US-based Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie poses with her novel Americanah ahead of the awarding of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in London on June 4 2014. Picture: REUTERS
US-based Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie poses with her novel Americanah ahead of the awarding of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in London on June 4 2014. Picture: REUTERS

There was envy, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said at the Nelson Mandela Tribute night in Johannesburg. “We wanted a Nigerian Nelson Mandela!”

Adichie was the keynote speaker at the event hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on December 6 as part of the centenary Living the Legend celebrations.

Fresh from her talk with former US first lady Michelle Obama, who reinforced the Nelson Mandela legacy by telling Adichie that Mandela made Barack Obama possible, she spoke about the inaccuracies of history and memory, turned to women who need to fight back and dwelled on being African and the pride that had to be reclaimed.

“But I don’t trust this Rainbow Nation thing,” she said to loud cheers from her predominantly young audience. “I am fiercely pan-African. My visceral sense of protection is high. We haven’t talked it through,” she said, pointing out that we cannot just forget the past, as is so often suggested.

Can the process of remembering be scrubbed clean? “They might suppress it but always it will be there,” she warned. “It is important to acknowledge that the process will be messy and long and, most of all, that kindness is necessary.”

Returning to Mandela time and again, as was her brief, and who and what he represented, she said that even though he was South African, the world claimed him. “He sparked a belief in what was possible.”

Speaking in a country where heroes are ditched easily and the memories distorted, she explained that as a storyteller she could not trade in perfection: “Where does absolute perfection exist?”  Memory, she pointed out, was often about how the present configured the past, something that features strongly in the world. “To avoid the truths we do not like is to avoid grappling with complexity,” she explained. “Progress is a journey which doesn’t run in a straight line but in zigzag.

“I think humanising Mandela, acknowledging that he wasn’t perfect, isn’t denigrating him. When we do that, we realise that there’s a lot that we ourselves can do. It’s about pushing against this idea that perfection is required. The idea of people being heroic is not that they are perfect, it’s that they have done one thing that is remarkable.”

That’s it absolutely. Often with history, the facts are there, but the citizens, those who lived it, know it is not the truth. That’s where storytelling becomes the driving force, said Adichie. That’s where the truth often lies. “If human beings were perfect, stories wouldn’t exist because our imperfections create the stories we tell.”

Who defines the accepted norm? “It’s about owning who you are and knowing that who you are is enough.” In stories she learnt about the loss of dignity; to be human is to be valued, she affirmed. “We need to push back against the idea that there is a way that things should be.

“Our history was invented for us. It’s time for us to reclaim it. I went to a very good school in Nigeria, but I knew very little about Nigerian history. I knew a lot more about the kings and queens of England.”

Changing tack but sticking to her theme of humanity, she said that with SA’s high rates of sexual violence, it should grapple with gender stereotypes, but the focus should be on the perpetrators, the boys. It’s no longer good enough to tell the girls to be careful.

“It is time to raise boys differently,” she says. “A woman’s body belongs to her and to her alone. We must insist that men go through a process of learning. Women must be accepted and respected as full human beings — from the boardrooms to the buses.”

As we focus on boys rather than girls, people could start by saying, “Mandela wouldn’t do that!” Then, switching to fighting talk, Adichie insisted that women should never feel shame or guilt because they were a victim of crime.

She also touched on South Africans and their many languages. While she was travelling from the airport, her driver said he spoke nine languages.

“South Africa is in many ways an inspiration to many parts of the African continent,” said Adichie, as she pointed to their confidence and command of African languages. “We should own who we are and know that it is enough.”