In Review

Pilgrims: Progress and Regress in Three African Memoirs

“Door of Ascension” by Victor Ehikhamenor

By Devaka Premawardhana

Aside from the Bible, the book that nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries most eagerly translated for their potential converts is Paul Bunyan’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Eighty translations, from Amharic to Zulu, exist in Africa alone. Yet, as literary critic Isabel Hofmeyr argues in her masterful study of the book’s African history, the act of translation is always equally one of mistranslation.1

This has long been the argument of historian and theologian Lamin Sanneh. Christianity abides by the “vernacular principle,” he argues. It has always identified itself with the need to translate, even out of the Aramaic and Hebrew languages of its founders; but this translational imperative led missionaries to concede more to their converts than they may have realized. By translating the Bible into languages they never fully mastered, they cleared the ground for indigenous people to appropriate Christianity in accord with their own cultural logics, sometimes in ways that clashed with what the evangelists intended.2

Perhaps the best-known theorizing of translation in Africa, however, comes out of a debate between two of the continent’s literary superstars. The opening salvo was Chinua Achebe’s. English, he claimed, is a legitimate medium of African literary expression. Not only is it capable of “carrying the weight of my African experience,”3 but the legacy of colonialism leaves little choice: counterarguments to anti-African racism must be comprehensible to the racists. When Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o offered his rebuttal, he wrote, with reference to Achebe, “It is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues.”4 For Ngũgĩ, real liberation required the reclaiming not only of political and economic institutions, but of languages as well. In the early 1980s, Ngũgĩ vowed to cease writing and publishing his fiction in English; Achebe saw no such need.

Coincidentally, all three elders, decades since making their theoretical marks, have released memoirs in 2012. For three thinkers so concerned with the nature of translation, and so affected by Christian missions, it is no surprise that their disparate lives share a commonality of contact with The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ngũgĩ makes his indebtedness known in the very title of his memoir: In the House of the Interpreter alludes to one of Bunyan’s best-known scenes. On the final page of his memoir, Summoned from the Margin, Sanneh finds nothing less than a lengthy quotation from The Pilgrim’s Progress “appropriate . . . to serve as fitting conclusion of one individual’s journey in life and in what lies beyond” (276). In There Was a Country, Achebe refers only in passing to an Igbo edition (a translation, it should be noted) of The Pilgrim’s Progress on his father’s bookshelves (10), but he does offer elsewhere this poignant reflection on reading it: “I recall in particular a most vivid impression of the valley of the shadow of death. I thought a lot about death in those days.”5 We, of course, are thinking a lot about his death these days. It came earlier this year, a mere five months after the release of this book.

Given the importance of The Pilgrim’s Progress in the history of African translation, and the centrality of Achebe, Ngũgĩ, and Sanneh to theorizing African translation, it is not a stretch to view their lives through the trope of pilgrimage. Yet, whether these lives, and the history of Africa with which they intertwine, bespeak progress, regress, or something besides is the far more revealing question.


There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe. Penguin Press, 333 pages, $27.95.

In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Pantheon, 256 pages, $25.95.

Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African, by Lamin Sanneh. Eerdmans, 299 pages, $24.

book cover for There Was A Country

There Was A Country

For Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s transition to postcolony is decidedly not one of progress. His memoir opens with great optimism. The impending independence of 1960 felt like “the building anticipation of the relief of torrential rains after a season of scorching hot Harmattan winds and bush fires” (40). However, this sensation of standing at the dawn of a new era proved short-lived; six years later, Nigeria collapsed into civil war. Achebe notes that Britain played a role here, having fomented interethnic tensions when, for administrative ease, it divided the country in three.

Yet Achebe’s account emphasizes the brutality of other Nigerians toward his, the Igbo, people during the civil war. In the aftermath of multiple military coups against rulers from the Hausa north, the Igbo fell victim to swift revenge. They were made into “scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independence Nigeria” (67). Achebe’s narrative is most compelling when he chronicles his and his family’s own displacements, narrow escapes from the mob violence that engulfed the nominally free Nigeria. He describes in harrowing detail the massacres and invasions, the looting and raping, and the starvation of millions, particularly children, owing to the national government’s economic blockade. Part lamentation, part accusation, these passages lend credence to Achebe’s cautiously deployed language of pogrom (82–83) and even genocide (228–232).

