Profile: The essential Chinua Achebe, father of African literature

Achebe

Achebe(1930-2013)


by M.J. Smith, Ben Simon

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, widely regarded as the father of modern African literature, has died aged 82 after a brief illness, his family said.

Best known internationally for his novel “Things Fall Apart”, which depicts the collision between British rule and traditional Igbo culture in his native southeast Nigeria, Achebe was also a staunch critic of corruption in his country.

“One of the great literary voices of his time, he was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him,” his family said in a statement Friday.

Achebe had lived and worked as a professor in the United States in recent years, most recently at Brown University in Rhode Island. A 1990 car accident left him in a wheelchair and limited his travel.

A statement from the Mandela Foundation in South Africa said he passed away Thursday and quoted Nelson Mandela as referring to him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”.

South African President Jacob Zuma described Achebe as a “colossus of African writing”.

Apart from criticising misrule in Nigeria, Achebe also strongly backed his native Biafra, which declared independence in 1967, sparking a civil war that killed around one million people and only ended in 1970.

The conflict was the subject of a long-awaited memoir he published last year, titled “There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra.”

In 2011, Achebe rejected a Nigerian government offer to honour him with one of the nation’s highest awards — at least the second time he had done so.

South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” in 2007, when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International prize for fiction.

While he was widely lauded worldwide, Achebe never won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka.

Achebe was born the fifth of six children in 1930 in Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, where his Igbo ethnic group dominates, and grew up at a time of Christian missionaries and British colonialism.

He described his parents as early converts to Christianity. His father became an Anglican religious teacher and travelled the region with his mother to preach and teach.

In an interview with The Paris Review, he said his reading evolved and he slowly became aware of how books had cast Africans as savages.

“There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” he said.

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“That did not come to me until much later. Once I realised that, I had to be a writer.”

After graduating from the University of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria, Achebe worked with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation before publishing “Things Fall Apart” — his first novel — in 1958.

The novel is about an Igbo tribesman’s fatal brush with British colonialists.

It sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and was translated into 50 languages.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with some 160 million people, won independence in 1960 but it has experienced coups and conflict since then due to the country’s ethnic divisions and corruption.

In 1967, Achebe’s native Biafra region declared independence largely in response to massacres of Igbos in the country’s north, sparking a brutal civil war.

Achebe strongly backed Biafra and toured to speak on its behalf. Echoes of the conflict emerged in his writing, including his collection “Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems.”

Achebe also grew frustrated with rampant corruption in Nigeria, where most of the country still lives on less than $2 per day despite its vast oil wealth.

The first sentence of his widely read 1983 essay “The Trouble With Nigeria” is still often cited in his homeland.

Achebe(1930-2013)
Achebe(1930-2013)

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” reads the pamphlet that harshly criticises corruption in the country.

“It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short it is among the most unpleasant places on Earth,” it adds.

Achebe had toned down such commentary in recent years amid health troubles.

However, during January 2012 protests in Nigeria over a fuel price hike, he issued “A Statement of Solidarity with the Nigerian People” that gained attention back home.

Speaking to AFP recently, the head of the University of Lagos’ English department, said studying Achebe had become mandatory. “Just as we read Shakespeare, it is not possible for any English student to graduate without” reading Achebe, he said.

.Smith and Simon are of the AFP