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Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) - in full Albert Chinualumogu Achebe


Prominent Igbo (Ibo) writer, famous for his novels describing the effects of Western customs and values on traditional African society. Achebe's satire and his keen ear for spoken language made him one of the most highly esteemed African writers in English. In 1990 Achebe was paralyzed from the waist down in a serious car accident.

"I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them" (from Morning Yet on Creation Day, 1975)

Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria, the son of Isaiah Okafor Achebe, a teacher in a missionary school, and Janet Ileogbunam. His parents, though they installed in him many of the values of their traditional Igbo culture, were devout evangelical Protestants and christened him Albert after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. In 1944 Achebe attended Government College in Umuahia. Like other major Nigerian writers including Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Okigbo, John Pepper Clark, and Cole Omotso, he was also educated at the University College of Ibadan, where he studied English, history and theology.

At the university Achebe contributed several stories and essays to its magazine, University Herald. Rejecting his British name Achebe took his indigenous name Chinua. In 1953 he graduated with a BA. Before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS, later changed to Nigerian Broadcasting Corporarion, or NBC) in Lagos in 1954 he travelled in Africa and America, and worked for a short time as a teacher at a local school in Oba. For a period in the 1960s he was the director of External Services in charge of the Voice of Nigeria. In 1961 he married Christie Chinwe Okoli, who came from Umuokpu village in Awka. They had four children. Christie Achebe, a psychologist, took her degree in London, and was a visiting professor of psychology at Bard College.

Backing Biafra in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) Achebe worked for the government as an ambassador. In 1967 Achebe cofounded the publishing company Citadell Press at Enugu with Christopher Okigbo, a gifted poet and close family friend.Ogibo joined the army and was killed in action in August 1967 and the operation of the press was terminated. Achebe's writings from this period reflect his deep personal disappointment with what Nigeria became since independence. His pregnant wife suffered a miscarriage, and Achebe himself narrowly escaped death. Many of his poems written during the war were collected in Beware, Soul Brother (1971), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. In There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012) Achebe returned to the war years and their effect on his work and identity. 

When the Biafra struggle ended in defeat, Achebe rejoined the African Studies department at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 1971 Achebe began editing Okike, the leading journal of Nigerian new writing. While holding the post of Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he met there James Baldwin, also a faculty member. Returning to Nigeria in 1976, Achebe was appointed research fellow at the University, and after serving as professor of English, he retired in 1981. Since 1985, Achebe was a professor emeritus, but in the 1990s he taught literature to undergraduates at Bard College, a liberal arts school.

Achebe wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), while working as the head of NBS. The story of a traditional village "big man" Okonkwo, and his downfall has been translated into some 50 languages. Okonkwo is an ambitious and powerful leader of an Igbo community, who counts on physical strength and courage. His life is good: his compound is large, he has no troubles with his wives, his garden grows yams, and he is respected by his fellow villagers. When Okonkwo accidentally kills a clansman, he is banished from the village for seven years. But the vehicle for his downfall is his blindness to circumstances and the missionary church, which brings with it the new authority of the British District Commissioner. The story is set in the 1890s, when missionaries and colonial government made its intrusion into Igbo society. In this process Okonkwo is destroyed, because his unwillingness to change set him apart from the community and he is fighting alone against colonialism. Achebe took the title of the book from William Butler Yates's The Second Coming - "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

Also Arrow of God (1964) concerned traditional Igbo life as it clashed with colonial powers in the form of missionaries and colonial government. Set in the 1920s, it tells of Ezeulu, priest, who sends one of his sons to missionary school and gains in some respect the approval of the English district superintendent. However, Ezeulu is doomed, because when defending the traditions of his people he is unyielding, unable to reach a compromise, and afraid of losing his authority.

A Man of the People (1966) was a satire of corruption and power struggles in an African state. The central characters are the Minister of Culture, Nanga, the man of the people, and teacher Odili, an African Lucky Jim, who tells the story. Odili stands against the government, but not because of ideological reasons. He has personal interests: Nanga has seduced his girl friend. Their political confrontation becomes violent, Nanga's thugs inflict havoc and chaos, and the army responds by staging a coup.

Among Achebe's later works is Anthills of the Savannah (1987), a polyvocal story with multiple narrators, which was set in an imaginary West African state of Kangan, a thinly veiled Nigeria. Sam, a Sandhurst-trained military officer, who has become President. The tragic hero Chris Oriko, modelled after Okigbo, and Ikem Osodi, his friends, die when resisting brutal abuse of power, and eventually a military coup eliminates Sam. Beatrice Okah - Chris's London-educated girl friend - is entrusted with her community of women to return the political sanity.

Achebe published also collections of short stories, poetry, and several books for juvenile readers. He received a Margaret Wrong Prize, the New Statesman Jock Campbell Prize, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and the 2007 Man Booker International award. In 1983, upon the death of Mallan Aminu Kano, Achebe was elected deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party. As the director of Heineman Educational Books in Nigeria, he  encouraged and published the work of dozens of African writers. He founded in 1984 the bilingual magazine Uwa ndi Igbo, a valuable source for Igbo studies. An automobile accident on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway in 1990 left Achebe confined to a wheelchair, permanently. Chinia Achebe died after a brief illness on March 21, 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts, where he held the position of David and Marianna Fisher university professor and professor of Africana studies.