Achebe persistently addresses the role of intellectuals amid such suffering. Reflecting on themes of his best-known novels—imperialism, slavery, racism—he describes his task as that of ” ‘writing back’ to the West” so as to “broaden the world’s understanding, appreciation, and conceptualization of what literature meant when including the African voice and perspective” (55). Drawing inspiration from the pragmatism of West African griots, Achebe writes that “it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest” (58). In the postindependence context, this sense of the intellectual engagé leads him to a more complex sense of “the African voice and perspective”; the most urgent protest now is against other Africans. This refusal of a rigid West/non-West binary is longstanding. One sees it in his defense of the English language and in the allusion the title of his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), makes to Yeats and thereby to the Irish struggle against British rule.

Yet his political commitments to the Igbo secessionist cause, for which he served in an official capacity in the breakaway government, leads him to a different set of essentialist claims wherein “the Igbo culture” is “receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive” (74) and singularly responsible for driving the British out of Nigeria (67). In a representative display of almost chauvinistic pride, he contends that, “Unlike the Hausa/Fulani, [the Igbo man] was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies” (74). The comparative advantages of the Igbo culture “could have been harnessed by committed leaders for the modernization and development of Nigeria. Nigeria’s pathetic attempt to crush these idiosyncrasies rather than celebrate them is one of the fundamental reasons the country has not developed as it should and has emerged as a laughingstock” (76). Readers expecting the nuance and textured depiction of intra-ethnic, even intra-familial, dynamics that animate his novels will be disappointed by this largely macro-level sweep of postindependence Nigeria.6

This is not to say the book is wholly lacking in the personal and particular. Aside from compelling anecdotes about his and his family’s sufferings in the war, Achebe also devotes the first thirty or so pages to his upbringing. He documents his rearing by an evangelist father and the value of proximity to other, non-Christian, kin who “were called heathens by the new converts” (11). This duality is mirrored in his education, which came as much from colonial schools as from the local villages. In these early pages, Achebe trumpets the prestige of the missionary schools, government colleges, and universities he attended, and of the illustrious alumni they have produced. Yet Achebe speeds away from these more autobiographical reflections into the heart of his lament with such transitional statements as, “Of course today, under Nigerian control, these schools have fallen into disrepair” (20).

Achebe’s discussion of his childhood seems somewhat out of place in what is otherwise a book of historical analysis. One wonders whether Achebe forced his childhood in to suggest a parallel between the optimism of youth and the optimism of nascent nationalism: not only their exuberant beginnings, but their tragic endings. After all, it is not generally those who were colonized, but specifically “my generation” that “had great expectations for our young nation,” and for whom, “After the war everything we had known before about Nigeria . . . had to be rethought” (227). This trajectory of tragedy is consistent with that of his protagonists—Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart and Ezeulu of Arrow of God (1964)—beguiled as they are by an inability to comprehend or control the lethal turns of their lives.7 Conspicuously absent from this memoir are the personal struggles of Achebe’s late adulthood: the car accident in 1990 that left him paralyzed from the waist down, or the illness that eventually claimed his life, which he may well have sensed he was racing against while writing this memoir. Yet, even without their inclusion, Achebe succeeds in moving his readers with a narrative of disenchantment, of failed hopes, and of things falling irrevocably apart.


book cover for Summoned from the Margin

Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

Lamin Sanneh’s Summoned from the Margin is both more personal and more hopeful. Each chapter corresponds roughly to one of the many and diverse educational institutions through which he has passed. Having grown up in a part of the Gambia that “had long resisted Western schools as a cesspool of infidel corruption” (40), Sanneh was sent to the local Qur’an school, and later to an Islamic boarding school. After completing secondary education and taking up work in the civil service, Sanneh encountered the Christian churches he had no contact with as a child. His conversion followed a series of intellectual debates over Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, issues with which Sanneh, in classic Augustinian fashion, “wrestled and tussled and agonized” (96). A chance voyage to Germany led him to puzzle over the decline of Christianity in its former heartland, a curiosity that propelled him back to school, this time to study religion. College in the United States followed by doctoral work at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London led him eventually to professorial positions: at the University of Aberdeen, at Harvard Divinity School, and finally at Yale Divinity School where he is D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity.

