Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks colonialism, politics and pop culture
The award-winning Nigerian author expresses her views on subjects close to her heart, from feminism and identity to colonialism and leadership on the African continent
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the most famous African woman alive today. Not arguably, not maybe: the 42-year-old Nigerian is nothing short of a phenomenon.
A modern post-colonial writer and an international icon of feminism, she has been translated into 30 languages, had two of her novels adapted for the screen, and is in constant demand for lectures, interviews, panel debates, even sharing the stage with her African-American counterpart in fame, Michelle Obama.
“I think of myself first as a writer, that’s really what I am,” she is constantly reminding people. And yet neither does she hold back from airing her opinions on anything from Trump (worse than she could ever have imagined!) to African leaders (their incompetence makes her sick!).
When Beyoncé set extracts from Adichie’s TED talk on feminism to music she was initially taken aback by the public response, but today accepts the popular side of her image as just another way to get a message across.
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Living between the affluent neighbourhoods of Lagos and those of Washington DC, Adichie slips effortlessly between the two cultures. She may have had a privileged upbringing, but she doesn’t lack humility and intimates that she will be travelling on to her village: “I am going to be a very happy village girl. It’s home, it has many problems but it’s home. There is a saying I like: your mother is your mother even if one of her legs is broken.”
TAR: You live part of the time in the US and are widely known internationally. Do you see yourself as an ambassador for Nigeria?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: No. I am an ambassador for myself. I don’t represent Nigeria; there are things about Nigeria I don’t like, but at the same time I am very very proud of my Nigerian identity. I was born and raised in Nigeria, which I didn’t leave until I was 19. I’m proud to be Nigerian, I’m proud to be African, I’m proud to be Igbo. I would not be who I am today if I wasn’t all of those things. So, it’s very important to me.
You also hate to be told that you have a hybrid identity…
Yes, it’s like when people say “Afropolitan”. I reject it because it’s something applied to Africans in a way that doesn’t apply to other people. So a German might move to England or move to the US but we don’t spend our time asking: “Well, are you still German?” There are people who’ve said to me they wish I didn’t live half of the year abroad because I am no longer authentic as an African! And yet they, Europeans, get to go wherever they want and remain authentically what they are.
And why do you think it’s different for Africans?
It has to do with the history of our continent and the way that our stories have been told. There is a sense in which even we as Africans don’t think that we’re really part of the same world. It’s as if we’re not seated at the table but in the corner, so the rules are different for us.
Since you published your essay We Should All Be Feminists in 2014 everyone wants to talk about your feminism. Are you fed up with that?
I sometimes feel that people who know me only as a feminist don’t really know me fully. I think of myself first as a writer, that’s really what I am. I’ve been a feminist since even before I knew what the word meant: as a little girl I was always asking questions: “Why can’t I do that?” “Because you’re a girl.” […] But I started talking about it because my literature gave me a platform.
After my TED talk I was surprised to get a standing ovation and then to hear that so many people had started to watch it. I wanted to start a conversation and it became much bigger than I thought it would be; which made me very happy because it’s important to talk about what women and girls go through everywhere in the world. But now people think I have all the answers to gender problems. I haven’t – but I want to try to make a change.
What’s your response to those who say feminism is nothing to do with Africans?
I disagree completely! Yes, I hear that people often say “Feminism is not African”. But who’s saying it? The same people who have the latest cellphones, drive cars and fly. If we’re really going to argue about what is “African” none of those things are either!
We can’t choose to live in the modern world then insist that we hold on to something that’s regressive because it benefits us. Men across this continent want to marry women who bring in an income but at the same time they want this woman to do all of the domestic work.
We are placing the burden of double work on women and justifying it by saying it’s culture. Maybe it’s culture, but if it’s culture we need to change it.
How can we change mentalities?
The expectation of gender roles can be very bad for men: we’re raising men to be emotionally repressed, we tell them you can’t show emotions, you can’t cry if you’re hurt, always be strong. Men don’t have an emotional outlet, so it comes out in violence because they want to show they are strong.
In Lagos I have so many friends who tell me they don’t have any money, they can’t admit it, so they pretend. Some go and borrow money, they get into all kinds of shady deals because they have to live up to an expectation of the man. What if we lived in a society where a man could just say: “Look, I’m having a bit of a difficult time,” and he and his partner could hold hands together and try and manage, as we say in this country. But it doesn’t happen because we’ve told men you have to provide, you have to be strong.
The #MeToo movement didn’t really succeed in Africa. Why? Is it because we have our own courtship rituals?
Look, I think there are two separate things. There is courtship, romance, love. Then there is assault, intimidation. People know the difference, even men know. When you walk into a man’s office for an interview and he’s immediately reaching out to grab your breast, that’s not seduction; that’s assault. The idea that a woman is just a body, not a person – I don’t believe that is in any way cultural.