Achebe's own literary language was standard English blended with Pidgin, Igbo vocabulary, proverbs, images and speech patterns. An example of his skills as a storyteller is 'The Madman,' a richly layered narrative, in which the social customs of the Ibo-speaking people are strongly present. Nwibe, an honored member of a distant town Ogbu, plans to go to the market, where he has once chased a madman out of his hut and sent his children to throw stones at him. As he washes by the river, the madman snatches his cloth. Nwibe runs naked after him, shouting stop the madman. The thief with the cloth disappears in the crowd, and Nwibe is taken to a medicine-man, but he has lost his social position. "For how could a man be the same again of whom witnesses from all the lands of Olu and Igbo have once reported that they saw today a fine, hefty man in his prime, stark naked, tearing through the crowds to answer the call of the market-place. Such a man is marked forever."

As an essayist Achebe gained fame with his collections Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), Hopes and Impediments (1988) and his long essay The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). In his pathbreaking study 'An Image of Africa' (1975), Achebe knocks down one of the most famous Western narratives, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, by revealing its darker side, which has not been addressed: "... Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked." (Massachusetts Review, 18, 1977) Though attacking European critics who have failed to understand African literature on its own terms, he defended the use of the English language in the production of African fiction, insisting that the African novelist has an obligation to educate.

Achebe defined himself as a cultural nationalist with a revolutionary mission "to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement." But Achebe did not stop criticizing postcolonial African leaders who have pillaged economies. During the military dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha he left Nigeria several times. When the 70th birthday of the patriarch of the modern African novel was celebrated at Bard College, on November 2000, Wole Soyinka said: "Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs." Nelson Mandela once called him "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down".

For further reading: The Writings of Chinua Achebe by G.D. Killam (1977); Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart by Kate Turkington (1977); Achebe's World by Robert Wren (1980); Achebe and the Dilemma of Nigerian Intellectual by Ian Gleen (1983); Chinua Achebe by David Carroll (1990); Chinua Achebe by I.L. Innes (1990); In the Beginning: Chinua Achebe at Work by Ada Ugah (1990); Critical Approaches to Anthills of the Savannah, ed. Holger Ehling (1991); Reading Chinua Achebe by Simon Gikandi (1991); Chinua Achebe by Umelo Ojinmah (1991); Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, ed. Kirsten Holt Peterson and Anna Rutheford (1991); Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeton (1997); Conversations with Chinua Achebe, ed. Bernth Lindfors (1997); The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia Book by M. Keith Booker (2003) - Note: During the Nigerian Civil War Biafra's national anthem was based on Jean Sibelius's Finlandia. Sibelius, the most famous Finnish composer, wrote the orchestral work in 1899 as reaction against Russifying policies of the tsarist government.

Selected works:

  • Things Fall Apart, 1958
    - Film adaptations: Bullfrog in the Sun (1972), dir. by Hans Jürgen Pohland, starring Elizabeth of Toro, Orlando Martins, Johnny Sekka; 13-episode TV series, 1987, dir. David Orere, with Funso Adeolu, Fabian Adibe, Pete Edochie, Justus Esiri, Nduka Eya, et al.
  • No Longer at Ease, 1960
  • The Sacrifical Egg, and Other Short Stories, 1962
  • Arrow of God, 1964
  • A Man of the People, 1966
    - Kansan mies (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1969)
  • Chike and the River, 1966 (with drawings by Prue Theobalds)
  • Beware, Soul Brother: Poems, 1971 (US title: Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973)
  • The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria, 1971 (editor)
  • Girls at War, and Other Stories, 1972
  • Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973
  • How the Leopard Got His Claws, 1973 (with John Iroaganachi)
  • Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays, 1975
  • The Drum: A Children's Story, 1977 (ill. by John Roper; also illustrated by Anne Nwoloye)
  • The Flute: A Children's Story, 1977 (ill. by Tayo Adenaike)
  • Don't Let Him Die, 1978 (ed. with Dubem Okafor)
  • Literature and Society, 1980
  • Aka weta: egwu aguluagu egwu edeluede, 1982 (ed. with Obiora Udechukwu)
  • The Trouble with Nigeria, 1983
  • Afrocan Short Stories, 1985 (ed. with C.L. Innes)
  • The World of Ogbanje, 1986
  • Anthills of the Savannah, 1987 (short listed for the Booker Prize)
  • The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics, 1988
  • Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987, 1989
  • Nigerian Topics, 1989
  • Beyond Hunger in Africa: Conventional Wisdom and an African Vision, 1990 (editor)
  • The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories, 1992 (ed. with C.L. Innes)
  • Another Africa, 1997 (with photographs by Robert Lyons)
  • Echi di ime: taa bu gboo, 1999
  • Home and Exile, 2000
  • Collected Poems, 2004
  • The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, 2009
  • The African Trilogy: Things Fall Apart; No Longer at Ease; Arrow of God, 2010 (with an introduction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
  • There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, 2012

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