Chinua Achebe, more completely, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, was born in the Igbo town of Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria on November 16, 1930. He was provided an English education, taught by Europeans, rich in the subject of literature at University College which is now known as the University of Ibadan. Little did anyone know that this education would provide the foundation for a lifetime of writing, giving him the nickname “patriarch of the African novel” or “the founding father of African fiction” (Biography).
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Chinua Achebe, 1966 (Image courtesy of Kandell)
At the ripe age of fourteen years old, Achebe attended a colonial Government college in Umuahia. This was where he met his first memorable and real friend who he would later go on to work with, Christopher Okigbo. In 1948, he received a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Ibadan but, after only a year, decided that English was the subject he was most passionate about (Innes).
In 1958, when Achebe was just twenty-eight years old, he published his first novel, Things Fall Apart. In this book, he draws from the history and experiences of his own family in order to argue against the imposition of Western traditions, religious views, and ideals on African societies. This was the beginning of Achebe’s lifelong quest to use literature as a weapon, fighting against Western biases and perspectives of African societies (Kandell). This book became a leading voice in African literature; twenty million copies have been sold, circling internationally from school to school. In addition to this, Things Fall Apart has been translated into fifty-seven languages (Penguin Random House).
(Image courtesy of Cohea)
This video (seen below) is an interview with Chinua Achebe, conducted fifty years after the publication of Things Fall Apart and aired on May 27, 2008. In this interview, Jeffery Brown continues the conversation of anti-colonialism in Africa; Brown questions what Chinua Achebe “set out to do” with the publication of Things Fall Apart. I would encourage you to watch this in order to understand his purpose for writing this novel.
(Video courtesy of PBS NewsHour)
At this point in time Achebe was still living in Nigeria and took up a job for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos. It was around this time that he wrote his second novel, a sequel to Things Fall Apart, titled No Longer At Ease in 1960 and the following year, in 1961, he married Christie Chinwe Okoli who he would have four children with. In 1964, he wrote his third novel titled Arrow of God. And, in 1966, he finished his another book titled, A Man of The People; none of these amounted to the popularity that his first novel did (Biography). After finishing his final novel, he left the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in 1966, and co-founded a publishing company with poet and friend, Christopher Okigbo, which was intended to serve as an outlet for African children’s books. Unfortunately, when the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) hit in July of 1967, Okigbo was called to battle and killed.
Nigerian soldier in the Biafran War (Image courtesy of Romano Cagnoni)
The Nigerian Civil War had a great impact on Chinua Achebe; in the years that followed after the war, Achebe experienced a dry spell with his writing which he accredited to trauma that he still felt from the war. He felt as if all of his hopes for a promising postcolonial future were shattered by the devastating effects of the war (Kandell). Two years after Christopher Okigbo died in the war, Achebe left Nigeria and flew to the United States accompanied by two fellow writers, Gabriel Okara and Cyprian Ekwensi, in order to teach at American universities and raise awareness for the conflict going on back in Nigeria (Biography). This three year battle killed, in total, about one million people and with this came a shift in Achebe’s feelings about the war; instead of continuing to blame colonial rule for African despair and death, he began to blame African rulers and citizens for tolerating the corruption and violence around them (Hurst).
The casualty of a young child during the Nigerian Civil War (Image courtesy of Hurst)
After the war ended in January of 1970, Chinua Achebe returned to Nigeria for two years in which he was an English professor at the University of Nigeria; he was a professor from 1976 to 1981 (Biography). It was at this point in his life that he shifted his work, directing two Nigerian publishing houses, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. and Nwankwo-lfejika Ltd.. In 1988, he published his fifth novel titled Anthills of the Savannah. It was shortly after this, in 1990, when he got in an automobile accident just outside of Lagos that left him paralyzed from the waist down; he reviewed medical attention in London and moved to the United States, accepting an invitation from Bard College to teach until 2009. However, he did return to Nigeria in 1999 due to the return of democratic rule. It was during this visit that he met the new President, Olusegun Obasanjo (Kandell). After he left Bard College, he took up a position teaching for Brown University in Rhode Island as the professor of African studies (Biography). After dedicating his life to accurately depicting and aiding his home, Nigeria, Chinua Achebe passed away on March 21, 2013. He was only eighty-two years old.
(Image courtesy of LibraryKVPattom)
Through his novels, teachings, and travels, Chinua Achebe transformed perspectives of Africans. He reminded the world that there is not one perspective to life, but many and all of these are true and should hold equal value. It is because of his devotion to his people that Chinua Achebe’s life was filled with intentionality and purpose. He did not sit in silence, watching the people and culture that he loved diminish; he was aware that to recognize that change is needed isn’t enough. As a writer, which was the origin of my interest in Achebe, he has reminded me that in a world of billions, each person has the ability to write something, say something, do something that holds weight. And this is why I want to leave you with a quote from his own mouth, “Art is a man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him” (GoodReads).
In closing, I would like to provide a quote from Charles Bukowski. This quote, paired with Chinua Achebe’s life work, has encouraged me to major in English, “If something burns your soul with purpose and desire, it’s your duty to be reduced to ashes by it. Any other form of existence will be yet another dull book in the library of life.” Like Achebe, I aim to be reduced to ashes by my love for literature.
Featured image courtesy of Kandell.
Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: 9780385474542: PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books.” PenguinRandomhouse.com, Penguin Adult HC/TR, 1994, http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/565351/things-fall-apart-by-chinua-achebe/.
Chandler , Otis. “Chinua Achebe Quotes (Author of Things Fall Apart).” Goodreads, Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8051.Chinua_Achebe.
“Chinua Achebe.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 17 June 2020, http://www.biography.com/writer/chinua-achebe.
Hurst, Ryan. “Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).” Welcome to Blackpast •, 9 May 2019, http://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/nigerian-civil-war-1967-1970/.
Innes, Lyn. “Chinua Achebe Obituary.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Mar. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/22/chinua-achebe.
Kandell, Jonathan. “Chinua Achebe, African Literary Titan, Dies at 82.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/world/africa/chinua-achebe-nigerian-writer-dies-at-82.html.