Along the way, Sanneh offers touching tributes to motherhood (26, 48, 54), powerful reflections on communal reciprocity (25–26), and moving descriptions of the natural world (57–62). However, by pegging his major life transitions to shifting educational affiliations, Sanneh has effectively constructed his memoir as a platform for recapitulating the major theoretical claims of his career. These include, most prominently, his vernacularization thesis, the argument that the Bible is infinitely translatable, and that, through Western missionaries’ creation of orthographies, grammars, dictionaries, and Bible translations, Christianity has served to revitalize local languages and cultures. By privileging no single language, Christianity privileges all. Sanneh lends force to this argument by comparing Christianity and Islam, two religions that are known to him not abstractly but existentially: he was Muslim before becoming Christian. The lesson he remembers best from the Islamic schools of his youth are about the sacred significance of Arabic, its status as a revealed, and therefore unparalleled, language (39, 67).

As a Christian missiologist, what interests him about Islam are its comparative contrasts to Christianity, “the Islamic contrast of the Qur’an as nontranslatable” (217) being just one. One might question whether Sanneh need traffic in dichotomies to defend Christian missions against charges of cultural imperialism, a central concern of his. Yet, indisputable is the necessity of contrasts for the testimonial style of this memoir, a style that exaggerates the flaws, if not depravity, of one’s prior condition so as to throw into relief the sanctity of the new. Different from the Qur’an school, for example, the Western school that arrived later in Sanneh’s childhood had in its classrooms “a wooden stick for pointing to things, not for beating us” (41). During a return visit to his childhood home, Sanneh describes at length the monetary and gift expectations of those who received him. Sanneh chides “the thoroughgoing instrumental political culture” (15) in this traditionally Muslim society, where “People who make a gift to you will not hesitate to trumpet the news to their neighbors, and to demand praise for it—exactly the sort of behavior Jesus warns against in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:2–4)” (14). In popular Islam, he writes elsewhere, “what people worship is less who God is—which is why speculative theology is so scarce in Islam—than the appeal of worldly prosperity” (170). The overreach of the contrast with Christianity is obvious in what Sanneh avoids noting: that “the recent explosion of Christianity in Africa” (164) he triumphantly announces is precisely in its prosperity-oriented Pentecostal forms.8

In addition to using the tradition one formerly belonged to as foil for that which claims one’s current allegiance, another trope common to conversion narratives is that of journey. Of the three—Achebe, Sanneh, and Ngũgĩ—it would be fair to say that Sanneh is the most peripatetic, perhaps justifying his liberal use of travel metaphors to describe his life. Even before leaving the Gambia, education allowed him to “[make] the mental journey out of my world long before I made the physical journey” (9). Conversion-as-journey is not simply a displacement, but a transcendence. The classics of Western literature, of which Sanneh read as much as he could during his adolescence, “made school life under the heavy hand of authority bearable” (77). The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Oliver Twist, among others, offered liberation from the stranglehold of Islamic discipline. A chance encounter with Helen Keller’s writings likewise inspired him to move “from silence and darkness to a life of vision and triumph over adversity. . . . I was not blind in the physical sense, true [as was Keller], but I was trapped by my adverse circumstances” (18). The journey is clearly a salvific one: from confinement to freedom, from darkness to light, “from the margin of remote Africa to the center of the world” (16).

This celebratory optimism, the possibility of perfectibility, reads as a relief on the heels of Achebe’s pessimistic account. “Firm trust that God is transforming and renewing creation obliges us not to be weighed down by past difficulties, but to keep our eyes firmly turned to the future” (276). Such words are positively enchanting, and not just for those who share or who, moved by Sanneh’s witness, come to share the faith commitments underpinning them.


book cover for In the House of the Interpreter

In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir

The second volume of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir series picks up where the first, Dreams in a Time of War (2011), left off: with his emergence from childhood into Kenya’s esteemed Alliance High School. More than a site for scholastic advancement, this colonial mission school aimed to impart a thoroughgoing socialization, a reorienting of values. In his first year, one of Ngũgĩ’s teachers introduces his young students to British table manners, posture, and etiquette, bringing them to his home for “a tour of a real Englishman’s house” where “everything was immaculate white” (20). Eurocentric values also dominate classroom lessons, with the literature, history, and even geography of Europe always the reference point for African experience. The literature instructor presents Jesus not only as white with blue eyes, but as English-speaking (23)—a far cry from Sanneh’s vernacularizing missionaries.

