Chinua Achebe is dead, long live Chinua Achebe!

African Update – 13/04/13

The Nobel laureate that never was and the poster face of modern African literature is no longer with us. Alas! Chinua Achebe is reported to have joined the ancestors at 82 on 21st March 2013. News of his transition to the ancestral world has been received across the world with a deep sense of loss and bewilderment. Many in his native Nigeria and throughout Africa are still in a state of disbelief even as the literary world remains pensive over the gravity and implications of his still pen.

Until this fateful moment Achebe was an acclaimed novelist, a witty poet, an essayist, an editor, a critic and of course a Professor of English. He was a story teller par excellence and like most high grade story tellers of great repute he was naturally celebrated in the arts with reverence. He commands a large following and almost every African child who has had the benefit of high school education in the continent had an encounter with Achebe and still recalls him with fond memories and favourite quotes.

Achebe told his stories mainly through novels, short stories and poems. He wrote many of them too. While still a student at Ibadan University he edited campus magazines and wrote articles and stories for publication, but it was his first novel that called world attention to this master wordsmith from Ogidi in South Eastern Nigeria in what is now known as Anambra State.

Things Fall Apart was the title of the groundbreaking novel and it is still regarded today as his magnum opus with translations into other languages numbering more than 50. The African trilogy was completed when Achebe again authored No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God in that order. Some call the trilogy his magna opera.

The complexity of the trilogy can be summed up in an overarching strand of how colonisation or colonialism changed the face of Africa and in particular destroyed the very fabric of society. It is a culture clash in which the local African culture gets worse off for it with breakdowns in families and communities as the colonial culture maintained a subtle but consistent foray into native society. Achebe is unpretentious and explores the unfolding tragedy with incredible simplicity of language and a rich dose of African proverbs for effect.

Achebe was obviously a man of the people and A man of the People is incidentally the title of his fourth novel. But unlike the corrupt Chief Nanga, the lead character in the story who uses his position to amass personal wealth at the expense of his people, Achebe used his profile to found the African Writers Series and thus provided a rare but accessible platform for the publication of some of the finest African literary works in post independent Africa. He was informed quite appropriately by an imperative need for Africans to tell their own stories of Africa unhindered.

By this act and through his own prolific writings Achebe made it possible for the rest of the world to glimpse Africa in the eyes of Africans. He wrote passionately of African cultural values and enacted perspectives that challenged the somewhat denigrating and stereotypical view taken by the Eurocentric coloniser. In effect, Achebe literally volunteered to share a piece of Africa with the rest of the world and particularly those who cared to dine with objective reality.

The fame of his authorship is agreed, well documented and studied; least known is that he was a critic of equal breadth. Achebe was unsparing of those who reviled Africa in Western scholarship with racist undertones, thus when Joseph Conrad wrote of Africa as the Heart of Darkness he did not hesitate to raise the red flag on behalf of the continent. At a Chancellor's lecture at Amherst in 1975 Achebe spoke for many Africans, he not only questioned Conrad’s artistic faith but accused him of playing the role of “purveyor of comforting myths”.

Achebe was unamused that Conrad condemned “the evil of imperial exploitation ... but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron teeth”. He was “a bloody racist” as far as Achebe saw it. For Africanists this was the high point of Achebe, for Euro-centrists it was his lowest. Some sources in scholarly circles maintain Achebe was scorned by Western intellectual society for taking Conrad head on and one English professor is said to have actually stormed out at the end of the lecture fuming bitterly as he went.

But Achebe was not without his own critics and those who criticised him are from within Africa itself. They suggest he let the continent down by not writing in an African language, but instead chose to write in English, the language of the coloniser. Leading the charge is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, another African literary genius who changed course from writing in English to writing in Kikuyu.

In answer Achebe once said, "I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." With his robust use of African proverbs and rhythms it is difficult not to agree that Achebe domesticated or Africanised English in his literature. He also still found occasions to write some of his finest poetry in his native Igbo language before translating them into English.

And most writers concede Achebe is the Father of African literature; even critics venerate him as the grandfather of African fiction, and readers are simply persuaded that he is the greatest of African writers, the African Shakespeare or Tolstoy of all times if you like. That he never added the much coveted Nobel Prize for Literature to his collection of numerous awards is the paradox that puts him in league with other great literary talents like Thomas Hardy and James Joyce who equally missed out despite their superlative works.

Sadly, we have to begin to think and talk of this veritable old man in past tenses. With his death a voice of reason has fallen silent and African literature is orphaned. Or as is often said in Nigeria, a mighty iroko tree has fallen and the forest is rattled. Africa is no longer at ease and things might well fall apart, but only if the continent fails to keep the faith that Achebe kept in the arts, in scholarship, in Africa and indeed in humanity. He paid his dues in full and lived an accomplished life worthy of emulation and celebration.

Needless concluding, Achebe is a literary nonpareil and an iconic one for that matter. Neither wind nor rain can erase his foot prints from this earth whilst he is away resting in perpetual peace in the world of his forefathers. It is time to celebrate his life and not mourn him.

Long live Chinua Achebe!

Samwin Banienuba

International Spokesperson for Humanitas Afrika

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