Panellists (from left) Emma Arogundade, Dr Sanya Osha, Assoc Jane Bennett, Prof Zodwa Motsa and Prof Francis Nyamnjoh shared their insights into the life and work of the late Chinua Achebe.
For the second year, UCT dedicated May to celebrating 'Internationalisation with an Afropolitan niche' through Africa Month. Under this umbrella, the university presented a variety of events, seminars and lectures on key issues facing the continent, master classes, student-run sporting events, art exhibitions and films. These culminated with the launch of the second book in the publication series Celebrating Africa, a compilation of the papers presented at the Africa Day Panel Discussion in 2012, under the theme African Culture, Human Rights and Modern Constitutions.
The keynote event of Africa Month was the panel discussion Things Fall Apart?, a tribute to Nigerian author and international scholar Chinua Achebe who passed away earlier this year. The discussion formed part of the closing proceedings.
Hosted by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo, panellists included Professor Francis Nyamnjoh, head of department at Social Anthropology in the UCT School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics; Professor Zodwa Motsa, the country director of the University of South Africa; Associate Professor Jane Bennett, director of the UCT African Gender Institute and Head: UCT School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics; Dr Sanya Osha, research fellow at the Institute of Economic Research on Innovation at Tshwane University of Technology; and Emma Arogundade, senior researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council.
To show respect to Achebe, a moment of silence was held before the panellists shared some perspectives on his life and works, and his importance to the continent and African identity.
Nyamnjoh discussed Achebe's use of proverbs, noting that "in his proverbs, Achebe has left us with enough food for thought on power, politics, relationships and encounters, to ensure that things do not fall apart in our continuous quest to be and become African in an ever-changing world".
"According to Achebe, proverbs bring out the universal in the particular and make words more palatable - they are 'the palm oil with which words are eaten'. Achebe uses these proverbs to share with his readers the Igbo cultural values and world views, as well as to domesticate, localise, indigenise or render culturally or contextually relevant the English language."
Bennett touched on her own experience as a child in then-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) at the time of the Chimurenga War, and called into reference Achebe's short story Girls at War, which she described as "an extraordinary story for its time".
"There were in fact many girls at war on our continent, and Achebe's is one of the first of the very powerful stories that explore the politics of sex and gender in this context," explained Bennett.
Osha explored Achebe's various legacies to isolate what makes him unique in global culture; his work as a literary artist, his work as a builder of institutions, and his contributions to public reasoning. The lasting contribution Achebe made, added Osha, was to urge Africans not to be apologetic about their stories.
Arogundade added that "our stories are the cornerstone of our reality, but we also interpret reality through these stories. Achebe was aware of the dominant narratives of his time that shaped the colonial world, the narrative that colonialism was the arrival of the civilised world".