Ngũgĩ takes the title for this memoir from a sermon he heard at chapel, based on the scene in Pilgrim’s Progress at the house of the Interpreter.9 Dwelling on the symbolism of dust in this tale, the school’s headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, “likened Alliance to the Interpreter’s House, where the dust we had brought from the outside could be swept away by the law of good behavior and watered by the gospel of Christian service” (43). Christianity, European values, and British customs were consistently coded clean and white, while African religions, traditions, and languages were considered dirty. Yet the ambiguity of Ngũgĩ’s situation, initiated first into Gikuyu traditions only to be reinitiated into European ones, leads to the constant undoing of such rigid bifurcations. For example, in a richly detailed account of his first return home for the holidays, Ngũgĩ discovers, inexplicably, that his village is no more. Homes have been razed, inhabitants displaced. When he finally arrives at the concentration village to which scattered communities have been forcibly resettled, he finds his mother and siblings thatching roof and plastering walls for their new home. “I find a corner, take off my Alliance uniform, and change into old clothes, and within a few seconds, I’m all mud” (8).

The distinction between cleanliness and dirtiness grafts on to that between inside and outside. In his first year, Ngũgĩ experienced the school as an enclosed space, secure and immune from the family turmoil at home, a home now closely controlled and monitored by British police forces. He felt safe, “the howl of the hounds . . . a distant echo” (9). However, knowledge that his older brother was in the mountains fighting in the anticolonial Mau Mau cause made the inside/outside distinction as difficult to maintain as the cleanliness of his Alliance uniform. At school he sang the British anthem, with such lines as “Long to reign over us” and “God save the queen,” while at the same time his brother was risking his life to end the queen’s reign over Kenya (17–18). Likewise, global events in the anticolonial struggle during Ngũgĩ’s school years—Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (1956), Ghana’s independence from British rule (1957)—continued to erode the distinction of domains, not only between outside and inside, but also between collective history and individual biography.

Although “the outside began to make itself felt within the walls” (57) by Ngũgĩ’s second year, when the colonial government started mandating internal passbooks, the most riveting and unsettling collapse of such distinctions transpires in the final section of the book. There, the recently graduated Ngũgĩ falls victim to a police dragnet, facing trumped-up charges and detention in a squalid jail cell. In the midst of that experience, Ngũgĩ comments, “I cannot comprehend the turn of events from hope in the morning to despair in the evening” (196).

Other examples of eroding distinctions abound. Against the intentions of its founders, Alliance High School actually spawned a generation of resistance to colonial rule (12–13). The Christmas pageant that Ngũgĩ directed one holiday season expressed discontent with the colonial situation in the Christian idiom once used to justify colonialism (128). Ngũgĩ’s own relationship with evangelical Christianity fluctuates between enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment (137, 175, 222). Time and again, Ngũgĩ shows the tendency of binary oppositions to collapse under the weight of colonial contradictions and everyday experience.

What Ngũgĩ learns above all from his schooling is that life is more complex than the classificatory schemes on which colonialism thrives. After reporting to Headmaster Carey Francis that he has been temporarily detained by colonial officers, he confesses that his brother is a Mau Mau guerrilla. He fully expects that will put an end to his welcome: “There! At long last, my secret was out. . . . You are an officer of the British Empire. My brother is sworn to end the empire. Send me back to my mother” (79–80). Carey Francis tells him instead to return to his studies, but not before tenderly imploring his young charge to be more careful: “Some of those officers are scoundrels!” (80). Such blows to Ngũgĩ’s monolithic race-thinking recur repeatedly. In public remarks about Egypt’s anticolonial developments as well as about the Mau Mau, Carey Francis conveys a complicated mixture of opposition and respect, criticizing yet honoring the legitimacy of resistance struggles. “He was truly a mystery” (185), Ngũgĩ is left to conclude. As the Interpreter, Carey Francis stands less as arbiter of meaning than as container of multitudes. As his student, Ngũgĩ thinks anew the world and his place in it.


