On Wednesday, March 21, Nigeria, Africa – and indeed the intellectual world community – received with shock the news of the passing of Chinua Achebe. Most of my generation grew up with the novels of Chinua Achebe. If we had grown up on the diet of Dickens and Shakespeare alone, we would have been, of all men, most to be pitied. Through Achebe’s works, we heard the voice of the ancestors and we learned, at last, that we were free men and women.
Chinua Achebe was widely regarded as the doyen of African letters; a colossus of world literature. The great Iroko tree has fallen. The wordsmith whose quiet voice called the bluff of our Roman conquerors has been silenced by the cold hands of death. “Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice” (2 Samuel 1:20).
Achebe passed away at a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, after a brief illness. He was eighty-two. Until his death, he was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, the top Ivy-League institution in the beatific state of Rhode Island.
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on 16 November 1930 in the town of Ogidi, in what is today Anambra State in Eastern Nigeria. His father was a clergyman with the Church Missionary Society. A precocious child, Achebe attended the prestigious Government College, Umuahia, later winning a scholarship to study medicine at the then University College Ibadan. Established in 1948 to train Nigeria’s emerging elites, Ibadan started as an associated college of the University of London. By the 1960s it was an international institution with a high reputation; a world centre of excellence in such fields as tropical medicine, development economics and the African historical sciences.
After successfully completing his first year of medical studies, Achebe shocked his teachers, friends and family by applying to transfer from the medical school to the Faculty of Arts. That also meant giving up the prestigious university scholarship that he had been awarded. It was clear that he would not be dissuaded from his chosen course. Achebe graduated in 1952 with a combined honours degree in English and History, with a minor in Theology.
Being the only university during those years at the dusk of Empire, Ibadan brought together some of the brightest and best in colonial Nigeria. His contemporaries included Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark Bekederemo, and the poet Christopher Okigbo. They were an extraordinarily gifted set of quadruplets. The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is Africa’s greatest playwright. John Pepper Clark is a poet and playwright of originality and great firepower. The classicist Christopher Okigbo, who fell at the warfront in his early thirties in 1967, was, in my estimation, Africa’s greatest poet. Achebe was, in a sense, their doyen. In their late twenties and early thirties, these young men were already world-famous.
Achebe began his career as a radio broadcaster with the Nigerian Radio Broadcasting Service (NBS). In 1961 he married Christie Okoli, a university professor in her own right. His first daughter, the winsome Chinelo Achebe, was born in 1962. Two boys followed, Ikechukwu (born in 1964) and Chidi (born in 1967). When civil war broke out in 1967, Achebe joined his kinsmen on the Biafra side. He was appointed a roving ambassador for the rebel cause, visiting several countries, including Britain, USA and Europe to canvass support for a doomed cause.
He recounts when he was in Dakar, Senegal, and was able to meet with the poet-president, Leopold Sedar Senghor. They were alone in the president’s drawing room. The sun was setting seductively among the hills. They stood by the window watching the golden glow of the glorious African sun. Senghor remarked that the sun casting its azure shadow across the hills looked like a lady reclining in bed.
Achebe had begun writing his first novel whilst still an undergraduate at Ibadan. He completed it whilst working as a radio broadcaster with the NBS. Things Fall Apart was a literary sensation when it came out in 1960, winning the author instant fame as a writer. He was only twenty-eight. The main drama centres on the clash between Western European culture and the traditions of his ebullient and recalcitrant Igbo people. If Achebe had decided to stop writing after this first novel, his claim to literary fame would have firmly been established. Some 12 million copies have been sold. And it has been translated into more than 50 languages, ranging from Japanese to Arabic, Russian, Mandarin and Serbo-Croat.
This was soon to be followed by No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and A Man of the People (1966). There was a long interregnum until 1987, when Anthills of the Savannah came out. Achebe also wrote some poetry, with less success, in my view. He also published a number of children’s books. He made incursions into literary theory and criticism. In a famous essay titled “An Image of Africa” published in the Massachusetts Review, he famously dismissed the Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad as a ‘bloody racist’, denouncing “the dehumanisation of Africa and Africans which an age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world”. It has been noted that some sections of the Western literary establishment were not happy that Achebe had dared to smash one of the idols in their canon.
