Celebrating Chinua Achebe, the patriarch of the African novel

On the 16th of November 84 years ago, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, famously known as Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, an Igbo town in South-Eastern Nigeria, now Anambra State. The fifth of six children, Achebe excelled at school from a very tender age; once, he was moved up a class in primary school when they noticed how intelligent he was.

Though he was the son of Christian parents, and often attended Sunday school, Achebe had an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional form of art which invokes the protection of gods through sacrifices in the form of sculptures and collages. This deeply influenced Achebe’s writing in later years, as he often referenced African art, tradition and religion in his novels and essays.

Having completed his secondary education at the Government College Umuahia in 1948, Achebe proceeded to the University of Ibadan where he studied English, History, and Theology. Originally, Achebe had won a scholarship to study Medicine, but he discovered writing and literature appealed more to him and so switched courses. This singular act cost him his scholarship, but it was worth it as Achebe went on to become one of Africa’s greatest novelists of all time.

Between 1948 and 1952, when he graduated from the University, Achebe wrote a number of essays and short stories which were featured in the school’s paper – University Herald – and campus magazine – The Bug. He was a student writer at first but later became the Editor of the University Herald.

In 1958, six years after he completed his university education, Achebe’s revolutionary novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ was published. ‘Things Fall Apart’ won immediate international recognition, and became a required reading in many schools across the world. Over the years, the book has sold over 12 million copies, and has been translated into more than 50 languages. The book, which tells the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo warrior, explored the terrain of cultural conflict, describing traditional Igbo life during the colonial rule in Nigeria. Okonkwo, the book’s protagonist, struggled to adapt to changing conditions in the early days of British rule. Achebe joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as director of external broadcasting, and served in that capacity until 1966.

Achebe in 1967 Credit - Think Akwa Ibom
Achebe in 1967
Credit – Think Akwa Ibom

By the mid-1960s, post-independence, Nigeria was faced with a number of political issues. The Igbo’s felt they were being relegated to the background of Nigerian politics after being pioneers with the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe. It was during this period, precisely in 1966, that Achebe wrote ‘A Man of the People’. This book explored the corrupt practices of politicians and ended with a military coup. It was published the same time there was a military takeover by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, who seized control of the northern region of Nigeria as part of a larger coup. This got Achebe in trouble, as military personnel’s suspected he played a role in the coup. However, Achebe managed to escape with his family.

Achebe became a voice for his people during the Nigerian Civil War – the Biafra War, which took place from mid-1967 to January 1970. He served as a representative to Biafra, acting as an advocate of their independence. He travelled to several countries telling the tales of the war and the terrible effect it had on the Igbo people, especially the starving and slaughtering of children. In 1968, he declared that Biafra stood for true independence in Africa. “I believe our cause is right and just. And this is what literature should be about today – right and just causes.”

After the fall of Biafra, Achebe devoted his time to the Heinemann Educational Books Writers Series designed to promote the careers of young African writers, while teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He went on to teach at different American universities, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1972, University of Connecticut, Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and others.

In 1990, Achebe was involved in a car accident in Nigeria that left him paralysed from the waist down. With the need for better medical care, he accepted a teaching position at Bard College, New York. The school offered him the job with the incentive of the facilities he needed as a paralytic. Being paralysed didn’t deter Achebe, he continued to travel and lecture in the United States and occasionally, abroad, in a wheelchair.

As a writer, he never shied from politics in his country, his works remained rooted in Nigerian – African culture. Most of which bear themes of the Civil War, depicting the hardship faced by the common Nigerian in the post-colonial era. Others revolve around the impact of European values and how it left Africans disoriented psychologically and socially. Achebe basically used literature as an instrument to fight against Western prejudices. His ability to deftly weave his ideologies into a narrative ultimately made him a literary and political beacon who has influenced generations of writers both within and outside Africa. A scholar once wrote, “It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing. It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”

Achebe and Mandela at the University of Cape Town in 2002 Credit - Think Akwa Ibom
Achebe and Mandela at the University of Cape Town in 2002
Credit – Think Akwa Ibom

With an affinity for his Igbo people and memories of the Civil War ingrained in him, Achebe published ‘There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra’ in 2012. The book caused great controversy among Nigerians. In it, Achebe, reiterated his belief in the ideals that had inspired his patriotism during the Biafra. He also holds Obafemi Awolowo responsible for the siege during the war that left many dead, due to starvation. He quoted Awolowo as saying, “I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.” Achebe’s argument was that, Awolowo’s decisions were driven by an ambition for power and the advancement of the Yoruba people.

In response to the backlash, acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, defended Achebe in an article titled, “We Remember Differently.” She wrote, “I have been startled and saddened by the responses to this excerpt. Many are blindingly ethnic, lacking in empathy and, most disturbing of all, lacking in knowledge.” Adichie explained that Achebe was only stating facts, as Awolowo had publicly defended the siege during and after the war.

Achebe has received numerous awards, with about 30 honorary doctorates to his name from several universities around the world, including the award of Emeritus Professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 1987, he received the Nigerian National Merit Award, the country’s highest honour for intellectuals, appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Population Fund in 1999, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2007, amongst other awards.

Once, the great novelist wrote, “People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel about America, since I have now been living here some years.” His answer was that there are enough American novelists writing about America, “and Nigeria too few.”

On the 21st of March 2013, Chinua Achebe died at the age of 82 in Boston, Massachusetts.

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