These are three memoirs brimming with insight into the educational experiences, spiritual influences, and political contexts that had formative effects on the theoretical positions with which each author would later be associated: formative, but not determinative. For, in the case of Ngũgĩ, we encounter an adolescence at considerable odds with his politics of language. Significantly, he does not touch on translation debates in his memoir, as do Achebe and Sanneh in theirs.10 Readers familiar with Ngũgĩ’s Afrocentric polemics would be disappointed if they read this memoir in search of biographical linkages to them. It is precisely in this disconnect, however, that he seems to suggest something far more profound. If he has not altogether abandoned the Marxist narrative of struggle between oppressors and oppressed, he has at least found such neat divisions inadequate for the task of storytelling. It is remarkable, after reading his at-times elegiac account of his colonial school years, to recall certain lines from his critical writings.11 While Ngũgĩ’s recollection of his four years at Alliance High School is not without critique, his story is decidedly more nuanced than his theory. It is a story that resists pat conclusions; it is a slice of life that stands on its own, unlike the synoptic life stories Achebe and Sanneh have written. For the latter two, secondary school is merely a momentary prelude to the larger narrative arc of their lives, a moral arc in fact, driven by a priori ideological commitments: Achebe’s as a partisan for the Igbo people; Sanneh’s as an evangelical Christian.

Ngũgĩ illustrates what Achebe and Sanneh present in tandem: that there is value in conjoining opposites, holding them together in a pattern of oscillating equilibrium. Sanneh’s highly personal narrative finds its counterpoint in Achebe’s largely political account. Sanneh’s Christian convictions find a partner in Achebe’s valorization of traditional religion. Sanneh’s steady ascent, full of promise and renewal, finds its balance in Achebe’s pessimistic lament.

Such balance offers hints at a resolution to the language choice debate that once raged between Achebe and Ngũgĩ. Perhaps it is not an either/or question, as the debate is often framed. In fact, both men would acknowledge this. Achebe, despite writing mostly in English, has always argued that the kind of English he uses is deeply inflected with the thought patterns, idioms, and metaphors of Igbo. Ngũgĩ, despite vowing a return to Gikuyu, continues to find it expedient to write certain books (including his memoirs) in English; he also, like the others, eventually took up a teaching career in the United States. Sanneh’s missiology offers a useful image for understanding these negotiations: those who impart a new faith should not be seen as “leaving such deep footprints that converts [have] little to do except trace them.”12 There is much more creativity and exchange than a singular choice of language, or of religion, can contain. Interpretation is always interpenetration; conversion is always conversation.

So it goes for the relationship between progress and regress. Notwithstanding the title of his allegory, John Bunyan captures well their mutual entailments. The Pilgrim’s Progress is as much about progress as about its constant undoing, for every step the protagonist takes brings him to a new set of threats: “there was a way to hell, even from the Gates of Heaven.”13 Heaven and hell, progress and regress are not general conditions, but coexistent possibilities. Against the rampant stereotypes and simplifications still spouted about Africa, it is good to be reminded of this. Through the lives of three of its greats, we see in that place still too often reduced to a heart of darkness a heart big enough to contain the darkest of laments and, simultaneously, the brightest of hopes.


  1. Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress (Princeton University Press, 2003).
  2. Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, 1989).
  3. Chinua Achebe, “The African Writer and the English Language,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (Anchor Press, 1975), 103.
  4. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Heinemann, 1986), 20.
  5. Chinua Achebe, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays, 121.
  6. It is notable that Lamin Sanneh, in Summoned from the Margin, recalls his time in Ibadan during Nigeria’s civil war as a time of “a bitter propaganda war in the press, which became the playing field of partisan protagonists. Cartoons were the chosen mode of discourse when words failed to convey the sense of scorn and vitriol of one side for the other” (147).
  7. Abiola Irele, “The Tragic Conflict in the Novels of Chinua Achebe,” in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, ed. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors (Three Continents Press, 1978), 10–21.
  8. Allan Anderson, “The Newer Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches: The Shape of Future Christianity in Africa?” Pneuma 24, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 167–184.
  9. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Oxford University Press, 2009), 29–37.
  10. Achebe, There Was a Country, 25; Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin, 216–228.
  11. Lines such as: “the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the chalkboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom.” Ngũgĩ, Decolonising the Mind, 9.
  12. Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003), 25.
  13. Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 164.

Devaka Premawardhana, MDiv ’05, is a visiting instructor at Colorado College and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. His dissertation uses ethnographic methods to explore patterns of religious conversion in contemporary Mozambique.

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