“You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Whoever planted an iroko tree – the greatest tree in the forest? You may collect all the iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there, so it is with the greatness in men.” – No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe.
Chinua Achebe, born in 1930, was referred to as the “founding father of African literature” and quite rightly so. His first book, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, was one of the first internationally published books by an African author. First attempts to get the book published were laughed off and publishers said no one would be interested in a book by an African about Africa. His conviction that this book was relevant paid off and to date over ten million copies of Things Fall Apart have been sold and it has been translated into more than fifty languages. In his later years, Achebe revealed that had Things Fall Apart not been published, he would have given up altogether – which would have been a great loss to the literary world. Fortunately, in its first printing the book was well received by the British Press and went on to become one of the most important books in African literature.
For many generations of African readers, Achebe’s novels have been a welcome realisation that the Eurocentric lens through which we were taught to view the world was not the only legitimate viewpoint. His writing awakened many to the idea that not only were African stories worth telling and being heard, but that they were interesting and relevant. His often-quoted view was that “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. This spurred his desire to write and tell the story of the lions and lionesses of this great continent.
Tendai Maidza pays tribute to Chinua Achebe, the man in “whose company the prison walls fell down” - Nelson Mandela
Like Things Fall Apart, his later novels No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) focused on the themes of colonialisation and its effects on traditional society, the conflict between traditional and modern values, political corruption and post-colonial Africa.
Achebe’s 1975 lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness”, in which he called Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist”, caused much controversy and marked him out as a man who did not bend his views for popularity or commercial success. Although his lecture was painted as being a political statement rather than a literary criticism, it has been included in critical editions and taught alongside Conrad’s work.
Though his pride in his Igbo heritage was always evident in his writing, Achebe was also an outspoken critic of his home country Nigeria. In 1983 he published a pamphlet entitled “The Trouble with Nigeria” criticising the pervasive corruption which was rampant in the Nigerian government. In the pamphlet he states that “Nigeria has been less than fortunate in its leadership”. His frustration with successive Nigerian governments was apparent and in both 2004 and 2011 he rejected Nigerian National Honours.
In 2004 he stated: “Forty-three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours, and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award. I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List.”
Along with honours and awards in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe was also the recipient of the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2010. He was also awarded honorary degrees by more than 30 universities around the world.
In his final book There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, published in 2012, he chronicles the secession attempt by a region of southeastern Nigeria. The attempt ended in a brutal war and millions of civilians died in fighting and of starvation. The Republic of Biafra existed from 1967 to 1970 and Chinua Achebe was a committed supporter of the failed independence attempt and ambassador of the Biafran state. In the book, he says: “We, the intellectuals, were deeply disillusioned by the ineptitude of Nigeria’s ruling elite and by what we saw taking place in our young nation. As far as their relationship with the masses was concerned, Nigerian politicians, we felt, had slowly transformed themselves into the personification of the wasp--a notorious predator from the insect kingdom. Wasps, African children learn during storytime, greet unsuspecting prey with a painful, paralysing sting; then lay eggs on their body, which then proceed to eat the victim alive.” The attempt at secession was an attempt to establish a nation which lived up to the high ideals and great potential independent Nigeria had. The book, like the man, stirred up much controversy in Nigeria regarding who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of children due to starvation.
In 1990, Achebe was in a car accident which left him paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. This accident precipitated his move to America where he lived until his death this year. Chinua Achebe, the man in “whose company the prison walls fell down” (Nelson Mandela) not only put African literature on the international stage, but he freed Africans to realise the importance of their own stories.
Farewell to a fearless African, an unrivalled story teller and one in whom greatness chose to abide.
[Header] The storyteller’s story
Born: 16 November 1930
Published Things Fall Apart in 1958
Published No Longer At Ease 1960
Married in 1961
Taught at the University of Ibadan 1961 to 1966
Published Arrow of God 1964
Published A Man of The People 1966
Co-Founded Citadel Press in 1967
Toured the USA giving lectures Late 1960s
Published several collections of short stories and children’s books 1973 to 1975
Gave the lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at University of Massachusetts 1975
Professor of English at the University of Nigeria 1976 to 1981
Published Anthills of the Savannah 1987
Published Hopes and Impediments 1988
Car accident leaves him paralysed from waist down 1990
Taught at Bard College (US) 1994 to 2009
Taught at Brown University (US) From 2009
Died: 21 March 2013