Well-established African author, Chinua Achebe, spoke in an interview with Bill Moyers about how storytelling is important for the continuance of cultural foundations and for raising children within those structures. In response to the children’s books his daughter read when she was young, which Achebe called “toxic waste,” he took a break from writing novels to create new stories for children. Of this he recalls, “I knew then the importance of children’s stories. And I knew that we were failing as parents in not bringing round the children after dinner as our forefathers did to tell them stories.” One of his recent chapter books for children, Chike and the River, demonstrates the power of telling stories and teaches children the importance of discovering and maintaining a good character.
Achebe brilliantly intertwines common lessons for children across the globe with the cultural values of Africa. Chike and the River follows a young boy from Umuofia to his uncle’s home in Onitsha, and across the river to Asaba, all while learning the importance of cultural variation and listening to the stories of elders. In the beginning, Chike’s mother explains the danger of crossing the Niger River because of the reported drownings of the past. Her brief statement creates the framework for the challenges Chike will face as he makes Onitsha his new home. Through his experiences, Chike is able to understand the value of ancestral memories as well as the need to allow those structures of the past to be flexible.
Achebe teaches the value of character through a typically unambiguous division in literature: the competition between being brave and being a coward. While the majority of literature favors the brave and denounces the coward, Chike demonstrates how being brave is good, but it is neither easy nor safe. There is a lot of risk in tackling the trepidation passed down through generations, and not everyone is inclined to address such fear. However, those who take the risk create a new story that can birth beneficial change for a culture, or even just within oneself. Neither bravery nor courage is shown to be lesser than the other. Instead, Achebe conveys that it is the morality behind each act that matters. After Chike saves the town of Asaba from thieves, the narrator states, “Everywhere people spoke of Chike’s adventure. His photograph appeared in the local newspaper and his name was mentioned on the radio.” Courage is showcased more often within the book as the main character is ultimately rewarded for challenging his town’s fear of the river. However, the secondary characters, such as his mother and uncle, are able to live standard lives remaining within the framework of their culture. As Achebe says to Bill Moyers, “There is no one way to anything…It is good to be brave, but remember the coward survives.”
Ultimately, the author encourages readers to continue to tell and listen to stories. Through Chike, children are taught the importance of using the stories of the past as foundations to create new ones. With the stories from ancestors we can establish more productive futures while keeping those important memories alive. As cultures continue to blend together, books such as Chike and the River tell the tales of what once was and how cultures were built. They encourage broader and clearer views of a stigmatized culture in order to establish a stronger connection and greater continuance of the stories. Though written language has lessened the dominance of oral tradition, it allows for permanency that can be shared globally instead of confined within one place.
Originally published in 1966, Chike and the River was republished in 2011 with illustrations to accompany the text. As global knowledge increases of the degradation of African culture through colonialism, it is becoming more important to create stories that debunk the classic English tales of the Africans. As Chimamanda Adichie conveys, we often come from a place of a single story, which serves as framework for the way we view other cultures, places, and people. Yet, our single story is limiting and is a cause of racism and hate. Children grow up being fed a single story, and as they become adults, their framework is difficult to deconstruct. Now more than ever, books such as Chike and the River are necessary to show that what we may think of Africa is not correct. There is never just a single story.
Recommended for ages 8-11
Published by Anchor Books, 2011
by Lauren Gee