Chinua Achebe, the great pioneer of African writing, died age 82 on 21 March in Boston. Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogu to Christian convert parents in the traditional Igbo village of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria. He always believed this environment fostered his talent for storytelling – as a Christian living among non-Christian relatives and imbibed with traditional Igbo stories from a young age.
As he writes in his autobiography, There Was A Country, “I can say that my artistic career was probably sparked by this tension between the Christian religion of my parents, which we followed in our home, and the retreating, older religion of my ancestors, which fortunately for me was still active outside my home.”
Achebe received the best that colonial education could offer. First he was sent, at age 14, to the prestigious colonial government college at Umuahia. He then won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Ibadan. However, after only a year he switched to a degree in English literature, religious studies and history upon realising writing was his real talent.
After university Achebe moved on to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Here he began writing Things Fall Apart which was eventually published in 1958. The protagonist is Okonkwo, an inflexible Igbo man whose determination to conceal any weakness leads him to act sternly towards his wife and children and to participate in the sacrifice of a hostage in another village. He then hangs himself rather than be tried for the murder.
Before the publication of Things Fall Apart stories about Africa were usually told from a European perspective. Things Fall Apart changed everything. The novel in one sense is a response to writings such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which Achebe attacked in a famous essay written in 1975 – An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Achebe accuses Conrad of turning Africa into “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity…And the question is whether a novel (Heart of Darkness) which celebrates this dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”
Besides the other qualities of Things Fall Apart its great strength is its appeal to people with a similar history of colonisation – it has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 50 languages.
Things Fall Apart was followed by No Longer at Ease in 1960. It was about Okonkwo’s grandson who returns to Nigeria after studying in England to take up a post in the Nigerian civil service, but soon becomes dissatisfied with his job and lifestyle and takes a bribe.
Arrow of God in 1964 and A Man of the People in 1966 address political issues of leadership and corruption.
Achebe was employed by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission in Lagos when the slaughter of the Igbo population began. He was forced to flee with his family to Biafra in eastern Nigeria. He became an activist for Biafran independence travelling the world to gain support for the Biafran cause. When I reviewed his autobiography last year I was struck by how, in spite of the great personal difficulties he endured during the war, his productivity as a writer never waned – he even set up a publishing company with his friend Christopher Okigbo, the poet who died on the Biafran battlefield.
His collection of poems, Beware Soul Brother, in 1971 and the volume of short stories, Girls at War and Other Stories, in 1972 capture his experience of the war and attempt to relay the Igbo experience and outlook to the rest of Nigeria.
He also wrote several children’s books. From the mid-1970s Achebe increasingly spent his time at American universities teaching African literature.
Two factors stand out in Achebe’s work. First, he was relentless in his attack on those he found racist or patronising of Africa. Second, it is his commitment to tell the story from the African perspective, a perspective which he always maintained was diverse. This outlook is best captured in his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, where he insists that there is no singular story of the nation, but many stories drawing, for instance, from Igbo and English cultural traditions.
Many tributes have been paid to Achebe. Nelson Mandela has said that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” and called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”. Perhaps another achievement of Achebe is that he served as an inspiration for a whole generation of African writers.