(1930-2013) | by The Botsotso Collective
Chinua Achebe was a writer with massive influence in Nigeria, in Africa and, indeed, in the world. He was the first African writer to achieve this status with his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, which was translated into 50 languages, sold over 12 million copies and is widely prescribed in schools and universities worldwide. This was a significant breakthrough for African self-assertion as it was the first time that the collision of cultures precipitated by European colonialism was examined from an African perspective and reached a global readership.
In Things Fall Apart, Igbo proverbs and folk stories, together with indigenous philosophical thought, illustrate life in a typical village at the start of the British conquest of what is now Nigeria. The colonisers used Christianity as a key ideological weapon to undermine traditional values, rituals and cosmology, and the ferment and conflict this caused in Igbo life featured as the major theme in the novel. Thereafter, Achebe began to write about the crises of self-government and the corruption and mismanagement that have characterised the post-independence period. His second novel, No Longer at Ease (written in the early 1960s), boldly explored these themes, showing that he was not a nostalgic traditionalist or crude nationalist but a clear-sighted, socially committed intellectual.
Achebe published several other novels (Arrow of God, A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah), a collection of short stories (Girls at War), and critical essays (Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments), as well as poetry and children’s books.
Achebe supported African writers while turning a critical eye on some of the supposedly great writers of the west. He was the founding editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, which published the first works of many key African writers, such as the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Achebe’s best-known criticism of western writers is his seminal 1975 article on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which he presents Conrad as a racist who dehumanised Africans.
Though other African writers (notably, Ngugi wa Thiong’o) argue against writing in the languages of the colonisers, Achebe favoured writing in English. However, he urges African writers to extend and transform the English language to suit their purposes:
For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas…I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence.
As an Igbo, Achebe supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in the late 1960s; he served as an ambassador for the new nation and was deeply distressed by Biafra’s defeat in the Biafran war. His final work, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012) is a history of his involvement in the Biafran struggle.
Despite his harrowing Biafran experience, Achebe continued to be an activist. In 1983 he ran for office as the running mate of Malam Aminu Kano of the radical People’s Redemption Party. Regrettably, he grew disillusioned by the breakdown of the rule of law and the greed of the Nigerian federal leadership and eventually withdrew from active political involvement.
After a car accident paralysed him from the waist down in 1990, Achebe moved to the US and taught first at Bard College, then at Brown University. However, he maintained a keen interest in Nigerian and African affairs and continued to attack the plague of Big Man rule and neo-colonial manipulation that so afflicted the continent.
Achebe was without doubt a giant in both the literary and activist spheres. He is truly a worthy example of the power of the pen.
‘The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility and to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.’
Written by the Botsotso Collective, an independent publishing initiative, see www.botstotsoportal.co.za