4 April 2013

Nigeria: Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)


The well-known Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died on March 22. He was 82 years old. The avalanche of tributes that have flowed from all corners of the globe eulogising one of Africa's literary and cultural icons since his passing is to be expected; and each is well-deserved. Even before his death, Achebe, from the ink that flowed from his fecund pen, had inducted himself into the halls of fame of world literary artists.

He earned global recognition with his first novel Things Fall Apart, which he wrote when he was barely 26 years. The novel at once became a classic and has to date been translated into over 50 languages, a testimony to the fascination with its exploration of the African world before its encounter with colonial rule. He soon followed his Magnus Opus with other acclaimed novels like No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah.

But Achebe did not limit himself to only works of fiction. His body of works also include literary criticism, short stories, poetry, children's literature and memoirs, the latest of which was There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, his recollection of the 30-month Nigerian civil war that ended in January 1970 with the crushing of the secessionist movement. Controversy over those recollections, which is considered to be coloured with ethnic Igbo prejudices, is still raging. But the greatness of Achebe does not only lay in the fact that he was an accomplished writer; it is also to be seen in the fact that he pioneered a literary culture that sought to explain Africa to the rest of the world, challenging the stereotyping of the African in Western literature, bequeathing a style and theme that should be identified as the Achebe tradition.

Perhaps for Africa, Achebe's greatest contribution is that he helped in the restoration of the dignity of the Black race. The continent needed someone with his writing skills to tell the world that the African story did not begin with colonialism; that Africans were not the savages portrayed in books and films written and produced by Europeans. He made a statement for the African with Things Fall Apart and his other novels that Africa had a civilisation with cherished values and a functioning government which may not be Western-styled but which nevertheless ran the society and administered justice.

In fact, Achebe's literary career was triggered by the need to correct what he saw as the distorted view of Africa and the African as, for instance, portrayed in Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson. It must be a matter of immense pride and fulfilment to Achebe himself and to the entire Black race as well, that what began as a personal response to the prejudiced view of the African as a savage, a less than human entity without history, later blossomed into a lifelong career that earned the author several accolades and led to the better understanding and appreciation of the African.

Achebe's remarkable career is noteworthy not only because he became an established writer, it is also in the fact that he assisted budding writing talents in the continent to become established writers themselves with his role as the pioneer editor of the Heinemann's African Writers' Series (AWS). Without this platform many African writers would have remained unknown and unsung.

Achebe was what is known, in French, as engage writer; he is not a monastic, staying aloof from the stress and strains of his immediate society but was fully involved in its politics. Achebe believed, as articulated in one of his non-fiction, The Trouble with Nigeria, that the failure of leadership was squarely the bane of the Nigerian society. This perhaps motivated him to get actively involved in Nigeria's politics, especially that of the Second Republic in which he ran, unsuccessfully, as the vice presidential candidate to the late progressive politician Malam Aminu Kano on the platform of the People's Redemption Party (PRP).

Achebe was not just a great writer; his intervention in the affairs of the world with his judiciously cautious comments only increased his stature as a respected counsellor. In a word, Professor Achebe lived a well-rounded life that is truly worthy of the many honours that were bestowed upon him; more may yet come even in death.

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