Prof. Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013): A Tribute to Nigeria’s Foremost Wordsmith, Literary Bastion and Author of “Things Fall Apart”

Nigeria’s most world reknown author and literary icon Professor Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was today announced to have passed on.

The entire world and more particularly the literary world will undoubtedly feel the void left by the death of a man whose books touched millions of young African lives and helped many African Americans connect to their African roots.

The Wordsmith

Achebe would never have thought of the far reaching impact of his works as he embarked on his first literary work “Things Fall Apart”. The epic novel published in 1958, was set in an Igbo village in Nigeria, and highlighted the clashes between colonialism and traditional culture. It went on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world, and was translated into 50 languages. Today millions of adults and young people attest to “Things Fall Apart” being their all time favourite African classic story.

Not to take anything away from the Professor’s most popular novel I sometimes feel that his other books like No Longer at Ease, A Man of The People were close or even matched the literary intensity of Things Fall Apart. Such was Achebe’s way with words that his books were engraved (complete with the plots and twists) in the minds of all who read them.

Things Fall Apart till date is the undisputed mirror of the lives of the Igbos of the Southeastern Nigeria prior and up to the coming of the Missionaries. The bestseller was initially rejected by several publishers before being taken up by Heinemann. The indications to a fine literary career was evident as he was from an early age a remarkable student—his classmates nicknamed him “Dictionary”—and he read voraciously: Shakespeare, Dickens, Booker T. Washington. After a short post-graduation stint teaching English, Achebe was hired by the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos, where he edited radio scripts and began work on a novel which became Things Fall Apart.

Achebe had gone on to churn out more works of fiction which in their own right were very well received. No Longer At Ease ( a sort of sequel to Things Fall Apart) followed in 1961. In 1964 came the third novel Arrow of God. Heinemann asked him to edit its African Writers Series, where he published Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s first book. In 1966, at that point a father twice over, he published his first children’s book, and a fourth novel, A Man of the People. His fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah came in 1987 a few years before he became paralysed from the waist down as a result of a car accident.

He had last year published a non fiction ‘There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra’ which exposed his memoirs of the Nigerian Civil War. The book got acclaims as much as it generated controversy especially back home in Nigeria.

The Man and His Controversies

While Achebe had written books of fiction that secured his fame across the world he was not one to shy away from confronting, through the power of the pen, the various ills that confronted his people back in Nigeria. During the ill fated Nigeria-Biafra war Chinua Achebe had acted as an Ambassador for his home country Biafra and tried raising awareness of the civil war in Europe and the US.

The Professor waited many years after the war to publish his personal memoirs as an active player in the Nation’s worst conflict. The resultant book “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra” generated much dust among the Yorubas especially as Chinua was unequivocal in pointing fingers at late Yoruba sage for his role in the near destruction of the Igbos during the war. While I am yet to read the book (and in fact will be ordering a copy right away) the various arguments and essays in the online and offline media about the book brought some knowledge of the book. Achebe, in my neutral opinion, did well to raise an issue he felt was still one of the main problems besieging the one Nigeria we all claim to pursue. When the Nation’s elites can come out to address the so-called sensitive issues we will be already halfway to defining the things that hold us down as a nation.

Professor Achebe on more than one occasion turned down offers of National Honours/Awards from Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Each time he cited the apparent lack of leadership at the helm of affairs in Nigeria and the dire political situation of his home state Anambra. While the current President had swallowed the bitter rejection pill the former more callous and vocal President Olusegun Obasanjo found it difficult to take the rejection without taking a swipe at the respected author.

His 1975 lecture “Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, later published in 1977, became controversial for his description of Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist.”

There Was a Writer, some may now say of Achebe but if we do not heed the writings on the wall we may end up saying as the Legendary author wrote, There Was a Country.

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