The ‘father of African literature’: Chinua Achebe 1930 – 2013

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Acclaimed author died after a short illness earlier this week.

Chinua Achebe in his capacity as a UN Goodwill Ambassador (Picture: United Nations)

Chinua Achebe in his capacity as a UN Goodwill Ambassador (Picture: United Nations)

The Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe, who first made his mark with the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, and made his name writing about the history of Nigeria, has died aged 82 in hospital in Boston, US.

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, described him as “an utterly remarkable man” and “the greatest of African writers.”  His death led to an outpouring of grief and tributes in his native Nigeria, a country whose government he harshly criticised over the years.

Nigerian officials, including President Goodluck Jonathan, issued statements in his praise. Jonathan said Achebe “fearlessly spoke the truth as he saw it and became, as he advanced in age, a much revered national icon and conscience of the nation who will be eternally honoured for his contributions to national discourse as well as the immense fame and glory he brought to his fatherland.”

The Lagos Guardian newspaper said his death came “at a critical time of Nigerian history, where the forces of darkness appear to overshadow the illumination of existence that literature represents… after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives. His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry and retrogression.”

Africa’s first Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka and a renowned poet, John Pepper Clark, said in a joint statement, “For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter”.

Right up until his death Achebe worked as Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and was the David and Marianna University Professor.

Achebe wrote about the effects of colonialism and its aftermath, as well as political corruption and attempts to introduce democratic reforms. Things Fall Apart, set amid 1890s Nigeria and the influx of Christian missionaries, is renowned the world over, has been translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10m copies. In 2007 Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize for his “overall contribution to fiction on the world stage”. He wrote his novels in English and defended the use of English, the “language of colonizers,” in African literature.

Nelson Mandela called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”, and credited him as the author who “brought Africa to the rest of the world”

Achebe’s other novels include Arrow of God (1964); A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). He has also published four children’s books (including Chike and the River and How the Leopard Got His Claws), short stories and poetry in English and Igbo.

Achebe was one of the first students to attend the University College, now University of Ibadan in 1948. Having first opted to study medicine he switched to English, history and theology after his first year. After gaining his degree, Achebe taught at Ibadan before joining the Nigeria Broadcasting Service in 1954.

Much of his work reflected his belief that his own country had failed to realise its potential. After a car crash in 1990 which left him partially paralysed and in a wheel chair, Achebe moved to live in the US – returning to Nigeria infrequently.

In 2004 he turned down the offer of a title Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic from Nigeria’s then President Olusegun Obasanjo.

During the Nigeria Civil War Achebe joined the Biafran government as an ambassador. He wrote about his experiences in his last book, published in 2012, There Was A Country. More than one million people died during the conflict and in the book he accused the UN of standing by, like Nigeria’s government, as Biafra was crushed.

“You see we, the little people of the world, are ever expendable,” he wrote.

Ken Saro Wiwa Jr, whose father was a renowned environmental activist infamously executed under the regime of dictator Sani Abacha in 1995, remembered that Achebe was among those who defended his father. “To have someone who has respect to stand up for the voice of justice was very, very important,” said Wiwa Jr. He noted Wole Soyinka, along with Nelson Mandela and Achebe were among those who sought to intervene.

“Between the three of them, those are three people who represent everything that we want Africa to be,” he said.

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