because he didn’t live there and wouldn’t have to take the consequences.

This essay concludes with a segment about a German jurist who’d planned to retire to South Africa, and chose not to, after reading Things Fall Apart.  

But how was it that this prominent German jurist carried such a blind spot about Africa all his life?  Did he never read the papers?  Why did he need an African novel to open his eyes?  My own theory is that he needed to hear Africa speak for itself after a lifetime of hearing Africa spoken about by others.

I offer the story of the judge, Wolfgang Zeidler, as a companion piece to the fashionable claim made even by writers that literature can do nothing to alter our social and political condition.  Of course it can! (p.16)

This theme of misrepresentation of Africa by Western eyes is amplified in the other pieces: ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ published in Another Africa in 1998; ‘What is Nigeria to me?’ is from a speech given in Lagos in 2008, and ‘Africa is People’ comes from a speech given at the OECD in 2011.

Well worth reading, especially in Australia today…

Author: Chinua Achebe
Title: Africa’s Tarnished Name
Publisher: Penguin Moderns Series, No 28, Penguin, 2018
ISBN: 9780241338834
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books, $2.50




  1. Great review Lisa it seems I didn’t read any works for this Author but this one seems very impressive.


    • I’d be very interested to know what you think when you do. Could it be that he’s very well-known in the west but not on the continent where he is said to be the ‘father of African literature’?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well although he is interesting writer am kind Eurocentric when it comes to my reading so it’s kind rare for me to read Africans Literature


        • *chuckle* Well, I hope that maybe with my reviews I can persuade you to try some!

          Liked by 1 person

          • i really hope so since my African reading is small.
            but for me i believe its not important the race of the author as long he writes well


            • Yes, I think you’re right, but I also feel it’s important to read widely from all sorts of places, and that implies reading different races as well:)


  2. An apt post for me Lisa – I’ve just come home after seeing The BlackKklansmen! Everyone in the audience silent for a few seconds and then spontaneous applause-it is a very thought-provoking and confronting film. The last few scenes tragically emphasising the entrenched racism in the USA and the frightening inevitability of someone like Trump. Achebe Chinua the first black African writer I read when I was a teenager and I totally agree that literature (and I’d add poetry, film and stage) can challenge and have a profound effect, especially when we hear all voices – and the more diverse the better.


  3. I’m looking forward to this one. This is what I love about the series – it’s getting me reading authors new to me!


  4. I’ve never read Achebe’s essays. I wish we would see this series here. We never had the little black ones either.


    • What happens if you buy books from the Book Depository, Joe? Do you have the same postal troubles as you do when you buy from smaller outfits?


  5. Wonderful review, Lisa. Chinua Achebe was known as the father of African Literature, so to speak. I would love to read this book. :-)


  6. I’ve seen these books. Must read some. Great opportunity to read some wonderful classic writers – like Achebe – when time is tight.


    • There is such a terrific range of them. And they solve the time problem because you can read them over lunch, as I did with this one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes I know… I’ve a collection of liitkebook series for that reason… Not that I’ve read them all!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great review Lisa. The British Protected Child is also a very good read.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Africa’s Tarnished Name, by Chinua Achebe […]


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