Socialist Worker

Chinua Achebe—a pioneering writer who skewered colonialism

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2726

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Chinua Achebe’s radical works centred African voices (Pic: Angela Radulescu/Flickr)


Chinua Achebe transformed African writing. He was born in 1930 in Nigeria, at the time a British colony.

After shining success at school and university he began writing novels and in 1958 published Things Fall Apart.

It is set in the 1890s and was very different to almost anything that had come before.

It breaks from the patronising treatment of Africa by colonial writers and rejects the simpering acceptance of imperialism by some African authors.

Instead it makes African experience the focus of attention with the colonialists seen as alien outsiders who trample on the cultures they encounter.

One of the book’s ­characters said, “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his ­foolishness and allowed him to stay.

“Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

It had a huge impact and became one of the most-read African novels of all time.

Scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote that asking how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing “would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians”.

Critique

In part the novel was a critique of work produced by Western writers such as Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness.

Achebe said that even if Conrad did at points raise doubts about colonialism, he did it in the context of obliterating Africans’ humanity and equality.

He wrote that Heart of Darkness “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation”.

Achebe insisted that people should read the book “beside African works.”

His novels A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah dealt with the ­reality of Nigeria after independence and the way a new corrupt elite had emerged.

He also took an active role in politics. He acted as a cultural ambassador for Biafra when it tried to split from Nigeria in 1967.

During the brutal three‑year Biafran War he railed against the murderous failures of the central government and the United Nations.

He was to write that for the great powers, “You see we, the little people of the world, are ever expendable.”

Later Achebe joined the leftist People’s Redemption Party, becoming its deputy national vice-president. 

But quite soon he departed, disillusioned by its infighting and the dishonesty of some of those involved.

In his final work There Was a Country his contempt for the failings of Nigeria’s leaders led him to a terrible reversal of what had made him special. 

He wrote, “Here is a piece of heresy. The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. 

“There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country.

“I am not justifying ­colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run.”

It was a sad end for a great writer.

This is part of a series about radical black lives Go to bit.ly/SWBlackLives

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