A local farewell to Chinua Achebe

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Tributes paid to Nigerian author, who died in March.

Chinua Achebe in 2008 (Picture credit: Stuart C. Shapiro)

Thousands of people crammed into St Philip’s Anglican Church  in Ogidi, a small town in the hills of Anambra state, Nigeria on May 23rd to bid farewell to Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe –  widely regarded as the founding father of African literature in English.

The revered writer, author of the widely praised novel “Things Fall Apart,” was to be buried later on the family compound in his small hometown.  President Goodluck Jonathan along with foreign dignitaries including Ghana‘s President John Dramani Mahama attended the service amid heavy security. Access inside the church was granted only by invitation, but several thousand people flocked to tents with loudspeakers set up outside.

Achebe died in the United States in March aged 82 provoking a deluge of tributes from around the world. Achebe had lived and worked as a professor in the US in recent years, latterly at Brown University, Rhode Island. A car crash lhad eft him partially paralysed and in a wheelchair, and he returned only infrequently  to Nigeria.

A generation of Nigerian writers who followed him were profoundly influenced by Achebe’s work, and he was widely admired by many of the world’s most respected leaders. Nelson Mandela described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”.

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

Tributes continued to pour in on May 22nd ahead of the burial and some 2 000 people packed a stadium in the Anambra state capital Awka where Achebe’s coffin was put on display. Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper dedicated an entire page to a poem written for Achebe by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and Nobel literature laureate.
   
“The death of my uncle is indeed a great loss not only to the family but to Nigeria and Africa as a whole,” 64-year-old Obi Achebe said at the compound. “He has left big shoes that will be difficult to be worn by anybody.”

He achieved worldwide renown with “Things Fall Apart,” his 1958 debut novel about the collision of British colonialism and his native Igbo culture in southeastern Nigeria. Translated into 50 languages, it has sold more than 10 million copies around the world.  In 2007, The Guardian, London said that the novel had “turned the west’s perception of Africa on its head – a perception that until then had been based solely on the views of white colonialists …”

Achebe also wrote non-fiction and was a harsh critic of corruption in his homeland, twice refusing national awards.  Achebe was also a strong supporter of his native Biafra. The civil war there, which ended in 1970, was the subject of a memoir published in 2012 entitled “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.”

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