Born in Ogidi in present-day Anambra State, 82 years ago, it was clear from the beginning that the man Chinua (short for Chinualumogu) Achebe was cut out for great things.
Only a few Nigerians know that as a young secondary student at the Government College, Umuahia, Achebe’s academic prowess, particularly his unsurpassed command of the English language had earned him the nickname-‘Dictionary’.
Part of the late writer’s exploits as a youth included emerging at the top of his class in the secondary school certificate examinations with six distinctions and a credit. Ironically, none of the distinctions was recorded in literature.
Interestingly, the famed ‘Dictionary’ (an equivalent of a ‘local champion’ today) did not at any time consider studying literature or taking up a career in writing before he gained admission into the University College, Ibadan (now University of Ibadan).
After posting a brilliant performance at the entrance examination to UCI, Achebe won a scholarship to study medicine. But by a sudden twist of fate, he lost interest in medicine and switched to English instead.
Later, after graduation, he worked with the then Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos. He started writing his first novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’ while working as a broadcaster.
But for a stroke of luck and the kind assistance of Angela Beattie, a producer with the British Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos, the original manuscript of ‘Things Fall Apart’ would have been lost forever. If this had happened, maybe Achebe would have lived the rest of his life in misery and his dream of becoming a writer finally buried.
When the manuscript eventually reached the publishers, Heinemann Books, in London, it nearly got rejected out of fear that an African story would attract very little attention from the largely prejudiced European audience. But, once again, luck was on Achebe’s side.
The novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’ has been described by one of Nigeria’s best writers of the present generation, Chimamanda Adichie as ‘unapologetically African and exotic’.
Adichie’s comment arises from her recognition of the novel as one that directly and quite boldly confronts a very negative European portrayal of Africa as a continent lacking history, humanity and a future.
Also Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, more for its thematic focus and the author’s successful attempt at debunking pre-existing notions of the indigenous African social, cultural and political life, has been described, rightly or wrongly, as the ancestor of the modern African novel. It is one of the first African novels written in English to be widely read across the globe.
By all means a bestseller, ‘Things Fall Apart’ has been translated in over 50 languages in the world and millions of copies of it have been sold.
Set in traditional Igbo society of the pre-colonial era, the story revolves around a major character named Okonkwo, who later becomes the tragic hero. But it essentially mirrors the African experience under a conquering colonial Europe.
To add that Achebe actually wrote a groundbreaking novel, one that would have far reaching consequences on post-colonial Africa, especially its literature, in the succeeding years, would amount to admitting the obvious.
Although it is not clear whether he had planned to write the story of Okonkwo in three phases or he was compelled by subsequent events, the fact is that Achebe went on to accomplish what many African writers in his time had not attempted: a rare African trilogy comprising a second novel, ‘No Longer At Ease’ and a third, ‘Arrow of God’.
Achebe’s gift as a prophet manifested in ‘No Longer At Ease’ and ‘Arrow of God’, as well as a third novel, ‘A Man of the People’. In ‘No Longer At Ease’ the writer took a glance at the Nigerian mindset, apparently through a magical prism that only the Muse could have supplied, and he foretold the rise of corruption to endemic proportions in Nigeria and its morally and spiritually devastating effects on the national psyche.
Perhaps, the earliest hint of a crippling disunity among the various component ethnic units of the Nigerian state is evident in his handling of the internal conflicts the ravaged Umuaro just before many of its people were converted to Christianity and in his portrayal of Ezulu, the lead character in ‘Arrow of God’. The latter’s failure to perform the traditional rites preceding New Yam Festival warned of the possible emergence of a crop of Nigerian leaders that were willing to sacrifice true service to the nation for personal interests.
Achebe’s satirical fourth novel, ‘A Man of the People’ set in an unnamed African country explores the incompatible relationship between a probing and radical intellectual class and a corrupt political class. The result is a military coup d’etat that ushers in an uncertain dimension in the national life. A few months after the novel was published, the Nigerian government of the time was overthrown in a bloody coup!
Apart from these books, Achebe published other major works, such as the ‘Anthills of the Savannah’, which came close to winning the prestigious MAN Booker Prize in 1987, and ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’. Beyond writing about the tradition, culture and politics of the Africa, he was committed to his role as a watchdog of the society, perpetually on the lookout for stumbling blocks on the paths of progress and relentlessly warning the people against trudging the wrong path in his literature.
More than any other Nigerian of his stature, throughout his career, the late writer had a great deal of insight into the character of this country. Little wonder he said in the ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’, “In spite of conventional opinion, Nigeria has been less than fortunate in its leadership. A basic element of this misfortune is the seminal absence of intellectual rigour in the political thought of our founding fathers – a tendency to pious materialistic woolliness and self-centred pedestrianism.”
Coming at a time when the survival of the Nigerian was (and still is) under peril, no thanks to a weird campaign by poorly-guided Islamic insurgents operating in the northern parts of the country, Achebe’s last seminal work, his memoir titled ‘There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra’, completes his oeuvre.
In many ways, the book, which was published last year, could be described as a ‘parting gift’ to his numerous readers, especially on this side of the globe; whose quest to unravel the missing links in our collective political history had met with very little or no success.
Apart from igniting an explosive national debate that lasted several weeks at a stretch, the memoir goes down in history as a genuine effort by the author to tackle headlong certain issues previously considered ‘forbidden’ for open discussion.
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