At the moment I am very interested in precolonial African history, and if you read up on it you’ll see that although the men were in charge, women enjoyed more respect. In Igbo culture, for example, a woman would have to give her consent, even with marriage: when people came to marry her, her father or uncle would ask her: “Do you want this?” And if she said “No,” that was the end of it.
I don’t agree that Africa is different because we do things differently; it’s because we don’t have laws that protect women in this continent. So men know that they can get away with a lot. They do it because there are no consequences.
What’s your response to critics who say Rihanna wearing a ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirt and Beyoncé using your words makes feminism look superficial?
What would they prefer? Beyoncé listened to my TED talk and wanted to use a bit of it in her song and I said “Yes” because Beyoncé is a huge global phenomenon, especially for young people.
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I knew if she used my words in her song it would mean many young people get introduced to feminism – young people who don’t read, people who would never listen to the TED talk, but they listen to Beyoncé.
So suddenly they start talking about feminism, young girls start thinking: “Oh, so that’s the word I can use to describe these issues that I’ve had.” Young boys are thinking: “Oh, that’s actually not a good thing for me to do” when they do ABC to women.
Pop culture is not really my thing, but at the same time, I have a lot of respect for pop culture because I know the power that it has to reach young people. So, I have zero regrets about Beyoncé, and about Rihanna wearing the T-shirt that Dior made using my words.
In 2018 you published a column in the New York Times about the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon. Do you see parallels with Nigeria and Biafra – the subject of your novel Half of a Yellow Sun?
I have a dear friend who is from there and I’ve been really close to the Anglophone crisis because of him and his family. I’m there when there’s a blackout in the Anglophone region and he can’t reach them on Whatsapp, or when he’s organising with his friends to send things back.
So I had a kind of intimate experience with this particular African disaster which gave me the confidence to write about it – it really broke my heart. It’s not really that I thought it was like Biafra, but with so many of these problems you trace it back and realise that it originates in colonial policy. And then you have leaders who… I don’t understand why Paul Biya is still the president of Cameroon, I’m sorry, I don’t. How can you have somebody who has been in power pretty much my whole life?
Are you annoyed that France isn’t doing anything?
Yup… I am very annoyed by it. What is happening in Cameroon, it’s not as if the French government doesn’t know about it, but the French government also has a long history of propping up dictators in Francophone Africa.
Nobody wants to talk about that. And so, instead, we say that there’s corruption in Africa. Yes, there’s corruption in Africa, and I don’t mean to say that the leaders are not responsible; Paul Biya is responsible for Cameroon, but it’s possible for Paul Biya to be there because he’s been propped up by the French government. And it’s not only in Cameroon, it’s happened in all of francophone West Africa. I don’t want to excuse the British but in anglophone Africa the influence and meddling is not as direct and so there’s a sense that we are a bit more in charge of our destiny.
So you think that Africa has not completely shaken off colonialism?
Of course we haven’t, it’s part of our history. The things that are happening all over Africa are not surprising, this is what happens when you create countries randomly, based on what is convenient for you.
When we start to have good and accountable leadership in Africa, we will start to deal with the legacy of colonialism. It’s going to take a long time. But you have to remember colonialism was a dictatorship – there was nothing to learn from. Nigeria is an example, of course – I don’t think we’ve had fundamentally good leadership since we became independent. But you see my problem is: why are Cameroonian citizens accepting this? There is something we lack in this part of Africa, which is that spirit of rising up and saying no.
Is pan-Africanism the answer?
Yes, but I don’t know if it’s doable. I think we don’t talk enough to one another and we’re always looking outwards. Again I think leadership is the problem because you have all these men with their own egos […]. I don’t think it will be a utopia, but a more united Africa, an Africa that treads more with one another. Part of the problem is that the rest of the world sees Africa as something to use, and, sadly, Africans agree.
Aren’t major world powers already betting on the emergence of the continent?
We’re quick to celebrate Africans who’ve studied at Harvard Business School then return home to launch a start-up in Accra or Lagos. That’s fine, but it’s not going to change the future of our continent. A cool new company opening its doors is not enough to say Africa is emerging while at the same time 10 million people are trying to set up small businesses but have no access to credit and lack the necessary infrastructure and basic health care.
In your novel Americanah you talk a lot about inequality in the US. Is this what America is all about for you?
America is a mix of things. I went there thinking it was this perfect place because I’d watched films and when I got there the reality was different. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of racism, and I discovered a new identity as a black person. It took me making the choice to go and educate myself about what African-Americans have gone through for me to identify as black. So now I’m very politically black in America in a way that I wasn’t before, because I had to learn it.
Today, the US is courting you. Why do you refuse to become an American?
For a long time I didn’t want to become a US citizen because I believed that part of the experience of being Nigerian is experiencing the humiliations of travelling on a Nigerian passport. But I changed my mind about US citizenship after my father was kidnapped in 2015 and it was the American embassy in Lagos and not the Nigerian government who helped my family, and even sent a therapist to my father after he was released. I now plan to become an American citizen at some point, but I guess I’m still delaying it.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 print edition of The Africa Report magazine