The 2009 The Education of a British Protected Child was a form of intellectual autobiography. His last work, released last year, was an attempt at a historical account of the failed bid by the Republic of Biafra to secede from the Nigerian federation during 1967 to 1970. The book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, received rather mixed reviews. While some greeted the work as a heroic account of a painfully difficult period in Nigeria’s history, others dismissed it as a rather poor form of historical revisionism. The poet Odia Ofeimun determined that Achebe, revered as he was, “did not know Nigeria’s story enough to have such authoritative views about what he talked about”. I myself took some swipes at the work, concluding that it reeked of “the crimson blood of embitterment”.
Achebe was a master storyteller in the best traditions of the ancient griots of West Africa. His was a prophetic voice that uttered Olympian judgments on the follies and foibles of the men and women of our post-colonial anti-civilisation. And he did so with panache, irony and compassion. His greatest achievement is to have faithfully reflected the African conscience in its clash with Western civilisation using the idiom of the English language. Drawing from the Igbo oral tradition of storytelling, his works are infused with proverbs and the wise sayings of ancient Africa. He once told an audience at a lecture at a top Ivy-League university: “Do not be deceived by the fact that we have chosen to write in English.”
In 1990, Achebe was paralysed from the waist downwards following a tragic car accident in Nigeria. He moved to the United States where he taught at several top universities from Harvard to Dartmouth and Brown and was on the lecture circuit of some of the most prestigious academies of the world.
During his lifetime he received no less than 41 doctorates honoris causa, from, among others, Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth – from countries as diverse as Britain, South, Africa, Canada, and his native Nigeria. He was the recipient of several awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Margaret Wong Memorial Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Man Booker International Prize and the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA), Nigeria’s highest honour for academic achievement.
In 2004, and again in 2011, Achebe rejected the national award of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) that had been conferred on him by the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He declined these exalted honours because, in his view, Nigeria had not lived up to its promise as a land of peace and justice. “For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom,” he said.
Achebe has been influential in birthing an entire generation of African writers. He it was who recommended Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s manuscript to Heinemann, later published as Weep Not Child in 1964. The young Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, grew up in the same home that Achebe had lived in the university town of Nsukka, where her father was a professor of mathematics and statistics. The Achebe bug must have bitten the budding novelist. “Chinua Achebe is the only person I have seen you shy with, a friend said….His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had,” Adichie once said.
On the passing of her hero, she laments, “Who is now going to be our reference of pride? Who speaks now for us in the contest of wills? Who is even going to prepare our path?”
Two of the remaining ‘pioneer quartet’, John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka, have declared, “For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter.”
Remi Raji, president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), declared: “Eagle on Iroko, the master-artist, the compelling stylist of the English language has left the world of the flesh, he left in the middle of a revived discourse of the fate of our Nigerian nation.”
The director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, described Achebe as “one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and a giant of African literature, who captured the struggles facing many peoples and expressed them in a language of humanity, guided by a belief in their inherent rights and dignity”.
In its eulogy for the great novelist, the influential London-based Economist declared: “One measure of his influence is that contemporary African literature is now taught throughout America, where it was once thought marginal. Another is that modern African writers now sell their books worldwide.”
Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, noted that Achebe’s “frank, truthful and fearless interventions in national affairs will be greatly missed at home in Nigeria because while others may have disagreed with his views, most Nigerians never doubted his immense patriotism and sincere commitment to the building of a greater, more united and prosperous nation that all Africans and the entire black race could be proud of”.
South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer has observed that the magic of Achebe’s work was its ability to break down prison walls, “having been longingly requested and received with difficulty by way of lawyers or rare visitors allowed a political prisoner”. Achebe had won the special recognition of Nelson Mandela during his 27 years of incarceration in Robben Island. Gordimer quotes the great Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela as saying, “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison walls fell.”
Chinua Achebe and the poet Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo were the best of friends. They loved each other on to death. Now that the Iroko tree has joined Idoto’s prodigal son in the land of the ancestors, we may lament the fallen stars with Okigbo’s immortal lines:
The arrows tremble at the gates of light,
The drums of curfew pander to the dance of death;
And the secret thing in its heaving
Threatens with iron mask
The last lighted torch of the century….
Mailafia is the Chef de Cabinet, African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.
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