One of the greatest authors of the 20th century was Chinua Achebe. His book Things Fall Apart remains a classic that has sold over twenty million copies and was named among the TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. The novel has been translated into more than 50 languages, and is often used in literature, world history, and African studies courses across the world.
Achebe’s novels depict a culture of community storytelling with powerful quotes that serve as lessons and instruction on community life in Africa. And with such lessons and the use of proverbs African communities were built.
In 1990, I was a research assistant with the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies in Kuru, Nigeria, and took part in research on the Nigerian National Character. The whole idea was to find out who exactly a Nigerian was. What was the authentic Nigerian DNA?
The results were truly amazing. First we had a society that cared. Everyone looked out for the other and children were literally raised by the village. We also had a very honest society.
Fruit and foodstuff would be displayed at the roadside with no one to watch over it while they tended to their farms. They, however, indicated how much (in cowrie shells) each item cost and so travellers would place the amount and leave with whatever they required.
Also, there were no divorces and families grew together.
The great disruption
While people may think that those of us who tell these stories are old school people who exaggerate a state of utopia, the truth is that this was indeed the society as it was then. Society today is a totally different story.
We have all heard the expression — you are what you eat or consume be it through the mouth, eyes or ears.
The society that produced these honest people was a society that consumed stories like those Achebe quotes. When leaving home, the last thing parents would say is, “remember whose child you are.” Values were passed down generations through stories. As long as we consumed those, we became the characters therein. We consumed stories of morality and became morally conscious; stories of honesty and honesty became a core value; stories about family life and this became a core value.
To disrupt a society, all you need to do is to change what they consume. This is why in ancient days when people were captured, the first thing that happened was that their names, diet, language and entire identity was changed.
The minute we began to consume information that was contrary to our authentic stories, we began to metamorphose into the stories we were hearing. A generation rose up in Africa that took pride in a culture of rebellion. They bought into the narrative that sophistication lay in how far away they could be from their true identities. Even our institutions were dismantled and replaced. Our powerful kings were replaced with elected officials with no sense of value.
We embraced everything hook, line and sinker. We did not realise that the people we were copying were much wiser than us. The democracy they embraced accommodated their institutions like the monarchy but they said ours were outdated. When we began to embrace the narrative that everything we had was bad and we stopped listening to our own stories.
What are we consuming? We are what we consume. If we consume information that tells us that what were once taboos in our society are now okay, then that is what we will become. If we consume information that tells us that our authenticity is not modern enough then we will continue to change to align our values with what we consume.
Only when we develop the art of storytelling that once again extols the virtues of our being can we dream of reclaiming the lost glory of our great civilisations. We cannot change behaviour (culture) by telling people how to behave. We change behaviour through a concerted drive to tell stories of the results we want to see. As these stories are consumed, behaviour will align.
Wale Akinyemi is convenor of the Street University (www.thestreetuniversity.com) and chief transformation officer, PowerTalks; [email protected]