Chinua Achebe (1930-2013): A Great Tree Has Fallen
In the mid-20th century Africa was starting once more to find its own voice, having been gagged by centuries of colonial oppression. For all that time, the story of Africa had been told by Europeans. The narrative they presented was mostly an ugly one. The prevailing view was that the black man, if in fact a brother, was certainly a junior sibling. This view was shattered by the devastating eloquence of Chinua Achebe. This new voice was poignant and undeniably African.
Known as the father of modern African literature, the Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe is the most widely read African author. His work has been translated into fifty languages. Mr Achebe’s style of writing, though novel for English literature, is well rooted in the oral tradition of the Igbo people. Though his stories are set amid the turmoil of colonial and postcolonial Africa, they remain intimately character driven – often tragic, but also vitally universal.
Throughout his life, Mr Achebe spoke out against the corruption and moral failings of colonial and postcolonial governments alike. In his essays and academic work he has laboured to undo the worst of colonial perceptions and rehabilitate the cultural identities and heritage of Africa. Mr Achebe’s works added to an ever growing stream of refutations of that most hopelessly naive moniker: The Dark Continent.
“Imaginative literature does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.”
– The Truth of Fiction in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1988
Mr Achebe first book, Things Fall Apart, was published in 1958. He had sent manuscripts to several publishing houses where they met with prompt rejection. The manuscripts were saved from obscurity by Donald MacRae, an educational adviser at Heinemann who convinced the hesitant publishers with his succinct report: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”
In Things Fall Apart, Mr Achebe tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud village chief struggling with his father’s legacy and his experience of white missionaries coming to his village. Mr Achebe borrowed themes from his own childhood. He was brought up Christian in a traditional Igbo village, forbidden to speak his native language at school.
Things Fall Apart went on to become one of the most important books in African literature, selling over 8 million copies around the world.
In 1960, Mr Achebe published his second book about Obi Okonkwo, No Longer at Ease, who leaves his village in order to obtain a British education and subsequently a job in the Nigerian colonial civil service. Mr Achebe based this novel on his personal experience working in Lagos, the capital city of a country on the cusp of independence.
Mr Achebe continued to produce books while being employed at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service until civil war broke out between government forces and the secessionist Biafra Republic. The war forced the Achebe family to flee their home and relocate to Aba, the Biafran capital. During his time in Aba, Mr Achebe concentrated on his poetry. Later, he explained that the short, intense form of poetry was more in keeping with his mood, set by the challenges and dangers of living in a war zone.
Mr Achebe was a firm supporter of Biafran independence. He went on a US tour with fellow writers Cyprian Ekwensi and Gabriel Okara in an effort to raise support for, and awareness of, the cause. In January 1970 the Biafran forces surrendered. The war had left some three million dead including Mr Achebe’s close friend, Christopher Okigbo.
After the war Mr Achebe took up a job at the University of Nigeria. He was unable to accept job offers from abroad: Authorities had revoked his passport in response to his support for Biafra. While at the University of Nigeria, Mr Achebe helped start two magazines: The literary journal Okike, and Nsukkascope, an internal publication.
In 1972, Mr Achebe with his passport restored, accepted a professorship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and moved his family to the US. During his time there, he published the, at the time quite contentious, essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
In this essay, Mr Achebe accuses Joseph Conrad of being “a thoroughgoing racist” for depicting Africa as “the other world”. Though opposed by his colleagues, Mr Achebe’s criticism eventually worked its way into the mainstream perspective on Conrad’s work.
In 1976, Mr Achebe returned to Nigeria. He retired from academia six years later. In the following years, Mr Achebe spent his time editing a literary magazine and working on novels. He also became involved in his country’s politics, becoming deputy national vice-president of the People’s Redemption Party (PRP).
However, elections marked by violence and fraud caused him great disillusion. Mr Achebe gave up on party politics and distanced himself from the PRP. After the military coup of 1984, the party was banned.
In 1990, three years after the publication of his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah – one of his greater successes, Mr Achebe was severely injured in a car crash in Lagos. The damage to his spine was such that he remained confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Soon after this tragic accident, Mr Achebe became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York – a position he was to hold for more than fifteen years. In the autumn of 2009, Mr Achebe joined the Brown University faculty as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of African Studies.
Professor Achebe died after a short illness on 21 March 2013 in Boston. He was 82 years old.
During his lifetime, Chinua Achebe received numerous awards and honours, including The Man Booker International Prize (2007), an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982), and over 30 honorary degrees from universities in England, Scotland, Canada, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States.
In 1986, Mr Achebe celebrated as Wole Soyinka, his friend and fellow countryman, received the Nobel Prize in Literature – the first African ever to do so.
Mr Achebe’s body was brought back to Ogidi, the village where he was born. Thousands of Nigerians gathered outside the St Philips Anglican Church as friends, family, and dignitaries, including Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, paid their last respects. A colleague at Brown University, Professor Corey D.B. Walker summed up his feelings on the death of Professor Achebe with the phrase, “A great tree has fallen.”
Nelson Mandela, recalling his time as a political prisoner, once referred to Mr Achebe as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Chinua Achebe knew the power of storytellers. He knew the damage done when a people are defined solely by the stories of others. What transpires when people are robbed of their own stories may be seen throughout postcolonial Africa: War, poverty, and stagnation. Despite everything Africa has endured, hope remains. It may prevail yet. Stability is slowly gaining a foothold in a number of regions, including Nigeria, with Lagos becoming an economic powerhouse.
Chinua Achebe life’s work was dedicated to re-establish a balance of stories. When Mr Achebe went to school, he only could read books by the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens. Today, millions of school children may too read not just the works of these literary giants but also those by home-grown authors such as Chinua Achebe. Today, Africans continue to tell their story. i
About the Author
John Marinus, who also contributes to our Editor’s Heroes section, is a freelance writer based in the Netherlands.