This celebrated Nigerian man of letters used the power of his literary pen as a weapon against colonialist idealism and Western bias.
Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe on Nov. 16, 1930, in the Igbo town of Ogidi in southwestern Nigeria. He was a good student who loved the many stories told to him by his mother and sister. Storytelling was a vital part of the Igbo culture and these stories would later find their way into his writing. Stories, folk tales and oral tradition were key elements of his work.
In 1936, Achebe entered St. Philips Central School where he quickly excelled. The academically gifted Achebe would receive scholarships and attend the best schools. But it was at the Government College in Umuahia that he would see the cultural price. English was the language of the school and all students had to use it. The rule was strictly enforced. Achebe saw it as a way to pull students away from their mother tongue in deference to the language of the colonists. One of his first punishments was for speaking to another student in his native Igbo tongue.
In 1948, Nigeria opened its first university, known as the University of Ibadan. Achebe studied medicine, but after a year he switched to English, history and theology. While at the university, he wrote his first short story, “In a Village Church,” which mixes details of rural life in Nigeria with Christian ideals.
Achebe became critical of European literature’s interpretation of his African homeland. He criticized Joyce Cary’s 1939 book “Mister Johnson,” about a timid Nigerian protagonist who is shot and killed by his British master. While the faculty and the West hailed it as one of the best novels ever written about Africa, Achebe wrote that he and his classmates responded with “exasperation at this bumbling idiot of a character whom Joyce Cary and our teacher were so assiduously passing off as a poet when he was nothing but an embarrassing nitwit!”
In 1954, Achebe moved to Lagos to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). He began working on what would become his seminal novel, “Things Fall Apart.” The protagonist is Okonkwo, a yam farmer who lives through the colonization of Nigeria and is torn between his father’s legacy and conflicts from the white missionaries who come to his village. Achebe sent the story to several publishers who immediately rejected it, claiming that fiction from African writers had no market potential.
After nearly losing his only handwritten manuscript to a typewriting company where he sent it to be set, the novel was published in1958. While praised outside of Nigeria, inside feelings were mixed. The book would become the most important and most widely-read piece of African literature. The work has been translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies.
In 1961, Achebe married Christie Okoli, who he met at NBS. They had four children. Achebe published his children’s book “Chike and the River” to combat the prejudiced view of African life presented by white teachers. The 1960s proved to be a prolific time for Achebe. He helped create the Voice of Nigeria network; the nation’s first broadcast was on New Year’s Day in 1962. He also became the general editor of the African Writers Series, which was a powerful force in bringing African literature to the rest of the world
His next work was “Arrow of God,” which continued his exploration of the conflicts of traditional Igbo tradition with European Christianity. In 1966 came “A Man of the People.” Military and political unrest in Lagos forced the Achebe family to resettle in Enugu, where he and friend Christopher Okigbo started the publishing house Citadel Press. Achebe’s next work was “How the Leopard Got His Claws.”
In 1967, civil war erupted in Nigeria as the southeastern region seceded to form the Republic of Biafra. Achebe’s house was bombed and his partner Okigbo was killed on the war’s frontline. The family left for the Biafran capital of Aba. Achebe turned to poetry, calling it “something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood.” His poems were collected in his 1971 book “Beware, Soul Brother.”
As the city of Aba fell to the military, the Achebes moved once again to Umuahia, where he chaired the National Guidance Committee and was responsible for drafting ideas for the Biafran post-war era. As the state of Biafra surrendered to the Nigerian government, ending the war, Achebe returned to Ogidi. He returned to academia, helping start two magazines. His 1972 collection of short stories, “Girls at War,” was the 100th title in Heinemann’s African Writers Series.
The family then moved to the United States, where Achebe became a professor at the University of Massachusetts. Achebe continued to criticize the image of Africa as presented by Europeans. At the second Chancellor’s Lecture given at Amherst on Feb. 18, 1975, Achebe took sharp aim at Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness,” in which he depicts Africa as “the other world.” Here is an example from the work, which Achebe offers to highlight Conrad’s description of an African:
“And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap.
“He squinted at the steam gauge and at the water gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity–and he had filed his teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.”
Achebe’s lecture caused a firestorm of controversy. When interviewed on National Public Radio in October 2009, Achebe’s scorn remained consistent though tempered slightly. Achebe contended, “Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction.”
Achebe spent the 1980s delivering speeches and attending conferences. He retired from the University of Nigeria and from politics, dismayed by the corruption. In 1987, Achebe released his fifth novel, “Anthills of the Savannah.” The acclaimed work was a finalist for the Booker Prize.
In 1990, while traveling to Lago, Achebe was paralyzed from the waist down when the car in which he was riding flipped over and damaged his spine. He used a wheelchair for the rest of his life but continued his academic work. Soon after he became a professor of languages and literature at Bard College in New York, a position he held for more than 15 years.
On Friday, March 22, Chinua Achebe passed in Boston at age 82 after a brief illness. Achebe rebuked the view of the African as told by Europeans, instead offering a real description, filled with a rich sense of pride and beauty through his literature. He opened the door for other African writers–and for that, we must all be grateful.
- Look it up: use the internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and work of Chinua Achebe and other events mentioned in today’s lesson.
- read it for yourself: Read on of Chinua Achebe’s works mentioned in today’s lesson. Talk about it. Why was Chinua Achebe so important? How are the images he described similar or different from ones presented in other books or in movies or television? How are they similar or different to images from your own life?