I haven’t written anything for a while, but I haven’t only been distracted by football. As I was short of reading material, I turned to Shakespeare’s Hamlet on my Kindle. Although I was familiar with the story, I had not read or seen the play before and I was surprised at just how many famous lines and expressions originate therein. After that, I went to the Aristoc Booklex in Kampala and bought the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It is apparently an African classic that is read by schoolchildren in Uganda despite being set in tribal Nigeria around the time of early colonization. I found the story interesting but more significantly it also provided me with a number of cultural reference points for life in modern Uganda. Apart from various theoretical texts when I was studying postcolonialism at university, I don’t think I had read any African books before. Reading this one led me to reflect on how much of our cultural understanding is based on literature.
It seems that almost every common expression that British people use can be traced back to one of Shakespeare’s works. Things Fall Apart did a good job of explaining how certain ways of speaking and what I might call ‘tribal’ terms and customs have their roots in traditions that predate colonization and have now evolved into modern usage in a Christian country. If you want to put on a political hat (which I often do) you could also read it as an account of the evolution of patriarchy, or of community, or a starting point to understanding the processes of colonization itself. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in colonization or in understanding African culture.
It is a shame that I didn’t read more books like this in school, or at least earlier in life. I also wonder what the Asian and South American equivalents would be. (I’d welcome suggestions from anyone who knows!) I remember reading Wuthering Heights not so long ago and it gave me an interesting insight into the history of the concept of marriage in Britain (and put me off, if I’m honest) but I didn’t appreciate that literature can be such a useful route to understanding similar issues in African culture. For example, the neighbours dropping in on each other for no reason in particular; the love of pocket philosophy that often seems superfluous to my foreign ears; the love of dancing and creative storytelling. Of course, this book is only one version of events and one of many possible perspectives. However, as one village elder says in Things Fall Apart: “There is no story that is not true.” I think this is a useful position to take when considering different interpretations of something that one doesn’t immediately understand. There is bound to be some truth in every possibility, and you can learn something from every account. Of course, we can only make sense of anything by constructing our own story that makes sense in our own mind.
It sounds obvious with hindsight that reading will aid learning, but somehow it did not occur to me in this context. The good thing is that I can read books from another part of the world whilst sitting in a café in London. So… why don’t I?